Digital Imitating Darkroom (Alternative Processes)

Post number three, about digital techniques imitating darkroom processes. This time focusing on alternative processes such as Gum Bichromate, Cyanotypes and Liquid Emulsion.

Liquid Emulsion

Liquid emulsion is a darkroom process which is also known as tintypes. It is a silver based light sensitive liquid which can be applied to any surface, exposed to light and processed within the standard darkroom processes. It is the same emulsion that can be found on photographic paper but in liquid form. It comes in a solid state (in it’s container) which is submerged in to warm water to transform it into a liquid by way of melting.

The examples above that I have found on the internet show some of the surfaces that liquid emulsion can be applied to.

The digital technique is pretty straight forward to carry out in Photoshop and because of the monochrome tone would work well on any image. However doing it this way does take away the fun and the experimental nature that comes with using alternative processes, as the name suggests its process driven.

When compared to images produced using the traditional method of liquid emulsion, I feel that my images are a little too perfect and do not show up any flaws that the process can produce. They are overly sharp and the brown tones are too dominant within the images. Although the images I have used have been layered on to a textured, brushed frame layer, it is difficult to see the brush strokes come through on to the image and the image itself is very clear and lacking the faded effect apparent when using the traditional method.


Where do I begin with this digital technique, well I’ll start with the positive and talk about the traditional process.

First discovered by John Hershel in 1842 three years after the official discovery of photography, Cyanotypes are a process of alternative photography carried out by mixing Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide. Once mixed it produces a chemical which is sensitive to light and once exposed produces a vibrant Prussian blue tone.

The process became popular in 1876 when it was used commercially for blueprint drawings. However it had long since been used by the Anna Atkins for her work as a Botanist when she used the process to record images of algae, ferns and such like instead of drawing them.

Having used the traditional method many times and experimented on different materials such as paper, cardboard, wood and even egg shell I am a huge fan. I produced photographs using objects and used negatives printed on acetate to produce prints most of which were successful and there is no alternative for the blues it can produce.

Now for the negatives, I have now used two different techniques in Photoshop to imitate the characteristics of a cyanotype and both of which are no substitute. Even if you obtain the correct blue tone (which of course is possible), the image still fails miserably at mimicking its traditional counterpart. In that you don’t get a silhouette a distinctive trademark of the traditional cyanotypes, in the sense that the image produced isn’t presented to you in the very pale, blue/white tones where the sun hasn’t exposed it. What you do get is a blue which saturates the whole image making the shadows darker an almost black; the areas which would normal not be exposed to light during the cyanotype process.

For these reasons I am not a fan and I think that given how easy it is to obtain the chemicals to produce the real thing and the simple yet relaxing method of using the traditional technique to carry out a cyanotype print, I would rather use the alternative method every time. However if you live in a country that doesn’t get sun for six months of the year and you don’t own a sun bed or UV lamp then the digital method will work for you, my only advice would be to experiment with post-production and nail it!

Gum Bichromate

This is a similar process as Cyanotpyes, the chemicals are mixed and painted onto water colour paper and exposed to light before being washed. The chemicals used were written about during 1763 by Louis Nicolas Vauguelin although never practised and then in 1839 Mungo Ponton discovered that when paper was impregnated with Potassium bichromate it was sensitive to light and he used it to produce photograms. It was William Henry Fox Talbot that began working with potassium dichromate and wrote about its hardening effect when applied to a collodian gelatin. In the late 19th century artist began using the process to create images.

One of the benefits of gum bichromate as a traditional method of alternative photography is that you have the added benefit of incorporating water colour to the mixture creating vivid colours that can even be layered.

I have similar thoughts on the digital version of this process to that of the cyanotype in that the image itself is too sharp, focused and detailed which wouldn’t be the case when printing traditionally using a negative from acetate. However I think the colours and tones work really well with the images I have chosen and provided you worked more in post-production to fade the detail a little more I think that this process could be a successful one, it also allows you to avoid handling the dangerous chemicals used within the gum bichromate process.

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