Dry Plate Gelatin Photography – Pt.2



Let’s see.  When we last left off I was overflowing with enthusiasm, optimism and general excitement about the commencement of my adventures in Dry Plate photography.  I had the image of a sublime photograph swirling about my head and I aspired to have a little bit of that.  I had my recently acquired 5×7 in hand and some excellent lenses.  I had scoured the internet, books, a gypsy fortune teller and the odd guy on the street to uncover a couple sources which outline the basic approach to this long forgotten, infrequently practiced, type of photography.  I was ready!

In Pt. 1 I detailed my progress.  I had sourced some glass from Lowes and cut it to size.  I cleaned the glass.  I gently stacked and wrapped the glass placing it on a shelf in my darkroom.  I unwrapped the glass multiple times to admire how clean and sparkly it was (I left that bit out of Pt.1, but I did do this; probably two or three times).  I subbed the glass with the gelatin and hardener I purchased from Bostick.  I had the development process fully in mind and I had come to terms with the vagaries of exposing these plates.  I believe I left off with a happy photo of all the subbed plates lined up against the wall atop the sink in my darkroom and some words to the effect of “next thing I’ll be doing is laying on the emulsion.”  Yeah!  That’s where we were.

How to describe the experience?  Hmmm?  Well, let’s just call it an out of control emotionally devastating wreck.  Yeah.  I think that about sums it up.  You see, that old adage of “live and learn..” well I’ve done both.  My enthusiastic expectations of getting all six plates done came to a dead stop on plate one.  Ha!  Dead stop is such an understatement.  I can see it now.  I had everything prepared.  I felt like I had everything under control and I was really flying high.  That is until I poured the emulsion.  That was not an Hydrogen Bomb test by the lunatic N. Koreans this past week.  That was me, my darkroom, as I poured that ungodly finicky, infinitely sticky, absolutely uncooperative stuff onto my sparkly piece of glass.  Kaboom!

OK.  So let me back up a bit.  In all fairness, the two articles I found that detailed this process put quite a bit of emphasis on temperature when it comes to handling the emulsion.  I’m going to risk good form and say that in both articles this is UNDERSTATED significantly.  Now, I don’t fault the authors of each as they were quite clear in their instructions.  However the sensitivity of this process to temperature is insane.  Let me pause and add some emphasis here for those who might consider giving this a go.


Temperature is everything.  You see, you start by heating up a water bath to around 130F-140F.  Into this you place the bottle of emulsion, upside down, and let it rest until it liquifies.  At room temp this stuff is sort of gelatinous.  I mean, that makes sense right.  You are after all putting it onto a piece of glass for use like a piece of film in the future.   Anyway, once the gel in the bottle begins to liquify, you move under a safelight and you pour out the amount you intend on using; the recommended method in both cases is to decant it into plastic 35mm film holders.  To this you add around 2-5ml of Kodak Photo Flo.  This helps ensure the emulsion flows evenly when you poor (HA!!).

Now, here’s the key.  You have to make sure that you keep the emulsion in those little 35mm containers at or really near a temp above 125F, ideally upwards around 130F-140F.  Here was my mistake.  I “ass-umed” that the minute or two between when I removed the bottle, poured the emulsion into the 35mm holder, mixed it with the photo flo, gently to avoid air bubbles, and then poured it onto the plate, would make no big difference as the temp shouldn’t fall that dramatically.

WRONG!  Wrong big time.  When I poured the emulsion onto the first piece of glass it just about instantly started to set and I found myself staring at a monochromatic Jackson Pollock painting on glass.  I panicked and had a sinking feeling come over me like a tidal wave.  I exhaled and calmly sat the piece of glass off to the side.  My mind was racing like a super computer as I ran through a myriad of considerations.  I stepped back and took the 35mm canister, popped the top on it, returned to the water bath still heated on my burner and plunked it in.  “Are these things water tight?”  Yeah, I thought that!  I reached into the HOT water and pulled and retrieved the canister.  Things were slipping out of control.  I knew it.  Instinct was starting to come into play and that’s not always good or safe science.

Not to be daunted, I headed back over and grabbed another piece of glass.  Pour number two.  This went a bit better but when all was said and done, it solidified rather quickly and I ended up with a very uneven coating.  It was what I’d call about right on one end and as thick as cake icing on the other.  CRAP!!  is what I did indeed say.  However, my protective instinct kicked into gear and ugly baby or not, I was not gonna let my baby die.  I decided to just sit this piece of glass down and pray that gravity would have some kind of evening effect, and that I would decide what to do with it later.  Besides, I needed to just stop and go do something else fast.

The next day I went in and confirmed that indeed I’d birthed an awful looking offspring.  I tried to remain positive and just put the plate into a light tight place without any kind of decision around what to do next.

A day later I was sitting at home in the evening alone.  Everyone was out doing something else and I had a mini pizza on my horizon and some quite time.  Did I feel defeated?  Sort of.  I could feel that unique feeling which comes from YOU internalizing and dealing with YOUR FAILURE.  I do, however, have a very tried and true remedy for it.  Get back on the horse!  In a matter of seconds I determined that tonight would be round two.  This time, however, I’d get my act together and I set up a water bath in the darkroom into which I’d transfer the water from my burner and rest the 35mm containers prior to and during use.  EUREKA!!

I poured four plates without any drama.  A couple splatters here and there but nothing I’m worried about.  I know I’ll get neater.  The recommendation is to let the plates sit for at least 48hrs before use.  The longer they sit the more contrasty they’ll get and the ASA is positively affected.  I will add a Pt.3 to this and share the results.  That said I know you’re wondering what I did with the ugly baby.  What do you think I did!? I took it out today and I used it along with two sheets of Evil Ortho.

Now before I share it with you, I have to reiterate that it was a big gloppy mess.  Getting it into a plate holder was a challenge due to the amount of glop on the back and collected on one of the sides.  But, I figured nothing ventured nothing gained and I wanted to see just how this might go.  I proceeded as I would with a well crafted plate.  I exposed for ISO 1.  The details of the shoot are documented in EVIL Ortho Pt. 2.  So, here you go.  This is a scan straight from the glass plate.

Glass Dry Plate 1

What else have I learned?  Well, I developed in DEKTOL, used a water stop and a Kodak Hard Fix.  I chickened out when it was in the developer.  I waited, and waited, and watched, and inspected, and I panicked.  The unevenness of the emulsion was very weird and half the plate seemed to develop at twice the rate of the other.  It looked to me that everything in the middle of the plate was vanishing.  I pulled out and hit the stop bath.  In the end I see that I was quite wrong.  All the crap around the edges is from the unbelievably excessive amount of emulsion which build up an hardened there.  Obviously the 1/4″ pool that solidified at the bottom is clearly represented.

HOWEVER!  I call this a darn success and I am pretty darn happy with myself.  Out of the jaws of defeat I feel I snatched a, well maybe not a victory, but a positive outcome.  I’ll say the same thing I keep saying in the Dr. EVIL Ortho writings.  Ain’t this fun!!  Holy cow this is fun.

I’m including a scan of one of the Ortho negatives below so you might compare…and yeah, well, get a better idea of what I was looking at.

Arista 3



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