Film Friday: Shooting HDR tintypes with an 120mm f/1 HD projector lens: Digital Photography Review

One of Markus Hofstätter’s HDR tintypes.
Photo: Markus Hofstätter

Markus Hofstätter is a self-described photographer, artist and alchemist whose work often pushes the boundaries of analog photography. Take, for instance, his recent HDR tintype project, shot using a large format camera, a converted 120mm f/1 HD projector lens and a whole lot of patience. The results are both visually mesmerizing and technically impressive. You can get a quick overview of the project in the video below.

We caught up with Markus to learn more about his adventures in chemistry experimentation, gear repurposing and old-school photography practices. We also chatted about the pain points associated with this project, namely the challenges of mounting and focusing such an enormous lens with such a razor-thin depth of field. Markus additionally shared advice for anyone eager to dip their toes into the deeply satisfying world of tintype photography.

Tell us a little bit about your background in wet plate photography. What draws you to it?

I am mainly a portrait photographer and enjoy the wet plate process a lot. It slows me and my subject down. A typical portrait session takes about two hours, where we both take time and focus on that single image we make. (I am working currently on my ‘Inspired’ series, where I capture people who inspire me). Working with my hands is also something I enjoy a lot. I make my own chemicals and also repair my own gear.

My analog journey started with my street portrait project, where I travelled the world to take analog portraits of people I met on the street. I captured these portraits with a (medium format) 645 Mamiya camera. Then I changed to a (4×5) Linhof Master Technika for street portraits. After owning the Linhof and shooting lots with it, it was only a logical step for me to start with the wet plate process. And this was a totally different rabbit hole than starting with film. After more than 8 years [shooting film], I feel very comfortable with the process and have gained lots of knowledge. But with the wet plate process, you never stop learning. I also enjoy teaching my wet plate workshops a lot. And experimenting is also something I like to do. Like in this project.

Markus repurposed an old projector lens for this project, acquired from eBay.
Photo: Markus Hofstätter

Tell me a little bit about the Delta HD-6C ML lens you used for this video. What was it used for in its previous life?

These lenses were used in old CRT HD projectors. I used a similar one for a very abstract ultra-large-format portrait before. In this article, I explain a lot about these lenses and their origins. I also show datasheets and a projector from back then.

You mention that the lens can be a fire hazard. Why is that?

It was a coincidence that I wanted to capture an image of a similar lens outside and saw how it focuses the light. It starts a fire immediately.

Is the Delta HD-6C ML the fastest lens you’ve shot tintypes with? And are there even faster ones out there?

It’s probably the fastest I’ve worked with. I couldn’t find a datasheet, so I only measured the f-stop. I have seen a faster lens at a flea market, a 125mm f/0.8. You can see it in my video here at the 0:40 mark – another monster.

There is a downside to these fast lenses. They have a razor-thin point where the image is sharp. That’s why the images look very soft. But I like it. It has its own charm. My favorite lenses are the Dallmeyer Petzval lenses, which I use mainly for my portraits. I have a 2b (about 220mm f/3) and a 3b (290mm f/3) – I covered the whole history of these in my ‘Inspired’ series.

Tintype photography requires patience and know-how, especially when shooting with an f/1 lens. But the results can be mesmerizing. In addition to experimenting with the medium, Marcus also teaches workshops.
Photo: Markus Hofstätter

Had you considered making an HDR tintype before? What inspired you to try it with this particular lens?

It was more a fix than a consideration. When I built up the scene, I thought of a wonderful flower with crazy bokeh. The blossom of the flower with its yellow and white color is quite a challenge. Why? The wet plate process only sees the blue light spectrum (about the 400-to-low-500nm range), while red, yellow, and orange will be interpreted as black.

In the beginning, I tried a slower developer and stopped the development of the bright spots to get the darker spots to develop more. But the contrast was too high, so I made several plates, scanned them with my Screen Cezanne 5000 scanner, and merged them to an HDR digitally.

When I think back now, it would have been a better idea to shoot the darker exposure to a metal plate and the brighter ones onto glass and put the glass plates above the metal plate. That would have been something cool to do. Maybe I’ll try that in the future.

Walk me through your process for mounting and stabilizing the lens to your camera. It seems awfully tricky!

Hahaha, that’s a good question. Normally I create very steady lens mounts, either of wood or I 3D-print them. I even build some for other analog photographers. But because I knew already that I could not fit this huge lens permanently on my camera, I used my quick and dirty solution: Designing and printing a ‘flange’ that pulls smoothly on the lens with a bigger ring on the bottom. That way I can bring it close to my camera and fix the light leaks with duct tape.

The lens mount may not be pretty but it works.
Photo: Markus Hofstätter

For this camera, I had already designed and built a lens support. But that alone would not do it, so I just did an inverse ‘Jenga game’ with plate holders and other stuff that was laying around to stabilize this lens. To hold it in place I just used a tension belt from my self-made camera. I had to move the camera pretty slowly, but it was a success.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to try tintype photography?

Attend a good workshop. Ask what is covered in the workshop, like history, chemicals, safety precautions, camera gear, lab gear, disposal of chemicals and, of course, the process. And get support after the workshop until you create your own plates. Also, get a good book about the process. There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t know what you are doing.

But if you know how to work with the chemicals and learn the process the right way, it is very rewarding and beautiful. Creating images with your own hands is very rare in our fast-moving time. The process can be very independent. You could even take images without the use of power.

For more of Markus Hofstätter’s work, check out his blog and Patreon.

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