Lo-Fi Photography

Dry-Plate Tintype Tutorial – Using Modern Dry-Plate Tintype Chemistry

Posted in Tips & Tricks by Ray on 06.05.2010

Long before Polaroid, tintypes were the original instant photography as they could be prepared, exposed, and developed in just a few minutes. So they were popular for portraits at carnivals, fairs, and vacation spots. The process was invented in the mid-nineteenth century but waned in popularity by the late nineteenth century.

The historic process involved wet-plate tintypes (which required sensitized plates to be shot before the emulsion dries), and devoted practitioners of the method have resurrected the old formulas to carry on the tradition.

This is a tutorial on using modern chemistry made by Rockland Colloid to make dry-plate tintypes. The advantages of dry plate to the historic wet plate process include simpler procedure (with less chemistry to work with), less toxic chemicals, easier handling of plates, ability to use the plates out in the field and deferring development for a later time. All in all, it’s an easier and more accessible way to do tintypes.

Equipment List

Rockland Tintype Kit: Either the Tintype Parlor or the Bulk Kit.

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Darkroom Safelight: 15 watts or less. I use a Paterson safelight.

Developing Trays : 3 trays (plastic, glass, or stainless steel). I use a set of 3 Paterson trays in the 5"x7" size.

Chemical Storage Bottle: Two bottles to store the developer and fixer. Note the Rockland bulk kit mixes to 1 gallon, the linked bottle is 1/2 gallon because I’ve cut the chemistry in half to keep them fresher.

Safety Equipment: Latex gloves, goggles, and bib.

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Mixing the Chemicals

Developer
Dissolve the package of Dektol (part 1) in 3000 ml (3 quarts) of lukewarm distilled water, then dissolve the mystery powder (part 2) in the solution. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature before adding the liquid (part 3) and more distilled water to top out at one gallon (3785 ml) of working solution. You should allow the fresh solution to “ripen” a few hours in a tray or in the container overnight prior to first use. Reportedly the solution gets better over the course of a couple of weeks in the bottle.

Fixer
Dissolve the fixer in 3000 ml (3 quarts) of lukewarm tap water. Add more water to make one gallon (3785 ml) of working solution.

Preparing the Plates

Cutting the Plates to Size
The bulk kit comes with either the 4×5 or 8×10 black anodized plates. The plates are pretty thin and can be cut to fit your specific size for your camera using regular scissors. The plates do get bent slightly in the process. I press along the edge with a metal ruler and bend the corners so they lay flat.

Coating the Plates
Prior to coating, the plates should be cleaned with soap and water, then rinsed and dried completely. I didn’t clean my first plates and experienced problems with the emulsion lifting afterward.

Rail Bridge WPC

The AG Plus emulsion in the kit is in a plastic bottle and is a solid gel at room temperature. Place the bottle in hot water until the emulsion liquefies. As tempting as it may be to shake the bottle, don’t do it! This will result in bubbles in the emulsion and will show in the images (see the exposure test plate sample below).

The coating process should take place in the darkroom (or windowless bathroom). A 15 watt or less red safelight can be used so long as you keep a reasonable distance from the lamp (at lease 2 feet). The plate is supposed to have a top side, but both sides are actually anodized black. Just make sure the side with the darker/more evenly black coating is used.

I also recommend using latex gloves and covering the work surface with newspaper, because the emulsion is going to get all over your hands and on the counter. Pour the liquefied emulsion onto the plate. I start at one end and tilt the plate, allowing the emulsion to flow down to the opposite side, helping to spread with a finger. Finally I put the corner of the plate into mouth of the bottle and wiggle the plate to get the excess emulsion to drip back into the bottle. You’ll want to make sure the emulsion is coated evenly. Since the plate is cold, it’ll cool the emulsion, making it more viscous as it begins to congeal. Work reasonable quickly to have the plate covered before this happens.

Place the plate on a level surface in a cool and totally dark place to dry (which takes a few hours). I work in the bathroom and put the plates on one of the shelves of the linen closet overnight.

Loading the Camera and Shooting

Using the safelight, put the plate in the camera with the emulsion-coated side towards the lens, making sure the plate is situated securely on the film plane. Gaffer tape can be used to secure the plate into place. Be careful with the sharp edges which can scratch your camera. Plate holders can also be made with black museum board and foam core.

Exposure

Recommended exposures are as follows:

– Bright sun: f/16@ ½ second
– Cloudy-bright: f/8 @ ½ second
– Open shade: f/5.6@ ½ second

The emulsion is sensitive to blue light, so blue gel can be placed over the light meter. Otherwise it’s also recommended to do exposure tests under different light conditions. The following plate was shot on my deck using a pinhole camera with an aperture of f/135 at 30 second increments (this plate also exhibits the bubbles that can result if the emulsion is shaken in the bottle):

Exposure Test

Developing the Plates

I use 3 trays, one for the developer, one for the fixer, and one for the water rinse.

(1) Place the plate face up in the developer tray, 20°C (68° to 71°F), for 2 to 3 minutes with frequent agitation. I lift up the back of the tray and slowly raise and lower it, this allows the chemical to rush back and forth in the tray and wash over the surface of the plate.

(2) Without rinsing, place the plate in the fixer tray for 2 to 3 minutes with occasional agitation (same lifting and lowering of the tray), at which time the room lights can be turned on. If chalky areas remain, you can continue to fix until they disappear. The fixer should also harden the emulsion, so that it becomes tough and leathery to the touch (but I would refrain from touching the image).

(3) Place the plate in the rinse tray (which should be in the sink or tub) and allow the plate to be cleared under cool running water for 2 minutes to wash off the fixer.

Personally I run all three steps above at 3 minutes each. I just move the plates from one tray to the next at the end of 3 minutes. This way I can develop a number of plates in the session in an uninterrupted work flow. The developer in the tray should work for a few plates before discarding (I’ve done about 5 or 6), and used chemicals should not be poured back into the bottles.

After the wash, set the plates aside to dry, which takes a few hours. The image and background color will darken as it dries.

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