We shoot pictures with the best intentions of printing and distributing them, making art or books, or even just updating family photos… I’m certainly guilty of filing folder after folder away on external hard drives to be revisited ‘when I have more time.’ Even diligently doing all of the aforementioned things, there are still mountains of images that never see the light of day. A fresh approach to printing can inspire you to output more images, different types of images, and provide a perfect jump-start for your creativity. Here are some simple and delightful alternative photographic processes that will inspire you to get your images on paper.
The first step to using your photographs with each of these alternative printing methods is to create a ‘digital negative’ using inkjet transparency film, an acetate type paper that has been pre-coated for inkjet printing. A digital negative operates similarly to a traditional film negative, except that you print it true to size from your digital files. This can be done on a home printer, making these processes exceptionally accessible to even the most introductory photo enthusiasts. It is important to use as high quality of an image as possible to create your negatives, so superfine JPGs or RAW images will yield the best results.
The simplest directions are these: after selecting your image to print, import it into your favorite editing software and convert it to black and white. Adjust the contrast to give the image some extra pop, and then invert the image so that it looks like a negative. Make sure that your resolution is set to at least 300 ppi, so that the output image is full of detail—this is now ready to print. One of the best things about using inkjet transparency film on a Canon printer is that it requires no proprietary ICC profile (for a better understanding of ICC profiles, click here). Finally, choose the glossy photo setting, or the setting for Photo Paper Pro, as the surfaces are very similar.
Each of the processes presented also responds well to camera-less photography. Frequently I use my scanner to capture objects that can then be printed onto the inkjet transparency films. High-detail objects that can lay flat respond best to this method of image making, and if you have access to a flatbed scanner I highly encourage you to try it - the results are too unique to pass up!
A great starting place with alternative processes is the cyanotype, easily recognizable by its cyan-blue (known as Prussian blue) coloring. One of the oldest photographic printing processes, the cyanotype dates back to 1842 when it was discovered by Sir John Herschel, a pioneer of photography. An iron-based process, the light-sensitive emulsion is created through the combination of two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The chemicals are sold both in powder form and pre-mixed from many a photo supplier. Equal parts of the chemistry, once combined, will be sensitive to UV rays, conveniently allowing the exposure to be made in direct sunlight.
Use a paintbrush or foam brush to apply the solution to a cotton-based paper or fabric of your choice, and allow it to dry completely in a cool, dark area. Do be sure to wear gloves and an apron when making these prints, as the chemistry will stain. If this is your first go at cyanotypes, try a watercolor paper, as its tolerance for applied liquid is high. Lay your digital negative on top of the dried, coated paper surface, and press them tightly between two pieces of glass, or better yet, using a contact printer. Now bring it into the sun and wait for the magic to happen!
Exposure times range depending on the brightness and heat of the sun, but are typically fairly short, especially in the summertime. The great news is that a cyanotype is pretty difficult to overexpose, but keeping track of your exposure times is the best way to get improved prints as you go along. The final step is to rinse your exposed image – plain tap water will do. Add a large splash of hydrogen peroxide in the rinsing stage to see your print immediately oxidize to a deep blue hue. When your paper base is cleared of all yellow chemical residue, hang it up to dry. Many people find rich blue coloration to be a liberating departure from the reality of the original.
Another favorite alternative printing process to get started with is the anthotype, a plant-based printing out process. When I say plant-based, I mean that you can use flowers, foliage, fruits, and vegetables to create this emulsion. Because there are no actual chemicals involved, it is safe for almost anyone to work with. In fact, this is a method that I teach to children every summer, as the biggest risk involved is a messy kitchen.
Like the cyanotype, the anthotype was also discovered in 1842 by John Herschel. The anthotype’s plant-based emulsion relies on the properties of sun to bleach out areas of the print left exposed to sunlight. Have you ever left an object lying in the grass for too long only to pick it up and see that the grass underneath has turned brown or yellow? This is the same principle.
Note exposure times on these prints are longer – several hours for the quickest activating prints and even up to a week for the slower ones. This is a ‘what you see is what you get’ process, so you can check the exposure as it goes along to determine readiness. The anthotype will require a transparent ‘positive’ as opposed to the ‘negative’ used in cyanotypes, so when you are printing your image for this process, skip the step where you invert to a negative and go straight from contrast and resolution to printing on the inkjet transparency film.
Traditionally, you select a plant in the color of your choice, and crush it using a mortar and pestle. A strain through cheesecloth and a few drops of denatured alcohol should yield enough solution to coat your paper. When I do larger classes, I make sure to use fruits and vegetables that I can get larger quantities of, and then put them through a juicer. Paint on your plant juice until the color is rich, and allow it to dry completely. Some tried and true options: spinach, carrots, strawberries, blackberries, beets, red bell pepper, purple cabbage, and rose petals.
As with the cyanotype, contact print your transparency (this time a positive) against your dried emulsion surface and place in a sunny spot to expose. Have patience - you will be delighted in the range of colors and tonalities that such a simple process can yield!
The last printing process that we’ll cover is the image transfer, again, a favorite for beginners and pros alike. There are a few options within making the transfer – I’ll present two: the first requires your digital image to be printed on inkjet transfer film (different from transparency), and in this case you can use either a color or a black and white positive. You may want to reverse the image, especially if it involves text, as when you apply it, it will be mirrored. The second is to use a laser print on plain printer paper – the paper base will be removed so only the image remains.
This is the fastest of the three processes discussed, with almost no waiting time between printing and application. Select the image that you would like to transfer, making sure the image resolution is high and your printing resolution is at least 300 dpi. This may in fact be the most versatile of the printing techniques because you can transfer your images onto not only paper, but also wood, tile, fabric, stone, or virtually any surface imaginable. Any size will work, from very small to very large, so experiment!
For this process you will also need a gel medium (available at almost any art or craft store), a paintbrush, a sponge, and a small brayer. Paint an initial coat of the gel medium onto the surface of your choice and allow it to dry completely; a more porous surface will require more medium, a smoother surface, less. Apply a second coat of gel medium, and lay the printed side of your inkjet transfer or laser print onto the still wet surface. Use the brayer to roll over the image area, pressing lightly to ensure full contact. With the transfer film, allow it to set for about five minutes before attempting to lift off, carefully starting at a corner and working inward. If you are using the laser print method on plain paper, allow the gel medium to fully dry, and then use a damp sponge to gently remove the paper pulp.
Here are a few more tips for success: if you’re editing program allows you to increase the density of your ink, increase it to +10. Not all programs give this option, but a denser transparency will yield higher contrast. A hairdryer can be used to speed the drying time of your cyanotype emulsion, but only on the cool setting. Anthotypes must be stored in a location away from UV light – since there is no fixing of the print, they will continue to lighten if left near a light source. And some people choose to coat their final image transfers with another light coating of gel medium for added surface protection.
Of the three processes discussed, I connect the most with the cyanotype – the original blueprint. I’m consistently impressed by the range of imagery that translates well into its Prussian blue coloring! You’ll find that all three of the procedures have their own strengths. I encourage you to try them all and choose a favorite for yourself – their ease of use is sure to lure you into repeat printing sessions!