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Alternative Photographic Processes - (Hand made photographic -emulsions and processes)

 Polaroid Emulsion Lifts

The basic emulsion lift technique is extremely simple: just soak a Polacolor ER print in hot water until the emulsion comes away from its backing, then transfer the loose emulsion to a new surface. At this point the emulsion can be manipulated in a number of ways to create fascinating distortions of the original image. The original can be shot directly onto Polacolor RT instant colour print film, using a medium or large format camera with a Polaroid back, or shot on conventional transparency film and printed onto Polacolor at a later stage. Whichever method you use, the Polacolor print should be left for at least 24 hours after exposure before the emulsion lift process is started. It is well worth practising with old proofing prints first. to become familiar with the technique.


Arrange your work space into wet and dry areas. Cut the watercolour paper into sheets of a suitable size. Put very hot water into the first developing tray, warm water in the second.

Leave the print in the hot water for about five minutes and then gently rub the emulsion away from its backing with your fingers. Wear rubber gloves if the water is too hot. The emulsion comes away more easily the hotter the water, but clearly there are limits to how hot one can stand.

Once the emulsion is free from the backing, scoop it out with your hand, or if preferred, with the handle of a wooden spoon or similar tool. Immerse in a second bath of clean warm water and gently agitate to wash off any particles from the backing that may still adhere.

Arrange the emulsion so that it floats gently on the surface of the water and gently move it into shape. Slide the new paper into position underneath the floating emulsion, bring the paper and emulsion into contact, remove from the bath and place on a flat working surface. Or, remove from the second bath with the spoon handle and arrange on dry paper.

While the emulsion is still wet, move it into the shape you require, then place the new print somewhere flat to dry naturally, or gum strip edges to flat surface.

The original Polacolor print should be exposed as normal, with due care taken over the development time and temperature to ensure that the colour and contrast range are correct. Emulsion lifts work best when there is a strong visual link between the text and the image, therefore it is well worth shooting subjects specifically for use with this process. Those subjects which have an inherent transparency or translucency seem to be particularly enhanced by the physical characteristics of transferred emulsion.
The paper, or other surface, you use to lay the emulsion on will also affect the finished image. The texture of the paper will be absorbed into the image structure, adding a new visual dimension. The most popular medium for emulsion lifts seems to be rough textured, white 300lb watercolour paper, as this dries very flat naturally, although it is very worthwhile experimenting with almost any surface- even metal.


• Plain hot water works well, but some photographers add 'secret ingredients', e.g. a few drops of ammonia based window-cleaning fluid, or a drop or two of washing-up liquid.
• Emulsion lifting can be just a starting off point for the creation of composite images. Once the transferred emulsion is thoroughly dry on the new paper, you can lay further images on it. You can also use image transfers as a base for an emulsion lift from another print.
• If you want to combine the emulsion with other images at later stage, you can store it in water for several days until required.
• Remember that any colour in the paper creates an overall cast in the image and will show through strongly in light or transparent areas
.• The clear emulsion from the ER print's border will form a natural lilac-coloured frame for the transferred image. If preferred, the print's white border can be cut off before immersion in the hot bath.
• If the emulsion breaks during removal from the backing, lift out the fragments and reassemble on the new paper.
• Leave to dry thoroughly before doing any retouching that may be required. The emulsion will darken slightly as it dries.
• Some types of paper may buckle after drying. This can be avoided by sticking the edges of the damp paper to a flat surface with gum strip.
• Prolong the manipulation of emulsion on paper by wetting with an atomiser spray.


Kettle for heating water
Two developing dishes
Watercolour paper or similar Wooden spoon or similar
Rubber gloves (optional)
Washing-up liquid, or ammonia based window cleaner (optional)
Gum strip

Lifts and transfers can be easily scanned to produce high quality separations for commercial printing and have been used in advertising for a number of years. Transferred and lifted images are fairly stable over time, but like all colour dyes, when exposed to bright light for extended periods they will fade. UV absorbing varnish, or using UV absorbing glass or perspex when framing will help.

Most of the Polaroid peel-apart film packs are used for proofing, and the product is only needed for temporary purposes. An exception is Polaroid 665 and 55, the types which provide a re-usable negative as well as a print. Processing defects which go unnoticed on other materials can ruin a Polaroid negative, which is also usually being enlarged.


Polaroid peel-apart packs are processed by breaking a pod of reagent and spreading this between the negative and positive materials by pulling it between a pair of steel rollers. Pulling a film pack through the rollers too rapidly can result in marks from small air bubbles and uneven spreading of the processing solution. Pulling it too slowly is also to be avoided, as irregular movement through the rollers will show as 'hesitation' marks. The condition of the rollers is paramount, if processing marks are to be avoided. Processing goo frequently gets transferred to the rollers, and needs to be regularly cleaned off methylated spirits being a good solvent. Old 5x4" backs develop pits in the rollers from corrosion, which may make them useless for good quality work with negatives. Out-dated film will generally be usable well past the date on the packet, but the processing solution eventually becomes more viscous, and will not spread properly. Additionally, in order to ensure even spreading, type 55 boxes should not be stored on their edge, but always flat.


Like any other monobath process, the development mechanism is delicately balanced, and is designed to work at an optimum of about 20° C. When pos-neg film is processed at temperatures below normal, the speed of the negative is reduced more than the speed of the print, and a well exposed print may yield a negative that is too thin. To get around this the exposure will need to be increased, and the positive print will appear over-exposed. An easier solution, when using type 55, may be to delay processing the packet until one is back in normal temperature.


To stabilise the negative after processing it should be put into a sodium sulphite solution within a few minutes after processing which softens and removes remaining developer and anti-halation dyes. Polaroid recommend 18% but this is not quite as critical as it sounds. 20% strength is easier to measure, as you can dissolve a 500g. pack of sodium sulphite in 2.5 litres water (or 200g./litre). A plain bath of sodium thiosulphate to follow is also a useful addition. Long washing is unnecessary, and water warmer than 24°C. should be avoided, as the emulsion is soft and easily damaged. The film base is thinner than standard camera films, and easily torn or damaged, so should be given better than normal storage- a polyester sleeve, rather than thinner glassine envelopes is ideal. The negative can also usefully be given a permanising treatment in Selenium Toner (e.g. Kodak Selenium Toner, diluted 1+20), which will also tend to intensify it slightly.

NB All Polaroid films contain a caustic processing gel which can cause burns on contact with skin. Great care must be taken when using these materials. Please dispose of all waste thoughtfully. For further information contact Polaroid UK on (01727) 59191 and ask for their Advanced Image Tranferring Guide.


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