Victoria Will Shoots Tintype Portraits of the Stars at Sundance

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Portrait photography, Videos

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At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, photographer Victoria Will decided to put down her digital camera and use a century-old technique to shoot the stars. The result is celebrity portraits unlike any other you have ever seen before.

We all know the feeling of being stuck in a rut. So what do you do as a portrait photographer when you need to reignite your creative spark?

One thing you can do is switch tools. Replace the pen with a brush, and you will probably be surprised by what you end up putting on the canvas.

Celebrity photographer Victoria Will’s recent shoot at the Sundance Film Festival is a good example. Victoria had been shooting the stars at the festival for three years in a row when she started to feel as if she was reinventing the wheel every time. So for her fourth year, she replaced her DSLR with an old Graflex Super D camera and the TIFFs and JPGs with beautiful, aluminum tintypes.

The switch did not make things easier for Victoria, quite the opposite. But the demanding process resulted in some of the most inspired and highly praised portraits from that year’s festival.

“What I love about the process is how raw it is,” says Victoria. “We live in an age of glossy magazines and overly retouched skin. But there is no lying with tintypes. You can’t get rid of a few wrinkles in Photoshop.”

 

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

For her fifth year at Sundance, Victoria decided to take her tintype photography one step further. Equipped with four Pro-8 studio packs, two ProTwin Heads, a Beauty Dish and a Softbox RFi 4’ Octa, Victoria brought the century-old tintype technique into the 21st century.

“The first year I shot tintypes was a great success,” says Victoria. “But I also learned a lot during the process. So when this year’s festival came up, I knew there was room for improvement.

“For this year’s festival, I asked the Penumbra Foundation to help me out. These guys, who I affectionately refer to as the mad scientists, are tintype experts.

“I asked them for help for two reasons. First of all, I was eight months pregnant, so I obviously couldn’t stick my hands into lethal mixtures. Secondly, having them there taking care of the chemistry, allowed me to fully focus on the portraiture, on the lighting and on the interaction with the subject.”

 

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

The Chemistry

Making a tintype is hard. The chemicals can be deadly, the process is extremely time sensitive, and the tiniest variation in exposure can have a huge effect on the final outcome.

Nevertheless, we asked Victoria to guide us through the process as if we did not know the first thing about it (which in all honesty we did not).

“First of all, start with a piece of metal. You can use tin, of course. That’s why they’re referred to as a tintype. But you can use any metal, really, like iron or aluminum, which is what I did at Sundance.

“You coat the aluminum in a mixture called Collodion. Collodion has ether and all sorts of nasty stuff in it, but it makes the silver nitrate stick to it. So when you place the plate with the Collodion in a silver nitrate bath and take it out again, the plate becomes light sensitive.

“Then, while the plate remains wet you have to expose it and then develop it. Time is of the greatest essence and weather is always a factor. For example, humid conditions will give you more time than dry arid climates. In total, you have roughly seven to eight minutes to complete the entire process. There is no room for mistakes.

“So as soon you get your shot, you take out the plate and put it into the developer. Then you stop the development with a water bath, and after that you put the plate in the fixer. That’s it. You got your plate. Hopefully…

“The process reminds me of the things I learned in the darkroom when doing silver gelatin prints. The main difference is, of course, that you’re actually making the entire piece of film from the beginning.

“You also have to remember that the so-called film you’re creating has ISO zero to one. So you obviously need huge amounts of light to get the correct exposure.”

More about that to come…

 

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-BTS-2

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-BTS-1

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

The Lighting

Back in the day, the huge amounts of light that were necessary to expose a tintype correctly were achieved using extremely long exposures – often several minutes or more (which is why the men and women you see in old tintypes never smile and look kind of stiff.)

Not afraid to experiment, Victoria took a different approach. Using two Profoto ProTwin Heads and four Profoto Pro-8 packs, she was able to shorten the needed exposure time from several minutes to a fraction of a second.

For those of you who do not know, ProTwin Head is a super powerful flash head with not one but two cords. The two cords can be connected to one flash pack each, practically doubling the amount of power you have at your disposal. In Victoria’s case, the ProTwin Heads were connected to two Pro-8 packs with 2400Ws each. By combining their power, she got 4800Ws of power in each of the two heads. That is 9600Ws of light in each shot! So if you ever wondered why Alexander Skarsgård and Adrian Grenier seemed to get blinded by the light in the video, now you know.

“I have to use an incredible amount of light,” says Victoria. “It’s somewhat daunting, actually. I think you can get away with a little bit less and develop the plate a while longer, but then you run into other types of consequences. So I think this is the best way to do it.”

The outcome justifies Victoria’s belief. Over the course of five busy days at Sundance, she and her team got no less than 175 tintype plates. Needless to say, that is an insane number for this meticulous, time consuming process.

“It’s such a fast pace but it’s very rewarding,” Victoria says. “Definitely high-risk, high-reward.”

 

See more of Victoria Will’s work at her website.

 

GEAR

4 x Profoto Pro-8 Studio Generator
2 x ProTwin Head
1 x Softlight Reflector White
1 x Softbox RFi 4’ Octa

 

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

TINTYPE COPYRIGHT OF VICTORIA WILL

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-McGregor

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Label063

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Momoa

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Thirlby

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Lee

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Nicholson

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Nolte

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Cassel

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Duplass

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Weaving

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Godreche

© Victoria Will

Victoria-Will-Profoto-Pro-8-Sundance-Slash

© Victoria Will

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Comments (20)

  • Andy Thompson

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    Wow Victoria simply stunning images. Great video and article.

    Reply

  • jeremiah

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    These portraits speaks a thousand words! I wanted to learn this technique.

    Reply

  • Felix Wu

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    Love this blog post. Quality content and beautify images. While I was still wondering where Victoria put the 4 pro8 packs and searching for the other two lights in the video, I saw she actually used twin head to combine power. Just curious will such bright light cause harm to people’s eyes?

    Reply

  • Dale Barber

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    Great image process of a time gone by.

    Reply

  • Scott Weaver

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    Really enjoy these, and her subjects are obviously enjoying the experience! This is an excellent video because it keeps its focus on the photographer and her procedures, rather than atmospherics. Great!

    Reply

  • Maury K.

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    This is one of the most excellent sets of portraits I have ever seen! In any photographic style or medium.

    Reply

  • JL Williams

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    Nice to see something different in celebrity portraiture!

    The old-time beachfront and army-camp tintypists often used a special camera with the solution tanks built right into the camera body — which actually was probably easier than the way Will did it! It was a very well-developed technology that lasted a long time, because of the advantages of quick processing and sturdy media that would stand up to being carried and mailed — important to vacationers, soldiers, etc. Fun to see it back in the public eye.

    Reply

  • Michelle H.

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    I absolutely LOVE this!!

    However, this may be a complete lamebrain question (excuse my ignorance), but how is she triggering the lights? Assuming there was no plug for a PW in that beautiful old Graflex camera… 😉

    Reply

    • Sasha Hallin

      |

      Great to hear!

      She triggers the lights manually through an Air Remote. You can actually see a glimpse of it at 3:19 into the video, so have another look and keep your eyes open! It’s over in a flash…

      Sasha,
      Profoto

      Reply

  • Ross Chevalier

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    I really love the images. Very different from the blast mode of shoots we see so often. I particularly appreciate what Victoria is able to pull out of her subjects in many cases. There is a depth in these images missing all too often in others.

    Reply

  • Pierre Antoine

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    Bonjour, très belle série d’images comme il y a des années en arrière. Le seul problème est que l’on voit l’éclat de lumière dans les yeux. Problème ingérables avec les modulateurs de lumière. On voit ces boites à lumière trop proches des sujets. Difficile de les éviter. Bravo Victoria tout de même, bravo.

    Reply

  • Josep Barbero

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    Un trabajo muy bueno con un resultado genial. Me encanta este tipo de retrato.
    Felicidades Victoria Will.

    Reply

  • wilhelm

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    Old med modern time
    Grad photographs
    Or in modern times images
    Creating images the right way
    Is the ticket
    To photography.

    Wilhelm

    Reply

  • Tracy atelfair

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    Wonderful photos, they really capture the personalities of the subjects and the video was excellent for a novice like me. I look forward to viewing more of her work. Thank you, Tracy

    Reply

  • Juan Prieto

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    I have been shooing Tintypes for about a month now using a 4x 5 Crown Graphic. The process is frustrating and yet incredibly rewarding. I shoot in natural mid day light with exposure of about 2 seconds. This video makes me wonder how much power I actually need to shoot with strobes indoors. This was a great inspiring video.

    Reply

  • Mike

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    Kevin Smith ruined perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a wonderful down to earth portrait done. I don’t care if he was stoned.

    Reply

  • Bill Nixon

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    Victoria – Simply stunning! Absolutely amazing photography and a look that simply couldn’t be achieved by any other method. Great work on the lighting too reducing the exposure time. I have seen photos of my great grands on Tintype. These are so much richer! Helps to have stars too!

    Reply

  • Juan Prieto

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    Great concept. I just recently started shooting Tintypes and appreciate the work involved. Profoto if you would like to loan me your lights for a Tintype shoot I would be happy to promote you!

    Hey just throwing it out there! : )

    Reply

  • David Clifford

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    Fantastic. I love the portrait of Spike Lee.

    Reply

  • Fran

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    I have a recently created tintype of my daughter and want to frame it, but don’t know how this should be done. Any suggestions?

    Reply

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