Cyanotypes: efforts in contrast control

Untitled, Cyanotype

Sometimes, (almost always if I’m being totally truthful) I’m too lazy to reprint a digital negative if there are contrast issues.  Since the cyanotype process is a high contrast process it’s a sure bet that I’ll run into issues, despite my wails of “but it looked good on the computer screen!”  Adding sizing only confuses things more.  For example, a sized piece of Montval paper coated with one coat of emulsion seriously amps up the contrast.  A negative that prints perfectly on unsized paper requires a straight vinegar developer with sized paper, and still loses a good bit of the highlight detail.

The logical solution here is don’t size the paper, duh!  Unfortunately for me, I prefer the look of sized paper and the amount of detail it shows.  Call me spoiled, but I can’t stop comparing glorious black and white details to the slightly fuzzier cyanotype version.  It’s the paper texture that fuzzes things up.  Literally – without sizing, little fuzzy fibers get in the way. 

I found my solution to the sizing/contrast issues when I re-used paper with the old emulsion washed off.  If you coat paper with a heavy coat of sizing (with a brush, no dunking or squeegee,) let it dry completely, then rinse for 5-10 minutes, the excess sizing washes off.  That leaves a thin coat of sizing in the paper as a barrier against fuzz.   

Like my earlier experiment in double coated papers, this version speckles a bit when you double coat it.  I figured out why.  The second coat of emulsion combined with the brush strokes pulls a bit of the first coat off.  I assume if you use a glass spreader rod or a gentle brush stroke, you could avoid this look entirely.  Alternatively, a single coat of emulsion does produce nice dark blues, just not dark enough for super picky me.  If I can manage to refine my speckles to the borders only, I’ll be perfectly happy with this method. 

Back to the negatives though – in theory, I could create a nice little curve by analyzing the tones, or simply eye-ball the highlight portion of the curve and tweak it to fix the highlight issues.   In reality, I’m happier playing around with the vinegar ratio until I can get the highlights to show detail without totally flattening the print.  Most of the time the standard cyanotype curve is more than sufficient, and 9 out of the 10 times that it’s not, it’s usually poor editing and a degrading monitor. 

Yes, this pic is supposed to be out of focus – if I wanted to be all technical and stuff I would say I was trying to capture pure shapes in the play of light and shadow.  Since that’s really what any photographer does, I’ll be honest and say I just thought it looked cool.  I’m always drawn to the angel statues in a cemetary, but I run into the challenge of photographing them without looking corny, cloyingly sentimental, or boring. 

Image: 8×10, Cyanotype from a digital negative.  Arrowroot sized Canson Montval paper, coated and rinsed.  Double emulsion coating, 12 minute full sun exposure.


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