by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 Yesterday, we looked into the Salt Printing-out process that was used in the early days of photography to create positive images from the calotype paper negatives. When the wet-plate collodion process began to be used to create negatives, photographers still tended to use Salt Printing-out process. But this method was especially prone to loose clarity if exposed to sunlight because the photographer may not have washed the print well enough.

That opened the door for a different technique, the Albumen Printing-out process, for preparing sensitized coating on the printing paper. This process used the white of a chicken egg to coat the paper; this coating then was sensitized to light by adding a silver salt solution. This printing out paper produced images with much better tonality and proved superior to the Salt Paper.

While this Albumen Paper process was somewhat less prone to the deterioration due to unexposed silver left in the image, it suffered from a different problem: it was prone to cracking! In most cases, this cracking only showed up years later instead of almost immediately.

In any case, these processes were held in check by the toning process used after the initial washing of the images. We will examine some of these toning processes over the weekend. Be sure to check back for that..  GLB


“I like photographs which leave something to the imagination.”
— Fay Godwin

“I look back at old photographs and videotapes, and I go, Who was I trying to be? Who was I doing this for?”
— Marla Maples

“I like to feel that all my best photographs had strong personal visions and that a photograph that doesn’t have a personal vision or doesn’t communicate emotion fails.”
— Galen Rowell

“I never question what to do, it tells me what to do. The photographs make themselves with my help.”
— Ruth Bernhard

“I make photographs and still make photographs of the natural environment. It’s a love because that was part of my life before I was involved in photography.”
— John Sexton

“I take photographs with love, so I try to make them art objects. But I make them for myself first and foremost – that is important.”
— Jacques-Henri Lartigue

“I should be getting photographs of me with my arm around these people like restaurant owners do, because eventually I am going to have to prove to my kids that once I was an actor!”
— Josh Hartnett

“I remembered seeing it and it was this metallic turbine and I thought it was beautiful. I had never been in a power plant before, but I felt, without being overly dramatic, compelled to make photographs of this for myself.”
— John Sexton


This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.



Early Photographic Technique: The Albumen Print

Buffalo_Bill_Cody_ca1875 The albumen print, also called albumen silver print, was invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, and was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It used the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the century, with a peak in the 1860-90 period. During the mid-1800s, the carte de visite became one of the more popular uses of the albumen method. In the 19th century, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company were the largest makers and distributors of the Albumen photographic prints and paper in the United States.

A well-presented albumen print begins with high quality paper. Lightweight papers (stationery stock or slightly heavier papers) are better for producing albumen (or other POP) prints than heavier stocks, but the paper must be sufficiently sized to endure prolonged wetting and should contain no impurities which could stain or otherwise contaminate the emulsion. Several manufacturers produce 100% rag papers suitable for creating albumen prints, notable examples are Cranes (Kid Finish 32#, Platinotype or Parchment Wove 44#), Arches (Platinotype) and Strathmore (500 Drawing). These papers or acceptable substitutes can be purchased from Bostick & Sullivan, Photographer’s Formulary or most art supply stores. Try to avoid heavier stock, as the paper will absorb the albumen coating, causing prints to lose sharpness due to the emulsion’s being embedded in the fibers of the paper, rather than resting on it.

Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard

CDV-genteel-lady Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802 – 1872) was a French cloth merchant by trade, but in the 1840s became a student of photography. He studied the Calotype process, and in 1847 became the first person to publish the process in France. He developed a method of bathing the paper in solutions of potassium iodide and silver nitrate rather than brushing these chemical baths on the surface.

In 1850 he developed and introduced the albumen paper printing technique which became the staple process of the soon to be popular Carte de visite. In 1851 in Lille, France, with Hippolyte Fockedey, he started the Imprimerie Photographique, which was the first large scale printing company to employ a large number of employees. In the 1850s he was known for publishing other artists works, including John Stewart’s views of the Pyrenees and Auguste Saltzmann’s views of Jeruselem.

His process for the calotype had the disadvantage of leaving a blank white sky and dark foreground, which lead to artist manipulating and using multiple negatives to add clouds to the sky and make the foreground more distinct. The problem with these manipulations was that often the clouds were taken in the morning and the foreground was taken in the afternoon.

The Process of Making an Albumen Print

Negative Requirements

Anne_Isabella_Thackeray_Ritchie Albumen paper requires several items somewhat unique to alternative processes. The first requirement is a negative with a density range of 1.8 to 2.0, as the extreme tonal range of albumen paper will cause a "normal" negative to print very flat. The second is a contact printing frame with a split back, which enables monitoring of the printing-out process. Third, some sort of toner is needed, usually gold or selenium, unless a brown-orange print color is desired. The fourth requirement is a bright, sunny day, since albumen is very sensitive to ultraviolet light, and the best source of this radiation is the sun. The last (absolute) necessity is patience…and lots of it.


Loading – This step must be performed in subdued light. Load a contact printing frame with paper and a negative in typical fashion. (Place the back, spring side down, on a flat surface. Place the paper to be exposed on top of the back, emulsion side up. Place a negative on the paper, emulsion side down. Cover with the (CLEAN) glass from the print frame. Place the frame on top of the entire assembly. Flip the frame over, so that the spring side is facing up, and clamp shut.) Once the assembly has been examined for straightness, cleanliness, etc., place the print frame in the sun for printing.

Julia_Margaret_Cameron_-_Vivien_and_Merlin Printing – The amount of time required to fully print out a silver chloride print will vary depending on the strength of the light source (by the way, UV printers may be used in lieu of the sun) and the density of the negative. Some prints will take as little as a minute or two, while others may take 15 to 20 minutes to produce. The summer sun, since it is much higher in the sky than it is in the winter, will dramatically shorten print times. Prints may also be produced by placing the print frame toward open sky, which yields higher contrast images but takes considerably longer due to the lack of direct sunlight.

After some time has passed, remove the frame from the light source, and open half of the split back of the print frame. Incredible! This is why it’s called printing-out paper! The image already exists on the paper, but this is where the process gets tricky. Toning and fixing will bleach the print somewhat, while drying will darken it. A little trial and error is required to determine when to stop printing. The general rule of thumb is to print until the highlights start to show detail. The shadow areas will appear quite dark most likely but will bleach more than enough to show detail.

Walt_Whitman_1864 The toning procedure being used should also be considered at this time. Toning in gold before fixing is rather straightforward, and follows the aforementioned rule of thumb. Toning in gold after fixing will require exposing the print to light until it is considerably darker than one would think is "normal". This is because fixing the print first will bleach it much more than toning first. At this point it should be mentioned that when using selenium toner, the print should be fixed BEFORE it is toned, otherwise the toner will react with the silver chloride in the print and will make the print "fuzzy" in appearance.

Making an Albumen Print required a number of steps:

  1. A piece of paper, usually 100% cotton, is coated with an emulsion of egg white (albumen) and salt (sodium chloride or ammonium chloride), then dried. The albumen seals the paper and creates a slightly glossy surface for the sensitizer to rest on.
  2. The paper is then dipped in a solution of silver nitrate and water which renders the surface sensitive to UV light.
  3. The paper is then dried in the absence of UV light.
  4. The dried, prepared paper is placed in a frame in direct contact under a negative. The negative is traditionally a glass negative with collodion emulsion, but this step can be performed with a modern silver halide negative, too. The paper with negative is then exposed to light until the image achieves the desired level of darkness, which is typically a little lighter than the end product. Though direct sunlight was used long ago, a UV exposure unit is preferable because it is more predictable, as the paper is most sensitive to ultraviolet light.
  5. A bath of sodium thiosulfate fixes the print’s exposure, preventing further darkening.
  6. Optional gold or selenium toning improves the photograph’s tone and stabilizes against fading. Depending on the toner, toning may be performed before or after fixing the print.

Because the image emerges as a direct result of exposure to light, without the aid of a developing solution, an albumen print may be said to be a printed rather than a developed photograph.

The table salt (sodium chloride) in the albumen emulsion forms silver chloride when in contact with silver nitrate. Silver chloride is unstable when exposed to light, which makes it decompose into silver and chlorine. The silver is oxidized into silver oxide during the development process and the remaining silver chloride is washed out during fixing. The black parts of the image are formed by silver oxide.

Science of Albumen & Albumen Prints

science_iconWhen an historic albumen photograph is seen in cross-section, using an environmental electron scanning microscope (ESEM), the nature of material can be seen. The albumen layer is sitting on paper (lower). It exhibits behavior characteristic to denatured, filtered, egg albumen: it shrinks and curls. The lower part of the fragment is attached to the paper (which prevents some shrinkage), while the upper portion is free to move as the forces equalize into a curl. This process can be seen in a video clip where this albumen fragment is dried from wet.

detail_1 All of the albumen photographs exhibited some degree of cracking. This is true of all images seen by the authors and most other conservators and curators. The degree of variation can be seen in Table 3 in Messier & Vitale (1994).

Early in the history of photography conservation, cracks were a tool to identify albumen photographs.

Based on the 20 vintage prints used in the study an average square inch of print (before treatment) will have 2,000 cracks, with over 1 million in an average 8 X 10 print. The average crack width was found to be 11.7 microns, before treatment.

Preparing the Paper

Coating the Paper

Pour the albumen into a glass casserole dish. Scrape away any tiny bubbles, which will probably have formed on the surface of the liquid. Place a sheet of paper, front side down, on the surface of the albumen. (Look for the watermark while holding the paper up to a light. If the watermark reads correctly, you are looking at the front side of the paper.) Float the paper on the mixture for three minutes. The edges of the paper, which will curl up and away from the surface of the liquid, can be pushed down SLIGHTLY to ensure proper contact.

According to Farber other methods that can be used to prevent paper from curling include:

  • keeping the paper and albumen mixture at the same temperature,
  • lightly dampening the back of the paper or
  • contructing a rectangular-bottomed "boat" out of the the paper.

Care should be used to not get any albumen on the back of the paper, as this will cause an undesirable print-through effect in the final product. As the paper floats on the mixture, the curled edges will relax to fully coat the surface of the paper. After three minutes have expired, use a toothpick to lift one corner of the paper, and lift the sheet from the surface of the albumen, allowing the liquid to drain.

Hang the paper lengthwise, blotting off any excess as the coating dries. A toothpick works well to pop or scrape away any surface bubbles and to squeegee the thick edge, which will form at the bottom of the paper.

Double Coating the Paper

Double coating, though not required, produces prints with a glossier finish, more even coating and greater density. This process increases the level of difficulty of creating albumen prints, though the final product is worthy of the extra effort.

The first albumen coating should be hardened before applying the second using one of the following methods:

  • fully steam the coated paper,
  • thoroughly warm the paper with an iron or mounting press, protecting the coating with a sheet of dry, clean mount board,
  • allow the paper to sit in a warm place for several weeks or
  • immerse the paper in an isopropyl alcohol/salt solution.

Constant_Alexandre_Famin_-_Two_Country_Children To double coat the paper using an isopropyl alcohol/salt hardening solution with the albumen formula given, use the following method. After the single-coated paper has dried, immerse it for 15 seconds in a solution of 70% isopropyl alcohol with 3% ammonium chloride added. This will harden the albumen for the second coat. When the alcohol has evaporated (fully – otherwise the second coat won’t stick), float the paper on the surface of the albumen mixture once again following the previously described procedure. The recommended salt concentration corresponds directly with the concentration of salt in the albumen coating. (Since 70% isopropyl alcohol will leech salt from the albumen, the same concentration must exist in both solutions.)

Without this hardening step, the first albumen coating would otherwise wash away with the second coating. Hang to dry from the opposite side for even results, blotting away any excess along the bottom edge. The paper will probably curl severely; it may be straightened in a warm mounting press.

Sensitizing the Paper

Woodrow_Wilson_cabinet_card_1876-86 Coated paper will keep for several weeks if sensitizing is to be performed at a later time; however, it is best to sensitize the paper as soon as it is dry. Wear rubber gloves unless you want brown/black/purple stains on your fingers, fingernails and/or clothing. Silver nitrate will react with the salt of your skin to form silver chloride, just as it does on paper, and will "develop out" in a matter of a minute or two in sunlight. Wearing safety glasses is also recommended, for silver nitrate can cause permanent damage if even a small amount is splashed into the eyes. All of the following techniques may be carried out in subdued (incandescent) room lighting. Avoid fluorescent lamps and other sources of UV light.

In an amber glass bottle with a plastic top mix 37.5-g of silver nitrate with 250-ml of distilled water to make a 15% solution. Initially the solution will be cloudy due to the reaction between the silver nitrate and the salts and minerals in the water. The precipitate will settle overnight and is of no consequence. Store the sesitizer in a cool, dark place.

Floatation Coating

Pour 15% silver nitrate solution into a flat-bottomed tray. The glass casserole dish used for albumen coating will work but MUST be cleaned thoroughly after use if food is to be ingested from it. WARNING: Ingestion of any heavy metal can be toxic; it is best to dedicate lab ware to these procedures. Float the coated paper on the surface of the solution for three minutes, avoiding air bubbles. Peel the paper from the surface, and hang to dry.

Clara_Ward Some salt will inevitably leech from the paper surface, reacting with the silver nitrate solution and forming a precipitate which will eventually settle on the bottom of the coating tray and storage bottle. This is the major drawback to this method – waste. As more and more chloride ions saturate the silver nitrate solution, it will become darker in color and less effective. Some of this potential loss of silver nitrate can be combated by allowing the solution to sit for an hour or two after completing sensitization, perhaps while making a print or two, to settle the precipitate. While slowly and carefully pouring the liquid back into its storage bottle, forego the last few milliliters, preventing the heavier precipitate from being mixed with the solution. Filtering off the precipitate after every use will go a long way toward extending the life of the silver nitrate solution.

The Problem: Why Albumen Prints Degrade

Hypaethral_Temple_Philae Humidity: Albumen swells and shrinks to a greater degree than many materials. What makes this unfortunate property problematic is that swelling caused by to a 20% change in humidity (around 50% RH) is enough to cause already cracked albumen to increase crack sizes and possible to form new cracks. For modern albumen which is crack free, a 35% change in humidity (around 50% RH) will cause the creation of new cracks.

Wetting: If an albumen layer is swelled in water (immersion, for example), it swells so much (17+%) that a massive number for new cracks form and existing cracks increase in width; see above and Messier & Vitale (1994).



Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Albumen Print…

Wikipedia: Collodion Process…

Web Sites and Blogs:

Alternative Photography: Albumen Printing…

Albumen Conservation: Science of Albumen and Albumen Prints…

Brainy Quote: Photograph Quotes…