August 2008

This ambrotype was my first self-portrait using the wet plate process. It was shot late in the afternoon.  There was cloud cover; and the light was fading.  Exposure time was a little difficult to judge; and I recall this shot took about 6 seconds.  A friend helped me by removing the dark slide and lens cap and marking the time.

In making an ambrotype, the goal is to under expose the subject so that the negative is “thin” or faintly discernable. The image will only be fully revealed when placed against a dark background or painted black on the reverse side. Another option for ambrotypes, which I chose for the self-portrait, is to use black glass so that no painting is necessary to see the image.


Ambrotype Self-Portrait by Bryan Hiott (2008)

5 x 7 Ambrotype Self-Portrait by Bryan Hiott (2008)


I fixed the plate with potassium cyanide; and when I began to see the image come in clearly, I was surprised by the darkness around my inset eyes.  It makes me look stern or intense.  The Dallmeyer petzval lens I was using produces optical distortion moving away from the center of the glass; and the result is clearly visible in this plate as a swirly pattern toward the edges.  To protect the collodion emulsion,  I finished the plate with a coat of sandrac varnish after heating it over a kerosene lamp.


 How To Make An Ambrotype


In an earlier entry, I posted jpegs of Quinn Jacobson’s field darkbox made by Steve Silipigni, a wet plate photographer from Rochester, NY.  I have been corresponding with Steve by email and met him at John Coffer’s Jamboree this month.  He brought along his own darkbox made of poplar, assembled with pegs and finished with an English chestnut stain.  I decided to order that exact version for myself.  It will accomodate plate sizes up to 8 x 10.  

The sample image below shows what my darkbox and supporting table should look like upon completion.  As you can see, the silver nitrate bath is sunken on the left side of the box; but placement may be in the center or on the right side of the box if you prefer.  You can get more information about Steve’s work on his website:  Black Art Woodcraft.  


Darkbox By Steve Silipigni Of Rochester, Ny

Darkbox By Steve Silipigni Of Rochester, NY


This particular darkbox was made for a client in Louisiana who happens to be a New Orleans Saints fan…hence the custom fleurs-de-lis design on the side.  The lightproof shroud is lined with a red checkered 100% cotton cloth of heavy weight.   A shelf at the bottom of the table is convenient for holding a plate rack for drying finished tintypes and glass negatives.  

Set up or take down of the entire system can be done in a matter of minutes; and all components will fit in the back seat of my car.  Portability of equipment is historically correct for the wet plate collodion process.  Mathew Brady’s field photographers during the Civil War used a darkbox mounted on the back of a wagon – jokingly referred to as a “What-Is-It?” wagon.  In the image below, the darkbox is situated at the back of the wagon with a shroud draped over it.   


Mathew Brady Photographic Crew Near Petersburg, VA (1864)

Mathew Brady Photographic Crew Near Petersburg, VA (1864)




During the first weekend of August my wife and I attended Jamboree, an annual gathering of wet plate photographers on John Coffer’s farm in Dundee, NY.  Several of the photographers at Jamboree had wet plate cameras made by Ray Morgenweck of The Star Camera Company.  Coffer owns several of Morgenweck’s cameras, which I used during the workshop back in May, and recommends them in his wet plate manual, “The Doer’s Guide.”


Anthony Style Tailboard Camera - Ray Morgenweck

Anthony Style Tailboard Camera - Ray Morgenweck


A week before Jamboree, I had contacted Morgenweck and ordered an 8 x 10 Anthony Tailboard Style Bellows Camera, a reproduction of one of the most widely used field cameras of the 19th century.  It will be made of Honduras mahogany and will include a tripod.  

Ray is making whole plate, 1/2 plate and 1/4 plate kits for my camera back so that I have a range of options; and he kindly offered to make a lens cap for my Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear lens in addition to waterhouse stops.  I expect that my equipment will be completed around the end of August.


The following description is taken from The Star Camera Company website:

During the Nineteenth Century, the E. and H.T. Anthony Company of New York City were the Worlds Largest supplier of Cameras and equipment. Unfortunatly for modern Wet Plate photographers, they are no longer in business. But, the design and solid reliability of their Cameras lives on in the offerings of The Star Camera Company. Very popular with both Historic Photographers and Fine Arts Photographers is our Anthony Style Tailboard Bellows Camera. We build this camera in a wide range of formats, from Half Plate to 11X14. The most versitile format by far is the square format 8X10, which gives you the ability to make large format Ambrotypes, Ferrotypes and Collodion Negatives. The camera is designed to accept interchangable lensboards, and three are supplied. You will have the ability to do a wide range of photographic work, depending on the lens you choose to use. These cameras have the solid frame and weight to support any Petzval Portrait Lens as well as the bellows extension to allow long focus landscape lenses. As with all our cameras, the Anthony Style Bellows Camera is priced without the lens, as this is a variable cost. While we prefer to build a camera using a lens supplied by the customer, we can source lenses to suit the needs of the buyer with little difficulty. Please note that this camera is available in either Honduras Mahogany or Cherry (at additional cost). For those desiring something different and unique, rare woods such as Purpleheart and Teak can also be used at additonal cost.


I just bought my first lens for wet plate photography, an f 7 Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear.  According to the engraved serial number (51796), this brass barrel lens with a waterhouse slot was produced in 1891.  The glass is in excellent condition and the mounting flange is intact; but the original aperture stops are missing, which is not unusual for a lens this old.  S.K. Grimes in Rhode Island will machine a set of metal stops for about $150.00 to $200.00 (current turn around time is about four weeks).  An alternative would be to make them myself from cardboard and paint them black.  


S.K. Grimes Waterhouse Stops

S.K. Grimes Waterhouse Stops

My Dallmeyer will cover plate sizes up to 8 x 10.  I plan to use it for landscapes.  The next lens purchase will be a petzval portrait lens for coverage up to 1/2 plate, which could also be used for 8 x 10 with some vignetting.  It would be ideal to have a Darlot petzval; but considering how steep prices have become for those, I am considering a Darlot magic lantern lens, which uses the same petzval formula and is much less expensive.  Some very experienced wet plate photographers have told me that they can tell no difference between images produced with Darlot magic lantern lenses, intended primarily for projection, and Darlot portrait lenses intended for camera use.


Made In London (1891)

Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear: Made In London (1891)

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