Making The Traditional Wet Plate Camera

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Information technology must have been getting close to Christmas 2019 when I first started to sketch the rudimentary designs of what would become my showtime homemade moisture plate camera. I’d previously built an Afghani Box Camera for my friend and fellow wet plate photographer, Simon Riddell, and then I had some sense of how to go nigh building what I wanted, although I tin can’t deny it was a daunting project, at to the lowest degree at beginning.

Merely that shouldn’t put anyone off tackling this for themselves, especially when the claiming is part of the fun in my book. Stripped down to its essentials, a camera is a box with some form of focusing machinery, a lens, and a viewing screen or footing drinking glass (gg) on which to view the image. Simplifying further, the most basic course of camera is the pinhole, which doesn’t even have a focusing mechanism, so y’all could refine my initial statement to this: a photographic camera is just a box with a pigsty in it! The merely other component is some class of substrate, like film or, in this example, a sensitised photographic plate on which to capture your epitome.

This much had been made abundantly clear in my Afghani build, and having enjoyed that project I had sufficient confidence to graduate onto this more ambitious project. I’yard also fortunate to have a working noesis of carpentry along with a good selection of tools, merely I want to stress that everything in this build could be
simplified farther still
by using softwood, screws, and liberal amounts of forest glue.

In other words:
no need for complicated woodworking joints or prior experience, just some patience and a willingness to have that mistakes are part of the making process. Information technology’s fifty-fifty possible to brand a working camera out of a cardboard box.

The most critical aspect of the entire build is the relationship betwixt the plate holder and the ground glass. Design everything around the plate holder and you can’t really go wrong. What is absolutely critical is that
the altitude from the surface of the plate and the frosted side of the ground drinking glass must be the aforementioned. This way, when the image on the
ground drinking glass is in focus and you swap it out for your plate holder, you know that those two surfaces are in the same position, and therefore in focus. That’southward the foundation of the unabridged camera.

I initially made my own plate holder, but to exist honest it wasn’t swell, then I searched eBay for something large enough to hold 8×ten plates. I then made a footing glass frame to the same dimensions and built the rear standard around that. It’southward a surprisingly elementary idea, only you do need to be precise in your measurements. The plate holder and
ground glass frame slide into runners attached to a square board that fits into the back of the rear standard, with a rectangular opening large enough to accommodate the exposed plate. I made this component square so that I could easily pop information technology out, rotate through 90º and thereby have portrait and landscape options. This rear department is held in place with a couple of brass turn plates.

To make a plate I simply insert the
basis glass frame into the back of the photographic camera as shown in the video above and, one time the paradigm is focused on the
ground glass, I swap it out for the plate holder. I then remove the nighttime slide and using the lens encompass as a shutter, betrayal the plate.

To make the focusing machinery I used a combination of T-track and large M8 pollex screws which in plow thread into a slider that runs freely forth the T-runway. When tightened downward, this same system locks all the unlike movements of the photographic camera in identify. I used a router to cutting slots into the frame that contains the front and rear standards and bolted it all together. This system gives me rise, autumn, shift and tilt movements, and past loosening the T-track nuts I can fine-focus the image on the ground glass.

Focusing can be a little fiddly at first, just I’ve institute it to piece of work just fine. In fact, many of the early on wet plate cameras were of a tailboard design which is basically what I accept here; only I have additional movements and the last product is potent enough to cope with the heavier lenses demanded of wet plate photography.

You lot can’t have a focusing system similar this without bellows, and in that location’s no getting abroad from the fact that making bellows is difficult and time-consuming. It was actually the role of the build that I found virtually intimidating. To prepare for this I watched countless YouTube videos and downloaded free templates and beginner’due south guides, slowly building my knowledge and confidence. I establish Scott Wittenburg’s video, “How I Congenital an eleven×14 View Camera” especially useful, and it was his bellows design that I followed in my own build. He uses an one-time enlarger rack and pinion equally a focusing organization which is frankly an inspired upcycle.

Earlier I attempted to make the full size sheet bellows I as well chose to brand a paper paradigm to test the process and double-check my measurements. Information technology took several hours of patient scoring, cutting, gluing and folding just was worth the effort since by the end I had a much clearer sense of the build procedure and was able to make some valuable refinements. I would highly recommend that anyone attempting this for the showtime time should make a paper bellows get-go. It doesn’t have to be full size, but I definitely needed to run through each step and come across information technology in 3D earlier I could properly conceptualise the pattern.

I used basic blackness waterproof canvas – some other eBay buy – heavy black card for the internal ribs or “stiffeners” that help to requite the thing its shape, and super forcefulness carpet spray-on adhesive to stick information technology together. I liked the canvas idea considering information technology was cheap, stiff, waterproof and, well-nigh chiefly, calorie-free-tight. The stiffeners add another layer of lite leak protection likewise which is an added bonus. You lot too want to make sure that y’all have sufficient bellows extension for the lens you desire to apply, and to calculate that length it’s of import to factor in all those folds, which means it’s better to be on the generous side.

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My ane regret is that I didn’t spend more money on the mucilage, since it was poor quality and I had to re-stick the stiffeners many times while it was drying. I also purchased good quality book bounden fabric record which is needed to joint the four sections of the bellows together along the seams. Note that information technology’s of import to subtract the width of the textile tape joints (the gap between sections) from the overall dimensions when measuring your bellows to ensure that it will fit the forepart and rear standards.

It took me an entire Sunday to make them. The folding alone must take taken three hours, non helped past my aforementioned glue issue, but by the end I had a working fix of bellows. One downside to my bellows build is that they are rather stiff and heavy, which is fine for most role, just can exist difficult when endmost the bellows down for shorter focal lengths. Over time, yet, this has proved to be less of an effect since regular use soon softens the materials and I actually like the robust experience of the photographic camera and nobody wants droopy bellows.

The lens, of class, needs to be as bright every bit possible, 300mm at f4.0 at a minimum for a camera of this size. Still, I did buy an former 400mm procedure lens that did the task, along with a large brass magic lantern lens that I picked upwards cheap because the glass was chipped, but even this worked well enough for withal life photography and the flake had no discernible upshot on the image.

1 matter to keep in listen is that when photographing living, moving, animate subjects yous demand the exposure times to exist as curt as possible, and therefore the larger the lens, the more low-cal pours into the camera, thus reducing exposure times. If you’re but shooting still life then you could probably get away with a smaller lens, but even and then, y’all demand to exist sure it will cover the size of the plate you want to shoot, be that 4×5, five×seven, 8×10 then on. Those cute, oversized Victorian brass lens are the subject area of much envy on my part, but they are extremely expensive and difficult to come up by, although I recently read about a lensman who makes his own lens using cake moulds and epoxy resin. This isn’t something that I have tried, simply I’thou certainly intrigued and could be an innovative way to go what you lot desire and opens the door to all kinds of wizardry.

In terms of the woods used I opted for what I had in my workshop, which was a mix of royal heart, walnut, beech and a few other bits and pieces that I had lying around. In retrospect those beautiful hardwoods might expect prissy and add a lot of reassuring heft to the camera, specially with a heavy lens on the front, just such luxuries does add actress weight which could be a gene for some. This is an undeniably bulky camera, which is fine for studio work but perhaps less ideal when on the road. I actually made it bigger than I needed to give me some options should I wish to make larger plates or modify the camera at a later date. I also fabricated Perspex inserts for the plate holders which allow me to easily modify between formats (4×five etc). Perspex works very well in this context since information technology is easy to clean and won’t rust when it comes into contact with the collodion chems.

Making the ground glass was actually very uncomplicated and at that place are numerous videos online explaining the process, such equally this one by Tony Santo. The key thing to recall when making a gg is that you can’t check how your grinding is progressing without first drying the plate, so brand sure you grind for ten mins, dry out, check and repeat. I used standard 3mm “bladder” glass that I picked up from a local double glazing business firm. It’s thicker than well-nigh gg but works fine for my purposes.

And this is the last output!

I also took my bootleg camera along to one of my friend Dave Shrimpton’s excellent wet plate workshops as can be seen in the video below. In this video you see me using the prototype bootleg plate holder that I later exchanged the antique plate holder described above:

As a terminal touch I added a pocket-sized brass plate engraved with a favourite Kurt Vonnegut quote.

Hope you take some inspiration from my homemade camera project and endeavor it for yourself!

~ Paul

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