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My Adventures in Emulsion Making — Eugene Anikin

November 17, 2013


I know it sounds strange, but I think that we live in the golden times of film photography. While the selection of films and papers has dwindled to a very small number, those that are available are the best of all times. The photographic equipment from 35mm to large format has gotten very cheap and can be obtained by most hobbyists interested. The biggest concern for those of us still using film is future availability of the materials. That is where home making of photographic emulsions come into play.

My story of coming into emulsion making started about three years ago. Someone posted an ad on Craigslist giving away an old Kodak 3A camera. Being a film user, I could not resist. I picked it up and was amazed at beautiful craftsmanship and condition of the camera. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that film for this camera had not been manufactured for many years. I did try making an adapter for 120 roll film and shot a few rolls of that. I loved the look of the images this camera produced and I wanted to see how it would look with full size film it was designed to be used with. And here came Denise's postings of emulsion making tutorial. I just had to try!

I started with the first tutorial to gain some experience. I have to admit that I sort of cheated here. You see, I was thinking of learning to make emulsions for quite some time. So over that period I have acquired some equipment I knew would be handy. I managed to get a good deal on some Pyrex glassware, a coating road, and most importantly I bought a used hot plate with a stirrer and the most cool thing — a temperature controller for this hot plate. What this means is that I had much easier time getting a good stable temperature for mixing emulsion than most other beginners.

One piece of equipment I found pretty handy for dispersion of silver nitrate is a syringe with an extremely fine plastic needle that I stumbled upon in a fabric store of all places. You can find the same syringe at I'm not familiar with this particular seller, just wanted to show what the syringes look like. Fabric Depot sells them for applying fine color or glue for glitters on the fabric. It also appears to work perfectly for emulsion making.

My first attempt to make gaslight paper was reasonably successful. I made the emulsion and coated it on some leftover Arches watercolor paper. After the emulsion ripened, I dipped the paper in a tray of water, squeegeed it onto a sheet of glass and coated with the emulsion. It was pretty late in the evening and after coating it I hung it inside of a cabinet. Now, one thing I did not realize is that inside that cabinet it would not dry overnight. I was not expecting the cabinet to be light tight, so when the paper did not dry by the morning, I assumed it was all fogged for good. It took a good day and a half for the paper to dry. I still decided to try the paper, if only for fun. Imagine my surprise when I got a perfect contact print on a first try! Sorry to say, but I'm hooked now. The amazing blacks of the prints I got are like nothing I've seen before. This simple silver chloride emulsion is very slow. Contact print takes about a minute under the fluorescent table light. However having a full control of which paper to use is very valuable.


Of course, after making a first perfect print, the problems started to show their ugly heads. Having no experience with emulsion coating, I managed to make a few rookie mistakes with my first coating. After my prints have dried, I noticed quite a few small white spots and grey areas on the print. The second problem was large brown areas developed on the edges of the print, as if they were under-fixed. After some investigation and a few exchanges with Denise we concluded that they were in fact under-fixed. The reason for that was emulsion puddling too thickly at the end of coating stroke. Since I've never done coating before, I used a bit too much emulsion for the paper, and as such, I had too much of it left at the end of the stroke. When dried, the layer of emulsion is way too thick for the fixer to work effectively. I still need to master how much emulsion to use for each sheet of paper.

However, the first problem with small white dots had me stumped. After a few conversations with Denise, we suspected that maybe some of my ingredients were the culprit. Denise was gracious enough to send me some amount of gelatin, potassium chloride and Fabriano paper, so that I could investigate what exactly is the cause of the dots. I strongly suspected that potassium chloride that I purchased from some little known eBay seller was not terribly pure.

But to be sure an experiment was needed. So, for my second coating session I staged a science experiment. I decided to make two batches of emulsion with criss-crossed ingredients so that if I again got white spots in one set of coatings, I would know the culprit. I marked two sets of paper with some marker, and made two batches: one with my gelatin, but Denise's potassium chloride and another with my potassium chloride and Denise's gelatin. It was a very long evening in the darkroom aka garage. I coated two sets of paper. However this time I used a semi-dry coating method by spraying the glass sheet with distilled water and laying dry sheets of paper on it. After the paper had dried, I made identical prints on both sets of paper. I let the prints dry and after carefully looking at the prints I concluded that (drumroll ...) both sets of chemicals were just fine. The small white spots were almost entirely gone. My conclusion now is that the chemistry and emulsion is just fine. However, notice that first time I used wet coating method, and I dipped the paper in a tray of water. Notice how I omitted the word 'distilled'. I am forgetting the details now, but I strongly suspect that instead of distilled water I used warm filtered water from my faucet. And I know for sure that my tap water has significant amount of rust particles in it. That would explain the white spots perfectly. I will need to repeat coating again to confirm that though.

Oh, and while my second coating was very good indeed, it was not without defects. All of the prints I've made have an area of lighter emulsion running diagonally at the lower right side of the print. I suspect this is a coating defect because of the dry coating with just a glass rod. The paper probably buckles as it gets wet and a small streak of thin emulsion appears. However it is a very small defect and on some sheets it's nearly invisible.

The second defect I believe also comes because of the dry coating. Notice a few bubbles in the washing tray? No, that's not water bubbles. That's actually emulsion bubbling up from the paper in the washer. It looks like in some spots the emulsion did not adhere very well to the dry Arches paper and the air in the water pumped in by the syphon washer seeped through the paper and started collecting in the bubble underneath the emulsion. I'm sure that switching back to wet paper coating and using a standing water wash with just a few water changes will fix that issue.

No matter the problems, I am very happy with the result of this coating session. I even tried printing paper from this batch under the enlarger. I know it's silly considering how slow this paper is. However, I put a step wedge under the enlarger to estimate a good exposure time for a print. After that I exposed the negative and I was able to get a couple of decent 8x10 prints enlarged from a 4x5 negative. It "only" took 9 minutes of exposure. But yes, it is possible!

In conclusion: my favorite paper of the day is cheap Fabriano cold press! I coated it just for fun. It is a heavily textured paper, so I did not expect to get a good coating on it. However, it made the most perfect result — beautiful sharp print with a wonderful texture of the paper. See the print at the top of the page. Where can you buy such silver-gelatin paper? I bet it would be wonderful for portraits!

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