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 It was eventually superseded early in the 20th century by the celluloid film that we are now so familiar with.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!

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