What are tintypes?

Wet Plate Collodion or “Tintype” photography is a process created in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer as a way to photograph his models for sculptures.  It was one of the earliest and most successful photographic processes, and by the 1860’s it essentially replaced the more dangerous “daguerreotype” process which used mercury. 

“Tintypes” are positive photographs made on “japanned” metal (or aluminum trophy plate nowadays), and “Ambrotypes” are positive photographs made on clear, mirrored, or colored glass plates. The plates, both aluminum and glass are sensitized to light with silver on a nitrous collodion adhesive backing. The plates must remain wet throughout the entire process in order to work, hence the name ‘Wet Plate’.

Each photograph taken is made by hand and produced on site. We use a portable darkroom  when out on location to sensitize the plate to light, then compose the picture, make the exposure, and develop it. Each of the components necessary to produce a final photograph is also made by hand, including the chemistry. The picture is then washed, dried, coated with varnish, and cured overnight.   When varnished, a plate should last well over 100 years!  Ambrotypes on glass are made using a similar technique, but are more labor intensive and harder to produce and provide a beautiful result.

Because the light-sensitivity of the plates is very low by today’s standards, the exposure times of a typical photograph shot in full sun can range from a couple of seconds for a portrait to almost a minute for a detailed landscape or still life, depending on the amount of available light.  This means the subjects being photographed must remain as still as possible while their portrait is being taken.  This is why the majority of people in pictures from the era usually appear to be so stiff and formal. 

Because of the cost and the amount of work involved to produce each plate, tintypes were typically very expensive. Most people could only afford a small business card-sized portrait, called a “quarter plate” to commemorate special occasions.  4×5 size is only slightly more common, and 5×7 more rare.  Larger sized portraits, like full plates, and 8x10s were extremely rare.  Having a portrait taken in the old days was a major event, so people tried to look and dress their very best.  In some cases, a single tintype may have been the only photograph a person had of themselves in their lifetime.  It was even common practice to purchase a post-mortem tintype in the event of an untimely death. 

By around the 1890’s, as the tintype process became more common, the costs began to come down.   Photographers used wagons converted into mobile darkrooms to crisscross the country often making portraits at fairs and carnivals. The wet plate collodion process was still used, even into the pre-WW2 era as it was a time-tested way of producing a take-a-way souvenir photo.