Updated: Oct 24
(and 3 easy ones that involve a camera)
In our previous blog post we covered how to build a darkroom from scratch on a budget. But let’s suppose your parents or roommates won’t let you turn the only bathroom in the house into a darkroom. Luckily, there are several techniques in alternative photography to experiment even without a darkroom. That said, for some techniques, especially those done without a camera, whether or not a darkroom is required remains to be an artistic choice depending on how much control is desired to have with the process. At Alternative Processes, we enjoy these different techniques because they push the boundaries of photography and inspire experimentation. After all, making a photograph is essentially a photosensitive chemical reaction.
Without a camera
These processes do not involve a dark room, not even a camera
1) Cyanotypes: make a blue photograph under the sun
Choose a thick paper (watercolor or printmaking paper) and coat it in room light with a diluted mixture of Potassium ferricyanide and Ferric ammonium citrate (follow the instructions on the container)
Let the pieces of paper dry somewhere dark like a closet.
Once the paper is dry, place any flat object or a negative transparency you want to print (have in mind that the parts blocked by the object or negative while be white after processing). Press the object or the negative with a contact frame.
Expose under the sun or an UV light from 15min to 30min.
Rinse in a container with cool water a few times until the water is clear. In this step you can add vinegar or ammonium to change the tone of the print.
Hang to dry in the dark.
Anna Atkins, Dictyota Dichotoma, in the Young State and in Fruit, c.1843, cyanotype,
2) Anthotypes: make photographs from plants
Essentially a cyanotype, but with plant juice. There are plenty of emulsion recipes online, we also recommend checking out Anthotypes: Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants by Malin Fabbri . Turmeric and spinach, for example, have been proven to be wildly successful as pigments for emulsions.
Prepare a piece of paper by coating it with your plant emulsion of choice, let it dry in the dark.
Place the positive transparency or objects against the dry paper between a contact frame.
Leave under the sun for several days or weeks depending on light quality, season, and place on the Earth.
Enjoy your anthotype! Make sure to place your photograph away from direct sunlight.
Tim Boddy, “Covid-19 Print #9”, Spinach emulsion anthotype, 2020
3) Photosynthesis of Chlorophyll Printing: print images on leaves
Place the positive transparency against the leaf and press it on a contact frame.
Expose the leaf under the sun for several hours or a few days depending on the weather.
For this process it is possible to either to leave the image unfixed or to fix it by rinsing it in a mixture of copper sulfate and water. Some photographers suggest as well to wax it using Renaissance Wax, or to secure it on matt board using an acid-free glue.
Caroline Russell,“Mom”, chlorophyll print
4) Chemigrams: get abstract using chemical reactions
This process consists of making an image by exposing chemical reactions on photographic paper. Although some photographers claim this is a darkroom-only technique, others like to experiment with extended periods of sunlight and room-light fixing conditions.
In a room with no direct sunlight, coat photographic BW paper with a material that can act as a resist (nail polish, oil, syrup, are some of the many possibilities). Different tools can be used to apply the resist: paintbrushes, toothbrushes, sprays, droppers, etc
In separate trays, place fixer, or diluted fixer, and developer, or diluted developer, respectively.
Rinse the print alternating in between each bath for any amount of time desired, seconds, minutes, even hours. It is also possible to do this step using caffenol as developer and salt water as fixer.
When the desired effect has been achieved, rinse the print in water.
Pierre Cordier, CH 8/2/61 III, Chemigram
5) Lumen prints: Like a chemigram but with sunlight
Place a flat object onto a piece of photographic paper inside a contact frame.
Expose to sunlight or under an UV lamp. Some photographers suggest 60 to 90 minutes, others do hours as well.
In room light, rinse the print alternating in between a bath of developer and a bath of fixer. Once again, the amount of time in each bath will depend on the desired effect.
Wash the print under tap water for at least 10 minutes in order to rinse the chemicals.
Leave out to dry.
Esther Bezalel, lumen print.
A world of pure imagination: It is possible to make a mix between cyanotypes and lumen prints (cyano lumens), or chemigrams and lumen prints (chemilumes), and cyanotypes and chemigrams by using ferric ammonium citrate as a sensitizer during the chemigram process.
With a Camera
These processes involve loading film into a camera and processing in a developing tank.
Conventional developing does not require a dark room, it can be simply done inside a tank with either BW chemicals or C-41 for color. To load the film into the reels of the tank safely, use a changing bag.
6) Film Soups: Create funky colors in your pictures by submerging an unused roll of film (either color or BW) into a chemical soup.
Place the roll of film in a container with warm water with any other liquid of your choice for a few minutes. Popular liquids in this process are vinegar, liquid soap, salt water, fruit juices, the sky is the limit. Some people like adding salt, silica gel, or sodium bicarbonate as well for speckled effects.
Leave it out to dry for a couple of days to a week.
To make sure it is dry before loading it, take out the film inside a change bag,and rewind it. Finally, load into your camera and process as usual.
***If using a developing service, please ask first if they develop film soups and detail which ingredients were used.
Briggette Bloom, from the series “Float On”, film soup with the artist’s urine
7) Double exposure: Film is too expensive to just use once, generate ethereal images exposing the film twice.
When loading the film into the camera, mark with a sharpie the start of the first frame.
Shoot as usual but using a lower exposure time/aperture since the film will be exposed twice. Once the film has been exposed, rewind it completely and unload it.
To retrieve the film to load it again, lick a piece of discarded film, and push it into the opening of the canister. Next, wind the roll of film until the piece of discarded film goes in. Gently, pull the discarded film. If done correctly, the start of the film should come out of the canister as well.
Load the film for a second time, making sure to align the sharpie line with the so that the frames match as much as possible. Shoot and process as usual.
8) Polaroid emulsion lift: it is like if the Polaroid was a bedsheet floating
Select a Polaroid photograph. The older the Polaroid the harder it will be to lift.
Prepare two trays, one with cold water and the other one with warm water. However some people prefer to use boiling water to speed the lifting process.
Cut the Polaroid out of its frame and separate it from its backing material.
Place the picture in the warm water and brush it gently with a small paintbrush.
The emulsion will start bubbling and separating from a transparent film. With the paintbrush keep tugging at it gently to release it. This step might take a while.
Once the emulsion has been lifted, it can be transferred to a surface. For this purpose, watercolor or printmaking paper is a more accessible option, although glass, wood, metal, and other surfaces are used as well.
Stretch the emulsion out onto the paper using a paintbrush and fix it as desired. This step is possible to play with the emulsion to create wrinkles.
Carefully, pull the paper out of the water while securing the emulsion onto it and leave it out to dry for the night.
Isabel Herrera, Untitled. Confinement Series 2020.
Author: Ana Sofia Camarga