Paper white and other toning myths

"Dolori," from the series Verba

 I thought for the longest time that I was simply screwing up when I toned my cyanotypes.  According to Christopher James’ book on alternative processes, paper staining only occurs when the image isn’t properly washed between steps.  ::coughs:: yeah, right.   Every toning recipe I tried from that book ends up staining the highlights at least a little.

Unless someone has a magical toner for cyanotypes somewhere that I’m not aware of, tea/tannic acid will always stain your highlights.  In fact, if it doesn’t, you’re not getting a deep enough tone in the shadows.  Most of the time, the staining isn’t a big deal – you go from paper white to a creamy white while your darks actually seem to get darker (shift from blue to black, makes sense.)

Other myths I’ve disproved ( for my work flow, that is) includes “hot tea will tone the print faster.”  Maybe a bit, about 10 minutes or so off the time – but the paper stains worse and the black tone shifts toward more of a reddish tint.  

I’ve managed to get a fairly consistent result when I use this particular recipe for tea toner.  Tannic acid is much more fun, with shifts from black, to blue split tone, and an odd shade of purple.  However, since I don’t really want to pony up the $30 for another bottle of tannic acid from Photographer’s Formulary, I’ll stick with using the slightly cheaper tea version.  At one point when I still had tannic acid left, I tested two prints in tea vs tannic acid, with the exact same recipe.  Both came out with nice blacks, but the tea version was a slightly warmer tone.  I should try diluting it more and seeing what happens. 

  • 1 cup hot (to the point of boiling) water
  • 4 small teabags of black tea – I use Lipton tea since we drink iced tea by the gallon here, and usually have it on hand
  • 1 liter nonchlorinated water


Steep the teabags in the cup of hot water for about 3-5 minutes.  Soak your print in nonchlorinated water for 2-3 minutes, or until the paper is flexible and wet.  Drop the print face up into a weak solution of washing soda (sodium carbonate.)  Weak to me means about 1 teaspoon of the stuff mixed into 1.5 liters of water.  If your print goes bright purple in 2 seconds, it’s far too strong.

Let the print sit in the Sodium Carbonate solution until it starts to shift to purple and the highlights go a tad yellow.  Pull it out and let rinse for 5-10 minutes – the print should shift back to blue with slightly less density. 

Pop the print into the tea solution face down (no bubbles!) and let it sit for an hour.  If at that point your blacks still look a bit blue-ish, let it go for another 30 minutes.  Usually anything over 1.5 hours will tone your highlights the color of cardboard, so that’s my limit even if the blue is still there.  If at 1.5 hours your blacks are still blue, rinse the print for 10 minutes, return to the Sodium Carbonate until the remaining blue shifts to purple.  Rinse again for 5 minutes, dip in a weak peroxide solution, and pop it into the tea for a short period.    Final rinse should be at least 15 minutes.

If you leave the print in the Sodium Carbonate solution for a longer period – until the print is a dark purple and you have no highlight detail – the final tone will be more brown than black.  You risk losing a good bit of density though, so I usually don’t go that route except by accident.   

Keep in mind that your blacks (or dark blues, really) are only as dark when toned as your original print was.  Some people recommend over-exposing your prints if you’re planning to tone – in my experience, over-exposed prints lose any shadow detail.  Better to use the Sodium Carbonate sparingly than to over-expose. 

I’ve had some issues with our city tap water and the tannic acid – the chlorine in the final rinse was causing some sort of chemical reaction on the prints that was super annoying.  Because of this, I let my prints sit in filtered water for about 5 minutes, then final rise for 10 or so. Tea doesn’t seem to have this issue.


3 thoughts on “Paper white and other toning myths

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog, and am glad I discovered it, thanks to your link!!!

    A comment on tea toning. My experience is that it matters tremendously what kind/brand of tea you use. One time I had a black tea that was called “golden” something, wish I could remember. Anyhow, it gave me the most gorgeous Cyanotype toning.

    So, I guess experimenting with different kinds of tea would be worthwhile.

    I really love a good cup of tea, and have found this wonderful company on Amazon that sells organic tea at a very reasonable price:

    Best regards,


    • Thanks for reading Christian – when I was first bumbling around on the web to see what other people were doing with Cyanotypes, I found your blog. Been reading it ever since 🙂

      About tea – I did try a green tea version that produced wonderful purple blacks, but still stained the highlights. I’ll have to try some new varieties and see what happens. That’s half the fun of this process! My new favorite is coffee – it’s a colder tone than tea, and doesn’t stain the highlights as badly.

      I hear garlic works too – I’m almost scared to try that one!

  2. Pingback: Collections and Containments – Part 2 | Extended Diploma Photography

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