Argyrotype Instructions (using Fotospeed sensitizer and 10x8 home-developed negatives)

Argyrotype is the modern invention of Mike Ware, modifying Sir John Hershcel’s 19th-century argentotype process; an iron-based silver process that produces toned images using UV exposure to contact-printed sensitized paper but without the raw cost of the better-known platinum/palladium processes.

These instructions are a mix of personal experience, trial and error, and reading of Christopher James’ Alternative Photographic Processes book.  Consistency of tone and appearance of print is difficult to reproduce between different exposures of the same negative, even in the same printing session, seemingly because precise colour is governed by temperature and humidity at time of sensitizing, and length of time paper is dried before exposure.  I have no experience of other techniques beyond Cyanotype, but suggest that this process is about as technical, though results vary much more significantly.  Before beginning this process, if in particular you are using an entirely analogue workflow, with large format home developed B&W negatives, it will be very important to get an appropriate exposure and film development process well in hand, including by running a film-speed and development test for this specific process.  This would also mean that it is worth using a staining developer such as Pyrocat HD, with a versatile film such as Ilford FP4+.
Trial and error is part of the fun.  If you want perfection I suggest you go with an entirely digital workflow!​​​​​​​
Step 1.
Check equipment – inc. chemistry in date etc.: Fotospeed sensitiser, Tween20, Hypo crystals.  I have a Lotus 12x16” contact printer, which is really excellent and easy to use, if somewhat expensive.  You will also need 3 large developing trays, a ready supply of rain water or distilled water (4 prints will use 12 litres of distilled/rain water for the two wash steps), a lemon (I use 1 lemon for four prints), suitable paper, a large jug, shot glasses, pipettes, paper towels, nitrile gloves, pencil and ruler, scalpel, rocket blower, coating brush, crystal clear envelopes, timer, humidity and temperature gauge, and somewhere to store the paper while drying.
Step 2.
 Select negatives and mark up paper accordingly (e.g. if you have a square crop alongside normal 10x8s).  Use a very fine/sharp pencil such as 6H.  With Bergger Cot320 11x14”, the paper I use, go with the smooth side.
Step 3.
Sensitize paper in a darkened place away from direct UV light (no prehumidification, but take notes of relative humidity and temperature at coating stage; tonal shifts can be created by prehumidifying the sensitized paper, but I’m yet to figure out how this controls the final image to my satisfaction, and it involves an extra step and a bit more equipment.)

3ml sensitizer + 1 drop (mixed 1:5 in distilled water) Tween20 for a 10x8” surface area – though again the addition of Tween20 may not be necessary and is dependent upon paper choice.

Paper coating troubleshooting (NB this is the step I find most difficult)
I’m currently using a Daler-Rowney hake brush.  OK, but sheds hairs occasionally – may well upgrade to a more expensive synthetic brush.  Fotospeed Argyrotype sensitizer sometimes forms sediment; some filter paper in a separate shot glass may well come in handy; sometimes the paper coating is uneven, even with your best intentions (possibly an effect of using too much or too little Tween20, which is added to help with the absorption).  You may want to have some spare paper made up in case you simply have to scrap a sheet and start again.  You will also need the scalpel to remove any hairs or sediment that appears on the coating surface.

Step 4.
Dry the individual sheets of paper separately for at least 1hr- 1hr30 in a dark and dust-free place (I have made a slotted paper tray from cardboard, which I keep on a bookshelf covered with a black refuse sack to keep out light and dust.  Given the length of time that the printing process takes, I suggest printing four sheets in a session will be enough for an afternoon using sun as the exposure light source.

Step 5.

Summer full sun: from 4mins and up
Sun & clouds: 16mins and longer
Home UV unit also viable, but exposure times may be considerably longer, thus perhaps not particularly viable for a batch of sheets unless you have a whole weekend in winter to devote.

Basically, figure out a good time for a full exposure.  You want to look for  bronze solarisation around the uncovered edges of the sensitized area, but NB also to check for exposure in the print (something that is easy to forget to do).  If in doubt, esp. with delicate exposures and tricky negatives, keep checking exposure and effect on highlight areas  by periodically opening back of printing frame.  This process has substantial dry-down, so the print after exposure needs to feel light and airy.
Step 6.

Wash 1:  2mins30 in 1.5litres distilled water/rain water with squeeze lemon juice
Wash 2: 2mins30 in 1.5litres distilled water/rain water 
These wash steps are pretty critical.  If this goes wrong, or you have an overdeveloped/overexposed negative, the image can simply wash away: very sad!!  Water definitely needs not to be tap water here.
Fix: 3mins hypo (4 and a bit teaspoons of crystals in 1.5l tap water)
Final wash: I float the sheets for 30mins each side in 3 litres of tap water.
The pair of images below shows the change from the first wash through to the end of the fixing.
Hang to dry for a few hours.  I use a home clothes dryer, and, rather than clothes pegs, women’s coat hangers which often have broader and softer grips (to avoid peg indentation marks even on a flattened print).

Dry flat under boards/tissue paper/books for at least 48 hours.  Again, be aware of dry-down: prints darken by at least 1 stop over the course of the next week.

Possible further step (yet to try this, though I can vouch that prints hanging for a year in a lit room without direct sunlight have shown no signs of degradation so far)
Tone for permanence (do a test on an old print first):
Soak print in water for 10mins
Selenium toner 1:20 (or weaker: check specific toner instructions), for permanence only, two minutes or longer.
Agitate in a water tray for 30 seconds, then soak 30mins each side in water as before.
Back to Top