What is Wet Plate Photography?

Wet plate photography is an old-fashioned photographic process in which the image is formed on a wet plate rather than a dry film. It is more suited to black and white photography, though it can be used in colour as well.

Wet plate photography was a new photographic method that was invented in England in the late 1800s. It was a way to quickly make prints from large negatives. This is how it worked;

1. The plates were coated with a liquid emulsion which contained silver chloride crystals.

2. The exposed film is immersed in this emulsion, and the image is ‘developed’ (i.e. the image on the negative becomes visible) in a chemical bath.

3. The developed negative is placed on a piece of glass and the developer solution removed. The image on the glass is then treated with mercury vapour to harden the emulsion, and the print is fixed with a fixing agent, which turns the emulsion into a permanent, black-and-white image.

4. The prints are made by placing them under a special kind of large and powerful lens known as a ‘camera plate holder’.

Wet plate photography is a very old technique used to photograph paper or glass plates, and it involves developing the photographs in a wet medium. The process is quite different from the digital era, where images are processed digitally and the result is then printed onto a glass plate. This is because there are no negatives in wet plate photography, only positives. There are three stages in the process: preparation, exposure and development. The first stage involves setting up the camera and preparing the wet plate. In this chapter we discuss some of the best ways to prepare your photographic plate.

We have listed some of the equipment needed below:

A camera




A plastic tray to hold your plate

A glass plate (or paper)

Chemicals to develop your plate

A bellows (for focusing the camera)

It is important that you understand the process involved before you start. You need to know that the process can be dangerous if you are not careful and can burn yourself if the chemicals get on your skin.


In order to prepare your plate, the first step is to buy chemicals to develop your plate. Make sure the chemicals are kept in a cool, dark place and are out of reach of children. You will also need a timer, a tripod, a bellows (which makes it easier to focus your camera), a tray to hold the camera, and a glass plate or paper to put the developed plate onto.

The chemicals used for developing plates include:

Hydroquinone (HQ): This is a common developer that is usually added to the photographic emulsion in gelatin-based papers. It works well in all types of paper except for those containing silver.

Hydroquinone and Silver Nitrate (HQS): This combination of chemicals can be used on a wide range of photographic materials, including cellulose nitrate (paper), cellulose acetate (films), polyester (films and paper) and polycarbonate (transparencies). It is also suitable for a number of synthetic paper products, such as polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene. The HQS chemicals are added to the emulsion before it is coated onto the support. HQS is less common than HQ.

Silver nitrate (AgNO3.: This chemical is only suitable for photographic emulsions in which the silver bromide is the dominant component.

A solution of Silver Chloride (AgCl): This is more commonly referred to as fixing solution. It is used to chemically fix the silver in a silver halide emulsion (to produce a silver image). It is most commonly used on paper and cellulose acetate emulsion.

The chemicals are mixed together and put in a bottle with a screw-on cap. You will need to buy two bottles, one to develop your plate, and another to store the chemicals for later use.

Exposure and Development

The second stage in preparing your plate involves exposing the plate to light, then developing it by adding chemicals. In this chapter we discuss how to set up the camera and exposure times.

Camera Settings

When you want to start taking photographs using a wet plate you must have a tripod, camera and shutter. You can set your camera to take a picture every few seconds or at certain intervals. The time between each shot is known as the interval. The amount of time taken is known as the exposure time. You can control the aperture (the size of the opening in the lens that lets in light) and shutter speed (how long the shutter is open).

To develop your photographic paper:

Turn on the timer on your camera.

Set the aperture to f/16 (f/16 is the most common setting for a wet plate).

Open the shutter to the full length of the exposure time, which will depend on how much light there is and how long it takes to expose the plate.

When the shutter closes, it cuts off the light from the camera’s bulb, but leaves the light that comes through the lens.

While the shutter is open, the light coming through the lens travels onto the photographic paper or glass plate, which has been placed over the film or plate holder in the camera. This causes a chemical reaction that changes the light into a positive image.

Turn off the timer when the image is developed.

You will know when your plate has been exposed because it will darken in front of you. If it does not, you may have waited too long and it will still be too light. If this happens, turn on the timer again and take another picture. Make sure that the light in the room is no brighter than daylight.

Developing Your Plate

If you want to develop your plate, you need to add chemicals to the exposed plate. The chemicals used include:

A developer: This is used to dissolve away the unexposed silver halide salts in the photographic emulsion.

Stop solution: This is added to stop the development process. It prevents the silver image from turning blue, which would make the image illegible.

Fixing solution: This is used to fix the silver image on the photographic paper or glass plate, which is made of cellulose nitrate.


I’m not sure how many of you know this technique but I just want to give a little background. Wet plate photography is a process of taking an image using silver gelatin film.

The great thing about this technique is that you can easily take high quality photos that will last a lifetime.

You can use it for portraits, landscapes, and even product shots. In fact, it’s often used for fashion photography because it gives the images a timeless quality. And as you can see, it’s a really great way to get great looking, professional-quality images.