Wet Collodion Process
Gustave le Gray, RJ
Bingham and Frederick Scott Archer each considered creating a
photographic plate by coating glass with collodion.
was Archer (1813-1857), after discovering the process in 1848, who published an
account of it in 1851, and is generally credited with the
[Charles A Long]
An article entitled
The Early History of the Wet Collodion Process appeared in The
British Journal of Photography, on 8 Jan 1875
includes reference to a paper by Archer published in The Chemist,
March 1851. Further letters and
articles on the 'Archer v. Bingham' controversy appeared in the BJP
Frederick Scott Archer
Seán MacKenna who lives and works in London is a
practicing wet collodion photographer. He describes himself as 'also poet and tragedian'.
has constructed a
series of web pages to honour the memory of
Frederick Scott Archer, including:
- the complete text of Archer's first
publication in 'The Chemist, 1851'
- Archer's complete manual published
in 1854, 'The Collodion Process on Glass'
web pages and links from these pages also
- a photograph of Frederick Scott Archer.
- an interesting short biography of Frederick Scott
- a photograph
of Archer's unmarked grave.
- an example of Archer's photography,
- a modern photograph of the same location,
- examples of Seán MacKenna's collodion photography.
- details of cameras used by
Seán for his collodion work.
- a link to a collodion forum web site.
Gun Cotton and Ether
is a solution of gun cotton (nitrocellulose) in ethyl alcohol and ethyl
There are instances of
explosions having occurred in wet collodion darkrooms, as a result of
using open flames in a dense ether atmosphere.
use of Wet Collodion
wet collodion process was not patented, and so made photography more
In fact, Talbot
claimed that this process, like the Calotype process was covered by his
own patent, but this claim was not upheld.
wet collodion process continued to be widely used until dry
plates became widely available in the 1880s.
travelling photographers chose to use lighter, though less sensitive,
paper negatives rather than glass. [CM]
allowed the process to be used free of copyright
made no wealth from his discovery.
He received little
recognition in his lifetime for his discovery, and attempts amongst
photographers to obtain a pension for him in his ill health were
He died in poverty at the age of 44, six
years after publishing his discovery.
Photographic Society of Scotland announced at its Meeting on 8 June
subscription has been opened among Members of the Society in aid of the
Widow and Family of the late Mr Scott Archer, the introducer of the
Collodion Process, who have been left completely destitute by his recent
is important that the sum collected be forwarded to London
Ken Watson reports that
Scott Archer's grave has been discovered, but is in a poor state of
The Black Art
The wet collodion plate had to be processed within minutes of exposed in
the camera, and before its coating dried.
This required the photographer to bring along his
darkroom if he was taking landscapes on location. The process
was messy and cumbersome. Stains from the silver nitrate caused it
to be known as the 'black art'.
mixture used was also explosive, and was responsible for a number of
steps in the collodion process were:
Dissolve gun-cotton ether to produce collodion.
Alcohol was also required at this stage.
bromides and iodides to the collodion mixture and coat one side of the
glass plate, to achieve an even coating of collodion.
Some early reports
describe the solution as sticky and having to be spread onto the glass
Ken Watson describes it
as thinner than water, and says that it was poured onto the glass plate.
Sensitise the glass plate. This was done by placing it for
two minutes in a "silver bath". This was usually a light-tight
container containing silver nitrate dissolved in water.
Transfer the plate, in a darkroom,
under a red safelight, into a plate holder, then transfer the plate
holder into the camera.
Take the photo while the coating
just wet and very delicate. An
exposure of several seconds would be required - perhaps 3 sec at
Develop the wet negative.
acid was used as developer.
Later, in the 1860s, the
developer used was ferrous sulphate (15gm), acetic acid (14ml), alcohol
(14ml), water (400ml)
Fix in hypo or a cyanide solution,
rinse and dry.
Coat with a gum sandarac varnish
to help to protect the collodion layer.
Lay the negative over albumen
paper, and expose to light.
Treat with gold chloride to
Acknowledgement: I would like, particularly, to thank Ken Watson
for several corrections he made to my original text on the wet collodion
comments from Ken are based on his own interest in the wet collodion
process, and his practical experience in using this process.
The Wet Collodion Process
as described by Thomas Rodger in 1854
Thomas Rodger Jun.
of St Andrews read a paper
to a Meeting of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in Edinburgh, in
February 1854, giving his method of using the wet collodion process.
The details given in his paper, and
some of his background observations are informative. Please click
below for fuller details.
Chemicals for the Collodion Processes
is a list of chemicals for the Collodion and Albumen glass processes, taken from the
Bland & Long published in 1856. Please
click on the list below for further details.
Albumen Prints from Wet Collodion Negatives
As for the earlier calotype process, it was possible to produce multiple
prints from a single negative.
The wet collodion process:
- produced prints with
the tonal richness of a daguerreotype.
produced crisp, grainless prints that retained more detail than the calotype,
the calotype's texture.
paper was normally used to print wet collodion
instead of making a print, the negatives could be used directly to produce Ambrotypes.
Landscapes by GW Wilson
looks from Waverley, along Princes Street, towards the Scott Monument.
Wilson's horse-drawn van in which he processed his negatives can be seen
parked beside the pavement in
the difficulties associated with the wet collodion process, this process
and its freedom from copyright throughout Britain brought photography to
the masses. Small carte de visite portraits rapidly became
both popular and very affordable.
Cartes de Visite
Edinburgh, as elsewhere in Britain, the introduction of the wet
collodion process resulted in the opening of many photographic studios
from the 1850s onwards.
the 1850s, cartes de
visite became popular. These were small photographs 3.5 x
2.25 ins, mounted on trade cards measuring about 4 x 2.5 ins.
These were sold at affordable prices.
around 1865 onwards, a larger format also became popular -
prints consisted of photos about 5.5 x 4 ins, mounted on trade cards
measuring about 6.5 x 4.5 ins.
Edinburgh photographer professor Charles Piazzi
Royal for Scotland travelled to Egypt to photograph the pyramids.
He used a miniature camera with wet collodion plates only 1 inch
gave lectures to Edinburgh Photogrpahic Society on this subject in 1869
camera he used to take these photos was displayed in Edinburgh during
the EPS International Photographic Exhibition of
Photographic Society debated the wet collodion process, and the relative
advantages of the wet and
processes at many of its Meetings from the Society's inception in 1861
the Wet Collodian Process
Details of Wet Collodion Processes
Dry Plates versus Wet Plates
Dry Plates and Wet Plates
click here to
see the dates of these
Early Landscape Photography
P T Mackintosh, in his
EPS President's Opening Address in 1919 looked back on wet collodion
photography in the 1860s. He said:
"Behold now our
photographer setting forth on his travels. In his left hand,
he carried an immense camera with an inflexible stand, and in his
right a large carpet bag containing his glass plates in racks, his
various chemicals and other paraphernalia.
Slung over his shoulder
might be a carboy of distilled water, and, if the supply was likely to run
out he might add to his impedimenta, a still and worm, which, if occasion
served, might possibly be applied to other purposes detrimental to the
revenue of the Crown. If, like Mr Drummond, he carried his tent with
him, that, I suppose was fastened around his neck."
The wet collodion process is
still being practiced today by Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman.
They work from this
skylight studio at their home.
here for further details
of Mark and France and their early experiments, publications, exhibitions
here to see Mark's
collodion web site.