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Cyanotype: An Overview

As I explore a photographic process, I will post brief summaries of its essential technical elements. These summaries are not meant to be comprehensive or to substitute for books that deal in-depth with these processes. They are more field notes for myself and might be useful for a quick lookup while working with these processes. Remember that many of these alternative processes have been around for a century and a half and more and they have evolved considerably over that time. Remember, too, that these processes were not originally meant to be used with silver or even digitally printed negatives as most modern practitioners of alternative photo processes do. There are endless variations of formulas and techniques rather than one simple "right" method as my quick overview might imply to the superficial observer. But hopefully these summaries will serve as a quick reference or encourage you to read and explore further.

History: The Cyanotype was first described by Sir John Herschel in 1842. Numerous variations on the original formula are available.

Negatives: Generally a density range of about 1.35-1.4 is okay. That is, many negatives meant for ordinary darkroom printing with diffusion enlargers can be used. I find slightly contrastier negatives with a range of about 1.5- to be more suitable when using vinegar instead of water as the developer.

Sensitizer: Solution A: 20% ferric ammonium citrate (green) solution
Solution B: 8% potassium ferricyanide solution
Store both solutions in separate bottles and mix 1:1 just before use. Solutions will keep indefinitely in sealed dark bottles. Bacteria that might grow on solution A can be filtered off.

Coating the Paper: Any non-buffered paper can be used with gelatin sizing if necessary. Alkaline environments will degrade Cyanotypes. Coat evenly with brush or glass rod under low tungsten light. Can be air dried or dried with mild heat.

Printing: Printing times can be fairly long. Check the highlights by opening the split back to see if they are a shade or two darker than you want in the print. They will lighten considerably in the wash. The shadows are not good indicators as they might begin to reverse during the printing out process.

Processing: Cyanotypes can be developed using water. But white vinegar gives slightly more midtone contrast, about a stop and a half more dynamic range and a sharper print. But vinegar tends to tint the highlights light blue instead of pure white. I have found a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and distilled water to give the best balance between retaining highlights and a longer tonal range. Develop by agitating in a tray for 45 secs to one minute and then put in a running water wash for 5 minutes. Hang to dry. A 0.3% bath of hydrogen peroxide (1+10 sol of commonly available 3% hydrogen peroxide solution and water) just before the final wash will oxidize the print to a deep blue. This is not necessary as the print will slowly oxidize in the air as it dries, but the peroxide bath lets you see the final color at once.

Toning: Tea or coffee or tannic acid can be used to tone cyanotypes. Bleaching with a solution of one tablespoon of sodium carbonate (washing soda) per liter of water solution before toning is said to reduce staining effects but I have not yet found a satisfactory method to produce repeatable results while toning cyanotypes.

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