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'Yaquina Fog'

Emulsion making and research started out as a hobbyist's occupation.  Reading the old literature, you can sense the excitement.  They shared openly and gave credit freely.  By 1900, give or take a few years, the literature dried up.  In 1929, E. J. Wall wrote in Photographic Emulsions,

"There is nothing in the literature upon the subject (photographic emulsions) which helps one much when undertaking this sort of research work.  Practically all the knowledge is secreted in the great factories.  The worker at this point stands practically in the position of the man who first discovered emulsion photography, and he must battle his way through and pull himself up until he has acquired a knowledge equal to what is known at the present day.  This is far from a simple matter, but once I set to the task it proved tremendously fascinating."

We are today in the same place as Wall in 1929, but every year we are losing the people and materials that are needed to bridge the gap between yesterday and tomorrow.  If this research is allowed to languish much longer, the darkrooms will be gone.  Yes, there will still be beautiful black and white photographs hanging in museums (or more likely, in private collections) and there will even be old darkroom technique books left to buy used, but the intimate, casual experience of working the materials will be gone. The bridge burned.  Time's a wasting and secrets and egos are an unaffordable indulgence.

Some final advice from Mr. Wall, which I echo:

"Successful emulsion making depends upon so many and in some cases apparently trivial factors that the information given must be looked upon rather as signposts pointing the way than milestones conveying definite and accurate information, though no formula or method is given that has not been tried out practically".

Now, to the cooking.

I. Getting Started

Tools and Materials: (Important note: No aluminum, copper, bronze, chromed or galvanized tools)

  • Laboratory scale, ideally digital, calibratable, and accurate to .01 g.  Almost every other tool used in emulsion making can be fudged, but an accurate scale is essential.  My scale is accurate to .01 g but it only weighs to 300 g.  This is an affordable way to go.  For larger quantities (where the tolerance for error is higher) I use an ancient triple beam balance.  eBay is always a good source for used (and new) lab equipment, but check accuracy with good calibration weights.
  • Set of calibration weights.
  • Stainless steel chemical spatula.
  • Magnetic Stirring Hot Plate and a couple of sizes of stirring rods to fit snuggly or loosely in your beakers.
  • Digital hot plate or similar (I used the bottom of a detachable-style slow cooker for the first six months.)
  • Countdown digital timer
  • 25 ml glass stopcock burette with stand (
  • Monoject syringes (12cc/ml).
  • Assorted beakers. 50 ml, 250 ml, and 400 ml.
  • Graduated cylinders. 10 ml and 100 ml.
  • Pyrex covered dish (two if you aren't using a thermostatically-controlled hot plate).
  • 1/2-pint canning jars.
  • Lightproof refrigerator storage canister(s).  (I use the large size stainless steel watertight brush cleaner canister sold by Daniel Smith Art Supply.  My grocery/household goods store sells a stainless storage canister with a sturdy clear plastic spring-hinged lid that can be made lightproof with a couple of layers of black plastic secured between the lid and the canister.)
  • Plastic wrap.
  • Plastic spoons and forks.
  • Digital thermometers.  Two straight probe, and one with a long, flexible oven probe. (Mine are all Sunshine kitchen models.)
  • Red or amber safelight(s).
  • Small flashlight with red film over lens.
  • Gold mesh coffee filters.  Two basket style and one cone style.
  • Stainless steel tea strainer.
  • Plastic funnels.  One small that fits into the top of the burette and one wide mouth canning funnel.

Materials for 'I':

  • Hard bloom photographic grade gelatin.
  • Silver nitrate (AgNO3).
  • Sodium chloride (NaCl).
  • Citric acid.
  • Potassium bromide (KBr).
  • Potassium iodide (KI).
  • Photoflo 600 (or Daniel Smith Acrylic Flow Reducer cut 1:1 with distilled water).
  • Glyoxal.
  • Everclear or similar (keep some in a small atomizer bottle for spritzing).
  • Distilled water (keep some in the refrigerator).

Materials for 'Warm ':

  • Hard bloom photographic grade gelatin.
  • Silver nitrate (AgNO3).
  • MASU brand 100% Sea Water Salt (Version #1) or NaCl (Version #2).
  • Cupric Chloride (Version #1) or Potassium Chloride (Version #2).
  • Citric acid.
  • Ammonium bromide (NH4Br))H4Br.
  • Potassium iodide (KI).
  • Photoflo 600 (or Daniel Smith Acrylic Flow Reducer cut 1:1 with distilled water).
  • Glyoxal.
  • Everclear or similar (keep some in a small atomizer bottle for spritzing).
  • Distilled water (keep some in the refrigerator).

April 4, 2010. Material Info Update - Fabriano Artistico papers:  After a number of months of testing, I am convinced that Fab Art paper has been changed.  I started out with Fab Art X-white HP paper four years ago and have coated just about every variety of emulsion imaginable on it.  As ugly as some emulsions have been, one thing I felt confident in saying was that they were bullet-proof no bubbling, frilling or lifting.  That changed about four months ago.  I started getting tiny bubbles of lifting emulsion during washing.  I originally thought that one of my ingredients had gone old, but after replacing all of them, one by one, I did a whole range of paper samples again.  With any given run of emulsion, only the Fabriano Artistico papers develop bubbles.  I love Fab Art paper, so I pushed through for a work-around solution.  Bubbles are eliminated, or at the least greatly reduced if I use hardening fixer and follow with a 'speed wash' protocol (short pre-wash, archival washing aid, shortened final wash, squeegee, dry). dwr

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