Make your own olde worlde prints…just like those in grandma’s house!

Once upon a time, long, long ago…..there lived a man, and his name was John Herschel. He lived in merry old England, that funny old place, where men dance around a maypole, and drink warm beer while watching cricket…

John used to spend long nights looking at the stars, because he was an astronomer. Soon he found that he was making so many notes and drawings, he wanted another way to keep them safe.

So, one day, while he was mucking around with some very dangerous chemicals in his house, he found that he could make really big pictures using his old wooden camera, pictures that he could keep safe for all time. And……

Ok, that’s enough of the kindergarten story-telling for today, children!

As we grown-ups all know, those times are dead and gone, or if not, are fast disappearing. What we don’t want is to lose those quaint old ways completely, even though technology has caught up very fast (some say even overtaken film and the old ways).

Luckily, the knowledge still survives, and I believe will do so as long as there are people on this planet. Because even if film manufacturers pack up making film, the chemicals used in this process will still be available. And because aside of the chemicals, all you need are normal household items, anybody can try their hand at it.


First, let’s talk about what stuff you need and then we’ll get on with how to do it. Right, this is what we need:

Paper that is going to have our print on it (any good, strong paper is fine, such as paper used in watercolour painting…basically thick paper so that it doesn’t warp or disintegrate when soaked). I have even tried it with an old white cotton T shirt I had lying around….just soak the cloth in the mixture, wring it out and let it dry in a dark room, then stretch it into your contact frame, place your negative on top as before and follow the same procedure as with a paper print! Easy.

Chemicals (Ammonium Ferric Oxalate or ferric ammonium citrate {for a bit of fun, I’ll call this chemical Laurel!} and potassium ferricyanide {this one we’ll call Hardy!})….you can buy these in powder form or ready mixed as a kit…either way is good, but if you’re nervous about mixing chemicals up, go for the kit 1st time around!

A frame in which we will be placing our negative and print paper together for exposure (you can either buy a purpose made contact print frame that will cost you mega-money, or do like I did, use a cheap dollar store photo frame which has a glass front and that you can modify slightly if you want

A negative! (I bet you were wondering how the hell is he going to make a print without a negative, eh? Fear not, forsooth!). Here again, we can do it in 2 ways; if you are into large format photography, and I mean large, because a piddly little 35mm or 120 format negative is just not worth using…who wants to look at a tiny print the size of a 35mm negative….that large format camera of yours will give you huge negatives which you can use straight away in this technique. The other way is to…..wait for it…..make a digital negative! Aha! So digital comes into it then? Well, no, it doesn’t have to, but 1 in 10 of the people reading this will probably have a large format camera…not really main stream, so we have to find an easier, cheaper way to make a negative, and using digital techniques is cheap and easy.

Ok, there ARE other ways, too, but that’s got to be for another day…I got a headache!

How do we make a digital negative? Here’s how…’s real easy. Go through your shots, colour or black and white, it doesn’t matter at this stage….find the best one you like. If it’s in colour, use your cheating software (ok, guys…I had to get that jibe in! For me, photo software is cheating…but hey…who cares about what I think!), and convert the colour shot to mono….if you really want to, twiddle and fiddle about with the saturation, contrast, brightness settings to get it right, reverse it into negative form on the computer….load up your inkjet printer with overhead transparency film, and print the inverted shot out. That’s our negative done.

Final thing we need is a light source. A UV lamp is ideal if you’ve won the lottery or work as a banker..or are just loaded with money anyways! If not, use a free UV source…the sun!

That’s all we need.

Preparing the chemicals

Unless you’ve bought a kit with ready prepared chemical solution that you just brush onto your print paper, you will have to mix the right quantities up yourself. Ok; before you go and try that…..STOP! CAUTION! HEY! WAIT! NO! PLEASE!

Sorry I had to be a bit childish there, but it’s to draw your attention to the point that these chemicals can be dangerous if you don’t take suitable precautions, dangerous in the sense that they may damage sensitive skins, etc. Play safe anyway….just wear good rubber gloves and I always wear a pair of plastic goggles, just in case a stray drop gets splashed into your eye by chance.

Ok, so you got your gloves and lab goggles on….mix about 20g of “Laurel” with approx 100ml of distilled water (I’ve actually used rain water for this once, just for fun, and you know what, it worked just as well! Right, then take mix 8g of “Hardy” with 100ml of water as above. These 2 mixed chemicals we can store for many months…again, I once found my old bottles that had been stored for more than 5 years in a corner of my garden shed, and because I’m just like a kid (so says my wife), I tried the chemicals out and…yep, you guessed it, they worked! But I wouldn’t try that with one of my prize negatives!

Coating the paper

Now that our chemicals are ready, we need to get our print paper ready. Remember I mentioned Laurel and Hardy above? Why did I call them that? To save typing out those hellishly long names, that’s all!

Ok, pour equal amounts of Laurel and Hardy into a non-metallic dish (not a dish you’ll be using to give junior his breakfast, please..) and have your paper sheets ready…I normally have my sheets taped to rectangles of plywood sheets just bigger than the prints I’m going to make, just like when getting watercolour paper ready for painting (Marina from Athens will know what I’m talking about…here’s thinking of you, Marina!).

Ok; using a wide brush which doesn’t have a metallic thingy that holds all the brush hairs, paint the chemical mixture evenly all over the paper sheets. Make sure we get a good even covering. This painting the sheets must be done away from UV light, so do it in a place where there is subdued lighting….maybe a darker corner of the room or even a darkroom if you have one. The room doesn’t have to be completely light-proof, but no UV must be present.

Now we hang our sheets up to dry (no, not the bed sheets silly….); I leave mine for at least 4 or 5 hours, more if necessary.

Exposing the negative

We now have to lay our negative and print paper, both emulsion side facing each other (you’ll be able to tell which is the emulsion side by looking at both the negative and paper), into our contact printing frame.

A little explanation is due here, I think. You know what a photo frame looks like at the back? It has a wooden sheet to hold the photo in it….well, what I did was to take this sheet, cut it in half and join the 2 halves together again with strips of strong packing tape. The reason for this is because you are going to expose the print to sunshine or UV lamp, and because this is not a precise art, you are going to need to look at the print paper at intervals of a few minutes, to see if the paper is being exposed correctly and hasn’t gone too dark. To allow you to do that, my frame is hinged in half as above, so that one half remains tightly held in the frame, while I can lift up the other half away from the negative and inspect it, then lock that half of the frame tight again. If you accidentally move the negative and print whilst in the frame, don’t fret about it….as I said, it’s not a precise art and many a time I’ve accidentally moved both negative and paper in the frame, but I let the exposure carry on, and in many cases, you can’t tell the difference, unless there has been a massive shift.

When the print paper has become a little darker than you’d really want it, plus a little more, we remove the print from the frame and wash it in a dish of water or under running water…that’s it!

You may not like what you see after washing the paper, but leave it to dry and after a few hours, the print will get better and better, with the dark bits getting really deep blue etc etc.

Finally, this video shows a cyanotype print being made….the guy uses a slightly different method to what I describe above, but the result is the same.

Ready-prepared cyanotype kits are in stock…check them out here




About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
This entry was posted in art, black & white photography, chemicals & film, Classic film cameras and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.