Tag Archives: alternative photography

Cyanolumens

If you’ve tried cyanotypes and enjoyed them, you can take them a bit further by introducing cyanotype chemicals to black and white darkroom paper.

What You Need

This technique combines a lumen print with a cyanotype to introduce various tones and colours that you cannot achieve with cyanotype alone. For this example I’ve used Ilford RC (resin coated) multigrade paper, freshly mixed cyanotype liquid, turmeric mixed to a paste with water, and plant material to produce a cyanolumen photogram. You’ll also need photographic fix, I’m using Ilford Rapid Fixer which I will dilute, but you can now buy pouches of fixer which might be easier to use if this is a one-off trial for you, as you won’t need to dilute it. You also need a darkroom tray or other shallow plastic container that will fit your paper size.

Method – Prepare Your Paper and Expose to UV

If you will want to use your darkroom paper for darkroom printing as well as lumen prints, remove the paper you need from the pack in darkroom conditions. If not, you don’t have to worry too much about light contamination. Open it in a shady room, removing just the paper you need and closing the pack as quickly as possible to shield it from light.

Quickly coat the darkroom paper with cyanotype mixture (see here for details). I find that on the resin coated paper the liquid sits on the top of the paper. That’s fine because this is going to be a wet cyanotype. Arrange your plant material on top of the paper and add a sheet of glass to hold it all still. Put it outside in the sunlight or alternatively place under a UV lamp. If you want the yellow colour I have here, then add turmeric while adding plant material. How you add it will depend on the effect you want to create, and you’ll need to experiment to find out what works. I have randomly added turmeric to the base and placed plant material on top. Next time I might dip the plant into turmeric and see how that works. Remember, the strength of this type of technique is that the process can create happy accidents. You have to be willing to let go of control and really experiment in order for those accidents to happen.

This cyanolumen print was left outside for 6 hours in strong UV light, but you don’t need to leave them that long; however, they do take longer than a standard cyanotype to create, and among the community of creators it seems the general feel for these is the longer the better in exposure terms with 24 hour exposures being perfectly normal. This is not instant photography! I’m not yet practiced enough with various plant materials to be able to put more accurate timings on exposure and it will also depend on where you are in the world, but for thicker plant material I’d go for a longer exposure time but for anything delicate I’d look at about 3 or 4 hours in high UV light.

The main things to look for when creating the print are that the plant material is making good contact with the paper, and that the whole thing is held together firmly to create sharp edges. I find that using heavy glass works well, but if yours is thin then use some clips to help to create that firm contact and to hold everything together firmly.

Rinse, Fix and Dry

When finished with the exposure, I first rinse my print in water. You might want to take a photograph of it at this stage because colours can change once the print has been put in the fix. Remove any plant material that remains on the paper – it’s helpful to have an old, small paintbrush at hand for this.

For the fix I’d recommend you wear gloves and leave a window open because it’s an unpleasant smell for most people and you don’t want this getting onto your skin. You don’t have to do this in darkroom conditions, you can mix this stuff up in daylight. I mixed my fix at a ratio of 1 part fix to 4 parts water and put in in the tray. I do this just before I finish the exposure so the fix is not hanging around because of the smell. If you’re not sure how much to mix, fill your tray with enough water to cover your paper easily (maybe half way), pour the water into a measuring jug to see how much liquid you will need. Divide that number by 5. That will give you the amount liquid in each part. So if I want 500ml of water, I want 100ml of Ilford rapid fixer, and 400ml of water. Check the instructions on the fix you’re using to make sure you get the ratio correct.

When you’ve finished rinsing your print in water, wearing gloves put in into the fix. I dipped my print in fix and then rinsed with water immediately. I didn’t let it sit in the water, but if you have a fibre based paper you might like to leave it for up to a minute. You can keep the fix in a dark bottle out of direct sunlight and reuse it. Please dispose of this responsibly because it is toxic to aquatic life.

Rinse the fix from the paper thoroughly in running water, and leave the print flat to dry.

Tips

Because of the long exposure times, you may get better results from firm, thick plant material. Anything delicate tends to produce a texture on the paper rather than an image. The example below was my first try at a cyanolumen; it’s fennel seed heads and fronds, exposed for 24 hours. As you can see, this is mainly textural. I also didn’t rinse it well because I was worried the blue would disappear.

I suspect (I’m going to try it but I don’t know yet) that fibre based paper is better than resin coated paper for this. I will put the results here when I have them.

Look out for cats sitting on your nice warm glass. Mine did this, although I’ve no idea how long for! I looked out of the window and there he was, settled on the glass for nap time.

Like a standard wet cyanotype, you can try adding vinegar, bubbles, etc to your base.

You can try a straightforward lumen print.

Simple Lumen Prints

How to Create a Lumen Print

For this you will need:

  • Darkroom black and white photographic paper; I’m using Ilford multigrade resin coated*
  • Photographic fixer; I’m using Ilford Rapid Fixer
  • Sunshine or UV light
  • Running water to rinse
  • Glass and board to put it all on, or a contact frame
  • Plant material or something to block light that you want a photogram image of. I’ve used a fern. You could also try a contact print using a negative the same size as the image you want to produce. You can make these yourself, see the bottom of this post for tips on producing a negative at home.

The process here is very simple. Take your paper, put the plant material or negative onto it and add glass on top to stop it all moving about. Take it outside on a sunny day and leave it from 30 minutes to 24 hours. Rinse in water and then put in fixer for 30 seconds to a minute to make the image permanent. Rinse with water again.

That is it. Simplicity. The most difficult bit is mixing up the fixer and that’s easy and can be made easier if you buy a pre-mixed pouch. Of course, like cyanotypes you can take this process further. But in essence that is all there is to it.

*Open your paper in a darkened room to avoid exposing it to light. If you want to use the paper for darkroom printing too, then always open under darkroom conditions.

image adjusted

Create Your Own Cyanotypes

We’ll briefly cover history & science of cyanotypes, compare the three main options on chemicals and look at how to make an exposure.

History & Science

A Mini History

The cyanotype process produces a beautiful, Prussian-blue coloured print. The process was developed in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer, as an easy way to make copies of diagrams. For much of the 20th century cyanotypes continued to be used as a quick way to produce copies of technical drawings for engineering and architecture. These were called blueprints, and the term is often still used today.  

The cyanotype process was quickly picked up by artists and was very popular during the Victorian era. Anna Atkins, sometimes called the first female photographer, began using cyanotypes to create images of her botanical collections, and published a book of cyanotype images in 1843. This is thought to be the first ever book illustrated with photographic images. 

 A cyanotype made by Anna Atkins from her 1843 book, ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’.

The Science

Cyanotypes use a mix of two chemicals; Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide. The mixture of chemicals produces a light sensitive iron complex. When exposed to ultraviolet light the iron becomes unstable and combines with ferricyanide to produce a more stable iron molecule which produces the classic cyanotype blue. The unexposed chemicals don’t change, and rinse out easily in water. You’ll see them coming out as the yellow/ green colour in the water as you rinse. 

When you expose your paper, the parts that sunlight reaches will remain blue, the parts where it can’t reach will be white when the paper is rinsed. You can create various blue tones by varying these light levels during exposure, by using a negative or by moving items around if you are making a photogram.


Options on Chemicals

There are three main choices of where to start with creating your cyanotype. I’ve listed them from lazy photographer to obsessive.

1 The easiest way to create a cyanotype is to buy some pre-coated paper, like Sunprint paper. This option is safe, quick and easy, which makes it brilliant for beginners & children. There are no messy chemicals to handle and mix, and the unexposed coated paper lasts well as long as you store it in its light-proof packaging. However, the paper is thin, it’s more expensive than other options, and there are not many suppliers so it can be difficult to source.

ADVANTAGEDISADVANTAGE
Easy to UseNot much choice of supplier
No messExpensive
Stores wellNo paper choices
I have used Sunprint paper, there are other brands available.

2 Next in terms of ease is to use a Cyanotype kit. These tend to have two bottles which are solutions of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide. You mix the solutions together in equal quantities and then use the mixture to coat paper which may be provided in the kit, or paper of your choice.

The problem with pre-mixed liquids is that you don’t know how long they’ve been stored for before you get them, and although individual solutions will last a reasonable length of time, the longer the storage the more likely you are to experience quality issues. These kits also tend to give out plastic bottles & utensils.

However, if you know you want to create a reasonable amount of cyanotype prints or you have a specific surface to coat, this can be a good option.

ADVANTAGESDISADVANTAGES
Mix as neededCan be expensive
Coat any paper or fabric*You don’t know how old solution is when you get it
Fresh solution lasts six monthsCan create waste
*FOR BEST RESULTS, PAPER OR FABRIC BOTH NEED A HIGH COTTON CONTENT

3 The most complicated option is to use powdered chemicals. These powders need to be weighed, water added to make the two solutions, then these solutions are mixed together and used to coat paper or fabric. This can be a bit messy and time consuming, but is probably the cheapest way to make cyanotypes if you’re planning on producing a lot.

You’ll need to use paper with a high cotton content. When choosing paper, think about the type of result you want to achieve. For very crisp results chose hot-pressed watercolour papers, for more texture you can try cold-pressed papers or Khadi paper.

Fabriano (Acquarello) papers are a popular choice, but I’ve used paper by Daler Rowney, Khadi, and even packing paper I found in my Amazon delivery and all have worked perfectly well. Whatever paper you choose, remember it will have to stand up to being rinsed thoroughly.

ADVANTAGESDISADVANTAGES
Very long lasting & easy to storeMessy
Can create a lot of solutionDangerous to breath in
CheapSometimes difficult to obtain

Remember, if you’re coating your own paper then you can create interesting textures by allowing room for visible brush strokes. You can also create circular images, or only partially coat the paper. This gives you a lot more creative freedom.

Simply brush the solution onto paper and allow to dry in a dark place, or dry quickly using a hairdryer.

Cyanotype on Khadi paper made with freshly mixed chemicals.
Packing paper cyanotype (test print)

Creating Your Cyanotype

So you have your paper, it’s a nice sunny day and you’re ready to go. Now what?

Exposing Your Paper

Arrange your artwork on your cyanotype paper indoors or outside in a shady spot. Try to work reasonably quickly if you are outside – even in the shade the paper is being exposed to UV light. When you’re ready, place it in direct sunlight to expose the paper.

When you think the exposure is finished, rinse the paper thoroughly in water. The water will turn a yellow colour where the chemicals are being rinsed out of the unexposed parts of the paper. Rinse until the water is clear. 

Leave your paper to dry. You’ll notice that the image will continue to change as it dries. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take photographs of the various stages as the image dries as interesting colours can come and go.

Some tips…

Want a bit more information than that? Let’s look at exposure, and a few different ideas for how to make an image.

Exposure

Because the levels of UV light vary depending on latitude, time of year and weather, it’s very difficult to give advice about timing or exposure. Development time can change from minute to minute depending on the conditions in the UK. The exposed paper tends to turn a dark blue/charcoal grey when it’s being exposed, so when you see this very dark blue/ charcoal colour, the image will have been exposed for long enough to create a cyanotype. 

However, if you want to be as precise as possible with your exposure, you can create a test strip.

Remove a strip of your coated paper, and create marks along it, dividing it into about 10 even sized bits; they don’t have to be exact, this is just a test. I put a piece of grass on my test strip so I can check the whites, and then cover it all with a heavy piece of paper or card that will block the light. The idea is to gradually reveal each piece of the strip. So if you reveal and expose the first strip for 2 minutes, then reveal and expose the second piece for 2 minutes, then move the paper down further and expose the third strip for 2 minutes, the first will have been exposed for 6 minutes, the second for 4 the third for 2, etc. Obviously, as you go along you’ll get a strip where from the bottom, each section will have twice the exposure of the one before it.

How long each section should be exposed for depends on how strong UV light is where you are. In the UK on a medium/ high UV day, I’d go for about 2 minutes per section for 10 sections.

When you’re done, rinse it under cold running water and for best results allow it to dry. You now have a strip showing you what your exposure will look like for each time period.

Photogram

Most cyanotype fans begin with photograms as they’re fun and easy to create, but can give stunning results.

To create a photogram, you can use any objects with an interesting shape. Place it on your cyanotype paper and expose the paper on a bright, sunny day.

This is the technique Anna Atkins would have used to create her images. It’s the easiest way to make a cyanotype and a lot of fun. Plants are traditional, but experiment with  various opaque and semi-transparent items, or even fabrics. You could try a favourite toy, a feather, your hand, a spring, or keys. Sir John Herschel used lace to make cyanotypes. Try arranging items in patterns, and if you’re using lots of objects remember that you don’t have to leave every object on for the whole time. You could remove some objects after a little while to create various blue tones or patterns. 

One of Sir John Herschel’s lace cyanotypes

For best results arrange your objects on your paper indoors, and if your items are light then cover them with a clear acrylic sheet or a piece of glass to stop them moving around and to keep them lying flat. If objects aren’t lying flat then the edges will be blurry.

You can’t always tell exactly what will happen with a photogram, but think about shadow shapes and how much light gets through your objects to help you figure out what your image might look like before you start. 

If you made a test strip you can use it to see how long you might expose to get different shades of blue. This image was created by removing some of the foliage after a few minutes. Although it’s not particularly successful, it illustrates the way blue tones can be created.

Contact Print

You need to produce a negative the same size as your required print for this technique. You can use one of your own digital photographs, or download a test negative from Epic here. Print it onto transparent material, like inkjet transparency film, to create a negative. 

If you use your own photograph then as well as a printer you’ll need access to some software so you can create your negative. You might be able to do this on your phone, but there are a few steps you’ll need to take to make a negative: 

  • Make your image black & white
  • Adjust the contrast of your image. An image works well if it has some black areas and some white areas. If the image is very grey without much black or white then it might not make a good cyanotype. Adding more contrast can help with this.
  • Invert your image. This step makes all the dark bits light, and the light bits dark – it makes it a negative.
  • Print the image in black ink onto transparent material. You can get specialist materials, but for most purposes inkjet transparency film works well.  

It helps if you have a stiff base of some sort to make a contact print. Even thick cardboard will do, but it needs to be slightly larger than the cyanotype paper you’re going to use.

Put the cyanotype paper onto the base, and put the negative onto the cyanotype paper, and a clear acrylic sheet or glass on top of all that. Fix it down, but remember the fixings will show in the final image if they pass the edges of the cyanotype paper or create a shadow over it. If you’re going for a really good print, creating an exposure test strip with the negative in place will help you get the best results.

A rough test print of various negatives

The featured image for this post is a Japanese stab stitch book with cyanotype covers.

Also try toning the cyanotypes or creating a wet cyanotype by adding household chemicals.