Making a Carbon Transfer Print


          Sought by collectors and demanding artists, handmade prints such as platinum or carbon transfer capture the beauty that great photos deserve. The carbon print has been around since the late 19th century, and is practiced today by a small handful of people who value quality and artistry over all else. Renowned for its archival stability, rich shadows, clarity, and luxurious texture the carbon print is considered the pinnacle of photographic processes.  

Here are a few characteristics of carbon prints-
          Archival Stability: No other photograph will last as long. Since the prints are made of pure carbon pigment, they will never fade. 
          Exclusivity: Even more so than a platinum print, carbon prints are enormously difficult, time consuming and expensive to make.
          Paper: Since the photo will never fade, the paper must last as long as possible. I print on the highest quality and heaviest pure cotton watercolor papers available. 
          Smooth Highlights: A shortfall in most carbon prints. With my method, I can create highlights that transition delicately from paper white without visible grain.
          Clarity and Dimension: Tonality in a carbon print is achieved through thick and thin layers of pigmented gelatin. The dark areas are raised up like relief on a topographical map giving the print an incredible sense of dimension and clarity.
          Durability: Even well made and conserved silver or platinum prints have many archival issues. The carbon print has been around for 150 years and its durability is proven. One can rub a coin aggressively against the surface of a carbon print and not make a scratch.
          Pigments: Any pigment can be used to create any effect. Imagine a photograph of a nude model covered in gold paint. An inkjet print of that photo would result in nothing more than a yellow looking model. With a carbon print, metallic pigments or even powdered gold could be used to print the model's body. This would result in a photograph true to the photographers intentions.
          Rich Blacks: No other photographic process can produce blacks as dark as the carbon process or separate tones in the shadows as well.
          Luxurious Texture: The texture of a carbon print is an extraordinary thing. The pigment and gelatin perfectly follow the contour of the fibers of the paper resulting in an image rich in dimension and quality more than anything else.
          One of a Kind: Handmade prints are works of art, not copies of it. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same. One can prints hundreds of copies of a photo on an inkjet printer, but they are just copies and not original works of art.



There are 13 main steps in making a carbon print. Here is a quick and almost oversimplified version of what goes into making a single photograph.

  1. Sizing paper
  2. Making tissue
  3. Making temporary support
  4. Printing the negatives
  5. Exposing the first tissue
  6. Mating the first tissue to the temporary support
  7.  Developing the print
  8. Repeating steps 5-7
  9. Clearing the print
  10. Transferring image from temporary support to paper
  11. Final bath

The Paper: When it takes hours to make a single print I want to be working with the best materials possible. Any high quality paper will work, but my main choice of paper is 640gsm Fabriano Artistico High White hot pressed. Other papers I use are from the Arches paper mill in France and St Cuthberts Mill in England. All papers are made of 100% cotton fibers and contain no optical brighteners. I am also working with triple thick Kozo from the Hiromi paper manufacture in Japan. For the image to stick to the paper, it is necessary to size it with gelatin. I can control the gloss of the paper by applying a thin layer of gelatin to create matte prints or a heavy layer to create glossy prints. If you have a special paper, texture or glossiness in mind, contact me. 

The Tissue: Tissue is a thin layer of gelatin and carbon pigment on plastic, from which the image will be made. It’s made by mixing water, gelatin, sugar, carbon pigment, and a sensitizer into what’s called glop. The glop is then poured in an even layer over a plastic film and let dry in a lightproof room.   

The Temporary Support: This is a plastic sheet which I have conditioned, coated with albumen and hardened. This will be the image's temporary home until it gets transferred onto paper. The image can be transferred directly onto paper, but it will chemically contaminate the paper and doesn't allow for layering because paper isn't dimensionally stable.  

The Negatives: Unlike traditional carbon printing which uses one negative, my method uses three. This system allows me total control over the tonality of the final print, and allows me to print a beautiful transition from paper white to the lightest grays. I am also using imagesetter negatives instead of inkjet negatives. They cost about times as much as inkjet negatives, but the quality is far superior. 

Exposing: Light then dark negative separations are sandwiched between the first tissue and a special exposure unit made of ultraviolet emitting led lamps. Light passing through the negative polymerizes the gelatin in relation to the density of the negative. 

Mating: There is now an image on the first tissue, but it is invisible. What has to be done is join or mate the image/tissue to the plastic sheet. This is done by soaking the tissue in water and sandwiching them together.

Developing: This is either the most fun step if it works, or the most devastating when it doesn’t. The mated tissue and plastic sheet are submerged in hot water until the gelatin softens and the tissue can be peeled off leaving the image stuck to the plastic sheet. Now it's a mess of pigmented gelatin and nothing can be seen, but after five more minutes all of the unpolymerized gelatin gets washed away, leaving nothing more than the image.

Repeating Steps 5-7: In order to reduce grain, achieve dense blacks, and prevent the highlights from washing away, my method uses two or more layers of pigmented gelatin.   

Clearing: At this point there is still a small amount of sensitizer trapped in the pigmented gelatin in the image and this needs to be washed away with special salts. Doing this keeps the paper chemically pure, and prevents the image from yellowing. 

Transferring image from temporary support to paper: The plastic sheet is joined with the gelatin sized paper under water and hung to dry. When dry the plastic sheet is peeled away leaving the image on the paper.

Final Bath: At this point the image on the paper is glossy and holds the texture of the plastic. The paper is soaked for half an hour and hung to dry. While it is dries, the gelatin adapts to the fibers of the paper, moves pigment to new places, and finally takes on the texture of the paper. Watching a print dry in itself is a very beautiful process.