History Lesson: Wet and Dry Collodion, The Precursors to Film (pt. V)

By Gregg McNeill

In this series, we explore the history of photography in terms of image-making methods and various technologies available to photographers at different periods of time, leading up to the present host of available ways to make a photography. It wasn’t always os easy! In the previous entry, we were introduced to wet plate processes, and now move on to dry plate, the precursor to film. Photography is getting easier and easier!

Albumen prints (invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard) were made by floating a piece of paper on a solution of albumen, or egg white and salt, allowed to dry, floated again on a strong solution of silver nitrate and allowed to dry again, making them UV sensitive. This paper was placed in a contact frame with a glass negative and exposed to sunlight. Once the desired effect is achieved, the print is fixed and toned. This was cheap and it was quick. As a result, anyone of any income level, could afford a photograph. When traveling, if you didn’t return from an exotic locale with a photograph, you weren’t really there.

Castle, Kenilworth, Frederick Scott Archer, 1851_ Albumen silver print.jpgCastle, Kenilworth, Frederick Scott Archer, 1851; Albumen silver print

Shortly after the invention of the Ambrotype, came the Tintype, or Ferrotype. This was a thin sheet of iron with a baked on black enamel coating called japan. The process was the same as the Ambrotype, but yielded a one-off positive image. These were extremely popular, easy to make and, once varnished, very durable. Modern tintypes use trophy plate aluminium.

Tintypes were extremely popular during the American Civil War and many of those images survive today.

Isaac_Yost_of_Company_C,_118th_Regiment_Illinois_Infantry,_standing_in_uniform_with_bayoneted_musket_and_revolver_LCCN2010648383.jpgIsaac Yost of Company C, 118th Regiment Illinois Infantry, Standing In Uniform with Bayoneted Musket and Revolver

Frederick Scott Archer gave away this process free to the world and never made any money from it. He did, however, on 24 February 1854, take out a patent on a Wet Collodion Camera.

Archer Camera.jpgArcher Camera

The camera was akin to the kamra-e-faoree, or Afghan Box Camera. The chemistry was held inside of the camera itself in small trays. The photographer could coat, sensitise, expose and develop an image inside the camera by looking through a viewing window and placing their arms through sleeves attached to the side of the camera. A yellow glass window on the top acted as a “safelight”. Fixing could be done outside the camera, in view of the sitter.

Henry Fox Talbot believed that the wet collodion process infringed on his Calotype patent. He spent most of the rest of his life filing lawsuits against anyone and everyone. One photographer he went after was named Henderson. The Journal of the Photographic Society in June, 1854 wrote about the suit this way; “Talbot has as much right to prevent Henderson, or anyone else, taking portraits by the photographic or collodion processes, as he has to prevent Sir John Herschel from looking at the moon through a telescope”. It was only a matter of time before he went after Archer. Talbot’s lawsuit against Archer would come to nothing.

Frederick Scott Archer died penniless on 1 May, 1857.

On the 1st May, 2010, the members of ‘The Collodion Collective’ (Carl Radford, John Brewer and Quinn Jacobson), unveiled a marker near Archer’s grave. The original Archer family headstone was also discovered and reinstated by them.


The wet collodion process has experienced a renaissance in the last 10-15 years. You can find workshops in the US, UK and Europe. If you are interested in learning this process, I highly recommend taking a workshop, as the hands on training with an experienced practitioner will be less expensive (and far less frustrating) in the long run than wasting chemistry and materials trying to learn on your own.

In 1856, Richard Hill Norris, took out a patent for his Dry Collodion Plates. He found that covering the collodion emulsion with gelatine or gum arabic would preserve its light sensitivity. Photographers could now go out into the field to shoot and not have to carry chemistry or portable darkrooms with them. This meant that they had to carry multiple plate holders, but they could be loaded and processed at their leisure. This made the process an order of magnitude easier and the popularity of photography soared.

On 8, September 1871, The British Journal of Photography published Richard Maddox’s process for gelatin dry plate emulsion. This spelled the beginning of the end of the mass use of the wet collodion process. However, the process would still be in use in the graphics and printing business as well as at tintype photo booths at carnivals, fairs and amusement parks well into the 1960’s.

George Eastman developed a plate coating machine in 1879 and opened the Eastman Film and Dry Plate Company. This greatly reduced the cost of the photographic process and opened it up to many would-be photographers.

Eastman Dry Plates.jpg

There are very few contemporary makers of Dry Plates, but the process is still being practiced and taught.

Box Of Plates.jpeg

Dry Plate would be the most popular photographic process for another 10 years, until George Eastman revolutionized the world in 1888 with a device called the “Kodak” camera, introducing the phrase “You press the button and we do the rest.”


Reilly, James M. The Albumen & Salted Paper Book: The history and practice of photographic printing, 1840-1895. Light Impressions Corporation. Rochester, 1980
A Silver Salted Gelatine Emulsion, Richard L. Maddox, British Journal of Photography, September 8, 1871

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