Mike Ware - Alternative Photography
Mike Ware - Alternative Photography

Alternative Printing: A Conspectus


The full gamut of photographic printing processes may be little-known to contemporary photographers, who have been educated largely within the mainstream of the silver-gelatine tradition. My intention here is to help restore some of the 'lost' options by providing you with a handy reference list of the better-known alternative processes and an outline of their characteristics and working methods, without any detailed formulae or procedures. This should enable you to decide if 'there might be anything in it for you'. If so, then the texts listed in my bibliography should provide you with an entry into the practice, but the best practical introduction is to enrol on one of the advertised workshops that take place from time to time - in the UK under the aegis of the Royal Photographic Society, the Photographers' Place or one of the regional photographic galleries.

This account is a sequel to my earlier Defence of Alternative Process in Contemporary Photography No.1 and it may be read as a supplement to Hope Kingsley's excellent article in The Photographic Journal for September 1988, which addresses the subject from the historical viewpoint, providing a background to that successful RPS exhibition An A to Z of Photographic Processes.

Any photographic printing material that does not originate from a box labelled with one of the well-known commercial brand names may be described as 'historical', 'alternative', 'non-silver', 'unconventional', 'obsolete' or even 'archaic'. Nearly all such materials must be hand-made (though palladium paper is now commercially available once again in the USA) so the practices tend to be labour-intensive and their use does not increase any shareholders' dividends!

Most of the methods fall into three categories from the photochemical point of view, depending on the light-sensitive metal compound involved: whether it's a salt of silver, iron or chromium. The list at the end of this article is by no means exhaustive; there are some strange processes on record. I should be glad to hear of any processes I have omitted that are still known to be in current use. The historical attributions are necessarily oversimplified because many of the processes are not just due to the endeavours of one person.


Compared with modern silver-gelatine printing, the conspicuous disadvantage of most alternative processes is their low 'speed' in the photographic sense, because the sensitivity of the coatings to light is about a million times less than that of bromide enlarging papers. (Obviously this generalization does not apply to Carbro and Bromoil which actually start with a gelatine-silver bromide print as substrate). This disadvantage was largely responsible for the early commercial demise of alternative processes such as Platinotype at the same time as the market for miniature cameras and bromide enlarging papers was growing. Projection printing being generally impractical with the technology normally available, we must resort to contact printing as the only way to achieve sufficient light intensity: the technologist will opt for a mercury lamp as ultra-violet light source, but the mystics will prefer to 'sun-print' in the time-honoured fashion -especially if they enjoy a good climate! One compensation for the insensitivity of these processes is that they do not demand an enlarger or darkroom. Another, less obvious benefit is that these imaging systems are in principle capable of extremely high resolution; modern technology has rediscovered dichromated gelatine as an ideal material for recording holographic information, for instance. It should also be acknowledged that dichromated colloids have always found an essential application within the printing industry as the basis for several methods of photomechanical reproduction.


The enforced necessity for contact-printing leaves the 35 mm/roll-film practitioner with a choice of three possible photographic strategies:

  1. to make very small prints,
  2. to move up to large format equipment,
  3. to make internegatives by enlargement.
What are the relative merits? (1) produces exquisite gems -that can only be viewed through a magnifier! (2) can yield breathtaking results, but entails all the expense and difficulty of large format working and an irreversible act of commitment, for the following reason: many of the alternatives require a negative to be developed to such high contrast that it will be unprintable thereafter in conventional silver-gelatine. Strategy (3) offers a useful compromise, especially for those wishing to explore the processes for the first time. It is conveniently accomplished by using one of the direct duplicating films (e.g. Kodak SO-339) in 5"x4" or 10"x8" size, to make a high contrast (if need be) internegative from the original. An enlarger is used in much the same manner as for conventional printing, and with all the same potential for image manipulation at this stage, if so desired. A less expensive alternative favoured by some is to make interpositives and internegatives on paper.

Modus Operandi

The following steps outline a procedure typical of an iron-based process (the others may differ in some respects).

  1. If the photographer is given to the large-format ethos, the picture will be composed on the ground glass, in the knowledge that this is the real image that will fall on the film and not, as with viewfinder and reflex cameras, some optical derivative of it. Any misjudgement is entirely attributable to the operator, not the equipment! To use the acronym beloved of word-processor buffs: "WYSIWYG" - "What You See Is What You Get".
  2. Negative-making can employ the best modern technology, or not, according to taste (pace the calotypists, pinholists and other 'low-tech' photographers -I have no argument with you!) In order to match the negative density range to the intended printing process, it is likely that a procedure of calibrated metering, exposure and development - e.g. the Zone System- will be used. (The original motivation for the Zone System was to enable the photographer to print every negative using only a single grade of paper. These days, having many exposures on a roll and paper grades 1 to 6 or Multigrade technology, some of us have become lazy negative makers.)
  3. For printing the image, a fine-art paper is selected from the great range intended for watercolourists, etchers and printmakers, with regard to the suitability of its tint, surface texture, weight, sizing, etc. The papermakers could do us a great favour here by re-introducing products once especially suited for alternative photographic processes. For photographers inured to the bland gloss or mechanical stipple of commercial silver-gelatine, it may be a pleasure to rediscover that paper can be a beautiful material!
  4. The sensitizer chemicals are mixed - demanding no special skills beyond those of any darkroom practitioner. There are usually decisions to be made at this point regarding the intended colour and contrast of the image.
  5. A batch of paper is now coated by hand with the sensitizer solution; various techniques may be used - according to the skill (and flamboyance!) of the individual.
  6. After drying, the sensitized paper is contact-printed from the negative using the preferred light source. Some of the processes provide a 'printout' image, which may be inspected as it builds up, using the old-fashioned style of printing frame with a hinged back to retain registration. The need for test strips is thus avoided: "WYSIWYG" again! Printout also has the built-in advantage of being self-masking to some extent, so the process will tolerate a long density range in the negative and be non-critical in exposure time.
  7. Wet processing of the print follows, under ordinary tungsten lighting. Some processes (e.g. Bromoil) demand extensive 'handwork' at this stage; in others, like Gum Bichromate, it is an available option, whereas the 'straightest' processes (e.g. Platinotype) offer little or no scope for intervention in the processing. Chacun á son gout.
  8. Washing, drying, retouching and mounting are all simple, especially in the iron-based processes because the paper surface does not carry an organic binder layer and is very sympathetic to treatment.
  9. In some practices, e.g. Gum-Bichromate, the operator may now return to step 4 in order to make a multiple print.


I hope that this brief description of alternative printmaking will enable interested readers to decide whether they might love it or leave it. I have tried to convey something of the 'holistic' nature of the activity, in which being true to one's materials is a satisfaction in its own right. Perhaps Ansel Adams - not, admittedly, an enthusiast for alternative processes - would have forgiven me for invoking his nice analogy between the arts of music and photography, in which the musical score represents the negative and the concert performance, the final print. My belief is that however unique and unalterable the score, our pleasure in the work must ultimately depend upon the richness and variety of the performance.

First published in Contemporary Photography No.3 (1991).



Process Sensitizer/binder Image Inventor Year
Salt print Silver chloride/none Silver Talbot 1834
Albumen Silver chloride/albumen Silver Evrard 1850
Collodion Silver chloride/collodion Silver Simpson 1865
Print-out Silver chloride/gelatin Silver Mawdsley 1874
Ozobrom Silver bromide/gelatine
contact diffusion
Pigments Manly 1905
Bromoil Silver bromide/gelatine
dichromate bleach & harden
Litho Ink Piper & Wall 1907
Carbro Silver bromide/gelatine
contact diffusion
Pigment Farmer 1919



Process Sensitizer (Developer) Image Inventor Year
Argentotype Ferricitrate
(Dev: Silver nitrate)
Silver Herschel 1842
Ferricitrate+Silver nitrate
(Dev: water)
Silver Arndt &
Kallitype Ferric oxalate + Silver nitrate
(Dev: Borax or Rochelle salt)
Silver Hunt
Argyrotype Ferricitrate+Silver sulphamate
(Dev: water)
Silver Ware 1991
(Dev: water)
Herschel 1842
New Cyanotype Ferrioxalate+ferricyanide
(Dev: dil. nitric acid)
Ware 1992
Pellet Print Ferricitrate/tartrate
(Dev: Ferrocyanide+gum)
Chrysotype Ferricitrate
(Dev: chloroaurate(III))
Gold Herschel 1842
New Chrysotype Ferrioxalate+gold(I) complex
(Dev: carboxylic acids)
Gold Ware 1987
Platinotype Ferric oxalate+chloroplatinite
(Dev: oxalate)
Platinum Willis 1873
Sepia Platinum Ferric oxalate+chloroplatinite
+Mercury(II) salts
(Dev: oxalate)
Willis 1890
POP Platinum Sodium ferrioxalate + sodium chloroplatinite Platinum Pizzighelli 1887
Satista Ferric oxalate+silver chloride +chloroplatinite Silver+ Platinum Willis 1913
Palladiotype Ferric oxalate+chloropalladite
(Dev: oxalate)
Palladium Willis 1916
Amphitype Ferricitrate/ferritartrate +Mercury(II) salts Mercury Herschel 1842
Obernetter's Ferrocupric Ferric chloride+cupric chloride
(Dev: thiocyanate)
(Tone: ferricyanide)
Obernetter 1864
Phipson's Ferrioxalate
(Dev: permanganate)
Phipson 1861
(Dev: Gallic acid)
Colas 1860
(Dev: Tannic acid)
Nakahara 1894



Process Sensitizer/Colloid Image Inventor Year
Gum Bichromate Dichromate/gum arabic Pigment Poitevin 1855
Carbon (direct) Dichromate/gelatine Pigment Poitevin 1855
Carbon Transfer Dichromate/gelatine Pigment Fargier 1860
Fresson Dichromate/colloid Pigment Fresson 1899
Oil print Dichromate/gelatine Litho Ink Rawlins 1904
Ozotype Dichromate/gelatine
Pigment Manly 1899
Gum-Ozotype Dichromate/gum arabic Pigment Manly 1899


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