Notes on alternative processes


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

that process.

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

source apparatus.

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

use them.

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

a bit.

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

as you

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.

Plate glass

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

the image.

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.

Brush method

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.