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.
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..
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!
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.
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 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!