Carbon printing: An alternative process not for the faint of heart

Anthony Mournian gives us an overview of the Carbon printing process from the beginning of time to current state, easing us into the process one step at a time, including work from Sandy King who has truly mastered the process.

Writer / Anthony Mournian
Photography / Sandy King

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Picos de Europa. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Ansel Adams had it right when he spoke of the negative as comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. No photograph attracts attention unless it is well composed and properly exposed. No printed image achieves fame and fortune for its maker unless it reflects the range of tones within the negative while showcasing the textures of the image with sufficient visual separation to excite the viewer’s attention to the content.

The quest for the capture of a permanent, reproducible, archival image was the Holy Grail for centuries before the common era (B.C.E..)

Long before about 1100 A.D., when the Egyptian scholar, Alhazan, was ordered by his pharaoh to control the flooding of the River Nile, and found it impossible to do, Man was groping to understand the nature and quality of light.
When Alhazan realized and accepted the impossibility of taming the mighty river, he feigned madness to escape the wrath of the pharaoh and lived in virtual house arrest until the pharaoh died years later.

During his imprisonment Alhazan described what is now accepted as a camera obscura. The camera obscura is capable of casting an image on the walls, floor and ceiling of a room via a small hole through which the sun’s light streams. Of course, everything is upside down and backwards, but, no matter, it’s an arresting sight.
The camera obscura was also the basis for a pinhole camera. Though Alhazan was able to describe the formation of an image, neither he nor anyone else was able to physically record an image for another 800 years.

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Windows. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Then, after years of effort, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce succeeded in 1826 with his “View from a Window at le Gras” in France.

The image was crude, captured over many hours on a plate of pewter coated with bitumen, or a kind of asphalt. (The original, that very first photograph, now rests in the archives of the University of Texas at Austin.) Photosensitive, the bitumen coated pewter plate was exposed over the course of at least a day, perhaps more. Normally viscous or semi-liquid, the bitumen hardened in areas exposed to sunlight, leaving un-exposed or under-exposed areas soft and susceptible to being washed away. The result was an image of a rooftop scene, still visible almost two hundred years later.

Not long after, Niépce formed a partnership with Louis Daguerre. They worked together for several years, then Niépce died. Daguerre went on to invent the Daguerreotype, a different process entirely, but relying on some of Niépce’s principles. In a wink of time later, William Henry Fox Talbot announced his invention of the Calotype process which used paper treated with silver chloride to create what we now refer to as a negative, which could be used to print multiple “positive” copies of the image.

Then, as now, the problem was permanence of the image. In 1844-1846 Talbot published six serial chapters of his “Pencil of Nature,” the first book ever to contain photographically printed images. But the images were not completely “fixed” and began to fade. Talbot’s efforts were criticized, perhaps leading to his abandonment of photography and his move toward work on the concept of the photogravure, a process which relied on printed copies of images etched on plates of copper.

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Water Nymph. Carbon print by Sandy King.

By now the heat was on to find a better way to make an image permanent. The tools were in place. The camera obscura with its faint pinhole image gave way to Talbot’s Mousetrap cameras, so named by Talbot’s wife who saw the small wooden boxes as similar to traps for rodents.

Talbot fitted the boxes with a lens, exposed his sheets of paper coated with a solution of silver salts, and modern photography was on its way to being part and parcel of our daily lives.

In 1864 Joseph Swan made some minor changes to a process using carbon powder suspended in gelatin, and succeeded in finally making a stable image similar to what we know today as a carbon print. Perhaps the most important change was the addition of sugar as a plasticizer to make finished prints less likely to crack when they dried.

Swan sold his process to others and in 1866 a company known as Autotype began to commercially produce papers used in the carbon process until the 1950’s. Other than limited amounts produced by Bostick and Sullivan, the last commercially produced carbon printing papers were manufactured in the 1990’s.

Carbon printing rests first on a successful image capture from which a print can be made. Because Carbon Printing relies on contact printing, the negative has to be the same size as the desired print.

Before the tsunami of digital negatives began with Dan Burkholder’s Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing in 1999, large negatives required large cameras.
In the early days of photography, and even today for some photographers, this meant cameras as large as 20″x24.” But for his large format cameras and portable wet plate collodion darkroom we would not have Mathew Brady’s memorably disturbing photographs of civil war battlefields. Nor would we have Edward S. Curtis life’s work, “The North American Indian,” photographed on cameras ranging from 4″x5″ to 14″x17″ using glass plate negatives.

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Suzhou Gardens. Carbon print by Sandy King.

For Brady, Curtis and photographers of the Wet Plate, Glass Plate negative and large format film era, the size of the negative was the size of the print. Curtis came late enough in the game to have access to enlargers powered by electricity, but even he was restricted to primarily using large negatives and contact printing.
When digital showed its face sometime in the early 1970s few photographers saw its possibilities or sensed the sea change about to occur. As late as the 1990s digital cameras were a rich man’s plaything or at best a news photographer’s most highly priced and prized possession.

Then came the tidal wave of tiny pocket cameras with one and two megabyte resolution. They seemed to come from all directions, stealing the march on Kodak’s major market, 35mm film. The ubiquitous film canisters began to disappear, and so did Kodak. In one year Kodak’s predicted loss of film market nearly doubled, its income from consumer film quickly shriveled, and soon became a fading memory.

Digital image capture, grew at stunning rates. By the mid-2000’s digital had taken the place of film for any consumer with a few dollars and the desire to become the next Ansel Adams.

Some felt this meant the death of film based photography, as millions of older cameras made their way out of the darkroom and into second hand stores or, worse, into the trash bin.

As is often the case, however, the pendulum swings slowly back and forth. Enterprising photographers, not about to give up the ghost, decided to find a new way to practice their old craft.

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Oaxaca Gallery. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Dan Burkholder was one of the first. As early as 1999 he began proselytizing the use of both film and digital image captures as sources of making enlarged digital negatives. Restricted by the low quality of early digital cameras and by limited resolution of scanners and printers, the digital negative was first viewed as a novelty or curiosity.
In a short time camera resolution improved markedly, and with it the scanners and printers. Now it was possible to capture an image, enlarge it from more than the 1/4″ to 1/2″ image sensor to prints as large as 16″x20″ and larger. The digital camera became a force to be reckoned.

Midway into the first decade of the New Millennium Sandy King, carbon printer extraordinaire, saw the possibilities of the enlarged digital negative as an adjunct to his continuing use of large format cameras.

A master at printing conventional negatives, and at making his own tissue, for Carbon Printing, King decided to try his hand at making enlarged digital negatives which could be used to make contact prints. Long a fan of Carbon Printing, he was a quick to recognize the possibilities inherent in making an enlarged digital negative which could be used for the Carbon contact printing process. He teamed up with Mark I. Nelson for a workshop in Toronto in December 2006 and the march was on.

In the few short years since his introduction to the digital negative King has made his own adjustments to “characteristic curves” developed by Burkholder and Nelson, blending the old with the new and discovering new possibilities for the medium.

Carbon printing relies on patience, fortitude and exacting darkroom techniques. Surprisingly, it is less expensive than conventional silver gelatin printing, and has proven highly archival and fade resistant. Its qualities of tone, texture and separation set it apart from other non-silver alternative processes, though it remains an obscurity to most photographers.

Where are we now? Images are captured either on film, as small as 35 mm, or as large as 24″x30″, or on digital cameras with image sensors smaller than the eraser on a school boy’s pencil or as large as a full frame medium format camera.
From a digital positive or from the film negative a digital negative is created, enlarged and printed on a digital printer. The digital negative is adjusted to properly expose tissue hand-coated with the traditional mixture of gelatin-carbon or other pigments, then sensitized with a thin layer of dilute potassium or aluminum dichromate.
The digital negative is laid over sensitized in a contact printing frame and exposed either to sunlight or to a powerful artificial ultraviolet light source such as the Photographers’ Formulary UV light box. Exposures commonly last as much as half an hour or more, depending on the strength of the potassium/aluminum dichromate sensitizer.

Carbon print by Sandy King.
Morelia Mural. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Once exposed, the tissue with its latent image is “sandwiched” with “sized” paper substrate. The two are briefly soaked in cool water, squeezed together to eliminate excess moisture and to transfer the image from the exposed tissue to the paper substrate.
The sandwiched unit is “developed” in water at about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat dissolves gelatin in proportion to the amount of UV to which it was exposed. Darker parts of the negative block the UV to that part of the “tissue,” resulting in no exposure or under exposure to portions of the image. It’s those parts of the transferred latent image which wash away first, leaving a positive image of carbon-gelatin as the final image on the paper substrate.

Does this sound complicated? It is. Make no bones about it. Improperly create the “tissue,” forget to sensitize the tissue before attempting to expose it, fail to “size” the final paper substrate, or any of a thousand other missteps, faux pas, or careless errors, and your efforts are wasted.

It’s no wonder Carbon prints are prized! It’s said one man working eight hours a day, five days a week could expect to produce no more than a few dozen finished Carbon prints. Difficult and time consuming describes the process, but so does stunning, dazzling and rewarding. A well crafted, carefully made Carbon print is worth every ounce of effort to produce it.

This was the lesson of Sandy King’s workshop at the Photographers’ Formulary. To his August 2014 workshop at the Formulary, King brought a portfolio of work ranging from rusting cars abandoned in the forests of an island off the Atlantic coast, to four Nymphs crossing a covered walkway in a rainstorm. All were 20″x24″ Carbon prints, and as a workshop participant noted, there was little “negative space” in any of them.
King explained Carbon printing has a long tonal scale, from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, but it is more limited at the high end so he looks for compositions which in his words are “busy.” It’s easier, says King, to make a Carbon print with darker tones than one filled with highlights and very light tones.
He explained he is less interested in the subject matter of his images than the visual impact his images make. Though he says it’s possible to make stunning portraits using the Carbon printing method, King prefers to stick to landscapes. In other words, perhaps, he is not a “people” photographer.

Sandy King's Carbon print
Las Cruces. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Recognizing his class included photographers at all levels of interest and talent, King carefully laid out the steps necessary to make a successful Carbon print. Some terms, like “tissue” were unfamiliar to members of the class, so King gave a short course in the special vocabulary of the Carbon printer. “Tissue” is the base created with “glop” or common gelatin mixed with water, pigment such as lampblack and granulated sugar from the kitchen. King had the class mix glop a liter at a time, saying 1000 cc would be more than enough to make as many as two dozen 8″x10″ Carbon prints.
King explained the Carbon print is virtually indestructible once it has been properly developed and cleared. Because there is no silver in the glop there is no silver in the image eventually transferred to a piece of sized watercolor paper or outdated unexposed but thoroughly fixed photographic paper.

Participants worked far into the night producing prints of such things as a delicately veined leaf, a Russian news kiosk, a decaying house in a Canadian forest , and a Flamenco dancer in full motion. In each there were tones ranging from darkest to lightest. And, in each, one of Carbon’s signature features, a three dimensional quality jumped out at the viewer.

Carbon prints have a tactile quality unseen in any other type of photographic print. In the print of the ramshackle ruin, for example, roof shingles seem to curl before the viewer’s eye, while in the Flamenco dancer’s dress, black on black print patterns cast their glow. On the Carbon wall of Grand Gallery, a canyon wall covered with pictographs and, unfortunately, 19th century graffiti, images of ancient Native American civilizations stare out of the gelatin-carbon print.

But let us not forget the technical side of things. One workshop participant, seeking the ultimate in a digital step-wedge, seized the opportunity to refine the step-wedge to the point of perfection.It’s come full circle. Photography paints with light. Carbon printing paints on a “tissue” of common kitchen gelatin mixed with Carbon powder or other pigments, then sensitized with potassium or aluminum dichromate before exposure to ultraviolet light in a contact printing frame. The image is transferred to a final substrate of sized paper, cleared with a weak solution of sodium bisulfite and dried.

Taken one step at a time Carbon printing is no more difficult or confusing than traditional darkroom work on photographic paper.

What a piece of work. What a prize!


Sandy King's Carbon print
Infrastructure. Carbon print by Sandy King.
Sandy King's Carbon print
Coast Galicia. Carbon print by Sandy King.
Sandy King's Carbon print
Camino Real. Carbon print by Sandy King.

Anthony Mournian is the newsletter editor for the Photographers’ Formulary, he is also a granddad and took his grandson to China, prints silver gelatins, likes reading whilst walking. Watch out for low branches!

Get Sandy King’s book on Carbon printing
Carbon Transfer Printing: A Step-by-Step Manual, Featuring Contemporary Carbon Printers and Their Creative Practice

Carbon Transfer Printing: A Step-by-Step Manual, Featuring Contemporary Carbon Printers and Their Creative Practice

by Sandy King, Don Nelson and John Lockhart

Reviews the extensive history of carbon transfer and related pigment processes.

Did you learn something?
We would like YOU to become a Supporting Member to help us keep this learning resource free and accessible to all.
An article takes 1-4 days to write, edit and publish. The research behind the article takes between one day and a lifetime. No one gets paid for this and your contributions and membership are crucial to help with running costs.
Apart from supporting our free learning and inspirational resource, you are also eligible to take part in our members-only events, all for the price of a coffee once a month.
Other ways to support us are buying our books, calendars and journals directly from us, or using our affiliate links to buy books which gives us a tiny percentage. You can also get a t-shirt, card or apron from our Etsy store earning us a small commission.
We really appreciate your support and THANK YOU to the heroes who already support us!
Recommended reading - Learn more about Carbon and carbro printing
Carbon Transfer Printing: A Step-by-Step Manual, Featuring Contemporary Carbon Printers and Their Creative Practice

Carbon Transfer Printing: A Step-by-Step Manual, Featuring Contemporary Carbon Printers and Their Creative Practice

by Sandy King, Don Nelson and John Lockhart

Reviews the extensive history of carbon transfer and related pigment processes.
Recommended reading - Books on Wet plate collodion and Ambrotypes
Chemical Pictures The Wet Plate Collodion Book: Making Ambrotypes, Tintypes & Alumitypes by

Chemical Pictures The Wet Plate Collodion Book: Making Ambrotypes, Tintypes & Alumitypes

by Quinn B Jacobson

Covers everything you need to know about wet-plate collodion photography.

Making the Sliding Box Camera: For Wet Plate Collodion or Daguerreotype Photography

Making the Sliding Box Camera: For Wet Plate Collodion or Daguerreotype Photography

by Ty Guillory

Learn how to construct a camera in wood, dating back to the daguerreotype era.

Making the Traditional Wet Plate Camera: Suitable for Wet Plate Collodion, Dry Plate, or Daguerreotype Photography

Making the Traditional Wet Plate Camera: Suitable for Wet Plate Collodion, Dry Plate, or Daguerreotype Photography

by Ty Guillory

From the basics to more advanced techniques on building a historically-correct bellows camera for plate photography.

The Ambrotype: A Practical Guide by Radosław Brzozowski
Buy directly from the author

The Ambrotype: A Practical Guide

by Radosław Brzozowski

8 of 10   Rated 8,0 – based on 6 votes

A step-by-step practical guide to ambrotypes.

The Wet Collodion Plate: 16 Steps To Making The Plates by Will Dunniway

The Wet Collodion Plate: 16 Steps To Making The Plates

by Will Dunniway

9 of 10   Rated 9,2 – based on 26 votes

The veteran of collodion demonstrates in easy steps how to make plates.

1 thought on “Carbon printing: An alternative process not for the faint of heart”

  1. Photography was invented in England. Between 1790 and 1805 Thomas Wedgwood succesfully made photograms, the astronomer Herschel suggested thiocyanite for fixing, and phoography had begun!!

Leave a Comment