In-camera Anthotypes – a world first, and perhaps also a last?

If stuck on a desert island, John Marriage chooses to keep himself amused with anthotypes, since plenty of pigments and an abundance of time would be at hand. He shares his experiments with in-camera anthotypes.

Writer and photography / John Marriage


A week before a July 2017 meeting, I had a phone call asking for a short talk on “What camera would I take if I were stranded on a desert island?” My first thought was that photography on a desert island without any of the supporting infrastructure that we’re so used to would be impossible. Film? Processing solutions? Electricity? I might take stuff with me, but once I’ve run out, what do I do?

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going! I thought my desert island might be empty of other people but covered in jungle, and that as my ship sank I would be able to throw a few items in the lifeboat to get started. My photography was going to be with anthotype, using the jungle to provide the essential materials.”

My task now was to test this idea out. To cut a long story short, my first attempts were very informative but failed to produce any actual image. At its best, the anthotype process is very slow. To put that in perspective, my quick trial method to make sure a setup was working, was in-camera cyanotype, which can produce good results using a fairly standard chemical mix with an exposure as little as 2 days. I know some people have made in-camera cyanotypes faster than that, but that’s my experience. Anthotype is maybe 40 times slower than that, at best, so we are talking about exposures of one whole summer for one picture.

One important lesson was that the anthotype paper needs to be kept dry. A long exposure in a light-tight but not air-tight camera was ruined in a colourful way by fungi growing on the surface of the paper. 

In-camera anthotype
The first anthotype trial in the non-waterproof camera. It is easy to discern the masked edges of the paper, so the system does have some photosensitivity. The result is also attractive, in an abstract colourful kind of way. That was the good news. However, instead of a photographic image, I have created a little garden of fungi of several kinds.

My second season of trials did produce a result, so here is what you need to know if you’d like to try this for yourself. Note that this is written for the northern hemisphere, those in the south will need to reverse some directions.

First, there are two potentially difficult things you need to find:

A suitable subject

To give your camera its best chance of success, it is going to need to be pointed at a static scene for 2-3 months. The scene should be roughly south-facing, with the camera facing north to look at it. This is to get maximum light on the subject and to make sure the sun never shines into the lens. If it did it would burn holes in your paper. (Yes, that happened to me).

The camera will need to be fixed rigidly to strong support, and not be at risk from wind, rain, thieves, vandals, children, animals, or whatever other hazards.

A fast lens

I assume you want to make an image big enough to see easily – mine have been up to 5×4”, anyway the small end of ‘Large Format’. We need a lens with a focal length of around 15-20cm and a large aperture. It also needs to be relatively cheap and simple, it is going to be left outdoors for months and exposed to unknown hazards.

I used what I had – a plano-convex lens that had been part of the lamphouse of an ancient enlarger; Focal length 20cm, diameter 10cm, so f/2. This is totally uncorrected; the chromatic aberration doesn’t much matter as only the blue end of the spectrum will register, but the other aberrations remain.

Another option might be the big Fresnel lens from one of those old boxy overhead projectors, which can be as fast as f/1, and could reduce a 2-month exposure to 2 weeks.

Then there are some things to do that should be easier

The sensitive material I leave up to you, choosing from the many published anthotype recipes. Choose a fast one, I found spinach to be the fastest of those I tried so I standardised on that.

Build a camera. It must be weatherproof and above all, airtight. Here is mine.

After some thought, I worked out that my lens would fit neatly enough into one end of a 5-litre paint can. And paint cans are airtight. Online I was able to buy two new unused metal cans for under £10, which was the main expense; the rest of what I needed – wood, paint, glue, etc – all came from stock. Note that plastic paint ‘cans’ are nowhere near light-tight.

A chunk of wood forms the chassis and adds a little length so that the lens will focus on the lid of one of the cans, whilst the other can takes the role of the lens-hood. The lens is silicone-sealed to the wooden block, and the two cans, with holes cut in both their bases, are screwed to the wood. The rear can is the camera, and a plastic ring in which I embedded some magnets holds a coated paper disc to the inside of the lid. The inside of both cans is painted matt black.

The main parts of the paint-can camera.
The main parts of the paint-can camera.

Camera lens and the (unnecessarily elaborate) magnetic paper holder.
Camera lens and the (unnecessarily elaborate) magnetic paper holder.
The lens mount is thick, to serve as the rigid chassis for the whole camera.
The lens mount is thick, to serve as the rigid chassis for the whole camera.

I used a belt and braces to keep the paper dry and fungus-free – the sealed can, a bag of Molecular Sieve 3a (a desiccant, you could also use silica gel) lying inside the camera, and a pinch of thymol fungicide mixed into the spinach juice coating the paper.

Your camera may well be quite different, made to suit your lens, and whatever method you choose for fixing the camera to a rigid support. Check the focus and adjust with spacers as necessary; in theory, you should then set the sensitive material about 2% closer to the lens to allow for the fact that the ‘actinic rays’ (i.e. the blue-UV part of the spectrum) will focus just a little closer than the main visible light. It probably won’t be noticeable though.

My camera was clamped to the underside of a balcony, facing the side of my house.

The camera in position, clamped under a balcony. It faces slightly down, so that no rainwater getting in the lens hood will go where it isn’t wanted.
The camera in position, clamped under a balcony. It faces slightly down, so that no rainwater getting in the lens hood will go where it isn’t wanted.

Running a test

Before the 3-month exposure using spinach anthotype, it seemed prudent to run a 2-day exposure with cyanotype paper. I’d tried this in the first camera, and knew that would be the right exposure.

The cyanotype test picture – exposure 2 days, partly sunny.
The cyanotype test picture – exposure 2 days, partly sunny.

The test was successful, so on to the anthotype. The paper is smooth drawing paper, double-coated with spinach; the juice is made with a hand-held blitzer and filtered off with a coffee filter, with a pinch of thymol crystals added. No ethanol but a little water was added.

​The aim was to prevent mould by a combination of a sealed environment, thymol and desiccant. That was a complete success, and when removed after three months the paper was dry to the touch and free from mould or fungus – unlike the first time.

The camera was pointed at the same scene as the cyanotype exposure, so we are looking for the same image as that. You can distinguish the main structure of the building – it looks better if you stand back and try for an overall impression – but much lower contrast and nowhere near the amount of detail to be seen in the cyanotype.

The spinach anthotype picture after 3 months exposure.
The spinach anthotype picture after 3 months of exposure.

So was this a successful experiment? I would say definitely yes! As far as I know, this is the first published in-camera anthotype. I expect there to be very few others, this is not likely to be a new trending practice in photography. With exposure times of three summer months barely adequate to produce an image, only a few subjects are even possible, and the prospects of a body of work are near zero. However, a result was achieved against significant odds. It is also worth noting that the test method, using cyanotype paper in-camera, is also seldom done but is a lot more promising as a practical technique. With exposures in single figures of days, you could certainly contemplate a series of images, of a rather magical nature. As for me, though, I shall declare success and move on.

John Marriage has a background in industrial chemistry, and since retirement has been much involved in experimental photography, camera collecting, and photo-historical research. He was Editor of Photographica World for many years and still writes for it regularly. See www.refracted.net for more of his activities.

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5 thoughts on “In-camera Anthotypes – a world first, and perhaps also a last?”

  1. Hi! Coincidentally I’ve been experimenting with this too. So interesting to find out someone else is doing it too. I use turmeric. It takes 4 days – 2 weeks for an image to be seen. But when i try to “develop” the image, it has faded a lot after it dries.
    It works decently for brightly sunlit buildings. I get really impatient sometimes.

  2. About 6 months ago, I had a similar idea – to replace the paper in a Solarcan (pinhole camera in a beer can) with anthotype paper. Unfortunately, even the fastest anthotypes (turmeric, paprika, spinach, matcha) and the height of summer sun failed to register any image. I guess there wasn’t enough sun through the pinhole.

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