Most photographers shoot with glass, even ones who have websites called 'trapstreet pinhole' shoot with glass sometimes. Most, however, keep the glass at the front end. This post is abut my attempts at shooting with glass behind the lens. Why the hell I am trying to do this, the camera I am using (and swearing at), the efforts to procure the plates and how on earth to work with them are documented below. 

Why Glass?

I'm actually not completely sure of my original motivation for wanting to shoot glass. Beyond the fact that if you shoot film or paper, you will probably already understand I have an appreciation of the image as a physical object (the archaeologist in me wants to use the term materiality here but I have told him to be quiet). 

I don't think that is quite enough to explain why this has become a slow burning obsession which has taken me through two attempts with suitable cameras and many wasted hours trawling ebay for holders and plates. Perhaps I should just admit that I am totally in thrall of images such as this by Julia Margaret Cameron..

Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron 1867

Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron 1867

Plus some of the amazing work being done by people working today with old technologies, such as Sally Mann (please follow this link, her landscapes are just beguiling).

This is probably a long way of saying I am suffering from a sort of steampunk GAS and I eventually want to see the glow of a positive collodion image held in my hands!

So How?

I will divide this advice into two sections, one about cameras and holders and then one about the plates. Take it all with a pinch of salt, up until recently this had all been done distinctly haphazardly!


Here is precisely what not to do.

Do not find a beautiful and very old mahogany camera, sans lens and in a format that will never be available again. You might think you are an expert on analogue photography but you will find you are not when faced with many ancient and un-standardised brass lenses, separate shutters and no way of getting plates  unless you make them yourself.

Here is what will work better (although still inadvisable).

A great many fixed lens folding LF cameras were made by the likes of Kodak (FPK no' 2) Voigtlander (AVUS, Bergheil) Zeiss (Maximar) and sooo many others between the turn of and 20th mid century. If you can find one of these in good nick they are reliable and most will have ground glass screens, important if you want to actually get your LF neg in focus. The main downside is these are 9x12 cameras and that format is now pretty rare. The upside is, they originally came with plate holders (apart from the FPK which can sometimes have 118 rollfilm). 

Now I know a knowledgeable bunch of people so please do reply in comments below but I would expect best bet for plate holders in 4x5 would be a Graflex. At which point things are a little pricier but maybe only by £100 or so.

In the end I went for an Voigtlander Avus. For the totally rational reason that I was in my favourite photography store in Ottawa. They were probably closing & I HAD TO BUY SOMETHING LOVELY. And, indeed. Ava the Avus, is lovely. 


Ava has a nice & fast (for 1930s) LF 4.5 lens, plus front rise and shift, which should be a lot of fun to play with. She was $160 CAN. The holders are metal and kinda horrible but are pretty readily available. Mine didn't come with any (apart from some 6x9 ones...ooops) but I found some relatively easily afterwards online. 

If you want to shoot film too, you will need an insert to make up the difference in depth.

The Plates.

So the saga of the camera was nothing on comparison to the plates. My original intention was to go no holes barred. Some tests with paper and then  straight into making my own. My tests with paper were foiled by the fact that you can't use paper with the insert I had, it is just too thick. I was just going to have to go glass or go home. At this point I felt right back where I was with the half plate camera.

I had no real option but to try and find some source of 9x12 glass plates to practice on. Now there are actually a decent number of these on ebay. Mainly these are 'dry plates' which are essentially just film emulsions as we know them (ish) but on glass. They are in the main ancient of course & quite a few sellers are keen to tell you what colour they are. Which is more than a little problematic if you want to be able to use them! 

After searching for these damn things for weeks I eventually found an ebay seller offering fairly pricey ones, unbranded, but ostensibly new. My research told me that there was a source of Russian medical dry plates up until quite recently, so there was a good chance they were at least not ancient. After a glass or two of something I decided I might as well try these Russian plates. I might never see them, lost somewhere in Belarus. I might find an open box. I might find the whole lot smashed but it was worth a shot.

What I actually got was a decent, well wrapped, pack of plates. But plates that had no information on them whatsoever. Apart from claiming to be ISO 200. Had I known what I know now, finding the emulsion side would have been super easy, since I now know you can look at them under red safelight. The first attempt at this involved touch...and there was a fingerprint to show for it! 


The Images

The fingerprint didn't matter...the first shot was fairly terrible anyway, the only good sign being that I did get a sort of an image (which at least meant I had put the thing in the right way round!) I rated the plate at the box speed and developed in Ilfosol 3 for 6 minutes at 1/14, which, for want of better inspiration was the timing required for Fomapan 200. The resulting neg looked like this...


Pretty terrible huh? But it told me 2 things.

The first was that I had a baaad light leak in my holder. Luckily, the metal holders of the 1930s were not made with the best quality metal. With the assistance of a small hammer and a cloth, I was able to subtly bend the holder back into a shape that looked more light tight. The second thing this told me? These plates were certainly not ISO 200 and, when I looked closer, I began to suspect that some areas were suspiciously underexposed more than others, possibly because these plates were orthochromatic

Cut to my second attempt. An uncharacteristically nice early March day in Richmond Park. I guessed that exposure adjustment should be around 2 stops and rate the plate at ISO 50. The light was around F11 at 100 so I made an exposure at F9, 200. Then I took a risk. I guessed that these were orthochromatic, so I decided to try developing under read light and eyball the development using the same chemistry. Worst comes to worst, I would know they are panchromatic! 

The resulting, definitively orthochromatic, image is below. 


As you can see, this is far from perfect. I still have to work out how to avoid scratching the emulsion so much (although a few here and there add a certain charm) and I have to investigate why I have those bands (they aren't scan lines but are visible on the plate) but all in all I am pleased with my 'proof of concept image.

Where to now then?

So far I view what I have done very much as still in the experimental stage. I need to iron out some of the issues with these off the shelf plates first & get used to handling and developing them. In this vein I have ordered a few more packs to get my eye in. However, when people think plates, they usually think home emulsions & that is exactly where I want to go. So far I am not sure what sort of emulsion. I would love to do wet plate but I also like to shoot outside and there are serious constraints about using wet plate out and about (if it dries out before being developed it is ruined). The solution may be to try my own dry plates or something similar. Whatever I chose to do I hope to share with you all in the coming months!


What my camera sees/ What I see

Shortly after I started using my Big Pinhole camera, I realised I was getting a lot of interested people appear in front of it, curious as to what was going on. I began to realise it might be fun to record things like this while I was pinholing. This thought grew into a sense that even without such curiosity, it is quite an interesting exercise to show the time passing as the pinhole is taking an image and then show the final still image afterwards. Now, the shortest shots I take with the 'Pinholemoth' are of the order of 12 minutes & I don't want to bore you all to tears!

Here then, is 2 (ish) minutes from the perspective of my pinhole, taken on a Polaroid cube attached to the top. The final image is then shown at the end. if nothing else this should show how amazingly wide the Pinholemoth actually is as you will see, I am very close to this building. 

So there you have it. A short slice of what I see while pinholing. I plan to do more of these and, hopefully, have some more interesting interactions with people but as a test I am pleased. Here is the original image.

2016 and all that.

So it has come to that time of year to reflect on the Images I have made and the stories (intentional and otherwise) that they tell of my 2016. In the spirit of self reflection, I present to you 10 images that, I feel tell that story best. It has been a year of a major transition for me and has seen me become much more focused on pinhole photography and move away from street work. Of a lot of travel and of a continuing battle with depression.

Image 1: Watling Street. London, January 2016

This image represents the old me. I was superficially pleased with this one, still am in some ways but something was gnawing at me that, beyond the pleasing aesthetics, there was nothing else there. I'm probably being too hard on myself but I see this image as my point of departure from street work and towards my pinhole self. 


Image 2: Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh/ Artsakh, February 2016

I'm sure we film photographers have all been there. That 'one' image you think you nailed. The roll cosseted until you can get home and develop it. The anticipation as you prepare to develop and won't go on the damn spiral! I admit, I suck at developing and I was devastated when, after the months of planning my Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh trip, the shots were not what I had hoped for. However. Looking back, the damage this poor negative suffered at my hands actually enhanced the look I was already going for. Happy accidents!

Image 3: Zurich, Switzerland, February 2016

I hate business travel. My colleague hated me for making her wait for the 7 minutes this exposure took while the freezing rain of a Swiss winter beat down on us. Later I bought her cake and coffee to make up for it and she did like the picture once she saw it. I will always take my Titan with me on business trips now. They afford a moment on peace amid all the stress, 

Image 4+5: Switch House, External and Internal. Bankside, London June 2016

Possibly the best thing to happen to me this year was that someone in the London planning authority made a huge mistake and allowed the Tate gallery to build a huge neo-brutalist extension to Tate modern. I have spoken to numerous photography friends about this building and almost all agree it is a photographer's paradise inside and out. 

Image 6: Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire July 2016

I have traveled too much this year. Armenia, though exhilarating, left me exhausted. My wife and I decided we needed a relaxing domestic trip. I think it was the happiest time I have had this year. Conventionally speaking this is a horrible image but I love it, it reminds me of that trip and the walk we had in the missling rain to the top of the Iron Age Hillforts, known as the Wittenham Clumps (No, I have no idea what caused those effects in development....possible the paper got very wet). 

Image 7: Lloyds of London: The City, August 2016

My Good friend @ujhphoto was kind enough to sell me his 10x8 pinhole camera this year. I call it 'The Pinholemoth' beloved by small children and security guards throughout London and the suburbs! It is a box capable of making truly spectacular images if used correctly. So wide it vignettes every image and makes you stand 2ft away from a large tower. I recommend trying 10x8 via the pinhole route. Relatively cheap and nothing beats developing a negative this large!

Not really sure how I didn't get accosted taking this picture of Lloyds but, as one of my favourite London buildings, I hope I have done it justice here, 

Image 8: Balfron Tower/ Tower 42, Poplar, The City, London August(ish) 2016

Speaking of being accosted... This image is a double exposure of the Goldfinger masterpiece that is Balfron Tower and Tower 42 (Natwest Tower). The latter shot had to be abandoned due to terrible light and since then I have been cursed by bad rain and over officious security guards never to take a photograph of that building. The cops turned up during the Balfron exposure too but they were actually kind of interested and looking out for me...'so it goes'.

Image 9: Blackfriars, London October 2016

i'm not sure what happened with this image. I may have a dud batch of direct positive paper, I may just have screwed up developing or had a crappy expired developer. I don't actually care. This is a picture of a lovely but very ordinary housing estate I was going through a very bad creative spell but the light on this pretty humble building was very cheering!

Image 10: The Barbican, London, December 2016

The Barbican is the home I have never had, my refuge. Imagine a huge concrete fortress of calm right in the middle of the busiest city in Europe and that is the Barbican. One day I want to live there.  Right now, I soothe my aching heart by taking pictures of it. Like this one.

So there it is, my not very cerebral tour of personal photography in 2016, as a community many of you have made 2016 a good year despite all the awfulness. Thank you.