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WET PLATES: When Photography was Really Hard!


WET PLATES: When Photography was Really Hard!

May 11, 2017  |  by Bill Dobbins

By Bill Dobbins

Wet-plate collodion photography is a technologically complex, labor intensive process. | Public Domain
When Kodak created the Brownie camera in 1900, introducing the concept of the “snapshot” to the masses, it used the slogan: “You Press The Button, We Do The Rest” to tell prospective users that they could make photos without any specialized knowledge of photography.  They could simply shoot a roll of film with a camera on which there were no shutter or aperture controls, send in the film for processing and be handed back developed film and a set of BW prints.
The Kodak Brownie box camera was introduced in 1900 and heralded the era of the snapshot. “You Push The Botton, We Do The Rest” was Kodak’s slogan. Source:
This system of commercial photofinishing remained a dominate way people made snapshots for some 100 years, until digital cameras were introduced that captured images on electronic cards rather than photographic film.  With modern digital cameras, shooting photos is as easy as it was using a Brownie but the ability of the cameras to produce high quality, well-exposed images with the use of automatic controls has made shooting excellent photographs easier than ever before imagined.
portable darkroom
If you did wet-plate photography outside of the studio, you needed some kind of darkroom in order to coat the plate with a photographic emulsion and then quickly to develop the image. | Public Domain
But in many ways the introduction of photographic film by George Eastman in the 1880s and then the simple box camera a few years late, was a much greater revolution than the replacement of film photography by digital imaging.  Prior to this, photography was a very difficult, labor-intensive and high technical process that required photographers to have a great deal of knowledge and experience to expect any kind of success.
Some photographers using the wet-plate process used carts with built in darkrooms to be able to stay mobile. | Public Domain
Louis Daguerre introduced the Daguerreotype in 1839 but this system of imprinting an image on a mirrored surface yielded somewhat limited results.  For one thing, each daguerreotype was unique and individual.  There was no way to make copies, other than shooting another image of the original.  So when the collodion wet plate process was developed in 1851, which created a negative from which prints could be made, it quickly took over as the dominant photographic process. Wikipedia informs that the wet-plate system “requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes, necessitating a portable darkroom for use in the field.”  That is, the photographer needed to coat a plate with an emulsion in a light-protected environment, put the plate in a holder, the holder put into the camera in order to make an exposure and then taken into a darkroom for processing – all in a relatively short time.
A wet-plate photograph by Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Shooting in a studio usually meant a darkroom was ready to hand so this process could be accomplished relatively effectively.  But shooting out of the studio – such with landscape or architectural photographers or Mathew Brady doing pictures on Civil War battlefield – some kind of portable darkroom was necessary  Sometimes the darkroom was built into a wagon which allowed the photographer considerable mobility photographing on location.
These soldiers fallen at Gettysburg never got to hear Lincoln’s address. Credit: Matthew Brady
A wet plate photograph of Ulysses S. Grant by Mathew Brady.
Many photographers nowadays decry the fact that digital photography allows the making of photos without the kind of technical knowledge required when film was the basic medium of recording images.  But before film was invented the kind of knowledge and labor required of wet-plate photographers was clearly immensely more demanding.  To be a photographer back then you really had to know something!
Charles Dodgson lewis carroll12 ALice
A photo by Charles Dodgson, who as Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland.
The wet-plate process was itself replaced during the 1880s by gelatin dry plates—glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin.  Dry plates could be created and stored for some time before being exposed and then did not have to be processed immediately after exposure.  They were also much more sensitive, which allowed for shorter exposure times.  But of course it was only a few years later that film was introduced, which quickly became the primary method of doing photography for the next century.
Ädouard Baldus: Le Bourse, Paris
Paris in the 1850s. Wet-plates were not very sensitive and required long expsures – which is my portraits from the era seem so stiff. Buildings by their nature tend to hold still. | Public Domain
Of course, none of these historic systems has completely disappeared.  Some photographers still make daguerreotypes or do wet or dry plate photography.  Many will continue to shoot on film rather than making digital images for decades to come.  And there is no doubt that the technology of photography will continue to evolve and develop so that in the future what we now consider the most “modern” of image making will seem quaint, old-fashioned and obsolete. But we are where we are today because of the effort, experiences and contribution of photographers and those developing photo technology who labored in the past.  So next time you click the shutter and your digital camera, using computer power vastly beyond that which sent men to the moon, to get a bright, clear and sharp result, consider the 19th century photographer coating plates with emulsions, exposing and then developing them under time restraints in a darkroom. Hats off to the efforts and accomplishments of wet-plate collodian photographers. *********************************** Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) Modern Amazons (Tashen)
[caption id="attachment_5380" align="aligncenter" width="491"]gentleman Example of wet plate photography | Public Domain[/caption] [caption id="attachment_5381" align="alignnone" width="425"]victorian portrait Example of wet plate photography | Public Domain[/caption] [caption id="attachment_5379" align="alignnone" width="499"]nun Example of wet plate photography | Public Domain[/caption]
May 11, 2017

About the Author

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos - images of the aesthetic, athletic body. Using the same distinctive personal style, characterized by strong graphics and a classic look in both color and BW, Bill Dobbins has also developed a body of work featuring fashion, beauty and glamor photos In a world in which so many images create a level of "noise" that makes it hard for advertisers to be noticed, Bill's work cuts right through the confusion and grabs the eye. Bill has created two art photos books: The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen) and his fine art work has appeared in two museums and several galleries. WEBSITES BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY BILL DOBBINS ART THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY EMAIL:

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