A Really, Really Inexpensive Wet Plate Camera

A recent thread about "noob looking for an inexpensive starter kit..." got me thinking "how low-cost can a workable wet-plate camera get?"


(Test plate. 6"x6"   Osterman "basic" collodion, exposed for 2 seconds, KCN fix.)

I probably could have made the camera for under $5 if I had purchased a cheap magnifying glass at WAL-MART but I used a lens that I already had, which cost me $20. The lens is an overhead projector lens (it came attached to an overhead projector!) I got on ebay a year or two ago. It's about 13" focal length and approximately f/4.5. The nice thing about using an overhead projector lens is you know it's intended to cover at least 8x10"


- Gaffer's tape
- sharp knife
- Amazon.com shipping box a bathrobe came in (you may be able to use something else)
- glue (part way through I started using hot glue instead of woodworkers' glue because it's faster)
- lens
- pen

Total build time:
- 5 minutes (if you leave out thinking-time and walking back and forth time)

Mount the lens in the front of the box ("lens-board") after cutting a hole ("the aperture"). The lens-mount should be light-tight. Since my overhead projector lens already has a flange, I was able to be frugal with my gaffer's tape.

Next, prepare a piece of cardboard with turned back edges ("internal focusing rail") that fits inside the box. It should be snug so as not to vibrate but not tight enough to bend. You are now halfway done making your camera.

Put a piece of white mat-board against the focusing rail and make sure that the box you chose is long enough to allow the camera to focus. You can also use your pen to make mystical scribblings to indicate approximately where you will want to place the plate-holder.

Now, figure out how you're going to mount your camera. In my case, I decided I'd use my welded steel studio-stand-of-many-purposes, which has a convenient flat spot for holding stuff. I used the pen to trace the bottom of the box where it rested on the stand, so I could put the "mounting rails" in the correct place.

The mounting rails are attached with hot glue to the bottom of the box ("frame") so that it will be easy to put it back in more or less exactly the same place on the stand when I am ready to make my plate. Getting this step right is important; if your camera can shift around your focal plane will move and/or your composition will get inadvertently creative. You may use a different mounting system than I did - a table-top with a couple of encyclopedias to position the box reliably will also work nicely.

"Plate holder" assembly. The plate holder is a U-shape cut out of cardboard, glued to another piece of cardboard with two little tabs to hold the plate. I was getting impatient and wanted to see how my camera worked so I just whapped everything together with hot glue. The plate holder is positioned against the focusing rail and locked into place with gaffer's tape. This makes it "adjustable"! The focusing rail is locked into place with gaffer's tape - but you can fine-focus any time by peeling back the tape, nudging stuff around, and pushing the tape back. In fact, you can compensate for distortion using "internal swings and tilts" by angling the focusing rail inside the box.

"Plate retainer devices" (you will need two) are made of gaffer's tape strips with a smaller gaffer's tape strip stuck face-down onto them. These will be used to lock the top of the plate into the plate holder when you've sensitized it. WARNING: If you are too cheap to use little pieces of gaffer's tape, it will stick to and pull the collodion off the plate, so pay careful attention to this step!

Plate retainer device, use of:

"Lens cap" is constructed from foam-core and black electrical tape. Cheaper cardboard and gaffer's tape would have worked well but I had actually constructed this lens cap a year ago, and went "deluxe" all the way with it.

The camera is now ready for loading. Notice the "light baffles" strips of gaffer's tape, partially affixed and ready to be put into place to light-seal the camera once the plate is loaded.

Now you are ready to compose your image. Place the camera on its stand and fiddle everything around until it's pointed in the right direction and the image is sharp and correctly positioned on the plate-holder. The mat-board I use as a focusing aid is the same thickness as the glass plate I am using.

Take your camera into your darkroom, pour a plate, and sensitize it normally. In this case, I put the camera right next to my silver-bath (on the right) on the table where I normally load my film holders. As a "safety measure" I put a piece of paper towel on the bottom of the camera under the plate holder in case any silver nitrate solution dripped off the plate.

Once the plate is sensitized, put it in the plate holder, engage the plate retainer devices and then put the light gaskets in place. In other words: tape everything together.

Carry the camera back to where you're taking the picture, put it gently back into register on the table or stand or hood of your car or whatever you're using, and take your picture by removing the lens cap. If it's windy you may wish to put a brick on top of your camera so it doesn't blow away; that would be embarrassing.

Return the camera to the darkroom, remove the light gaskets (untape everything) and take the plate out, then develop it.

When you're done with your camera, recycle it!