With the approach that I outline in this article, you can test out the process and explore it, before committing to a larger investment and seeking methods for improvement.
I love just about every aspect of the darkroom and traditional photography. As with many other subjects, there are layers upon layers that you can explore, or you can skim along the surface.
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Dry plates are one of those topics that are a layer below the surface and I think most photographers will enjoy and at least try it out. What could be better than making your own negatives?
If you want a vintage look in your work then dry plate glass negatives may be a good alternative for you to explore. Depending on your creative vision you can create very high-quality negatives using the dry plate process on glass or you can go for an older vintage look that you can only get from the historic processes. You can scan them in or contact print them in the darkroom, or put them in your enlarger and make prints too. Dry plates can do anything that modern films can do, except they just look better!
For beginners, I would suggest starting with a pre-made emulsion such as Liquid Light or AG-Plus because you have a number of other challenges you need to master first. After you are consistently producing high-quality dry plate negatives you may want to pursue making your own emulsion from scratch, but I will tell you it is not easy and it is very time-consuming.
If you want to start with the pre-made emulsion I would suggest using AG-Plus for your in-camera negatives. This is my preference, so I thought I would pass it along to you. If you decide to make your own emulsion from scratch, then you will advance from the "dry plate for babies" class and be on your way.
Overview of the Process
My goal is to provide readers with a clear set of notes to help save you valuable time and money by giving you a good starting place based on experience. You don’t have to do things the way I do because there are no rules and a million ways to get to the same end goal. I openly share my approach and feel free to modify at will. I encourage you to explore alternatives once you are able to produce a consistent negative that meets your creative vision.
There are two very important variables that have the most impact on the quality of the negative. The first is the ability to get the pre-made emulsion to stick to the glass plate in a high quality and reliable way and the other is the coating of the emulsion itself makes a huge impact on your final image. While exposure and development are clearly important, they will be a waste of your time if you can’t get your emulsion to stick to your glass. Some of the same techniques are used wet plate, so if you have experience with collodion then dry plate will be a short jump for you.
There are several opportunities to refine the process that I outline below. If you want to pursue making your own emulsion and exploring dry plates more seriously, then these shortcomings will be obvious.
Subbing the Glass Plate in Open Light
Recipe for 12 4×5 plates/6 5×7 plates/4 8×10 plates (leftover mix can be refrigerated for 2 days max)
Sensitizing the Plate (Red Safe Light)
I decant my 8 oz bottle of AG-Plus into 35mm canisters. They hold 30ml max. I use about 20 to 22ml (~2ml of Photoflo and 18/20ml of AG-Plus). Approximately ¾ of a canister will pour 3 to 4 plates depending on how thick your pour your plates. I go for thin and even. An 8 oz bottle will fill about 12 canisters for a total of approximately 36 to 48 4×5 plates.
Prepare Emulsion in Safe Light Conditions
Pour the Emulsion
Drying & Storage
After the plate is ready, place it flat in a light-proof dry storage box for a minimum of 24 hours before use. The longer before using the more contrast and higher the ISO will “likely” be. If possible I aim for 48 hours to expose after pouring
Ensure drying box has ventilation and I put silica gel packages in the box for faster results. If you are not using silica gels than you can change plates into a fresh set of boxes after 12 hrs if you can because the box soaks up the moisture.
Newly prepared plates can be stored in light-tight bag/box with interleaving paper between the plates for up to a week or so until you load them into your plate holders for exposure.
Contrast and Speed of Emulsion
The contrast and speed of AG-Plus can be increased.
Mix 15cc’s (1 tablespoon) of Working Dektol (1+2) to 150cc (5 oz) of Ag-Plus.
Effectively 1 part working Dektol to 10 parts of AG-Plus.
We are all on our own when it comes to dialing in the proper exposure because too many variables are involved and it must be based on your own requirements. However, there are some general guidelines that you can use to get started.
Assume an ISO of 1 as a place to start testing. Expose for the ground because the sky is always going to be blown out unless you are really lucky, or really good! If you think you are going to get detailed puffy clouds most of the time then you can stop reading now and go buy some sheet film. Depending on a number of variables (emulsion, UV light, temperature, etc) your actual ISO could range anywhere from 1/2 to 1 when using AG-Plus. If you move on to making your own emulsion you will have to start from scratch.
For outdoor exposures use the Sunny 16 Rule. ISO is assumed to be 1 so it would be 1 sec at f/16 for a sunny day. Keep in mind that if you want to control your aperture for creative purposes then just use normal light principles for all of the photography (each f/stop equals 1 stop of light. Bigger apertures, meaning smaller numbers let more light in and you would half your time for each stop. If you want more depth of field and a smaller aperture (bigger numbers) then you would need to double your time for each stop).
For illustration purposes assume you were going to use f/16 at 1 second on a bright sunny day but wanted more depth of field so you were going to use f/22. That is a smaller aperture and so you will need more light for proper exposures. Since it is one-stop you would just double your base exposure time of 1 second to 2 seconds for f/22. If you wanted to go to f/32 that would be two stops and you would need to double again or multiply the base times 4 for a total exposure time of 4 seconds. If you are shooting large format then you may need to compensate for bellows draw as you normally wood no matter the medium.
Sunny 16 General Guidelines
Development & Processing
Go make a print or enlargement and have fun!
I hope this information was helpful to you and if you start making dry plate negatives send me a note and let me know how you are doing.
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