Everything Old is New Again

by Theano Nikitas

Photo © Helen Ellis

April 22, 2013

Many alternative processes can be simulated in software, but with some extra effort, you can treat your wedding and portrait clients to the real thing—a much better option and certainly a way to set yourself apart in the increasingly competitive wedding and portrait markets. Granted, working in alternative processes requires an investment in time, equipment, supplies and at least a minor learning curve. However, it may be worth the effort to gain an edge for your business.

Getting Started

Many historical processes are based on contact printing so you’ll need a negative that’s the same size or a little smaller (to allow for a border/framing) than of the final print. Small film negatives can be enlarged onto graphic arts film in a darkroom but starting with a digital negative is probably  the easiest method. Photographer and artist Dan Burkholder’s book and CD, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, is a great (albeit a little dated) source of information.

Glass negatives can be used as well for contact printing, whether you find them in an antique store, flea market or a relative’s attic. But wet and dry collodion processes have become very popular, and while coating and exposing a glass plate may be more complex than running a piece of inkjet film such as Pictorico OHP Transparency film through your printer, the Collodion process—in my opinion—produces a more beautiful image.

For contact printing, you’ll also need a contact print frame. The best are glass with wooden frames, which keep the negative in close and even contact with the substrate. In a pinch, you can use a piece of glass or Plexiglas pressed against a stiff backing.

The chemistry for coating the substrates is specific for each process, but there are a number of resources available for alternative process supplies. (Check the sidebar on page 54 for more information.) Kits are also available for some processes.

It’s important to note that safety is paramount, so be sure to follow proper procedures and take all precautions necessary when working with chemicals.


Also known as sun prints since UV rays (natural or artificial) are used to expose the image, cyanotypes are probably one of the easiest and most convenient of alternative processes. Pre-coated papers and fabrics are readily available from sources such as

Bluesunprints.com and the International Center of Photography (ICP.org), so all you have to do is produce a negative, place it in a contact frame, and place the sandwich of glass/negative/substrate in the sun. Access to a vacuum printing frame and a UV exposure set-up is a good alternative; you may be able to rent the space and equipment from a local art center or university.

Developing is quite easy: just place the substrate under running water. If you don’t have a negative and want to experiment, you can place leaves or other flat objects between the glass and the substrate to create what is essentially a photogram.

In addition to pre-coated paper, fabric and apparel, Bluesunprints.com offers cyanotype substrates in various colors. But if you’re more of a do-it-yourself photographer or want a more vintage look, tea, coffee, wine or tannic acid can be used to tone cyanotype prints. Another option is to reduce the intensity by bleaching the print by immersing it in Clorox bleach or sodium carbonate (“washing soda”), for example. To increase the blue tint, try hydrogen peroxide and lemon juice. There is a lot of room for experimentation without a huge investment.

Traditionalists may want to coat their own substrates. Like other processes, you’ll need to mix the chemicals—ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide—and apply the solution with a glass rod or other tool. It’s extra work, but you have more control over the process and it’s more authentic, too.

Encaustic Painting

This centuries-old technique has been adapted to be applied to photographic images. Melted beeswax, or a mixture of beeswax and resin, is tinted with colored pigment and brushed over the surface of a print. The results—even without tinting the mixture—are translucent, soft and dreamy as the wax coating is built up layer upon layer.

The process sounds simple, but there is more involved than meets the eye, including safety precautions that need to be followed

Taking a workshop to get started is highly recommended. Basically, images need to be printed on absorbent, uncoated papers such as watercolor and mounted on a board (plywood works well). Tins of beeswax are kept at the proper temperature and consistency by placing them on an electric griddle.

In addition to images straight off the inkjet printer, cyanotype and other prints can be used. Encaustic painting is also perfect for incorporating collage materials—perhaps a portion of a wedding invitation or a baby announcement. Again, the paper (or fabric) needs to be uncoated, absorbent and not combustible.  

You’ll also need a heat gun to fuse all the layers together. It’s definitely a time-consuming process, but  it’s well worth the time and effort when you see how beautiful the final piece can be.

Gum Bichromate/Gum Printing

Like cyanotype and many other alternative processes, gum printing requires coating a substrate such as watercolor paper with a special emulsion. And, like encaustic, the emulsion is tinted with color.

Various formulas and techniques can be utilized for this 100+-year-old process, so we’ll just stick to some of the basics here. There are workshops, books and many resources for learning different gum printing methods.

Because gum prints are generally coated with emulsion and developed in water multiple times for a single print, the paper substrate should be substantial. Some people add an extra step to harden the paper so it can withstand the process liquids. Many people also size the paper first in order to prevent shrinkage and staining.

The emulsion consists of a sensitizer (ammonium or potassium dichromate) and a solution of gum arabic and a color (generally watercolor paints). Prints can be made with single or multiple colors, and, as with any contact print process, the negative needs to be the same size as the desired print size. However, since gum printing often—but not always—uses multiple colors, a single negative needs to be created for each color. It’s similar to CMYK separation in that the emulsion on the unexposed area is washed away when the print is developed.

As with any creative process, personal preferences (and skills) will dictate how one approaches gum printing. A one-color gum print, with its monotone look, will appeal to some people, while others prefer to use multiple colors to create more photo-realistic or, alternatively, moodier prints.

Image Transfers and Emulsion Lifts

No one knows for sure how the image transfer technique was discovered, but the most common story is that a researcher at Polaroid accidentally placed a negative face down on a counter and, when he picked it up, he noticed that the dyes had transferred to the counter’s surface. Although we’ll never get firm confirmation on that story, the Polaroid image transfer technique became very popular almost 30 years later in the 1970s. Photographers deliberately peeled apart Polaroid film before the dyes from the negative fully migrated to the substrate, placed the negative face down on various papers (most often watercolor) and burnished the Polaroid to help the dyes adhere to the receptor paper. Depending on whether the paper was smooth (hot pressed) or slightly textured (cold pressed), the image took on a different look. As an additional step, colored pencils or watercolor paints can be used to selectively enhance specific parts of an image.

Although some people have experimented with instant film from The Impossible Project, the closest substitute for Polaroid film for image transfers is Fujifilm Instant color film FP-100C. The process is about the same as it was for Polaroid, although Fujifilm colors are a little different.

Prints are limited to the film size (approximately 3¼ x 4¼ inches for Fujifilm FP-100C), and you’ll need a camera, Polaroid or Fuji back or film holder to shoot the film. However, one of the easier—and more readily available—methods of exposing the film comes from Daylab. The company makes a slide printer for using 35mm slides as a source for the instant negative, and the copy System Pro allows you to expose the film using flat images (and even some 3D objects).

For a modern alternative to Polaroid-style image transfers, inverse an image digitally, print it with an inkjet printer, coat it with a gel adhesive, and adhere it face-down on your preferred substrate.

For emulsion lifts the exposure methods are the same but rather than burnishing the back of the negative to help the dyes migrate to a new substrate, the lift process actually removes the emulsion from the instant print by soaking it in hot water. From there, the emulsion can be stretched, twisted or placed intact (if you’re careful) to a variety of substrates including paper, metal, wood, ceramic and pretty much anything else. And because the emulsion is thin and pliable, the lift can be adhered to objects of any shape, including a vase or a cup.

Transfers and lifts are addictive, and you  may find that you enjoy the process and its somewhat accidental nature, as much as the resulting image.

Wet Plate Collodion Processes: Ambrotypes, Tintypes and Glass Negatives

The wet plate collodion process, which dates back to the 1850s and became an alternative to daguerrotypes, is at the heart of three image types: the ambrotype, tintype (or ferrotype) and a glass negative. All three follow similar steps: collodion solution is poured onto a plate, placed in a silver nitrate/water bath, placed in a plate holder, exposed while still wet, developed and fixed.

While the glass negative can be used for any contact printing process, the Ambrotype and Tintype stand on their own. All three are negatives, but ambrotype images use glass as a base while tintypes are produced on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or a black anodized aluminum plate.

Historically, an ambrotype is placed in a metal frame with a black backing, which gives it the illusion the negative being a positive. The tintype’s blackened background creates the same negative-to-positive visual effect.

Both are beautiful historic processes that fit perfectly with the vintage trends we’re seeing today, particularly in wedding photography. If you love the look but don’t want to invest the time or money in producing authentic tintypes (and you happen to be shooting a wedding in New York City) check out the Center for Alternative Photography’s Penumbra Tintype Portrait Studio (www.capworkshop.org). You can bring your bride and groom into the studio, direct the shoot, and leave with a tintype in 15 to 20 minutes.

There are many other alternative processes to explore, from platinum printing to bromoil and beyond. Many of the techniques can be combined to create even more distinctive looks, such as gum printing over a platinum print, so experimentation is encouraged. We think the best way to learn or move forward with a particular process is something you want to move forward with a particular process is by taking a workshop at places such as the Center for Alternative Photography. In an economy where photographers have to work a little harder to set themselves apart, presenting clients with alternative process images as a special add-on can help define and further your business.  

www.alternativephotography.com (website with galleries and alternative process instructions)
www.Bluesunprints.com (pre-coated cyanotype paper, fabric, home décor, apparel)
www.bostick-sullivan.com (supplies)
www.capworkshops.org The Center for Alternative Photography (workshops, free lectures, tintype photo studio and more)
www.danburkholder.com (workshops, instructional book/CD on making digital negatives)
www.daylab.com (equipment and online instruction for Fuji image transfers and emulsion lifts)
www.ellensusan.com (workshops specializing in wet collodion process)
www.freestylephoto.biz (supplies, information)
www.fujifilm.com (instant film for transfers and emulsion lifts)
www.icp.org (pre-coated cyanotype paper)
www.lhotka.com (artist website with gallery, creates her own unique processes, offers instructional books/CDs)
www.photoformulary.com (supplies, workshops)
www.rfpaints.com (Encaustic workshops/supplies)

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