Table of Contents
When I decided to take up platinum palladium printing, I didn’t know where to find expert advice to guide the many challenges I would face. I might have saved an enormous amount of time and considerable expense on materials if I had a guide to the best sources of information for making digital negatives, coating paper correctly, mixing chemicals, and calculating exposure time. That’s what I hope to provide here.
In this summary of the ins and outs of platinum palladium printing, I point to where to find the best chemistry, ink, equipment, and software. Next, I will recommend my sources for best practices, procedures, and workflow. Finally, I list practitioners of the art I admire most and what I think the future holds for the revived interest in this so-called alternative process. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive in.
My First Exposure
If you developed black and white photographs in a darkroom as I did as a teenager, you probably remember the first time you dipped exposed photo paper into the developer tray and gradually watched an image emerge. It seemed like magic or at least some kind of unknowable alchemy.
Back then, I believed silver gelatin was the only black and white method I could hope to master. I was blissfully unaware that some prominent photographic artists were rediscovering the 19th-century method known as the platinotype—or similarly, the palladiotype, black and white photo processes once wildly popular that became almost extinct by the 1930s.
In 2016, after 25 years of shooting with a digital camera, I returned to occasionally shooting black and white using 35mm and medium format cameras. While working on plans for building a darkroom, I began reading about photography’s early history, art, and science. Platinum palladium prints by Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, printed in the late nineteenth century, enchanted me.
Other photographers I admired—but whose works I had only seen reproduced in books—were deeply engaged with platinum palladium printing: Edward Weston, Andre Kertész, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, among many more.
I immediately set a new goal to begin platinum palladium printing myself and, from that moment on, became fixated on the virtues of contact printing—sparked by happy memories of my teenage attempts to print black and white photographs in my first makeshift darkroom. But I had little idea of where to start again.
Platinum Palladium Printing: Links and Books
Describing the entire platinum palladium printing process from camera to framed print would undoubtedly fill a book. Indeed, a few good comprehensive books now do a fine job explaining the myriad details. Some authors will guide you with detailed step-by-step instructions, but I discovered there are several process variations and differing approaches to controlling quality.
This post includes links to some favorite books (and e-books) in the notes at the end of this article. You’ll also find links to some interesting and reliable online resources for platinum and palladium that I wished I’d had when starting this journey.
Silver Takes First Place
It’s no wonder silver rose in popularity as the most popular photosensitizing metal. Compared with silver, pre-coated platinum papers of yesteryear were slow, requiring lengthy contact exposures to direct sunlight.
Glass or film negatives held in a direct contact frame pressed under glass against the sensitized paper is known as contact printing. Unfortunately, artificial light sources lacked sufficient ultraviolet wavelengths making projected enlargements impossible. As a result, making large Pt/Pd prints entailed using hard-to-come-by large format cameras or contact-printing an inter-negative and thus sacrificing image details.
Platinum-palladium prints of the past required exposures ranging from a few minutes to an hour, and making a good print involved much guesswork and experimentation. As a result, producing a pleasing image was demanding and unforgiving. In photography’s evolution from platinum to silver gelatin, three platinum print qualities were lost—the rich tonal range, the luxurious matte paper surface, and resistance to fading. Fading prints were such a big problem in the early days of photography that the Royal Photographic Society organized a Fading Committee to award prizes for photographic permanence.
Theoretically, platinum prints could resist fading for many decades because the image-forming “platinum black” sinks directly into the paper fibers—without the fragile emulsion sitting on the paper surface as with gelatin-based processes. One caveat: the longevity of platinum prints hinges on completely clearing traces of iron residues from the paper, or a buildup of acid can form, causing the paper fibers to become brittle and sometimes appear as yellow-brownish discoloration known as “foxing.”
Irving Penn, one of the world’s most well-known photographers, sequestered himself in his darkroom for over a decade at the height of his career. He experimented with platinum palladium printing chemistry, papers, and adhesives (to dimensionally stabilize the sheet for multiple exposures trying to produce deeper shadows) until his death. Unfortunately, many of Penn’s most iconic prints now show signs of oxidation as traces of iron salts remained and contaminated the paper.
The Brief History of Platinum Palladium Printing
In 1830 in Germany, the chemist and inventor Ferdinand Ghelan first observed a weak reaction of platinum to sunlight. Another German scientist, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, found that the sensitivity of platinum to light increased in the presence of ferric oxalate. Sir John Frederick William Herschel, a British astronomer, chemist, and botanist, made important discoveries leading to better image permanence. But it was not until 1873 that William Willis, a British inventor, advanced the chemistry of the platinum process significantly.
After twenty years of trying to stabilize it, Willis patented a small-scale workable platinum process in 1878. Willis then formed the Platinotype Company, which struggled to establish commercial success because they were still unable to mass-produce inexpensive pre-coated paper for the platinum palladium printing professional or hobbyist. However, by 1880, there was still no industrial-scale process to manufacture pre-coated platinum paper.
Within a couple of years, a pair of Austrian army officers, Giuseppe Pizzighelli and Arthur Baron V. Hubl, wrote a dissertation outlining a viable manufacturing process for preparing the paper.
In 1887, Pizzighelli patented the technique that came to be known as the “pizzitype.” Then, going toe-to-toe with Willis, he marketed his product as Dr. Jacoby’s Printing-out Paper.
Over the next hundred years, there were several other attempts to stabilize a platinum paper coating process to mass-produce it. But all met with only limited success or outright failure. Even Kodak, who pioneered the hobby of photography, tried and failed to introduce platinum paper to their devoted camera buffs.
In the early 1900s, weapons manufacturers discovered platinum was an effective catalyst in making explosives. The price of platinum, and platinum palladium printing skyrocketed, and with the outbreak of WWI, the government diverted all supplies to military use. Britain even outlawed the use of platinum for photographic purposes.
Russia controlled 90% of the world’s platinum supply before World War I, and all available platinum went toward the war effort. When Willis began marketing his paper, platinum was relatively cheap. By 1907, platinum had become 52 times more expensive than silver. Despite the high cost, platinum has had small but consistent use by fine art printers up to the present day, interrupted only by the two world wars, of course.
Eventually, pre-coated paper achieved wide popularity and sold for nearly thirty years. Starting in 1907, however, ready-to-print paper use fell into severe decline. Most producers stopped making platinum paper around 1916. Willis’ Platinotype Company closed in 1932, and most of its trade secrets disappeared. Finally, by 1937 no company was manufacturing platinum or palladium photo paper.
Platinum Palladium Printing and Iron
The key to the platinum palladium printing chemical process printing is iron, written as the symbol Fe, from the Latin “Ferrum.” When iron combines with other elements, it is oxidized (negative electrons are removed, rendering the iron atoms more positively charged or neutral).
Neutral iron can be in one of two possible states: Fe(III) or ferric oxalate is transformed temporarily into Fe(II) or ferrous oxalate when exposed to UV light. Ferrous oxalate is a reducing agent that reacts instantly with platinum or palladium salt solutions causing the metals to precipitate out of the solution as blackened nanoparticles that become trapped in the paper fibers.
Are you interested in learning more about platinum palladium printing chemistry? I encourage you to visit Dr. Mike Ware’s website and his concise description of the underlying chemical process in non-chemist language. As Dr. Ware points out, “there are several other iron-based processes such as those using gold (Chrysotype and Aurotype) or silver (Kallitype and Argentotype), or even mercury (Amphitype and Celaenotype), with appropriate changes in the chemistry, although the principles are the same.”
There are several variables to control in pursuit of producing exhibition prints. Printing a high-quality negative is not only the first but perhaps, the most important. Other variables include the properties and purity of the sensitized paper, the atmospheric conditions, the luminance, duration, and intensity of the UV light source used to expose the sensitized paper, and the mineral content and pH of the water in the clearing baths. It seems like a lot to manage, but producing a museum-quality fine art print is worth it.
Platinum palladium printing success is within reach of anyone with enough practice, patience, and money for the precious metals compounds. Of course, starting with a good negative is half the battle. Beyond that, there will be a few other challenges:
- Finding the ideal paper.
- Mixing chemistry precisely.
- Coating the sheet without imperfections.
- Maintaining perfect room temperature and relative humidity.
- Using a 320-400nm UV light source
Pure platinum (platinotype) prints have relatively higher contrast and cooler tones than pure palladium (palladiotype) prints that may have a warmer appearance with deep blacks and soft highlights. The combination of platinum and palladium can create an equilibrium between the two tonalities that enhances images formed by platinum palladium printing. An experienced printer can predictably control a platinum print’s tones within a wide range from warm to cool.
When all these factors conspire favorably, magic happens, and a fine print will reveal image details in even its deepest shadows. That’s what gets my heart racing.
Rare print collectors prize platinum and palladium prints because of their famous longevity. Fine art collectors seek them out because of their breathtaking subtlety. Part of the allure of platinum photos is that no two prints, even from the same negative, are ever the same because subtle variations in the coating and mixing phases of the sensitizer make them unique.
Piezography: A Black and White Inkjet System
After evaluating the options back in 2016, I started printing greyscale photos using the Piezography® system developed by Cone Editions Press (CEP). I found a few other competing methods offered online by other practitioners, printers, and ink vendors. However, after much research, it became clear that Jon and Cathy Cone and the crew at Cone Editions Press in Vermont had packaged the most versatile black and white printing solution.
Piezography® can yield the highest resolution and dMax (greatest ink density) necessary for a high-quality print. CEP continues to evolve and refine its ink technology and software each year. To this day, I believe it remains the best option for imaging fine art on an inkjet printer.
Cone’s proprietary system combines carbon pigment inks in sets of six to eleven shades designed to work with many legacy Epson printers. Customizable digital image correction curves called “quads” provide low-level parameters instructing the computer-controlled printhead to deposit layers of ink, building up pictorial values ranging from the lightest grey to opaque black.
Using the Piezography® system requires removing the OEM color ink cartridges from an Epson professional-level printer and replacing them with bigger refillable cartridges. This encapsulated nanoparticle Piezography® ink increases the resolution and tonal fidelity of the print threefold, far surpassing black and white photographs printed using Epson’s proprietary black and white (ABW) system. In addition, the Piexography® system can print high resolution, linearized negatives of practically any size.
PiezoDN®: the Digital Negative Version of Piezography®
Photographers today would have to settle for far inferior digital negatives without Jon Cone’s and his collaborator Walker Blackwell’s years of innovation and experimentation. Cone and Blackwell’s work with inks, inkjet coatings, high-resolution scans, and software together make up the digital negative system known as PiezoDN®.
Shortly after introducing Piezography® in the 1990s, Cone and company turned their attention to the challenge of high-quality monochrome digital negatives.
Cone experimented with every commercially-available inkjet printer transparent polyester film on the market for his inkjet film substrate. Fortunately, he found one capable of accepting their pigment-rich inks in sufficient quantity to achieve nearly 100% opacity (dMax), a prerequisite of digital negatives.
Most failed in testing until they struck on a product previously used for overhead projector transparencies called Pictorico made by Mitsubishi Imaging. (CEP recommends only the ultra-premium version of the product due to its unique crystalline coating.)
While the Cones and their company have done a thorough job documenting and making instructions widely available, in my experience, mastering it can be challenging even for the most persistent and dedicated photographers. The Piezography® system requires a significant investment of time, money, and patience to understand and incorporate into a workflow. However, the superior results are worth it.
Anyone can start using the publicly available Piezography® Community Editon for free. Still, I recommend purchasing the Peizography Professional® package of software and the PiezoDN® upgrade if you are serious about any alternative process printing.
Obtaining a Working Printer
The first hurdle to overcome in implementing Piezography® and making digital negatives is finding a working used Epson printer. eBay is a popular source though getting one with a print head free of old dried ink can be challenging.
In a stroke of luck on eBay, I once bought a new-in-box 24-inch Epson Stylus Pro 7880 printer out of production, sitting in a warehouse for ten years. Also, check Craigslist for sellers sometimes willing to let a printer go for only the cost of removing it.
With patience, a set of precision screwdrivers and tools, and a downloaded field service manual, it is possible to revive an old printer (as I have done more than once) using replacement parts ordered on Alibaba or Sign-in-China. Most replaceable parts such as print heads, ink lines, capping stations, motherboards, and beyond are readily available.
In 2016, I started printing digital negatives on an Epson Stylus Pro 7880, a 24-inch model first manufactured in the late 1990s. The 7880 is known to be a workhorse. I now own two of them, but I bought my first one used on Craigslist for $800. A darkroom facilities liquidator who advertised it had collected 50 of them from Walmart photo departments throughout the northeast.
I lugged the 140-lb printer from his railroad warehouse into my car and up to my 4th-floor studio. Then I spent a couple of months refurbishing it using replacement parts I found online at Alibaba.com. Frequently, Chinese resellers import and disassemble used machines like the one I owned and then sell the refurbished printers and parts back to buyers in America and Europe. Fortunately, small parts (under 4.4lbs or 2 kilos) can be shipped quickly and economically from China using the special customs-expedited ePacket service. Arriving in the US, these small packages deliver just like first-class mail, so the total delivery time was about 7 to 10 days.
After finally getting that old printer working like new, I made hundreds of 8×12 inch Pt/Pd prints from the negs over the next four years. I continue to print to it at least two or three times a week.
Platinum Palladium Printing: Taking the Plunge
The PiezoDN® add-on software package starts you off with a set of “media-types” or “.quads” optimized for platinum-palladium prints on commonly recommended papers. You’ll also need to buy a license for Roy Harrington’s imaging software Print Tool and the QuadTone RIP to use these.This software is essential to circumventing Apple’s operating system color adjustment system called ColorSync.
Also, Apple displays are costly but are not suitable for print work. NEC Spectraview or Eizo CG series monitors with built-in hardware calibration are best for accurately soft-proofing images.
As you gain experience, calibrate your monitor to your darkroom set up so that what you see on your screen is what you get on your print.
Consider obtaining a spectrophotometer such as the I1Pro to take accurate print density readings. Here’s more information on system calibration from the online Piezography manual. Alternatively, you can mail a printed target to CEP, and they will scan it and return a custom .quad to you as an email attachment for a reasonable flat price.
PiezoDN® includes a useful Excel tool to customize the kit’s starter “.quads” to your unique darkroom conditions based on density readings from a target printed in your darkroom.
The key to maintaining a calibrated workflow is consistency. I can say from my experience that it takes some time to get all these factors under control. No amount of calibration will help without also controlling humidity, paper moisture, chemistry, UV exposure time, paper coating technique, and other variables that can change unexpectedly from one printing session to another.
I’ve been working with Piezography® and, subsequently, PiezoDN® for more than five years and only recently have felt confident enough to avoid rushing to the 300+ page Piezography® online manual to search for answers to common problems.
Walker Blackwell, CEP’s technical guru, moderates a robust online user forum that holds many solutions to PiezoDN challenges. However, it can be time-consuming to sort through long threads of other users’ problems looking for answers when your issues appear suddenly and stopping your work cold. Fortunately, Walker and others in the company quickly respond to and troubleshoot most emergency support questions.
Platinum Palladium Workshop
I made my first Pt/Pd print during a 4-day workshop in Jon Cone’s printmaking studio, Cone Editions Press, situated on several acres of rural hillside farmland in the tiny rural village of East Topsham, VT.
Each day, eight students from many parts of the country watched demonstrations, asked questions, and practiced producing 4×5 inch negatives on their massive 44 inches wide Epson SureColor P9000 printer loaded with ten shades of Piezography® ink.
In the morning sessions, we learned how to make digital negatives using PiezoDN®. Then during the afternoon sessions were demonstrations of sensitizing fine art paper and exposing the negative and paper using a commercial printer’s mercury vapor lamp-powered platemaker.
The students took detailed notes on mixing the chemicals, brushing on the sensitizer, making a test strip, and exposing and clearing the print. Finally, we practiced using our new skills on images we brought from home over the last two days. I managed to produce a few pretty decent 4×5 inch prints. The real challenge would lay ahead in replicating my successes in my darkroom at home.
Pt/Pd Printing: Developing Out vs. Printing Out
In “developing-out”, after contact exposure, the paper is further developed in a chemical solution of potassium oxalate that augments the reaction of iron molecules with platinum or palladium.
In the “printing-out” method, the image is fully formed during exposure and needs clearing through successive baths (e.g., EDTA, a metal-binding ligand). Finally, washing the print in a sodium sulfite solution and then clean water removes all traces of the unstable iron particles. If iron traces remain, the picture will discolor over time, as I mentioned before.
Printing-out offers another advantage over developing-out—the image formed during exposure is self-masking. Self-masking means the black particles forming the image prevent overexposure and loss of detail in the picture’s shadows.
In either method, a Pt/Pd print’s hue may range from charcoal gray to sepia. The printing-out process can also predictably achieve variations in shade by adjusting the moisture content of the sensitized paper. In addition, pre-treating the sensitized sheet in a humidifying chamber before exposure can affect a picture’s tonal range.
Similarly, in “developing-out, adding 5% to 20% disodium solution (Na2), also known as a chemical “restrainer,” to the sensitizer can be used to increase a photograph’s contrast.In either method, an image’s contrast increases by increasing the proportion of platinum to palladium.
My Transition to Printing-Out
In the first quarter of 2018, Cone Editions Press announced their annual workshop schedule, including a week-long seminar showcasing their newly adopted Malde-Ware printing-out approach. Unable to attend, I read all that I could find about the fundamental differences of printing-out vs. developing-out that photo-conservators extolled as a superior approach to producing platinotypes. The Malde/Ware version revives and improves the long-lost variation originated in the 1860s by Giuseppe Pizzighelli.
About this time, Inkjetmall.com replaced its inventory of “developing-out” chemistry and began exclusively selling Malde-Ware sensitizer solutions and clearing bath powders. I was running low, so I ordered the clearing chemistry. However, after comparing prices, I decided to mix my sensitizers using dry platinum and palladium compounds I ordered from a chemical company in China at a significant discount compared with US suppliers.
I reworked my process based on instructions Pradip Malde published on his website. My first results were mixed—some good prints, but quite a few marred by large grain, mysterious blotches, or streaks in the coating. Although I purchased Malde-Ware’s book as soon as it was published, I knew I needed more tips only available through in-person instructions.
So, in August 2021, when the state government finally relaxed Vermont’s Covid-19 restrictions, I returned to CEP for a long-delayed reboot of CEP’s Pt/Pd workshop. This week-long hands-on tutorial replaced almost everything I’d learned about “developing-out” with the improved Malde/Ware “printing-out” method I was now somewhat familiar with through their excellent book.
Pradip Malde, who led the workshop, is co-author of the book Platinotype: Making Photographs in Platinum and Palladium with the Contemporary Printing-out Process (Contemporary Practices in Alternative Process Photography, 2021). He is also a professor of art at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, teaching photography and documentary studies.
A renowned photographer, Pradip Malde, worked in tandem for over a decade with a brilliant British chemist and photographer, Dr. Mike Ware, testing an ammonium-based sensitizer and a new series of clearing baths designed to remove traces of iron from the exposed paper.
Dr. Mike Ware graduated in chemistry from Oxford (1962). He is an Honorary Fellow in Chemistry, University of Manchester, UK, and a recipient of the Hood Medal of the Royal Photographic Society. Their project culminated in a comprehensive manual that significantly improved the workflow and chemistry I’d learned earlier.
In each method, printing-out or developing-out, the PiezoDN® imaging preparation remains the key to success. New adjustment curves specifically tuned for Malde/Ware enable users to calibrate their workflows to the new process. Under Malde’s skillful instruction, I also supercharged my Photoshop skills with a master lesson in image preparation and optimization.
Exposing Platinum Palladium: Consider the Source
Among the most recent innovations at Cone Editions Press are the hand-assembled LED UV exposure units and vacuum frames in various sizes. Using a specially designed 8mm 365nM high output UV-LED strip, Cone packs row upon row of them into a tight grid lining a lightweight aluminum box.
These strips are wired in parallel and powered by Mean Well 12v transformers and an Ian Leake exposure-control computer. Inkjetmall is now taking orders for these units, though there is a nine-week delay before shipping the deluxe version.
From the inkjetmall.com VerifiedUV™ v2 365nM Ultra Violet LED Strip product description:
”Exposure systems can be made using a wide variety of UV illumination lamps, including metal halide and fluorescent tube, but LED offers some of the most far-reaching benefits of any material. Besides being less expensive to operate, they come to full illumination upon starting, have an extremely long life, are highly efficient, and when properly configured, can produce more UV intensity than other types of lamps.
Increasing demand for shorter exposures has had a direct effect on the demand for more stable and precise light systems. The verifiedUV™ 365nM LED light strip can be configured with greater flexibility than lower standard light strips. They can be placed both closer together or further apart. The higher density of luminaries offering both versatility as well as intensity.
I purchased 15 meters of the LED strips described above and recently converted my fluorescent tube exposure unit replacing eight 24” bulbs with the 8mm LED strips.
My intention is to get sharper images and reduced exposure times. I will report how I did this and detail the results obtained in a future blog post.
The Future of Pt/Pd
It seems to me that updating the 150-year-old platinum palladium printing process by integrating modern methods, chemistry and software tools is akin to the Cone’s transformation of their antique Vermont farm into a hi-tech imaging studio. Cone Editions Press combines the best of something firmly anchored in the past and continually reinterpret it to prosper in the future.
PiezoDN® is a by-product of CEP’s sustained effort to bring old-world printmaking into the contemporary digital world. Thanks to Jon and Cathy Cone, Walker Blackwell, and Nathaniel Koopercamp’s patient instruction, even an amateur like me can produce successful prints on the first try.
Sadly, the price of both platinum and palladium has skyrocketed due to war. Russia, the world’s primary supplier of both metals, is invading neighboring Ukraine with devastating force. As a result, the Western world is banding together to ban all Russian imports hoping to choke off its sources of war funding.
War with Russia and future bans will have a regrettable impact on the availability of these and other rare earth metals for many industries. Fine art photo printing is a minor consumer, but these tiny amounts are increasingly jeopardized and already out of reach for many printers.
I continually adapt my imaging, chemistry, and workflows to fit my time, budget, skills, darkroom, and equipment limitations. Out of necessity, I’m sure most platinum printmakers pursuing finely printed images will improvise and test other alternative processes that require fewer precious resources. From these creative minds, new and experienced printers alike will contribute to photographic art’s continual evolution and refinement.
Resources and Links:
Platinum Palladium online
Platinum Printing Workshop, 3rd edition, an e-book by Ian Leake
Christopher James, 2015, Cengage Learning
The Platinum Printing Workshop: Platinum/Palladium Printing Made Easy, Ian Leake, 2017, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Platinotype: Making Photographs in Platinum and Palladium with the Contemporary Printing-out Process, Pradip Malde, and Mike Ware, 2020, Routledge