Free «Alternative Photographic Techniques» Essay Sample

Photography is a method of making pictures that was developed during the 19th century, and it had its basis on the principles of chemistry, light, and optics. The Greeks considered photography as the art of drawing with light (Mary 1997, 53). Over the years, photographs have served as conveyers of news. This has been particularly important in documenting the events such as wars; a practice which enabled decision makers and political elites access to the recent accounts of engagement. There are other advantages of photograph which include documenting scientific evidence, art works, and family records. These advantages have popularized cameras to such an extent that over ten billion snap shots are taken on yearly basis.

Alternative photographic techniques are the traditional and mostly non-commercial photographing techniques which were devised by the early photographers over a century ago. They are also referred to as non-silver processes. A significant number of modern-day photographers are reconsidering the use of these alternative processes as they try to utilize and practice with new technologies like those that use the digital negative. Currently, the photographic printing processes include those which use the standard digital and analog methods. An example of a process which is standard digital is the pigment print while that of standard analogue is gelatin silver process.  

Digital photography has several advantages which include; immediate gratification, immediate photo delivery to the customer, the portability of digital media, ease of storage of the images, and minimum film processing costs. Storage and retrieval of digital images takes lesser amount of time, effort, and space than the films. Furthermore, slides storage is done in the dark. They are placed in sealed cases for protection against ultraviolet rays, heat, and dust (Mary 1997, 53). However, the handling of disk drives is easer, and the risks of the photos getting destroyed minimal. Other advantages of digital photography are that; the film does not have to be stored in the refrigerator, the processes of producing digital photos are environmental friendly, they offer enhanced tonal range, ability to produce perfect and unlimited copies, minimized chances of getting damaged or mishandled in the laboratory, and elimination of scanning costs.

The Evolution of Photography

Present day cameras evolved from camera obscura, which was a 16th-century equipment for taking photos. Its earliest form consisted of a darkened room which had a tiny opening through one of its walls where lays of light could penetrate projecting an upside-down picture of an object onto the opposing wall (Kurt 2001, 73). Over 300 years, camera obscura developed into a box that replaced the pinhole with a lens. The box was handheld and had a mirror which could reflect images to a ground-glass. The viewing screen was placed on the upper part of the box. Before the invention of films, the artists made use of this device to facilitate accurate drawing. They could place thin sheets of paper on the viewing screen which enabled them to trace the reflection with ease.

The 19th century artificers of photography adjusted camera obscure through the addition of a device which could hold sensitized plates at the backside of its box. Some improvements were made on this on camera which enabled it to remain a useful tool throughout the 1800s. A notable improvement on the box was installation of bellows which were pleated leather walls which allowed a photographer to adjust distances between its plane of focus and the lens. The view camera that some modern day professional photographers use employs this idea, although at present it is a large format camera.

The 1880s invention of better lenses and extra sensitive emulsions resulted to the evolution of the lens shutters. These shutters are devices which limited the duration of exposure to milliseconds. Initial shutters were simple blinds that were dropped at the front of the lenses by a spring or the gravitation force (Kurt 2001, 73). Later designs were composed of blades which were placed a short distance to the optical lenses. Kodak camera was invented by George Eastman in 1888. The camera had a cylindrical shutter which the photographer could turn through pulling of a string suspending at the front. It was among the first hand-held cameras, and its invention facilitated amateur photography

The first camera to use the 35 millimeter film was the Leica, which was developed in 1925 by a company called Leitz. The 35 millimeter film is small in size, and it had been designed for use in the motion picture industry which was popular in Germany during that time. Professional photographers and amateurs as well adopted the use of Leica among other cameras which used 35-millimeter films due to their economy and compactness (Mary 1997, 53). Most Leicas employed focal-plane shutters which were located a short distance from the film. These shutters allowed photographers to safely switch lenses in between film rolls.

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The Current Revival of Alternative Photography Processes

The high level of interest with the alternative techniques is due to the advantages they present and also because of a variety of other reasons. A complete digital studio requires a high initial cost which is an inhibitory factor to most beginners. Furthermore, digital photographic equipments require higher battery consumption. This means that in some cases, a photographer has a couple of hours of shooting time at his disposal, and this can pose a challenge when a person wishes to take an extended field shooting especially in locations where power for recharging batteries is unavailable. Therefore, the photographer may simply be forced to abandon his plans; a move that may disorient his intended goals. Moreover, most digital cameras perform poorly in location with poor lighting, and these locations might actually be of interest to the photographer.

Certain markets such as nature and scientific markets reject digital submissions citing authenticity issues. This is because; digital images are easily manipulated while these markets aim for reliable data to enable them make credible conclusions, and reduce contention. Other lens men worry that at times, it is hard to rely on digital equipments as their malfunctioning is complex and difficult to fix quickly; for example, compact flash cards and hard disks may crash. Although these are manageable challenges, they still need to be given a thought while switching digital. Digital photographic technology exhibits a steeper studying curve (Kurt 2001, 73). This is among the biggest challenges to many film shooters; for example, one needs to be a computer-savvy, and be proficient with Photoshop in order to appreciate the rewards that come with digital photography. Furthermore, learning workflow issues and color management is overwhelming to many people as not every person has the potential of learning to harness advantage that comes with digital explosion. Another issue of concern is the problem of perception. Several traditionalistic photographers still consider digital photography as somehow less effective than the alternative photographic techniques. There are others who prefer using these alternative techniques just to preserve them and their place in history. They appreciate the efforts of earlier photographers and, therefore, use their innovations for the purpose of paying tribute to them.

The main reason why more photographers are considering the alternative photographic techniques is because digital technology exhibits obsolescence to a greater extent. They become concerned of technological advancements which make recently acquired photographic equipments become obsolete. This leads to need for additional costs within short intervals, and without apparent forethought. This destabilizes financial plans and put the future of an enterprise in jeopardy. Therefore, it is very important for an individual or an enterprise that uses the present day photographic techniques to have a policy that facilitates strategic contingency planning. This would avoid the disarray which may result due to equipment failure or obsolescence. These problems are rare with the alternative photographic techniques and hence their interest is growing. Alterative photographing techniques are unique, and do not give the photographer absolute control of the eventual outcome. Considering the images that Sally Mann makes through wet plate collodion, marks, stains, and drips are noticeable (Mary 2006, 37). These unique features add and exhibit originality with these images. The alternative techniques include daguerreotype, wet plate collodion, and dry plate collodion.

Alternative Techniques of Interest

The characteristic of being sensitive to light led to the application of silver halides in the photographic processes of the 19th century such as daguerreotypes and calotypes. There are the processes that use the paper negatives as well as wet plate and dry plate processes. The initial commercially productive step in photography was represented by the daguerreotype (Vicki 1981, 36). Its image has been a direct positive which the camera makes on a copper plate. These plates are silver plated, and this makes the daguerreotype surface to act as a mirror. With daguerreotype, the images are imprinted straight on to the fragile silver plated surface. Once finished, the plates are angled, facilitating the reflection of some of its dark surface which enables the image to be viewed properly. The changing of images from being positive to negative is dependent on the angles of view as well as the coloring of the surfaces where they are reflected to. The first daguerreotypes used silver iodide as their light sensitive material. Their Chevalier lenses slowed the photographing process, and their exposure was considerably long to handily take portraits. Nevertheless, they were commonly used in shooting architectural and street scenes (Vicki 1981, 54). Shooting of portraits was only convenient after the Petzval lenses became available.  Sensitization of plates with silver halides such as silver chlorides or bromides further reduced exposure times. A small number of enthusiastic photographers continue to practice daguerreotypes. They have been recently reintroduced by photographers such as Adam Fuss and Jerry Spagnoli; and they are probably less than a hundred worldwide. Wet plate collodion succeeded the daguerreotypes.

The Wet Plate Collodion

Wet plate collodion is a process that requires solutions such as collodion, silver nitrate, developer and fixation solutions, varnishes, and intensifying solutions; which are all prepared in advance. Colodions are solutions of pyroxylines in ether and alcohol which are placed on cleansed glass plates and allowed a few seconds in order to for a thin film. These glass plates acts as substrata for these emersions of collodion (Mary 2006, 37). The glass plates are then immersed in a silver nitrate solvent which facilitates the conversion of bromides, chloride, and iodides into silver bromide,   chloride, and iodide. Placing the plate in sensitizing baths immediately after pouring the collodion dissolves and ruins the film, and also contaminates the sensitization bath. In addition, withholding the plate for long durations makes the film turn impervious; and further chemical reactions meant to sensitize and develop it does not occur. Sensitization baths have to be placed in lightproof boxes which enable photographers to leave the darkroom at will as the plate requires duration of 3-5 minutes for effective sensitization. For sufficient sensitization, silver nitrate is allowed to flow uniformly in a manner that does not leave beading on the surface of the plate. Once fully sensitized, the colorless film takes an opaque appearance. After the reaction has completed, the plates are withdrawn, wiped to remove the excess fluid, and then placed in a light-proof wet plate holder (Mary 2006, 37). While still wet, they are exposed in cameras. A photographer has to complete the camera exposure as well as the darkroom development in 5-10 minutes beyond which the emulsion solvents will have evaporated making the film impervious to those solutions used in the processing. However, this timing window varies depending on the environmental humidity and temperature as well as formula of the collodion used.

Plate holders are placed in cameras that have been set-up in advance to facilitate the focusing and framing of the images. Exposures are made, and dark slides replaced. This is followed by the processing of the plate holder in the dark room. A small amount of developing solution is placed over the plate surfaces; and development allowed approximately 15 seconds for case of positives, and about 90 seconds when glass negatives are being developed. Clean water is then run over the plate to ensure complete removal of every trace of the developer. Fixing the plate is allowed twice the duration that clearing in a rapid fixer or potassium cyanide takes. Subsequently, it is washed severally with clean water for complete removal of the fixer; and then dried gently using a paraffin lamp. It may also be places on a drying rack to dry passively. The plate is then varnished for protection. The varnish solvent is usually evaporated through slow heating using a paraffin lamp. Upon finishing, the plates are then sealed in glass protective cases.

Invention of wet plate collodion was a step forward because a photographer could then make several prints using a single negative, while other methods at that time produced positive images which were challenging to replicate. This was an enhancement of the paper negative positive process that calotypes (Mary 2006, 7) had brought 11 years before. Furthermore, colodion proved to be an inexpensive, particularly when compared to daguerreotype; and a quick process. Additionally, the images were supported by glass, and glass was less expensive as compared to the silver plated copper. Wet plate collodion had challenges. The entire 10 minutes process had to be completed before the glass plate dried. Drips of silver nitrate from the plate caused stains on the plate holders and cameras. Lastly, bromide and iodide salts saturated silver nitrate bath with time making it lose its effectiveness. This led to mysterious failure of images formation on the plates.

 Despite these challenges, wet plate collodion is gaining popularity especially in shooting landscape works, portraitures, art photography, and architectural photography. Several experimenters and artists favor the aesthetic qualities of this process over those of gelatin silver method of today. Other professionals who prefer the wet plate collodion process include the tin-typists as they re-enact scenes of Civil War, the ambrotypists, and fine art photographers who uses this process for personal work and gallery showing (Robert 2008, 60).

The Dry Plate Collodion Process

The challenging inconveniencies in shooting with wet collodion led to the development of the dry collodion process. With this process, shooting and development could be done moments after coating. The method involved the coating of collodion with chemicals which prevented its quick drying (Kurt 2001, 73). Making collodion remain partially wet retains its sensitivity. The most common chemicals for this purpose included magnesium nitrate and glycerin. Alternatively, common substances like coffee, honey, and tea were used. This extended the time window that the plates could be exposed into days after coating has been done. However, a significant number of artists opted to stick to the wet plate collodion because the dry plate processes made the plate very slow. Images required 3 to 10 times extra exposure on dry plates than on wet plates.


As photography continued to evolve, wet plate collodion remained an important process; and presently, contemporary practitioners have developed reproduction equipments which enable a photographer to take full advantage of the collodion process. Presently, the collodion process is being taught in various workshops worldwide; and a lot of printed materials elaborate the steps that are followed in this process. Notable artists have embraced the collodion process for various reasons. They include Sally Mann, Jill Enfield, Scully Osterman, and Ho Man Kei. Wet plate collodion preceded the dry plate process.


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