Beginner’s luck

Well, not an appropriate title, that’s a good start… this post is about carbon transfer printing, which is something I did quite a bit of a few years ago. I don’t think I even had a large format camera back then, so I just used digital negatives instead. And grew very tired of it, very quickly. Well, after making a couple of hundreds of prints (mind-numbingly boring calibration charts as well), that is.

Since then, I got into large format film and recently I even acquired another 8×10 camera; an Intrepid this time. It’s a flimsy affair, with its plywood construction, 3D printed fittings and generic hardware-store parts. But it’s quite light-weight, which means I’m actually willing to carry it out of the house, and that in turn means it has a very important redeeming quality: it gets used. Other than the 8×10 Sinar Norma I have stashed away in a box somewhere.

Well, this means that I could, theoretically, do carbon transfer prints from 8×10″ camera negatives, right? Right! So a few weeks ago I rekindled my latent carbon transfer tendencies, got my feet wet (hmmm…literally?) with 4×5″ negatives, decided I liked the whole affair, got the 8×10 Intrepid, went out there, made negatives, and hey presto, prints! Sounds pretty simple, evidently it has been a lot of work. A. Lot. Of. Work. And that’s only to get to a very basic level of fledgling printer, using the experience of the mechanics of the process I already had from a few years ago.

Still, I’m actually quite happy with how things have progressed over the past ten days or so. I poured a respectable stack of tissues of various configurations, prepared final support papers, adjusted/(re)invented procedures that work for me in the space and with the materials I have access to, and I made a couple of dozens of prints. And now it has got to the point that his happened, yesterday:

Not impressed? Well, that’s too bad, because I sure was! Why, you ask? Well, that was an 8×10 negative I had just developed, I sensitized some tissue, printed it, and this is the result. That’s right: first time round a quite presentable print! I mean, that never happens. So far, the contrast or exposure has always been off by a mile on my first print of a new negative, miscellaneous errors occurred, etc. I take this as a sign that some form of routine is starting to emerge. Of course, it only means anything if I keep at it, so let’s hope I don’t get bored and do too many other things (ah….the tricky bit).

Let’s have another look at this, just because we can:

Carbon transfer print, relief when wet

Yes, I know, you’ve seen this many times before, and sadly a computer screen just can’t convey the magic of the wet sloppy mess of a freshly produced jello carbon transfer print that clings to the paper like some amorphous invertebrate deep-sea animal hauled up to the surface. It’s incredible that this dries to a print that is tack sharp in all its fine detail.

Scan of 8×10 dry carbon transfer print

This is what it looks like when dry. Evidently, it’s far from perfect. There are several issues that need ironing out:

  • There’s an area of staining in the sky to the left of the tree. This is likely due to insufficient sizing of the paper in that area. I used two thin coats of acrylic dispersion diluted 1+1 with water. I think a somewhat heavier size is needed. The problem does not seem to exist on my gelatin-sized final supports. Overall, so far, I think I prefer gelatin sizing, but it’s evidently more work than instant-ready acrylic.
  • The darker area in the sky to the right is probably either a bit of fog due to the inadvertent UV exposure when drying the sensitized tissue. There’s also a tiny bit of fog on the masked borders. I made a drying box which isn’t light proof at all, and I might need to improve it a little, or just keep the roller blinds closed when drying sensitized tissue.
  • The top left corner shows a blurry rebate area; this is probably due to poor tissue-negative contact during exposure. My contact frame might be in need of a bit of revision or even re-engineering, and I might try adding some glycerin to the tissue next time I make some. So far I’ve been using 3% to 5% (w/v) sugar in my tissue and no humectant, and my tissue curls moderately to badly depending on what support it’s poured on. This was on Yupo, which doesn’t curl particularly badly (i.e. I’ve seen worse), but it’s not ideal. Sandy King seems to prefer a combination of sugar and glycerin which is more than reason enough to give it a try.
  • I might try another print with slightly lower contrast so that the sky retains some tone. However, I quite like the contrast in all other parts of the image and the rebate/border makes the open skies much less problematic than they could have been, so I doubt it’s going to be much of an improvement.

No, it doesn’t come together like this all the time. I wish! Take this one for instance:

Looks kind of decent if you view a small size on a digital screen, but the real print isn’t nearly there yet, and keep in mind this is probably the 6th or 7th version I made from the same negative. The negative isn’t ideal to begin with; it’s on the thin side with low contrast. To make matters worse it has pretty high base fog, because I gave 510 pyro another try due to recent discussions on it on Photrio and the Large Format Photography forum. Nope, I still don’t like it that much; compared to Pyrocat HD, 510 is just not optimal in several ways.

Moreover, this particular print was made with a tissue I poured experimentally onto some rather thin inkjet paper, which curls like a hedgehog on a highway. Very difficult to work with, and the result is several out of focus zones on the print due to poor tissue-negative contact. Contrast still isn’t what it should be, but I was already using a very dilute sensitizer, resulting in longish exposure times of 15 minutes for this particular print. That’s about as long as I want to go; longer than that isn’t worth it anymore for me. And that’s with a very contrasty tissue with 3% (w/v) Talens India ink! I think Sandy King uses something like 0.75% and for the print of the tree in front of the cornfield I used a tissue with 1.5% (w/v) India ink loading. It really does help if negatives have some beef to the bones when doing carbon transfers.

To be continued; there’s more things I’d like to walk you through, but that’s for later posts. For motivational purposes it doesn’t hurt sometimes to celebrate successes, however small.

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