Polaroid Emulsion Lifts equipment – how Ivy Bigbee works

The Polaroid emulsion lift technique is both easy and fun – once you’ve figured out what equipment to use and where to find it. Ivy Bigbee shares her experience.

Writer and photography / Ivy Bigbee

When first I encountered a Polaroid emulsion lift print, I was mesmerized by the image’s gossamer, membranous, floating quality.

As this article is about the equipment needed to make Polaroid emulsion transfers, the information is not a how-to, but more a WHAT-TO use. These items work for me, with preferences I have developed over a decade’s time.

Daylab printerMy initial experience in college was using my university’s Daylab to print 35 mm slides. I purchased an entry-level Daylab Jr. from a local camera store and paid 189 dollars for it. I still use this very basic and leSS expensive piece of equipment for all my emulsion transfers and lifts.

These days, it’s simple to shop on daylab.com for any number of different Daylab models. All Daylabs are primarily little darkrooms and enlargers combined to make prints.

The entry-level Daylab Jr. is all you really need to get a print from a 35mm slide to a Polaroid film. There are several other models with more bells, whistles and film/print capabilities.

Polaroid 669 filmWhichever Daylab you purchase, you have at least two Polaroid film choices for making emulsion lifts and transfers from 35 mm slides. Although the newer Polaroid Type 690 film can be used for emulsion lifts, I still prefer the old Type 669 film, as its thicker emulsion base seems more stable in hot temperature water needed to separate the emulsion from the paper backing. Also, for beginners, 669 film is more forgiving and tears less.

For a fragile or washed-away look the 690 film is amazing, if you can manage it. See the image titled “Maya” to the right, which was a total happy accident. The 690 film is thin, very water-soluble, temperamental and delicate. Blue or cyan hued images seem to be the least stable, while warmer toned reds and oranges are easiest to work with.

List of equipment you need to carry out the Polaroid Transfer process

  • Daylab Jr.
  • 35 mm slide (a simple composition and bright colors work best)
  • Polaroid Type 669 or 690 film
  • Plastic kitchen/contact paper
  • Electric crock pot or automatic slow cooker
  • Stock pot (stainless steel preferred) and oven mitts to protect hands from burning. You can heat water initially via microwave, but if you are doing more than one lift, the temperature must be maintained.
  • Clear glass / Pyrex casserole dish
  • 1-2 rubber or Teflon-coated spatulas
  • Kitchen tongs or calipers, rubber coated
  • Photographic or candy thermometer
  • Distilled or tap water
  • Arches Hot Press Watercolor Paper (cold press or smooth for emulsion transfers)
  • Pottery hand tools, Q-tips
  • Hand-held magnifying glass
  • Hair dryer (optional)

Nice but not mandatory

  • Flatbed scanner
  • computer
  • Photoshop
  • Printer of choice
  • Paper: To output my work, I use Red River 66 lb. Polar Gloss printer paper. It is spectacular.

How to do a Polaroid Emulsion Lift

1Place the 35 mm slide in the Daylab. After making your exposure on THE Polaroid film, let the film age or cure for 24 hours. Cover the back of each print with clear contact (kitchen/vinyl) paper to stabilize the emulsion during the heating and lifting process. One roll of contact paper (available at craft or hardware stores) will last “forever”.

2Tear Arches hot press watercolor paper, (do not cut) into 5 1/2″ x 7 1/2″ pieces. Tearing gives deckled edges. This is the receptor or substrate for your emulsion lifts.
I have also used semi-transparent Mylar paper, vinyl CDs, stones, marble, glass, and other interesting papers or surfaces with spectacular results. Emulsions can also be positioned on ostrich eggs, silk and other fabrics. Experiment with different textures to see what you prefer. I always return to Arches, as it is durable enough to withstand my stacking and “filing system” abuse. Arches paper also sits easier on a flatbed scanner than an ostrich egg!

3Head to the kitchen. Tools you will need are: a photo thermometer, Pyrex / clear glass casserole dish (so you can visualize and manipulate both sides of the print), electric crock pot, additional stock pot to heat water, a pair of forceps, and one or two spatulas. If you are pressed for time, a blow dryer can be used to dry prints when you are finished.

4A note on water: Distilled water is recommended to avoid impurities, and it also seems to reduce tiny bits of solutes and debris that must be removed following scanning in Photoshop. Nevertheless, I use tap water for convenience and because I am not fond of “toting” endless numbers of distilled water containers.

Boil the water in the stock pot. Keep the crock pot covered once the 160 degree water temperature. Pour enough boiling water in the crock pot, so it’s nearly full. Test water temperature with the photo thermometer (you can also use a candy thermometer); anything over 160 degrees farenheit will be too hot for the emulsion to hold its image together (unless you want to melt the image). The advantage of using a crock pot is that you do not have to keep reheating or boiling more water as it cools between prints.

5Submerge the Polaroid print in the 160 degree farenheit crock pot water. Using a pair of plastic coated kitchen tongs, keep the floating print image side up in order to monitor changes in the emulsion. After approximately three minutes, when the emulsion edges begin to curl and the entire print surface takes on a florentined or scaly texture, support the print with a spatula and lift it straight up and into a waiting clear glass casserole dish of room temperature/tap water. If you are using the more delicate Polaroid 690 film, the water temperature and time will be reduced, and often, the emulsion will drip or run from the print.

The clear glass casserole dish allows you to visualize, turn, flip and manipulate the image. This is especially useful when you are working with more than one emulsion lift per composition.

It is also helpful to keep a dry referral print handy during the lifting process, as once the emulsion has floated free from the backing, it can easily reverse, and usually – as in slides and negatives – you want the emulsion or thickest side down, as the top or viewing side is the most clear and focused.

6Once the emulsion is free from the backing, place the paper or receptor under the floating emulsion, position as desired, and lift it straight up from the water. Tilt slightly to drain water, then place the resulting image on the receptor onto a flat surface to manipulate further as desired. You may use pottery tools or Q-tips to gently push or pull the emulsion edges. It is also helpful at this point to work with a magnifying glass, as small details such as folds, rips, curves, etc. that become compositional elements are more easily visualized with a magnifying glass. I suppose you could use a light box for this as well, but the watery aspect might not be good for the light box’s electric elements.

7Let the lift and substrate bond and dry on a flat surface. If at any time during the positioning process you don’t like what you see, re-submerge the print in a clean water-filled glass dish and reposition the emulsion on paper or whatever receptor you are using.

Since material conservation and innovation are worth mentioning,to take further advantage of this process, you can use the peeled negative from the Polaroid film to make a Polaroid transfer onto another paper (so you will have both a drying Polaroid print for emulsion lift, and the fresh discarded negative to place face down and bray or roll onto smooth Arches cold pressed or other art papers), but development times are less for this process, so transfer results may be different or less desirable if you are trying to do both.

Polaroid by Ivy Bigbee
Polaroid by Ivy Bigbee

Reproducing your masterpiece

Unless you want to keep the image as an original Polaroid 4″x 3″ you will need a flatbed scanner to enlarge your emulsion lift.

After word: a note on exposure using Daylabs

When going from 35mm slide to Polaroid print and your resultingimage is too dark even with Daylab’s maximum exposure, utilize the “building flash” technique. Make the initial exposure, wait for the flash to recharge, then re-expose the same image.

Experiment with flash exposure, while realizing that for each stop under exposure, you need to double the number of flashes you use. This is called the Law of the Inverse Square, which is a discussion for another day. Don’t fear the technical, however, just repeat the flash and record the number of flash times needed for correct exposure, so that you will have that information available if you make additional prints from the same slide (recommended anyway). This building flash is extremely useful when sandwiching or combining slides in a single mount. The slides are twice as dense, and require four times the exposure. The original 35 mm slide of the image to the right was very dense and required me to build flash for correct exposure, which was made with the Daylab Jr.’s maximum light setting and flash reset times eight (one initial flash plus 7 more). You can print any slide with enough flashes.

Ivy Bigbee is an American artist working with the Polaroid techniques.

Recommended reading on Polaroid Emulsion lifts and transfers, and suppliers
Polaroid Manipulations: A Complete Visual Guide to Creating SX-70, Transfer and Digital Prints

Polaroid Manipulations: A Complete Visual Guide to Creating SX-70, Transfer and Digital Prints

by Kathleen Thormod Carr

Detailed hands-on instructions and step-by-step procedures.

Photographer's Guide to Polaroid Transfer: Step-By-Step

Photographer’s Guide to Polaroid Transfer: Step-By-Step

by Christopher Grey

Tutorials from the winner of the Nikon Certificate of Excellence.


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