I’ve fought with insecurities my entire life, as I think every woman has.  Perhaps some of my demons differ from other women’s and I seem to be accumulating more now that I’m a parent.  Yay for judgmental parents and the infuriating media for disrupting my peaceful stay-at-home mommy  moments!

This particular demon though, is one that I bet a lot of artists deal with whether they admit it or not: am I a “real” artist?  By the way, if I’m not a real artist, where are all the fake artists running around?  Can I join that club?  I bet it would be fun – probably a lot less snobby and most everyone would poke fun at themselves a lot.

Besides, how do you define a “real” artist?  I create art, some of it better than others, therefore I am an artist, right?  Nope.  Validity as an artist is apparently tied directly to how much you’ve exhibited and where, how much you sell – and by extension, what you charge (the higher the better) – and lastly, how you look.  Yup, even art is tied to appearances!

Now, since I haven’t really exhibited much (one solo show, a few group ones) and I don’t sell all that much – low points for prices under $100, that leaves only one category – appearance.  I don’t have brightly colored hair, wear goth outfits, or pierce/tattoo numerous parts of my body.  The truth is, I’m rather boring.  Most days I’m running around in jeans and a simple shirt that’s just a tad fancier than a t-shirt.  I wish I could blame motherhood for my appearance, but honestly, even in college I looked like an english major had wandered into the art department.  It’s certainly not because I have any opinion about said tattoos or piercings – I wish I had gotten a few back in my younger days when it wouldn’t have looked like I was a middle-aged idiot trying to fit in.  And truthfully, I hate needles, and both of those activities involve needles.  I deeply admire someone who lets a person armed with needles do that kind of work on their body – that takes some serious pain suppression.

Appearances aside, I usually have a nagging suspicion that I’m actually posing as an artist.  It’s as if I’m not really, truly one, I just say I am.  And judging by the reactions I get when I say I’m an artist, I don’t pose very well.  I guess this insecurity is a leftover legacy from college, where the professors never gushed over my work like they did other students’ incomprehensible (to me!) work.  What comments I got were usually technical, and more than once I heard a student say in critique “I just don’t get what you’re trying to say here.”  I’m not full of angst, I’m not way “out there,” and I don’t try for shock value.

I work with subjects that interest me or that have a personal emotional impact.  Even when my work has a deep emotional identity, I don’t like showing it, discussing it, or being exorbitantly passionate about it.  That’s just not who I am – and it’s what people seem to expect from an artist.  Actually, people seem to expect artists to be some sort of manic-depressive personality – not that any of the artists I’ve met are.

Most days I placidly go on working and ignore my insecurities, but sometimes they rear up their ugly heads and bite.  Usually just before something important happens that I’m worrying about anyways.

What does that have to do with this image?  Well, since it’s taking me so long to get Project Joy finished, I finally printed out a few 8x10s from the series to show in the current Sow’s Ear Studio group show.  They fit the theme nicely and I was happy with how they turned out.  Did you know it’s really difficult to get cyanotype to print shadow details that well?  This particular image is one that resonates strongly for me – and my inner editing thought process usually takes note of that as one of the better images.  The show is almost over and I’m really late getting this posted, but I’m proud of myself: I finally got back in the printing groove.

And while I may not look like a stereotypical artist, I truly feel the most artistic when I’m in print mode.  Something about watching the images develop makes an impact on those insecurities.


Note: scanning this image seems to have added a lot of dust.  Gak.  Must clean the printer now.

Full of excuses


That’s what I was today.  Corbin and I went out for a quick run to Indian Ladder Farms after the rain stopped.  On the way there, we passed something that caught my eye, and I debated turning the car around and getting the camera out.  I had plenty of excuses: the baby is asleep, it might start raining again, I really don’t want to turn around and go back, it wasn’t that great of a possibility, it’s just too much effort, and so on.  I’m sad to say that I didn’t stop and get the camera out, despite my creative side nudging me to do so.

After we got to the farm and did a quick photo shoot in the pumpkin patch – he’s soooo darn cute!  we bought our cider, farm fresh brown eggs, and headed out to see the chickens and the goats before we left.  Since the baby was in a decent mood – no screaming – I backtracked in hopes of seeing what caught my eye again.  Hit the brakes, turn on the flashers, grab the camera, and go shoot for a few minutes while keeping a weather eye out on the baby.   A very nice gentleman slowed down and asked if everything was ok: I’m proud to announce that chivalry still exists, albeit conveyed by a pickup truck instead of a white horse.


It might not be the best photograph in the world, but I’m happy that I caught it.  I made time for creativity today and I’m the better for it.   (Note: next time, creativity needs to prompt me to clean up the shot by removing protruding sticks and stones.)

Articulating Project Joy


First, let me say we’re truly blessed here – we suffered no damage from Hurricane Irene.  I’m watching the news as I type, and all around us, the Mohawk and Hudson rivers are still rising, flooding homes, streets, and cities.  Lock 7 of the Erie Canal is about to go, and emergency personal are working overtime to evacuate and rescue people all around us.  We’re sitting here with sunny blue skies and a dry basement (after our sump pump dealt with the 2-3 inches of water that was the result of our power cutting out.)  We’re safe and dry, and for that I’m grateful.

I’ve been working on this project for too long now – I was hoping to have it finished before Corbin was born, but pregnancy and other issues prevented it.  I’m almost done – all of my grandmother’s images are printed, and about half of my images are done, no small feat when you consider how large I’m printing these.

I’ve had an issue with the concept that’s been holding me back from the start.  From the beginning of the project, I shot images that puzzled me.  I couldn’t tell you why I was shooting them, or what they meant to me.  From a conceptual standpoint, that’s a huge problem.  If I can’t clearly articulate my concept, how am I, the artist, supposed to get the concept across to you, the viewer?   I kept plodding along, trying to understand what my subconscious was trying to tell me.

One recent night at 2:00am while I was doing baby things in a sleepy stupor, it hit me – I knew exactly what I was doing with the concept.  My whack-a-doodle- thought process finally finished computing and spit out the results to my conscious brain.  It didn’t make going back to sleep easier, but now I know the direction I’m going, and what, exactly, I’m trying to say with this project.

To backtrack for a minute: Project Joy is a combination of my grandmother’s images, and my own.  I never knew my grandmother, she died when my mother was 6 years old.  A few years ago, my mother asked me to work on a photo album of images my grandmother took: she was a photographer.  After scanning the 200 some images into a digital file, I was fascinated with what the shots revealed about a woman I’d never met.  I decided to combine some of these images with my work dealing with my relationship with my grandparents.

While I was working on the project, it took on a much more emotional vein: my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterward, just before Corbin was born.

I realized that much of my emotions towards this project had to do with regret as well as grief – I never knew my grandmother, and I barely knew my grandfather, despite growing up practically next door to him.  My conceptual breakthrough on the images made me realize that I had internalized the Catholic custom of lighting candles for the dead – I took that concept and made it my own for this project.  It’s funny to me that the direction this project took  was wholly subconscious – I may have decided what I wanted the project to be, but my creative process had the last say in the matter.

Because of that, this image has no place in my project.  While the subject is the only physical possession I have from my grandmother, it doesn’t fit the direction the project took.

Blue Ribbons



I’m pretty happy right now – I entered 4 images in the fine art category at the Altamont fair (the limit was 4.)  Two of those were cyanotype, and two were black and white images printed at my local Sam’s Club.  Much to my surprise, two of my images won first prize in their respective categories.  Now, honesty compels me to admit that of the three categories, the two I entered (black and white film and digital imaging) combined were only about half the size of the color category.  Bluntly speaking, I had less competition.  Still, one of the officials told me when I went to pick up the images that “the judge just loved your egg photograph.”  Cue the happy dance!


At the risk of getting all artsy and snobby, I have to say it won for a reason: there was a story behind my image, and I believe that it made it more interesting.  Someone once told me that every piece of art needs a story behind it, and he was right.  Granted, he made up his stories, but his premise was still true.  Every conceptual image, at least, needs to make you wonder, make you think.  It’s not enough for me to rely on the process being interesting – the image has to be good, interesting, evocative – the process is only the trappings.  Which is why my image won, instead of the salt print image of someone’s dog.  (At least I think it was a salt print, could have been a Van Dyke process.)

The story behind this image is highly personal, and I don’t think I’ve shared the details except to a few people.  It started with this piece that I did for my Verba series:

"Dolori" - Verba series, Coffee Toned Cyanotype, 15x15

The Verba series, not surprisingly, was based on writings I had done at key points in my life: usually low points.  The image doesn’t show the poem very well, so I’ll transcribe it here for convenience’s sake:

My body is a tomb / a grave of dead hopes.

I watched the beating heart of dreams / fade into nothing.

I have no tears left /my heart is weeping still.

How can I go on living, / knowing I have given birth to death?

I wrote this poem one night when I was still dealing with the emotional aftermath of literally watching my unborn child die.  One day the ultrasound showed a strongly beating heart, the next day, something happened. While an early miscarriage might be nature’s gentle way of dealing with  a baby that can’t survive, the emotional toll certainly isn’t gentle.

When we found out that Corbin was coming, I decided to document his birth in the same way that I documented my miscarriage.  From the very beginning of my creative process, I stuck with this one image.  It now hangs in his nursery.

As happy as I am to have Corbin, I still grieve over the child that didn’t live.  That bittersweet emotion was behind every creative decision in Nesting – from the set up to the lighting.  I’d like to think that some of that story shows in the image, but I’m sure most people look at it and say “oh, an egg in a nest, how cute.”


So that’s the story behind the image that won first in the Black and White division at the Altamont fair.  The Digital Imaging division winner’s story is simpler:  I challenged myself to create a series of things you wouldn’t expect to see in a photograph – and you wouldn’t recognize them either.

They’re forks – salad forks, actually!



Cyanotype: basic process tutorial

Technically this should be a handy little video.  Since that involves a video camera and me actually talking (horrors!) I settled for some illustrating pics instead.  I’ve been meaning to do a little tutorial of my process for a while and finally got the camera out yesterday while printing.

I’ll go through the entire process from coating to drying, with some troubleshooting tips at the very bottom.  Again, I’m not an expert.  This is how I do things – they work for me, but your variables may differ.  A large part of the fun of working with alternative processes is what happens when you experiment.

1. Coating the paper

I don’t have pics of this, mainly because it was dark while I was doing it.   I double coat my paper with a Japanese hake (brush.)  The key to this process is to do it swiftly, carefully, and don’t glop emulsion.  It’s a good idea to tint some water a light green color with watercolor and practice your strokes.  Coat under a low light situation: I use a strand of small garden lights – Christopher James says a strand of Christmas tree lights.

My coating method is: strokes across the entire sheet, then down the entire sheet.  This evenly distributes the emulsion.  It’s a good idea to shake off excess emulsion or drag the brush over the edge of your container to keep from putting too much emulsion on: it doesn’t take much.  After the paper goes matte (a minute or so) repeat the process for the second coat.  Be very careful not to grind the brush into the first coat.

Let the paper dry flat for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 in a dark room.  No lights.  After the paper is bone dry (don’t touch the emulsion!) put it in a light safe bag overnight.  The emulsion needs to age for a little bit, but not over a day or so.  Drying with a blow dryer and subsequently printing should be avoided.

2. Exposing the image

I always test the print time with a simple test strip before I start printing.  I know the basic print time for my images – my digital process is streamlined enough that (if prepared correctly) all my prints should need the exact same print time if the conditions are the same.  It’s best to print in full sun, but any sort of UV exposure will work.  Cloudy weather is a little more unpredictable and will take a minimum of double your sunny exposure time.

Always load your negative under low light – once the paper is sensitive you risk fogging the paper: lightly exposing the paper so that you lose contrast and highlights.

The negative needs to be held flat and still on the paper.  An expensive hinged contact printing frame is nice, but not necessary for cyanotype.  My printing frames are simple glass held together with bulldog clips – make sure you don’t use UV resistant glass.

I try to angle my printing frames to match the sun so that the exposure is even.  I’ve heard this increases the contrast, but since my digital negative adjust for that I have no idea how much this affects my prints.

A properly exposed print will reverse:   the highlights and midtones will turn a green/blue, while the shadows look slightly solarized.  A single coated paper will turn the light brown that you see on the edges of this print, while a double coat will go a darker green.  It should look overexposed, because part of the emulsion washes off.

3. Developing the print

I use a 1:10 ratio of vinegar to water for my developer because of the pH of my tap water.  A little vinegar is good, too much will turn the paper into a slightly graded paper and affect your contrast.  No vinegar will produce a slightly lighter blue.

Drop the print into the developer face up and agitate.  Don’t let the water sit still: emulsion will pool and stain your highlights.  Keep agitating until the print has turned completely blue: your highlights may still stain a little yellow, that’s ok.  Drop the print face first in a filtered water bath for at least 5 minutes to finish the development process and allow the water to fully penetrate the paper fibers.

If you look carefully at this image, you’ll see that it’s slightly overexposed and a light shade of blue.  All cyanotypes need to oxidize before they reach their true color – after the water bath, you can accelerate this process by dropping the print into a weak (a capful per liter of water) bath of hydrogen peroxide.  The overexposure will be slightly bleached by my nasty chlorinated tap water in the final rinse – I slightly over-expose to compensate for this.

4. Final Rinse

I final rinse all my prints for at least 10 minutes in running water (face down.)  This clears out the last of the chemicals left over by the development process.  Be careful when picking up the prints: a wet cyanotype will smear emulsion if you touch it.  Once the print dries and hardens, rewetting will not result in more smears.  I usually let my prints rest on blotting paper for a few minutes to soak up the majority of the water, then drip dry on a line until fully dry.

If you plan to tone your prints, let them age/harden for at least 24 hours before you tone.

5. Troubleshooting issues

  • My entire print washed off in the developer, what did I do wrong?   You didn’t expose long enough for the image to fix.  Try a few test strips with stepped increments to find the best printing time.  Don’t be surprised if your printing time is long for a really dense negative.
  •  My image has far too much contrast: You need to adjust your negative.  For ortho film, use filters when printing (it’s been a while, I think you make a super low contrast negative.)  For film negs, try vinegar.  Lots of vinegar.  For digital negatives, read this blog post.
  • My coated paper is dark green/blue/anything but light green when I go to print: dark green usually means contaminated chemicals.  Blue means it got wet – high humidity will do this, or bagging before the print is fully dry. Best case, recoat and try again.  Worst case, you need to remix your chemicals and be super careful to avoid contamination.
  • Why does my print look washed out? Different papers will produce different color tones of blue.  Try Canson Montval if you want my shade of blue – avoid cheap art papers because they will have more chemicals in them that interact with your emulsion.  Also try double coating for deeper shadows.  As in all photography, if your negative isn’t perfect, your print won’t be either.  Make sure your contrast on the negative is perfect. 
  • My image is blurry! Is your negative completely squashed against the paper?  Did it move during printing?  Are you using the negative correctly? (i.e. facing the paper on the correct side – for digital, ink-to-emulsion works best.)  Remember, cyanotype is part of the paper and the paper “tooth” becomes part of the image.  If the paper is particularly rough, try sizing it before you coat with emulsion for a clearer image. 
  • My print stained.  What went wrong? Proper washing is key.  Sometimes your rinse water will react to the emulsion – if this is the case, let it sit in a filtered water bath for a while longer.  Make sure you never reuse your developer – always prepare fresh water/vinegar for each print or risk a blue stain.  
  • Ack! My negative is dusty/shows fingerprints!  I usually wear light cotton gloves when working with my digital negatives.  If I notice a problem, usually the gloves will clean the negative without damaging it.  Dust/fur/brush bristles in the emulsion are far more a problem for me – duplicate prints are a good idea, especially if you plan to tone.  
  • My cyanotype print faded after a few months.  Cyanotypes like a slightly acidic environment, and sun will fade the print.  Shove the print into a book for a few days and let it sit: it should come back to its normal color.
  • I hate the flatness of my prints.  Is there anything I can do to make them shiny? Yes!  Try brushing a half-and-half diluted solution of acrylic gloss medium on a finished print.  This works really well with toned images, bringing out the shadow depth.  If you’re using a single coat of emulsion, try adding a tiny bit of gloss to the emulsion before you coat.  Mix well, or you’ll get streaks – you may have uneven toning issues with this method as well.
  • I don’t have a lot of sun in my area.  Can I use a facial tanning device to expose my prints? Yes, you can, but it’s not a good idea.  UV exposure units need to be built specifically for alternative processes or you risk exposure to yourself, uneven prints, and limited printing size.  You can build your own unit if you’re an electrician, otherwise, check out photo supply stores like Photographer’s Formulary or Freestyle Photographic Supplies and be prepared to pay a lot.  Like, $600 minimum. 
  • Why can’t I just buy precoated paper/prepared emulsion?  You can.  It’s just not ideal or cost effective.  Cyanotype is so cheap and safe (within chemical safety guidelines) that it’s better to mix your own and coat your own if you plan to make a habit of it.  Pre-mixed cyanotype emulsion uses the traditional formula – generally a slightly altered formula works better.  Mine (from college, thanks prof!) is listed here.
  • Um…my B solution is growing mold.  Is this a problem?  Nope, just filter it before you mix the emulsion.  Always make sure you mix solutions A and B with distilled water to avoid chemical contamination, but mold is normal.  Not a problem.
  • Why can’t I just mix up  the entire solution instead of mucking around with solutions A and B? Because it’s light sensitive and it starts to degrade about a day after you mix it.  Best to keep them separate – they last for years.  Just remember to lightly swish the solutions before you start pouring – some chemicals settle to the bottom.

Recording the obvious

Apologies to Edward Weston for appropriating one of his quotes: “I see no reason for recording the obvious.”– Edward Weston.

Yet again, a discussion on one of my favorite forums (the Canon photography forums) has sparked my interest.  If you’re interested in reading the initial thread, go here: it evolved into a discussion of photographer categories based on certain quotes of earlier masters like Cartier-Bresson and Weston.

What I gathered from the discussion is that there are two main types of photographers – those with a vision, and those with a camera.  Grossly over simplifying, of course. 

I’ve never been a huge fan of Weston’s work – some of it is beautiful, and some of it, I can’t help but think it veers into the pornography venue.  There’s a fine line between celebrating the beauty of the human body and only photographing lovely young nude women.  Not to mention I always thought that Weston was somewhat full of himself anyway.   

For example, the first quote at the top of the post:  “I see no reason for recording the obvious.”– Edward Weston.  Sometimes photography does quite well recording the obvious.  To me, that means things like nature shots, landscapes, and the huge field of investigative journalism.  Recording only the obvious is necessary at times.

To balance that, here’s another quote by Weston:  “to reveal the individual before his camera, to transfer the living quality of that individual to his finished print…Not to make road maps but to record the essential truth of the subject; not to show how this person looks, but to show what he is.” – Edward Weston 

That sounds like a vision, a way of seeing on one hand, but at the same time, couldn’t you argue that you’re essentially recording the obvious?  The image on this post, for example – I’m shooting it the way I wanted to, focusing on the play of light and shadow as well as the wonderful texture of the fruit.  At the same time, it’s a photograph of plums.  The obvious.   

For myself, it’s simple.  I want to show you what I see.  I’m not interested in coming up with some deep vision that validates my identity as an artist.  I’m sure that in Weston’s eyes, my work should have some indefinable stamp that yells it’s mine.  Perhaps one day I’ll get to that point.  For now, I’m perfectly happy recording the obvious.

Cyanotype toning: Wine Tannin

It probably looks like I have an obsession with toning – I don’t.  Not really.  Among all the reasons that I love working with cyanotype, the bright blue color isn’t one of them.  So, I have to tone my images.  Though I like the shades of black/brown/purple that I get from toning, I’m always looking for a toner that won’t stain the paper and ruin my highlights.   

So far, I’ve been pleased with basic toners like green tea, coffee, and black tea.  Tannic acid works well – when I can get it to work.  It’s also expensive.  I don’t use tannic acid much these days.  The biggest problem with all of these toners is they all stain the paper really badly, tannic acid a little less. 

I’m happy to say that my recent test of Wine Tannin looks good.  I won’t say it’s the holy grail of cyanotype toning, but it barely stained the paper.  The dark shadows still have a hint of purple like the tannic acid, but the results seem to be more reliable and easy to replicate.  Unlike tannic acid, it dissolves quite easily into a water solution.  No clumpy blots and endless mixing. 

That’s probably because of where I bought it.  Wine tannin is, like the name implies, designed for micro brewing.  As I understand it, it’s produced from wine skins.  Added to a home-brewed wine, it adds a dryness and tang that I would assume is naturally found in a traditional crushed grape wine procedure.  Not that I’m any expert on wine brewing!  But, it is intended to be mixed into a wine/juice solution, so it stirs in easily.

Tannic acid, on the other hand, is produced from wood chips.  I would assume from woods rich in tannin like oak – as I understand it, you can tan hide in an oak stump filled with water.  It’s sold at Photographer’s Formulary, where I get my cyanotype supplies, and it’s in a chemical form that doesn’t mix well with liquids.  It’s also pretty strong compared to wine tannin. 

Wine tannin comes in both liquid and powder form – I was only able to find a local source for the powder form. 


  • 1/2 oz. powered wine tannin
  • 1 Liter of filtered water

Bleach bath:

  • About 1 Tbsp washing soda (sodium carbonate – not sodium bicarbonate, that’s baking soda)
  • 1.5 Liter water

Several different toning methods work well with the wine tannin, but I had the most luck with a variation of Christopher James’ #3 black toner because of my double emulsion coat.

  • Pre-wet the image
  • Dunk the image into the toner solution until the highlights go tan – about 5-10 minutes.
  • rinse for 5 minutes
  • Bleach the solution until the shadows go purple – not too long, about 30-60 seconds
  • rinse for 5 minutes
  • Dunk the print in a weak hydrogen peroxide solution for about 30 seconds
  • return the print to the toner until the shadows go black,  about 15 minutes
  • final rinse for 10 minutes

Bleaching a print seems to be required with this toner – always a delicate operation because you run the risk of losing highlights and shadow density if you go too far.  I theorize that because you tone the highlights first, the tannin binds to the iron and resists bleaching while the shadows are broken down enough to take the toner.

The lack of light

I’ve heard over and over that photography is all about capturing light: that without the right or perfect lighting, an image is simply blah and boring.  The golden hour (around sunrise and sunset) is the perfect light – evoking the whole “ride off into the sunset” feel.  In fact, the measure of a good photographer is often how well they can work without the “perfect” light – for example, wedding photographers.  Capturing good images in a dark reception hall or church is a challenge.

Recently, I’ve started playing with the opposite of light – shadow.  If you really want to get technical, I guess I’m still working with light because I’m trying to manipulate just where the light goes, and how much of my subject matter actually shows.  Still, it’s easier for me to think of as photographing shadow – a negative space, if you will.

I think I lost a little of the drive to explore in college – I had it drilled into me over and over that the correct exposure is king.  A well-lit, well exposed image was always preferable to a haphazard, iffy type of negative.  Being the perverse, independent person that I am, some of my favorite images from that time spent in college are the ones that were accidents. 

I do admit that perhaps I simply didn’t hear everything my instructors said.  Many of my fellow students were experimenting with light and shadow and producing really good, evocative images.  I, however, fell flat on my face every time I tried something evocative.

I probably still am.

But, that reality aside, I’m trying it again.  While I’m probably not producing the best images I could, there’s something moody and interesting in an image with lots of shadow and less detail.  My Project Joy series (aside from my grandmother’s images) is playing around with that: how far can I fall into shadow without losing the essence of the image?  That isn’t my primary concern and certainly not my concept for that series, but I do think that the absence of light provides a mood that I wouldn’t be able to capture normally.  

Let me make it clear: I’m not talking about careless lighting or bad lighting.  Everything I shoot is deliberate – I always try to avoid the whole snapshot thing and actually think about what I’m doing (the key word there is try.)  I’m not a big fan of poorly shot, poorly executed “artsy” images passed off as art – and I won’t put out that kind of image myself. 

That said, here’s a sample of my experiments – does the lack of shadow detail help or hinder the image?

Cyanotype Digital Negatives: a basic how-to

According to WordPress, a lot of people have been searching for some variation of the title of this post and end up coming to my blog.  While a lot of them stay around and click a few things (and you guys are most welcome!) I don’t think that they’re finding what they’re looking for because none of my posts to date have actually spelled out my process for digital negatives.  I think it’s time to delve into the technical details and explain exactly how I’ve gotten to this point.

To start, I should emphasize that when I say “digital negative,” I don’t mean a digital image as opposed to a film image.  Well, I do, sort of, but what I’m really talking about is an OHP (overhead transparency) printed on an inkjet printer.  In fact, I don’t use film at all in my process.  All of my images are taken with a digital camera, minimally processed in an editing program for basic darkroom edits, and then printed as a negative for cyanotype.

So.  Technical details.

I use the simplest process for digital negatives – I’ve heard it called the RNP process in alt forums, as opposed to the Quad tone process or Precision Digital Negative process.  For those with a lot of money and a nice Epson printer, the Quad tone is probably a better bet because you can precisely regulate the amount of ink (density) that goes on your negative.

I, however, have a simple HP all-in-one printer.  Nothing fancy.

What that means is that I regulate density by picking the most effective UV blocking color for my printer and applying a harsh correctional curve to my images.

If you want step by step instructions on how to pick the best color for your printer (because they all vary) go to Michael Koch’s website.  Read everything.  If you’re interested in the technical details of how he worked out the HSL color array cone and applied it to alt printing, go to his other page for more reading.  If you need a downloadable version of the HSL color array, go here.  If it wasn’t for this guy, I would have been utterly lost.  His generosity made it easy for me to work out my own issues. (edit: Michael Koch’s website is down, so I linked a JPG copy of the HSL file.  I’ll try to add more detailed instructions soon on how to use it.)

Once I picked out a good color after cyanotype printing the HSL color array, I began the exhausting process of fine-tuning it.  Since my version of Photoshop is so old that it can’t support the handy little Chartthrob script, I had to manually craft a step chart of gradients from 0% to 100% – the tonal range of an image.

My first step chart was woefully off – I had far too much pure white showing and not enough midtones and shadows.  So, I tweaked it, gradually moving up the HSL color line I had chosen until I got a really good range of tones.  That meant that I was awash in identical cyanotype gradient charts for days – it’s a really good idea to label each one or you’ll go crazy.

Once I had the perfect color, I began to extrapolate the information on the step chart to craft my own destructive curve.  Because I use a slightly different process than most people who I’ve “met” on the internet (double coat of emulsion, sized with arrowroot sizing) my process was not only more contrasty than normal, but requires a dense negative.  (in a later workshop a student used an ortho film negative with my process with no problems.  That’s not normal.)  Making my own curve instead of relying on the basic cyanotype curve from the Alternative Photography website allowed me to customize my negative to my process.

Basically, if the chart said that 58% of the color really printed out in cyanotype as 35%, the curve would adjust for that and allow all the tones to print.  It’s that simple.

Once I had the right curve and color, setting up my negatives is a really simple process.

  1. Get the original image perfect.  Set it up as Black and White, but not Monochrome.
  2. Apply the saved curve.  Ignore how it looks – it’s appalling.
  3. Invert the image (I use a 16-bit, RGB setup – for some reason CMYK inverts really oddly.)
  4. Flip the image horizontally (the ink must be surface-to-surface contact to avoid blurriness.)
  5. Apply the color by using the Edit>Fill>Screen option.
  6. Print!  (on the proper side, printer set to Matte Photo Paper option, max DPI)

I don’t just print on any overhead transparency though, I use Arista II, the Freestyle photo version of Pictorio, the brand a lot of the big guys in the hybrid alt community use.  I’ve tried Pictorio, but Arista works just as well for me and is a little cheaper.   Both types have a special coating on one side that holds the ink instead of letting it slither all over the place.

I store all of my negatives in acid-free sleeve protectors, and so far, I’ve used them multiple times with no issues.  Who knows how long they’ll last, but if something drastic happens I can always print another negative.  It’s cheaper and easier than working with Ortho-film in a darkroom – which I have done, and hated.

Note: It’s not necessary to go the whole technical step chart route – sometimes a printer works just fine with a little color added.  Start out simple and test the basic black photo ink for density, then tweak with a little color (avoid blues and purples, usually yellows/greens/oranges are the best UV blocking colors on most printers.)

If you have any questions about my process, or any questions that I might be able to help with, feel free to email me at elizabeth.p.3@gmail.com.  I’m not an expert – but I’ll do my best to answer 🙂

Accidental Split toning: Cyanotypes



One of the things I love about alternative photography techniques is the unpredictable nature of the beast.  The same “recipe” for a toner may produce completely consistent results, or it may produce something so weird and wacky that I simply can’t duplicate it.

I’m pretty sure that’s what happened with this batch of toner.   I have most of the variables locked into place due to routine, including how long I steep the tea, how many tea bags go into the toner, and how much filtered water goes into the final toner bath.  Still, for whatever reason, things go wrong – or produce what my alt teacher in college called a “happy accident.” 

Of course, you can try to force a split tone with a bunch of toner baths (several types listed in Christopher’s James’ book) but this toner was a simple tea toner.   Nothing special or exotic, so the results surprised me.

It seems that my habit of double coating the paper made this split tone more visible.  Areas with slightly more emulsion went lighter, while the edges of the first coat turned the standard black of a tea toned cyanotype.  My highlights are warm tea tones, and the mid tones mostly went tea as well.  If I had left the print in the toner longer, it would (probably) have eventually become a more uniform hue. 

As always, the scanned image emphasizes certain tonal variations as well as paper tooth.

Image: “Nesting,” cyanotype

Size: 7×10 digital negative

Paper: double coated emulsion on Canson Montval Watercolor paper, arrowroot sized

Toner: Straight black tea toner.  (8 small teabags steeped in 8 oz boiling water, added to 1.5 liters of filtered water.)  No bleaching stage used.  Toned for 5 hours – abnormally long for me.