The physautotype process

Writer and photography / Matthew Kovacs

The physautotype is produced using lavender dissolved in alcohol. When it was invented in 1832 by Niépce and Daguerre the emulsion was then applied to a silver plate and exposed in a camera obscura. It can also be done today.

This post has taken me the better part of the last 8 weeks to complete, finding the time, messing around and experimenting on-and-off, and trying to come to some kind of conclusion.

The internet is good for a lot of things, but not for practical information on the Physautotype process – so hopefully this is useful to all you out there that stumbled across this page.

Brief overview

The physautotype process was one of the very first photographic processes, invented in 1832 in a collaborative effort between Niépce and Daguerre.
It involved covering a polished silver plate with a solution made up of alcohol and the resin from evaporated lavender oil, it was then exposed in the sunlight for hours (either contact printed or in-camera), then developed in the fumes of turpentine.
You can read a tiny bit more about it here.

The (modern) physautotype process


  • Oil burner + so many candles.
  • Pure lavender oil.
  • 100ml denatured alcohol. You could probably get away with using methylated spirits (its typically 90% alcohol and 10% methylene so you can’t drink it).
  • Violin rosin.
  • Lots of sunshine, or a bank of full spectrum UV bulbs.
  • Glass plates.
  • Paper towel.
  • Contact printing frame.
  • Disposable container, ie – Chinese take-out etc.


  • Digital gram scales – so you can have some kind of accuracy.
  • Small measuring container – again, accuracy.
  • Syringes, make it easy for applying the solution.
  • Calcium carbonate, for cleaning the glass plates.

Love it or hate it, with no real reference information or equations to go by, this is how I devised my physautotype results.
There are a couple of different ways you can tackle 2 of the steps, ie – evaporated lavender oil resin OR violin rosin, sunlight OR UV bulbs.
A note before you even start, this isn’t really a process you can just crank out in a day. If you choose the lavender oil method, you could be evaporating oil for 5 days before you even get to go onto the next step.
Not for the impatient!

– Evaporate lavender oil until you get 1.5grams of resin, OR melt down 1.5grams of violin resin
– Mix above choice with 100ml of denatured alcohol
– Clean glass plate
– Coat glass plate with solution and dry
– Place glass plate in contact printing frame with negative
– Expose in sunlight, OR expose under UV light
– Develop in fumes from mineral turpentine

1Evaporating the oil – choose option A or B
Option A
Get yourself an oil burner from the local $2 shop.
They’ll also sell lavender oil, read the label carefully though, most likely it won’t be pure lavender oil, it will have some type of carrier oil, this will greatly increase the volume of oil you need to reduce.
Start evaporating your oil. The aim is to end up with 1.5gm of resin so we can make a 1.5% solution.
You really won’t see any sign of resin until right near the end when the oil is almost completely gone.
Bit-by-bit, I used 75ml of the cheap stuff and it WAS NOT enough to reach the 1.5 grams.
In between work and sleep, that also took around 3 days to evaporate. Throw in a new candle and some more oil whenever you see its almost empty.
Unless you want every square inch of your house to smell like lavender, do this outside somewhere.
Try and bring your candle up closer to the top of the burner to really set the thing off, otherwise it’s going to burn nice and slow and take even longer.
The picture at the bottom shows what I was left with after days of burning.

Option B
Get yourself some violin rosin instead of lavender oil. Find it on ebay, $3 posted.
Break off 1.5 grams.
Melt it down in the burner.

2Mix the solution
Get 100ml of denatured alcohol.
If your lucky a pharmacy might sell you this, otherwise a science supply place, otherwise just use methylated spirits which is available everywhere.
I use syringes for all my small measuring and applications, they’re neat, tidy, and convenient. Again, Ebay or the pharmacy.
Mix some of your 100ml of alcohol with your resin, then suck it back up in and mix it with the rest of the alcohol.
You now have your working solution!

3Cleaning the glass
Possibly the hardest/most annoying part of the whole process, you need to should, get your glass chemically clean.
No oily residues, dust, fingerprints, nothing. ‘Straight out of the pack’ isn’t clean enough.
I use the clip frames from Ikea for glass in all my processes, they’ve got nice beveled edges and a pack of 4 is $2.
If you’ve never cleaned glass before, just watch a YouTube vid or three and you’ll get the hang of it.

Get some calcium carbonate on Ebay.

Mix equal parts, calcium carbonate, distilled water, alcohol. ie, 25gm calcium, 25mls water, 25mls alcohol.

Start scrubbing.

4Coating the plate
Once the glass is clean, you are ready to coat the plate.
3ml of solution will easily cover a 6×4 inch plate.
Hold the plate with your fingertips from underneath, almost perfectly horizontal, like a waiter would hold a tray (not by the edges as in this photo), pour your solution onto the plate, then rock the solution around until it runs to each corner.
If you’ve never poured a plate before, this will take some practice.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to pour off the excess back into your bottle.
Initially, let the plate dry almost dead flat. This will stop the solution running away and keep good coverage.
Once the solution starts to evaporate, you can place it in a rack.
At this stage, your plate should begin to frost over. When that happens, you know your on the right track!
My first solution with the lavender oil, didn’t frost over, then at the end of the whole process I couldn’t get any images to show up at all. That’s when I realized I probably didn’t have enough resin from all the evaporating.
Be forewarned though, for all the plate cleaning, and careful pouring I tried, I could never get a clean, uniform frosted plate.
Maybe you could try submerging the whole plate in solution, but then you would end up with a double sided plate, which is undesirable in the exposing/developing stage.

5Setting up your print
If you don’t already have a contact printing frame, it’s super easy to make a basic one.
Again, hit up your local $2 shop, get a A4 document frame, cut it in half, then screw on a hinge in middle. EASY!
I used a mixture of large format inkjet negatives printed on Folex Reprojet P, and strips of normal 6×6 positives.
The coated side of your glass plate will be a little tacky, I put this tacky side against my negative, but not on the emulsion side of the negative. Make sense?
Ie, you don’t want to ruin the emulsion side of your negative by having it stick to the glass plate (which is what happened in one of my first test runs).

You’ve got 2 options here. Real sunlight, or fake sunlight. Considering I started this project going into winter, there wasn’t a lot of real sunlight happening.
I had a bank of UV Tubes and decided to use those. *I’m guessing here, but I think you could use any full spectrum bulbs, Compact Fluoro’s etc.
Place the frame in the sun or your fake sun, then for me, exposure time was a complete guesstimate.
Some nights I left the frame under for 8 hours, other times it was 10 hours.
However, in full midday summer-time sun, I read this can be as short as 1.5 hours – I’ll revisit the process to experiment more then.

I developed my plate in the fumes of mineral turpentine.
I found the easiest/cleanest way to do this was just to use some type of disposable container.
The type that I used picture below, has the added bonus of the top edging that you can mould around your plate (as if it was the lid), keeping it in place, and containing most of the fumes.
My plates seemed to be developing in around 5 minutes, generally you could see exposed areas clear while you watched. But I found if you left it for too long, the whole plate would start to clear! So don’t walk off and come back to it later, wait there while it clears so you can stop it when you like.
Then, VIOLA! (Hopefully.) What you will end up with is a haunting ghost like image on your glass plate.
You should be able to see it front-on, but the image and detail will really pop when you look at the plate tilted and the reflection catches it.

The results

The original.

The physautotype.

Originals and prints.

I also tried coating a tin plate (the same as in wetplate collodion print), but the clearing process leaves a lot more posterized version of the image, and I just couldn’t get the same clarity I could get on the glass.

Conclusion and side notes

  • I feel the density of the original plays a big part in the resulting image, as you can see above, the strip of 6×6 transparency left no image at all, compared to the inkjet negatives that produced much better results.
  • Monochrome negative seem to produce much better results than color negatives.
  • I tried double and even triple coating plates to get a more unified, denser coating, which did work, and surprisingly, didn’t seem to affect exposure times.

In-camera exposure?
I did, a couple of times, try exposing a coated glass plate in my Linhof 4×5 camera, I left the subject under the UV lights and had the camera extremely close, but even after a 12 hour exposure, the plate was completely blank.
That’s not to say it can’t be done, as back in the day this is exactly what Niépce was doing, I just think summertime sun is what you need for this process, and alas, I have to wait a few months to try this again.
I also have a feeling that the amount of UV blocked by modern lenses also really affects how much UV the plate is getting.

Love to hear from anyone else who has been getting some positive results.

Hope this helped a few people out there. Enjoy!

Matthew Kovacs is a nomadic traveling photographer and bookbinder from Melbourne, Australia. Commercially practicing wet plate collodion and various alternative processes. You can read more on Matthew’s blog.

2 thoughts on “The physautotype process

  1. Two notes:
    First, modern lenses do, in fact, have a UV coating, and so you wouldn’t get an exposure in any reasonable amount of time. I remember reading that Niepce’s first exposure was eight hours, and that was obviously and uncoated lens.
    Along the same lines of using modern technology, full spectrum bulbs are also *not* a good choice for exposing your emulsion. Unsurprisingly, light bulb manufacturers think it may cause trouble to have their customers exposed to large amounts of UV light in their homes everyday. You need a special UV bulb- if it doesn’t say UV on it, it’s not the right bulb, no matter what the lighting expert at Home Depot tells you.
    Good luck!

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