Easy intro to alternative processes

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I have recently become intrigued with the concept of exploring traditional or "alternative" photographic processes. Can anyone recommend one or two fairly simple processes? My research seems to point toward cyanotype and kallitype as good starting processes. POP, or printing-out-paper, also seems like a simple, fun way to start. I will be using 4 x 5 for now, and will likely move up to 8 X 10 or even larger if my early efforts pan out. Also, toxicity to myself and family are, of course, a concern, so a fairly non-lethal process would be nice. I plan on using Ilford FP4+ film. Thanks for your suggestions everybody!

-- Ken Gewant (KGewant@aol.com), August 26, 2001


Take a serious look at the Ziatype process. Bostick & Sullivan in New Mexico make it and it is very easy to do and the image color can vary tremendously. It comes in a kit form, be sure to order some of the paper for coating as well.

-- Dan Smith (shooter@brigham.net), August 26, 2001.

You might consider Vandyke Brown. There is an article about it by Wynn White on my web site at http://unblinkingeye.com/Articles/Vandyke/vandyke.html. Salted paper is easy too.

-- Ed Buffaloe (edb@unblinkingeye.com), August 26, 2001.

Ken: With all due respect, Sir, you mentioned a non-lethal process. That being said...may I inquire as to what you consider a lethal process...in photographic chemistry> Aside from glacial acetic acid which is not in common usage...at least in my area..what might lethal chemistry be? Just curious. Thanks.

-- Richard Boulware (boulware-den@att.net), August 26, 2001.

I just made the jump to LF to contact print and the book that got me thinking about the alternative process is called 'THE KEEPERS OF LIGHT-A History & Working Guide To Early Photographic Processes by William Crawford. I ordered it from Photographers formulary many years ago if memory serves me right.

A very involved history book, also a comprehensive 'how to' instruction manual on the alternative processes, the book is simple and enjoyable with plenty of images.

A treasure of information, at least for me.


-- Jonathan Brewer (lifestories@earthlink.net), August 27, 2001.

Richard: There is a very interesting book called "Overexposure" which is a guide to the toxicity of common darkroom materials. There are many, many photographic agents which can be highly toxic. Enough of something highly toxic can be "lethal," though how much and how often it will take will vary. From what I've read, mishandled Pyro can be very bad news, just to choose one example. There are older photographic processes which use mercury fumes to sensitize plates to pick another. My 1940's Kodak book on photographic formulas lists a formula for Uranium Toner. A concern about toxicity is not unreasonable with respect to processes which started back when much less was known about the health effects of some chemicals. As to glacial acetic acid, I thought that was the core ingredient of most stop baths and hardly rare, it is an off the shelf Kodak item. I imagine if you drank it straight you could get pretty sick and/or die from it. Some ingredients, like Pyro, require care which goes beyond the obvioius "don't drink this" sort of caution.

-- Kevin Crisp (KRCrisp@aol.com), August 27, 2001.

I have always used a respirator during my woodworking days. Lungs underwent 20 years of abuse during my smoking period and I didn't want to fill them with dust, so without fail I used my respirator even though some of my brother woodworkers would laugh.

I want to see my kids grow up so I will research what cartridges I'll need that'll protect while I'm contact printing in my garage(no way I'll take a chance on tracking any of this into the house to come into contact w/my kids).

A lot of woodworkers I know who scowled at dust masks and respirators for years are suffering terribly from the cumulative effects of fine dust in their lungs. Exposure to chemicals are probably just as bad because like breathing in cigarette smoke, or inhaling fine dust while you're woodworking you don't get sick right away. You'll pay later, and you fool yourself into thinking later will never come.

It's a pain in the ass to wear a respirator, but wear one for you and your family.


-- Jonathan Brewer (lifestories@eathlink.net), August 27, 2001.


Cyanotype and Van Dyke Brown are probably the most basic alternative processes. Of the two, Van Dyke Brown is slightly more involved since the prints have to be fixed. Cyanotypes are simply exposed then washed. POP is another possibility given the relative availability of pre-coated paper. The downside is that POP requires gold toning and your negatives have to be more closely matched to the density requirements of the process. Most of the alternative processes require negatives of a specific density range, but cyanotype seems to be more flexible and forgiving.

If you opt for cyanotype, here are a few suggestions. First, use the pre-mixed, two bottle solution sold by Photgrapher's Formulary. The pre-mixed solutions will cut down the amount of chemical preparation and help improve safe handling. Second, Find a printmaking/watercolor paper that has a proven track record. Not all papers work the same with cyanotype and you may be disappointed with the process due to paper-related issues. I would suggest Arches 140lb hot press since the paper is heavily sized and will prevent the coating solution from bleeding too deeply into the paper surface. Many printmaking papers are moderately or lightly sized and these papers perform differently. Third, avoid exposure systems that produce intense heat, especially if you are using original negatives. There are many choices in this area including the sun. I would suggest a set-up made from a standard flourescent fixture with four black light bulbs. If you use this type of unit (mounted about 12 inches from your paper) exposure times will vary from 20-30 minutes.

I hope this helps. Good luck.


-- Dave Willison (dwillisart@aol.com), August 27, 2001.

Most of the stuff I shoot is intended for POP as the final product. Try Chicago Albumen Works' Centennial POP toned in gold borax. It's easy to use and has an unbelievable tonal range. If you really want to get into making your own papers, try albumen, cyanotype, van dyke brown or kallitypes, as others have already mentioned. You might also want to review some of the publications out there, such as:

Historic Photographic Processes by Richard Farber (a good beginner's guide)


The Albumen & Salted Paper Book by James Reilly (out of print but available in PDF on my web site).

-- Chad Jarvis (cjarvis@nas.edu), August 27, 2001.

Sorry about that link to the Farber book. Cutting and pasting that huge address from Amazon's site just didn't produce the results I wanted.

-- Chad jarvis (cjarvis@nas.edu), August 27, 2001.

In London, Silverprint are especially useful for supplies - their web- site has some good intros to various technbiques, including my personal favourite, Gum Bichromate. http://www.silverprint.co.uk/index1.html Scroll down to "Alternative Processes"

-- Stuart Whatling (sw@dial.pipex.com), August 27, 2001.

Bea Nettles is a big fan of Kwik Print, and for something really simple, paper negs., can produce some quite pleasing results...

-- Steve Clark (agno3@eesc.com), August 27, 2001.

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