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Shooting Wet Plate Collodion Portraits with 12,000Ws of Studio Lighting

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This is a story about a collaboration to overcome 19th century technology problems using 21st century technology to produce well lit portraits.

Luke White and I, Paul Alsop, are two English photographers living in New Zealand who came together in 2014 to make wet plate collodion portraits.

I work as a medical doctor in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand and I am also a self taught photographer, mainly using the wet plate collodion process to make portraits. Luke holds a First class honours degree in photography and manages Kingsize Studios in Auckland, New Zealand. In August 2015, we worked together for a second time, outside of our day jobs to create ‘The Auckland Project‘.

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Making portraits with studio lighting might not be a huge deal, but when the ‘film’ you are using has an ISO of approx 0.5, you need a whole lot of light. In fact, the amount of light needed to make an exposure is phenomenal: in full sunlight, you are still looking at an exposure of 5-6 seconds.

I was looking for an amount of light produced in a ‘flash of a second’ that would allow me to freeze motion (at 1/125th of a second for example). Technical jargon aside, you basically need a lightening bolt of light to make an image. Fortunately, Luke had a few suggestions.

Wet plate photography is where you make your own gelatinous, light-sensitive ‘film’ in a darkroom then pour it over a plate of glass or blackened metal. This plate is then loaded into a large format camera and you make a photograph the same as if you were using film. Then you take the plate back to the darkroom and develop it straight away. Location shoots mean you need a portable darkroom and quite a lot of gear and chemicals. In my opinion, the collodion process produces some of the most beautiful photographs.

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Prior to meeting Luke, my lighting of portraits had been sub-optimal, I was either using sunlight, which can be difficult to shape and is weather dependent, or I was using harsh, non-diffused 150W metal halide lights which gave ugly light and was very difficult for sitters to keep their eyes open to this blinding amount of luminescence. Having the opportunity to work with Luke at a high-end studio was a great opportunity, as we tested light outputs and lighting with wet plate.

I felt like a photographic pioneer, doing something that no-one in New Zealand had done before. The amount of light used was migraine inducing. There are alot of collodion photographers using strobe and artificial constant light now, whereas historically it has been bright sunlight. Despite the resurgence of wet plate and artificial lighting, we were still the first people ever to shoot with artificial lighting in New Zealand (one of the benefits of living in a remote island nation is that you can still be a pioneer at some things!).

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The difference between this project and others, is that we set out with a different mindset. Shape the light first, then increase the power. The first thing a collodion photographer often asks is “how can I get as much light as possible to bounce of my subject, to make sure it registers an image on a wet film of ISO 0.5?” During my testing phase, I was also guilty of thinking like this too.

The problem with this is we end up using light modifiers (or even bare bulbs) that give ugly light and end results that we wouldn’t dream of showing had the film sensitivity been higher (film or digital). Our mindset for the Auckland Project was to work out an individual lighting set-up for each of the sitters, paying attention to the details that make up some of the most excellent studio portraits.

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Here’s a quote from Luke about this project:

While wet plate photography is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence, I have not seen many examples of photographers crafting light to make interesting portraits. I love the look of tintypes but not the blur which usually results from the requisite long exposures. I’m a huge fan of the beautifully crafted lighting of the portrait masters such as Karsh, Platon and Dan Winters. After some experimenting, we realised that around 12,000Ws of flash lighting was enough to make an exposure.

We needed this much strobe power to compensate for the light lost through the modifiers. Fortunately Luke manages Kingsize Studios, so access to high end Broncolor packs wan’t a problem. See this diagram of a lighting breakdown:

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I actually live 3 hours away from Auckland, so I had to drive the round trip with my toxic and explosive chemicals in the car. There is no darkroom in the studios, therefore we had to fabricate one.

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Luke had put alot of effort into lining up a host of New Zealands talented artists, musicians and models, and knowing the fickle nature of collodion, I was hopeful the process would work OK. It is an antiquated technique that renders a beautiful aesthetic that I am in love with, however, it is quite a laborious and meticulous process that is known for having a mind of its own.

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I cannot explain the immense amount of angst and pressure I always feel right up until I have made the first successful image, so I was very pleased when the very first test shot popped up in the developer. As we were going to all of this effort, we wanted to ensure we’d have a good range of sitters. We scheduled 20 people across two days, exposing 40 plates. When a single plate takes 10 minutes to prepare and 5 to develop, this is no easy feat.

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It was nice to work this way, ensuring the lighting was as perfect as could be before making the photograph. With digital, there is a tendency to over-shoot and ensure you ‘get the shot’. Our slow and precise method also led to good results with a good hit rate, with only one image deciding to lift itself off the glass plate and vanish into thin air.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video that offers a glimpse into the project:

Finally, here is a selection of the portraits that were made:

Chris Sissarich

Christina Bayer

Damian Alexander

Elise Hislop

Keiran Scott

LarzRanda

Natalie Walsh

Nate Kingston

Paul Serville

Sal Valentine

Thomston


About the author: Paul Alsop is a New Zealand-based photographer who creates handcrafted images of glass and metal using silver and light — the process of wet plate collodion photography. You can connect with him and see more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook.


Image credits: Photographs by Paul Alsop and Luke White and used with permission. All behind-the-scenes photos and video by Lee Howell

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