Plate Collodion Photography

I’ll be the first to say that creating a great photograph is tough work.

But, boy, do we have it easy these days compared to the photographers of yesteryear…

I mean, I can get discouraged when shooting with my Nikon D810, but really, what do I have to complain about?

In fact, compared to the process that photographers had to use in the Civil War era, you and I have it easy.

To document the war, photographers used a wet plate collodion process.

Essentially, it involved chemically-coated panes of glass which were used as negatives.

As you might imagine, lugging these huge panes of glass around was both hard work and required great care to ensure they didn’t break.

But believe it or not, the wet plate method was actually a simpler process to create a photographic negative than what came before it.

In 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot (pictured above) introduced the calotype method, which involved using silver chloride-coated paper to create images.

The silver chloride darkened when exposed to light to create the image, just like the digital sensors in our cameras today must be exposed to light to create an image.

Prior to Talbot’s calotype, photographers often needed an hour or so to expose the paper to get a quality negative.

However, the calotype process slimmed that down to just a couple of minutes, mostly because the paper could be removed under the cover of darkness and chemically processed to further develop the image.

The problem, of course, is that photographers needed to have a mobile darkroom with them in order to create prints.

The other issue is that this process produced images that weren’t as clear or sharp (as seen above) as those created with the daguerreotype method.

So, on the one hand, the daguerreotype method produced sharp results but required exposures of an hour or more.

On the other hand, the calotype process required little time, but a laborious workflow to create images.

That’s where the collodion process came in.