Many people who start doing wet plate photography convert regular film holders to accept glass or aluminum plates so they can use their standard view cameras.
This is much cheaper and quicker than having a dedicated wet plate back designed for your view camera, but of course not necessarily better. It sure is a good way to take your first steps. I am about to make those first steps soon…
A great example of how to convert an existing film holder can be seen here in Alex Timmermans’ article. Converting a regular film holder means that you will lose some exposable area when compared to film. To maintain rigidity of the holder and as a fixing base for the silver wire or plastic corner pieces, it is necessary to leave behind some of the film holder’s septum.
Enter the Chamonix wet plate holder! A dedicated large format wet plate holder that fits all view cameras with an international back. They are available in 4×5″ and 8×10″ sizes. I bought (or rather traded) a 4×5″ wet plate holder because I want to start small.
Had I been smart, I should have bought an 8×10″ wet plate holder and make an insert to accept 4×5″ plates. That way I could use my wooden Kodak 2D 8×10″ camera and lenses and still make small plates. Now I will have to use my metal Toyo 45AII camera and I am sure I will ruin it in the process. Maybe I should try and find a cheap wooden 4×5″ camera first.
As you can see in the second image above, the Chamonix wet plate holder takes glass or aluminum plates that are exactly the same size as a 4×5″ film negative. Plates are loaded through the back of the holder and exposed from the front (as you probably expected). Exposing a plate leaves a 3.5 mm border unexposed. This is caused by a ledge on which the plate rests. You end up with an exposed area of 93 by 120 mm (or 3 2/3 by 4 3/4″). It is nice that plates can be used that are marginally larger than those that would fit a converted regular film holder, while the exposed area is also bigger. Compared to 4×5″ film, you lose 1 mm on the left and 1 mm on the right of the image on the plate. Lengthwise there is no penalty to pay.
I have tried blank plates of various thicknesses. Any media between 0.5 mm and 3.5 mm fits into these wet plate holders. A 1 mm aluminum plate backed by a 2 mm glass tablet can be used without any problem. I am not sure whether that would be necessary though. The carbon fibre pressure tablet seems to be rigid enough to keep the aluminum from warping, especially in 4×5″ size. You can get 4 mm thick media in there, but then the pressure tablet won’t fit anymore.
The pressure tablet itself has 4 plastic studs to minimize contact with the back of the wet plate, this to avoid as much contamination by the chemistry as possible. A steel spring presses the tablet against the back of the plate when the dark slide meant for inserting the plate is closed.
As with most products from Chamonix these plate holders are beautifully made. Both dark slides and the pressure plate are made from carbon fiber. They are extremely light and rigid. Since these wet plate holders take just one plate (opposed to film holders that take two sheets of film), the dark slide facing the lens has a different shape than the dark slide for inserting the plate. The latter dark slide has a cut-out notch on top. This helps to avoid inserting the holder (or the plate) in the wrong direction.
The dark slide meant for exposing the plate can be removed from the wet plate holder completely. The dark slide for inserting plates can be fully extended, but not removed. That is what the two small black dots (on top of the body, next to the screws) are for.
On top of that, the ridge that fits the camera’s light trap is only there on the side of the plate holder that faces towards the rear of your lens. The other side of the plate holder is flat.
When compared to a regular film holder from Chamonix, you can see that this is not simply a straight forward conversion of an existing product. Besides the differences mentioned above, it is easy to see that the joints in the woodwork are much more rigid on the wet plate holder than those on the regular film holder. The hinged flap for inserting film from the bottom is omitted, it is fixed now. There are no longer any hooks to prevent accidentally removing the dark slides.
Also, the wet plate holder is about half a millimeter thicker. Everything is done to assure the wet plate holder’s rigidity, because there no longer is a septum doing just that. It looks like Chamonix uses the same teak wood on these wet plate holders as on their cameras. It is a nice change from the light maple, I think.
I am really looking forward to using this wet plate holder. Someday soon I will get the right chemicals, beakers, flasks and plates and have a go at it. For now I am mostly reading a lot to see how wet plate photography is actually done.
Excellent information can be found here:
Alex Timmermans’ Collodion Art Blog
The Wet Plate Collodion Photography Forum and the Wet Plate Collodion Photographer and Chemical Pictures Community groups on Facebook (these are members only).
The wet plate holder in 4×5″ and 8×10″ sizes (or other Chamonix products) can be seen here: Chamonix View Camera