A dry subject?

I read something recently that piqued my interest. In a nutshell it stated that older film emulsions were colour-blind and respond differently than modern emulsions to light and color. As often happens when my interest is drawn to something I then pick at the subject, wandering around the internet or my bookshelves over the next few days and this time my searches ended up at … dry plates.

A dry plate is simply a glass plate coated with a gelatinous emulsion of silver bromide. Unlike the wet collodion process which preceded it, dry plates can be stored until exposure, and after exposure they can be brought back to a darkroom for development at leisure. These qualities were great advantages over wet collodion, where the plate had to be prepared just before exposure and developed immediately after – which meant actually on location. The dry plate, which could also be factory produced, was introduced in 1871 by R.L. Maddox. It was eventually superseded early in the 20th century by the celluloid film that we are now so familiar with.

Of course, my searches inevitably led me to see if there were any modern dry plates suppliers. Very few as it happens (I found two) but as I had no interest in pursuing the subject further that was no bad thing. I did just investigate a little further though to see what the modern take on dry plates was from one of the producers. I couldn’t do better than quote from the makers own website:

“J. Lane Dry Plates resurrect the look of early 1880s un-sensitized silver gelatin emulsions. If you wanted to pin down a year, these are what you’d expect in high quality plates in 1881. The dry plate era was a critical time in the development and mass marketing of photographic negatives, and many of the world’s first amateur photographers took their first photographs on dry plates very similar to ours. With the advent of sensitized emulsions (orthochromatic, panchromatic) and other advances in emulsion engineering, the original silver gelatin emulsions were lost to time and no longer produced by anyone until today.”


At almost £5 per plate however, that was where I left the subject. In point of fact I left it to go upstairs and sort out a rather untidy cupboard. But why mention this mundane domestic matter? Well, whilst doing so I found an Ilford Obscura 5×4 pinhole camera I’d forgotten about. It’s a lovely camera but it doesn’t accept traditional film holders as the film goes directly into the camera. Exposing more than one sheet therefore requires a changing bag. Much more practical to carry a handful of DDSs to my mind.

That evening, and I’m very shortly coming to the point of this post, as I reclined in my armchair with a glass of red, the two subjects, dry plates and an excellent but impractical pinhole camera, came together in what passes as a brain in my head. A few minutes later I had discovered that the size (specifically the thickness) of the J Lane dry plates and the construction of the Obscura meant that the dry plates could be used in the pinhole camera.

Thus was born my next project … dry plates have been ordered, the Obscura dusted off and a dry plate holder has also been loaned by Andy ( @holga_pics on Twitter) meaning I can also try this first batch of dry plates on my regular 5×4 camera.

As the saying goes … watch this space. I’ve done a ton of research over the last 48 hours, there’s loads more information to impart, the dry plates have been despatched and are due on Wednesday and of course I’ve had some excellent advice from the #believeinfilm community to supplement my own research too. I will share this in a future post … or posts!

#Dave’s Pinhole Camera World Tour 2021

Little did I know when on an impulse I offered John Martin the loan of my homemade (not by me) 5×4 pinhole camera that this would be the genesis of a collaboration with photographers from around the country joining in.

What if we send it round the world and make a ‘zine? Round the world may be a bit ambitious but certainly round the UK is doable.

The whisky talking?

I was sat in a cafe with a pot of tea on 16th June 2021 when John messaged me via Twitter. He’d been chatting to James, another photographer, about the camera he’d been lent. James was keen to try it out and John knew I’d be more than happy. After a few whiskys though they came up with the idea of a world tour for the camera and perhaps also a ‘zine. Thus was born this collaborative project.

Ready to start it’s tour

The camera itself was the result of an impulse buy I made from a charity shop; I figured that even if I didn’t use the camera regularly I was still doing some good for the charity. So, you could say that this whole project was founded on impulses.

Next week the camera moves on, down to the south coast if I recall, and the recipient is I believe a complete newcomer to both pinhole and large format photography. One of the things John and I are keen on doing is encouraging people who’ve never used large format before and to this end John is lending three DDSs to the project – which will be going south fully loaded!

The maiden image

The camera has a 50mm field of view, a 0.2mm pinhole and an effective f-stop of f250. To put that in context, a scene that meters at 1/30th second at f16 becomes an exposure of eight seconds BEFORE taking into account the reciprocity failure of the film stock. So, if you are using Fomapan 100, which is my go-to for 5×4 pinhole, this 8 second exposure becomes 56 seconds once reciprocity is factored in. If, like me you also routinely use a contrast filter for black and white photography (a yellow/green in my case), then this becomes seven and a half minutes!

The project already has five participants in addition to John and myself and we’ve only been kicking the idea around for ten days or so. Hopefully, as more images are shared with the #DPCWT2021 tag then more people will want to get involved. Watch this space!

The Quay to success …

Like many of us amateur photographers I fit my hobby around family life. I’m luckier than some in that my family are all grownups although with ten grandchildren and the cost of professional childcare along with the failure of many employers to cater for working parents with school-age children that benefit quickly gets negated. I probably average only one solid four or five hour block of time to myself in an average week. If like today that coincides with awful weather with no redeeming features such as dramatic clouds or light then enthusiasm can wane a tiny bit.

Four-consecutive-frame “panorama” with Olympus EE3

But, I am lucky in that my better half understands and encourages my hobby so I can often sneak in an hour or two when I should be sorting my domestic chores. She is also fairly tolerant when we go out for the day and so long as I’m not toting a huge bagful of kit she’s happy for me to take a camera, or three, along. She’s also happy for me to wander with a camera whilst she is shopping so long as I’m back at the designated spot on time and not so far away that I cannot be summonsed to give an opinion on something.

Two consecutive frames forming a diptych- Olympus EE3

A recent weekend away in Salford, staying at a Travelodge on the Quays, was a case in point. I took a shoulder bag as normal (I am required to carry any bits n pieces designated as necessary) and still managed to squeeze in three cameras, a mini tripod, Z-plate, a few filters and half a dozen rolls of 120 and 35mm film. The ever-present Horizon S3 Pro was joined by the new Ondu 6×6 pinhole and as a last-minute impulse the Olympus EE3 half-frame 35mm camera.

And not a security guard in sight – Horizon S3 Pro

Now, the Quays, or more specifically the Media City UK complex, don’t hold particularly fond memories for me. Twice in three previous visits I had been harassed by security guards controlled by a remote, faceless supervisor with CCTV determined to be a total jobsworth. The first time I had a little sympathy for them, I had a large tripod and a pro-spec Nikon DSLR. They mistook me for a professional photographer and demanded my permit. Explaining I was not a professional and the images were just for my own amusement was futile so I asked where do I need to go to request a permit. Turned out it had to be done in writing well ahead of time! As there were very few folk about at the time I was fairly frustrated by this totally jobsworthian attitude. The fact that my companion on the day, a professional shooting images for her business, was not even spoken to just rubbed salt in the wounds.

Horizon S3 Pro – the security guard turned aside when he heard the clockwork motor!

So, despite not toting a large tripod or large “professional -looking” camera I was nevertheless wary. In fact, I was only approached by a lanyard-wearing official once but he turned away when he heard the clockwork whir of my Horizon!

Over the weekend I used all three cameras, all six rolls of film and also the “emergency” roll of Tri-X I keep in the pocket of the Horizon case. Three 35mm rolls through the Horizon, the Ondu swallowed the three rolls of 120 and I chewed through seventy five half-frames with the Olympus. All of which was accomplished whilst walking with the wife or whilst waiting whilst she explored the outlet shopping centre (twice).

Media City in the background – Ondu 6×6

One of my hobby horses is the advisability of knowing your cameras inside out such that you don’t need to think about the operational aspects; using the camera becomes instinctive and you are free to concentrate on composition. Such is the case with any camera I take out on an outing with other people, especially non-photographers. I save new or rarely used cameras for those occasions when I can concentrate totally on the photography. By following this maxim I was able to scan for possible images whilst walking knowing that I could take the camera out of the bag and make the exposure with barely a break in my stride. The pinhole is an exception here of course and I simply stored up possibilities and went back for these whilst the better half was shopping.

Ever patient wife to the right

And I guess that’s my point. An understanding wife, a thorough understanding of the camera and film you are using and a can-do approach means that “serious” photography is possible even when you don’t have a “serious” amount of time to do it in. Hopefully the images accompanying this post don’t disprove my theory!

A few frames … Olympus Pen EE3

Over the years I’ve acquired a fairly random collection of cameras alongside the day-to-day “system”. One that only gets the occasional outing is the half-frame, 35mm Olympus Pen EE3. I loaded it with a roll of high-contrast Rollei Blackbird recently and it spent three weeks in my bag being used as and when I got the inspiration.

The Swing

The Pen EE-3 is a compact, tough little half-frame camera from the 1970s and as with all half-frame cameras, you get two pictures on a single 35mm frame. The EE-3 has fully-automatic exposure with the EE standing for Electronic Eye. It measures the available light with the selenium cell meter which wraps around the lens and chooses between two shutter speeds: 1/125th and 1/30th of a second. The aperture is determined via the ISO/ASA rating of the film which is set just below the lens.

Salford Quays. June 2021

My method of using this camera has evolved since I’ve had it. I started by making individual pics in the same way as I would use any other camera. This gives tiny negatives, okay for small enlargements in the darkroom. However, I’d not had it long before I realised there was, for me, a better way. In-camera diptychs. Pairs of complementary images occupying a single 35mm frame.

More recently I’ve taken that further and have made three-, four-, five- and six-frame sequences. This takes the diptych concept further and the four-plus sequences fit the panoramic format very nicely.

Salford Quays June 2021
Blyth beach, Northumberland
Cresswell beach.

Ode to a wooden box

Fear not, I’m not about to get all poetic in my appreciation of the aforementioned wooden box. The box of which I speak is my Zero Image 612b pinhole camera. The ‘b’ is for basic of course, whereas the 612 indicates a maximum negative size of 6×12. In reality the negative is bigger than 6×12 as I’ve mentioned before. It is also multi-format as baffles inside can be moved to create 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9 in addition to the titular 6×12.

When I bought it I felt it was expensive for what it was and even more so when it languished on a shelf for month after month once the first couple of rolls had been exposed. None too successfully at that if I’m honest. However, just recently I’ve used it more and have started to learn to appreciate it properly. I’ve also started to get the hang of using it more effectively too.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that it likes to be close to the action – very close! I’ve taken a couple of images recently featuring coffee mugs – with said mugs never more than three inches from the wooden box. Really, that close. I’m finding that for my taste, using a very obvious main subject very close to the box helps create depth and a real sense of three dimensional space. That’s not to say that every pinhole image I make has a subject right up close but it’s fair to say that I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve got in close and many images could have benefitted from being closer to the subject. This little box does have a fair sized field of view!

One of my early mistakes with this box was with regards to exposure calculations. I metered as I would normally but still seemed to get under-exposed negatives. My mistake was treating the given aperture value as gospel – my box likes light, plenty of it too. I now almost always add on at least a stop to the exposure time I calculate and am never afraid to bracket if in doubt. Reciprocity should also be taken seriously in my experience, especially with the Fomapan 100 I favour for my pinhole work. I chose Fomapan precisely because of its huge reciprocity values. It is actually helpful to have longer exposure times when your shutter is manually opened and closed by simply sliding a piece of wood to reveal and then hide the pinhole.

This is a seriously lightweight piece of kit and despite accommodating 6×12 negatives it is surprisingly small. It fits comfortably in my shoulder bag even with an SLR/DSLR with a second lens already present. Spare film and my mini tripod also fit in and I’ve made plenty of images that I’d not have been able too if the box took up more room. I like to travel with minimal kit and this box adds extra artistic capability without being a burden.

Not only is this box light and therefore easily carried in my shoulder bag “just in case” I need it, it is also pretty water resistant. No electronics to fizzle under the persistent rain we are blessed with here in the UK for a start. No lens to become rain spattered and smeared either. A quick wipe with a micro-fibre cloth and it’s like it was never wet. I’ve used this little box in torrential rain, on the beach, low down on a mini tripod with the sea lapping around and whilst I’ve been careful not to submerge it in water I’ve yet to have any issues with a malfunctioning box!

Of course, this isn’t my only pinhole camera. It isn’t even my only Zero Image camera. I have pinholes in 35mm, 120 and 5×4 large format. All of them are simply wooden boxes. I’ve written about them regularly, including this post which could have been sponsored by a rubber band company! It wasn’t but I’m still open to offers!

For some people, pinhole equates to fuzzy, unsharp images but whilst I’ve my fair share of such pictures, with or without a lens, it is my experience that a pinhole camera can also produce lovely crisp images. To support this assertion I present the image above created with the Zero Image 5×4. The key is technique. Which applies to all forms of photography I guess. Whilst a pinhole camera may be a very simple technological concept it is true that you still need good technique. For a start there are no electronics to assure good focus, the correct exposure or even adjust for slight camera movement. The first requirement is that the camera doesn’t move either during the exposure or at the time the shutter is opened or closed. This requires two things. Firstly, a tripod or other support to keep the camera still. A wall is helpful here if you find yourself without anything else although for my part a mini tripod is always in the bag with the camera. Secondly, a steady hand to ensure the camera isn’t knocked whilst operating the shutter. Some pinhole cameras have a cable release mechanism built in allowing the use of a standard threaded cable release although sadly none of mine feature this innovation.

The last ingredient I want to mention is aesthetics. Specifically YOUR aesthetic. It is my view that pinhole photography does not rely on technique alone. Good technique will help tremendously but it is not enough on its own. Using the camera regularly is vital if the photographer is to start to “see” through the pinhole. Not everything you point the pinhole at will work visually in two-dimensions and it takes time and practice to judge what will and won’t work. There’s little point though in me trying to tell anyone what will or won’t work; photography is a very personal medium and what works for one person may not necessarily work for others. Of course, it’s great when other folk appreciate your work but as ever the most important viewer of your work is you.

This has been a short appreciation of the humble pinhole camera and I have hopefully shared a few thoughts that will help those new to pinhole photography or indeed those thinking of jumping in to the fascinating genre. Technique is the key to successful images but even technique is subservient to the aesthetic.