Memories for keeps: Taking photos the old-school way

At Hip Xiong Photo Studio in Geylang, one man is keeping the traditional technique of wet plate photography alive

Photographer Ryan Lee is proudly old school.

The instant gratification from shooting dozens of digital photographs is not his cup of tea - instead, his preferred medium is wet plate photography, an arcane process that predates even threading rolls of film into a camera.

While it is about as old-fashioned as anything can get in the digital age, it reminds Mr Lee of family, childhood and longstanding traditions.

Going to a studio for family portraits was a highly anticipated event when he was a child. His late mother would carefully select the outfits and pick out the "cheesiest" props and backdrops.

When Mr Lee was getting married in 2013, he wanted wedding photos taken on film, like those of his grandparents, parents and relatives stored in family albums.

But time had moved on and he could not find a studio here or in Malaysia that took such photos.

He eventually shot the photos himself, and the process bred an idea.

Mr Ryan Lee using a modified large format field camera to capture an image on a metal plate as opposed to film. He says any analogue camera can be used for wet plate photography, as long as it can be modified. Here, he uses a loupe, or small magnifying glass, to check that the subject is in focus. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Mr Lee coats a plate with a collodian solution that has bromides and iodides mixed in. He will place the coated plate into a silver nitrate solution, where the chemicals react to produce silver halides - light sensitive chemicals commonly used in photographic film and paper. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Mr Lee has gloves on as he places a coated metal plate inside a silver nitrate solution, as such chemicals can stain the skin. It takes about five minutes for a chemical reaction to take place, which allows the plate to be used in place of film. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

"I thought that one day if I got the chance, I would start my own analogue photo studio," says Mr Lee, 39.

He founded Hip Xiong Photo Studio in Geylang last year, after spending more than a decade in creative roles in various companies.

The studio, whose name is a nod to the Hokkien term for taking a photo, specialises in wet plate photography, a technique invented in 1851.

Hip Xiong Photo Studio, decked out to resemble an old-school photo studio, was officially launched last June. Business was slow at first but later picked up. Some customers would nip out for a 45-minute shoot while working from home, says Mr Lee. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Since opening Hip Xiong Photo Studio last year, Mr Lee has shot about 300 to 400 plates, mostly in dimensions of four by five inches and five by seven inches. He is running a promotion where all women's portraits shot this month will be on larger five-by-seven inch plates, in celebration of International Women's Day. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

This involves a chemical process that turns a metal plate into a film-like medium that can capture an image.

The procedure - which can be observed by customers in a darkroom - is quick, and produces a rustic, blackened plate that can last centuries.

Witnessing this alchemy is part of the experience.

SPH Brightcove Video
With a fascination with photographs shot in the studio, Ryan Lee set up Hip Xiong Photo Studio and grew interested in wet plate photography when he realised that not many knew of this old form of taking photos.

Mr Lee was thrilled a year or so ago when he produced his first wet plate photo, a self-portrait.

"When the image appeared, and it was well exposed and in focus, I was so blown away.

I felt this excitement, and I really wanted people to experience that."

Mr Lee places a plate into a light-tight plate holder, which will be loaded into the camera for the shoot. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Wet plate photography requires a lot of ultraviolet light for exposure, and the photograph is taken with a flash that compresses about 20 to 30 seconds of sunlight into an intense burst. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Unlike digital photography, customers only get one shot at a good photo. Mr Lee will only shoot a second plate if the customer is out of focus, underexposed, blink during the shot or if there is an imperfection on their face caused by the chemistry. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Besides portrait sessions, he also runs workshops where participants take part in the shooting and developing process.

Solo portrait sessions start at $200 while workshops cost $500 for one person or $700 for a pair.

Customer Fairli Poh poses as Mr Lee adjusts the lighting for a shoot. The photographer says that while smartphones, digital cameras and editing software have made it easier than ever to shoot good photos, the appeal of wet plate photography lies in its precise and deliberate nature, where every aspect, from the lights to the developing process, must be carefully calibrated. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Watching the developing process in the darkroom is part of the experience. Mr Lee says: "I like to take customers through the whole journey from start to finish, and at the end they are just blown away." ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Ms Fairli Poh, a customer, says the appeal of wet plate photography lies in its timeless nature and unique process.

"When I saw my image appear on the plate, it was amazing," says Ms Poh, 30, who runs home-based business Su Nougat. "Initially, it is just a metal plate, and then you slowly see the outline and the photo. It's like magic."

Film photography is Mr Lee’s hobby, which he documents on a personal Instagram account (@silveranddye). He takes some casual photos of Ms Poh during the briefing, where he also explains the process and checks if customers have medical conditions that would make them sensitive to bright flashes. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Ms Poh applies lipstick in preparation for her shoot. Wearing a coat of dark, matte lipstick can help the customer appear more fair, says Mr Lee. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Ms Poh, 30, wears a cheongsam for her shoot for a more classic and traditional look. While some customers prefer to dress casually, Mr Lee says wearing prints can make the photo more visually interesting. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Mr Lee, whose wife Jessica Koon is self-employed in the visual merchandising industry, feels that by his keeping wet plate photography alive, one more generation can get to experience what he did while growing up.

The father of three sons, aged six months to five years, says: "Hopefully, this technique will be sustained and my kids will get a chance to take pictures in the studio as well."

In the near future, Mr Lee hopes to explore more film-related projects and create take-home kits for people to try wet plate photography on their own. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
The penultimate step is rinsing the plate under running water to remove residue from the developer and fixer. These are chemicals used to convert the parts of the plate that were hit by light into metallic silver, and then dissolve away the parts that did not get hit by light - a process that reveals the final image. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Mr Lee photographs the plate before coating it with a water-based varnish to prevent the silver from tarnishing and being scratched. The curing process takes about a day and gives the plate a semi-gloss finish. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY