Creatives: Peak Perseverance: Collodion Photography from Skye

‘Peak Perseverance’ is a project of collodion photography that will see me shoot wet plates of the Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye. Falling under the wider umbrella of Skye Collodion, my aim is to first capture the mountains and their shapes from below, and then to venture into them—on rocky ridges, by running streams and waterfalls—to showcase their intricacies. I want to connect with the pioneers of mountaineering in the Cuillin, and also the early collodionists of the mid-1800s. 

Collodion photography was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. It involves taking a photograph on metal or glass as a substrate using a large camera. Liquid collodion—a mixture of chemicals—is first poured onto a plate, then immersed in a bath of silver nitrate for three minutes. The plate is taken out in red light, loaded into a plate holder, and inserted into the rear of the camera which has been pre-focussed. The artist exposes the plate to UV light by removing the lens cap, which takes the shot. The plate is then developed in a dark room, where it is removed from the holder under a tiny, red-filtered window and immersed in sodium thiosulphate. 

Then, you wait for the result.

Collodion photography is notoriously difficult to practise; yet, when one considers the extensive preparation involved in capturing a single plate, it is easy to understand the particular respect the art form pays its subject, eventually holding it together in silver, with no degradation.


processing in a tub

Archer never patented his revolutionary process of alchemy. It was largely abandoned for expediency, and with it went so much skill and connection with the subject. However, 170 years later, it is the only art form that holds the unique ability to capture those feelings and emotions I experience when standing in awe, looking high and far toward the Scottish peaks, sometimes struggling to pull in the air to breathe. Looking at the plates I have shot to date, there is consistency not only in the vastness of the land—the sheer scale—but also the preciseness of detail that is produced on the plate’s surface. It’s akin to looking at molecules of life itself—endless, always with something new to gaze on and be enthralled by.

During the first phase of the COVID lockdown, in 2020, I learned the art in a dark, leaky shed and spent hours of intense concentration producing many poor plates. As I’d soon come to discover though, shooting in the Cuillin—which is fraught with heavy snow, high winds, rock fall and torrential rain—is where the art form comes to life. From the initial spark of a wet plate idea in my imagination to mixing the chemicals, preparing the cameras, equipment, routes and the expedition itself, to then being outside in the unpredictable mountain environment, the process is ever more absorbing and enjoyable. 

Collodion photography is notoriously difficult to practise; yet, when one considers the extensive preparation involved in capturing a single plate, it is easy to understand the particular respect the art form pays its subject, eventually holding it together in silver, with no degradation. 


There are three main phases to ‘Peak Perseverance’, and though each presents its own challenges, they each yield a different mountain experience, both for myself and the viewers. Phase one involves shooting the mountain from its base onto 5×7 or 8×10 inch plates by utilising the ILFORD pop-up darkroom. I first coat the plate with collodion, sensitise it to ultraviolet light in a bath of silver nitrate, and load it into the plate holder before running to the camera to expose the plate. Once the plate is exposed, I dash back to the darkroom to finish processing the plate. There is an urgency to this, for the process takes ten minutes. If the chemicals dry out at any point, there is no image. 

Phase two involves venturing further into the mountain, and here, logistics become more complicated and careful planning is crucial. If pack weight and the distance to the location permit a day trip, then I use the ILFORD pop-up darkroom; if the location is too far to carry the darkroom, I use a smaller changing-tent type method, which hampers my ability to develop the 5×7 inch plates. 

Phase three involves more protracted expeditions and requires friends to help me carry gear. Having type 1 diabetes makes progress slower than it already is, necessitating regular stops and ensuring I have access to my medical supplies; however, my friend and climbing partner, Adrian Trendall, is keen to help me pursue this project and will bivvy alongside me in the hills. I hope other like-minded enthusiasts will join me to capture the Cuillin from its summits, for it is teamwork that will help me connect with those early explorers of the mountains and photography. 

Of course, regardless of the stage, it is not always possible to shoot wet plates, so I use a combination of instant film, kindly supplied by Lomography, and other analogue film from my sponsor, ILFORD. The thought of lugging all that gear up into the Cuillin and returning with no analogue memories to look back on is a bleak one, so we have something no matter what! 

Sgurr nan Gillean

Two months ago in Glenbrittle, I looked out toward the Cuillin in sublime conditions: paradise. I was now used to pouring collodion in slight gusts, loading the plate and ducking under the darkcloth to see a shot. So today, everything seemed perfect. As usual, I exposed the plate and ran to the pop-up darkroom to develop it; however, within a split second of pouring the developer, the plate was completely overexposed!

I was stunned. The conditions were ideal, I was well prepared, and I had put the hours in beforehand, comparing exposure times based on apertures, time of day and so on. I should have had an awesome first plate. For the next six hours, I shot tons more plates, adjusting the settings to compensate, but eventually, I left the mountain with a badly battered psyche, loads of dirty, heavy gear, unusable plates and out of pocket. I spent three more days like this, always with the same result. Finally, I realised the problem was bad collodion chemistry. 

The Cuillin is magnificent, but it is often brutal, and worthy of respect. As a firefighter and current crew member of a Rescue Lifeboat, I have worked in some dangerous environments, but the mountain always—always—puts me in my place. A sudden squall reminds me of the true scale of life, how fragile it is, but this is what captivates me. 

The summer can be stifling, with no shade and millions of tiny beasties—the infamous midge and ticks. I confess, I’m apprehensive about these upcoming months, but everything in life is a trade-off. Ascent times and the ease of walking or climbing will improve, along with the ultraviolet levels and the length of days. Autumn will bring cooler temperatures, making the physical aspects less strenuous. The landscape will open up and become more barren, until winter brings spectacular contrasts and, of course, increased danger. Nothing here stays the same; the landscape is always shifting.

improvised darkroom

This week, working just a few hundred metres into the mountain from Sligachan Hotel, I was able to properly expose three plates. I ran between my Intrepid camera and the ILFORD pop-up darkroom many times, shielding the camera with my body from the wind as best I could. It was a long day and I felt burned out mentally, but I am excited to pursue the bigger days. Being in the mountains and shooting after a long and arduous approach will be tiring, but seeing an image appear in precious silver is a gift. I know that triumph during this project will be rare, but so long as it occurs just once, I will be fulfilled.

With ‘Peak Perseverance’, my goal is simply to inspire people, to encourage them to step out of their comfort zones, set goals, encounter failure and embrace it as progress. As collodion photography continues to prove, failure is crucial—without it, I believe there is no challenge or improvement, no point. I’m excited to document my journey into the Cuillin and to share its wonders with everyone. 

Simon Riddell on Skye

Author biography

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