“I am lucky; my wife supports me,” quips Bill Hao when queried on what his friends and family think of his massive wet plate camera obsession. He spent close to a year crafting the camera and its portable setup (if you can call it portable), and he loves touring his country and taking landscape photos.
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Where many photographers these days are looking for a compact, easy-to-carry setup with the most megapixels crammed into the sensor, Bill Hao refreshingly decided to go the other way. The joy this gives him is personal; he’s not out to please anyone else with this massive wetplate setup. Driving around the countryside with this beast of a camera is something he does with a lot of passion. Painstaking as it may seem, he finds a lot of satisfaction in the process of taking these photos and their development. Maybe we all need to learn from Bill to slow down a little and see our subjects in a different way through our lenses.
The Essential Photo Gear Used By Bill Hao
Bill told us:
- Self made 11x11inch camera
- A 4X5inch camera
- 35mm cameras
- Another massive 52inch X 37inch X 70inch camera
- 3 tripods for the huge wetplate camera
- Multiple lenses (the largest being a 1200mm one)
The Phobographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Bill Hao: I got into photography when I was 16 in middle school; I did film and darkroom work at the time. I got into the Wetplate process in 2015 and I’ve loved photography since I was a kid. I’m a Canadian living in Vancouver BC Canada now; I run a tour company these days.
The Phobographer: People these days are looking for smaller cameras for convenience. What made you decide to go the other way and create this massive camera?
Bill Hao: I’m not saying that the old process is better than digital. Of course, today’s digital technology is simple, fast and great. But for me, the image capture techniques of the old days, 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, closer and can be preserved for longer. More importantly, I like it, and I think you will too.
The Phobographer: Tell us about how you put this camera together. How easy was it to source the parts?
Bill Hao: I made a smaller size 11x11inch camera in 2015. I use it for my Wetplate collodion process. I have taken over one hundred ambrotype glass plate pictures by this camera. Wetplate positive pictures can not be copied or enlarged, so we have to make a bigger camera if we want to get bigger pictures.
I decided to make a bigger camera for my Wetplate collodion process in 2019. I think the camera is as big as possible but it has to be portable because I don’t want to use it at home only and I have to operate it by myself without assistance. The camera is made with oak wood, black fabric and a little metal. I made this camera between 2019 and 2021. Some plans and designs changed many times; some parts were rebuilt many times. A big job was the bellows and it was rebuilt two times because it was too soft and too heavy before. This camera is 100% handmade in my home. Some small parts I got from shops or the internet, but they weren’t for cameras, maybe for houses or cars.
The Phobographer: Technically, what are the parameters of this setup (focal length, film plate size, focus range, etc.)?
Bill Hao: The camera size when fully open is 52inch X 37inch X 70inch; when fully folded is 52inch X 37inch X 8inch. The print size is 32inch X 48inch
The camera weight is about 50kg without the lens and film holder. The film holder is about 20kg
This camera needs three tripods for standing (about 10kg).
I have many lenses that I can use on my camera; the max is a 1200mm focus old lens.
The Phobographer: What are some of the challenges you face while using it?
Bill Hao: As we know the wet plate collodion process needs developing and fixing immediately and to make the film (plate) in place, all processes have to operate in the darkroom. And you have to prepare lots of equipment and get chemical liquid in place. All of them will be bigger when your format is bigger. You can keep them in your home or studio if you work on portraits only, but I want to get landscapes across the country while being off-grid. So I need a very big mobile darkroom with lots of equipment, chemical liquid, water, electric.
The Phobographer: Have you been stopped on occasion by authorities for using it in public? How curious are they when you explain what the camera is and how it works?
Bill Hao: Yes! One time I set up my small camera at Canada place facing a cruise. Two officers came and stopped me and said I can not do that because it is a government building. I told them about my work. They were curious but still said no. Anyway I stopped because my plate got too dry so it could not develop.
The Phobographer: Transporting this can’t be easy. What have you done to this to make it easier?
Bill Hao: I modified a bus to an RV with a dark room. It took about 8 months, between 2020 and 2021.
The Phobographer: The process of using this camera and its medium of photography is quite slow. Do you find that this can be frustrating, or are you completely immersing yourself and loving it?
Bill Hao: Yes I like it and I feel happy all the time! Quick is better but it is bad too, you can not get enough happiness if you get it too quick and easy! Too many images come to our eyes every day; many of them look the same, many of them totally different than the original thing. So you don’t remember which image made you happy last time or last week!
The Phobographer: Are exposure times something that need to be carefully calculated when using this kind of setup? What helps you easily determine this value?
Bill Hao: I have a few light meters, but I have to depend on my experience because UV is more important than visible light.
The Phobographer: Apart from landscapes, have you photographed other subjects like portraits with this setup? Are portraits more challenging to get subjects to stay still for a long time?
Bill Hao: Getting portraits is easier than landscape, as you can use a flashlight or some equipment to light the heads of people. I like landscapes more. I make portraits just for my wife only.
The Phobographer: Do you also develop the images taken with this while outdoors?
Bill Hao: Yes. Wetplate collodion process required developing and fixing in place. This bus is just for this.
The Phobographer: Are the efforts paying off? Do you find yourself satisfied with the results?
Bill Hao: I do this just because I like it and not for monetary gain. I never try to sell them because I don’t know how much I should ask [for them.]
The Phobographer: Have you exhibited the images taken with this camera? What are your future plans for it?
Bill Hao: My small-sized plate was in some exhibits a few times before. The big-sized ones never, because it is difficult for transport and I want to make more and better ones. I will go to the Rocky Mountains again maybe in May. I think I am happy to do some exhibits if any galleries or museums are interested in my work.
The Phobographer: Do you ever find yourself reaching for smaller cameras at times for convenience sake? What do your friends and family say about your love for using this large camera so often?
Bill Hao: I have a few smaller film cameras too. Their formats are 11X11 inch, 4X5inch, 6x6cm and 35mm. I take more film photos too; Sometimes I use them when I don’t drive the bus. I am lucky; my wife supports me and she is with me together anywhere and anytime.
All images by Bill Hao. Used with permission. Check out his Instagram and Facebook pages, and his Youtube channel to see more of his work.