The Ambrotype – Equipment and darkroom

An excerpt from The Ambrotype, a book by Radosław Brzozowski who shares the first chapter with us.

Writer / Radosław Brzozowski
Photography / Radosław Brzozowski and Małgorzata Bardoń

Let’s start by stating the obvious; making ambrotypes requires us to use a large format camera. We should, however, remember that not all large format cameras are equally suitable for the purpose; it is a bit of a paradox, that quite frequently it will turn out that the better the camera, the less suitable for wetplate work it will be.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the key material on which pictures were taken was a glass plate; first a collodion plate then, a silver gelatin one. This means that film holders for cameras made at the time were made in such a way as to accommodate the relatively thick (measuring up to a couple milimetres thickness) glass plate negatives. Equally importantly, most holders were made from wood; a material comparatively resilient to the action of solvents and chemically neutral to the collodion. And it is such holders (and consequently cameras) that are best suited for wetplate work.

With the passage of time and the development of photographic technology, the glass plate negative started to be replaced by sheet film, much thinner than glass. For a long time the two materials were used alongside and the camera manufacturers responded by providing the film holders with special inserts that made it possible to place a thin piece of sheet film in a much thicker holder. As both types of material were in use, the construction of the holders themselves didn’t change which means that also the cameras from that period will be perfectly suited to our purposes. All we need to do is take the insert out of the holder and replace it with our wetplate.

As years passed, the sheet film dominated the market, replacing glass plate negatives entirely and thus causing a change in the construction of cameras or, to be more precise, the film holders. The international back type of holders dominated the market; they are much more convenient with modern materials, but rather useless with the wetplate. They can only be used for our purposes if the inside of the holder is removed; still the materials they are made with will make them less durable than the traditional, wooden one.

Mentor cameraSumming up, the most useful for wetplate will be the older type cameras, with film holders made for working with glass, preferably wooden (metal holders may react with the silver nitrate or collodion and destroy the pictures). From the cameras available in Eastern European market the most useful will be the Globica and Mentor cameras. Especially the first one has a very user friendly holder design (the holders open making the loading much easier than the other types). Russian FKD and FKP cameras will also work quite well, though we need to be prepared to modify the holders a little as they are usually just a touch too small for the standard plates and may require a little filing to make the room for the plate a bit bigger.

Mentor Studio (image above) and Mentor Panorama, coming from the same country as the Globica I have mentioned earlier, are among my favourite wetplate cameras.

Needless to say, pre-war cameras like the Agfa, Ansco, Korona or the old German Reisecameras will also work well, just as will modern cameras with holders designed for wetplate work.

Another thing we may want to take notice of is the size of the plate our camera is designed for. Generally speaking, there are two systems of sizes in existence; one measured in centimeters where we have the plate sizes such as 9×12, 13×18, 18×24 and so on, and one expressed in inches with plates such as 4×5, 7×8, 8×10 inches and so forth. The sizes of plates in both systems are very similar, after all one inch is just a little more than 2,5 cm and the tiny differences in existence have little if any bearing on the appearance of the photographs. They do, however, influence the final cost of our photography; if we use a plate size that is standard in our region of the world, we can buy factory made glass plates and this means they will be reasonably cheap. If, on the other hand, our camera uses the system that is not standard, we will need to cut our own glass or have the plates cut to size and this will bring up the cost drastically. Just to illustrate the point; plates sized in centimeters can easily be bought, for example in Alternative Photographic Supples at a cost o 25-50 eurocents. If I wanted to have similar plated cut to order I would end up paying 4-5 euros a piece.

The film holder for Globica, which can be conveniently opened is an ideal solution for a person doing wetplate as it practically eliminates the danger of damaging the delicate surface of the collodion while inserting the plate into the camera or at the point of removing the exposed plate from it. Mentor holders don’t offer that comfort.
Soviet made FKD cameras are an interesting alternative to the East German Globicas and Mentors. They are light and easy to transport, though not perfect either. First of all their holders are usually a little too small and may need gentle filing to make enough room for a plate inside. Secondly, the cameras themselves are rather delicate and can be easily damaged, not to mention their limited stiffness.
Sinar camera
The otherwise excellent cameras such as the Sinar shown above are less practical for wetplate work because of the way their film holders are constructed, specifically for work with sheet film. We can, of course, adapt such a holder for use with a wetplate by removing its interior but this amounts to de facto destroying it.

Field and studio cameras

Most View Cameras are, by their nature, rather large, especially if their designer has made sure that we have all the movements at our disposal as well as a large enough bellows extension. As such cameras were heavy and unwieldy, two types evolved; the field camera and the studio one. A field camera is designed so as it can be folded for storage and transport and is relatively light which is achieved by sacrificing some of its photographic potential. The studio camera is build so as to offer the greatest photographic potential without bothering about their size or weight, frequently coming with its own stand giving the camera the necessary stability.

Studio camera
Studio cameras are constructed so as to give the photographer a maximum of control over the image by offering a full range of movements of both standards with all the necessary tilts and swings. They offer, for example, great freedom of manipulating the plain of focus and the perspective. They usually also offer large bellows extension and come with a dedicated stand that offers extra stability. Or, as is the case with the Globica, the stand may be an integral part of the camera.

If you have an appropriate studio and intend to do your wetplate work there, getting a studio camera such as the Globica I mentioned will mostly likely be the best solution. Coming with its own wheeled stand the camera will offer great stability and the long bellows extension and great range of movements will guarantee very comfortable work. The film holders that can be opened will also add to the comfort and ease with which we will be able to take our photographs, not to mention the fact that they will last longer than most other holders.

If we are more interested in landscape or outdoors photography, especially using a mobile darkroom, the only logical choice is a folding field camera such as a Mentor Studio or FKD. These cameras are reasonably compact and light (especially the wooden ones such as the FKD), easy to carry and can be placed on any modern tripod of sufficiently sturdy construction. Unfortunately this is paid for with smaller photographic possibilities resulting, for example from the fact that the back standard has no or little movement. If our priority is to have a camera that offers a wide range of tools for controlling the resulting images, we can resort to a rail camera such as Cambo or Mentor Panorama, though personally I can’t imagine moving about with a camera like this without a car and thus feel it to be a bit of a rotten compromise.

Field camera
Field cameras are designed so as to make transport easy. We can usually fold them into a handy cube and the camera’s weight is limited as much as possible. This is usually done at the expense of the photographic control and flexibility; the movements of the standards are more limited than in the case of the studio camera or, in some cases, one of the standards may also offer no movement. Problems with keeping the whole construction stiff are also quite common as is the case with many Soviet made FKD’s.


In a camera with a stiff body, such as an slr, the image circle will match the frame.

The first, and probably most important criterion when buying a large format lens is the image circle which has to match the size of the photographs our camera is capable of taking. To put it briefly, each lens projects an image in the shape of a circle on the light-sensitive surface and the frame we are taking has to fit into that wheel. If the image surface (the circular image projected by the lens) is too small, a vignette will appear near the edges, especially in the corners of our frame as is the case when putting a lens designed for the crop frame on a full frame camera or in the case when too thick a filter is placed on the lens. If, in the case of an slr or any other camera with a stiff body, it is enough if the image circle is just big enough to fit in the frame, which will always be in the centre of the circle, in the case of a view camera things are rather different as using the movements the camera offers will mean that the frame will not always be in the centre of the image circle but can be moved quite considerably. A lens with an inadequate covering power will lead to a situation where using the camera movements will bring part of the frame outside the image circle. Unfortunately, as we will soon notice, it is the lenses offering the biggest coverage that are the hardest to get (and the most expensive too).

Different than in the case of slr cameras, a lens designed for use with a view camera will have to offer much larger coverage than the frame itself so as to make it possible for the photographer to use all the advantages resulting from the flexible camera construction.

Some large format lenses enjoy more popularity with the ambrotypists than others. It usually results from their particular qualities that the photographers find useful, though the common opinions about the lens as well as mere appearance of the lens are not without importance. Of the great multitude of lenses available on the market, the most interesting are probably ultra fast lenses designed for aerial reconneisance, allowing us to get the extremely low depth of field as well as the legendary Petzval lenses giving the most magical bokeh, translating into an impression that the whole background is one crazy swirl. Unfortunately, especially the prices of the latter can give a real headache. I have recently seen a gorgeous Petzval with massive covering power on auction for a trifling sum of 30 thousand dollars.

It is also important to remember that even though the exposure times in ambrotype photography are rather long and can often be measured with the proverbial hat, a shutter in our lens will make work easier. Unfortunately most old and thus most interesting lenses are barrel lenses. What is more, a great number of excellent Carl Zeiss Jena lenses or Russian Industrar lenses, frequently of equally high quality, are available at bargain prices. This is why it is a good idea to get a shutter that can be mounted on the front element of the lens or one that can be inserted between the lens and the camera itself. This solution will enable us to use a variety of barrel lenses with reasonable comfort.

The Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar lenses (a) available for around a hundred euros offer very high quality for a reasonable price. Lenses with a central shutter (b) are slightly more expensive but much more comfortable to use. If what we own is a barrel lens, we can make our work easier by using a shutter that can be placed on its front element (c). Another useful solution is a shutter in which the lens can be mounted (d).

Collodion darkroom

Contrary to what it might seem to us, a collodion darkroom, especially an amateur one, is pretty easy to furnish and requires neither excessive space nor expensive equipment. We will, however, need the following.

  1. A room that can be fully darkened, preferably with access to running water and with a sink; ideally a darkroom sink. Good ventilation will also be important. It must not, though, be a room that is normally used for any kind of work with food. Using a bathroom is not a very hot idea either. The room should have a floor that is easy to clean and be furnished with table tops that are easy to clean as well as in a safe light (though a red headlight is also an excellent solution). It is also a good idea to have a small fridge for the chemicals; a tourist fridge will be a great solution,
  2. Chemical glassware (not plastics as they will easily be dissolved by collodion) such as beakers, bottles with glass stoppers, graduated cylinders. Of course, some of the solutions, such as the fixer or isopropyl alcohol for cleaning the plates can be stored in plastics.
  3. Scales – small electronic jeweller’s scales will be a perfect solution,
  4. A rack for drying the plates – a drying rack for kitchenware is an excellent solution,
  5. A small chest of drawers or a few shelves for storing materials and chemicals,
  6. A spirit lamp,
    Spirit lamp
  7. A board or suction cup for holding the plates during coating,
  8. Glass funnels,
  9. An aerometer,
  10. Glass rods for stirring chemicals
  11. Vessels for sensitizing, fixing and washing the plates such as tanks or trays.

And that would be about it; the rest is consumable materials that are usually bought in small quantities, such as:

  1. 2% collodion (or 4% collodion plus ether and rectified spirit),
  2. The halides (iodides and bromides) for salting the collodion. Can be replaced with a ready-made salting solution,
  3. Ambrotype developer or ingredients used to make it (such as vinegar, alcohol and iron sulphate),
    Ambrotype developer
  4. Varnish or materials to make it such as gum sandarac (or one of multiple other resins), oil of lavender (or one of many other aromatic oils that can be used), alcohol,
  5. Paper filters (be it chemical grade filters or coffee filters),
  6. Silver nitrate or the ready-made sensitizing solution,
  7. Litmus papers,
  8. Chemicals used to alter the pH of the solution (such as nitric acid),
  9. Paper towels,
  10. Deionized water,
  11. Isopropyl alcohol for cleaning plates,
  12. Calcium carbonate for cleaning plates,
  13. Glass or metal (blackened) plates. Could be replaced with composite plates,
    Blackened plates
  14. Ethyl alcohol and denatured ethyl alcohol,
  15. Ether.

And that would be about it; the list is surprisingly short.
It is worth remembering, that the list above is first of all designed for an amateur darkroom which can be set up in a room of just a few square yards. Our ancestors had darkrooms that were much bigger and better furnished/equipped. However, if we limit ourselves to small plates, not bigger than 18x24cm (8×10 inches), even such a small darkroom will be fine.

Wetplate studio

Clear glass ambrotype, photo by Radosław Brzozowski

Things are a little different here than in the case of the darkroom and making a studio of the sort that photographers might have had in the 19th century would require quite a lot of money. Of course, this is by no means a necessary condition and most ambrotypes are simply shot outdoors using available light.

To begin with, traditional wetplate studios would have the shape of a glass house or an attic with a glass roof. This resulted from the need to have a large amount of natural light, the only kind available at the time (not to mention the fact that it is the daylight that works best for wetplate). Fortunately, those of us who can afford their own studio, have a much bigger choice of lighting including electric floodlights and even flash. A good wetplate studio should meet the following criteria:

1. Proximity of the darkroom

Unlike with most other techniques, this is a necessary condition. We have to remember that we will be working with self-made materials prepared directly before the picture is taken. With materials that are extremely perishable as the photographs must be developed before the collodion dries. This is why I can’t imagine working for a longer period of time in a situation where the darkroom is located in the basement and the studio on the top floor of a three storey building. Needless to say, having the two door to door is an ideal solution.

2. A large amount of daylight

The speed of materials used for wetplate photography is rather low by modern standards and as such they require copious lighting. This is why rooms similar to the ones used originally such as glass houses, attics with glass roofs and the like work best. It also makes sense to make sure that we can use artificial light in our studio which means electricity should be available. It may sound obvious but it is best if the electric installation in the studio is new or relatively new so that we can work with considerable intensiveness without the danger of constant electrical malfunctions.

3. Space

Here the requirements of wetplate photography are generally much smaller than in the case of a modern photographic studio, especially if we intend to focus on portraiture. Even with relatively long focal lengths your view camera will be quite close to the person you are photographing and the minimal depth of field will usually make a background that is close behind the model acceptable.

4. Artificial light

If we need artificial light in the studio, daylight lamps will work the best.

The days when sunlight was the only available type of light are fortunately over, so it helps to take care to have appropriate artificial light available. Buying our lights we need to remember that collodion is only sensitive to the UV and the blue extreme of the visible spectrum which is why standard halogen lights will not really work. (Their colour temperature is a little over 3000 Kelvins which means that they contain very little blue light that our plates are sensitive to). I would also take care about using flash; getting enough power to shoot wetplate would require putting together something like ten thousand (or more) watts per second which might be unpleasant or even unhealthy for the sitter. This is why most wetplate studios use daylight lamps of the same sort that is used by makeup studios. Buying them we need to remember that for our purposes it might not be enough to get just two or three bulbs; even of the most powerful type available. In such a case our exposure would be counted in dozens of seconds if not in minutes which is way too long for the person who has to remain absolutely motionless in front of the camera. Efficient lighting will require more like 6-7, or even ten of the most powerful daylight bulbs available. We can also look for a solution allowing us to place a number of bulbs in one reflector or use simpler holders where two or three bulbs are placed alongside and reflected with a simple umbrella. Of course, the second solution might prove to be a little harder to use in the studio.

5. Studio equipment

Apart from a few details, the studio equipment used for the wetplate photography won’t be much different than the standard. Still, there are a few details that had best been adjusted for wetplate work. Choosing the decorations or props we should remember about the way collodion sees the reality; a beautiful red, brown, orange and black backdrop will translate into a sort of a black hole while a blue pattern against red background will become white against black.
We should make sure that the person we are photographing has something to sit on. A prop to rest their head against which could be made from a microphone stand or a reflector holder combined with a soft yoke to encircle the back of their head. In the old studios props like this were often permanently mounted on the walls.

Colour bw
As wetplate is colour blind, it registers the world rather differently than what our eyes see. For example, light blues, cyans or violets will be seen as very light while the areas that are yellow, brown or red will become very dark, often even black.

A light meter will also prove useful, especially if we are using daylight whose strength continues changing all the time. Of course, it might not be possible to key in a speed that is as low as that of our wetplate’s, but it can easily be calculated if we use the sequence of apertures and remember that for most collodion recipes the speed will be in the range of 0,75 ISO to 1,5 ISO. This means that we can measure the light for 3 ISO and the double or quadruple the exposure time.

Clear glass ambrotype, photo by Radosław Brzozowski and Małgorzata Bardoń.

Radek Brzozowski is a Polish photographer with the favourite subjects of landscapes and nudes. He works in cyanotypes and gum bichromates.

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