Dry plate Photography is the alternative process most people don’t use, information is scarce and starter kits are limited. Most alternative process Photographers use wet plate, a step I plan on taking in 2020, but dry plate is a process I won’t let die. It was the process that made Eastman Kodak a household name and allowed Photographers to take photos in places where wet plate equipment and chemistry could never make it, it is the father of film Photography, and today, we are going to discuss how to use the only starter kit on the market.

Creating Dry Plates

Currently, there is only one company that makes ready-to-use plates and one company that makes kits to make your own plates, personally I prefer to make my own. Rockland manufactures the DIY kit.

What you’ll need to pour your own plates:

  • Heating pad
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Hot plate
  • Pan
  • Thermometer
  • Pyrex measuring cup
  • Tintype kit
  • Rubber gloves

The first step is important to ensure your emulsion sticks to the plate and that is cleaning the surface of your plates with an alcohol wipe. You want to make sure that any fingerprints and lint is removed and you have a clean surface to pour into. After I clean and prep the plates, I’ll place my plates on a heating pad set to high, the emulsion cools and hardens very quickly so a warm plate helps you get an even spread before it does so.

Once the plates are cleaned and prepped; I’ll turn my hotplate on low and place a pan on top filled with water and my glass measuring cup, as well as the bottle of emulsion so the melting process can begin. Keep the temperature of the water between 114 and 120 degrees, any hotter and the emulsion becomes to thin and cause the photo to flake, any colder and the emulsion will cool and harden before you can get an even spread. 

After a few minutes, the emulsion in the bottle will be ready to pour into the measuring cup, at this time you have to turn off any lights and turn on your red darkroom light as the emulsion is light sensitive. Pouring is the thing I had the biggest struggle with when I got started. I attempted to use a brush and a sponge but found that direct pour is the best route. With the plate in hand, pour a quarter-sized amount of melted emulsion into the center, then you’ll move the plate around and use your finger to spread it and remove bubbles, pouring and excess back into the measuring cup. You want to make sure that your spread is as even and thin as you can get it before placing the plate to the side and pouring your next one. Store for a minimum of 24 hours in a completely dark area, you can’t store in a box due to extended dry time.

Now I’ve found that at times the plates are slightly too wide to fit into a standard film holder so after 24 hours I’ll cut a thin strip from one of the edges before loading my film holders. All of this has to be done under red light since the plates are blue light sensitive. Once ready to shoot I’ll set my camera as seen in the video below load the film holder and take my light readings to determine shot duration. 

How to Develop a Dry Plate

Once the image has been shot we get to go back into the darkroom and hang out in red light to develop! The Rockland kit provides the developer but not the fixer (in regards to the bulk kit). 

In the darkroom I’ll set a timer and fill my developing trays, the first one with the developer, the second with my fix bath and the final is just water. Once you put your plate in the developer you want to agitate for 4 to 8 minutes, the plate will turn black before the image begins to appear at about the 2 and a half minute mark. 

Once the plate is developed it still needs to stay in the dark while being moved into the fix bath. Fixing requires 15 minutes total, 5 of which require darkroom conditions, after 5 minutes you can turn your light back on (unless you have in developed plates out or plates in the developer). 

After 15 minutes of fixing is the rinse process. My darkroom does not have running water. After the fix process, I place my plates in a rinse bath of water until I’ve finished my set, after that, I take my plates and in lukewarm water/ medium pressure I begin to rinse. Each plate needs to be rinsed of all fixer for 10 to 15 minutes. The fixer tends to get absorbed into the photo gelatin and if it isn’t properly rinsed the image will begin to orange.

Dry plate Photography is very labor-intensive, hands-on and absolutely the most rewarding photography I’ve ever been involved with. When I pull an image out of the fix bath, and it’s perfect it’s absolutely sublime. Knowing how many hours and work go into each image makes it all worthwhile! The only downside is all my best work goes home with the client since every image is one of one, no duplicates because every image is hand made! 

If you’re interested in shooting dry plate Photography and you end up getting into it, feel free to contact me with any troubleshooting questions or just to share your work! I love seeing this alternative process in the wild! Feel free to follow me on my social media or to subscribe to my YouTube!

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