The Collodionist, 49 Mercer Street, Hamilton, NJ, 08690

Lighting for Wet Plate Collodion Portraits

Early studio lighting in wet plate photography was a challenging and time-consuming process. Wet plate photography, also known as collodion photography, was the dominant form of photography in the 19th century. It involved the use of glass plates coated with a thin layer of collodion, a flammable liquid made from nitrocellulose and ether, which was then sensitised to light by dipping it in a solution of silver nitrate.

One of the biggest challenges of wet plate photography was the need for long exposure times, which meant that studio lighting had to be very bright and consistent. To achieve this, photographers used a variety of techniques and equipment, including large studio windows, skylights, and mirrors to reflect and amplify the available light.

One of the most common methods for lighting a studio was the use of large windows or skylights. These provided a natural, diffuse light that was perfect for portrait photography. Photographers would position their subjects near the window or skylight, and use a reflector to bounce light back onto the subject's face. This helped to fill in any shadows and create a more even, flattering light. In addition to windows and skylights, photographers also used mirrors to reflect and amplify the available light.

Large, flat mirrors were placed opposite the windows or skylights, and were angled to bounce the light back onto the subject. This helped to create a more even, consistent light that was less harsh than the direct sunlight coming through the window.

Another popular lighting technique was the use of artificial light sources, such as oil lamps, gas lamps, and candlelight. These provided a warm, soft light that was ideal for portrait photography. However, they also had their drawbacks, such as the need for frequent refilling and the risk of fire.. Despite these challenges, wet plate photography paved the way for many of the modern lighting techniques and equipment we use today.

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