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The Dark Art of Tintype: A Day With a Forgotten Photographer


Tintype photography, also known as ferrotype photography, became popular in the mid-1800s as a cheaper and faster alternative to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Unlike other early photographic processes, tintypes produce a direct positive image without having to create a paper negative first.

Tintype photos utilize a thin sheet of iron coated in black enamel rather than glass or film. The tintype gets its name from the tin appearance of the iron support, not because it contains any actual tin. This process produces a unique image with incredible detail and tonality.

Preparing the Studio

Every morning begins with preparing the studio for the day's portrait sessions. As a tintype photographer, the setting and backdrop are an important part of crafting the perfect portrait. The studio must be cleaned and set up properly to allow creativity to flow.

The first step is tidying up from the prior day's sessions. All equipment must be cleaned thoroughly including cameras, lenses, plates, developing tools, and any props or furniture used in portraits. Any spills or stains are spot cleaned. Backdrops and floors are swept. Natural light studios have windows washed so maximum light shines through. The goal is to start each day with a blank slate.

Next, backdrops and props are prepared based on the clients scheduled that day. For indoor studios, different colored or patterned backdrops are set up on stands to offer variety. Natural light studios assess optimal sunlight angles and arrange reflectors accordingly. Props like chairs, tables, and other accessories are arranged attractively. Vintage costumes and accessories may be prepared for themed sessions.

The studio environment sets the tone for the entire photoshoot. Careful preparation helps spark creativity, keeps the photographer organized, and allows clients to focus on having the perfect portrait made. A clean and intentional studio space is the foundation of every successful tintype photoshoot.

Preparing the Chemicals

The chemicals used in tintype photography include silver nitrate, potassium bromide, collodion, and other solutions for developing and fixing the image. Understanding how to prepare these chemicals is crucial for creating high quality tintypes.

The process starts with sensitizing blank metal plates, usually made of iron. This is done through the wet plate collodion process. First, collodion is created by dissolving guncotton (nitrocellulose) in a mixture of ether and alcohol. This syrupy liquid is applied evenly to a metal plate while still wet.

Next, the plate is dipped in a silver nitrate sensitizing bath. The silver nitrate reacts with the chemicals in the collodion to create light sensitive silver halides on the plate's surface. Adding potassium bromide to the silver nitrate allows controlling the sensitivity and contrast of the plate.

Timing is critical when sensitizing plates with wet collodion. The plates must be exposed and developed within 10-15 minutes before the collodion dries. Having all equipment and chemicals prepared ahead of time is essential for this fast-paced process.

Proper disposal of excess silver nitrate and other chemicals is also important for safety and environmental reasons. Overall, understanding the wet plate collodion process and practicing the sensitizing technique helps tintype photographers dial in their process for crisp and visually striking results.

man and woman holding their tintype photos
Couple Holding their Tintypes

Preparing the Subject

Posing and styling the subject is one of the most important parts of creating a high-quality tintype photograph. Unlike modern photography where you can take dozens of shots to get the perfect image, tintype photographers usually only have one plate per subject. This means the posing and styling has to be right the first time.

I start by getting to know the client and making them feel comfortable. Tintypes require the subject to stay perfectly still for up to a minute, so they need to feel relaxed yet engaged. I'll chat with them, crack some jokes, and explain the process to put them at ease.

Once they seem comfortable, I'll guide them into a pose. I draw on my knowledge of painting and sculpture to place their body in an aesthetically pleasing position. For portraits it's often a three-quarter turn of the shoulders and tilt of the head. The hands require special attention, as their position can make or break the overall look. Framing with props is also key - chairs, tables, flowers, books - to give the subject something natural to interact with.

After positioning the body, I style the hair and clothing. I prefer an elegant yet natural look, with some flow to the hair and garments. The textures and patterns captured by the tintype process are stunning, so I'll often add blankets, shawls or accessories. A pocket watch for men or flowers for women can provide nice finishing touches.

With the body posed and styled, I instruct the client to relax their face. Eyes slightly downcast, a hint of a smile. I remind them not to blink when the shutter opens. As I duck under the camera hood, we are both focused intently on that perfect motionless moment when the tintype plate will capture their image forever.

Taking the Photo

The moment has arrived to capture the photographic image. After carefully posing and positioning the subject in front of the camera, the tintype photographer prepares the plate holder with the sensitized plate inside. This is then inserted into the back of the large view camera.

Working quickly and methodically, the photographer adjusts the camera position, angle, and focus by looking at the image projected through the lens onto the ground glass at the rear of the camera. Small movements and tweaks are made until the desired composition is framed and focused clearly.

When ready, the photographer replaces the ground glass with the plate holder containing the prepared plate. Making sure not to jostle or move the camera position, the lens cap is removed and the sensitized plate is exposed to light for the necessary amount of time, often between 5 to 20 seconds depending on lighting conditions. The photographer counts down the seconds out loud while observing the subject, reminding them not to move.

After the counting stops, the lens cap goes back on and the plate holder is removed from the camera. The photographer must now swiftly move to the darkroom, carrying the exposed plate to begin developing it before the image fades. Timing and efficiency is critical for this antique photographic process.

Developing the Plate

Immediately after exposure, the tintype plate must be developed before the light-sensitive chemicals expire. This is a delicate process that requires careful timing and precision.

The photographer takes the exposed plate to a darkroom area of the studio, bringing along developing chemicals and a timer. The plate is placed in a developing tank or tray, emulsion side up. Developer solution is poured over the plate, starting the development process. This liquid chemical reduces the silver salts exposed to light, rendering them into black metallic silver.

Timing is critical - typically 30-60 seconds for most plates. The photographer closely watches the clock, periodically rocking the tray to agitate the chemicals evenly over the plate surface. If underdeveloped, the image will be too faint. If overdeveloped, the image may appear overexposed and lack contrast.

Once timed correctly, the developer is poured off and a fixative solution applied to stabilize the image. After another minute or so, the fixative is rinsed off and the plate dried and varnished. The result is a finished tintype portrait - the positive image embedded right into the blackened metal plate. The developing process requires skill, timing and care to properly render the exposed image into a permanent tintype photo.

Finishing Touches

After developing the tintype, there are final touches that can enhance the portrait. Many photographers choose to add color by gently brushing certain hues onto the metal plate. Reds and yellows work well to bring a glow to the cheeks. Blues and greens can make eyes pop. Using oil paints allows the color to set into the emulsion. This hand-coloring takes a delicate and artistic touch.

Another option is to varnish the plate. This helps protect the image and gives it a glossy sheen. Once dried, the varnish seals and preserves the tintype.

Frame options range from simple metal to carved wood depending on preference. With the portrait safely housed in a frame, it is ready for display.

These finishing touches elevate the tintype from a photographic process to a work of art. The photographer's skill brings each portrait to life. Their small additions make each one unique. With care and creativity, a tintype becomes a timeless heirloom.

Everclear, Gum sandarc, Varnish
Varnish ingredients

Studio Clean Up

At the end of a long day taking tintype photos, it's crucial to properly clean the studio space and store chemicals. All equipment used during the shoot, including cameras, props, and backdrops, must be packed away neatly so the studio is reset for the next day.

Special care needs to be taken when handling the chemical solutions used in the tintype process. The developer and fixer chemicals are hazardous and can be dangerous if mixed together or handled improperly. I drain any excess solution from the developing trays and store them in tightly sealed glass bottles labeled "developer" and "fixer." This prevents chemical mixing or fumes from escaping.

Any rags, towels or materials contaminated by the chemicals are disposed of in sealed hazardous waste bags. It's critical to follow safety protocols when disposing of photographic chemicals to avoid environmental contamination. I make sure to wear gloves and goggles while handling all waste.

The studio floors are swept and mopped to remove any lingering dust or chemical residues. All surfaces like tables and countertops are also thoroughly cleaned and disinfected at the end of the day. Keeping the studio space neat and hygienic ensures it's primed for the next tintype session.

Proper studio and chemical clean up is an important part of the day for a tintype photographer. With hazardous solutions involved, following safety practices allows me to reuse the studio efficiently while avoiding accidents or contamination. Keeping the space professionally clean demonstrates respect for clients and the historic art form.

Editing and Printing

After the tintype photo shoot is complete, the next step is to digitize the image for editing, printing, and sharing. The tintype photographer will carefully scan the original tintype plate using a high-resolution flatbed scanner. This creates a digital copy of the image that can then be opened in photo editing software like Photoshop.

Some basic editing may be required to adjust the levels, contrast, sharpness, and color balance of the scanned tintype. This helps compensate for any limitations of the original tintype process and prepares the file for printing. The photographer may also gently retouch spots or small imperfections on the plate surface.

Once the edits are complete, the tintype can be printed in different formats. Many photographers offer digital copies of the portraits to clients for sharing online. They may also print enlarged copies on archival fine art paper using a high-quality large format inkjet printer. These photographic prints allow the historic tintype process to be transformed into a contemporary form for display and preservation.

By digitizing and printing from the original tintype, photographers can broaden the reach and lifespan of this traditional medium. Clients can obtain modern prints while still appreciating the visual nostalgia and handmade qualities that make tintypes so unique. The printing process connects the old and new - combining analog craft with digital capabilities for today's clients.


As digital photography becomes ever more prevalent, it's important not to forget the photographic techniques and processes that came before it. For the tintype photographer, preserving these historical methods is a labor of love.

The day in the life of a tintype photographer is lengthy and intricate. First, the studio must be prepared by cleaning, setting up equipment, and mixing chemicals. The photographer takes careful steps to coat and sensitize the plate before taking the photo. Once captured, the image must undergo a complex development process before the final tintype is ready for the client.

For the photographer, the long hours and challenging work are worthwhile to keep this antique process alive. By practicing and teaching the tintype technique, they are preserving an important piece of photographic history. Though tintypes may no longer be mainstream, they serve as a vital educational tool. Each handcrafted tintype connects us to the origins of photography and the pioneer photographers of the past. More than just an image, each tintype represents one photographer's devotion to their craft and its rich history.

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