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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wet-plate collodion on a motorcycle

Inspired by William Henry Jackson's autobiography and his exploration of  Colorado, I decided to follow his lead and create wet-plate collodion photographs while traveling on a motorcycle - the modern-day equivalent to Jackson's mule.

William Henry Jackson's assistant leading a mule loaded with gear.
I had been enthralled with Jackson's accounts of his exploration of the American West and was curious to see if it was still possible today to experience a similar sense of adventure and a significant personal connection to the Land. In addition, I had always dreamt of riding a motorcycle, and being 36, I thought it was high time to give it a try.

Denis and KLR 650
The biggest challenge in this enterprise is, of course, to fit all my gear and supplies on the bike. I had to sell and buy a few things in order to make this happen…

First and foremost, I had to find a motorcycle. 

I eventually bought a 2002 KLR 650. It is a dual-sport (for both highway and trails), it was cheap, strongly built, reliable, fairly easy to maintain and fix and could carry quite a bit.

The bike was in rough shape when I bought it; it required a certain amount of TLC before being rideable for long stretches of time. This is an image of my first outing.

After having ridden the klr for a couple years now, I'd say that it is the right bike for what I do: it gets me from the house to the trails in relative comfort and is also proficient off-road. The biggest drawback is its weight: loaded with all my gear it is really difficult (almost impossible) to bring back up by myself after a fall. I can do it once on a trip, but not twice…

Then I needed to choose a set-up to carry my gear. 

In order to protect my camera (a paramount issue), hard-side panniers were the only choice. There are many options for panniers, but being on a budget I quickly zeroed in on recycled ammo cans and Dirtracks mounting racks.  I ordered the widest possible ammo cans - which were meant to house 20 mm ammunitions- they are 18.5' long x 8.25" wide x 14.5" tall.

After some modifications, mine look like this:
In addition to doing the necessary modification (removing the reinforcement metal bar on the side towards the bike) to  mount the ammo can on the rack, I added a couple U bolts on the top. They serve as anchors while attaching gear (tripod, tent, sleeping bag, ext) on the pannier. I placed another U bolt in the middle of the handle ; it allows me to use a lock and keep my material secure. 
Once again, the only drawback to using ammo cans is their weight. However they are virtually indestructible: I have fallen quite a few times and they have done a great job protecting both their content and my bike.  I actually performed the ultimate test on their strength when I crashed the left one against a tree stump. It got a small dent but my camera (which was inside) came out without a scratch. The mount rack took the blunt of the force and broke in two places though…

I also added a top box on the back rack, which is were I keep my lenses, digital camera and other sensitive and expensive gear. Most people are familiar with Pelican cases - which are wonderful but  a little pricy. I opted for a less-known brand: Seahorse cases. I bought the Seahorse SE 630; it had the perfect dimensions to fit on the bike and carry enough stuff.

Klr 650 with side pannier and top box.

Ammo cans are so sturdy that I was also able to install Rotopax mounts directly on them in order to carry two 1-gallon Rotopax water containers.

You can see the mount and how the ammo can has been modified so the lid now pivots and only opens on one side.
This gives me enough water to process a day worth of plates.

Rotopax water container and mount.

Enough with the motorcycle, let's talk about photographic gear.

First, I had to find the right camera.

This meant that I had to sell my trusted 8x10 Calumet C1.

I loved that camera! It was ugly, heavy but unbreakable and had a tremendous bellow draw (which allowed me to do all my close up still life from the compost). But, even folded down, it was just too big to fit in any side pannier.
I sold it and invested into a 8x10 Deardorff field camera. I have absolutely no regrets, it is a beautiful object , is fairly light and fold down to an incredibly manageable size.

The Deardorff in action at Wheeler
Folded, the Deardorff measures 12"x12"x4.5"

A crucial element of your arsenal is the silver nitrate bath. 

I purchase a travel tank from Lundphotographics and couldn't be happier with it. During my trip to the San Luis Valley, I kept my silver nitrate in the travel tank for an entire week of bumping up and down on backcountry trail. I virtually didn't loose anything. The tank is tight and robust.

You will of course need a dark box to process your plates. 

At this point, it seems to me there are only two options on a motorcycle: an ice fishing tent or a home-made foldable dark box.
For a while I carried an Eskimo Quickfish 2 and it worked very well for 1-day outings, but is too cumbersome if you're planning a multi-day trip and you have to carry your camping gear.

First trip with the QuickFish.
N.B. The ice fishing tent is still, in my mind, the best option to shoot in the field, if you have enough room in/on your vehicle. It only requires minimum modifications to be useable as a darkroom (replace some windows with rubylith, plug any pinhole in the fabric and by the zippers with liquid electrical tape).

Eventually, I realized that I needed something that could be folded and tucked away. I set out to design a fabric foldable dark box with an internal PVC structure. Once put together it looks like this:

The shell of the box is made up of two layers; the outer layer is blackout curtain fabric, the inner is black bottomweight fabric. The dark cloth is of the same material; it attaches to the box with velcro.
The dark box is big enough to accommodate my 8x10 dip tank and a couple 8x10 trays.

The deconstructed box looks like this:

When folded, everything fits in a 30-liter dry bag that I can attached on the top of one side pannier.

In addition to the normal equipment for wet-plate collodion, I had to fabricate a water-tight box that would allow me to carry un-washed plates until I had access to running water. I made it out of clear plexiglass, the inside dimensions are barely greater that the plates' size (7.5" x 9.25"). It has enough slots to hold 10 different plates.

At first I would fill the tank with water and set unwashed plates in. However handiwork wasn't perfect and the tank leaked at the junction of the box and the lid. Some water would end up at the bottom of my side pannier. Eventually I elected to flow all my plates with a mixture of glycerin and distilled water (1+1) before putting them in my tank for travel. This works perfectly for me. I can conserve my unwashed plates for several days and wash them at my leisure when convenient.

Plexiglass tank holding one of the plates from wheeler.

So how does all of this look on the bike?

Obviously the first things to pack are the side panniers.

In the left side pannier, I can fit the camera (note that is protected by a cardboard enclosure), a modified 8x10 film holder, three trays, the camera dark cloth (on the right of the camera), and the dark box shroud (top right corner). Everything is zoo tightly packed that there can only be very minimal movements while riding.

In the right pannier, I put the travel tank (barely visible at the bottom), all my chemistry (in the soft-side red cooler), the plexiglass tank (on the right) and paper towels.

In the top box, I carry a soft bag that contains one lens, release cable, headlamp, timer, gloves and trash bags. I have additional room for my digital SLR.

This is a picture of the motorcycle loaded for a 7-day adventure in the San Luis Valley (you can read more about the trip on the blog:

You can see a water container in front of the pannier (in white). On top is my foldable dark box in its red dry bag. The left pannier also carries a 1-gallon water bottle; on top I attached my tripod and my sleeping bag.
I have also added tank saddle bags where I keep some food and other necessary items.

Loaded like this, the Klr is possibly at capacity. If not, it is definitely at my capacity to bring it back up as mentioned earlier.

The trip in the San Luis Valley was a blast; I can't wait to do something like this again.

I hope that this was helpful and that I will get to see some of you on the trails this coming summer!



  1. Sounds like a great adventure! Is Wheeler also known as "Tent Rocks", just north of Sante Fe?

    1. Hi Kyle,
      Wheeler is in Southern Colorado, not too far from Creede.

  2. Hello from Tokyo.
    I was looking for the information about the Fotodiox C-1600 Cool Light and came across to your blog. Your photos are very lovely.
    May I know how the light works for the wet collodion ?
    And you shoot outside with mobile darkroom...! very cool...

  3. awesome rig man, i might learn from it