Finding my alt process medium
I first came across salt printing during my initial research into the wet plate collodion process which was something that I wanted to attempt for a number of years. I decided in the end to focus on dry plate tintypes which are far less dangerous to produce and the subject of a future blog post.
I looked at a ton of different vintage processes and finally settled on salt printing as the best medium to start learning how to do alternative process work. Like any of these vintage ways to print images there are a lot of points in the process where things can go wrong and you have to learn to embrace flaws. Salt printing is a good first step because…..
- You do not need a traditional darkroom. You do need subdued lighting and you have to use a safe light but the room does not need to be completely dark. In my case I use my kitchen as there is only one window to cover and I have a source of water. I take great care to clean and cover all of my working surfaces and remove any items where there could be a chance of contamination. alternatively you could also use a bathroom.
- There are only four chemicals involved in the process and compared to other processes they are relatively safe. While great care and respect must be taken when using these chemicals, I do store them in my home but out of the way where only I can access them. They are also available in kits so you don’t have to have a chemistry lab on site to make salt prints.
A minimum amount of equipment is needed, Some you can be thrifty and cheap on but some of it You should really spend money on to get the highest quality. Everything I use for the process can be kept in a space the size of a dresser drawer.
The negative side
You control the entire process from image capture to printing and it will give you appreciation for the history of photography. You have a physical object you can hold in your hand that is one of a kind and the process is well suited for portraits.
There are a few minor negatives to the process but nothing that can’t be overcome with lots of trial and error. Hopefully with these posts you can avoid some of what I had to go through as the information online about salt printing is fragmentary and outdated. The negatives are…..
- It takes some time to do even two or three prints so you have to set aside a good chunk of time to print. I have gotten my exposure times down to less than 15 minutes but between coating and drying the paper, printing and exposing you are looking at close to an hour for one print.
- Whatever you use for a light source to expose the prints will be your biggest issue. This is something I have tinkered with for over a year now and still I feel the exposures need work. I will go into more detail when I get to the exposing part but you can either spend over a thousand bucks for an exposing table or go cheap. The sun was used when the process was invented but this is too inconsistent and it would take all day to make a print.
- Embrace flaws and take mistakes in stride. There are a lot of steps in making salt prints and when you are adapting a process invented in the 1800’s to modern techniques you will make mistakes along the way. No two prints will ever come out the same and there will be times when a print or two just will not come out. My hope with this series is to help you keep the mistakes to a minimum as I think I have made them all trying to adapt this process.
The gear you will need
Salt printing chemicals
Thankfully all of the chemicals that you will need to do salt printing can be found in a convenient kit made by Bostick and Sullivan. You can buy the kit online from their website, It comes well packaged and protected and it’s cost is reasonable. The kit contains full instructions, eye droppers for the chemicals, fixer (sodium thiosulphate), salt solution, silver nitrate( makes the paper light-sensitive), And potassium dichromate for contrast in the prints. In a future post I will detail the entire process of making a print.
The contact printing frame
The contact printing frame is one of the more crucial parts of this process so I would recommend either finding a vintage one like I did, buying a brand new one which can be extremely expensive or being crafty and making one yourself.
I experimented with making them myself but in the end I wanted a vintage one because I felt the process warranted it. It took me about a year of looking to find one in decent shape but the 8×10 in the above images was at a reasonable price considering it was 70-90 years old.
The frame consists of a wooden outer frame with a glass front and a wooden, hinged back with pressure springs to hold the paper and negative tight against each other and the glass which is important to maintain sharpness. The hinged back allows you to check the print during development without disturbing the registration between the print and your negative.
Your printing paper
I use Bergger cot 320 8×10 sheets that come 24 sheets to a pack. Your paper is another one of those items that I would not cheap out on. Spend the money, You will save yourself a ton of frustration by trying to use cheap or inferior papers. This paper is made for alternative process work and most importantly dries flat. I dry my prints about 3/4 of the way and then press between heavy books, This way you will have a flat print for printing that is not warped or crinkled.
Print screen and a squeegee board
Now here are two things that you will need that you can most certainly go cheap on and it won’t hurt your prints in the least. The print screen is used to evenly dry your prints. It allows air to flow over and under the print and these are used for regular film prints as well. You can buy them but here I simply took an old picture frame and taped window screen to it. Cheap and things I already had lying around. In the future I will construct a better one but this works for now.
The squeegee board was just the glass from the frame I used for the print screen with some tape around the edges for safety. It really helps to have a flat surface to squeegee prints and this does the trick nicely and basically it cost nothing.
Self healing cutting mat and hair dryer
The cutting mat will be useful in marking where to align your negative before you sensitize the paper. You can then use those marks to align your image and you will have a guide for applying the chemicals when you are under the safe light. I use 8×10 sheets of paper but my image area is 5×7 because I like the look of some white area around the image. The mat lets you be precise when centering the image and applying the chemicals on your paper. You can find these at office supply or art supply stores and the run around 20 dollars.
The hair dryer is used to simply to speed up the drying time when your chemicals are applied and to dry your finished prints. This is a cheap one that has a high and low setting and you can find them at any pharmacy.
In part two I will go over the rest of what you need to get into making your own salt prints. You really don’t need much equipment or space and with the exception of the contact printing frame can be found just about anywhere or online! Check out part two in this series detailing the rest of the equipment you need to make your own salt prints!