The Light Farm

Dry Plate Photography, p.1 — Possibilities

'Pancho and Herman Playing Hide and Seek'.
5"x7" dry plate contact print (Ilford Multigrade paper).

Full instructions for making dry plates are in the book, "The Light Farm, Volume 1, The Basics," available to buy or read for free in Blurb preview. See the link at the top, right-hand side of the home page. Also, making dry plates is covered in the Light Farm web tutorials, left-hand column, home page.


Dry Plate Photography is simply photography. The 'plate' part, of course, is the glass plate emulsion support but the 'dry' part can be confusing if you aren't up on the minutia of the history of photography.

Before dry there was wet, as in wet plate photography. Collodion syrup carries the photosensitive bits, not gelatin. And, indeed, the plate is wet when it is exposed. There are enough modern wet plate practitioners that it's easy to find information. It's a fascinating process, with its own distinctive beauty. And it's dangerous, difficult, and capricious. Dry plate photography reduced all those aspects for the photographers of the day.

If the history of photography is about anything, it is about banishing one, or all, of "dangerous, difficult, and capricious". Defenders of any next-generation iteration of our craft have always been fond of claiming the newest technology is about photographic quality, but quality is subjective — the most personal of all artistic decisions. We are driven to make what we consider beautiful and we are drawn to the best technology to realize our vision.

Dry plate is one expression of beauty and one technology — as revolutionary in its day as digital is in ours. A nice bonus was/is that it is hardly dangerous, difficult or capricious. That's not to say there isn't a learning curve!

"The state of photography nowadays is such that the amateur and professional alike are surrounded by an overwhelming mass of all kinds of materials — cameras, plates, films, papers, chemicals — with the inevitable result that any one individual who does not succeed with a certain class of goods will prefer to leave it and try another, rather than try to ascertain the reasons for his failure. It is not enough, furthermore, to be satisfied if we are successful; let us endeavour to find out why success has attended our efforts, every bit as much as failure, so that a clear knowledge of the principles of photography shall guide our future work, and make us as independent as possible of facts, formulae, and friends."

Successful Negative Making, by T. Thorne Baker, Focus Photographic Manuals, 1905, p1. which I'd add today, "forums".

'Pancho on the Woodpile'
Digital P&S


If we were to start from a straight-out-of-the-camera digital file what all could be done with it? I don't know. I've lost track but I imagine it's as good as infinite. Hardware, firmware, software, filters and apps, and probably lions and tigers. I'd be the last to argue that today as far as creativity goes the only limit is imagination. From that perspective, photography has never been better. There's little downside to that! Except...

All the wonders of the latest and greatest in photography encourages the belief that photography was without creativity in the olden, chemical days.

Nay. Nope. Not so — especially, of course, when we start making our own materials. It's then that the real creative potential of photography is finally realized. That is the true Infinite.


And not all of them are chemical.

We live in the best of all times for photography. We have options. In my ideal world, of course, all the options ever available throughout the history of photography would still be out there in the local stores for purchase on a whim. That, unfortunately, isn't the case, but it also isn't as much a reason to succumb to the latest technology as is sometimes portrayed. (Remember the admonition against photo forums?)


Here is as good a place as any to rail against this particular evil — the mortal foe of Creativity (and, I might add, Fun.)

"Just do it." I'm not much for bumper sticker philosophy, but that one nails it. We're all aware of how harmful body image perfectionism can be — it's exactly the same with our art. Think of how other people's standards can effectively cut us off from enjoying and expressing ourselves. "You have to know the rules to break them." Have you ever stopped and thought about how ridiculous that statement is? Needless to say there are techniques to be learned and hopefully mastered. But, what is done with those techniques is between the artist and the wind.

'Pancho on the Woodpile'
Left: Digital P&S
Below: 4"x 5" dry plate


There are a lot of options for this one plate. The density is just about what you'd think of as "normal", so it's well suited for a number of standard treatments.

The version above was set on a light table, emulsion side up, and photographed with a digital camera. From that point, it's handled like any other digital file. I could make either a inkjet print or an enlarged digital negative for contact printing with any number of processes. Or, I could go totally analog and use the plate just like a film negative in either a 4"x 5" contact printing frame or an enlarger.

Above Left: Inkjet print.

Above Right: 8"x 10" traditional enlargement (Ilford Multigrade).

Left: Handmade silver gelatin paper contact print, selenium toned.

Each of these print forms are considered "normal" presentations, yet they each have a very distinctive look not easily seen on a screen. I believe that all images deserve to be seen in a physical form but it's reality that most of our images will be seen virtually. I've even come to embrace that. Just as important (to our purposes) as a beautiful virtual portfolio are all the tools Photoshop and its kin can bring to handmade. From here on I'll be weaving chemical, physical, and digital together as the tools of our craft.

< P.O.P., p.2 — Basics Plus      Dry Plate, p.2 — More Possibilities >

Copyright © The Light Farm