Ambrotypes - History & Modern Production, January 18, 2006

Maayan Kasimov & Rob Norton

An informal discussion on the history of the Ambrotype and how photographers are making modern day Ambrotypes. Maayan Kasimov and Rob Norton, students of Mike Robinson's "early photographic processes" at Ryerson University gave a lively talk with sample images as large as 8 x 10 inches. They added first hand experience to the art of Ambrotypes. Today Maayan specializes in pet & portrait photography while Rob does photography & web site design.

Maayan Kasimov and Rob Norton

c1860 portraitThe Ambrotype consists of an under-exposed grayish-white glass plate negative, backed by a dark material to create a positive image. Like a Daguerreotype, the grayish silver provides the highlights while the dark backing creates the shadows. Prior to the 1850s when Fredrick Scott Archer revolutionized photography with the wet-plate process two competing processes were used. The Daguerreotype process was slow, expensive and used deadly mercury fumes while the cheaper and safer Calotype suffered from poor quality due to contact printing through a paper negative. A very early attempt to adhere a light sensitive emulsion to glass with albumen was unsuccessful as the resulting plate was too slow to be practical.


Kasimov & Norton by Robert Lansdale

beakers for the chemicalsCollodion, which Archer used in his industry changing wet-plate process was created by a medical student (Maynard) who discovered that by dissolving cellulose nitrate (gun-cotton) in a mixture of ether and alcohol, he could make a clear, transparent "skin-like" wound covering. Archer added potassium iodide (adding cadmium bromide as well increases sensitivity to light) to the collodion before coating the glass plate. Subjecting the coated plate to light sensitive silver nitrate made it sensitive enough to expose in a camera - if the plate was exposed and developed before the coating dried - hence the name "wet-plate". Wet-plate negatives have the finest resolution of any process to date.

MAAYAN's Web Site and Images

Maayan explained that she and Rob use basically the same 1850s chemistry except they omit the explosive ether and rely on a higher concentration of alcohol to dissolve the collodion. Since too much alcohol affects sensitivity, occasionally the silver bath has to be briefly "aired" in the sun.

They use two other variations to the traditional technique: dark glass instead of clear glass, solving the need to have a dark backing for the image; and the plates are exposed with an enlarger in lieu of a wet-plate camera. A slightly under-exposed colour slide works best. The slide/enlarger approach results in a finely detailed image (with somewhat lower resolution than a plate exposed in a wet-plate camera). A slide is used rather than a negative because like the Daguerreotype, the Ambrotype is a positive to positive process.

Eric Coucke by Maayan Kasimov
Brenna by Maayan Kasimov

plate clamp to hold glass while polishingSpit and polish. Success begins with an absolutely clean glass surface. The glass edges are sanded for safety and then the plate is clamped in a modified carpenter's wooden clamp for cleaning. The cleaning begins with a paste of talc and alcohol followed by an alcohol rinse. The cleaning ends with a careful buffing with a soft flannel cloth. Maayan noted that too much enthusiasm in the polishing makes the surface so slippery that the collodion won't stick.

collodion and halidesApply the glue. There is a skill to evenly coating a plate with collodion and then with silver nitrate. Rob showed how the plate is held by one corner, the collodion poured on its centre and the plate gently rocked to lay down a single smooth layer with the excess draining back into a container from the opposite corner. The plate has to sit for 15 to 20 seconds to ensure the collodion adheres properly to the glass.

ROB's Web Site and Images

silver nitrate and protective gearSensitize. The silver nitrate solution is applied next to sensitize the plate. Again it is necessary to create an even coating. This can be done by tipping a tray to flow the silver nitrate evenly across the plate, or better, the plate can be dipped in the silver nitrate using a tall narrow tray and dipping rod. The vertical method gives a more consistent light sensitivity. The wet-plate emulsion is orthochromatic, like printing paper, allowing the silver nitrate to be applied under safe light conditions rather than in total darkness. Rubber gloves and eye protection are a must when using silver nitrate.

from a distance - 8x10 ambrotype on black glass
from a distance - 8x10 ambrotype on black glass

Process. While still wet an image is captured and then immediately developed. Like the coating steps, development is done hand held!  A bead of developer is poured along one edge and the plate is once more rocked to completely and evenly develop the image. This gives better control than using a tray. A plain water wash is used to stop the development before shadow detail begins to show. The use of nitric acid in the developer causes the silver in the image to turn a greyish white.

traditional hypo fixerFix. Once developed, the plate is given a thorough water wash for four minutes, carefully washing both sides of the plate. The new image is then washed in a traditional hypo bath to eliminate all remaining silver halides and render the plate insensitive to light. The contrast of the light coloured silver against the dark glass brings out the positive image. The emergence of the positive image never fails to thrill the young photographers. Once fixed and washed, the plate must be allowed to dry thoroughly. The image becomes lighter when dry.

damage to unvarnished ambrotype

chemicals used to add a protective varnish coatingVarnish. The emulsion is very fragile and can be removed with the careless wipe of a finger. We often see old glass-plate negatives or Ambrotypes with frayed edges caused by bits of emulsion flaking off at the slightest touch. To protect the finished plate, varnish is applied over the emulsion - not with a brush, but with a solution of lavender and gum sandarac. 

damage to an unvarnished image

wooden drying rackThe varnish solution and plate are gently warmed over an open flame and then the varnish is carefully poured on the plate and once again distributed by rocking the plate while holding it over the open flame. The solvent evaporates leaving the varnish fixed to the surface without damage. The addition of the pleasant smelling varnish darkens the image and gives it a warmer tone. Let the plate thoroughly dry. 

samples of modern ambrotypes

looking at samples (by Robert Lansdale)Maayan and Rob passed around examples of their work giving everyone the opportunity to see first hand the look of a recently made Ambrotype.

Chemicals for this old process are available from Nymoc Ltd., 24 McGee St., Toronto, Ontario M4M 2K9. Tel 416-465-1929.

Additional information about Ambrotypes and the wet-plate process is available from Sean MacKenna's Scott Archer page and from the Scully & Osterman collodion site.

Note: Sean MacKenna contacted me on December 13, 2008 to let me know the link to his Frederick Scott Archer site has changed. You might enjoy Sean's wet plate site too. Visit him at


samples of modern ambrotypes
Sample images

Thanks to Maayan and Rob for copies of their slides and to Bob Lansdale for the other images. With the last minute room change, subbing for president Ed Warner, taking notes for this write-up and helping with the slides, I was as busy as a camera salesman handing out free Leicas at our spring fair. Images taken with a Nikon D70 or Sony F828. Adjustments were made in Photoshop CS2. Contents and images are ©2006 by their respective owners. The PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on most of the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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