First Cyanotype

August 11, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Yes, today is going to be about another analog photo printing process. In the past, I shared traditional darkroom prints with you, as well as lith prints. Both of those techniques required a darkroom. The technique I am sharing today does not and thus may be more accessible to many of you.

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What am I talking about? I am talking about the Cyanotype Process invented in 1841 by Sir John Herschel. If you're interested in more history, either an Internet search or your local library will provide plenty of resources. The same holds true for details about the chemistry used for this process.

The Cyanotype process allows you to contact print a negative onto a sensitized material using UV light. You can simply rely on sunshine or buy a UV lamp. Since the process relies on UV light and not regular daylight the clear advantage of this printing method over other darkroom techniques is that it does not require darkness to be carried out.

Old House Cyanotype - Exposure in ProgressOld House CyanotypeExposure in Progress First, some material needs to be coated with the sensitizer. You can either mix your own concoction or rely on a ready-made KIT like the Liquid Cyanotype KIT by Photographers' Formularly I used. To keep things simple, I started with a heavy watercolor paper for my material but already look forward to trying fabric, wood, and other materials. I used a cheap paintbrush to coat 5x7 pieces of the paper. It turned out I used about 1ml of sensitizer per 5x7 sheet but that depends on your paper and on the desired results. I could see myself using a little less in the future.

The material then has to completely dry. If it remains wet it would start developing immediately upon exposure to sun instead of being fully exposed first. That drying period gives you a chance to get your negatives ready. If you are a large format photographer, your 4x5, 5x7, or even larger negatives might serve the purpose. If you shoot smaller film or digital, you can use an inkjet printer to print your negatives at the desired size. I used my HP Envy 5055 to print on Inkpress Media Transparency Film (8.5 x 11"). I printed 2 5x7 images on a single letter-sized sheet that I later cut in half.

How did I prepare my negatives? I used GIMP to slightly increase the contrast of my previously processed photo. I clipped both highlights and shadows very slightly (by about 5 points) and then added a gentle S-curve for an overall contrast increase. Did I have to do this? I am not sure, only more experience will tell. I remembered people talking about higher contrast negatives being better for Cyanotypes and that is what I did to get started. Based on my results, I will definitely be trying a straight file next time as there seems to be plenty of natural contrast. The other thing I did was I flipped the image horizontally. Since the exposure is done with the face of the film down, things will get reverted back and print the right way.

Enough talking, let's see what happened! For my first print, I used the last paper coated where I ran out of the sensitizer. Thus, this was the least coated paper of all. I wanted to see how the length of exposure mattered and I exposed the whole frame for 8 minutes in direct sunshine, then covered 1/3 and exposed for 2 more minutes, then covered 2/3s and added 2 more minutes. When the 12 minutes were over I took the picture frame, in which I sandwiched the negative and the sensitized paper, to the basement to be washed. When I removed the paper from the frame, it looked like the below.

Old House Cyanotype - ExposedOld House CyanotypeExposed

Old House Cyanotype

As soon as I started pouring water over it in the sink the look started changing. I washed the print for about 5 minutes at which point no more changes seemed to be happening. At this point, I was pretty happy with my first result.

Old House Cyanotype - Washed in WaterOld House CyanotypeWashed in Water

Old House Cyanotype
Washed in Plain Water

However, this was not the only print I made that day and all of the ones afterwards had a heavier sensitizer coat. They all also had a yellowish tone in the highlights after washing. After some digging it seemed like alkaline water may not be able to fully wash the sensitizer off. Either vinegar or citric acid was recommended in various places. Since I had a bottle of white vinegar right next to the sink I added a splash into my tray and rewashed the photo.

Old House Cyanotype - Washed in VinegarOld House CyanotypeWashed in Vinegar

Old House Cyanotype
Re-Washed in Water with White Vinegar

The effect? Immediate and rather noticeable. The highlights cleared up very nicely and the tones changed towards more bluish from the previously greenish tones. I realize that what you are looking at is a scanned version of my results. I placed the actual print next to my monitor and tried to make the scan look as close as possible to the print by slightly tweaking the white balance and contrast. And that was it, I was ready to call this one a finished product.

If you remember from above this was an exposure test with an 8, 10, and 12-minute exposure. Can you see the vertical stripes on the print? Neither can I. I attribute that to the extremely light sensitizer coating on this sheet. How would things look with a heavier coat?

Old House Cyanotype - Heavier Sensitizer CoatOld House CyanotypeHeavier Sensitizer Coat

Old House Cyanotype
Heavier Sensitizer Coat

As you can see, a lot of details got completely lost in the first version as there was either very little or even no sensitizer at all in some areas. Which version do you prefer? I like that the first version looks almost like a pencil drawing, which I am a big fan of. However, I don't like that the wall in front of the house is completely missing. I am sure I will further experiment with very light coats but I will need to make sure I don't plain run out and leave parts of the paper blank.

A warning? Try at your own risk. I have to admit that this is addictive and I have already printed two more prints and have even more coated paper ready to go. I also want to try other materials. I really like the simplicity. Pre-coat some paper a day ahead and let dry (at this point, I don't know how long one can keep pre-coated paper). Print out a negative or several at the desired sizes. Next day, about 10 minutes in the sun and a 5-minute wash and you have yourself a cyanotype.

Enjoy The Beauty That Surrounds You! #etbtsy

PS: Loosely continued at More Cyanotypes.

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