Ambrotype - advice please about exposure and tonal range

Discussion in 'Black and White' started by 10990877, Jan 16, 2022.

  1. Hello, I am a new wet plater in Tokyo. It took me two months for all the preparation, and finally, I got my first plates a week ago. Today I had some test shots and would like to know how I can improve my technique. I am asking this because I rarely had a chance to see real ambrotypes. The only time that I saw was when I took the workshop on wet plate photography.

    If you can check my test result today (below), I’d greatly appreciate it.

    #2 seems to be the best exposure, but to be honest, I was expecting to get a much nicer tonal range. The photos were shot using only natural light. All the developments were about 15sec. The size of the plate is 5x7in. Just so you know, I didn’t make any adjustments when I scanned them (the lid opened with reflection mode).

    Although I highly appreciate any comments, I do have two questions:
    1. What are very fine streaky lines going diagonally that are visible all over the plates? I circled a spot in red where the streaks are clearly visible although they are everywhere (much clearer on my original scan though). Please zoom in to see this problem.

    2. Is it possible to get the highlights in the pictures a bit brighter, in a general sense, without losing the details? This photographer’s portraits are great, have a wider range. I think mine looks flat.

    3. #3 looks underexposed, but it has more contrast than the other two. Do I get more contrast if I underexpose a plate in general?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. As well as I know it, getting the tonal range right was one of the big challenges from the beginning of photography.

    Fortunately it doesn't have to be all that close for people to be satisfied.

    Most generally the way it works, is that larger grains are more sensitive than smaller grains. To get a good tonal range, you need a wide range of grain sizes.

    In modern film making, it is done by slowly adding the NaNO3 to the KBr solution, such that some has more time to grow grains, and some less.
    Well, subsequent processing likely allows grains to grow and shrink, but the whole idea is to get a range.

    But the ambrotype doesn't give much choice for a range of times.
  3. Could the lines you speak of in question 1 be a result of manufacturing in the glass? A second thought, and I know not the same process, but one time I used some trays not designed for developing to process some prints early on in my B&W career and they were leaving a transfer of the textured plastic on my prints.
  4. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    The flesh tones in the #1 photo look good, about evenly balanced on both sides of the face. There are nice highlights in the hair. If you could darken in the hair dark areas and leave the hair highlights as they are that would make for a well balanced photo. The answer in film photography is to increase the development time to increase contrast. (Known as the Zone system.)

    Since an ambrotype is developed to a positive image, I believe that increasing the development time would increase the contrast, making the darks darker and leaving highlights where they are. That would have greatly improved the #1 photo.
  5. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    Adjusting the contrast in photo editing gets a result that could more or less be achieved by Zone system development. Or at least I think so. My guess is you are not using the correct development time for the exposure that you use.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2022
  6. Hi Everyone and James, Thank you for all the replies. I really appreciate it!
    I actually increased the development time by 60 seconds, but with ambrotype, it seemed like it didn't work as films do (I developed many sheet films in the past so I see what James is talking about here.)
    As time increases the entire image became a bit denser equally (from shadow to highlight) which made the images look rather flat. Hmm.
    But I managed to shoot on aluminum plates yesterday, and the image has much more contrast than ambrotype with a nice tonal range. I kind of like how it turned out.
  7. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    An ambrotype is made by laying an underexposed or thin negative on a black background. I have a few underexposed film negatives (doesn't everyone?) and if I place them on a black background they look like positives. The #1 photo looks like it had been overexposed so it is letting less of the black background through making the photo appear too light all over. The #2 photo looks good, there is some hair highlight but the lighting of the face seems to be poor. There should be more light added to the left side. Maybe with a reflector card.

    I do have several ambrotypes and tintypes and to me the tonal qualities look about the same. If you prefer the results you get with (aluminum) tintypes I would stick with that.

    In the early part of the previous century street photographer would wander the streets with a pony and a tintype camera. Children would beg their parents to have their photo taken sitting on the pony. It seemed the tintype could be developed in camera, given a quick wash and handed to the proud child. I often toyed with the idea of getting a camera like that and going to Civil War reenactments. I bet I could have sold dozens upon dozens of "instant ancester" tintypes to the reenactors.

  8. Thanks for the interesting story about tintype. There is a photographer in NY or SF who does a similar street tintype service on the street. I don't know if he still does it, but I think that's great.
  9. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    Anytime I look for a tintype camera I just see ordinary 4x5 cameras and film holders. I don't see the real button tintype street camera as shown above.A tintype camera for street use had a long roll of tintype inside. When an exposure was made a guillotine would cut off the exposed section and it would drop down into the developer. After a few minutes the tintype would be given a quick wash and handed to the client.

    Note: doing a quick search reveals that the photographer had a separate container of fixer that he would use after removing the tintype from the camera mounted developer tank.
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2022

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