On Saturday I had the opportunity to join the photographic alternatives class to meet with two photographers from the San Diego area that have been practicing the art of wet plate colloidon photography. Dave Smith and Nick Hidek, of Nick and Dave Photography, invited us to spend the day with them and learn a little bit about their craft.

Dave Smith
Doc Smith

Nick Hidek
Capt. Nick Hidek

The photographic colloidon process was invited by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 and is still in use today. However, with the convenience of sheet film, roll film and digital, there aren’t a lot of people practicing these old photographic techniques anymore. With the dangers and limitations of the colloidon process some might say this is rightly so. Nevertheless, when in the hands of the right person, the process can leave you with a breathtaking, unique image that cannot be duplicated.

My tintype
A tintype of Dakota that I poured and developed.

pouring colloidon
Hector in the dark room pouring colloidon before the silver bath.

silver nitrate bath
In the dark room with safety lights on, the plate goes into the silver nitrate bath

loading plate
After the silver nitrate bath, the plate is loaded into a light sealed box that mounts to the camera

Preparing the plate
A tintype or ferrotype is typically a piece of blackened metal or japanned tin that has been treated to become sensitive to light. The colloidon solution is poured over a clean plate and as solvent evaporates, a film is created. The plate is then submerged in a tank filled with silver nitrate, and a chemical reaction is caused which makes the silver sensitive to light. With a safe light, the plate is removed from the silver bath and loaded into a film holder for immediate use. There is a window of roughly 15 minutes for the plate to be exposed to light and developed before the chemicals dry up.

wet plate camera
The camera we used for our tintypes. Scoville wet plate from about 1875. Lens is a Dallmeyer 3B, patented about 1868.

one of our set ups
One of our setups. Exposure time was 4 seconds for this light.

Exposing the plate
Outside of the darkroom, a large format camera has already been set up and focused and all that’s missing is the light sensitive plate. Focus is then double checked and then the plate holder is inserted onto the back of the camera, blocking any further viewing through the ground glass. With an ISO of about 1, it’s not uncommon for exposure times to fall in the 5-10 second range, even in broad day light. Smiling is not recommended for these long exposure times.

A look at Carlos through the ground glass.
Under the dark cloth, looking through the ground glass at Carlos. The image is reversed and upside.

With a large format camera, the lens cap can be used to prevent light from exposing the film/plate, and the film holder also has a dark slide, which is a piece of metal that protects the light sensitive film/plate while the lens cap is off. To take a photo, the lens cap is put on and the dark slide is removed, and then the photo is taken by removing the lens cap and counting out the seconds, and reapplying the lens cap.

exposing a tintype
Making an exposure. The Litedisc was used to shade the lens, preventing lens flare.

Developing the plate
After the plate is exposed, it’s immediately taken back into the dark room and developer is poured on. When exposure reaches desired levels, water is used to rinse the developer off, and then the plate is fixed in a bath of potassium cyanide. The lights can now be turned on but the final step is a varnish in order to prevent tarnish.

pouring developer
Back in the darkroom with safety lights, developer is poured onto the plate.

watching developer
Watching the plate develop.

before fixing in potassium cyanide
Tintype of Alexa after rinsing off the developer, ready for fixer.

fixing a tintype in potassium cyanide
Fixing the tintype of Alexa in potassium cyanide.

Here are some of the results we had from the day of shooting:

Carlos tintype
The first tintype of the day.


A tintype of Fernando/Nondo
The tintype Dakota took of me.

Glass negative
A glass negative – me on the left.

Glass negative
A print made from said glass negative.

tintype of Carlos Richardson

tintype of Hector

Tintypes ready for varnish

Many thanks to Nick and Dave!

If you want to see more tintypes, check out Nick and Dave’s website.

Two tintype videos:
1. Photographer Robb Kendrick explains the process behind photographing and developing tintypes.
2. Ian Ruhter, Silver & Light

6 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. It was a great day Nondo!

  2. Thanks Dave and Nick for all your generosity, and the fun and thorough way you exposed us to your methods and equipment. The day we spent with you will be remembered by more than just the amazing tintypes we made. Good luck on your Yosemite photo expedition!

    And thank you Fernando for the beautiful blog!

    Carlos Richardson

  3. I love the process!

  4. Fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. very nice Fernando!

  6. Great job Fernando. Enjoyed seeing your photos, especially the activities in the darkroom. We enjoyed having the class pay us a visit and spend a day getting a chance to see the process and take part by using the camera and making plates and developing them. Everyone seemed to have a great day trying it all out.