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I built a Frankenstein large format wet plate camera from scratch for photographing ghosts

Corrine at Corrine West Photography booked a wet plate workshop with me before the pandemic started. Two years later we were finally able to do it. The main subject was to get comfortable with the wet collodion process and to create images similar to the ones of spirit photographer William H. Mumler. Mr. Mumler created images (probably double exposures) where his clients could take a picture with their deceased relatives.

The photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the “ghost” of her husband (Abraham Lincoln) was his most famous one. Corrine found my double exposure wet plates and that was the reason she contacted me in the first place. About two months before the workshop Corrine surprised me with a question: “Can we build a wet plate camera together?”. I talked with a friend and after a long visit to a DIY market, I was sure that we can do it. A DIY Camera and capturing ghosts. That sounds like a fun workshop to me!

I could not capture everything in the video, because I was focused on delivering a great workshop experience. So, let me explain a bit here. I built a DIYcamera kit so to say, but I did not want to build everything. It was important for me that we put the major parts together in person, to really create a camera and an understanding of how a camera works.

The camera kit

It took me a long time to figure everything out, I wanted to create a diy camera, that is adaptable and upgradeable without any special parts. It also should be able to shoot portraits and landscape and if something breaks, just go to your diy marked and get a replacement part. The only thing needed is my self designed camera back. I wanted to invent/adapt something that you can get in the market, but I was without luck finding such a part. The 3D printed design took many hours and a lot of filament to work as expected.

The first prototype of the camera back with an international film holder

For the lens I went for a 150mm Leitz Dimaron (F2.8), Elmaron (F2.8) or Hektor (F2.5). These lenses have three things in common. 150mm is kind of a “normal” lens for the 4×5 large format and they all have the same diameter and not too expensive if you buy them online. All of them are pretty sharp as well as you could see in the video (this was a Dimaron)

One lens mount, lots of options without breaking the bank

The camera and lens support is built like the one in this post: Camera and Lens support

For the Film/Plate holder I decided to go for the std international 4×5 holders. I had them water jet cut for a clean look and we modified it with silver wires, because these are more resistant against acid and fit into the silver nitrate workflow

Standard 4×5 film holder modified for the wet collodion process

We were super happy with our first result. The portrait looked awesome and the resolution of the lens is great. When you look closely at the video you will see, that we used two boxes for portrait distance.

The ground worked also great – here is an explanation of how we did it

For me, it’s always exciting to see my idea come to life.

Here is a detailed scan of Corrine’s eye – It’s a pretty impressive result for a 4×5 plate shot with a self-made camera and a projection lens.

A scan of Corrine’s eye with my Screen Cezanne Scanner

For the spirit photographs that are inspired by Mr Mumler, we went for wet plate double exposures.

To make our lives easier, we marked all positions with sticky tape on the ground.

Tape is always your friend for any photography project

We decided to use my Dallmeyer 3B Petzval lens for the first double exposure, because it fits better to the time when the original images were captured.

William H. Mumler. inspired wet plate double exposure

The second double exposure was a bit more modern, but also should get the ghost look. For that we used a Zeiss 300mm F4.5 Tessar lens. This lens is pretty new (about 2ß-30 years old) and is very crisp. I thought that makes more sense for this kind of image and also fits to the story (see caption of the image)

Profession – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow An image about photography has changed

What a great 3 Day workshop that was. We created so many different portraits. (more in the gallery) and time flew so fast. At this point I want to say thanks again to Corrine for visiting my workshop and trusting me with the camera design. I looking forward to see what she will do for her PHD with the wet collodion process.

Here are some more images from the day…

About the Author

Markus Hofstätter is a professional portrait, events and sports photographer based in Austria. He has a passion for analogue and wet plate photography. He loves travelling to visit new places and meeting new people. You can find out more about him on his website or blog, follow his work on Instagram or Facebook or reach out to him through Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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