The digital camera, the cyanotype and grain

Jim calibrates his digital camera to make cyanotype printing even better, sometimes giving the cyanotypes a grainy effect.

Writer and Photography / Jim

Photograph by Jim Read
This picture was taken upon Bircher Common in Herefordshire in March 2005 and I gave it the ‘Grainy’ treatment to produce this feathery effect.

The digicam is the best thing that’s happened to photography, no longer do we need to wait for the images to be processed, the little screen on the back allows us to see more or less what we have done. If the subject is not the sort that runs away and we’ve made a mistake or don’t quite like the composition we may have another go.

I’m not going to go into the realms of models and makes except to say that Steves digicams is a good place to see the same picture from many different cameras. He goes out and takes pictures with each camera he reviews and he always makes one image of a particular building, these can be downloaded, printed off and compared. I was quite startled when I did a few for comparison purposes. At a normal viewing distance say standing with a 9″ x 6″ print on a table the difference between a reasonable 3 megapixel camera and a 6 megapixel digital SLR was… nothing!

The little screen turns the humblest digicam into an SLR and if you’ve got one with a tilting screen you can use it like a TLR. The screens are a bit dark on a sunny day so it’s back to the black cloth over the head to see what’s there. Doing it this way the frame can be filled leaving very little cropping to be done afterwards.

Digressing somewhat and returning for a while to film I recall seeing lots of very grainy but very effective pictures made with high-speed film. I mostly used 400 ISO film when I was doing it and sometimes 3200 ISO. I loved the gritty prints, with the right subject and lighting they went straight to the heart of the image.

The B&W image above, as a Cyanotype.
The B&W image above, as a Cyanotype.
This is the original image from the camera for ‘Old slabs, New Steps’
This is the original image from the camera for ‘Old slabs, New Steps’

I distinctly remember an issue of Amateur Photographer magazine where the contents page listed some landscapes taken with high-speed film, and remember thinking that won’t work but the photographs had both impact and serenity!

Looking at photographs on some of the critique sites that are about now. ‘Grainy’ is used almost as a term of abuse as though it’s a product of the photographer’s poor technique rather than their intention. I suspect that many a photographer who tried it was soon pushed back onto the straight and narrow by such critical disacclaim.

The digicams version of grain is noise and pixellation, noise in images with lots of shadow and by using a high ‘film’ speed setting and pixellation from very low pixel count images. This noise though constantly fretted about by the digi camera enthusiasts (as opposed to those for whom the camera is merely a tool to make images and not an end in itself) is hardly worthy of the term ‘grain’.

The Cyanotype is the perfect way to a quick alternative process print.

I love the quirky colour, the simplicity of the process and the fact that the prints will last as long as the paper.

I think of it as one of lifes chemical jokes. I make a point of searching the web for Cyanotypes to see what comes out, I also carefully review my images and lately I’d begun to think that they lack impact.

This is the manipulated B&W version of ‘Old Slabs, New Steps’.
This is the manipulated B&W version of ‘Old Slabs, New Steps’.
The negative for this is the B&W image above inverted and mirrored so that the ’emulsion’ will be right next to the Cyanotype coating.
The negative for this is the B&W image above inverted and mirrored so that the ’emulsion’ will be right next to the Cyanotype coating.

What I see is a wishy washy pale blue in the highlights that doesn’t look very good at the edge of a picture, in some pictures even when in the centre it takes away the impact and leaves me as the viewer a little frustrated.

Eventually as you do, I started to experiment and remembered when as a 50 something fledgling computer nervous novice I bought a second-hand hand operated scanner. This came with some image fiddling software called Pro-Image Plus, the whole thing on one floppy disk and that included sample images!

My very first digital negatives were made using this program and the way I did it was by converting the image to Black and White using ‘error diffusion’ which gave a truly black and white image, which I then inverted.

These Cyanotypes were rather punchy and very grainy and I remember rather liking the effect. Trying the program again, yes it works with XP, and really fast, I wondered if I could create something similar but with more control using Photoshop.

Leaves caught in a cranny from, ‘Pathways’. We have an allotment where we grow veggies and flowers, I make lots of pictures up there,gives me a bit of a rest after a bout of digging. I have recently chosen to adopt two themes for my photographs, ‘Pathways’ and ‘Discarded, Re-Used’
Leaves caught in a cranny from, ‘Pathways’. We have an allotment where we grow veggies and flowers, I make lots of pictures up there, which gives me a bit of a rest after a bout of digging. I have recently chosen to adopt two themes for my photographs, ‘Pathways’ and ‘Discarded, Re-Used’
The image left as a Cyanotype.
The image left as a Cyanotype.

Noise and Film Grain are a couple of filters that can be used to good effect, flooding the image with little grey particles, after that I use Threshold to convert the image to B&W. This results in the image being composed of pure black and a scattering of black dots, the dots giving the illusion of grey tones.  Another approach might be converting to a Bitmap and using the Half tone screen option. In practise I have found the former better with more control over the final image.

I use a Canon printer a model that uses pigmented ink for its text printing, this is a dense black that will not fade, if the printer is set to Greyscale it uses just this one cartridge. The result when looked at closely is a truly Black and White image, in fact the image disintegrates upon close inspection but appears very sharp at a reasonable viewing distance. Not only does the technique produce lovely Cyanotypes but also beautiful B&W prints with a deep black that I thought unobtainable with an inkjet printer.

Cyanotype by Jim Read
This is ‘Old Slabs, New Steps’ bleached in Washing Soda, one teaspoon to 1/2 litre water and then toned for 1.1/2 hours in Tea, 5 tea bags brewed in a small teapot, left for fifteen minutes, and then diluted with 1 litre of water.

I’d got this far with the article and Malin and Gary’s book, Blueprint to Cyanotype arrived, I had never tried toning a Cyanotype before and after a couple of go’s with scrap prints I did the one below, and came to the conclusion that because the image is made up of deep blue particles bleaching converts those particles by the same amount, this will then tone very well in tannic acid leaving a print that is still fairly contrasty. The result as you can see is quite beautiful and well worth pursuing with different papers, I am sure that this will be my future method of making prints, I have always loved sepia images, thanks Malin and Gary!:-)

The technique also removes the need for ‘curves’, for making negatives with orange hues, for making test strips or for incorrect exposure time guesses as I was inclined to do. My emphasis is now on finding a subject to suit my way of working and to illustrate my chosen themes. And after finding that image, to make the final picture as dramatic as I want it to be in the software before converting it to a B&W print or to a Cyanotype negative.

This manipulation may seem far removed from the actuality of the scene but haven’t artists always done it and aren’t we as photographers building our own history of dramatic image manipulation. From memory I can cite; Annie W Brigman, Paul Strand, Wynne Bullock, Minor White, Don McCullen, John Blakemore and Thomas Joshua Cooper, type their names into Google and you will be richly rewarded. They use (or used) their own combinations of film and developer and their hands under the enlarger to create powerful and unforgettable images. I can do the same with my powerful software and my imagination.

Question from Tom Gordon:

Having read Jim’s article “The digital camera, the cyanotype and grain”, I’m wondering about his use of the Threshold adjustment to create his B&W digital negative, given that elsewhere it’s advised to create a low-contrast negative for Cyanotypes.  None of his images on that page look blown out, so have I misunderstood this section?

Answer from Jim:

The answer lies in what John Herschel wanted and why, he was a polymath and one of the things he practiced was astronomy, his recorded observations resulted in co-ordinates with four decimal places, he used scribes to copy his notes, they thought the decimal point was an inkblot. He knew iron was light-sensitive, a few days trial and he had the Cyanotype process, he wrote his notes on Bronco lavatory paper and taught his servants how to make copies using the process. Ergo the process was a copying one and not for making continuous toned images. There is btw some residue solution in blown highlights which can be brought back with tannin toning.

With the above in mind, I thought what if none of the negative was continuous but just grain. All the tiny dots would be strong blue like black newspaper images used to be, it works. I continued this line of thinking for years and wanted to make an Only Black image that disintegrates into its component parts the closer you got to it, as you moved away it would look contrasty and sharp. Eventually, I succeeded, this is a degraded image with some grey, because of the reduction in size.

Jim Read's image forest path
Jim’s image Forest path can also be found here:

It works best on A4 paper upwards and at 18″ x 24″ looks superb.

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