The Light Farm, Volume 2, Beyond Basics (under construction)

Paper Negatives

"Another very convenient method of preparing sheets of paper for negatives is by means of a perfectly straight glass tube of the width of the paper, round the ends of which are two india-rubber rings, of the thickness the film is desired to be. If thought advantageous, a rod may be passed through the tube, and bent round to join, and so to from a handle, by means of which the tube will revolve as it passes over any surface.

The paper is damped as before, and stretched on perfectly flat plate glass, the emulsion poured gradually in front of the roller, and the emulsion takes a fine layer of uniform thickness."

Photography with Emulsions, A Treatise on the Theory and Practical Working of the Collodion and Gelatine Emulsion Processes, by William De W. Abney, 1885.


Paper negatives have increased in popularity more than I would have expected while excellent quality commercial films are still available. Price maybe? RC paper is about a quarter the cost of sheet film. Easier to work with? Paper can be handled in safelight conditions. I think it's a bit of both, but perhaps mostly it's about the fun and "looseness" of the process. I know that's what grabbed me.

For anyone interested in D.I.Y. photography, but intimidated by the process of just getting started, paper negatives are an excellent way to begin. You could coat on commercial (glossy) baryta paper and end up with a product identical to commercial paper, although, currently, commercial plain baryta paper is hard to source. You could fix out old black and white printing paper, but I don't see the point in the effort. As long as excellent quality commercial products are still available, I see no reason to re-create those products. Handmade photography is its own art form. A handmade paper negative, coated on watercolor paper, has its own identity.

Below: Mouse at Literacy Park, Newport, Oregon. The top set is 4"x 5" 'AmBr' film. The bottom set is a 4"x 5" paper negative coated with an 'AmBr' variation. The pink color is from the erythrosin used to make the negative orthochromatic. It doesn't wash out of paper like it does film. Erythrosin is completely optional. "Colorblind" emulsion is very much suited to paper negatives. Personally, I've decided to leave ortho for film and plates. If I decide someday that paper negatives are particularly suited to cloud photography, I might change my mind. Viva la evolution!

A paper negative requires at least a stop more exposure than a film negative even if the emulsions are essentially the same. The light doesn't bounce off the back of the film to augment the exposure. This also results in a paper negative being lower in contrast. This can be a very good thing. The sun was bright and harsh on the bronze sculpture when I exposed this set — difficult conditions for a naturally contrasty plain silver emulsion. I should have given the film negative an N-1, or even N-2 treatment, but for comparison's sake, they both got standard exposure and development in HC110. The paper negative almost post-processed itself. A simple scan, invert, and auto-contrast. The film negative took a bit of fussing with curves and levels.


Fine detail is not the strength of paper negatives, at least those not coated on glossy baryta paper — (opinion alert) but really, who cares? Even a phone camera will capture sharpness up the wazoo. It's high time for a renaissance of soft, expressive impressionist images. I would suppose there's an app for that, but I like real.

The amount of detail captured with paper negatives follows the same logic as with film negatives — the less the enlargement (which usually means the larger the format) the more detail in the final print.

Which is handy because paper negatives are so fast, cheap, and simple to make that they are perfect for large formats, and any image that isn't completely dependent on fine detail is suited just fine.

'Beer Barrels — Many, Many Beer Barrels'
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon

Both the paper negative and the film negative ('TLF#2') below it are Whole Plate format (6.5 x 8.5 inches). I don't usually cut film that big. I don't get enough sheets from a batch of film to do a lot of rigorous comparison testing — essential to research you want people to trust! This, however, was an excellent excuse to use a big sheet of film. 'TLF#2' is my favorite emulsion for shiny surfaces. It's "glowy" by nature. So, should the Rogue barrels be smooth and glowy or evocative of a pastel or charcoal drawing? That's up to the artist, of course. To tell the truth, I haven't decided myself, but it's nice to have the options.

Making and using 'TLF#2' is covered extensively in the book, 'The Light Farm, Vol. 1, The Basics' and here.

(Note: The information presented in the two locations is not identical. The book has the most current and comprehensive information.)


William De W. Abney's advice from over 130 years ago is still spot on. There is only a bit to improve. He "free-form" coated, and of course you can still do that (see here), but it's more wasteful of both paper and emulsion. Smooth, thin tape is a much better rod elevator than rubber bands, and today we have commercially available glass coating rods (a.k.a. Puddle Pushers). My preferred "wet paper coating" technique adds guide bars along the coating path to constrain the path of the emulsion. The selvages are very narrow. A nine-inch puddle pusher easily yields an eight-inch wide useable surface, by however far your coating runs down the length of the paper. The techique is extensively described in TLF, Vol. 1.

One vital trick when coating ultra-thin paper for paper negatives is lapping the top of the paper over a thin strip of Yupo synthetic paper. When the emulsion has set and you are ready to hang the paper to dry, the Yupo helps the paper lift off the glass coating surface. If it isn't there, it is almost impossible to start the lift. (You can guess how I know this :-). The Yupo strip follows the paper through the drying stage. It's cut off when you cut the paper into negatives. The Yupo can be cleaned and reused many times. The overlap area is not useable, so plan the width of the overlap accordingly.

After trying every paper imaginable, I've settled on my hands-down favorite: Helix brand 100% rag, acid free, plain vellum Paper. The 11"x 17" size is ideal with a 9-inch puddle pusher. The recipe is scaled to coat four sheets of this size.


1. Stage your work space and materials: Glass coating surface(s), paper, guide bars, clamps, distilled water in an impeccably clean tray, two puddle pushers prepped for coating (nine wraps of polyester film tape — Scotch 850 — seems to be best for coating Helix), paper towels, Yupo strips, a sheet of "mylar" (PET/polyester film) a bit bigger than the paper you are coating, and a squeegee. For the sheet of mylar, a tablet of 5 mil Grafix Dura-Lar Clear Acetate Alternative (not the "Wet Media" variety used for coating film negatives) is a valuable darkroom/studio basic. Failing that, one half of a plastic print bag (Clear Bags type) works, although the thinner material is a little harder to work with.

2. Line up the dry paper and Yupo strips before you get started so that you know the spacing. Vellum paper has a mind of its own once it gets wet, so once it's wet is not the time to be figuring out placement. Take the first sheet of dry Helix and dip it in the water, one side, then the other. Because it is so thin, the paper doesn't need to soak, although there can't be any dry spots.

3. (Here's when you'll understand about the paper "having a mind of its own." Don't despair! Practice makes perfect.) Lift the paper by the top corners and drain a few seconds. Place the top edge over the bottom half of the Yupo. Carefully smooth out the paper. Place the mylar sheet on top of the paper and pull the squeegee down the length of the mylar. Apply just enough pressure to ensure that the paper is in contact with the glass and that any surface water is shoved off the paper. Wipe the table around the paper. Remove the mylar without lifting the paper. The best way to do this is to roll it down from the top. Look at the paper carefully to be sure there are no standing puddles of water on its surface.

4. Using the two puddle pushers as width guides, clamp the guide bars to the table. Allow a millimeter or two of wiggle room so that your coating pull can be absolutely smooth.

5. Repeat with all the sheets.

6. One 11"x 17" sheet of paper, set up to coat with a 9" puddle pusher, takes about 3 tablespoons of emulsion. I happen to have the perfect scoop that came in a jar of protein powder but needless to say, a ¼ cup, filled two-thirds or three-quarters of the way, works just fine.

7. When the emulsion is ready to coat pour some from the beaker into the measuring cup. With the puddle pusher on the paper (at the top of the sheet where it overlaps the piece of Yupo) pour the emulsion in a line across the length of the puddle pusher. Immediately (but not too fast) pull the emulsion down the length of the paper. Immediately repeat with the remaining three sheets. There is no need to clean the puddle pusher between coatings, and because there are only four sheets to coat and this takes about four minutes total, the emulsion stays essentially the same temperature for each sheet.

8. Allow the emulsion to set up for about an hour — more or less depending on the temperature and humidity in your darkroom. The emulsion must be firm enough that it doesn't drip when you hang it, but it is just as important that the sheets not dry to the glass coating table. If they do you'll be removing them with a scraper.

9. Remove the coating guide bars. They will have emulsion on them. If you wipe them off while the emulsion is still wet, it will be a much easier task.

10. While the emulsion is wet it's a lot easier to see where it is on the paper. The tail end of a run is never straight. When the emulsion is dry it's much harder to see, so best to mark the beginning of bare paper before you hang a sheet to dry. A watercolor crayon works well.

11. Carefully lift the top edge of the Yupo sheet and pinch the paper and the Yupo together firmly as you pull the sheet up and off the table. Move the sheet to your hanging line and clip the middle and each corner, making sure you catch both the Yupo and the paper. Here's where experience beats any words I might write. You'll lose a few sheets before you get the knack of hanging wet paper.

12. Make sure the paper is completely dry before cutting. Drying takes less time than for film, dry plates, or heavy printing paper.

13. This recipe coats four sheets of Helix Vellum, 11"x 17", wet-coated, staged for a 9-inch puddle pusher with nine wraps of Scotch brand polyester film tape (#850). The amount of emulsion for each sheet is approximately 3T. The exact amount depends on how long you want the run of emulsion on a sheet. If you have a lot of emulsion left over, you've coated too thin (i.e. too warm). If you can't coat at least 3½ sheets, you've coated too thick (i.e. too cold). To get a better handle on your precise coating requirements, draw a mock-up of your format size. One sheet, fully coated, will yield six 4"x 5", or three 5"x 7", or two Whole Plate, or one 8"x 10" plus two 4"x 5". However, each possibility ends on the sheet in a different place. You want to minimize waste. "Waste" is actually useful when coating printing paper because you can use it for test strips. Unfortunately, waste paper negative material is less useful. If you are coating for 4"x 5" or 5"x 7", plan on as full a coat as possible on three sheets and whatever is left over on the last sheet. If you want Whole Plate, stop shy of the end of all the sheets. This will be very clear after you draw your format "map" and/or coat a batch or two. If you have the space to coat five sheets of paper, and plan the right amount of emulsion for each, you can get five 8"x 10" sheets, without the eight 4"x 5" sheets. If you use more than one format — for example, adding Baby Graphic size into your work flow — you may indeed be able to use the leftovers. If you only photograph with a Baby Graphic (2¼"x 3¼") I haven't even counted how many negatives you can get, but it's LOTS.

'AmBr Paper Negative'
by Denise Ross for The Light Farm, 2016

Preheat a waterbath to 55°C.


In a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup or 400 ml beaker, thoroughly dissolve together

Distilled water... 45 ml

Ammonium bromide ("AmBr")... 4.2 g


Photographic gelatin ... 3 g

Cover, bloom 15 minutes and then place in the preheated waterbath (WB). Let sit 30 minutes, making sure the waterbath temperature comes back to 55°C.

Stir in:

10% Potassium iodide solution (KI)... 1 ml (20 drops)

For orthochromatic sensitivity: 1-2 drops 2% erythrosin solution (in 1:1 distilled water and Everclear/ethanol)


Dissolve together

Silver Nitrate (AgNO3)... 5 g

Distilled water... 45 ml


Mix together, cover, and set aside

Distilled water, cold... 25 ml

Photographic gelatin... 5 g


Preheat a WB to 55°C. Set a timer for 10 minutes. GO TO SAFELIGHT.

  • Form a fast, vigorous vortex in the salted gelatin and add the silver solution by pouring through a very small aperture mini-funnel.
  • Immediately add the second gelatin. Stir one minute and then stop stirring.
  • Let the emulsion sit in the waterbath, without stirring, for 45-60 minutes. After you decide your favorite time, be consistent.
  • Pour the emulsion through a Keurig K-cup reusable coffee filter into a clean beaker.
  • Gently stir in 5 drops Photoflo 200 and 2 drops glyoxal.
  • Set the beaker of emulsion in a cold waterbath.
  • Cool to mid-32's°C and coat.

Tip: Clean the mini-funnel with a round wood toothpick.

Variables to try: 1) Different aperture funnels resulting in different precipitation rates, 2) higher and lower temperatures,
and 3) different ripening times.

Here's where things get both more complicated and more interesting. "Simple" is not synonymous with "easy." In the case of handmade paper negatives, the simplicity of actually making the negatives is balanced by the idiosyncrasies of the medium and the challenge of working within that framework.


No surprise, but paper negatives aren't stiff like LF film negatives. This makes loading the holders a bit more difficult. Fortunately, loading can be done under safelight conditions, so at least you can see what you're doing! Ease the negatives into the guide channels and push and pull (obvious when you're there) the paper toward the top of the holder. A stiff piece of film would slide right in and under the top lip, but paper fights the process. The easiest way to get it done is to take a sheet of LF film and place it over the paper and then under the lip. When you push the paper, the film flattens it enough to guide it under the lip. It's essential it be under the lip across its entire width. If it isn't, when you try to push the darkslide back in place after the exposure, the slide will catch on the paper and push it into a crumpled wreak.


The Goldilocks Theory applies here: not too much; not too little. "Too little" is pretty much self-explanatory. "Too much" is a little more complicated. Paper negatives don't experience halation to speak of, but high exposure areas expose right through to the back of the negative. This results in patchy areas of deep density. These in turn become patchy light areas on the print. The patchy areas can be almost eliminated if you put a sheet of black paper over the back of the negative in the scanner, rather than having the white inside lid of the scanner in contact with the negative. A paper negative is scanned as you would a print, not like film. This is another advantage of paper negatives. A film scanner (or flatbed with a scanning lid) isn't required.

NOTE: The ISO of the emulsion is approximately one stop slower than 'AmBr' on glass or film. Part of the speed and density of a negative on a transparent substrate is from light bounce back — the same phenomenon that can cause halation and irradiation. Halation and irradiation can still happen on a paper negative, but it's a less pronounced (for better or for worse — I like halation.)

Below, from left to right: Straight scan of a modified Stouffer step tablet, the same with "Auto Contrast" applied in Photoshop, and the back side of the negative.

A bromide emulsion doesn't easily achieve deep black. What is it gives in return is an extraordinary density range. I've modified my Stouffer's by punching three holes and running polyester film tape (Scotch 850) over the middle of both rows. The tape blocks the light so that the paper base + unexposed emulsion runs through the blocks. It's easy to see that the density range of the paper negative is greater than the steps available. Since the hole punched in the clearest block of the Stouffer's (i.e. the darkest block on the print) matches the rest of the block, you can tell the maximum density has been reached with this exposure. It's hard to tell from the jpegs, but each block has a distinct density. It's easy to see the two most likely issues with paper negatives — halation/irradiation in areas with the greatest density and emulsion bleed-through to the back of the negative.


  • Keep all the solutions on the cool side (65-68°F/18-20°C).

  • Before you put a paper negative in the developer, place a glass plate under it, the same size as the negative or just a bit larger. Handle the negative by the glass plate throughout processing and washing. If you don't, the ultra-thin paper will glaum onto the bottom of the trays and be almost impossible to move without damage. Hopefully needless to say is that the edges of the glass should be smooth so that you don't cut yourself along the line. You'll only need as many as the number of negatives you expect to develop in a typical session. If you don't have glass plates lying around from making dry plate negatives, a good glass company will cut and smooth some plates for you. Unless you're the careless type, it's a one-time investment and shouldn't cost much.

  • I think Kodak HC100 developer is ideal. It delivers the best contrast with the lowest risk of peppering of any developer I've tried. 3% concentrate in distilled water. The easiest way to measure out HC110 is with a graduated syringe. Pull the amount you need up into the syringe. You may want to keep a small amber bottle refilled with the concentrate for this. Make sure the concentrate is thoroughly and evenly dispersed in the water. An eddy of concentrate will result in areas of greater density on the final negative.

  • Use hardening fixer. I've been using Kodak Kodafix — 1 part concentrate in 4 parts water.

  • Washing: Passive washing works just fine — fortunately, because the paper negative wouldn't be able to go through a print washer. Soak a negative five to ten minutes in a tray not much larger than the negative. I have a collection of food storage containers (Glad and Ziploc brands) that seem to be made just for the darkroom and various formats of film and paper. After the time, carefully pour off the water (while holding down a corner of the negative and its backing glass). Refill. Repeat five times. A variation on this technique, and less wasteful of water if you are processing a number of negative in the same session, is to sequentially transfer the negatives from one tray to the next down a line of five trays. By the time a negative has been through the last tray, that water is essentially clean.

  • Drying is the same as with a print. Slide the negative off the glass plate onto a couple of layers of clean paper towels. Take a clean puddle pusher and pull it over the negative. If the puddle pusher wants to catch on the emulsion, dampen it first. Lay the negative on its paper towel somewhere flat and clean to dry.

  • The dry negative will be curled. A dry mount press can be used just as you would with a print, but it isn't necessary. The paper negative is so thin it's easy (enough) to tame. Take two pieces of clean mat board, cut to a little larger than a negative. Now, use a clothes iron (no water) and iron the mat board until they're hot. Carefully place the negative between the pieces of mat board. Get it flat! Any creases will be permanent. Place a sheet of glass over the mat board/negative/mat board sandwich and then put something heavy on the glass. When everything cools, the negative will be flat enough to work with, even if it still wants to curl a bit. The longer it sits under the weight, the flatter it will be.

    NOTE: If you get the negative too warm, it can contract and wrinkle. Unless you've absolutely fried the emulsion, this can be fixed by re-soaking the negative in clean water, drying it as before and re-flattening.


The Yaquina River Bridge, Newport, Oregon. Winter Solstice, 2016. A sunny, cold, windy day. Paper Negative. ISO 3. A 100-year old Whole Plate (6.5" x 8.5") camera with a modern 150mm lens. The lens doesn't have enough coverage for the format and I have yet to get the vignetting centered. I don't mind the vignetting as long as I remember to take it into account, but I really need to take the time some afternoon to center the lens correctly. Alas, I keep never getting around to it.

The negative was scanned on a flatbed scanner (Epson V800 Photo) at 2400 ppi and 16-bit grayscale. I cancelled/reset the curves the scanner wanted to apply to the scan.

I put a piece of black watercolor paper over the back of the negative before scanning.

Invert and auto contrast, plus micro-bubbles spotted out.

This was colorblind emulsion. If it had been orthochromatic the bright clouds in the sky would have been discernable, even without a yellow filter. With a yellow filter, the clouds would have really popped, but the exposure would have been almost ten minutes and the luminosity would have been lost. As it is, the clouds just resulted in a bit of a smudge of density variation.

The back of the negative shows quite a few black patches where the bright sky bled the exposure through. The black backing all but eliminated those and because they are in bright areas anyway, most completely disappear. This isn't the case when the negative is contact printed.

The back of the Yaquina Bridge paper negative and a crop of the resulting contact print on 'ClBr Kodabromide-Type Paper'.

The print looked like it had the pox. Both the density patches and the spotted-out areas printed very light. Fortunately, handmade paper is very easy to spot. The dyes apply much faster and more evenly than on commercial paper. Also, a contact print from a paper negative picks up the texture of the paper the negative is coated on, including the screen lines. The print almost looks like it is on linen. This makes the stippling essentially invisible.

The recipe and complete making, coating, and printing information on 'ClBr Kodabromide-Type Paper', plus a chloride "gaslight" paper, and a bromide enlarging paper are in TLF,Vol. 1.

Micro-bubbles aren't as common on paper negatives as on film negatives, but they can happen. They look like tiny craters (far left). The emulsion forms a rim around the circle and the center of the circle is very thin emulsion or bare paper. Both the paper and the rim make spotting very easy. I use a red Pigma Micron pen, #oo5. Just a straight down dab in the center of the crater does the trick. The spot will now print a uniform white instead of black with a white circle.

The right hand image is the micro-bubble from the final print after the white circle has been spotted. The Kodabromide paper emulsion color is perfectly matched to all the black spotting liquids I've tried — Marshall's Basic Black, Breg Touchrite black, Fotodyes black, and pebeo 8050 grey film. Different emulsions have different colors. Base paper also influences color. Basic black doesn't exactly match a chloride gaslight (Azo-type) paper. You may want to experiment with spotting color sets or custom mix. Fotodyes comes with a good selection of colors. Freesytle Photographic carries it. Omega Brandess carries Marshall's, including individual bottles.

Spotting is covered in TLF, Vol. 1, but here are a few tips:

  • Work with a very small, good brush. My favorite is a Robert Simmons White Sable 785, size 8-aught, but any good brand is about the same. You might want to try a few of them to find your favorite. The nice thing about the tiny brushes is that they are relatively inexpensive. Dick Blick has a great selection and very good prices.

  • Work with cut-up squares of white tissue paper (the kind you wrap presents in — I use a high quality, acid-free tissue paper I got to protect prints, but I have no idea if that's important). A roll of paper towels is also handy. Use distilled water to dilute the dyes, and to dampen the paper.

  • Dilute the dye 1:1 with water. One drop of dye plus one drop of water will easily spot the most pox'ed print. Dip the tip of the brush in the dye and then dab it on tissue paper. You want to work with an almost dry brush. Go slow. Gradually stipple up to the matching density. Aim for a shade lighter than the surrounding area you're trying to match. A bit lighter is invisible. A bit darker stands out like a sore thumb. Step back from the print regularly to carefully evaluate where you're at.

  • If you overdo, you can wet the area with a brush and then press a couple of layers of stacked tissue paper over the spot. It should lighten. Sometimes it's easier to spot an area that is a little damp.

  • If you end up with a color cast that doesn't match the print you can adjust the shade by applying a very dilute wash of its complementary color. The most common unwanted colors are shades of purple or green. A wash of yellow will mask purple and magenta will mask green. Marshall's calls them Primary Yellow and Primary Red. Fotodyes calls them Yellow and Magenta. Beware that adding color, even when the goal is returning to neutral gray, adds density. This is another reason to stop short of an exact density match.

  • Practice on test prints first :-).

Below: Contact print directly from the paper negative, spotted, and a crop of the same.

Contact print on the same paper, but from a digital negative.

Personally, I prefer this route. To make the digital negative I started from the PS-adjusted positive file and applied "Curves" to bring the density down. Reading the histogram panel, the best negatives for ClBr paper have the medium and a mean between 15 and 25 and the standard deviation of 10, give or take 3 — image and taste dependent, of course. The digital negative is darker than the paper original. This allows enough printing time to get a nice rich black emulsion border around the image. After I get the first print, I usually go back to make adjustments to the negative (usually by burning and dodging) and then print the new negative before I call things final. Obviously, Photoshop can let you make any kind of image you want from the original negative. Art is art.

Another advantage of making a digital negative for the final print is that you can start from small negatives. Below: Baby Graphic negative (2¼" x 3¼") and its positive. This negative brings up another possibility for paper. It was coated on Rives BFK, lightweight (115 gsm). The paper is cream-white, but the color doesn't make any difference. The Rives paper is much, much easier to deal with than the Helix paper. It even loads easier. The only disadvantage (in my opinion) is the texture. It's smooth by HP watercolor paper standards, but for direct contact printing the texture is really noticeable and hard on the details of the image. A digital print (virtual or actual) or a contact print from a digital negative has just enough texture for interest.


Rives BFK, 115 gsm, negative and its positive.


Digital print from a 4"x 5" Helix Vellum paper negative, scanned with black backing. PS invert and curves.

One last note of paper negative boosterism: This was a very challenging scene to photograph. The areas of light were very bright and shadows on black basalt are very dark. The long contrast range of the paper negative captured the whole range of values.

Updated: 2/21/17




I'm busy making paper negative material ahead of a trip and decided to test a few printing ideas I've had but never acted on. To the greatest extent possible, I like to remove computers from my printing, but I don't care for highly textured images. My goal in testing was to reduce texture without resorting to a digital negative.

The first thing I tried was oiling the turtle paper negative. It made the paper more translucent, but this didn't help with the appearance of texture on the contact print. It may actually be a bit worse. (I used the print to play around with handcoloring.)









The second thing I tried (second print in the stack), I'm very happy with. I slipped the paper negative into a Clearbags 1.6 mil polyester bag and then put a piece of translucent YUPO paper in the bag on the non-emulsion side. I contacted printed the assemblage with ClBr paper (Kodabromide-type). The contrast ranges of the ClBr paper and the BrI paper negative are a near-perfect fit, and the appearance of texture from the Helix vellum paper the negative is coated on is greatly reduced.



Below, from the left: Crops
1) from the pelican paper negative — emulsion-to-paper emulsion direct contact print,
2) from a contact print with the Yupo and poly bag — one side of the bag is between the emulsions, and the Yupo is in tight, direct contact with the back of the negative,
3) and from the virtual print from the scanned paper negative. A virtual print, or by extension, an inkjet print made from the file, is the closest to a film negative, but whether or not that is desirable is open to debate (sometimes in my own head!).

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