Tintype photography, part 1

You absolutely need to know about tintype photography! Tintype photography, also sometimes referred to as wet plate or collodion process, is an image making technique developed in the early 1850’s and was widely used through the second half of that century because of its ease of use, its sharpness, and the immediacy of the results. Technically, the wet plate process can be used to shoot negatives on glass which can be used later to create prints or to shoot tintypes which yield a single positive on a dark opaque support.
Jason, a friend from my old job, is a complete film and old camera junky and, with the help of the internet, had been putting together a kit that would allow him to experiment with the process. He introduced me to it and I was instantly hooked. Since then, we’ve been geeking out together and I’ve been helping out where I can on Tintypebooth with the goal of creating a mobile tintype kit. We’ve shot 4×5 portraits at the Venice art walk and Tarfest, and Jason sets up for portraits every Saturday at Bar Nine, a groovy coffee lover’s destination in Culver City.

The process

It’s actually surprisingly simple. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and consists of the following seven steps. Don’t be intimidated by the mention of the various chemicals and other fancy sounding science lab-ey processes; I personally wouldn’t know silver bromide from halide crystals if they wore name tags. You can buy all the stuff you need on the internet.

  • Coating: a black enameled aluminum plate is coated with collodion, a viscous solution containing salts.
  • Sensitizing: as soon as the collodion starts to gel, the plate is taken into a portable darkroom, dunked into a silver nitrate solution which turns the salts into light sensitive silver halides, and loaded into a film holder ready to be exposed
  • Exposing: this is the “taking the picture” part. The ISO of the plate is somewhere around .5 so fast lenses and a bright flash are used to avoid motion artifacts.
  • Developing: the exposed plate is taken back into the darkroom. An iron solution is poured on it until the the exposed silver halides turn into silver metal, at which point the developing process is stopped by rinsing off the solution with water.
  • Fixing: at this point the plate is still fully covered with silver, some developed some not. The fixer dissolves away the undeveloped silver. The silver remains on the areas of the plate that got the most light and the areas that got less light reveal the dark enamel support.
  • Washing: once the undeveloped silver is fully washed away, the plate is rinsed to get rid of any remaining fixer.
  • Varnishing: once the plate is dry, it is still very delicate and the coating can easily be damaged. A coat of varnish is used to preserve the plate.
  • Although looking at these images on a computer screen really doesn’t do any justice to the feel of handling the actual object itself, I’m including the scans of a couple portraits I did a while back to give a sense of the look.

    What’s the appeal of doing tintype?

    Stay tuned for part 2 of this fascinating series in which I use very long words to explain why I think tintypes are a very relevant medium to experience in our hyper digital world.

    All pictures on this page by Sary Madsen at Tintypebooth

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