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9 alternative processes every photographer should try at least once

Alternative processes have experienced a renaissance in recent years, with Instagram communities such as @alternativephotography_com and @alternativeprocesses supporting a new generation of artists inspired by historical processes and handmade photographs.

We interviewed nine extraordinary artists about the alternative processes closest to their hearts, ranging from carbon prints to chemigrams. Although we’ve merely scratched the surface, here are just a few techniques every photographer should try at least once in their career, with some tips for getting started.

1. Tintypes

Sometimes called “ferrotypes,” tintypes first emerged in the 1850s, along with some of the other processes mentioned below. As you might have guessed from its two names, tintypes are processed on thin metal sheets (usually iron). Tintypes can be made with gelatin (dry) or collodion (wet) methods.

Tintype by Josh Wool (@joshwool on Instagram)

“In an age where most photographs live on hard drives or in our phones, tintypes are physical objects that can last for generations,” the Brooklyn-based portrait photographer Josh Wool, who uses a wet plate method and a portable darkroom, explains. “The particular chemical makeup of the chemicals used in the process renders a tonality and texture that no other medium offers.”

Josh’s number one tip for aspiring tintype photographers? Do your research. “It’s a very involved process and can be potentially dangerous if you don’t pay attention to how you use and store the chemicals that are used,” he tells us. “One of the most common mistakes people make in tintype photography is not keeping their chemistry and equipment clean and well-maintained. This accounts for a majority of issues that arise.

“Another major mistake is trying to rush the learning curve. Understanding the nuances of the process, especially the relationship between exposure time and development time, comes from practice. It’s not a quick learning curve, so patience and persistence are key.”

2. Photograms

These “camera-less photographs” have been a favourite of everyone from László Moholy-Nagy to Man Ray, so they have a rich heritage. To make your own photograms, you’ll most likely need access to a darkroom enlarger to precisely control the light hitting your photo paper.

From there, simply place any objects of your choice directly on top of the paper to create your compositions, expose them to light, and develop and fix the images (as you would if you were printing from a negative). The placement of objects will result in ghostly, white silhouettes, while the area exposed to light will darken to grey once developed.

Sunflowers photograms by Pauline Woolley (@pauline_woolley_visual_artist on Instagram)

“Photograms are unique because there is no negative to replicate what you have created,” the Nottingham, UK-based artist Pauline Woolley explains. “It’s just light, paper, and alchemy. You are creating an image from a very basic apparatus, which is rooted in the history of photography.

“Photograms are abstract and experimental, but they do teach you the fundamentals of how light and exposure work. You will need to create a test strip similar to the way you would when printing negatives. Also, knowing your exposure time and knowing if you need to open up or stop down the enlarger lens will save you frustration and wasted paper.”

Pauline’s tips? Use a combination of transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque items to create your composition. “This will give more interesting images than just one item placed on the paper,” she says. “Compositions can be made more dynamic by placing objects close to the edge of the paper, over the edge, or over multiple sheets.”

3. Lumen prints

Lumen prints are a camera-less process, going all the way back to the early experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s. To try it, you’ll need silver gelatin photo paper, fixer, trays for your chemistry, tongs, and a contact printing frame (you can also use an old picture frame).

In the dark, you’ll place items of your choice (many use botanical specimens or paper cutouts) on the paper before exposing it to available sunlight. That’s where they differ from photograms: you don’t need a darkroom enlarger (only the sun!). Once your exposure is done, you’ll move your setup into a dark area (you can use a safelight) and remove the items, wash your paper, and then simply fix it for a few minutes before giving it a final rinse.

Trajectory Pending by Tom Condon (@tommycstars on Instagram)

As with many of the alternative processes discussed here, you’ll notice some overlaps, and you can also combine techniques as you wish. “I consider my prints to be a combination of Chemigrams and Lumen Prints,” the Richmond-based artist Tom Condon explains. “I expose my paper in daylight as you would with a traditional Lumen Print but work extensively with chemicals and resists in the darkroom. At times, the development of the image can take up to two hours before washing the print.

“My favourite aspect of working in this way is the collaboration I feel between myself and my materials. Working with wet chemistry in a painterly way demands a tremendous amount of control while remaining open to the element of chance. At times, I feel like I am dancing with my art. No matter how much I learn about these processes, each print teaches me something new.

“Working in this way, combining Lumen and Chemigram techniques, also requires an incredible amount of patience. The experimental nature of the process means that there will be just as many failures as successes. I would encourage anyone interested in alternative techniques to embrace the mistakes—all of them. Each time a print doesn’t look the way you intended is an opportunity for discovery and growth.”

4. Cyanotypes

Cyanotypes might be a close cousin of photograms and lumen prints, but they’re known for their signature Prussian blue colour. The process will be somewhat familiar by now: create your composition by placing objects directly onto the light-sensitive paper, expose it to bright sunlight (longer exposures create darker blues), and soak it in water (some photographers add hydrogen peroxide to speed up the process).

Cyanotype print, “Dynjandi Waterfall” by Inga Lisa Middleton (@ingalisamiddleton on Instagram)

“There are many reasons why Cyanotypes are special: the deep blue colour draws you in, and it is exciting to work with one of the earliest photographic processes, invented in the 1840s,” the Icelandic and British artist Inga Lisa Middleton tells us.

“It is also quite a simple and cost-effective process to master. In this age of high-tech photographic processes, it is hugely satisfying to create images using such a low-tech, hands-on technique, where natural sunlight exposes the image and water develops and fixes it. And the possibilities of papers and surfaces are endless.”

Many take a page from the early photographer and botanist Anna Atkins and use plants, but you can use anything you’d like. “I prefer using negatives of photographs I have either shot myself or got the license to use,” Inga says. “I mostly use 200gsm watercolour paper and a UV lamp for better control and consistency of the prints.

“The cyan blue colour and the process chimes perfectly with a recent series I’ve been working on, Thoughts of Home, which features natural objects from my native Iceland. The colour blue has connotations of longing, and it evokes the cool blue arctic light.”

Inga also advises investing in chemicals and coating your own paper rather than using a kit or pack. “Always use a mask while mixing the chemicals and when coating the paper with the solution,” she warns. “This process is very much based on trial and error, and I think people using it will figure out different ways of using it that works for them. One thing to make sure of is that you rinse the prints well after exposure to get the green tinge off and thus fix them properly.”

5. Gumoil prints

Gumoil printing is labour-intensive and time-consuming—but worth it. To oversimplify, the process uses a gum arabic and bichromate mixture, UV light, and oil paint to bring a positive image to life. “A gumoil print cannot be made exactly like the one before it,” the Massachusetts-based photographic artist and photo preservationist Terri Cappucci explains. “Every print has its own individual markings, making the end result a one-of-a-kind, uniquely handmade photograph.

Loblolly Pine by Terri Cappucci (@terricappucci on Instagram)

“There are many steps involved in this process, starting with your photograph, to a film positive, to sensitised paper, proper UV exposure, and then the developing steps. As an artist and a photographer, I thrive on the tactile part of gumoil printing. After applying oil paint to my print, the image starts to become noticeable. But the real magic happens when the paint is gently removed, and the image reveals itself. It is simply a beautiful dance with old paint and water, culminating the revelation of the surprise being uncovered.”

It’s not an easy process, so take your time practising and studying. “It is a very unstable process, and it takes experimenting to get an image to have the look you are striving for,” Terri says. “You can’t be successful without a lot of patience and a willingness to make mistakes and start again. It’s all about trial and error for everyone. The first time I attempted this process, I gave up immediately.

“Roughly four years later, I tried again. This time, I had a notebook to write down my steps, made a lot of small prints, and tried to be consistent when I started to see progress. It really is baby steps and lots of tweaking to get there. But the thrill is real when you achieve that first gumoil print that you can recognise. Again, it boils down to patience and perseverance.”

6. Carbon prints

First introduced in the 1850s, carbon prints are created using paper or tissue that has been coated with a layer of gelatin containing pigment, as opposed to silver or other metal salts. “Above all, carbon prints have a three-dimensional quality to them that no other process has,” the pro carbon printer and educator Calvin Grier tells us.

Colour carbon transfer print by Calvin Grier (@thewetprint on Instagram)

“It’s impossible to confuse a carbon print with a cheap inkjet or c-print. The carbon transfer process is one of the most permanent ways to print a photograph, and it’s also one of the rarest. Even going back to the beginning of photographic printing, where platinum and carbon prints reigned as the peak of quality, carbon prints were more costly because they are so labour-intensive to make.

“All carbon prints are limited edition works, not because the artist has randomly assigned a number of prints to be made but because it takes an entire week to make a single print. I really enjoy watching these prints come alive.” To get the best quality, he prints in layers: “First, I lay down the yellow, then iron oxide, then magenta, and by the cyan layer, the image starts to appear, and then with the black layer, it all comes together.”

If you can, Calvin suggests studying with a master to get it right. “I recommend taking a workshop with someone who knows what they are doing,” he says. “I wish I had had that opportunity when I started, but the only three people in the world who were qualified to do so didn’t give workshops. It took me nearly two years, working twelve hours a day, six days a week before I made a good print.” Still, despite the challenges that come with carbon printing, Calvin says nothing else compares, even after nearly 200 years.

7. Chlorophyll printing

Popularised by the artist Binh Danh, chlorophyll printing is exactly what it sounds like: you’ll need a transparency/positive of your chosen image, a contact printing frame, and direct sunlight to print your image directly onto living leaves that are rich in chlorophyll. High-contrast transparencies/positives, flat green leaves, and long exposure times (generally, days or even weeks) will yield the best results. You can then use a copper sulfate bath or fix the image in resin or varnish to help preserve it.

Chlorophyll print by Kimberly Halyburton Fuster (@kimsophie_ on Instagram)

“Chlorophyll printing is a relatively recent technique, but it reminds of images from the past,” the Chilean-based visual artist and educator Kimberly Halyburton Fuster says. “It has something magical because it is a slow process where you observe the tonal changes of the leaves as they receive the intensity of the sun.

“When I discovered it, I was in search of environmentally friendly photographic processes for the development of my work, and I was also pregnant, so I could not use developing chemicals or emulsions. Discovering a photographic process where you use only plants was very cool. I did a lot of research on my own to develop my process since nobody taught courses at the time, and now I’ve dedicated myself to teaching this technique.”

Like most of the processes in this article, chlorophyll printing is a game of trial and error. “You will need to try different species of plants and petals because it will not work well with all of them,” Kimberly advises. “My tip is to use something thin and flexible; there are many vegetables and wild plants that deliver good results. Depending on where you are in the world and how intense the sun is, it could take anywhere from a couple of hours to a few weeks, so you have to be constantly monitoring the subtle colour changes within the leaves.”

8. Emulsion lifts

Emulsion lifting is the process of transferring the emulsion layer from a sheet of instant film onto another surface (including but not limited to paper). You’ll need scissors, trays for warm and cold water (for soaking), plus brushes for applying your emulsion. “I find emulsion lifting can be a meditative, therapeutic experience and even an emotional healing ritual,” the Guatemala City-based instant photographer and artist Isabel Herrera tells us.

Self-portrait by Isabel Herrera (@isabelherrerah on Instagram)

“From the moment I decide to lift a particular Polaroid photo that has caught my attention, I search for a time where I can be alone, undisturbed and undistracted, in complete silence. I never know what will come out as a final product, and this is what I enjoy the most.

“I imagine the emulsion lift experience as an allegory for life: I hope or expect the emulsion to come out with a certain shape, colour, or texture, but as I slowly and carefully work on lifting the image, it reveals the path or result it wants to give me. Sometimes, it is gratifying; sometimes, it’s frustrating, but it never ceases to surprise and amaze me.”

Isabel’s advice: jump right in. “I know many are hesitant to try emulsion lifting because of the delicate process and patience needed or the fear that they will ruin their perfectly good Polaroid images,” she admits. “But as with everything new, the only way to get the hang of it is to try and practice. I recommend using photos that you do not mind getting ruined—photos that didn’t turn out as good as you expected. Also, try using BW film before Color Film, as it is a lot easier to lift.

“Practice using different water temperatures in the pans (lukewarm works the best for me), and practice using different paintbrushes and movements while lifting. I generally have three or four brushes close by, each of different points and widths. With time, you learn to have the ‘feel” for which brush is needed. I also suggest using thicker grained watercolour paper, as it permits you to work the submerged image longer as it attaches to the paper.”

Don’t forget to be gentle. “Trying to lift the image too quickly or abruptly before it is ready can tear the image,” Isabel explains. “It is important to work slowly and carefully, letting the image detach itself as you push it softly with a brush.

“Some images detach themselves faster than others; some detach after a few minutes, while others take up to twenty minutes or more. It all depends on the film, the time that has passed since you took the photo and the temperature of the water. There are a lot of factors that you cannot control, but as Sally Mann said, ‘The angel of uncertainty’ can provide us with unexpected, wonderful results.”

9. Chemigrams

Often described as a combination of painting and photography, chemigrams are camera-less photographic images made with darkroom chemistry and light-sensitive paper. You can also use household materials like coffee or lemon juice to create your abstract images. The process dates back to 1956, when the Belgian artist Pierre Cordier first experimented with photo paper and nail polish.

Chemigram by Mark Tamer (@unreelcity on Instagram)

“It’s an easy-to-learn process that anyone can do,” the experimental photographer Mark Tamer tells us. “All you need is some old photographic paper (the kind used in a darkroom), some developer and fixer (easily bought online), and a sense of experimentation and fun.

“Once you have your photo paper, you can take it out of the bag in daylight. Normally, this would be a terrible idea as you’d ruin the paper, but for our purposes, it’s fine. The main idea is to add a substance to the paper that will ‘resist’ the developing and fixing process.

“This is the fun part. You can add anything you like. Something sticky works well, as it will take time to wash off. People have used hummus, honey, toothpaste, face cream, and lipstick in the past. The process is one of experimentation, so try whatever you can get your hands on. You can either form patterns and shapes with your resists or just let them blob onto the paper.

“All this time, the paper is being exposed to light, beginning a chemical process. The next stage is to drop the paper into either the developer or the fixer. You can alternate between the two, and this will mess with the chemical process and bring out unusual and unpredictable forms on the paper. You can sometimes even tease out some colour from a black and white paper.”

During lockdown, Mark’s interest in chemigrams has only deepened; it’s something he can do at home with limited means (including old photo paper found on eBay). “I think the process helps bring back a child-like wonder of the magic of photography, as things appear from nothing before our eyes,” he says.

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.