WHAT IS A TINTYPE?
Mastered and forgotten, Tintypes were among the earliest forms of photography...
Tintypes are civil-war era photographs made of light-sensitive silver layered upon sheets of black metal and exposed to light. Being handmade, and utilizing antique equipment often built more than a century ago, tintype photography incorporates certain imperfections that leave an alluring, charming characteristic which heightens their remarkable nature. They have an ageless, immutable quality that transcends time. The psychology of viewing a tintype is undeniably different from a modern photograph and can't quite be expressed in words; it truly must be seen and experienced.
It is called "wet plate" photography because the process must be completed, start to finish, before any of the chemistry has a chance to dry. Glass or metal plates are first coated in collodion, a syrupy solution of nitrocellulose dissolved in ether and alcohol. Originally used in the medical field to close small wounds and adhere bandages, collodion - coined from the Greek kollodis (gluey) - becomes sticky as the ether and alcohol evaporate. F.S. Archer was the first to figure out that salted collodion could be used instead of albumen (dried egg white) as a far superior binding agent to absorb and sensitize silver nitrate, photography's primary light-sensitive agent. The year was 1851 and "wet plate collodion" was born. Photography became prominent in the world for the first.
After the collodion is poured upon the plate, it is only a few seconds until it become sticky to the touch. The plate is then smoothly and evenly dunked into a tank of silver nitrate, the aforementioned sensitizing agent. Anything less than smooth and even results in artifacting - which can look intriguing on its' own - one of many inevitable accidents, some happy, that are baked into the process. Dunking allows silver nitrate to be absorbed into and react with iodide salted into the collodion. Silver iodide is the result and poof, the plate becomes sensitive to blue light (not red - which is why the darkroom can be bathed in red light and not ruin the photograph).
In the safety of pure red light, the plate is moved from the silver nitrate solution into a light-tight holder to be transferred into the camera. The photographer now has only until the plate dries to complete the photographic process, depending on the weather between 5 and 15 minutes. The clock is ticking.
The cameras used for tintypes are called "view cameras". You may have seen old images of photographers hunched over a large box with a black cloth covering their head... that is a view camera, essentially a hollow box with a small lens up front (you don't even need a lens, just a tiny hole... this would be called a pinhole camera). The image is projected inside the camera upside down and backwards., which is why tintypes develop in reverse. Tintype subjects will see themselves as if looking in a mirror.
The sensitivity of a sensitized plate is very low; the equivalent of ISO 1, give or take a bit. As such. exposure times are very long compared to a modern camera and can range from 1 second up to several minutes. It is very hard to hold a genuine smile for a 10 second exposure, which is why you will rarely ever see anyone smile in a wet plate from the past. Today we have powerful strobes that negate long exposures times in studio settings, but environmental portraits so not have this luxury. Subjects will need to remain perfectly still for a minimum of a few seconds.
After the plate has been exposed in the camera it is taken back inside the safety of the darkroom where the latent image is developed. Developer is poured over the plate and within a few seconds a negative image appears. The warmer the weather the faster the plate will process.
The next step is the one area where modern tintype techniques often diverge from the traditional 1851 technique: I generally don't use cyanide in my fixer. Since the Tintype Tour Bus is also a small RV in which I sleep, I choose to use a less toxic mix of chemistry. Fixer stabilizes the plate by removing all the unexposed silver halide that did not see light, leaving behind the reduced metallic silver that makes up the visible image. The remaining image is technically still a negative, but because it is layered upon black it appears as a positive.
The plate then enters into a water bath for at least a half hour - If I had used cyanide is my developer, the water bath would not be so lengthy - from there it is thoroughly dried and then varnished with the sap from a sandarac tree and lavender oil. This is an all natural protective coating which will help the tintype last for centuries.
In the case of Home Portrait Sessions, all of this is done in the mobile lab while you wait. For the Pop-Up Studio the final varnishing steps are done at night, leaving your tintype ready to be picked up the following day, or mailed to you for an additional $10.
Some of the magic of a tintype resides in its' absolute uniqueness; Though we make a digital scan of each tintype we create, each tintype is absolutely one-of-a-kind and will last for centuries to come.