Sodium Thiosulfate Fixer

I haven’t shot any tintypes for a while, so I mixed up some photography chemicals and had at it. I experimented with a red light headlamp in the darkroom and think that it led to the washed out spot in the middle of the plate. Also, I’m a little rusty on lighting. So I’ll have a little adjustment to do for the next tintype.
Guitar and Bar Table
I did, however, meet with success on my first use of homemade fixer.
Since I have no interest in screwing around with cyanide, I’m using the much safer sodium thiosulfate. Sodium thiosulfate has many uses in the medical community and can even be used as a substitute for cyanide in gold extraction. For me, it turns out to be great for fixing tintype images when mixed with distilled water. I use the pentahydrate form in which the sodium thiosulfate is bonded to water molecules and comes in crystalline form. 
Sodium Thiosulfate
Sodium Thiosulfate Pentahydrate
The mix ratio to make the fixer (sometimes called “hypo” fixer) is 1 gram of sodium thiosulfate pentahydrate to 5 milliliters of distilled water. I usually mix 100 grams of the chemical to 500 ml of water. And since 10 lbs of sodium thiosulfate pentahydrate can be purchased for less than $25 online, it is a considerable savings over the pre-mixed stuff (about $20 for a liter of pre-mixed versus about $1.10 to mix a liter at home).
So with a low use price, ease of mixing, and great results, my pre-mixed tintype fixer days are over.

Mixing My Own Iron Sulfate Developer

The ingredients for the developer, except for distilled water
The ingredients for the developer, except for distilled water

Here’s a little something for someone who is either looking for a formula to mix their own tintype developer or is curious about the processes I use in making tintypes. Throughout this post, I’ll use the terms “iron sulfate” and “ferrous sulfate” interchangeably. Ferrous is the scientific term for iron, hence the abbreviation on the periodic table of “Fe”.

Let me stat out with a quick word about safety. Mixing this developer requires use of denatured alcohol, iron sulfate (FeSO4), and glacial acetic acid. Denatured alcohol is ethanol made poisonous with additives that cannot be removed. Iron sulfate is used in the treatment of iron-deficiency anemia, but should NEVER BE USED IN OR ON YOUR BODY without expressed advice from a medical physician. Glacial acetic acid is a HAZMAT Class 8 corrosive that will corrode to skin, eyes, and lungs. When mixing this developer, I highly recommend rubber or nitrile gloves, eye protection, long sleeves, and a respirator equipped with an organic vapor filter. Also, conduct your work in a well-ventilated space.

Important safety gear to use during this procedure

I prefer to do most of my work using glass containers. I’m concerned that plastic containers and tools will absorb chemicals, reintroducing them into other mixtures where they do not belong. The glass pieces I use are a 1000ml glass beaker, a glass funnel with a 3.5-inch opening, a 50ml glass measuring beaker, a 150ml glass measuring beaker, a glass stirring rod, and a 1000ml glass bottle. The non-glass items I use are a metal 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon (the measure is irrelevant – it just happens to be the size that fits in the ferrous sulfate bottle to draw the powder out) and a small scale with a metal weighing surface.

The complete list of ingredients that I use for making the developer are: 500ml distilled water, 20g ferrous sulfate, 20ml denatured alcohol, and 15ml glacial acetic acid.

A quick note on ferrous sulfate: If you look up ferrous sulfate on Amazon in the Industrial & Scientific category, you’ll come across ferrous sulfate (FeSO4) and ferrous sulfate heptahydrate (FeSO4*7H2O). I have no idea if the heptahydrate variety can be used as I’ve never tried it. Also, you may come across ferric sulfate with the formula Fe2(SO4)3. Ferric sulfate is not ferrous sulfate, so don’t use it.  I always go with the FeSO4 with a purity level of at least 99%.

Okay. Let’s begin.

After dressing up in all of my protective gear, I look like a post-apocalyptic surgeon who is ready to operate on a biohazard-filled zombie. That’s when I know I’m ready to start.

I start by pouring 500ml of DISTILLED water into my 1000ml beaker. Distilled water contains a minimum of foreign particles and allows for the most effective developer possible.

500 milliliters of distilled water
500 milliliters of distilled water

Next, I turn on my scale, place the small measuring beaker on it, and zero it out. I use this setup to measure out 20 grams of ferrous sulfate powder. I pour the powder into the 500ml of distilled water and mix with the glass stirring rod until the powder has dissolved.

Ready to measure the ferrous sulfate

Then I measure out 20ml of denatured alcohol, add it to the solution, and give it a quick mix with the glass rod.

Measuring denatured alcohol

The final ingredient is the glacial acetic acid. I measure 15ml into the mid-sized beaker (I use this one because it is the only one I have with a 15ml marking) and add it into the solution. I then give the whole concoction a good mixing.

Use caution with the glacial acetic acid - it is corrosive
Use caution with the glacial acetic acid – it is corrosive

In the final step, I filter the solution through the glass funnel into the glass bottle. I use Pec Pads as my filters because they are lint free and won’t introduce foreign matter into the solution.  On a label on the bottle, I write the date I mixed up the current batch. Fresh developer is greenish in color and becomes progressively browner as the iron oxidizes. I’ve used developer almost two weeks old and had passable results, but I really don’t like to use it over a week old.

Ready to filter into the bottle for storage
The date of creation written on the label
The date of creation written on the label

And that’s about it. If you follow the steps I outlined, you’ll have just a bit over 500ml of developer ready to bring out your wet-plate images.

The Mobile Darkroom Works!

The light was good today, but the wind was whipping up. I wanted to get out and try out the newly modified Jeep-mounted darkroom. I was concerned that the wind would blow around the material of the darkroom, but my impatience got the best of me.

So I packed the Jeep to be ready to be headed west on U.S. Highway 24. The chemicals (developer, fixer, collodion, and silver nitrate solution) went into an old bicycle messenger bag along with some nitrile gloves, paper towels, eye protection, red-light headlamp, plate holder, and metal plates. The bag, along with a couple of jugs of distilled water and a waste chemical container, went into the footwell of the passenger seat. On the passenger seat itself went the dark cloth, the apron (I’ll talk about that in a bit), and the Burke and James field camera.  Into the back of the Jeep went the fabric jumble that makes up the darkroom, the tripod for the B&J camera, the low wooden table, and the chemical trays.

Then I was off! Heading west on U.S. 24, I passed over Wilkerson Pass. Then I made a right turn and explored until I found a high spot in the high plains. Then I unpacked and set up the camera and put together the darkroom.

The darkroom set up in the back of the Jeep
The darkroom set up in the back of the Jeep

The 240mm lens was already mounted on the camera. I removed it and put the 19.75in lens in its place. Then I composed my shot.

The camera pointing west in the plains near Wilkerson Pass
The camera pointing west in the plains near Wilkerson Pass

I took three total pictures. With the first two, I was experimenting with exposure, and the results aren’t worth sharing. With the third one, I made some mistakes pouring the collodion and accidentally exposed the plate to white light while putting it into the silver bath. But it still came out enough that I could share it.

Plains Tintype
The first successful tintype from my Jeep’s darkroom

Two major changes were made to the darkroom to get it to work. First, the light-proof panel to my back let a little light in. So I sewed another panel on top of it. That solved it. Next, I had light coming in where the entrance was tightened around my body. So I made a short apron that I tied around my waist. Once I tightened the entrance, I draped the apron over it and covered the light leaks.

The wind outside did play a little mischief with the darkroom. It created pressure in the Jeep that made the darkroom push in on itself a bit. It got in the way a little from time to time, leading to (among other things) the collodion-pouring problems that I had.

But in the end, I’m VERY happy with how the darkroom turned out. My experiment worked great, and I’m really looking forward to using it in the near future.

Building a Darkroom in my Jeep – Part 2

Jeep-back darkroom with working table and two trays
Jeep-back darkroom with working table and two trays

So here is the Jeep darkroom set up with my working table, a tray for developing, and a tray for washing. Assuming everything works as I hope it will, this little area will be used for making tintypes while on the road. It has been designed to be set up and taken down within a matter of minutes of arrival to a photographic destination.

Here is how I finished it off from the last blog post:

I knew I needed a working table. With all of the mounts bolted into the floor of the Jeep’s bed, I needed create a flat surface that was lifted above them.

I actually don't know what these are for
I actually don’t know what these are for
Female seatbelt buckle ends
Female seatbelt buckle ends
Rear seat mounts in the Jeep bed
Rear seat mounts in the Jeep bed

So I glued up a table sized to clear or fit around these obstacles while still fitting two trays.

Working table clears seatbelt buckles and mount
Working table clears seatbelt buckles and mount
Working table with two trays
Working table with two trays

While the glue on the working table was drying, I got to work at finishing off the sewing of the seams and retaining clips. Once the sewing was done, I went ahead and went for a trial fitting inside the Jeep.

First, I snapped the forward clips into place on the side roll bars just forward of the overhead lateral roll bar. Then I tightened down the clips via the clip-straps’ free running ends.

Clip set forward of the central lateral roll bar
Clip set forward of the central lateral roll bar
Both forward clips in place
Both forward clips in place

Then I moved to the back and snapped the rear clips. They are mounted at the elbows at the rear of the side roll bars.

Clip at the elbow at the rear of a side roll bar
Clip at the elbow at the rear of a side roll bar

With that done, the darkroom structure was fully assembled.

Darkroom mounted in the Jeep
Darkroom mounted in the Jeep

The idea is that I stand at the back of the Jeep, pull the free part of the darkroom over my head and torso, and cinch it down with a drawstring. With some careful positioning, all of the light is blocked out. But a little movement can compromise the light-tight seal and allow a little light in. I’m still considering my solution for that.

Ready to work in the darkroom
Ready to work in the darkroom

Of course, I will need a red lighting source. I couldn’t find my Petzel Tikka headlamp (it’s probably buried in my Army stuff somewhere), so I picked up an inexpensive headlamp with red light for a replacement.

So there it is. But I’m not done, yet. I still need to come up with a way to safely transport glass containers of the chemical solutions. If I do it right, the transport method will fit inside the darkroom with the table. A fair amount of room remains to make that happen, and figuring it out is my next step.

Jeep-back darkroom with working table and two trays
Jeep-back darkroom with working table and two trays

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