about the process

Collodion Wet Plate Process: An exploration

In the digital age of photography, where images can be captured and shared instantly, it’s important to take a step back and appreciate the roots of this art form. The collodion wet plate process, a historic photographic technique that emerged in the mid-19th century, holds a special place in the evolution of photography. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of collodion wet plate photography, exploring how the process works, its historical significance, and the chemicals involved.

How does the wet plate process work?

The collodion wet plate process – also known as the wet collodion process – is a technique used to create images on glass or metal plates. It involves coating a plate with a collodion solution, which is then sensitized in a silver nitrate bath to make it photosensitive. The plate must be exposed and developed while still wet, hence the name „wet plate“ process.

To begin, the photographer pours collodion, a syrupy solution of nitrocellulose in alcohol and ether, onto a clean glass or metal plate. The collodion forms a thin, even layer when the plate is tilted, after which it is placed in a silver nitrate bath. Silver nitrate reacts with the collodion, forming light-sensitive silver iodide.

The plate is now ready for exposure in the camera. An image is captured by removing the lens cap, allowing light to pass through the lens and strike the sensitized plate. Exposure times can vary depending on the lighting conditions and desired effect. After exposure, the plate is immediately developed to reveal the image.

In a last step, the developed plate is placed in the fixing solution and the image magically appears.

When was the collodion process invented?

The collodion process was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, an English sculptor and photographer. Before the collodion process, early photography involved using cumbersome and time-consuming techniques like the daguerreotype and calotype. The collodion process revolutionized photography by providing a more practical and efficient method for creating images.

Archer’s collodion process involved using a glass plate coated with a mixture of collodion and light-sensitive chemicals. This process allowed for shorter exposure times compared to earlier methods, making it more suitable for portrait photography. The collodion process rapidly gained popularity and became the dominant photographic method during the mid-19th century.

What is the wet collodion process in photography?

The wet collodion process brought significant advancements to photography during its heyday in the 1850s and 1860s. It offered a level of detail and clarity that was unmatched at the time, making it the preferred method for portraiture and landscapes. The process allowed photographers to capture intricate details and nuances, creating timeless images with a unique aesthetic quality.

While the wet collodion process requires a considerable amount of skill and preparation, it offers a rewarding experience for both the photographer and the subjects. As the relatively slow process demands patience and precision, fostering a deeper connection between the photographer and the art of image creation.

What are the chemicals in wet plate collodion?

The wet collodion process involves several key chemicals, each playing a crucial role in creating a light-sensitive emulsion on the glass or metal plate. The primary chemicals used in the collodion process include:

  • Collodion: This syrupy solution is the foundation of the process, consisting of nitrocellulose dissolved in a mixture of alcohol and ether. Collodion provides a smooth and even coating on the glass plate, acting as the binder for the light-sensitive chemicals.
  • Silver Nitrate: Silver nitrate is an essential component in the wet collodion process. The plate is sensitized by soaking it in a silver nitrate bath, which transforms the collodion into light-sensitive silver iodide.
  • Developer: After exposure, the plate is developed to reveal the image. The developer consists of a mixture of iron sulfate, acetic acid and alcohol, which converts the exposed silver iodide into visible metallic silver.
  • Fixer: Once the image is developed, the plate is fixed to prevent further reaction and ensure the image’s permanence. A common fixer used in the collodion process is a solution of sodium hyposulfate.


The collodion wet plate process remains a cherished part of photography’s history, preserving the artistry and craftsmanship of early photographers. Despite its challenging nature, the process continues to captivate contemporary photographers and enthusiasts alike, offering a unique and rewarding experience that connects us with the roots of this remarkable art form.

To experience a portrait session or learn more about the collodion process, visit my section for workshops. For any inquiries, feel free to contact me directly.

Photos: (c) Fabian Fischer