A few months ago I tried Hahnemuhle platinum rag and fell in love with it for salt prints. I loved its tonality and clean prints, it was a joy to use. It’s 300gsm which is heavy but many salt printers are using heavy stock paper without issues.
I was so happy with my prints that I invested in an archival box to store my prints as well as some mounting supplies to present selected prints at their best. After a few weeks I opened my box of delights to find they had all turned to shit. There are few alternative photographers who don’t have the patience of a saint, it’s part of the territory, dealing with constant screwups and overcoming them. However I did feel like screaming.
Improper washing is regarded as the main issue for such disasters so I assumed I’d just become too god damned sloppy. To be honest washing bores me, you can tell by the state of my weekly clothing. I quickly read up about archival washing and also had a talk with a guy who really knows about washing salt prints. What really grabbed my attention was hypo clear(Kodak), or a 1% Sodium thiosulfate soak(Raw Chemical) or a Wash aid(Ilford) step which are pretty much the same thing!. I quickly incorporated that into my process and assumed all would be good in the world.
One week later I started blogging about Hypo-Clear, how it solved my archival printing problem and that now my prints are just pukka. As I went to photograph one of my pristine prints for said blog i suddenly noticed it was just a bit shit. What the hell! Now I was starting to get somewhat angry. I have salt prints made years ago that are still good which were washed under similar conditions. Something’s changed and it’s not changed in a good way.
Whilst not the complete disaster as the Compton Verney print that mottled sky should be white. This print had a fairly OK’ish washing process and used hypo clear.
There are a few possible culprits for this recent problem. Firstly Hahnemuhle platinum rag. I’ve used many heavy papers before without problems but I’m assuming this paper is particularly difficult to wash. Another possible thing that’s hovering around in my head as something that’s changed, Sodium Thiosulphate is no longer available in powdered form in the U.K. Crystalline is now the only option. Crystalline requires a different strength to fix prints sufficiently. Both paper and Sodium Thiosulfate changed since my last good prints, most likely it is the paper and luckily by chance one of my prints that I made from a batch of Hahnemuhle platinum rag was accidently made on another paper. My notes say Fabriano artistico but i am somewhat suspicious of my own notes! It’s either Artistico extra white or Fabriano Bristol board.
Same Compton Verney print, same OK’ish wash process, different paper. Now this is not a perfect print but it exhibits none of the archival issues associated with Hahnemuhle platinum rag.
The obvious thing to do would be to never use this Goddamn paper again for Salt prints. However I do quite like it whilst it’s only a few hours old and hasn’t had a chance to self destruct. Im also always fretting about my archival processing as I would like to sell prints in the future. I figured if I could tame a wild silver back gorrilla, i could guarantee the same process would be 100% effective if used on a Chihuahua or a piece of Fabriano paper.
I have never paid too much attention to the washing of salt prints and also had very few problems. I’ve also taken a half a dozen workshops where making a salt print was part of the course. It’s never really been stressed how important washing is. Typically the prints are just thrown into a big darkroom sink full of running water then retrieved to dry at the end of the day with not too much said about it.
My thinking is that for the spare room/garage darkroom enthusiast without running water in a huge sink, you may have to carefully consider how you are going to wash prints especially with heavier paper weights. Whilst the big sink option is an effective print washer, for those washing in several smaller trays of water with bad technique may find it to be a very inefficient washing method, not to mention extremely time consuming.
I tried a few different techniques for print washing and found most were not effective. Even when introducing a hypo clear step into my process my prints still showed faint mottled marks within 5 days. Hahnemuhle platinum rag seems very unforgiving and will show you if it’s going to have issues within a couple of weeks.
I was using ikea glass trays, a favourite of many alternative photographer. Glass cleans very effectively and you don’t have to worry about cross contamination. Plastics can get chemicals ingrained into it which can cause problems for specific processes. I’ve now abandoned these small trays for washing 10×8 and larger. I now use these trays more effectively for the chemical steps and not for washing prints. So for fixer or hypo clear I would use a glass tray.
Unlikely to win ‘best product photography image 2017’ This however is my new £5 B&Q plastic wash tub for the Pre-wash stage. The two glass trays I used to use for washing, I now use for two separate fixer baths.
For washing I now use dedicated plastic tubs. I’ve found using a fairly large and deep plastic tub I can easily wash half a dozen prints at once with a large quantity of water without the risk of splashing water all over my darkroom floor with each rocking of the tub. I’m also fairly confident that all the prints will be effectively washed at once whilst previously I was washing 1 or two 10×8 at a time in the smaller trays, this was very inefficient.
Your print has just come out of the sun or UV printer and is looking nice and dense, I now pile them up inside the darkroom until I have a maximum of half a dozen to process simultaneously. Proper archival processing is time consuming and slightly more costly in chemicals, I wouldn’t bother just printing out 1 or two prints. I have found that this wash does knock a tiny bit of density out and if you have printed very weak, it may knock out far more density than you expected. With salt prints it’s far too easy to underestimate the printing time.
I will have to be deadly honest and admit I am unsure of how essential the prewash is, I have certainly seen how destructive it is for prints to not be effectively processed with an archival processing technique. Most if not all literature suggests the prewash is essential. In the grand scheme of things 15-20 mins of washing half a dozen prints is a small step to pay to have a far greater assurance of archivally stable prints.
I was once concerned that my tap water was causing excessive fading of my prints in the prewash. I switched to bottled water with a pinch of pure sea salt. The salt will react with the unexposed silver nitrate locked into the paper and allow it to wash out more effectively as silver chloride. It was at the time very effective and eliminated the fading issue. I’ve since decided that the fading issue was down to grossly under printed images, with a correctly deeply printed image the fading from using tap water is negligible or in fact a little helpful.
Recently I processed two identical prints side by side, one in tap water and one in bottled water with a pinch of sea salt. There was negligible difference except the leftover tap water in my tray was a lot more cloudy than the bottled water. This to me suggests the tap water may of been more effective a pre wash and had no noticeable ill effects to the look of the final print. Bottled water with a 1% sea salt may be needed to compete with chlorinated tap water and I assume this would of faded my insufficiently printed images to the same degree as tap water.
I fill a large jug of water I found in a brewery supply company with tap water that feels to be about 20degrees. Cold water is less effective at washing prints. I’ve no idea what happens with hot water but based on the fact nobody seems to recommend it I can only suggest it’s something terrible.
I dump about 2 or 3 litres of this tap water into my tub then place my prints into it. Now whatever happens don’t leave your prints to fend for themselves whilst you go off to make a coffee. This first bath is critical and seems to get 95% of the unused silver out based on a completely unscientific guess and observation of the colour the water becomes. Keep the print in constant movement by gently rocking the tub. Try not to smash them all over the place knackering the papers corners like I do.
I shuffle the prints in the stack whilst rocking the tub and attempt to get them all shuffled in one cycle within about 5 mins then I dump all the water into a waste water container with a large funnel, an attempt to save my darkroom floor. Do not leave them floating in this wash as there is a big risk of the paper getting stained and also the wash will be ineffective. I repeat this process two more times filling the tray up with my massive jug of 20degC tap water. If you really do need to go for a coffee or pee, bath 3 really is the one to pick however I would make sure that the prints have been rocked for 5 mins in each wash.
I have read others recommend 20 minutes washing time in 4 changes of water and a 1% sea salt wash (I’m assuming that’s chlorinated tap water plus sea salt to 1%) However the people I know personally making extremely good salt prints, most are just washing in tap water until no more cloudy water appears. For me this would be Bath 2, but as it’s hard to be certain that no cloudy residue is precipitating from my prints, bath 3 seems to guarantee it.
In the future however I will be adopting Elle Young’s strategy outlined in her book “The Salt Print Manual”, especially with Hahnemuhle platinum rag. That will be to wash with 3 changes of water within 10 mins. A 30 second rinse in 1% sodium chloride bath (sea salt), followed by another 10min wash with 3 changes of water. This Hahnemuhle platinum rag is pure evil and Elle Young knows her stuff. I do fully recommend her book.
Seems gold chloride needs to be imported to the uk, costs a fortune and I don’t quite like the tonality, I just don’t bother! It maybe something that guarantees archival permanence above and beyond all other methods but I’m on a mission to avoid it. Most texts recommend gold toning for archival permanence but to counteract that Hill and Adamson didn’t use it, although their exact salt printing technique has been lost with time if they ever did publish it.
Fixing is something that could cause huge debate. Personally I’ve always used one 5 minute 15% Sodium Thiosulfate bath at 20degC. This is what I’ve always been shown by people who could be described as the current experts on the process. However this could be what they show for a workshop environment or what they would use for prints they are not expecting to sell for good money. Many people say two baths is essential.
Longer fix times or two baths do not come without drawbacks. Firstly although Sodium thiosulphate is not expensive, you will have to start buying it by the bucket. Longer fixing knocks a bit of density out of the print. You will also get a more sepia looking print. Personally I’m starting to prefer the look but I’ve found my 5 min single hypo bath prints are noticeably more neutral in tone. Finally the longer in the hypo the more hypo gets stuck in the Papers fibres and this is really, really bad! However proper fixing is really, really important for proper archival processing.
After a lot of debate, due to my current issues with Hahnemuhle platinum rag I’ve decided to use two fixer baths with 4 mins agitated soak in each followed by one god damned through wash process. This seems a fair compromise for a guy hoping to sell prints and not go to prison for selling overpriced images that self destruct within 6 months.
It’s important to note the UK crystalline form of hypo does cause a slight drop in temperature when added to water so it’s important to check its around 20degC to ensure maximum efficiency.
As longer fixing does cost a little density you can counteract this to a fair degree with the addition of some Sodium Carbonate/bicarbonate. I have some confusion that 50% of all my reference books say one, and 50% say the other. I’m assuming it makes little difference but the main thing is that it neutralises the acidic value of the fixer which seems to reduce the fading of the prints. 2.5g into 1000ml of water.
First post fix wash
I decided on this large plastic £2.50 seedling tray for my Fixer wash. It just looks very different from my other Tub so I’m unlikely to mix them up. I also like washing fixed prints in the garden, very theraputic unless it is raining.
After the fix, the first wash is critical. This wash gets rid of most of your hypo (sodium thiosulphate) and it’s important to note this wash will quickly be polluted and thus it’s washing ability quickly exhausted unless the water is frequently changed. For this wash I use a dedicated try, in this instance a large tray designed to growing plants. It’s essentially an exact repeat of the prewash process, 5 mins constant agitation, shuffling prints then dump – repeat 3X. The main difference is that I don’t use the same container to avoid chemical contamination. All plastic trays should also be washed after use, perhaps finishing with a gentle clean with paper towels to remove any residue that rinsing with water alone failed to do.
Hypo clear bath
I’ve never used any hypo clear previously during any workshop or for my own prints and had few issues in the past. It is said that with some papers washing alone may never remove all the fixer embedded into the papers fibres. A 1% Sodium Sulfite bath is typically used to aid the removal of the hypo. Most literature suggests 4 mins but as it doesn’t appear to do any harm I personally use a 10 minute agitated soak in a glass tray, shuffling the prints every minute when using Hahnemuhle platinum rag.
It’s important to do this step after the first post fixer wash to avoid overloading the hypo-clears ability to work effectively. The first wash water will be so heavily polluted with fixer that the hypo clear will have less effect. The hypo clear is more useful for starting to remove the last few percent of hypo embedded into the papers fibres and it will be far more effective at that task once the bulk of the hypo has already been removed and the print is in nice clean water.
After the hypo clear bath you’re ready to go at rinsing out some more hypo from those prints. This process is just a repeat of the usual washing technique of 3 wash and dumps with agitation and shuffling. Personally I use the same planting tray again for this wash step after a quick clean.
On a side note I do find that my Hypo-Clear bath does become a light sepia colour If left in the tray overnight. I’ve not heard of this phenomenon before and have no idea what it means! Im wondering if I left unused hypo-clear overnight if it would turn brown or if its only If I run prints though it. Besides life’s too short and I am unsure of what I could learn from that experiment.
Oh dear, we still haven’t finished! This step is the final step to removing all the hypo and it’s all too easy for those with that big darkroom sink with running water. For those without it is somewhat of a guessing game. There is lots of info written by very clever people that all that is needed is soaking, and if this is done for long enough it will work. I have no reason to doubt this except my own experience with this damned paper is that it doesn’t work. That’s not to say it certainly doesn’t work. As archival processing is a multi stage process, without months of proper testing each aspect it would be foolish to dismiss it.
I have left prints for 24 hours in a massive tub of water, agitating it before going to bed, agitating again on waking up and then returning from work. In theory that water quantity was far in excess to be fully polluted and the occasional agitation would of allowed hypo to come away from the surface of the paper. In a nutshell they went bad within 1 week.
So I would recommend the usual wash process I’ve been outlining but continued for 1 hour with constant agitation and shuffling, dumping the water every 5 mins. With the water at around 20c this should be fairly safe for archival standards. By all means go for a longer wash time, many people do.
An alternative would be an archival print washer that would essentially free up 1 hour of your time however they are costly and require running water. I have considered running one from an outside tap however one issue I can imagine is that outside taps would be cold water. Ideally you would need a mixer style tap to try and aim for 20degC or alternatively wash for longer, say 2 hours which would be somewhat wasteful with water. I imagine in winter months there maybe a cut off temperature where washing becomes ineffective.
At the time of blogging these prints look great (Touch several wooden items they remain so). However I am still a little worried. One thing that is a bit weird is the prints on the left are a more sepia tone then the prints on the right. What the hell? They have all been processed together in the same baths
One thing that was different was the amount of silver nitrate used. Anybody who uses the rod method for silver coating paper will be aware there is something of a goldilocks quantity of liquid to use. Too little and you seem to end up with the top half of the print being densely printed and the bottom of the print where there was less liquid left on the rod is noticeably lighter. Too much silver nitrate and you have to go over the paper with the rod a dozen times and still end up with a bit of a pool of silver left on the paper.
Both prints on the left had an amount of liquid that felt just right. The two on the right had too much silver nitrate. At one point I felt too much silver is better but now I feel the goldilocks amount with a smooth unhesitant rod moving action is better – ie do it too slow and you end up with more of the liquid absorbing at the top half of the rods stroke.
Whilst the silver nitrate content of the prints could be the cause of the tonality switch it could also be the fact the paper was more wet with silver nitrate and thus more humid, not drying to the same level as the other two prints.
If i examine the prints very carefully i’m unsure if my eyes are playing silly buggers, but the more sepia prints are cleaner. The heavier silver nitrate prints may have a tinie weeny amount of mottling, or I could just be going crazy.
This closeup detail of one of the more sepia prints is cleaner. You can see something in the white sky but some of that is paper texture and there was actually a small light leak within the sky on the negative which makes it impossible to say with conviction that the print is degrading.
Another clue to what’s happening may be found on the papers reverse. The print at the back was a poor print and the print in the foreground one of my recent prints washed to a much higher standard. Its somewhat interesting to note that the staining is only occurring directly under the area that was coated with silver nitrate and not at the borders of the print which were uncoated. However I am unsure what on earth I am supposed to glean from that!
Its only been 5 days since my last batch of prints, so far everything’s looking promicing but that could change any moment. The good thing for my learning experience is that this paper seems to go bad fast! I feel if anything is wrong it will be obvious by the end of the month.
If within the next few weeks any marks appear I will adopt a more rigorous pre-wash as outlined in my pre-wash section. Failing that I will have to take all my Hahnemuhle platinum rag out into the garden and burn it. I am sure it is fine for platinum prints, but for salt printing it’s the Devil’s work.
Five Day Later
Here is two prints from the same negative. Under each print is the print turned over and laid face down on a lightbox and photographed. The print on the left was rod coated with just the right amount of silver nitrate for about 4 stokes up and down the paper. The print on the left had too much silver nitrate and needed a dozen or so strokes to coat. Similar results have been found with other prints that where coated with too much silver nitrate.
The print on the right, the sky looks white, but the more I looked at it, the more I felt it was a bit weird. I couldn’t place my finger on the reason why it looked weird until I shone a light through the paper. It turns out there is some brown crap under the papers surface which is obvious and pronounced but only viewable with transmitted light, whilst the surface of the paper is white. The print on the left has less of an issue. Im now starting to think a couple of things,
The unexposed silver nitrate is very problematic in Hahnemuhle platinum rag, it is in the highlights where the silver was shielded by the negative density from the UV light source when the image was exposed. Allowing too much silver nitrate to absorb into the paper is seriously detrimental to the print. Whilst this paper is becoming more and more popular with salt printers, it is a relatively new paper and I fear a few years down the line many people will have issues.
Im assuming the vital stage to archival stability with this paper is the ‘Pre-wash’ as that removes a lot of the unexposed silver nitrate. However my prewash procedure wasn’t too bad. It could be better but it looks like this paper needs an exceptionally thorough prewash stage with two or three 5% sodium chloride baths. But even with all this exceptionally thorough washing you are still teetering on the edge of disaster days, weeks, months or perhaps years down the line when stains appear. Personally knowing how well I washed this paper and seeing how much of a problem the print on the right has, i don’t think you could ever fix this with more washing. If too much silver absorbs into this paper I feel you are screwed. Also the difference between too much silver nitrate with rod coating and just the correct amount is a tiny difference. You cannot be expected to be so precise with every coating to ensure archivability.
This paper has been fantastic for improving my processing techniques, and I will certainly be coating paper a little lighter so the silver doesn’t absorb too much into the paper. I will also be using a better prewash. However I do not recommend this paper for Salt prints.