When mainstream photography was entangled with the darkroom, the act of printing a photo would show the artist’s hand as much as what was photographed. With the advent of digital photography and artificial intelligence to edit photos automatically, the trend has been moving more away from printing as a method of expression for the artist but the darkroom is where so much of photography’s expressivity can come from.

One of the most mysterious and awe-inspiring processes you can do in the darkroom is lith printing. Lith printing gives a completely different look to black and white darkroom prints and permits the photographer a multitude of ways to express different emotions and feelings to a scene or portrait. Over the years there have been many photographers who have exploited its effect, and even now it has a small subculture dedicated to keeping it alive.

In this article, I’ll be giving a simple how-to guide to lith printing based on my own experiences and research I’ve done into the process. Here’s what I’ll be covering:

When I started lith printing I found that while there was a lot of theory online, it was difficult to translate that into practical information in the darkroom. Through this article, I want to show the difficulties of the process and use as much of the underlying science to show how to deal with them.

A quick introduction to lithographic printing

Short for “lithographic”, modern lith printing originated in methods used for graphic arts reproduction [1]. Indeed, in much the same way its namesake was/is used in printmaking for mass reproductions, the earliest lith papers were also used in photographic reproduction.

Nowadays this use case has largely been phased out, though Arista still makes a modern(ish) day equivalent film, as does Ultrafine, and both are coated on a transparent base which gives extremely high contrast when developed in their preferred developers. I’ve seen the Arista product used for reproducing circuit diagrams and is commonly used in making enlarged negatives (but for our purposes they’re not useful).

When paper was still used for this purpose, photographers found that by using a very dilute solution of the developers for these papers, both the tonality and color would change, giving a wide variety of effects. Later it was found that other papers could give the same effect. The key difference is what’s known as infectious development.

Normally when paper is exposed and put into a normal developer, there are two stages [2]:

  1. Phase one: a period of time where no image can be detected (sometimes called the induction period or initiation period).
  2. Phase two: a period where there is a build-up of density of silver in areas of exposure (sometimes called the autoacceleration period).

The induction period is typically very short and will last only seconds. After the initial image formation, silver density will continue to build up in the second phase. This leads to darker blacks and an overall increase in contrast, and hence why guides will always tell you to leave the print in the developer for at least a minute past image formation.

However, with lith printing, the first period will take much longer. Typically 5-40 minutes depending on almost any factor you could imagine. Development will then be autocatalytic in areas of exposure and will proceed exponentially [1][7].

Modern lith printing papers

Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer remaining darkroom photographic papers which are capable of infectious development. But there are still some. This is not an exhaustive list, and it’s also possible to find expired or out of production paper but in my experience, these are the easiest to find right now.

Foma Fomatone MG Classic
One of the safest bets for lith printing and one of my favorite papers.
[LINK]

FOMABROM Variant III
A difficult paper to deal with, but gives beautifully cold, grainy results.
[LINK]

New Oriental Seagull Warm Tone and Cold Tone
This paper is a classic in the field. It went through periods where it would not lith, but the most recent iteration of it does.
[LINK]

Slavich Unibrom
This paper is difficult to get in North America. But it produces wonderful cold and grainy images, and is my favorite for lith printing.
[LINK]

Additionally, Adox is working on recreating Forte Polywarmtone while prioritizing lith printing. They haven’t finished yet, but it would be worth keeping an eye on.

Cold vs warm tone papers

Several of the papers listed are above are cold toned. While in general warm tone papers have shown better results in lith printing, it is possible to get cold tone papers to lith. Generally, this results differences in color and grain, with colder papers giving more significant grain.

Modern lith developers

It seems sometimes like there are more developers than there are papers that use them!

Almost every single lith developer has two components which are mixed. These are called the ‘A’ solution (containing the developer) and the ‘B’ solution, which contains an alkaline ingredient (among other things). Most lith developers are also slightly more hazardous than normal paper developers due to the need to use formaldehyde as a preservative. The MSDS is an essential resource for understanding this risk, and good ventilation is a must.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, more the highlights. I won’t go into details on dilution and mixing of each, but each will come with instructions on how to use it along with recommended dilutions. It’s best to start with the recommendations and change it as you understand more about the process.

Moersch Easylith
A very good developer for beginners. Wolfgang Moersch makes and sells products for photography based out of Germany on his site and is an exceptionally good printer himself. Not only that, but he was able to reformulate his lith developer to be formaldehyde free! I highly recommend this for beginners, though it is slightly harder to get in North America.
[LINK]

Moersch SE5 Master Lith Kit
This is the more advanced version of Moersch’s Easy Lith. Also formaldehyde free, he has broken down the components into multiple solutions to give a finer control over the process and composition of the developer.
[LINK]

Arista Premium A&B Lith Developer
This is my personal favorite. It comes in both liquid and powder form and has an excellent tray life.
[LINK]

Fotospeed LD20
A solid developer and easy to get due to Fotospeed making a variety of other products. Similar in composition to Arista.
[LINK]

The lith printing process

When you have your developer and paper, the process for making a print is similar, but different to “normal”. There are essentially two different ways of going about this that I’ve come to use. Other lith printers have likely developed different or more rigorous methods for making prints, but this is how I typically approach making a lith print.

Making a test strip

The first method is to make a standard test strip in a neutral developer, and then develop the full print in a lith developer. The second is to make a special test strip, develop it in a lith developer and use that to find the exposure for the full print.

When making test strips and prints, even with VC papers, we don’t have to worry about contrast filters. When doing lith printing I’ve found it best to have no contrast filter at all, as all it will do is increase exposure time as contrast filters cut down on light.

Contrast is controlled entirely by the process itself. The reason for this is summarized in the second ‘golden rule’ given by Tim Rudman, one of the pioneers and experts on lith printing:

Highlights are controlled by exposure.
Shadows are controlled by development (‘snatch point’).

What this means is that we have complete control over contrast without using a filter. Shadows, as mentioned above, have an accelerated, autocatalytic development. Thus they will blacken and increase in density the longer they are in the developer. This effect, however, is much greater in areas of higher exposure (shadows). Highlights will not develop as fast as shadows. It follows that you can open your highlights and midtones more by decreasing your exposure without sacrificing your shadow quality.

Test strip in neutral developer

The rule for lith printing typically given is to take the base exposure and add two stops. So using the above test strip, with the exposure time of 15 seconds, I would expose for a lith print by opening my aperture by two stops to f/11 or expose at 60 seconds.

This method, while having the disadvantage of needing another tray, is quick, easy and what I do 90% of the time.

Test strip in lith developer

What I typically do when developing a test strip in a lith developer is expose a strip in 1/2 or 1 stop increments. The strip above was developed in 1 stop increments. It may seem like a lot, but the best two exposures (the last two) were at roughly +1.5-2 stops the exposure we found in the neutral developer and worked out to roughly the same (the last one being 60 seconds, like before).

This method has the advantage of saving space and possibly nailing the exposure sooner, but at the cost of taking more time to develop test strips. It also can be useful when toning to have test strips to see the toning results.

Making a print

The process for developing is simple: expose as above and drop the paper in the developer until the image is fully developed. I typically start with the paper face down in the tray until the image first starts appearing, then turn it over and turn on a safelight I have hanging above the tray to see the image better.

A safe light hanging above the tray (or, alternatively, a darkroom torch / flashlight converted to a safelight) for checking the progress of your prints is invaluable. As the image is forming, it will take a while before it’s ready. As the blacks start to form, they start weaker and slowly ‘breakthrough.’

If you pull the print too early, you’ll get a weak image with too little contrast. What I tell myself is to not pull the print until I see a true, good black, and a safe light above the tray helps me check that.

Print toning

One of the unique aspects of lith printing is the wide range of possibilities it affords in toning. When toning with a process that requires bleaching (e.g. sepia), you can simply develop slightly longer than you would normally to compensate for the loss of density.

Common toners used:

  • Dilute solutions of selenium (e.g. 1:5 – 1:100, to control rate and not lose contrast)
  • Gold
  • Selenium (shadows) -> Gold (highlights)
  • Sepia

These are not the only toners you can try, and in fact many strange things can happen. The following print was toned in Ilford IT-8 after developing in Arista, which gave it a split tone between the golden highlights from the lith process and red tones in the shadows from the toner. Unfortunately, it turned out too dark and I haven’t yet been able to recreate it yet.

Troubleshooting

Lith printing may seem simple, but a lot can go wrong. It took me a while before I started getting consistent results. These are some common problems.

Problem: “Snowballs”

Some papers are prone to developing “snowballs”. That is, modern emulsions often are treated or hardened in some way and the developer does not develop evenly for some reason with lith printing. This leads to large round spots where no image is formed.

There are three ways to handle this. The first and most effective way is to borrow an idea from the mordançage process, which uses a concentrated solution hydrogen peroxide to lift the emulsion. I’ve found that soaking the paper in a weaker solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide for 30-90 seconds virtually eliminates snowballs.

You have to be careful to not soak too long though, as peroxide can fog paper if left too long [3].

The second, somewhat successful method I’ve found, is to soak the paper in hot water before adding to the developer.

The third method is to increase the concentration of the developer, but I have personally not found this to be as helpful, though many lith printers prefer this method.

Problem: Too dark

In the previous example where I showed Fomabrom with and without soaking in hydrogen peroxide, I made two mistakes. The prints are too dark for two reasons: First, I left them in the tray for too long. Second, I didn’t realize at the time, but Fomabrom is sensitive to the yellow light that my safe light above the tray produces[4]. So by leaving it on I was flashing the paper slightly (and the telltale sign for this is the borders show black).

Take care to be attentive to when you pull the prints and the light you shine on them. It is also possible to fix a print that it only a little too dark by using a proportional reducer.

Problem: Not enough color

The induction time is largely responsible for the resultant color. One way of increasing this time is to increase dilution of your developer, which will extend development time and increase color.

Additionally, you can add some “old brown.” Typically color increases as your session goes on and the byproducts (bromide [5]) of development increase. Lith printers typically save some at the end of a printing session and call it “old brown,” this is because it’s old and brown, then add some to the fresh developer next session. I usually start with 10ml per liter, but some people go up to 100ml/liter.

Alternatively, KBr can be added, starting at 10ml per liter at a concentration of 10%.

Problem: Too much color

Don’t be too quick to judge. Lith prints usually cool down after they dry. If after this there’s still too much color, you can do the opposite above and increase concentration.

Problem: Extended development time

Your developer is not concentrated enough, either from exhaustion or from not mixing enough. You can move your prints to a water bath and add more A+B. I usually do 10ml of each per liter. Alternatively, if you don’t want to do this, you can increase the temperature of your developer. Fair warning, it’ll exhaust faster.

Problem: Peppering

Peppering, which looks like small black spots sprinkled over the paper, sometimes occurs with particularly fast emulsions or energetic developers. It is due to “chunky aggregates of silver halide that spontaneously develop without exposure to light.” [6]

Very often, the remedy to this is to add a small amount of sodium sulfite, which makes sense, as this will lessen the effect of accelerated development, altering the kinetics [7]. However, another approach would be to weaken your developer (via dilution).

Inspiration and more samples

There are a lot of artists out there who have used, and who continue to use lith printing in their art. Some of my favorite artists that I draw inspiration from who are practising right now include Kristmort, whose work I personally own, Brian Henry, whose work I found through the Facebook group and Tiina Kirik, who’s also an active member on the Facebook group.

Michael Weitzma, Isa Marcelli and Luca Anzani are also artists I follow on Instagram who also use lith printing really well, and Anton Corbijn has used lith printing to come up with portraits I really love.

Final Thoughts

Starting with lith printing should hopefully be less mysterious now! While a lot of this guide has included technical details and problem solving, I would encourage thinking of the quirks of this process as a means of expression. Lith printing should be entered into as something that isn’t necessarily set in stone black and white process as it is an artistic expression. If you have a darkroom setup, it should be fairly simple to get started. You might even have the paper needed all ready!

~ Alexander

Resources

References

[1] Zwicky, H. “The mechanism of lith development.” The Journal of Photographic Science 33.1 (1985): 36-40.

[2] Carroll, Burt Haring, George Clinton Higgins, and Thomas Howard James. Introduction to photographic theory: The silver halide process. John Wiley & Sons, 1980.

[3] Sheppard, S. E., and E. P. Wightman. “The action of hydrogen peroxide on photographic gelatino-silver halide emulsions.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 195.3 (1923): 337-347.

[4] FOMABROM VARIANT III datasheet.

[5] KBr is produced as a byproduct of the lith development process, which extends the induction time and increases color. There may be other byproducts which affect this as well, but I have not seen or investigated this matter.

[6] Ross, Denise. The Handmade Silver Gelatin Emulsion Print: Creating Your Own Liquid Emulsions for Black & White Paper. Routledge, 2018.

[7] Yule, J. A. C. “Formaldehyde-hydroquinone developers and infectious development.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 239.3 (1945): 221-230.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. What Tim Rudman calls ‘second-pass lith’ is another fun way into this, even with papers that do not normally lith very well. Use a quality silver paper and bleach it back (as much as you are willing) and then redevelop in lith developer. You can do this in regular light and do similar ‘snatch’ point to adjust the result. Ilford papers generally don’t lith very well, but I’ve gotten some good results with second-pass.

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