Wet plate collodion with a Polaroid camera

Coverting a Polaroid camera to a wet plate holder is not so difficult. Got an old Polaroid camera sitting around somewhere? Since the camera film making business is on decline (Polaroid is no more, Fuji film is still around) the camera needs to find other uses. For example; take the film holder and convert it to an excellent wet plate holder. Jalo Porkkala shows you how.

Writer and photography / Jalo Porkkala

Most collodion photographers are using dedicated wet plate cameras, because wet plates are not nice to put into any ordinary modern cameras. There are instructions on how to use some normal medium and large format film cameras in the wet plate process. Most modern large format cameras are readily usable; only a special wet plate holder is needed. The drawback is the silver nitrate, possibly dripping from the holder inside the camera and eventually ruining it.

Polaroid EE100 camera makes a wet plate holder
A Polaroid EE100 and a wet plate holder made of the pack film holder.

There are, however, certain types of cameras that you can use as is, without any modifications. Polaroid 100 – 400 series cameras were designed for Polaroid instant pack film, and the empty film holder can be converted to an excellent wet plate holder. Both Polaroid cameras and films are out of production, but you can find cameras on eBay or similar web auctions, and Fuji FP-100 is a substitute for Polaroid film and comes in similar holders.

These cameras have automatic exposure, with an ‘Electric Eye’ light meter beside the lens, the shutter is powered by batteries. There is no B setting, but the camera can make very long exposures in dim light. You will need exposures of several seconds for the wet plate collodion, even in full daylight. The camera can be fooled to expose as long as the shutter release is kept pressed by taping the Electric Eye over with black tape… there we have a B setting for the wet plate photography.

The neat thing is… if you are careful, the silver nitrate will not ruin your camera, as the metal/plastic plate holder will keep the drops inside. And any time you want to use normal instant film, you can remove the light blocking tape from the eye and shoot normally.

Polaroid camera for wet plate collodions
Disassemble the pack film holder by pressing the sides with your fingers and lifting up the back plate. No tools needed!
The holder of the wet plate
The holder.

The pack film holder consists of three parts… in the middle, between the picture frame and the back plate, there is the Polaroid film container that you can now discard.

You can use a piece of tape as a hinge, so you can easily open and close the holder in the safelight situation. When closing the holder, again press the sides of the picture frame and you can get the holder locked.

You will also need a metal or plastic spring to press the plate and keep it in place during the exposure. I use a steel spring from a photo frame. I just taped the spring onto the back plate.

Wet plate collodion holder
Load the holder.

Now you can load the holder in the darkroom with a sensitized glass or metal plate and use it just like any other wet plate holder. You just have to put the holder into the camera in the darkroom, then go out shooting.

The electric eye of the camera.
The electric eye of the camera.

The EE100 has two aperture settings, controlled by the film ISO selector. The larger aperture is f/9.2… not too fast for wet plate photography. If you put a piece of black tape on the light meter eye, you can make long exposures by pressing and holding down the shutter release.

Wet plate made by Jalo Porkkala.
Wet plate made by Jalo Porkkala.

Wet plate collodion on black aluminum, made with a Polaroid EE100 camera.

Collodion with enlarger

Wet plate made by Jalo Porkkala from a 35 mm colour slide.
Wet plate made by Jalo Porkkala from a 35 mm colour slide.

Except for using a large format camera, wet plate collodion photographs can be made also by those using 35 mm or medium format, or even digital cameras. Instead of placing the light-sensitive collodion plate into a camera, the image can be projected onto the plate in the darkroom – with an enlarger – the same way that normal enlargements are made. Test strips for the correct exposure can be made as in normal enlarging work.

A wet plate image – an ambrotype or a tintype – is a positive process, and in the enlarger negative holder you should have a colour or black and white positive transparency, like a 35 mm slide. If you enlarge on glass you can also expose more and developed the plate as a negative. Thus contact prints from the glass negative can be made in any of the alternative printing processes, for example salt paper or albumen.

Wet plate collodion enlarged on black aluminum from a 35 mm colour slide.

Collodion meets digital

Like prints in many alternative processes, also the wet plate collodion can be used as a printing process by exposing the plate through a digitally printed film. The light source can be an enlarger, or other white light source. An inkjet positive film, the same size as the plate, can be laid on top of the sensitized plate. No contact printing frame is needed; the wet surface of the plate will keep the film in contact and in place during the exposure. The tone scale can be optimized with a compensating curve applied to the digital image, just like with any other printing process from a digital negative.

I usually expose with the back of the film against the plate, printed side up, but some pigment inks are waterproof and the pigment side can be placed against the plate.

1Convert your digital image file to greyscale and apply a compesation curve if needed. Print this POSITIVE image on good quality inkjet transparency, e.g. Pictorico OHP or Agfa CopyJet.

2Prepare the plate – glass or metal – as you normally would for a plate holder. Pour the collodion and sensitize in silver nitrate solution. If you are working under safelight, you can also sensitize in an open tray instead of the light tight silver nitrate tank.

3Wipe the back of the plate with a paper towel, and place your sensitized wet plate under an enlarger or other white light source, collodion side up. It is a good idea to put some paper towels under the plate to absorb moisture and keep your table top clean.

4Lower your digital transparency film on top of the wet plate. Start from one of the corners and slowly lay down the film on the plate, trying to avoid forming any air bubbles between the film and the plate. There will be a good contact between the film and the wet surface of the plate; leave the film there.

5Expose the plate with the enlarger light, or other light source over the plate/film sandwich. Try exposures of 10 to 20 seconds as a starting point for an 8×10 inches plate, with the enlarger lens wide open.

6Process the plate as normally. After the process you can wipe your film dry with a paper towel and save it for later use, or make another wet plate collodion ‘print’ of it.

The polaroid wet plate curve
The polaroid wet plate curve

This is an uncorrected scan of a test ambrotype, exposed through a ChartThrob gray chart. Collodion typically has not very good separation of tones in the highligts. Here the ChartThrob script for Photoshop (http://www.botzilla.com/blog/archives/000544.html) has been let analyze the scan and make a compensation curve, seen here. This curve can now be applied to the positive digital image file, and the file then printed on transparency material and contact printed on the wet plate.

Wet plate collodion by Jalo Porkkala from a digital positive film.
Wet plate collodion by Jalo Porkkala from a digital positive film.

Wet plate collodion on black aluminum, contact printed with enlarger light from a digital positive film.

Jalo Porkkala is studying and using historical and alternative processes, both in his own artistic work and at the university, he is teaching at. Also take a look at Jalo’s gallery


12 thoughts on “Wet plate collodion with a Polaroid camera”

  1. how do you calculate proper exposure time when shooting with natural light? Is there an ISO that the plates are similar to?

  2. I have tried a few times to make contact prints with positive transparencies but have had issues with removing bits of my emulsion when I remove the transparency from the plate. do you have any tips to prevent damaging the emulsion when contact printing?

  3. I am trying this now but curious if the metal spring would affect the plates? It doesn’t look like that happened for you.

  4. I remember doing this back in the 1990s with a student. We held our hand over the “electric eye” exposure meter to give enough exposure. Any camera can work as long as you can find a way to place a collodion plate in the back. Just be sure to preven any metal from touching the surface of the sensitized plate.

  5. I’ve done actual Wetplate process.

    Lot of work, time, hassle, supplies and money.

    Is there a type of photo film sheets that can give that wetplate or period look of early 20th century vintage look?

  6. Well, I just tried it without any modification of the holder. I just left the middle part in and – it works! You might loose some time adjusting the plate, but after a couple of shots, you get used to open and close the holder and placing the plate. So, basically all you need is a tape for the light sensor and an empty holder.

  7. Hello Jalo,
    in your article you described you dont need the middle part of the fuji-fp holder but use a spring instead. I wonder why you do this since the holder has the already right height. Did you run in any problems with the middle part?

  8. When making a contact print on a tin type or glass plate, what is the best way to remove the film without disrupting the surface of the plate? Do you process the plate with the film still on top?

  9. Even better.. use a Mamiya RB67 with Polaroid backs, you can preload as many P-backs as you have available. This gives you a wider choice of lenses, full manual control of the exposue, although the image will be limited to a roughly 7×7 square (with vignetting at 65mm or shorter).

  10. @ John… agree. I guess I meant “useless for it’s original purpose” meaning using Polaroid film. Will update.

  11. Intriguing technique!

    I have to take issue with your characterization of Polaroid Cameras as “pretty useless” though. Fuji FP100C and FP3000B is easy to get, and I (and many other Land camera shooters) have a lot of fun with the process.

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