Working with alternative photographic processes requires some specialized equipment,
but not nearly as much as you might assume. If you have access to a basic black-andwhite
darkroom, you will have an advantage, mostly in terms of time and effort-saving
convenience. But even if you have no darkroom at all but can dedicate an unused room
for a brief time, you can still produce prints from many of the processes described in
this book. Kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms are not recommended, however,
because those spaces can become contaminated with photographic chemicals.
Basic requirements include a room that can be made dark, running water in or near your
work space, and although it can be a luxury sometimes-enough counter or table space
to sensitize paper and set out three or four processing trays.
This hand out gives you an overview of the equipment needed for alternative
photographic processes. It also provides some instructions for basic procedures-such as
weighing and mixing chemicals, washing prints, and hand-coating solutions onto paperthat
are common to most of these processes. You should become familiar with the
basic information presented here before attempting any individual process.
Producing alt-photo prints frequently requires negatives with different values than
those used for traditional photography. Most processes, like cyanotype,
platinum/palladium, and especially argyrotype, need negatives that would be
characterized as high in contrast. Other processes, like bromoil and gum, favor
negatives of lower contrast. Because negative requirements are so
process-specific, each chapter addresses the optimum qualities for negatives used in
Equipment and Materials
In addition to your immediate working environment, you will need certain materials and
pieces of equipment. Not all processes in this book require every item in this list, so
please consult each process chapter for the materials it requires. Remember, attempting
a process for the first time can be confusing enough. Keeping your materials organized
and close at hand will make your work much easier and much more efficient.
• For Handling and Mixing Chemicals
• Chemical balance or scale that measures accurately to 0.5 grams
• Measuring graduates in several sizes; minimum of four 1000 cc and two
• 2000 cc size
• Glass or plastic stirring rods
• Glass mixing beakers: Pyrex labware or similar type, four 300 cc size
• Brown glass storage bottles with droppers: various sizes, depending
• upon process, 25 cc to 100 cc
• Filters: either lab-style paper filters or simple coffee filters, both cone
• and basket style; cheesecloth, cotton balls, or cotton wool also work
• Measuring syringes: syringes without needles, such as the Micro Mixer
• sold by Photographers’ formulary
• Eye droppers: four or five, preferably all the same make and size since
• different eyedroppers produce different-sized drops
• Shot glass or other small glass or plastic container
• Single-burner hot plate
• Medium sized saucepan, to be used only in the darkroom
• Measuring spoons: tablespoon, teaspoon, etc., to be used only in the
• For Exposing and Processing Prints
• Plastic photo developing trays, one size larger than your prints (such as
• IIx 14″ trays for 8×10 prints)
• Print washer or tray siphon
• Fiberglass drying screens
• Clothesline with 20 to 30 clothespins
• Print tongs
• Latex gloves
• Respirator mask
• Film cleaner
• Accurate thermometer: glass, dial, or digital
• Hygrometer to measure relative humidity
• Large sheet of Plexiglas mounted to a sheet of plywood for squeegeeing
• some prints
• Photo or window squeegee at least as wide as the narrowest dimension
• of your print
• Negative dusting brush or compressed air
• Cotton gloves for handling negatives
• Timer (or at least an inexpensive wall clock)
• UV light source (see below)
• Contact printing frame (see below)
• Safelight: tungsten table lamp or light fixture with a 40-watt bulb (no
• fluorescent bulbs, fluorescent light is not safe)
• 1/4″ plate glass, at least i” larger than your print’s image area on each
• Glass or plastic coating rods, about the same length as the longest
• dimension of your print’s image area
• Ultrasonic or steam humidifier
• Drafting tape (not masking tape, which will tear paper when removed)
• Kneadable eraser
• X-Acto knife or similar knife with a supply of sharp blades
• White artist tape
• Paper towels
UV Light Source
Nearly all of the processes in this book require ultraviolet light to expose the sensitized
paper. Light sources used in traditional photography don’t emit enough Uv lightwaves
for alt-photo processes, and unless you are making enlarged negatives (see Chapter 20),
photographic enlargers are useless. Both sunlight and certain kinds of lightbulbs
produce adequate UV light.
The sun is a good, cheap source of UV light. Besides its being free, the
advantages of using sunlight are that it usually takes less time to print than other
sources, the quality of the images are sometimes richer, colors in gum prints
are more intense, and overall contrast tends to be greater. The sun is a good
light source for beginners starting to make alt-photo prints.
It is also the preferred light source for albumen printing.
On the other hand, sunlight exposures are dependent upon time of day,
time of year, and the amount of cloud cover, all of which can affect the amount
of UV at any given time. If one is making a series of prints that requires consistency
such as a limited edition portfolio-the sun is entirely too erratic for
dependable results. Also, heat from the sun can sometimes cause heat fog on
the print, and with Printing-Out Paper (POP), excessive heat and long exposure
times can cause the paper to stick to the negative.
Most-but not all-serious alt-photo workers use ultraviolet bulbs to make
their exposures. If you need to print at night or on overcast or partly cloudy
days, you must have a light source that can be used whenever and wherever
needed (see fig. i). There are different types of bulbs :
Bank of UV fluorescent bulbs
The designation for an appropriate 24″ 20-watt fluorescent bulb is F20T12/
350BL. Sylvania, General Electric, and other manufacturers all use this designation.
Note Be sure the bulbs are marked BL at the end, not BLB. BLB bulbs put out much
less UV light; they are also more expensive.
Self-balancing mercury vapour lamp
High-intensity graphic arts plate burners, such as that made by Nu Arc, usually
come with a vacuum frame, which is important for printing large images
because of the need to maintain perfect contact between negative and paper.
You can also buy the bulbs and sockets separately and make your own light
Both fluorescent bulbs and mercury vapor lamps produce a bright light
with a high degree of UV waves. Do not look directly at the UV light source
when it is on, and keep out of the direct path of the light as much as possible.
Contact Printing Frame
A good-quality split-back contact printing frame is necessary for most of the processes
in this book. There are many different designs of contact frames, all based on the
frames used more than one hundred years ago for printing calotypes. Later, another
version was developed for printing glass negatives; it was different only in that the
backs allowed space for the thickness of the glass. As far as I know, there is only one
frame made today that works for glass negatives, a frame by Gravity Works that has
rubber surgical tubing strung across the back. All other frames use rigid clamps or wings
that can’t be closed properly with the added thickness of a glass negative.
The main things to watch for when buying a contact frame are:
Complete contact over the entire image area. This can be a problem
with some frames; it is common in sizes over 8xio. Sometimes this can be
overcome by placing a few layers of paper towel between the negative/paper
sandwich and the frame back.
Scratch-free glass. Scratches on the outside of the glass are not a
problem with a diffused light source such as a bank of UV fluorescents. If they
are inside the glass, against the negative, they will print as white marks. With
the sun or with other point-light sources, any scratches will print onto the
image, whether they are on the inside or the outside the glass.
Good UV light transmission. Some forms of Plexiglas are treated to
block ultraviolet light and should not be used. Untreated Plexiglas works for
smaller images; in large sizes, however, it may bow and the contact between
negative and print will be lost.
Smooth finish, good overall workmanship. A roughly finished frame can
produce splinters, which will become quite apparent as you twist, turn, and
handle it. Cheap clamps and wings, stiff hinges, and other awkward hardware
also make handling the frame difficult. Parts should move smoothly
and without much resistance. They should not have too little resistance, negatives and
print either; this might result in weak contact between the negative and the paper.
A clean working environment is not only nicer to work in, it is necessary. Chemical
contamination can be a serious problem with any process, but it is a special concern for
After each working session, scrub down your sink, clean all mixing
containers, and clean all work surfaces. Periodically scrub the sink and counters
with a good cleanser-and be sure to rinse off any residue thoroughly with clean
Always keep stirring rods and storage containers dedicated to spectfic
Wash your hands regularly.
Never use kitchen items in the darkroom unless they are permanently
retired from kitchen use.
Calculating Percent Solutions
This course will use percent solutions throughout (for example, a 2% solution of
sodium thiosulfate), and understanding how to mix them is basic to working in
alternative photo processes. The calculation is very simple: I gram of dry chemical plus
enough water to make up 100 cc of the final solution yields a 1% solution. (Note that
the dry chemical is not added to ’00 cc water, but added to enough water to make a final
total of 1oo cc once the chemical is completely dissolved.) Stronger or weaker solutions
can be extrapolated from this ratio. For example, to grams citric acid with enough water
to make a total of 25 cc of solution yields a 40% citric acid solution.
Chemical Weighing and Mixing
To formulate the various solutions throughout this book, it is necessary to have an
accurate scale to weigh chemicals. The scale can be of almost any type as long as it
meets a few basic requirements:
• It must be accurate.
• It should measure in grams.
• It must handle a range of weights from i gram to at least 500 grams.
Electronic scales are relatively inexpensive, but if they break down you have to buy
another; triple-beam scales are more expensive, but they will last a life time. When
measuring out dry chemicals on a scale, be sure to lay a thin sheet of paper onto the
surface of the weighing area first. Fold the edges up to form a basket of sorts to prevent
the chemicals from spilling onto your work surface. I use basket-style paper coffee
filters because they are inexpensive, they are already shaped, they are lightweight, and
they are easily held while you pour chemicals into mixing containers. If you are
measuring very small amounts of chemicals, be sure to allow for the weight of the paper
or coffee filter or you will not get an accurate measurement.
In some processes the relative pH (the acidity or alkalinity) of a chemical solution
affects its performance or the quality of the results. You can monitor the pH of a
solution using litmus paper, which is available through chemical supply houses.
Standard Processing Temperatures
Like traditional photographic processes, the chemical reactions that occur during altphoto
processes work best within certain temperature ranges. Some chemicals need to
be mixed at high temperatures in order for them to dissolve. In some processes, a
developer that is too warm will ruin the image; in others, a temperature that is too cool
will retard the chemical reaction necessary.
If temperature is critical in a process, that fact is addressed in the specific chapters.
When no temperature requirements are given, you can assume that a standard room
temperature of 68, to 75 is safe.
Washing Film and Paper
The issue of efficient print and negative washing has generated a lot of confusion and
discussion over the years. To make things simple, you should wash all your materials
with this principle in mind: Diffusion, not force. In other words, running a gentle
stream of water-or even simply filling a tray with a small amount of water and agitating,
dumping, and repeating-is much more efficient and much less wasteful than running
high volumes of water at high pressure. The high-volume method actually does very
little to clean the paper or film because the water simply slides over the residual fixer. By
allowing the water to remain in more gentle contact with the fixer, free of extreme
turbulence, the fixer becomes diffused into the surrounding water and can easily be
washed away. Most archival washers on the market do a good job of cleaning
film and prints, and I recommend using one if possible. The information presented
below is for those who can t afford them, don t have room for them, or simply don’t
To wash fibre prints
1. First treat the prints with a washing aid like Kodak Hypo Clear. For film and RC
2. the washing aid is not as critical because the fixer remains on the surface; fixer
soaks into the paper more deeply in fiber prints.
3. Fill a tray with water, immerse the print in it, and agitate the tray on and
4. off for two or three minutes, allowing the water to calm periodically.
5. Dump the water, fill the tray again, and agitate in the same manner.
6. Do this for six or seven cycles.
7. An alternative is to use a Kodak tray siphon. I use a i6″ x 20′ tray for prints up to
8. 11×14: I Fill the tray and immerse the prints, no more than two or three at a time.
9. Run the water at a gentle rate for two minutes.
10. Turn off the water, push the prints down into the water, and move them around
11. Let them sit for two or three minutes.
12. Turn on the water again and repeat steps 2-4.
13. Repeat this cycle five or six times, periodically pushing and moving the prints
14. while the water is running. Be careful not to bend or otherwise damage the prints
15. handle them.
To wash roll film negatives
There is no need to use a washing aid when washing film. This is basically the
same method as recommended by Ilford for archival film washing.
1 After thorough fixing, dump or recycle the fixer in your usual manner.
2. Fill the tank with running tap water at the same temperature you used for processing.
3. Close the tank and
invert it five times.
4. Dump this water down the drain.
5. Fill the tank again, and invert it ten times.
6. Dump the water, fill again and invert it twenty times.
7. Dump the water, fill the tank once more, and add a drying aid, like Kodak Photo Flo.
8. Hang the film to dry in a dust-free environment.
Although they demand regular attention, these washing procedures will save time. Most
importantly, though, they will save significant amounts of water. You will also end up
with cleaner negatives and prints.
Coating Sensitizer Solutions
Coating rod method
The glass-rod coating method is the most efficient means of applying a sensitizer to a
sheet of paper (see also Coating the Paper with Gelatin, page 176). A glass rod uses
about half the sensitizer solution used by the brush method; it coats extremely evenly
and allows a much more accurate means of standardizing your procedures by applying a
constant amount of sensitizer to the paper. A brush can apply differing amounts with
each pass by virtue of the sensitizer migrating into the bristles. Although you may end
up preferring to use brushes, I nevertheless
recommend learning how to use a glass rod for coating your sensitizer solutions. It is
easy and well worth the relatively small expense.
I have ten glass rods-actually hollow tubes-of different sizes that I had lost
made by a neon sign maker before there were any commercially made products
available. I designed them with the ends bent upwards at a 45~ angle so I could, grip
them with both hands. You can also buy ready-made products like the Puddle Pusher,
sold by Bostick & Sullivan, which is a straight length of glass with a little handle at the
top middle you can hold with one hand. Glass rods should be as straight along the
bottom as possible.
Coating with a rod will be much easier if you support the paper you are coating with a
sheet of heavy plate glass-1/4″ to 1/2~’ thick. Glass rods don’t bend and therefore
don’t conform to the contours of an uneven countertop. If either the rod or the
countertop is uneven, firm contact will not be maintained, coating will be spotty, and
the paper will have differing amounts of sensitizer across its surface, resulting in uneven
density in the final print. A plate glass coating surface prevents these problems.
I. Either tape off the area you wish to coat using drafting tape, or mark it with a pencil.
2.Wipe the rod to remove any dirt or grit; brush or wipe the paper with your (clean)
hand as well.
3.Measure out the amount of sensitizer you will need into a shot glass or other small
glass or plastic container, draw the sensitizer into an eyedropper or measuring syringe,
and spread it along the longest edge of the area to be coated just outside of the marked
image area (fig. 3). If you are using drafting tape t0mark the image area, spread the
solution onto one of the long edges of the tape itself If you spread it onto the image
area, the sensitizer would begin sinking into the paper, resulting in an uneven coating
that usually shows up as an area of greater D-max (greater full black) than the rest of
4 Place the glass rod just behind the bead of sensitizer solution (fig. 4), then gently run
the rod along the paper .
5.Once you get to the end of the coating area, gently lift the rod off the surface ofthe
paper and place it behind the bead of remaining sensitizer.
6.Move the rod back up the sheet, lift the rod, and place it behind the sensitizer. Rest
for 30 seconds or so to let the sensitizer soak into the paper.
then run the rod back down the sheet.
7.Do this until all or most of the sensitizer has migrated into the paper. Different
papers absorb solution at differing rates, but if you have to do this more than four
times, you are either using too much sensitizer or you need to add a wetting agent
such as Tween 20 to aid in the absorption. Experimentation and evaluation will guide
After coating, always rinse the rod and wipe it dry.
Although the glass-rod coating method gives a very even coating of sensitizer,
some workers find it easier to use brushes. The wooden-handled short-bristle
brushes available in art supply stores work well (fig. 6). Use a different brush
for each kind of sensitizer. Remember that the brush will soak up some of the
solution, so mix twice as much sensitizer as you would for the glass-rod coat
mg. Be sure to tape down the paper; a sheet of plate glass is useful, but not
I. Either mark the corners of your coating area with a pencil or tape off the
Image area with drafting tape or other tape with low tack.
2.Measure out the appropriate amount of sensitizer into a shot glass or
similarly sized glass or plastic container. Remember that you will use approxi.
mately twice the amount of sensitizer with the brush method than you do with
the rod method.
3. Dip the brush into a small container of distilled water and squeeze out as much of
the water as you can.
4.Pour the sensitizer onto the area to be coated. This can be a single puddle in the
middle, an X dribbled from one corner to the other, or any other pattern that suits your
taste or mood.
5.Quickly brush the sensitizer in an east/west and then north/south pattern until the
sensitizer is coated as evenly as possible (fig. 7). Avoid brush marks.
6.If there doesn’t seem to be enough sensitizer to coat completely or
evenly, throw away the sheet and start over. Use more sensitizer to coat the next
7.If extra sensitizer puddles on the surface after the sheet seems evenly
coated, you probably have too much sensitizer. Brush the excess off to the side,
beyond the image area, and soak it up with a piece of paper towel.
8.If extra sensitizer puddles on the surface but doesn’t seem to be coating
evenly, the paper may not be absorbing properly. Try adding a drop of Tween 20
to thesensitizer before coating the next sheet.