About Tintype Photographs

Tintypes were a kind of photography invented in the 1850s and which was very widely used into the 20th century. Tintypes were some of the first high-quality and (relatively) low-cost means of making photographs. Tintypes, as the name implies, are made on solid metal, and are a visible, normal, positive image (albeit flipped horizontally). The same basic process can be used on glass, thereby making negatives which in the 1850s could, for the first time, allow for high-resolution reproductions of photographs. There is a ton of information out there about historical tintype photographs: search for “tintypes”, “wetplate photography”, or “wetplate collodion”, and you’ll see what I mean.

These days making tintypes is far from the cheapest means of making a photograph. You can probably pull your cell phone out of your pocket and make a decent shot in the time it took you to read this paragraph. If I work hard for an entire day I might make 5-10 successful photographs. And that is after taking time to mix powders and liquids – some of them highly flammable – and before hours of scanning, varnishing, and cleaning up.

But in an age where such ephemeral photos are ubiquitous and, being digital, largely fleeting and never made into an actual print, there is something fantastic about holding an object in your hand.

Tintypes are photographs made on a piece of metal – not even a flimsy delicate piece of paper – from scratch, from compounds bought from a chemical supply company. I take a piece of metal, add my mixtures to it, and make the image right on the metal plate inside the camera. Each tintype photograph was made at the location, at the moment I released the shutter – these are not copies created later in the darkroom. Each one takes a certain amount of time to make, not counting set up and clean up time, and not every tintype works out ok. A long hard day’s work might result in only a few usable tintypes.

My Arca-Swiss 4x5 large format camera. This is the camera I've used to make most of my tintypes.

My Arca-Swiss 4×5 large format camera. This is the camera I’ve used to make most of my tintypes.

I usually work with a camera that makes tintypes that are 3.5 inches by 4.5 inches in size. I do have a camera which makes 7in x 9in tintypes, but so far I haven’t hauled it out into the field much, yet. Everything is four times bigger: the camera, the equipment, and the space needed to process the tintypes.

This is my 8x10 inch camera, an old Eastman Commercial View, with a brass barrel lens I picked up on Ebay and a custom-cut lens board.

This is my 8×10 inch camera, an old Eastman Commercial View, with a brass barrel lens I picked up on Ebay and a custom-cut lens board.

After I make the tintypes they need to be thoroughly washed and dried. After that I can scan them to make digital versions, which then need to be retouched for dust and lint. Once the tins have been scanned I will then varnish them, and that protective surface needs 36-48 hours to cure.

More about Gear

Here are some photos from making tintypes “in the field”.

Sometimes I set up a portable darkroom – the big red tent in these photos – which is nice since I can stand up, use a table, and have plenty of space to work.

Here my darkroom tent (red block at far right) is set up on the edge of the Goosenecks portion of the San Juan River in southern Utah.

Here my darkroom tent (red block at far right) is set up on the edge of the Goosenecks portion of the San Juan River in southern Utah.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, one of the images I made in the darkroom pictured above.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, one of the images I made in the darkroom pictured above.

When I have time and space to set it up - safely, out of the wind - I sometimes use a portable darkroom (aka an icefishing tent) which is nice, since I can stand up straight and use a table and have space. Photo ©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park

When I have time and space to set it up – safely, out of the wind – I sometimes use a portable darkroom (aka an icefishing tent) which is nice, since I can stand up straight and use a table and have space. Photo ©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park

Here is an overview of all the gear and essential chemicals for making tintypes.

This is a typical setup inside the portable darkroom. Here one of my students is about to pour developer on the tintype to bring out the image.

This is a typical setup inside the portable darkroom. Here one of my students is about to pour developer on the tintype to bring out the image.

The big downside to having lots of space is that if there is any wind, the big tent turns into a big kite.

This is very not good.

This is very not good.

The tent also takes up quite a bit of space, which needs to be safe and out of the way of everything else going on (like passing traffic). Finally, the tent and folding table take up a lot of precious space in my dinky little hatchback.

To solve these problems, I made a darkbox that fits right in the trunk of my car. This is a 27 gallon storage tub, into which I’ve cut holes for a window (red acrylic) and for my arms to reach in. Here is a lot more about making the darkbox.

This is the darkbox that I build to fit in the back of my car.

The box was the original blue of the plastic tub to begin with. Eventually I coated it with a layer of thick black paint to block light passing through the plastic.

Because I can fit all of the supplies I need to make a tintype inside the tub (except for a jug of rinse water, my camera, and the tripod) it basically doesn’t take up any extra space in the car!

You can’t see it, but my darkbox is there in the back of my car while I make tintypes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, along the Burr Trail Road.

All I need to do is pull off the road in a safe spot, open the trunk and unload the box, and I can be making photographs within about 10-15 minutes. And, while wind is still an issue – especially in dry areas with lots of blowing dust – I don’t need to be concerned with my darkroom blowing over the cliff into the Grand Canyon.

My darkbox in use, making portraits in Memphis. Photo ©2016 Andrea Morales.

Brad Vest and Andrea Morales, Memphis, 2016

Brad Vest and Andrea Morales, Memphis, 2016

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