To date I’ve made a couple of attempts at salt printing: at a workshop back in April which I followed up last month with my first attempt at home. Feedback from a group of friends convinced me that I was on the right track and with a group exhibition planned for later this year, that I had a project worth pursuing.
My quest for exhibition quality salt prints took a step futher at the weekend with a marathon two-day darkroom session and a reworked process involving carefully selected art paper, gold toner and the usual large measure of luck.
Paper preparation and exposure
- Image: Digital negatives prepared from Ilford FP4+ 4×5 sheet film.
- Paper: Daler Rowney, The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP.
- Salt solution: 2% sodium chloride applied by foam applicator.
- Sensitiser solution: 1ml of 12% silver nitrate applied by pipette and hake brush.
- Exposure: UV face tanner, time determined by test strip.
- Pre wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
- Salt bath: 1% sodium chloride, 30 seconds with agitation.
- Wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
- Toning bath: Tetenal Goldtoner diluted 1:4, 5 minutes.
- Wash: tap water, 5 minutes, frequent agitation
- 2-bath Fix: 15% hypo with 0.25% sodium carbonate, 5 minutes each bath with agitation.
- Wash: tap water, 5 minutes with agitation.
- Hypo clear bath: 1% sodium sulphite, 5 minutes with agitation.
- Final wash: tap water, 60 minutes.
The above process was adapted from that detailed in the book The Salt Print Manual by Ellie Young. Limitations to space, resources and availability of materials necessitated some compromises:
- For each wash I used single 40-litre plastic storage boxes rather than a two-tray set up with running water,
- I used a ready made product, Tetenal Goldtoner, which I diluted to strength, rather than preparing toner with gold chloride solution which I simply couldn’t source in the UK,
- My local craft supplies store does not stock any of the tested art papers recommended in the book but did stock The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP paper which met the specifications for being 100% cotton, acid free, gelatin sized and of sufficient weight to withstand all the washing.
I wanted to have a defined coated area which the negatives would overlap slightly, thus avoiding the sharp, straight edges of the negatives showing on the print. To achieve this I formed three masks from mountboard, one for the salt solution, one for the sensitiser and one to position the negative. By using separate masks I avoided contamination between the coatings. Once sensitised, the paper has to be exposed within two hours so I split my workflow into two batches, preparing four sheets at a time.
The first print was not much success, showing staining where the drops of silver nitrate from the pipette had fallen on the paper and then been poorly spread with very obvious brush marks. The second print was better and from the third print onwards results were very acceptable although by the final three, shadows were blocking up and the prints were becoming quite dark, a sign of too much silver.
I concluded that I had not sufficiently wetted the hake brush before starting and so for the first sheet it had absorbed rather than spread the silver nitrate sensitiser. As the session progressed the brush was carrying over a combination of salt and sensitiser from one sheet to the next leading to too great a concentration on the later sheets. I also noticed that the bristles on the hake brush became clumped together and because the brush strokes were constrained to the image area by the mask, this led to a grid-like pattern of sensitiser application, most noticeably around the edges and corners of the prints.
There was just enough silver nitrate solution left over to make a second print from the first negative. This time I spread it with a well wetted clean foam applicator. Unfortunately the paper was rather hurredly coated and each coat was not properly dried before exposing the paper which led to some dark banding in the finished print. However it did show me the difference that using slightly less sensitiser and a different applicator could make.
A couple of days later I had the opportunity to show the set of dried prints to my group of friends. It was interesting to observe their reactions and useful to hear their feedback. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find that prints I would have discarded are aesthetically pleasing to others!
I am greatly encouraged that my marathon darkroom session was not in vain. I’ll need to plan soon for the next one!