At some point in 2017, I went through a phase of photographic despondency but developed an interested in alternative, broadly photographic ventures. In a brief moment of inspiration, I decided I wanted to produce emulsion lifts although somewhat oddly, I didn’t actually know how they worked, what was required, or what they really were. Regardless, the idea kept nagging at me and after a little research, I found that it was relatively easy and definitely doable, with some pretty cool results.
In this article, I’m going to describe how you can create your own emulsion lifts using new Polaroid Originals, older Impossible Project, or almost any other pack or integral film. But before that, let me get tell you a quick story about how I got started.
It’s simpler than you might think! Here’s what I cover in this article:
Table of contents
- 1 First steps to creating emulsion lifts
- 2 Preparation
- 3 The emulsion lift process
- 4 Step 2: Transferring the emulsion
- 5 Step 3: Drying/tweaking the emulsion lift
- 6 You’re done, go experiment!
First steps to creating emulsion lifts
Following a night of self-nagging dreams, I woke early the next morning and decided to make my first attempt at an emulsion lift using a sheet of a black and white Impossible Project film I had exposed very badly. This is the result:
As you can see it’s by no means perfect. The original exposure was very patchy, which in part was why I chose the frame: there was nothing to lose.
To mount the lifted emulsion, I figured a black background would work best and tore the cardboard backing off a little notepad. The cardboard took ages to dry and the emulsion has cracked where (I think) the card expanded and contracted as a result of being submerged in water and subsequent drying. As you can see, the edges are very rough and there is a fair amount of folding over going on.
Quality of the result aside, it was a successful emulsion lift and transfer; and proof to me that it could be done. Importantly, it highlighted the areas I needed to work on for test two and a little while later, I tried my second lift with a shot I really liked. Here’s the original and the result:
As I hope you can see from the above, I was more careful this time. Instead of destroying another notepad, I transferred the lifted emulsion on to pre-fixed photo paper and took some time to get the emulsion onto the paper exactly how I wanted it.
In contrast to the first emulsion lift, I feel I went too far the other way with this one. It is almost too perfect in its layout, etc. To look at it, it almost appears to be a normal instant sheet. So, back to the drawing board!
My next lift and transfer was onto glass plate. I left it less perfect than test two and much prefer the result.
Time to dive into the process.
For this project you will need for following:
- An exposed Impossible Project / Polaroid Originals film.
- A tray (I used a small tray for making darkroom prints, but anything will do).
- Warm/Hot water.
- A couple of small, soft paintbrushes (I used very cheap child’s brushes).
- Some scissors, or a craft scalpel and ruler
- Something for the emulsion to be transferred onto*
For the last item, you will need something relatively waterproof that the emulsion will stick to. Ideally, it will be something that will not take ages to dry or suffer from too much expansion/contraction as it does – to begin with at least.
The backing/mount material is where some of the intrigue and creativity comes in. The lifted emulsion will stick to whatever you put it on, paper, wood, glass, metal, etc. There are so many possibilities to explore but for the sake of getting your technique down, I suggest you use something thin, flexible and waterproof.
The emulsion lift process
The process of creating an emulsion lift breaks down into three distinct steps:
- Getting to the emulsion (or more accurately, the removal of everything except the emulsion)
- Transferring and positioning the emulsion onto the mount material.
- Drying / tweaking the emulsion lift
Step 1: Getting to the emulsion
This is the easy bit. Start off by cutting the edges off your instant frame, as shown below. Next, peel apart the two layers keeping the top half (with the emulsion and clear plastic cover).
Click or tap on the images below to view them in full screen.
Put everything aside from the piece with the emulsion on it. Next, place this into hot water. I used boiling water which I’d left to cool for 5-10 minutes.
With the emulsion submerged, you can watch it go through a pretty interesting metamorphosis as it detaches from the clear plastic front.
The emulsion will begin detaching within a few minutes. The exact speed will be dependent on the temperature of the water; the warmer the water, the quicker it will detach. If you are unsure if it’s detached or not, just give it a nudge, lift a corner or move the water.
When you are ready, slowly lift the plastic front, giving it a nudge with a paintbrush where it inevitably sticks to the emulsion. This can take a lot of careful work on your part. My technique is to push down onto the area where the emulsion is stuck to the plastic with the bristles of the brush, still quite gently.
One of the times I turned the emulsion face down in the water. I would advise against this, it is an extra hassle to turn it back round and could lead to the emulsion tearing.
Step 2: Transferring the emulsion
Once you have the emulsion free of its plastic, all that is left is some careful brushing and positioning the emulsion onto whatever material you want to put it on. This is the fiddly bit and requires a fair amount of patience. Hopefully, this guide will make it as easy as possible.
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The first part involves getting the emulsion onto your backing material. I’m using a glass plate in the example images below.
First, with the emulsion floating free in the water, place your paper or other material in the water and slide it underneath the emulsion. This is where having a big enough tray really helps.
Next, using the back of the paintbrush, lightly press and guide the emulsion into place. This is much easier and less likely to cause tears than trying to lift the emulsion ONTO your mount.
Easy, done and finished, right? Well, not quite.
Now you have to get this wafer-thin emulsion – which is floating around in the water with a mind of its own – into position on your backing material…using only a paintbrush.
With the emulsion roughly on the backing material use the rear end of the brush to VERY gently move it and/or hold it in position, and brush out the edges to flatten/unroll them. There will likely be miscellaneous white matter (adhesive residue or something) that you will likely want to brush off lightly too.
N.B have a mess around with this part of the process, the end result doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth and square. Obviously, as an artistic exercise, it is for you to decide how (im)perfect you want the finished result to be. The horse transfer I did was me trying to make it as perfect as possible and I actually don’t like it that much.
Step 3: Drying/tweaking the emulsion lift
There are three main issues/difficulties to this part and below I provide three methods for avoiding/minimising these issues:
- Removing the emulsion from the water.
- Repositioning the emulsion.
- Flattening/uncurling the emulsion
Here are three main pieces of advice for getting the transfer the way you want it:
Removing the emulsion from the water
When you have the emulsion in the position you want it, slowly pull the mount material (with the emulsion on top) out of the water. If you are using paper, or a flexible material, congratulations! Bend the material so that the middle leaves the water first. This keeps it (roughly) in the right place. You can adjust any stray edges (read on below).
If you are using glass, metal, wood, or other inflexible material, you will need to get a little creative. Take your time and don’t worry if it’s not perfect.
One key point is this: your emulsion will likely move a LOT and curl in the moving water, often randomly. However, as soon as it surfaces, it will stick where it is unless re-submerged.
Although initially, this seems stressful and annoying, you can use this to your advantage to make the emulsion move, or allow some of it to sit still whilst adjusting other parts.
Repositioning the emulsion
If the whole lift needs rearranging, dip the entire piece (emulsion and mount material) into warm water before it’s dried and use the back of the brush to drag it very lightly into a position you are happy with.
Don’t worry if it folds on the corners. If this happens, follow the advice below.
Flattening/uncurling the emulsion
If the edges fold in a way you don’t want them to, just dip the affected edge into the water and gently brush them out. They seem to unfold of their own accord when this is done. Once brought back out of the water that edge will stay put until dipped again.
Despite the advice above, as I said earlier, mess around with it, make it ugly and curled. Add character to your transfer. One last note: Don’t brush out the creases too much you may scratch the emulsion. Oops.
You’re done, go experiment!
After reading this I hope that a few of your will be inspired to have a go at making some emulsion lifts and transfers of your own and that this guide will be of some use when you do.
The process is pretty enjoyable, takes about 20 minutes and allows for a fair amount of creativity. That said, if you like your ‘Polaroids’ as Polaroids, it’s probably not for you.
And If you are wondering ‘why?’, the only real answer I can give is ‘why not?’. So, in the name of exploration and creativity, why not give it a go, get adventurous: transfer onto wood, stones, rock, glass or whatever else you can think of.
I’d love to hear about your creations in the comments below.
~ Matt Parry
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