What ARE tinypes, anyway? Tintypes are “old-fashioned” looking photographs made on metal plates entirely by hand using one of the oldest photography processes (wet-plate collodion) which was popular in 1850s – 1880s. Charleston Tintypist uses modern aluminum plates, chemicals and vintage cameras and lenses to create contemporary tintype photographs. The photographs have a unique look and feel which are perfect for history lovers! We know that tintypes can last for over 150 years, so make an appointment to create your family heirloom!
How long does it take? You only have to sit still for an average of 4-5 seconds (sometimes more or less, depending on the available light). You need to set aside at least 15 minutes to make one picture ( I have to prepare the plate, take the picture, develop and “fix” the plate before the chemicals dry). Another 15-20 minutes is needed to wash, dry, varnish and “set” the varnish (by heating or baking), but I usually do that at home and mail the varnished plates to my clients.
How did you get into this? I have been making pictures since I was a kid and it was a hobby for a long time. I transitioned into commercial photography (digital) after I moved to the United States in 2000 – doing mainly weddings and portraits. I’d been a fan of historic processes for a long time and was processing film in my darkroom for a while when I decided I wanted to learn a more creatively challenging process, so I took a weekend workshop in Savannah, GA. That was in 2013 and I knew I was hooked right away. After about a year (in 2014) I started going to living history events to get out of the studio and work with natural light. Since then I’ve been doing more and more events every year and I’ve made hundreds of tintypes. The hard work has really helped me hone my skills. I love it!
Do you teach workshops? I am available for demonstrations, speaking engagements and consultations. Demonstrations are not workshops. A true “workshop” should last several days (at least 3-4 days or more) and cover everything you’d need to know (in detail) to make plates yourself. Workshops also are accompanied by a full and complete manual to take home with you as a reference guide – not just a few pages). An average workshop costs $1000 in fees and they’re worth every penny! Do not be fooled into attending a 1-2 day introductory workshop for a small fee. Do not take workshops from anyone who has not been practicing the craft at least five years. You’re better off spending that money on a good manual and study it until you can afford a true workshop. I say this because I’ve seen too many amateurs trying to make a quick buck by teaching faux workshops and basically stealing people’s money. This is a pet peeve and infuriates me because they are unethical. PLEASE send me an email and I’ll be glad to send you to the actual “masters” of the process whose work I greatly admire and respect who will teach you everything you should know. I have lectured and performed demonstrations for photography groups, schools and colleges in the past few years, and I’d be glad to do the same for you! Please send me your proposed budget, or forward me full details of what you require (including possible dates, duration, location, accessibility of a darkroom and water/electricity). Contact me here!
What should I wear for my session? Feel free to wear whatever you like! Be aware that any graphics or text on your clothing will appear in reverse (mirror image). Keep in mind that solid colors work best (less distracting than prints). Some people like wearing vintage-looking clothing because it looks really cool and authentic with this process. I don’t have many costumes, unfortunately (just a few items).
Colors: This process is interesting when it comes to how colors translate into black and white (because it’s sensitive to UV). People are often surprised how different they look. So if you wear light blue, it will look white (darker blues are best). People with blue eyes often have very pale looking eyes. Tattoos done in blue ink, virtually disappear! If you wear red, it will look very dark, almost black. Freckles and birthmarks show up more. People who are tanned will look VERY tanned.
Makeup: AVOID: yellowish-tinted foundation or concealer, blue eye makeup, white highlighting under the eyebrows or shimmery makeup in general. Medium-darkish lipstick is recommended because lips tend to appear pale. Eyebrows sometimes look paler on blonde women (eyebrow pencil/shadow is a solution). If you use face powder to keep down shine, bring it with you to touch up beforehand.
Aren’t tintypes made on tin plates? Why do you use aluminum? Historic tintypes were actually made on iron plates and are also known as ferrotypes. Ferrotypes require that you coat the metal first with a layer of asphaltum and bake them. Some photographers working in this process make ferrotypes and that’s a personal choice. I want my tintypes to be clearly recognizable by collectors as being made in the modern era. Also, pre-coated aluminum is more readily available and the black coating is smoother and more evenly applied for superior quality. An added bonus is they will never rust.
Why do you bother doing all this? Why not use Photoshop? I worked with digital cameras for many years doing commercial work (weddings, portraits and fashion) and it’s quick and easy and makes sense for some kinds of commercial photography. Having said that, you can’t recreate a hand-crafted tintype on a computer. Each tintype is a unique physical object and is one-of-a-kind. They each have their own occasional imperfections or tiny flaws. While you can create a similar look on Photoshop, when you go to make a print, it’s just that – an inkjet print. Even the best print simply does not have the archival quality of a varnished tintype. Even if it’s a metal print. It’s not a tintype. Plus I love the challenge of working in this process. The entire process makes me slow down and appreciate the moment of making a photograph. I connect better with the sitter and it’s special for them too. What I do is rare and appreciated by people who understand the difference. I get a thrill when I make a perfect plate. It’s a cool feeling.
I’m interested in your process. Can you explain how you make a tintype in more detail?
- The metal I use is aluminum trophy plate (the kind used to engrave awards and trophies). One side is pre-painted with black paint. I cut the metal myself to the size I need using a guillotine paper cutter.
- I prepare the aluminum plate with the base chemical (collodion) which is poured on in liquid form. To spread it evenly over the entire plate I tilt the plate slightly while it’s horizontal to all four corners of the plate. Once covered, I pour off the excess into a bottle (to be reused). This is done quickly as the collodion immediately starts to “gel up” and will dry quickly. It needs to still be sticky.
- I then dip the plate in a vertical tank full of silver nitrate solution. It stays in there for 3-5 mins. The tank is enclosed in a wooden box to keep out the light because once it is coated in silver the surface is sensitive to light. Therefore, this step must be done in a darkroom or portable dark-box. I take the plate out of the silver tank and transfer the plate to the camera using a light-proof plate holder.
- I focus the camera on the person I’m photographing and insert the plate holder. I then take the photograph (make the exposure). I don’t have a shutter on my cameras so I make the exposure by taking off the lens cap and counting how many seconds I need and then replacing the lens cap. Exposures range from 0-30 seconds – depending on how fresh the collodion is, what light I am using, what the aperture the lens is and other variables.
- I then transfer the plate to the darkroom or portable dark-box and develop the plate with a ferrous sulfate developer (it also contains acetic acid and grain alcohol). Then the image appears on the plate (as a negative) I wash off the developer to stop the development using distilled water. At this point I can bring the plate out of the darkroom.
- I then have to “fix” the image which is the best part because it turns from a “negative” to a “positive” image.
- I wash off the fixer and air-dry the plate. If I’m in a hurry I can use an oil lamp or a hairdryer to speed up the drying process.
- Once the plate is dry it must be varnished to seal it and protect it from the air. If left unvarnished the image will eventually darken. I pour on gum sandarac varnish the same way I pour on the collodion and drain the excess. I then dry it over the oil lamp or in a small oven I have. The heat gives the varnish a glossy finish. 20-40 minutes average time from start to finish for one image. Depends on how many people are in the picture (if I have to pose them) and it takes longer if I’m chatting to them. I enjoy a good chat.