Creating and processing albumen paper
Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.
Presented in this paper are the procedures for making your own albumen prints. This is an involved, fairly time-consuming process but requires skills well within the abilities of the average person. If you are patient and interested in the time-honored technique of producing your own hand-coated paper, then you can easily master the art of albumen printmaking.
A well-presented albumen print begins with high quality paper. Lightweight papers (stationery stock or slightly heavier papers) are better for producing albumen (or other POP) prints than heavier stocks, but the paper must be sufficiently sized to endure prolonged wetting and should contain no impurities which could stain or otherwise contaminate the emulsion. Several manufacturers produce 100% rag papers suitable for creating albumen prints, notable examples are Cranes (Kid Finish 32#, Platinotype or Parchment Wove 44#), Arches (Platinotype) and Strathmore (500 Drawing). These papers or acceptable substitutes can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan, Photographer’s Formulary or most art supply stores. Try to avoid heavier stock, as the paper will absorb the albumen coating, causing prints to lose sharpness due to the emulsion’s being embedded in the fibers of the paper, rather than resting on it.
- 12 eggs or enough for 500ml of egg whites
- 15-g ammonium chloride or salt
- 15-ml distilled water
- 2-ml 28% acetic (glacial) acid
- 15-g sodium citrate (optional preservative)
- 2 drops Kodak PhotoFlo (optional)
- 37.5-g silver nitrate
- 250-ml distilled water
- 2 drops 6.5-7% potassium dichromate (optional contrast control)
Preparing the albumen
To double coat 50 sheets of 8.5X11 paper, you will need about 500-ml of egg whites. Separate the eggs, avoiding getting yolk, shells or chalazae (the stringy white stuff) in the whites.
Pour the 500-ml of egg whites, 2-ml of 28% acetic acid, 15-ml of distilled water and 15-g of ammonium chloride (sodium chloride or kosher/deiodized table or sea salt may be used as an alternative to ammonium chloride) into a large glass bowl. Additionally 15-g of sodium citrate may be added as a preservative. This is not necessary if you will be using your albumen mixture within a couple months and will be using your newly-created paper shortly thereafter.
Beat the mixture with a whisk (an electric hand mixer will make this much less tiring) for a minimum of 30 minutes. The mixture will become very meringue-like but will not stiffen. The longer the mixture is beaten, the finer the suspended air bubbles will become until nothing is left but a fine froth.
After beating, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and place it in a refrigerator overnight. The mixture will settle, leaving a dirty froth on top. Remove and discard the froth,
and filter the remaining albumen (approximately 350-ml of a surprisingly free-flowing liquid) through cheesecloth, folded two or three times, into a clearly labeled glass jar with a plastic lid. Adding a drop or two of a wash aid such as Kodak PhotoFlo will help prevent the formation of bubbles on the surface of the paper at time of coating. Age the mixture in a refrigerator for a week or so to further denature it. This is your sizing/salting mixture.
Coating the paper
Pour the albumen into a glass casserole dish. Scrape away any tiny bubbles, which will probably have formed on the surface of the liquid. Place a sheet of paper, front side down, on the surface of the albumen. (Look for the watermark while holding the paper up to a light. If the watermark reads correctly, you are looking at the front side of the paper.) Float the paper on the mixture for three minutes. The edges of the paper, which will curl up and away from the surface of the liquid, can be pushed down SLIGHTLY to ensure proper contact. According to Farber other methods that can be used to prevent paper from curling include:
- keeping the paper and albumen mixture at the same temperature,
- lightly dampening the back of the paper or
- contructing a rectangular-bottomed “boat” out of the the paper.
Care should be used to not get any albumen on the back of the paper, as this will cause an undesirable print-through effect in the final product. As the paper floats on the mixture, the curled edges will relax to fully coat the surface of the paper. After three minutes have expired, use a toothpick to lift one corner of the paper, and lift the sheet from the surface of the albumen, allowing the liquid to drain.
Hang the paper lengthwise, blotting off any excess as the coating dries. A toothpick works well to pop or scrape away any surface bubbles and to squeegee the thick edge, which will form at the bottom of the paper.
Double coating, though not required, produces prints with a glossier finish, more even coating and greater density. This process increases the level of difficulty of creating albumen prints, though the final product is worthy of the extra effort. The first albumen coating should be hardened before applying the second using one of the following methods:
- fully steam the coated paper,
- thoroughly warm the paper with an iron or mounting press, protecting the coating with a sheet of dry, clean mount board,
- allow the paper to sit in a warm place for several weeks or
- immerse the paper in an isopropyl alcohol/salt solution.
To double coat the paper using an isopropyl alcohol/salt hardening solution with the albumen formula given, use the following method. After the single-coated paper has dried, immerse it for 15 seconds in a solution of 70% isopropyl alcohol with 3% ammonium chloride added. This will harden the albumen for the second coat. When the alcohol has evaporated (fully – otherwise the second coat won’t stick), float the paper on the surface of the albumen mixture once again following the previously described procedure. The recommended salt concentration corresponds directly with the concentration of salt in the albumen coating. (Since 70% isopropyl alcohol will leech salt from the albumen, the same concentration must exist in both solutions.)
Without this hardening step, the first albumen coating would otherwise wash away with the second coating. Hang to dry from the opposite side for even results, blotting away any excess along the bottom edge. The paper will probably curl severely; it may be straightened in a warm mounting press.
Sensitizing the paper
Coated paper will keep for several weeks if sensitizing is to be performed at a later time; however, it is best to sensitize the paper as soon as it is dry. Wear rubber gloves unless you want brown/black/purple stains on your fingers, fingernails and/or clothing. Silver nitrate will react with the salt of your skin to form silver chloride, just as it does on paper, and will “develop out” in a matter of a minute or two in sunlight. Wearing safety glasses is also recommended, for silver nitrate can cause permanent damage if even a small amount is splashed into the eyes. All of the following techniques may be carried out in subdued (incandescent) room lighting. Avoid fluorescent lamps and other sources of UV light.
In an amber glass bottle with a plastic top mix 37.5-g of silver nitrate with 250-ml of distilled water to make a 15% solution. Initially the solution will be cloudy due to the reaction between the silver nitrate and the salts and minerals in the water. The precipitate will settle overnight and is of no consequence. Store the sesitizer in a cool, dark place.
Method 1 – Floatation coating
Pour 15% silver nitrate solution into a flat-bottomed tray. The glass casserole dish used for albumen coating will work but MUST be cleaned thoroughly after use if food is to be ingested from it. WARNING: Ingestion of any heavy metal can be toxic; it is best to dedicate lab ware to these procedures. Float the coated paper on the surface of the solution for three minutes, avoiding air bubbles. Peel the paper from the surface, and hang to dry.
Some salt will inevitably leech from the paper surface, reacting with the silver nitrate solution and forming a precipitate which will eventually settle on the bottom of the coating tray and storage bottle. This is the major drawback to this method – waste. As more and more chloride ions saturate the silver nitrate solution, it will become darker in color and less effective. Some of this potential loss of silver nitrate can be combated by allowing the solution to sit for an hour or two after completing sensitization, perhaps while making a print or two, to settle the precipitate. While slowly and carefully pouring the liquid back into its storage bottle, forego the last few milliliters, preventing the heavier precipitate from being mixed with the solution. Filtering off the precipitate after every use will go a long way toward extending the life of the silver nitrate solution.
Method 2 – Glass rod/brush coating
Tape the albumen-coated paper to a sheet of plate glass with drafting tape. If the negative to be printed is smaller than the paper lay the negative on the paper and lightly mark off the corners with a pencil. Use these marks as a guide for coating.
Transfer 45 drops (for an 8×10; use a proportional amount for other sizes of paper) of 15% silver nitrate solution in a plastic medicine cup. The small condiment cups used by fast food restaurants are perfect. Optionally add 9 drops (for 8×10; use a proportional amount for other sizes of paper) of gum arabic solution, which will aid in spreading the emulsion. Mix the solutions by swirling them in the cup. Use a brush without a metal ferrule, which silver nitrate will rapidly react with, or a glass coating rod to apply the solution to the paper. A coating rod, also available from Bostick & Sullivan or Photographer’s Formulary, is the preferred device for spreading the emulsion, since creating streak-free papers is rather difficult, though not impossible, with a brush. The addition of gum arabic will give the solution an oily appearance, making seeing and spreading the coating easier.
To brush coat tip the glass, to which the paper has been taped, at a 45 degree angle and paint the silver nitrate coating from top to bottom, drawing the brush from one side to the other, overlapping each stripe by about half the width of the stroke. Recoat the brush after each stroke.
To coat with a glass rod lay the plate glass, to which the paper has been taped, flat. Pour a “bead” of silver nitrate solution on the paper along the edge of the glass rod. Lifting the rod just slightly from the surface of the paper and wiggling it slightly will cause a capillary action to draw the solution along the length of the rod. Lower the glass rod to the surface of the paper, and swipe it across the paper. At the end of the paper lift the rod slightly from the surface of the paper, and swipe it across the paper in the opposite direction. Performing this operation several times will ensure a smooth, even coating. If the sensitizer is absorbed by the paper too rapidly, the paper is not sized well enough to coat using a rod. Either try another brand/type of paper, pre-size the paper, apply another coat of albumen, or use the floatation method of sensitizing the paper.
The paper may be air-dried or blown dry while taped to the glass or may be carefully removed from the glass and hung to dry.
Method 2 – Wash coating
Tape the albumen-coated paper to a sheet of plate glass with drafting tape. If the negative to be printed is smaller than the paper lay the negative on the paper and lightly mark off the corners with a pencil. Use these marks as a guide for coating. Tilt the glass plate about 45 degrees for coating.
Add 3 or 4 milliliters of 15% silver nitrate to a small test tube, and stuff a wad of cotton snugly into it so that a third of the wad protrudes from the end. Tilt the test tube to allow the solution to fully saturate the cotton.
Hold the test tube at a right angle to the paper, and starting from the top left corner, lightly “paint” a streak of solution across the top of the paper. When the right edge of the paper is reached, paint a streak in the opposite direction, making sure that the streaks of solution overlap slightly, spreading the bead of solution, which gathers at the bottom of each stroke. Continue this pattern, right-left, left-right, right-left, until the end of the paper is reached. The paper will have a uniform coating and will show no evidence of streaking when done correctly. Air or hang dry. Remove the cotton with tweezers and discard.
Albumen paper requires several items somewhat unique to alternative processes. The first requirement is a negative with a density range of 1.8 to 2.0, as the extreme tonal range of albumen paper will cause a “normal” negative to print very flat. The second is a contact printing frame with a split back, which enables monitoring of the printing-out process. Third, some sort of toner is needed, usually gold or selenium, unless a brown-orange print color is desired. The fourth requirement is a bright, sunny day, since albumen is very sensitive to ultraviolet light, and the best source of this radiation is the sun. The last (absolute) necessity is patience…and lots of it.
Loading – This step must be performed in subdued light. Load a contact printing frame with paper and a negative in typical fashion. (Place the back, spring side down, on a flat surface. Place the paper to be exposed on top of the back, emulsion side up. Place a negative on the paper, emulsion side down. Cover with the (CLEAN) glass from the print frame. Place the frame on top of the entire assembly. Flip the frame over, so that the spring side is facing up, and clamp shut.) Once the assembly has been examined for straightness, cleanliness, etc., place the print frame in the sun for printing.
Printing – The amount of time required to fully print out a silver chloride print will vary depending on the strength of the light source (by the way, UV printers may be used in lieu of the sun) and the density of the negative. Some prints will take as little as a minute or two, while others may take 15 to 20 minutes to produce. The summer sun, since it is much higher in the sky than it is in the winter, will dramatically shorten print times. Prints may also be produced by placing the print frame toward open sky, which yields higher contrast images but takes considerably longer due to the lack of direct sunlight.
After some time has passed, remove the frame from the light source, and open half of the split back of the print frame. Incredible! This is why it’s called printing-out paper! The image already exists on the paper, but this is where the process gets tricky. Toning and fixing will bleach the print somewhat, while drying will darken it. A little trial and error is required to determine when to stop printing. The general rule of thumb is to print until the highlights start to show detail. The shadow areas will appear quite dark most likely but will bleach more than enough to show detail. The toning procedure being used should also be considered at this time. Toning in gold before fixing is rather straightforward, and follows the aforementioned rule of thumb. Toning in gold after fixing will require exposing the print to light until it is considerably darker than one would think is “normal”. This is because fixing the print first will bleach it much more than toning first. At this point it should be mentioned that when using selenium toner, the print should be fixed BEFORE it is toned, otherwise the toner will react with the silver chloride in the print and will make the print “fuzzy” in appearance.
Rinsing – Once the print has been exposed to an acceptable level, remove it from the print frame and rinse it in running water. The water will be murky at first as unreacted silver salt is rinsed away. As it is rinsed the print will turn from a bluish-purple color to an orange-brown color as the reaction is stopped. This will probably take about 30 seconds but should be continued until the water is clear, as excess silver will quickly exhaust the toning solution. If a small print is being made on larger paper (and the dark edge will ultimately be trimmed away), trim any excessive dark border from the print. There is no point to using (and wasting) precious gold toner on paper, which is going to be discarded anyway.
Toning – After rinsing, slip the print into the toning solution, and watch for a color change while agitating. Usually toning times run anywhere from three to twelve minutes, with the longer times producing the coldest tones. The thing to keep in mind here is that the color of the print while it is in the toner has little to do with the ultimate color of the print. Watch for the amount of color CHANGE to determine when to stop toning. (Yes… more trial and error.) After a few attempts instinct will guide the process.
Fixing – Prints should be fixed in two baths of non-hardening fixer for approximately 5 minutes each. As they are being fixed, the prints will experience yet another color shift, which will closely resemble the look of the final print. Bear in mind that a considerable dry-down effect will impact the final look of the print. If a print looks great while sitting in the fixer, it is guaranteed to be too dark once dried.
Washing – Before washing, soak in a hypo clear (use Kodak HCA or one tablespoon EDTA plus one tablespoon sodium sulfite to a gallon of water) bath for two to three minutes. Wash prints for 60 to 90 minutes (only about 30 minutes is required if using hypo clear) in running water, preferably in an archival print washer. One of the undeniably great virtues of albumen paper is that a properly washed print will outlive the artist who produced it (as well as his children and his grandchildren). Silver chloride prints exist today which were produced over 150 years ago and have withstood the rigors of time with amazing permanence. Hang prints to dry, and straighten in a dry mounting press.
Alternative toning methods – If selenium or gold toning AFTER fixing is desired, rinse and fix the print as described above, then fully wash. Once the print has been washed thoroughly, tone in either gold or selenium. Then wash again for another 30 minutes. This method of toning is not necessary for gold, but is absolutely required if toning in selenium. Keep in mind that prints produced using this method will be vastly different from those created using the standard method of toning. (The difference is in the point at which bleaching occurs.)
Consider toning with tea or coffee as well. Steep five or six tea bags (no need to use any elaborate blend; the standard orange pekoe will do fine) in a quart of water. Let cool, and tone away. Surprisingly teas and coffee are archivally permanent but may require extended washing.
The only chemical that is absolutely required for processing albumen paper is plain non-hardening (sodium thiosulfate) fixer. Kodak RapidFix (without the hardener – part b) is a suitable product. Remember: only use part A of the product; the hardener will ruin an albumen print by severely over-bleaching it. Dilute the stock solution with water to create a 1:7 working solution. Two fixing baths are recommended, using the typical rotation method to avoid exhaustion of the fixer.
If a print tone other than ugly orange is desired, a toner should be used. Here are several popular toning formulae:
Two-part gold thiocyanate
|Part A||Part B|
|Distilled water||490ml||Distilled water||500ml|
|Gold chloride 1% solution||10ml||Sodium thiocyanate||10g|
These stock solutions have an indefinite shelf life.
Upon mixing parts A and B the solution will turn a bright red color, which will quickly dissipate to yield a clear liquid. This is the working strength solution to be used for this session only, as gold thiocyanate is quickly rendered useless by oxidation. After toning each 8×10 print, add 8ml of each stock solution to maintain consistency. Tone print before fixing.
|Gold chloride 1% solution||6ml|
|Distilled water to make 400ml|
This toner keeps well, may be reused and can be replenished. Experiment with different strengths of toner to expand or contract toning times. Tone print before fixing.
|Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner||1-2ml|
Experimentation will be required to hone selenium toning, which can be finnicky. One is better off toning too slowly than too fast, so a low concentration is the prescription for best control. Fast toning in selenium can produce interesting split-toning effects. Tone print after fixing.
Pour toner and fixer into trays one size larger than the paper being used (11×14 tray for 8×10 prints). Ribbed trays may be used; however, the prints must be constantly agitated to avoid having bright lines form where the paper contacts the tray. Flat trays do not have this problem and are better for fully submerging the print, since, to avoid waste, small amounts of toner are used.
- Albumen papers should be used within hours of sensitization, otherwise a 1.5 to 2 stop reduction in density and speed can be expected. This can purportedly be countered somewhat by adding 15-g of sodium citrate to the albumen solution during its initial preparation.
- Print contrast can be boosted through the addition of a drop or two of 6.5-7% (2-g/30-ml) potassium dichromate to the sensitizing solution. WARNING: Dichromates are highly toxic and should be handled with great care to avoid accidental inhalation or ingestion.
- Albumen coating solution may be aged for up to several months to further denature the solution. This denaturing process actually “unwinds” the molecules which form the albumen protein, making the solution less viscous. Some have noted, “the older the better”.
- Albumen prints require negatives of exceedingly high contrast range, usually above 2.0, dictating the need for full exposure (at least one stop more than a negative to be used for a silver gelatin print) and N+2 development. These negatives will comonly exceed the contrast range of silver gelatin papers. Negatives that are difficult to print on grade 0 or 1 paper can often be “rescued” with albumen, salted or other printing-out papers.
Historic Photographic Processes
by Richard Farber
Recommended for technical pro’s.