Perfectly Imperfect - Silver Gelatin Dry Plates

October 08, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Silver Gelatin contact print from a glass dry plate negative.Silver Gelatin contact print from a glass dry plate negative. In our modern and seemingly perfect world, I think it is refreshing to craft images from raw materials.  I am talking about making handmade artisan fine art prints from 8x10 silver gelatin dry plates. 

I make large format silver chloride contact prints as well as silver gelatin 40x50 and larger gallery prints of my botanical subjects. 

In our digital world and era of instant gratification, I thought it would be fun to share the high-level steps of what is required to create a darkroom print from a silver gelatin dry plate glass negative.

Before I share the high-level steps of creating a handmade silver gelatin emulsion, here is a little background in case you are not familiar with silver gelatin emulsions.  


It all starts by deciding the type of emulsion I want to create in my darkroom/mini laboratory.  In the 1870s, the first silver gelatin emulsions were effectively color blind. 

These emulsions are sensitive to the blue-violet color spectrum and UV light.  The print that you see in this article is from a color-blind (ordinary) silver gelatin emulsion.  The flower is a deep violet color in real life.  

Large Format Silver Gelatin Dryplate Photography by Tim LaytonLarge Format Silver Gelatin Dryplate Photography by Tim Layton I used my knowledge of the colorblind emulsion in order to create the contrast for this print.  The flower stands out against the dark background and that is exactly what I wanted.  

You need a halide (i.e., chloride, bromide, iodide) along with a salt (e.g., potassium, sodium, ammonium) coupled with silver nitrate to make a light-sensitive emulsion.  If it weren't for gelatin, none of this would work.  The emulsion (halide+salt+silver nitrate) is suspended in the gelatin and then poured and set on a glass plate that ultimately performs as light-capturing crystals to produce our images.  


With over 100 years of photo-chemistry at my fingertips, I am fascinated to learn and apply the knowledge of the photographers and chemists that came before me in a new and innovative way to make brand new art that looks like it was made in the 1870s.  

After the ordinary emulsion, orthochromatic emulsions were discovered and opened up new tonality that didn't exist before.  Orthochromatic emulsions are sensitive to UV, blue, and green light.  The increased sensitivity causes blues to be appear lighter and reds darker. 

They didn't know at that time they still didn't have it right and therefore the panchromatic emulsions that we enjoy today as modern black and white film photographers were ultimately created.  Panchromatic emulsions allow a realistic reproduction of a scene as it appears to the human eye.  

In short, I have the entire history of silver gelatin emulsions available to me.  The news gets even better!  It doesn't stop with negative emulsions to be used in the camera for negatives, but I can make my own paper as well!  

I favor silver-chloride emulsions for my large format fine art contact prints.  You may be familiar with the vintage Kodak AZO paper.  This was a silver-chloride paper that is known for its slow speed and incredible tonal range.  I have a very special approach that I use for my prints that uses Amidol and gold toning.


Here are the high levels steps that I go through to create my perfectly imperfect fine art prints from dry plate negatives.  The entire process from making my emulsion to hand coating my glass plate negatives and exposing them to developing to making the fine art print could take about a week for a single print. 

When comparing this slow and methodical process to modern digital photography, it is a stark difference to work an entire week to create a single print versus being able to take thousands of exposures in a day with modern digital cameras.  I am not advocating that one is better than the other, I create artist original work on my own terms and in a way that I love.  

I consider the overall look and aesthetic that I want to bring forward with the story I am trying to share.  I tend to work in projects because it allows me to deeply explore my subjects.  

I then head to the darkroom and create the type of emulsion that I think is the best fit for my project.  Sometimes I don't get it right on the first try and I end up making another variant (recipe). 

Here are the high-level steps that I go through to create my handmade emulsions:

  • Dissolve the gelatin in warm distilled water.
  • Dissolve potassium bromide and potassium iodide to the gelatin solution and stir until dissolved and as appropriate add spectral sensitizers that shape the emulsion as desired for contrast, speed, tonal range, and light spectrum.  
  • I heat the mixture in a water bath before turning out the lights.  
  • Next, I make a solution of silver nitrate in distilled water.
  • I then combine the silver nitrate and gelatin solutions slowly (precipitation). By controlling the rate of silver nitrate, I impact the characteristics of my emulsion.
  • I then allow the mixture to ripen while maintaining a constant temperature of 55c before allowing it to cool.  The ripening stage allows the silver grains to grow.  
  • I add in some additional gelatin that I have pre-soaked.  This is known as emulsification.  I allow the emulsion to cool and then strain through jelly mesh with cold ice water.
  • I shred the emulsion through a ricer that makes "noodles" which removes the unwanted silver salts. 
  • I go through a washing process with distilled water to leach out unwanted halides before decanting the emulsion to a light-tight container and placing it in the refrigerator. 
  • After the chilling period. I melt and ripen the new emulsion by heating it to 55C and allowing it to slowly cool which increases the speed. 
  • I always coat my glass plates when I make my emulsion, so I proceed to that part of the process.  
  • There are a number of steps that are required to cut, deburr, and prepare the glass plates to successfully hold the emulsion once it is poured and ultimately dry and set up on the plate.  I custom built a drying box with a ventilation system to cure and set my plates.  After the new plates are cured after 24 hours, I place them in my paper safe and proceed to the next phase of my process which includes exposure and development of each plate.  A typical EI rating of my plates are in the 1 to 6 range most of the time. 
  • I use vintage 19th and early 20th century glass to round out my vintage look and feel for my botanical prints. 

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