How I Got That Shot: Wet-Plate Portraits in a Flash
March 24, 2016
A portrait of Damian Alexander from the Auckland rock/metal band Blacklistt.
Paul Alsop behind the Toyo 4x5 and Luke White, left. They used four to five lights, each powered by its own pack, to get a “ton of light” on their wet-plate subjects, and drew from “an arsenal” of modifiers to shape the light.
Alsop with another sitter. “My mind was blown with the results we created, which are, in my opinion some of the best wet-plate portraits I’ve seen yet,” he says.
Paul Alsop, a devotee of the wet-plate collodion process, and Luke White, a photographer and the manager of Kingsize Studios, the largest rental studio in New Zealand, have combined their expertise—and several lights, power packs and modifiers—to create a series of wet-plate portraits that overcome one of the drawbacks of the medium: Wet plates coated with collodion have an ISO of 0.5 to 2. That means that anyone making wet-plate images using the same light source that nineteenth-century photographers used—that is, sunlight—needs to expose the plate for five to 20 seconds. Due to the long exposures, the final image captures the slight motion created when a subject breathes. “I think that the collodion process is the most beautiful way to make photographs ever created,” White says. “It’s got deep, rich blacks, incredible highlights. But what I didn’t like about wet-plate images I’d seen is that they’re not sharp, because the subject moved.”
To create the portraits in their series “The Auckland Project,” White says, he and Alsop faced two challenges: “We knew we needed a shit ton of light to get a sharp image, and we wanted to shape and craft the light.” Figuring out how much light they needed, “took a bit of calculated math,” Alsop says. First they figured out how much light they would use when shooting for 1/125th of a second at ISO 400. They then calculated that for the same exposure time when shooting at ISO 1, they would need roughly 12,000 watt/seconds of light. White invited Alsop, who lives in a rural area about two hours outside Auckland, to Kingsize Studios, where they set up four to five heads running off four packs that were usually set at full power. White also drew from what he calls the “arsenal” of light modifiers, beauty dishes, softboxes, grids and cards at Kingsize Studios, adapting the lighting setup for each portrait sitter. “I am drawn to very well crafted portraits,” explains White, who says his influences include Yousuf Karsh, Irving Penn, Martin Schoeller, Jill Greenberg, Nadav Kander and Dan Winters: “They craft and shape their light.”
The two-day shoot for “The Auckland Project” was Alsop’s first experience with professional studio lighting. “I had used and created a home studio to teach myself lighting, but never set foot in a commercial studio on the scale of Kingsize,” says Alsop, a doctor. “I didn’t even know what a C-stand was or how to use one.” He was introduced to the wet-plate process at a two-day workshop taught by Wellington-based photographer Brian Scadden in 2012, and fell in love with the process and the look of the finished images. Making a wet plate requires a gelatinous, light-sensitive mixture that is poured onto a plate?—such as a sheet of blackened aluminum. The plate is then plunged into a silver bath and immediately put into a camera. Due to the expense and customs restrictions on importing darkroom chemicals into New Zealand, Alsop has experimented with mixing his own plate coatings. “As an example of Kiwi ingenuity, I will use a garden moss remover from the hardware store as a developer,” he says.
After reading an article White had written about the history of flash photography, Alsop contacted him for advice on lighting his wet-plate images. Coincidentally, White had also taken a workshop with Scadden, and after they met for a beer, they discussed ideas for collaborating, to make wet plates using a modern camera and lights.
For a shot of Cleve Cameron, a musician, the pair used a Broncolor Para 88 for a key light, pulled back and slightly focused to bring out the texture in his sweater and stubble on his chin. Photo by © Paul Alsop and Luke White.
White and Alsop made 40 portraits over the course of two days, photographing musicians, artists and photographers. “We wanted to photograph interesting people, people we’re drawn to,” White says. There’s a theory that there are no more than six degrees of separation between every person in the world; White says, “In New Zealand, it’s only one degree of separation.” Calls to friends and posts on social media generated loads of volunteers willing to sit for portraits. Lee Howe, a commercial photographer, agreed to take part in the experience by acting as an assistant and documenting the shoots.
They set up their lights on a cyclorama, and Alsop turned an adjacent makeup room into a darkroom where he could prepare a plate, then quickly pop it into the camera before each shoot.
They spent about an hour with each subject. When the subject arrived, White and Alsop would offer tea and have a chat. “During that time, we’d look at their faces, what they were wearing,” White says. Modeling lights were on constantly, helping the photographers decide how best to light the subject. “While Paul mixed his chemicals, Lee and I would be fine tuning the lighting, and have the subjects listening to classical music,” White notes.
The methodical preparation “added gravitas to the session,” White notes. In an age when cameras are ubiquitous, we are used to having our photos taken, but “portrait sittings are rare nowadays,” he says.
After the portrait was taken, the subject would join Alsop and White in the darkroom. “It’s really fantastic when you see some of their reactions,” White says. “There’s an element of showmanship or theater about it. They’re seeing the image appear from nothing, and most of the people have never seen that.”
White had each of the lights running off its own Scoro S power pack, with durations up to 1/8,000 sec.
For a shot of Cleve Cameron, a musician, he used a Broncolor Para 88 as his keylight. “It’s a very big umbrella lined with silver,” he says. He had used the light in the previous session, with a 20-year-old female model, placing the light only a foot from her face. For Cameron, however, White pulled the Para back, “and focused it slightly. The spread was still quite broad, but the shape of the light became more directional.” The effect brought out the texture in his sweater and the stubble on his chin.
The fill was always a large, soft source: either a Broncolor Para 220 FB or Chimera 7-foot softbox with its diffuser removed, placed behind the photographer. “I have it running off 3,200 w/s on a second pack at full power,” White says.
To light the background, he used a P70 with a grid, placed about six to seven feet from the wall of the cyclorama. As rimlights, he set up two Chimera medium strip softboxes, one on each side of the subject. “These give you some separation from the background,” White says. In a portrait that required more light—such as a portrait of a dark-haired model against a background that had little light on it—White would bring in bounce cards, placing them between the seated subject’s chin and lap to bounce the keylight back towards the face and hair.
For a portrait of a 20-year-old electronic musician, White wanted to accentuate his cheekbones and well coiffed hair, so he chose as his keylight a Mola Beamm reflector, which has a polished silvery lining. White says it’s commonly used in beauty photography especially when the model’s hair is the focus. “It’s unique because of its undulating shape,” White says. “It gives you good contrast and definition.”
White and Alsop used a Toyo 4×5 monorail camera, and switched between two lenses, a Schneider 150mm f/5.6 and a Kodak Aero Ektar 7 inch. The Aero Ektar, Alsop notes, “can open up to f/2.5. While this is good when making images with a slow ‘film,’ it also renders the depth of field unusable, so it was used at f/5.6.” He adds, “To make this lens work with the Toyo I had to ‘repurpose’ it and make a DIY lensboard out of plywood.”
Their work on “The Auckland Project” continues: For their next shoot, they plan to shoot actors. Alsop says he loves what they’ve made so far. “My mind was blown with the results we created, which are, in my opinion some of the best wet-plate portraits I’ve seen yet.”
Check out the video below for a behind the scenes look at the process:
Related: Betting on Wet Plate Collodion