“Microtype” is the default term I’ve been using to refer to wet plate collodion done on microscope slides and, in my case, shot with a 35mm camera. I’ve been calling microscope-sized (1×3″) tintypes “microtintypes.” There’s probably a better term to avoid confusion with microphotography that’s done with a microscope, but there you have it….

In any case, I’ve spent a few weeks experimenting with different slides, different gear, different procedures and techniques and promised some wetplater friends a report. I wouldn’t call this a final report because there’s more I want to try out, but it’ll cover the basics and offer some tips for starting up.

I suppose the first question to answer is: why? Several reasons:
1. Intimacy. Picking up on a comment Alex Timmermans (who has done some huge plates) once made, small plates possess a certain intimacy. Indeed, there is a kind of secret specialness to a small plate.
2. Economy. the amount of chemicals and the bulk of gear can be drastically reduced. In fact, my initial impetus to do microtypes came from imagining how I was going to transport gear to the European Collodion Weekend hosted by Alex in Veldhoven, The Netherlands in May. As it turns out, I can use shared gear there, but I still wanted to put together a mobile go-it-alone kit.
3. Creativity. Mini plates can be, as Andreas Reh mentioned a few weeks ago on Facebook, can be incorporated into things like jewelry. Just look at what Angie Brockey has been doing.
4. Mobility. Related to #2, but more specifically, shooting slides in 35mm camera SLR (or even RF) with a fast (sub-f/2) lens means you can literally do something close to spontaneous handheld street photography. And I can put my entire darkbox kit on my back and walk around with it without looking too stupid.
5. Flexibility. You can simply do microtypes (ambro or tin) and keep them as-is, or you can treat clear glass mini ambrotypes as negatives to enlarge and print on modern photographic paper. Or even enlarge them onto white aluminum for a bigger tintype!
6. Sheer coolness.

Okay, those are enough reasons for you to do it. Now for your gear….
Slides: I’ve tested several reasonably inexpensive and easy-to-buy microscope slides and have settled on two types.
1. Star Brand Silane-coated white single frosted end available through microscope.com. The link says “Omano” brand and “twin-frosted” but that’s bogus. You will get Star Brand (Made in China) from that link and they are still on sale. I bought about 500 of them. The collodion adheres to them better than other types of glass slides so that you usually don’t need to sub them, but I have started to sub three edges and the inside line of the frost with albumen. The frosted edge is nice as a tab to hold onto while processing and to label after done. It also aids sight in lining up the slide in your camera in a darkbox. The single-sided frost also has the bonus of marking the emulsion side so that you don’t get confused about which side is up.
2. Plastic slides from Cole-Parmer.com. These are surprisingly interesting to use, but not without caveats. Prices for them are about the same as glass when shipping is factored in, so that’s a push. Their big advantage is that the collodion goes on thin and smooth and sticks like glue without any special washing or subbing. Really really convenient in that regard. Their thinness and flexibility could also be an advantage because they act kind of like modern film and they can be easily cut up for post-processing art applications. Their disadvantages: they seem more prone to scratches and/or already come with light scratches despite being “optical grade.” However, I haven’t noticed much on the actual plates, so that might not be a big problem. The bigger problem is their propensity for static cling–they attract dust like flies on shit. This can be dealt with and it’s rather hit-or-miss when it happens bad, but it has the potential of negating the advantages of not having to prep the slide.
In sum, I’m real torn between both types. They both have pros and cons. To a degree it depends on your application and ultimate use (artwork, enlargement, as-is ambrotype, etc.). If push came to shove, I’d probably go with the glass simply washed with water and edges subbed with albumen. They seem to print better (but that’s only a first impression) and are the most predictable. But boy, the adhesion of the plastic slides without any prep is very appealing and the film-like feel of them is fetching….

Things to know for use:
The film plane on most 35mm cameras are almost exactly the size of a standard slide (about 1×3″ or about 25x75mm). The image area for 35mm is 24x36mm, so there is VERY little tolerance in placing a 25mm-wide slide across the film plane. This is perhaps the trickiest thing about using slides, but it’s not a big issue even though you might freak out over the emulsion-soaked slide hovering millimeters above your shutter. I have cut and taped a small tab of 1/16″ thick styrene between the film plane guides on the far right to help support the slide if it slips off the rails. (I’ll post a photo of this later). I’ve shot about 25 microtypes without a hitch so far. I would, however, recommend a camera that has a metal (not cloth) shutter curtain just in case it gets dripped on. But like I said, it hasn’t happened yet.

Pouring collodion: hold the slide between thumb and forefinger or any other comfortable way on one end (on the frosted end of a frosted slide, frost side up). Pour about a third way down from the frosted end and tilt slightly toward frost end to catch the subbing across the inside frost line (photo here later). If you blow that, don’t worry–simply complete the pour down to the opposite side corner to corner as usual. Even if you didn’t pour all way to the frost, it will probably adhere all right anyway. The thing I’ve noticed about pouring slides, however, is that because they are so small, you really don’t get enough momentum going to cleanly flow off the drain-off corner–especially if you’re doing a nice smooth and slow tilt and then rocking–so you tend to get thickness along your pour-off edge and corner. I’ve varied my technique several times and still get the same results. It’s usually not a big problem in the corner because it’s out of the image area, but it could creep up the long edge into your image if you’re not careful.
In an experimental attempt to eliminate this problem, I decided to try simply dipping the slide vertically into the collodion, drip it over the collodion jar a few seconds to drain as-is, and then wipe the backside while dabbing the far short edge on paper towel. I know this goes completely against all good technique, but save for some pouring streaks that are hardly noticeable in the image (and can often happen anyway in the traditional method), it results in smoother pours that reduce build-up on the long edge where it matters most. You still get an edge on the bottom where you dabbed on the paper towel, but it’s inconsequential because it’s out of the image area. I will continue testing this unorthodox method.

Sensitizing: My silver bath for slides requires only 15-30ml of solution–I use a 5-slot plastic slide mailer wrapped in rubylith tape. Fill it only about 2/3s full because the slide will displace some and you want the frost (or uncoated with collodion) edge above the solution. I have the mailer velcroed at a slight angle on the inside edge of a small developing tray (photo here later) so that I can simply drop the salted slide into the rear slot and it slides down in one smooth motion. It would be better not to have the other slot rails in the way because they can potentially hang up on the emulsion of the slide (this happened once to me), but if you’re careful you can use the mailer as-is. I might modify a second one I bought to see if I can improve it. After the slide is ready catch the frosted edge with your index finger and press the slide lightly onto the back wall on the mailer/tank as you slide it up–this assures that you won’t scrap the front side along the guide rails (thus, it would be nice to remove the rails). From there, you load into the camera and shoot.

Developing: I use a ridiculously small amount of developer. It’s very easy to pour it on and gently rock the slide. I did fail with coverage  a couple times when using my mobile darkbox because I wasn’t used to the cramped and less-clear conditions. But in general, developing is a breeze. I then pop the slide into a clear plastic vial (or 120 film container) of fixer. If I’m in the field or just want to shot and develop a bunch and then rinse all of them together later, I store them in a plastic slide staining jar (Coplin Jar) filled with distilled water. Works great as storage until final wash.

That brings up another convenience of shooting with microscope slides–there are a LOT of microscope slide accessories, like storage cases and cardboard mailers that can be turned into display frames (singles, diptychs, and more!). And, of course, you can look at them under a microscope!

Those are the basics; I’ll add more (and photos) to this report later–it’s late now and I have to get up early tomorrow!


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