People keep asking me why bother making something as cumbersome as wet plate photographs, when you could just tweak a digital image file to LOOK like a wet plate photograph, and then print it with an inkjet printer…

Well, you can do a lot of things in Photoshop, and it’s easy and fun too. But if you’re a photographer, there is one thing, in my opinion, to keep in your mind: you can’t retract your promise to photography. By choosing to work with photographic materials and techniques you have committed yourself to work with some fundamental things like light, space and time. These elements are really conserved in your final work — that is why I like wet plate (and other alt-processes) so much… you can feel and hold those things in your hands, you have the plate that has actually seen this light and energy and is keeping it! (By the way, William Crawford‘s classic book on alternative processes has an excellent title: The Keepers of Light).

With a digital print you don’t have any commitments… it has lost its energy a long time ago — maybe it had it when the image was captured by the digital camera — which also has its ways to capture the energy — but the image is transformed and transmissed so long way, that there may not be much left of it after all conversions, compressions, equalizing and whatnot. With digital cameras people tend to get similar results — often it’s not them taking the pictures but rather letting the camera make decisions.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t hate digicams. I use many myself, and I think they really are excellent tools on certain tasks. But to come to the original question of why not using digicam for capturing and Photoshop for emulating different processes, I have made two fake ambrotypes below. Here are the digital camera captures:

Old processes (like wet plate collodion) have some characteristic properties that are quite easily emulated in Photoshop; wet plate collodion typically was sensitive mostly to blue light – to simulate this in PS we can use only the blue color channel and discard the rest. Another typical feature is the long exposure, during which moving targets (flowing water, clouds, foliage in the wind) will render blurred. Also this can be simulated by PS’s blur filters and such.

Another feature is that these processes are often exposed on a large plate, and camera lenses for those plate sizes are greatly bigger than, say, in 35mm or digital cameras, also having much longer focal lengths for lenses. Due to this fact the depth of field of these long lenses is much shorter than in digicams. This is an important creative and expressive effect for photographers — almost impossible to simulate with consumer digicams.

Here are my fake ambrotypes that I made from digital files. I used some base textures from here, and also used methods from this site, making minor improvements to these methods.

The Ahlstrom Bridge (summer), Noormarkku, Finland. Fake Ambrotype.

The Ahlstrom Bridge (spring), Noormarkku, Finland. Fake Ambrotype.

Okay, they may look like wet plate photographs, but you really can’t call them that… maybe I can fool you on this web page and even with printed matters (if I call them “reproductions of wet plates”), but if you ask me to show the plates — and there are none — you can see how the energy captured by the digicam has lost. It’s not there in the unsubstantial web image, or on the inkjet paper any more…

Not convinced? Well, here’s to you then, a book of How to produce a cyanotype, wet plate collodion, Daguerrotype, or just about every other historic style of print – but without the mess.

Good luck! 😉