“Wet Plate Conversations” Dives Deep Into Analog Photography

Mia Quagliarello / August 11, 2022

Markus Hofstätter

In our work with Flipboard’s photography community, we’ve loved getting to know Markus Hofstätter, a photographer based in Austria. Markus is on the front lines of using Flipboard to feed his knowledge and inspiration, but also he’s incredibly generous about sharing what he knows about his true passion: wet plate photography. Also known as wet collodion photography, this is an early photographic process that uses metal or glass plates and looks like a sepia-toned throwback to another era.  

Now, thanks to Markus, we get an inside view into how these images are made: with his new Flipboard group magazine, “Wet Plate Conversations,” anyone can learn and interact with this expert. 

Follow the magazine to see what’s being discussed, or if you want to flip stories into the magazine as well, Markus is looking for contributors. (Write to photography@flipboard.com for the invite link.) 

In this Q&A, you can learn more about him, see pictures of his fantastic work and get exclusive behind-the-scenes perspectives from one of analog photography’s greats.

Why are you so into wet plate photography?

It all started with my street portrait project in 2014 where I went from digital to analog medium format and a little bit later from medium format street portraits to large format street portraits. Back then I liked to work with my hands again and the step to the wet collodion process was inevitable at some point. 

Today I still enjoy the fact that I work more with my hands (not only the process, also the camera repairs). But it has also to do with this one unique plate I work on together with my sitter. To portray somebody with this process changes a lot how I need to interact with the people in front of the lens. Digitally, I would start a conversation and talk as long as needed with them until they forget the clicking sound of the camera to archive a natural portrait that reflects this person perfectly. When I portray a person on a tintype or ambrotype, we spend much more time together before I take their portrait. It’s often about planting a positive thought, bringing my sitter into the right mood and finding a fitting position. When I’ve achieved that, I got mostly only one try. This might sound stressful, but I enjoy this kind of “stress” a lot. It makes me focus and let myself work perfectly in sync with the process. I set the right exposure with my gut feeling that I developed over all these years. Making all my chemicals by myself is a part of that “gut feeling” and makes me independent. All these points together are the reason I am hooked to this beautiful process. And also the reason that I love to plan things (sometimes for weeks/months in advance) fits perfectly together with wet plate photography. It’s the most beautiful feeling to see my vision come alive in the fixer tray.

It looks hard! What’s something most people don’t appreciate about this type of photography?

I described some points already above, but also there’s the very shallow depth of field. Maybe you could compare it to focus manually with a 50mm 0.7 lens all the time on an ISO 0.5 film.

On the technical side, it helps to be a control freak. There are a lot of preparation tasks (cleaning, filtering and so on) necessary before every session and before every plate. A tiny mistake could lead to an unusable plate. After every session, there are also tasks to do to maintain the chemicals. 

But now comes something most people don’t know: This process is not as stable as typical film photography. Temperatures, humidity or something you never thought of could just mess with your chemicals. That could be a new batch of aluminum plates with a different kind of surface. Or new glass plates that were produced differently. No company will tell you that they changed their production process. Sometimes funny things happen and nobody can tell you why. 

For example, I did wet plate food photography with a German chef. And during the first day without any change, the plates went all foggy. Same chemicals. Nothing changed. I prepared everything twice and started to exchange every chemical. After I exchanged the last one, I got beautiful plates again. And the one I exchanged worked a week later again without an issue. Everyone I asked had no idea what it could be. A very knowledgeable wet plate photographer told me at some point: “Sometimes the wet plate goddess is just against you. :)” You never stop learning, there are no “wet plate masters,” but this is something I love as well.

Tell/show us about your favorite wet plate work of yours and how you got it. 

Here are some of them, along with their stories.

“The Guardian”

I shot about 11 plates on that day; this was the only sharp one. So why were the others not sharp? I got a new very old petzval lens and the lens had an enormous chromatic aberration. So what is chromatic aberration? When your lens is not focusing all the different colors/light spectrum on the same point, you get these blue/purple/green fringing lines on high contrast areas in your digital image. 

With the wet plate process, you capture only the blue light spectrum. But you focus the visible light spectrum on the ground glass. So in my case the blue light spectrum was focused differently and that was the reason all other portraits were not sharp. Did I mention that this process depends on lots of different parameters? But I love how this plate turned out —  it’s beautiful.

Katharina Gallhuber, Olympic medalist, women’s alpine slalom skiing (part of my inspired series)

This portrait was done for one of the biggest exhibitions in Europe, the La Gacilly in Baden, Austria. We talked about the portrait session before it happened, to prepare it. On the day, a make-up artist started to work on Mrs. Gallhuber. I had everything prepared already in my studio. As you can imagine, athletes are always busy and therefore we had a short time frame.

The first plate worked out super smooth, technically perfect, but I did not like the light and background on her. We had 15 minutes left. So I changed the position of the light. I also changed the background and the position of her a bit. Then I poured the plate, put it in the silver nitrate bath and after three minutes I put it into the plate holder. Now I have about four minutes to shoot the portrait (so the plate stays wet). When I came into the studio, one curl of her hair was covering her eye. I wanted to cover it a little bit, but not everything. The makeup artist worked hard to get it there and I just had the plate in my mind that was drying in the plate holder. It sounds like a cheesy movie, but after three minutes, she got it done and I was able to capture this wonderful portrait. I love these kinds of challenges when a portrait session asks a lot from myself; it makes me extremely focused. It’s a kind of meditation for me. 

“Smiling Paul”

Capturing a wet plate with an honest smile is tough to do. Actors or models can do that. With kids, it’s a different story; mostly you can be happy if they don’t move.

The issue with laughing and smiling is that you often move your head when you do it. But in this case I told Paul to keep his head in the headrest and look into the lens. At first I went for a serious portrait, but then I thought I’d give it a try for a smile. I told my assistant to increase the strobe power, told Paul a little joke, and just when the smile came up I rushed the lens cap of the petzval lens, triggered the strobe and put it on again. All under a second. During development I already saw sharp eyelashes and a smile. And that was when I knew it worked out. 

“Medieval Swordfighter”

He is a local sword fighting champion and wanted an authentic portrait. For that, I wanted an exhausted look, like portraits from soldiers that came back from the Afghanistan front. This task was easier than I thought! We took two portraits and after he was wearing his armor for an hour, he was already exhausted. I just needed to set up a clamshell light and do everything right. I created a “making of” video to show the work that went into it.  

What tips would you give to people just getting started with this form of photography?

Book a great workshop and buy books. A good workshop should cover the following topics:

  • Dangers and how to protect yourself from them. 
  • Explanation of the chemicals and about how they work. 
  • The complete wet plate collodion process. 
  • All info about photographic equipment and lab equipment.
  • Photographic history about the wet collodion process.

Good book authors are Quinn Jacobson, Peter Michels (German), Scully and Osterman.

I offer workshops as well. 

What can we expect from the “Wet Plate Conversations” magazine on Flipboard?

There are lots of articles out there that show the same things again and again, and I want to share and discuss refreshing articles that may be new to some readers.

Beside that, I like to discuss topics that are not that obviously connected to this wonderful process. There are fantastic plates we can talk about and much wet plate geekery. Lenses and cameras are also an interesting topic. There are many lenses out there that are very well documented and tell a story. 

I hope to find interesting questions from others too. Maybe some photographers want to share their behind-the-scenes stories about their recent plate — that’s always a great read. I can’t wait to dive into this magazine.

If you’re interested in sharing stories with Markus in his Wet Plate Conversations magazine, send a short note to photography@flipboard.com and we’ll hook you up with an invite soon after.

If you just want to lurk, simply click the Follow button on the cover and you’ll get the latest updates from the magazine in your Flipboard For You feed. You’ll also be able to comment on stories, photos and other flips.

Lastly, if you want to host your own group magazine, let us know! Group magazines are a great way to share content and perspectives among people with a common interest. Contact photography@flipboard.com for more details.

— Mia Quagliarello, head of creator community and newsletters, is part of The Photography Exchange