Getting Started
Pro Tips For Platinum Printing

This photograph of skunk cabbage was made in the Sangre de Cristo mountains south of Westcliffe, Colorado using a Bender 4x5 camera with Rodenstock 210mm lens and Tri-X film.
Photos © 1999, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

"The tone he produces on rough platinotype paper by skillful printing and carefully aged mercury baths cannot be reproduced by any mechanical process."
--George Bernard Shaw on the photographs of Frederick Evans

I remember the first time I saw a Frederick Evans platinum print. Because many of his photographs were made in churches and cathedrals, you might say it was a religious experience, and in many ways it was. Frederick Evans' prints form a body of work that is as impressive today as they were when he made them at the turn of the last century.

The platinum process dates from 1873 and prints contain no silver, producing the final image with platinum. Platinum is an extremely inert element, even more so than gold, and properly processed prints can last 500-1000 years. While popular in Evans' day, the use of platinum printing declined after World War I because of rising costs. During this time, some photographers switched to palladium printing, which has almost the same tonal scale, richness, and delicacy as platinum prints. Palladium prints are warm black to sepia and have a smoother tone, while platinum prints tend to be neutral gray. The printing techniques used in palladium printing are almost identical to those used in the platinum process. Because it's much more costly for the photographer and more difficult to produce, less than five percent of today's fine art photographs are printed using platinum. One photographer who still does is Bill Craig, who some people call the "Ansel Adams of the Rockies." I talked with Craig about the materials and techniques he uses to create his limited edition platinum prints.

Making Platinum Prints. If you're interested in making your own platinum prints, here's all of the equipment you'll need to get started: a photographic negative, contact printer, several developing trays, clear plastic wrap, a 25w yellow bug light (to be used as a safelight), an ultraviolet (UV) radiation source (more on this later), platinum paper, platinum paper developer, and rinsing agent.

Most darkrooms already have a contact printer and several developing trays, but since these trays should be completely free of fixer and any residue from chemicals used for processing silver-based prints, you may want to purchase new trays and dedicate their use to platinum printing. If you have to use existing trays, clean them first using Clorox or a similar bleach, then rinse the trays for an hour. If the trays are not absolutely clean when used for platinum printing, you can get streaks or marks on your finished prints.

The type of clear plastic wrap used for the process isn't critical and Craig uses the kind that's used for wrapping sandwiches, which is available from your local supermarket. Just about any type of print washer that you use for your silver prints will also work for washing platinum prints. The prints are exposed by an UV radiation source and you can build your own or use the sun, which is what Craig does. The images for this story were created with chemicals and paper that are available from Palladio, who sells starter kits that include pre-coated platinum/palladium paper and the chemicals necessary to get started making your own prints. Chemicals are also available from Photographer's Formulary, who carries materials for platinum printing as well as other processes, and all chemicals come with instructions.

The Las Trampas Mission, which is on the high road between Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, was made using a Zone VI 4x5 camera, Ilford Delta 100 film, and Rodenstock 210mm lens.

Exposing The Negative. The platinum or palladium printing process requires contact printing, so obviously large format negatives are the way to go. Craig uses 4x5" negatives, but you can use any size you want--the bigger the better. To make the exposure, take the negative and, with the contact printer open, place the negative with the emulsion side facing up away from the glass of the printer. Then take a piece of clear plastic wrap and cover the negative with a piece at least twice the size of the negative. This holds the negative fast to the contact printer's glass and serves as a barrier between the negative and the coated platinum paper. When you close the hinged contact printer lid, the negative will have its emulsion side next to the paper with the plastic wrap serving as a barrier protecting the negative.

The next step is to make a test strip using a 1" wide piece of platinum or palladium coated paper. If you use pre-coated paper, you will have to "re-humidify" the paper before the test strip can be made. Here's how Craig accomplishes this: his 12x15' darkroom has a single safelight, which he replaces with a 25w yellow bug light when working with platinum printing materials. To re-humidify the paper, he's found that using a plastic bucket filled with steaming hot water works well for adding humidity to the paper. The key is to hold the paper by its edges in the steam coming off the water. You should be careful not to get the paper wet. After the paper has been in the steam for a minute or so, it becomes soft and pliable. That's when you know it's ready to use.

After the paper is re-humidified, you should place it--emulsion side up--on the contact printer. When you close the contact printer, make sure that the negative covers the paper. The next step is to expose the paper. Craig then slips the contact printer into an old black plastic bag that once held photographic paper and heads outdoors. Once outside, he takes the contact printer out of the bag and uses the sun as an UV source, which has a few advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that it's free and the drawback is that it can be inconsistent. If you expose the test strip in the bright sun and it becomes cloudy when you process the final print, you will have to start over with a new test strip or wait until the sun comes out again. Another variable is the time of the day that the exposure is made. The richest UV source is typically from 10:00am to 2:00pm, and you can introduce inconsistency into the process if you make the test strip at 2:00pm and the print later at 4:00pm.

Craig lives in Colorado at 6000 feet above sea level, so his exposure times are less than they would be at sea level, due to the higher amounts of UV light at this altitude. When exposing the platinum or palladium test strip, he uses the standard method of covering part of the paper with an opaque sheet of cardboard. One difference between silver and platinum printing is that because the chemicals in the paper react to the UV before processing occurs, you can actually see what the exposure is going to produce before processing the paper. Craig watches the paper until it looks like it's almost dark enough for a proper exposure, then covers portions of the negative. When doing platinum/palladium test strips, the exposure times will be in minutes of exposure and not the seconds you may be more familiar with. If the print looks like it is almost dark enough at three minutes, he covers the first 1/5 of the paper and in minute intervals continues to cover the rest of the paper in 1/5 increments. In this example, the first 1/5 is exposed at three minutes, the next 1/5 is at four minutes, and so on. The photograph of the Las Trampas Mission, for example, took four minutes of exposure to the sun. After exposing the paper, he places the contact printer back in the black plastic bag and heads into the darkroom to process the paper.

Processing The Paper.
Palladio offers two kinds of developers: warm tone or cool tone and Craig uses both for his fine art work. The warm tone developer produces the brown palladium look seen in Craig's photograph of the Las Trampas Mission and the cold tone produces the classic platinum look seen in his skunk cabbage image. When working with all of Palladio chemicals, the company suggests that you wear a mask and latex gloves for mixing chemicals and that you wear gloves while processing the prints. Here are the steps Craig used to process those two images.

There are two different chemicals needed to process platinum or palladium paper: developer and clearing bath. Craig mixes the developer with distilled water at 70°F and adds an ounce of hydrogen peroxide to boost contrast. The hydrogen peroxide is the same topical anti-infective you can buy at the drug store and is a three percent solution. A key part of the first processing step is to slip the paper into the developer with the emulsion side up. Slip it in quickly; any hesitation will cause a line to appear on the paper. Once the paper is fully immersed in the developer, let it set for four minutes. Do not agitate. After four minutes, dip the paper in a water bath for one minute. Timing on this step is not critical because the purpose of the water bath is to prolong the life of the clearing baths. After the water dip, immerse the paper in a first clearing bath for at least four minutes, then place it into the second clearing bath for at least four minutes. During the clearing baths, you can use some gentle agitation.

The clearing baths are not like fixer, so there's no need to worry about over clearing. Craig has left prints in the clearing bath while eating dinner and an hour later washed the prints with no problems. Both clearing bathes use the same chemicals. The idea of using two clearing baths is to prolong the life of the baths. After the clearing baths, wash the prints in an archival print washer. Washing is not as critical as with silver prints and Craig uses a 15 to 30 minute wash compared to a two hour wash for fiber-based silver prints. After the wash, hang the print to dry. During the entire process from the steaming of the paper to the washing and hanging of the print to dry, be sure to hold the paper by the edges and never touch the emulsion. The emulsion is extremely delicate and you can damage it if you touch it. To flatten the print after it has dried, place it on the platen of a cold dry mount press or slip the prints between two sheets of rag matte board and use a stack of books for flattening.

Platinum or palladium printing is a never-ending learning process. As with silver printing, platinum/palladium printing improves with experience and patients and printers with 20 years of platinum/palladium experience tell me they are still learning and improving on their methods.


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