Shooting Portraits Like It’s 1851
Based in New Zealand, photographer Paul Alsop has been shooting up a storm for the past 16 years. Paul now solely specialises in Wet Plate Collodion portraiture – using a vintage photographic technique that produces astonishingly beautiful results with a timeless feel.
“The Wet Plate Collodion process is an analogue process that dates back from 1851, and is the third oldest form of photography. An image is made on a piece of glass or black metal by pouring a highly explosive mix of liquid collodion onto the glass/metal plate, then dipping it in liquid silver. The 'wet-late' is then loaded into the back of a large format camera, and the plate is exposed to light. The wet plate is then taken back to the darkroom before it dries out and developed. The resulting image is a physical object that you can hold and reflect light off, as it has been made with a large format camera, they tend to be very detailed and sharp,” says Paul.
Sounds tough? It is. Now imagine taking pictures of children with this intricate technique… Paul shares how he handles this below:
“The Wet Plate Collodion process has an ISO of 0.5 to 2, meaning it is very insensitive to light. That fact, coupled with using a large format studio camera to make formal portraits is not really conducive to making portraits of people who struggle to sit still (also known as children!). Making portraits of children is technically very difficult, you have one chance to make an image then they freak out - I use between 6,000 to 9,000 watt/seconds of studio strobes to make portraits, which is like a supernova exploding and can be quite frightening for the kids.”
“The great thing about making these organic portraits of the children is that they are simply so honest, by the time I have set up the portrait and got them under the lights, poured the plates and focused the image, if I can convince them to stay in one place, the children lose all the fake smiles they have already learned with digital selfies, and what you are left with is a raw, honest portrait. The process is orthochromatic, which means that it doesn't see red/orange very well, therefore freckles really pop out.”
“So far, I have had about a 90% hit rate making successful images of children, the youngest portrait I have made is of my son, Theo at 6 months - it was a bit of a challenge, but we sat him in his pushchair and gently wedged his head in position with a couple of pillows, while mum did a funny dance behind the camera to get his attention. Most of the time, getting the stillness that is needed with Wet Plate Collodion portraits has to be achieved with promises of chocolate.”