Photographer Builds Giant Camera and Darkroom Bus

Photographer Bill Hao from Vancouver, Canada spent two years building a huge camera out of oak wood. It takes gigantic wet-plate collodion photos measuring 32 × 48 inches.

The collodion wet plate process has a very critical requirement: the photographer must be able to coat, expose and develop the plate while wet within 15 minutes. It would be fine for shooting in a studio with an adjoining darkroom for rapid development, but Hao had other ideas. He wanted to take the camera to his favorite spots in the Canadian Rockies and shoot landscapes.

The requirement for instant processing led to a traveling darkroom, which also had to be huge. Hao built one out of a Prevost bus/RV.

The Process of Wet Plate Collodion Photography

The wet plate collodion photographic process was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 in England because he was dissatisfied with the poor definition and contrast of the calotype, invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, who used paper negatives.

By the late 1860s, wet-plate collodion had almost entirely replaced the first advertised photographic process, the daguerreotype. It was relatively inexpensive, using glass instead of silver-coated copper plates, and did not require polishing equipment or the highly toxic smoking boxes needed for the daguerreotype.

Gelatin dry plates – glass plates with a photographic silver halide emulsion suspended in gelatin began to replace wet-plate collodion in the 1880s. It was more practical and more sensitive, which reduced exposure times. George Eastman developed a machine for coating glass plates in 1879 and opened the Eastman Film and Dry Plate Company, reducing the cost of photography.

Every year, the first Saturday in May can be set aside as World Wet Plate Day. This, however, is by no means official but seems to be a call for reconstruction from enthusiasts of old photographic techniques, from tintypes to ambrotypes.

“I’m not saying the old process is better than digital,” says Hao PetaPixel. “Of course, today’s digital technology is simple, fast and awesome. But for me, the image capture techniques of old, especially the wet collodion process, offer better quality, more tone, more detail and a larger format.

“An image made with the old process looks more realistic…and can be stored longer. More importantly, I love it.

Make a Great Portable Camera

Hao operates the camera all by himself and needed something he could maneuver himself without being too cumbersome to assemble and disassemble.

“The camera is made of oak wood, black fabric and a bit of metal,” says Hao. “I made this camera between 2019 and 2021.”

The plan and design changed several times during this period. Parts even had to be built and rebuilt through trial and error until they worked properly. The manufacture of the bellows was an important problem. It ended up being either too soft or too heavy and had to be built twice before it was operational.

Every beginning photographer remembers their mentor’s advice that the tripod needs to be stable to get a sharp image. But here, the BC artist had to use not just one sturdy tripod but three of them to support the weight and large dimensions of the camera.

The gigantic camera size

The camera measures 52 x 37 x 70 inches when fully open. And when closed, it shrinks to 52 x 37 x 8 inches. The weight of the camera is 110 lbs (50 kg), without the lens and film holder, or 44 lbs (20 kg). And the three tripods weigh 10 kg each.

The glass plates are 3 mm thick and are made of semi-tempered glass. And a photographer usually wants to carry at least two dozen glass plates on the go.

With a plate size of 32×48 inches, the lens must also have a huge rear throw circle. His target choices include Carl Zeiss Tessar and Goerz Dagor. The largest lens it has is a 1200mm, where the image circle is 1890mm (74 inches). Other lenses include a 900mm with a 1418mm (56 in) image circle and a 600mm with a 945mm (37 in) image circle.

The lens is at the photographer’s eye level and would provide a view of the world as he sees it standing up. The “extra-large format” photographer moves and tilts, but only “sometimes”.

Challenges of photographing landscapes with the camera

Assembling the camera from place to place is tiring and requires moving heavy equipment.

“The wet plate process is very dependent on weather conditions, sunlight, and temperature,” Hao explains.

He can only pack a limited amount of chemicals for his mobile darkroom and must carefully manage them on the go. Additionally, he must keep improving his equipment, technique and processes to keep improving his results. He relies on his own experiences as there are no references available to create images at this size and scale.

“[Capturing] clouds is very difficult because the blue sky and the clouds look the same on the plate,” says Hao.

But he still wants the clouds to register, and most wet plate photographers haven’t been successful until recently. Another difficulty he has is that the image develops quite quickly.

“I can coat a smaller plate in a minute, but I need 3-5 minutes to coat a large plate,” the collodion photographer says. “Exposure time varies depending on weather, time and light. the [plate] the development time is nearly 20 seconds; it’s so fast and hard to control!

In one of the videos, Hao is seen rushing to the bus darkroom with the heavy plate carrier to quickly develop it before the emulsion begins to dry. In a previous case, he got into an argument with local police while shooting at a cruise ship, which resulted in the emulsion drying out and the latent image being unrecoverable.

Enter photography and go further

Hao became addicted to photography at age 16 in middle school when he developed his own film in the darkroom. As his passion for photography grew, he used and experimented with 35mm, 66 and 67 (medium format), 4×5 and finally 8×10 cameras.

In 2015, he embarked on wet plate collodion. He made an 11×11″ camera and built a darkroom in a Dodge Caravan for wet plate processing. He used Zeiss Protar and Goerz Dagor lenses.

Over time, he was consumed by the desire to make bigger pictures. And with collodion, the only way is to expose a larger glass plate in an even larger camera. This led to the current 32×48 inch plate camera in 2019 and a “large bus darkroom”.

“I bought this bus [in 2007] not for my photography but for my travel agency. At the moment I converted it into a motorhome with a darkroom.

The negative is the positive

The glass plate that comes out of the camera is the final work of art. It’s too big to scan, so he photographs it but is never fully satisfied due to the reflectivity of the glass.

“Please see the original plate, if possible!” he advises viewers who wish to see the work.

Hao made special boxes where he stores the glass plates, and these are his archives – all unique images, impossible to repeat or duplicate.

“This glass is [the] final result already”, he specifies. “You can just put it on a black background and then see a positive image.

“I think I do the Ambrotype process because I do glass positive photos by the wet-plate collodion process, so I think so.”

The only portraits he has ever taken with his giant camera are those of his wife.

“She is my best assistant and provides the Chinese folk songs and background music for my videos,” Hao says. ” She likes music. I support her and she supports me.

Hao is not a professional photographer and hasn’t earned any money so far from his passion. He owns and operates an international travel agency.

“I took over a hundred ambrotype glass plate photos with my ‘smaller’ 11 x 11″ camera,” says Hao. “I only have 15 large plates [32×48″] until now. I photographed them on the last trip in September. I’m going to go to the Rockies in the next two weeks and do more plates… Anyway, now I’m just traveling for photography.

Read also: It was the largest camera in the world in 1900.

“Everyone thinks I’m crazy!” But they also envy my life just because I can do whatever I want,” says Hao proudly.

You can see more of Bill Hao’s work on his Instagram, Facebook and YouTube channel.


About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.


Picture credits: All photos provided by Bill Hao.

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