Building a Darkroom in my Jeep – Part 1

I hope everyone out there had a good Thanksgiving. Now that the holiday is over, let’s get back to the photography stuff.

Before the break, I’d tried out Rockland Colloid’s AG-Plus to take  a shot at dry-plate tintype photography. When I had a complete lack of results, I emailed Rockland to find out what I’d done wrong. It turns out that, according to the emails I received in return, I was supposed to use their “special” developer to make the tintype come out. This is something that was not explicitly stated in their instructions and was not stated on their website. I still have a little of the AG-Plus left, so I’ll try it with some ferrous sulfate developer (used for wet plate) developer to see what happens.

Regardless, I’ve started looking for an alternative method for taking my tintype photography on the road. My current project is that of building a darkroom that can be quickly assembled in the back of my Jeep. Assuming that works, I can perform all of the wet-plate processes in that little darkroom, thus allowing me to take wet-plate tintypes away from my house’s darkroom.

So far, I’ve acquired five 42″ x 84″ blackout curtain panels, four of which I’ve sewn into a long tubular square. The fifth panel, I cut into a square to seal off one end. One of the good things about the blackout panels is that they are also made to insulate, a characteristic that will come in handy as the Colorado days get colder.

Four blackout curtains sewn into a square
Four blackout curtains sewn into a square

I did all of my sewing with my old White sewing machine that is on the last legs of it’s life journey. That is the same sewing machine that I once used to modify uniforms for deploying in the early part of the GWOT. The machine’s been very reliable, seeing a lot of hard times and earning me a lot of beers and booze from grateful Soldiers for whom I also modified uniforms.

Some of the last stitches the White sewing machine will ever make
Some of the last stitches the White sewing machine will ever make

After sewing the panels together, I found some shortcomings in the machine’s capabilities in trying to sew all the thick layers of the corners. So I now have a new, heavy-duty machine on order. Once it arrives, I’ll finish off the corners and sew on the straps that will suspend the rig from the Jeep’s roll bars.

Many thick layers make up a corner
Many thick layers make up a corner
Straps and buckles to suspend the tent in the Jeep
Straps and buckles to suspend the tent in the Jeep

One problem that I’m running into is that the blackout curtains don’t completely black out ALL of the light. A very little bit gets through, and that is still enough to spoil light-sensitive plates. So I need to come up with a plan for that. I may try putting a black bed sheet layer over the outside and see if that does the trick.

After I have the tent built, I’ll need to make a table that will fit in the tent while being big enough to fit two 8″ x 10″ developing trays. I have some MDF set aside to build it from.

Once the table is built, the last thing I’ll need is a carrier for the chemical solutions used for wet-plate process so the bottles and other containers can be safe while the Jeep in which they ride bounces around off road.

The final thing I’ll need is a light with which to illuminate the darkroom. Wet-plate collodion is blue-light sensitive, so red light is used for the illumination. For this, I have a headlamp with red LEDs that will serve the purpose nicely (I am an old Army guy, after all).

So there is the current status of the next phase of my tintype adventure.  I’ll continue to update as the project progresses. And when the time comes to take it on the road, I’ll make sure that you’re kept well informed in the blog.

Three cool analog photography videos

On the videos site Vimeo, I recently ran across some very cool films produced by a fellow named Matt Mangham. Mr. Mangham has created and shared three videos in a series he calls “Analog” in which he showcases film photographers.

In these videos, the photographers talk about their reasons and techniques for shooting film. I found that the photographers were really soulful in their reasons and in their desire to share the experience.

I highly recommend these films. And if you’re interested in them, you can find them in my Non-Digital Photographers channel on the Vimeo site.

My First Try (and Failure) with Dry-Plate Tintype

Up until today, all of my tintype efforts have been done using a technique called “wet-plate”. In this method, a metal sheet covered in black paint or enamel is coated with a mixture of a collodion solution and bathed in silver nitrate and is then exposed in a camera and put into the developing chemicals while still wet. Because the chemicals on the plate must not dry out through the exposure and on into the developer, the wet-plate photographer must have a darkroom in close proximity to the camera at all times. So hiking, road trips, or unpredictable situations are all very difficult at best.

But another tintype technique exists called “dry-plate”. In this technique, the emulsion is contained in a milky substance that is allowed to dry to a rubbery finish on the plate. That plate can then be loaded in a plate carrier and left for later use. With dry-plates, tintype photographers can get far away in distance and time from the darkroom to get shots not otherwise achievable. Another difference with the dry-plate tintypes is that, unlike wet-plates, dry-plates are developed in standard film photography chemicals.

So last night I coated some plates in dry-plate emulsion and left them to sit overnight. The emulsion is called AG-Plus and is made by Rockland Colloid.

One of the first things I noticed with the AG-Plus is that, with even the slightest agitation of the bottle, bubbles form in the emulsion that become holes on the plate when the emulsion is applied. This can be a problem because the bottle has to be warmed in hot water before application. Just the motion from the bobbing of the bottle in the hot water made the bubbles.

Another thing that I noticed right off the bat is that the dry-plate emulsion does not apply as easily as collodion for wet-plate. For wet-plate, I pour a quantity of collodion onto the plate, roll it around until the plate is completely coated, and pour the excess back into the bottle it came from. The collodion has a tendency to grab at the edges and not spill off the sides. This cannot be said for AG-Plus which just launches off the edges, leading to a bunch of waste. In the instructions, the user is told to spread it with a finger. I tried this and it created finger-width lines throughout the emulsion on the plate.

But, I wanted to try out the AG-Plus, so I left it to dry onto the plate for next-day use.

After breakfast this morning, I loaded the AG-Plus-coated plates into a plate carrier, loaded the Jeep, and headed out to the outskirts of the nearby Lost Creek Wilderness. I took my Jeep to a nice hilltop that looked across a valley to the wilderness area and set up my Burke & James camera. It was a clear and beautiful morning and the views were outstanding. Here are some pictures of my camera on the site.



I shot two tintypes, one exposed for ISO 1 and another for ISO 0.75. I enjoyed a little more quiet time there with coffee, and then I packed up and returned home.

As per the instructions, I poured out paper developer, hardening fixer, and water into separate trays. Then I began the developing process.

Both plates came out completely black.

I couldn’t imagine that I’d completely underexposed both shots, and I knew that I’d used my developing chemicals exactly as described in the instructions.

I gave the plates a close look to see if I could find any hint of my image. I discovered that, after developing, the emulsion became a gelatin-like layer that could be carefully peeled off the plate. In the peeled layer, I found the image. Apparently, unlike wet-plate tintype where the image turns light-colored on a black plate, my dry-plate image had turned black. So I should have used a white plate. Luckily, the plates I use are black on one side and white on the other. So after I discovered my mistake, I reapplied the emulsion to the white side of the two plates, and they’re drying as I type this.

Given that both wet and dry plate tintypes use silver halide to create the image, using a white plate instead of black seems counterintuitive to me. So I’ve written the Rockland Colloid folks to ask if I’m all screwed up.

So attempt #2 will take place tomorrow morning. Hopefully I’ll meet with more success.

Experimenting with Tilt Focusing

One of the very handy things about view camera photography that isn’t possible with your typical DSLR (unless you buy a special and expensive lens) is the ability to tilt and shift the lens to adapt to different focusing circumstances.

Many photographers have experimented with simulating tilt-shift through Photoshop to make distant objects appear as small toys. It’s a cool effect which I’ve played with, myself.

But in large format photography (or with a tilt-shift lens on a DLSR / 35mm camera), the tilting and shifting can be used to change the image plane (the part of your composed view where the focus is the sharpest).

Guitar Tintype sm

In the picture above of my guitar leaned against a stool with a hat and jacket hanging off the stool’s back rest, the guitar was leaning back, with the body of the guitar closer to the camera than the head with the “Taylor” emblem. In normal photography with the image plane being straight up and down, parallel to the sensor, either the body of the camera would be in focus with the head blurry, or the vice versa.

But since I wanted the whole guitar to be clearly focused on, I gave the front standard a slight tilt, effectively tilting the image plane at the same time.

Simulated side view of my large format camera with front standard tilted
Simulated side view of my large format camera with front standard tilted

Positioning the camera like this not only brought more of the guitar into focus, but it also brought the back of the stool, the jacket, and the hat into better focus since the image plane was now leaning back towards them.

This is actually only a small demonstration of the principle. The body of the guitar was not very far forward of the head. Here is a video by Fred Newman, owner of The View Camera Store in Fountain Hills, AZ. At 4:14, Mr. Newman goes through the process of bringing his entire back yard into focus.

I only worked with tilt, today. But the camera has many more movement possibilities. If you watched Mr. Newman’s video, you know more about them. At a later time in a more appropriate setting, I’ll try those out.

Metering Indoor Lighting for My Tintypes

I wanted to take the 0.25 ISO value I figured out yesterday and apply it to indoor photography to see if it would work. I set up a little table display and set up my camera with the 19.75 Inch lens. Then began the picture-taking process. After a little problem solving, this is shot what I was able to come up with.

Tintype shot using ISO 0.25, 85 second shutter speed, and aperture of f10
Tintype shot using ISO 0.25, 85 second shutter speed, and aperture of f10

This time when I solved for “x”, the unknown value was the shutter speed. After taking a lighting measurement at ISO 200 and using my iPhone app to convert for ISO 0.25, I came up with a time value of 85 seconds for an aperture of f10

The first exposure I shot came out surprisingly dark. So I increased the mount of light and shot again. The difference was not appreciable. Scratching my head, I called up internet searches on why this might be.

It turns out that wet-plate collodion emulsion requires light in the blue to ultraviolet range. I had originally set up with incandescent bulbs, which cast a orangish light. So I swapped out the incandescent lights for fluorescents. And the first shot after I’d done so was the one you see above. Success!

So the deal is this: The 0.25 ISO works great when blue-to-UV light is available. If the light is warm (orange or reddish), everything comes out dark.

Figuring out my tintype ISO

Today, I set out with the intent of figuring out my working ISO that I can employ while working in tintype photography. I wanted this information because I could program it into an app on my iPhone to figure out more accurate exposure times. Now I know that tintype isn’t always the most exact science, and that working ISO may not work every time. But it will get me much more in the ball park than the guesses that I have been making.

For today’s exercise, I used the 240mm f9 lens on my Burke & James 8×10 field camera. I also used my Gossen Pilot light meter to measure the reflected light and get my reference readings.

I started a little before the middle of the day so I could have consistent light throughout the experiment. The sun remained high, and my exposure readings remained consistent.

I used the aperture of f9 throughout the experiment to keep my findings manageable. Because I live in the woods, my scene had patches of light and shade. I concentrated on the shaded areas for my observations.

For my first shot, I used an exposure time of 30 seconds. This exposure yielded a scene that was overexposed and washed out. Here is the plate after just finishing its fixer bath.

30 second exposure

Since the scene was somewhat washed out, I reduced the exposure time to 20 seconds. The results were much better (notice the increased contrast in the trees), but still overexposed.

20 second exposure
20 second exposure

So I reduced my exposure time to 10 seconds. I was really happy with the results this gave me. It’s still slightly overexposed, but it’s close enough to work with. I decided that I’d do my math with an exposure time of 8 instead of 10.

10 second exposure
10 second exposure

I then used my Gossen Pilot light meter to measure what the exposure would be at ISO 200. It turns out that, at that ISO, I would use an aperture of f4 and a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second.

So here is the math: if a 1/500 second shutter speed and f4 aperture equals an ISO of 200, then an 8 second shutter speed and f9 aperture equals an ISO of “x”. Now I have to solve for x.

Did I do the math on paper and in my head? Heck no! I’m not that talented. I used an iPhone app where I could plug in all the numbers I had and it would spit out an ISO value. It turns out that the ISO value for my wet plate emulsion is a value of 0.25.

So now I have a working number to be a starting point as I work out my exposure values during different lighting situations. I don’t have a light meter that will give me readings for ISO 0.25 (I’m not sure one actually exists). But I can take a light reading at any normal ISO and plug it into that iPhone app, converting for ISO 0.25.

Anyway, here is the final plate from the experiment after the plate dried and the varnish was applied.

Shot at ISO 0.25, f9, 1/500 sec
Shot at ISO 0.25, f9, 1/500 sec

The Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD

Today, I got my hands on Tamron’s newest macro lens, a great 90mm deal. Let’s start with the lens’s name and what it means. The full name is the SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD.

Photo from
Photo from

“SP” indicates that the lens is from Tamron’s high-performance line. “90mm”, obviously, indicates the focal length. “f/2.8” is the largest aperture available from the lens, though the aperture becomes relatively smaller as the user focuses into the macro range. Tamron makes “Di” lenses to fit full-frame (FX for Nikon) and 35mm film cameras. “Macro 1:1” means that the lens is capable of extreme close up photography, much more than possible with a normal lens. “VC” stands for vibration compensation, Tamron’s image stabilization system. And “USD” means the lens employs Tamron’s Ultrasonic Silent Drive.

The lens comes with an easily attached and removed lens hood. It accepts a fairly commonly-sized 50mm filter thread. And at the bayonet mount, the lens has a rubberized weather-proofing ring that seems as effective as any found on Nikon-branded lenses.

I have a lot of familiarity with Nikon’s 60mm macro lens, but the extra standoff that this 90mm allows is noticeable and handy when looking for a place to set up.

The Ultrasonic Silent Drive is indeed very quiet and really quick as it goes through its autofocus duties. USD works outstandingly for normal photography, quickly and quietly finding and resolving the desired image. A quick click of a switch drops it into Manual Focus mode. I actually prefer to use manual while focusing in the macro range, and the huge, rubberized focus ring is easy to find and manipulate to zero into the desired closeup.

While maybe not the creamiest bokeh I’ve ever seen in a lens, it is pleasant enough. In extreme macro, the bokeh does roughen up a little. But it still looks pretty nice.

Color rendition in the lens is quite rich and sharp. An image from this lens onto a D800 sensor gives images that are very useable and manipulatable in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

After playing with the lens for a few hours, these are my observations and opinions of it. I’m glad to have it in my hands.

A Self Portrait Tintype

Tintype self portrait
Tintype self portrait

I figured that tintype number three should be a self portrait. I’d convinced my sister to get a picture taken, and if I expect someone else to make the sacrifice, I should be ready to do so myself.

This shot was taken with a two-minute exposure on my Burke & James 8×10″ camera. I used my 240mm f9 lens (set to f9) and a 12″ plunger-type mechanical cable shutter release. I still had to lean forward to activate the shutter and then close it again. But I figured that I’d be okay with such a long exposure time.

To keep time, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone and set it on the camera’s platform under the lens. Then I could quickly flick my eyes down to look at the countdown. Again, the long exposure time allowed me to do this without it being picked up in the picture. Same goes for blinking.

I’m sitting on a chair in this picture. To compose and get focus, I stood a guitar case covered in stickers on the chair. I figured out which sticker on the case was equivalent to about eye level if I were sitting there, and I used that for composure and focus. Then out came the case and in went me.

Everything else in the process was about the same as anything else I’ve done.

My Second Tintype and New Lessons

My second tintype - a portrait of my sister
My second tintype – a portrait of my sister

So here is my second tintype. I conned my sister into coming over and sitting in the studio lights for me to take a portrait of her.

I learned my lesson on the application of the varnish from my previous tintype (the one of the pocket watch). I pre-heated the varnish before applying it to the plate and was more even handed in getting good coverage.

I was also more even handed in the application of the collodion (the first step in the process). It’s still not perfect and I have some work to do no that one.

But the problems start with my composition. I wasn’t paying attention, and after I focused I inadvertently tilted the camera slightly up when I was putting the wet plate holder in place. So instead of having a normal, passport-style portrait, I have my sister’s head smack in the middle of the frame. Next time, I’ll make doubly sure to really tighten down the tripod’s vertical movement.

The next problem is the bit of motion blur. I didn’t realize that the hard wood floor the camera was sitting on had a bit of give in it. So as I was walking around the camera, it was rocking back and forth. And with a 2-minute exposure time, that gave plenty of time for blur to occur.

The lighting setup I used gave my sister crazy-looking eyes. I need to figure out how I want to adjust that.

And the last thing is that I’m not sure I got the exposure right. But looking at it, I’m not sure if I’ve overexposed or underexposed. However, without the motion blur, I may be able to get a better idea of how I want to adjust.

So that’s about it for tintype attempt #2. More lessons have presented themselves to me. Same as my previous tintype, as I’m just starting to learn, I’m pleased with the result I’ve achieved on this one.

Creation of My First Tintype

Here it is! My first tintype from the setup that I’ve been building. It was taken onto an 8×10″ plate set into my Burke & James large format camera. I used a 240mm lens set to f9.

Tintype taken of a WWII-era pocket watch.
Tintype taken of a WWII-era pocket watch.

This is the result of tweaks made over six previous failed attempts. I dealt with chemistry problems, exposure time issues, bad plates, and light leaks in the camera. I even got one that looked a lot like this but had the emulsion over-dry and flake off, thus self-destroying.

On this one, I discovered that I have a lot to learn on applying the varnish. Leaving it on too long without applying heat to dry it led to the chewed up emulsion near the top. And you can’t really see it in this picture, but the varnish layer is very uneven.

But, given that this is my first success, I was really excited when it was done.