An old plate camera in the museum collection recently caught my eye. It came to Summerlee Museum from the long-gone Scottish engineering firm of Clifton & Baird. I decided to explore how the camera works and then see what kind of results I could get from taking pictures with it.
The camera dates from the late 1800s and may have been used to photograph the company’s products at their Empress Works in Johnstone. Clifton & Baird made machine tools such as a cold sawing machine which is in the museum collection.
Photographs were reproduced in Clifton & Baird’s catalogues to show prospective customers the range of machine tools they had available. Machines would be photographed in the factory in front of a makeshift backdrop. Often the smallest employee would be made to stand next to the machine to make it look more impressive!
The camera could also potentially be attached to a microscope and used to photograph the structure of pieces of steel for analysis. It came to the museum along with a plan copying machine from the same factory so it is possible that the camera was used in the firm’s drawing office.
What is a Plate Camera?
A plate camera is everyone’s idea of what an old camera looks like: a huge thing with bellows like an accordion. Even the modern road-side symbol for speed cameras shows a device with bellows.
The name comes from the glass plates that the photographs were made on. Unlike modern film, until the very late 1800s photographs were usually exposed on rigid glass or metal plates although some processes also used paper. This means that you can’t just snap away, instead it is a case of re-loading the camera after each picture. The picture-taking process is much slower, although that can be a good thing!
Plate cameras are a type of View Camera, so called because when you look at the focusing screen you see exactly what the film will see.
This particular camera dates from the ‘dry-plate’ era which began in the 1870s when a new process using gelatin-coated plates replaced the messy ‘wet plate collodion’ process that was popular before.
The wet plate process involved photographing on plates coated with a viscous solution of collodion dissolved in alcohol and ether which had then been sensitised in a silver nitrate solution. It was hugely successful from the 1850s, combining the high quality of the Daguerreotype with the reproducibility of the Calotype. However, the wet plate had to be prepared, shot and developed in a short period of time before it dried out. This meant that a photographer working on location had to take the darkroom with him or her.
Wet plate also needed longer exposure times than dry plate, a particular problem with portraits where the sitter had to remain perfectly still for several seconds even in bright light. Dry plates were more light-sensitive (or ‘faster’) and could be prepared well in advance of being used.
Not long after our camera was made, Kodak started to make celluloid film heralding another big advance. The flexible film base would soon revolutionise photography through the invention of the roll-film camera which could take multiple photographs between changes of film. Despite this innovation glass plates continued to be used for specialist applications well into the 1900s, mainly thanks to their superior flatness and durability.
The camera itself is beautifully made and is designed to fold up into a neat box which fits into a canvas case.
Let’s take a look at how it works.
The view camera has a very simple design. It basically consists of a flat bed supporting a front upright (or ‘standard’) that holds the lens, and a rear upright that holds the film. These two standards are connected by a bellows. The bellows keep the interior dark so that the only light hitting the film has come through the lens. The bellows has a concertina design so that the distance between the front and rear standards can be varied and this is how the camera is focused.
Our particular camera is known as a ‘Tailboard Camera’ and that is because while the front standard is fixed in place the rear standard, or as the Victorians called it, ‘tailboard’, moves to allow you to focus.
Despite its apparent simplicity the plate camera has some neat tricks that you probably won’t find in your latest digital camera. So-called ‘camera movements’ allow you to manipulate the image before even taking a picture. For example you can photograph tall buildings (or machine tools!) without tilting the camera up, which introduces ‘perspective distortion’ where vertical lines are seen to converge. You do this by shifting the front standard (and therefore the lens) upwards parallel to the film.
Another clever trick made possible by movements of the front standard is to use side-shift to photograph a mirror (or other reflective surface) head-on without the camera appearing in the reflection!
The camera can use different lenses which are mounted on wooden panels that fit into the front standard. The lens now attached is a beautiful brass-barrelled Taylor, Taylor & Hobson 11.8 inch (around 300mm) focal length lens. This may sound very long and on a modern digital camera it would certainly be a very long telephoto lens. However, because the lens is projecting onto a piece of film that is many times bigger than a digital sensor this focal length actually works as a ‘long-normal’-type lens, the equivalent of maybe a 70mm lens on a ‘full-frame’ digital camera. This means that you need to use much smaller apertures than you would with a smaller format camera in order to get some reasonable depth of field.
Taylor-Taylor Hobson, as they became known is a Leicester company still going today. They were founded in 1886 so we know our lens can’t be any older than that. The lens barrel is etched with another important piece of information, the serial number 1056. There is not a lot of information about early T-TH serial numbers and they may have begun a new sequence in 1895 when they introduced their new ‘Cooke’ series of lenses. Ours seems earlier, not least because it doesn’t have an iris to change aperture. Instead, our lens has a slot in the top in which you insert a brass ‘stop’. This is where the term ‘f-stop’ comes from: each stop literally stops a certain amount of light from passing through the lens. It is a feature that dates back to the Daguerreotype cameras of the 1840s. Comparison with the serial numbers of other T-TH lenses posted online suggests a late 1880s date. Clifton & Baird only started business in 1908 so it would seem that they acquired both camera and lens second hand.
There is a little accessory case containing stops of different sizes. The bigger the hole in the stop the more light it lets in. The holes are graded at two-stop intervals, so for instance there is an f4 stop and f8 but no f5.6.
One thing that you would expect to find in a camera is missing here: a shutter.
From around the 1890s lenses for cameras like this would often have a shutter incorporated into the lens barrel. However with older lenses like the one here you have two choices: either attach a separate shutter to the front of the lens or use the lens cap as a shutter.
In a relatively dark environment like the Clifton & Baird factory long exposures would have been the order of the day so it would have been easy enough to remove the lens cap for a few seconds and then replace it.
Another trick that Victorian photographers could do was to use their hat as a makeshift shutter!
The barrel of the lens is engraved with its focal length, the size of plate it was designed to cover, the manufacturer’s name and also the name of the dealer who sold it, “J. White / Glasgow”. This is presumably James White who traded throughout the 1880s and ’90s from addresses on Sauchiehall Street and Cambridge Street (later on only at the latter) so unfortunately that isn’t going to help us narrow down the date.
Plate Holders and Film Holders
The camera has two plate holders in its carrying case. Each can take two plates or sheets of film, one on either side. They are known as ‘book-style’ holders because they hinge open like a book so that the glass plates can be put inside.
Needless to say this has to be done in a darkroom, although not necessarily in the dark: in the early 1900s photographic plates were still ‘Orthochromatic’. This means that they weren’t sensitive to all of the visible spectrum of light. Normally such plates only ‘saw’ blue and green which meant they could be handled and developed under a red safe-light. Most modern film sees all of the visible spectrum (sometimes beyond) and is called ‘Panchromatic’.
Photographic plates came in a variety of sizes, the standards for which differed from country to country. This camera uses the Whole Plate size which as the name suggests is one of the larger common sizes of the time. British whole plates measured 8.5 x 6.5 inches (165 x 216mm).
To attach the film holder for taking a picture you first need to unclip the glass focusing screen which hinges out of the way. When a film holder is slid in its place the film (or surface of the glass plate) is in exactly the same position as the focusing surface of the focusing screen. This ensures that anything that was sharp on the focusing screen will be sharp on the film.
Now we know our way around the camera we are ready to take a photo.
Taking a Picture
The image on the ground glass focusing screen is very dim so you need to use a darkcloth to see it properly. The cloth goes over your head and blocks out light from everywhere except the focusing screen. Once you can see the screen clearly you will discover something else: the image is upside-down! This takes some getting used to, although some photographers have found it actually helps them create a strong composition by abstracting the subject.
It is easier to focus the camera before you insert an f-stop into the lens because the f-stop makes the image on the focusing screen a lot dimmer, especially if you use a high f-number like f128.
Once you are happy with the focus you can stop down the lens and insert the film holder.
The focusing screen swings out of the way so that the plate holder can be slid into its place.
Once the plate holder is in place the darkslide that covers the window at the front of the holder can be removed. The lens must be covered when this is done or the camera will start taking a picture straight away.
The camera doesn’t have a built-in light meter so you have to use a hand-held exposure meter or use experience to guess the exposure. Depending on how close the subject is, you may also need to calculate an extra amount of exposure to account for the extension of the bellows.
To take the picture it is a matter of quickly removing the lens cap (taking care not to cause vibration) and counting off the seconds before replacing the cap.
It is essential that you replace the darkslide before removing the film holder or stray light will get in and the picture will be ruined.
Using the Camera Today
Well, that was the theory, but how easy is it to use the camera now? The film holders have blank glass plates in them already so it is possible to place a sheet of film in front of the glass. However, doing this in the dark without damaging the delicate surface of the film is easier said than done! I also found that one of the film holders had a loose corner. This meant I failed to properly seat the film a couple of times and only discovered this when the film popped out of the holder as I closed the dark-slide!
The glass focusing screen isn’t as bright as on a modern view camera so a dark-cloth is an essential accessory for composing. I also needed to use a loupe magnifier to focus the picture accurately. However, the good news is that it does work!
What better subject to test the camera on that our Clifton and Baird cold sawing machine, from the same factory where the camera was used? I photographed it in the museum store, where the lighting was bright enough that the exposure needed was only about 4 seconds. However, the resulting image was very flat. It didn’t help that I was using a low-contrast film (Ilford HP5+) and that the lens lacked any of the modern coatings that give photos more contrast.
Introducing some directional lighting from a couple of flourescent light units helped.
I then tried a portrait during a class in the Photomedia Studio at Summerlee. Using the studio’s modelling lights it was possible to get a reasonably sharp picture with a 5 second exposure time. The light horizontal line in the photo below is damage caused to the delicate surface of the film by the sliding wooden cover of a damaged plate holder. We also tried an 8 second exposure but the blur caused by my (very patient) model moving became too much. This is why the Victorians used clamps to hold the sitter’s head perfectly still!
The photos were all tray-developed in the Photomedia Studio darkroom and the resulting negatives scanned.
All in all, it was really interesting to get to know this old camera and understand what it must have been like for the technicians who used it. Having said that, it is not the kind of camera that many people would want to use regularly. Despite being no stranger to large format cameras I really struggled with this one – I’ll maybe stick to my phone!
About the Author
Justin Parkes has been Industrial History Curator for CultureNL since 2008.