Last Revision: 14 September 2005

Some Preliminary Notes on Bromoil
by Ed Buffaloe

There is nothing new here, but I am offering these notes for the beginner. I hope to write a complete article on bromoil at some time in the future when I have gained significant experience, but until then these preliminary notes will have to suffice.

For contemporary workers who wish to learn bromoil, I highly recommend Gene Laughter's book Bromoil 101 and David Lewis' book The Art of Bromoil & Transfer.  Before these books were published, the most recent book available was Geoffrey. F. Whalley's Bromoil and Transfer, published in 1961. His book can still be found used, but often commands a high price due to its scarcity.

There are so many variables in the bromoil process, that it is almost impossible for any two bromoilists to follow exactly the same procedure.  However, there are recommended starting points that have not changed much in the century since the process was invented.  The two primary variables are the amount of swelling of the gelatine matrix and the relative consistency of the ink used; others include water quality, exposure time, paper used, type of developer, development time, bleach formulation, inking method, etc.

1. Paper. Virtually any silver gelatin paper could be utilized in the early days of bromoil, but in the 1920’s manufacturers began to superharden the gelatin in their papers as well as make papers with very smooth, glossy surfaces.  Bromoilists found such papers more difficult to ink, so many manufacturers made special bromoil papers with non-superhardened emulsions and matte surfaces. By the mid 1930’s some bromoilists had discovered methods that enabled them to utilize supercoated papers for the process, and by the late 1950’s many special bromoil papers were discontinued due to declining sales.

Today there are a few small manufacturers that produce papers especially intended for the bromoil process, including Kentmere, J&C Photographic, and David Lewis.  In addition, almost any paper with a semi-matte or matte surface can be utilized.  I have gotten excellent results with Luminos Charcoal R, J&C Bromoprint, Bergger Brom 240, David Lewis paper, Agfa Multicontrast Classic, Forte Elegance Polywarmtone, and several other papers.

2. Exposure. To start with, find the exposure that gives full detail in the most significant area of the print. The general rule of thumb is to double that exposure to make a print suitable for bromoil.   With some non-superhardened papers the exposure increase may be only 50%, but could run as high as 300% if you wish to reproduce fine high value detail--such as in a high key image or a nude. For most superhardened papers, doubling the exposure is required.  Pretend you have a “dark” aesthetic and prefer all your prints to be dark and moody--make a nice, dark print, then double that exposure to make the bromoil matrix, and you will almost certainly be close. With experience, you will be able to tell when a print is dark enough--or too dark.  This can vary from paper to paper.

With variable contrast papers, Gene Laughter recommends using one contrast grade lower than normal for most prints.  This is not usually necessary with pyro negatives, because the yellow stain acts as a contrast reduction filter--in fact, sometimes I have to use one to two grades higher than normal contrast for pyro negatives.

The goal is to print the high values down considerably, while preventing the low values from becoming overly dark. When you view the dry print by transmitted light, you should be able to see full detail in the shadows. But when viewed by reflected light, the image will usually appear dull and overprinted. Over time, if you are printing negatives that are similar to each other, you may be able to judge correct exposure without testing. However, if you change to a different film--or one developed in a different developer, taken under different lighting conditions, or in a format that requires a different enlarger height--you will save time by making a test print (or test strips) to determine a “normal” exposure first.

The perfect print for making a bromoil matrix is compressed at both ends.  Detail may be lost in delicate high values or deep shadows of the image--if the photograph relies heavily on those values to work it will probably not make a good bromoil (or maybe it takes a master bromoilist to pull it off).  Particularly for a beginner, I think the best image to work with is one with clear definition, where the primary subject stands out distinctly from its background. If you wish to have clouds properly delineated, you may have to burn in the sky considerably. With some negatives, particularly if printed on graded paper, it may be necessary to dodge the deepest shadow areas.

3. Development. Development should take place with continuous agitation in a very dilute paper developer such as Dektol (1:8) or Ethol LPD (1:8), or in a compensating developer such as Ansco 120 or Selectol Soft.  Some workers even use Rodinal at 1:25 or 1:30, though I have not tried it.

Many old bromoilists state that you can use any developer but their favorite is an amidol formula--of which there are many. Amidol was (and still is) favored by many because it causes no staining or tanning of the gelatin. I recently developed one print in Dektol (1:8) and another in an amidol formula, using the exact same exposure and development times. These two prints inked identically--I could tell no difference between them.

If you wish to use an amidol formula, I can recommend the one given by David Lewis, which is quite old.

Amidol Developer given by David Lewis

Sodium sulphite, anhydrous

14 g


2 g

Potassium bromide, 10% sol.

2 ml

Water to make

1200 ml

Lewis recommends lesser dilutions (with 800 or 1000 ml. of water) for increasing contrast.

I tried using factorial development, as recommended in some old manuals, but ultimately I found that a development time of about three minutes seems to be optimal with Dektol (1:8); this also happens to be the time recommended by Gene Laughter and David Lewis.  For R77M , Ansco 120, Dektol (1:10), or Amidol, I use 4 minutes.

With Dektol (1:8) and graded papers I sometimes find it useful to use water bath development: I agitate continuously and allow the blacks in the image to emerge fully, which usually takes 30 to 50 seconds, then I remove the print to a tray of plain water where I let it sit with no agitation for 30 seconds. Then I alternate 10 seconds of agitation in the developer with 30 seconds sitting still in the water bath until 3 to 5 minutes have elapsed. If you don't allow the blacks to emerge fully at the beginning of development, they may ink unevenly.

4. Stop Bath. Development should be stopped either with a plain water stop or a diluted acetic acid stop. I use 3/4 ounce of 28% acetic acid in one quart of water (or about 22.5 ml in one liter), which is half the amount of acetic acid I use for normal silver printing. The time in the stop bath is 30 seconds, with continuous agitation. I then rinse both sides of the print under running water before continuing to the fix--this keeps the plain hypo from becoming too acidic.

5. Fixing. Fix each print for 5 minutes, with continuous agitation, in a 10% solution of plain hypo (sodium thiosulfate). Some practitioners use an acidified sodium thiosulfate fixing bath (such as Kodak fixer) at this stage, but most say they prefer to use plain hypo. Gene Laughter says he finds that a print fixed in acidified fixer doesn't ink as easily. The cheapest source I have found for plain hypo is Artcraft Chemicals.

6. Drying and Superdrying. Prints should be air dryed for six hours. (There are quick methods that recommend drying with heat, but most bromoilists over the years have recommended air drying for the beginner at bromoil. The quick method is for expert bromoilists.) After the prints have dried slowly in the air, they can then be superdried. If you have a dry mount press, preheat it to 250° and press the print between two matte boards for 2 or 3 minutes. You can also move the print over a gas stove burner on medium heat for 20 to 30 seconds. This drives all remnants of moisture out of the print and leaves it bone dry--it is also said to soften the gelatin and make it take ink more easily. Superdrying is done again to the matrix just before it is soaked for inking.

7. Bleaching & Tanning. Mix three solutions as follows:
Solution A.  100 grams copper sulfate in 1 liter of distilled water (10% solution). 
Solution B.  100 grams potassium bromide in 1 liter of distilled water (10% solution) 
Solution C.  10 grams potassium bichromate in 1 liter of distilled water (1% solution) (All these solutions keep indefinitely in brown glass bottles.)

Take 70ml A, 70ml B and 30ml C, and add distilled water to make 1 liter of working solution--this will bleach & tan ten 8x10 prints. Today this is the most widely-used bleach formula, though there are a number of variations.

The optimum time with this bleach is 8 minutes, but don't be afraid to continue to 10 or even 15 minutes if necessary.

The copper sulfate solution is the bleaching agent, while the dichromate solution is the tanning agent (which hardens the gelatin). It is possible to separate the bleaching and tanning processes, though in general I find that a properly exposed and developed print will bleach in less time than it takes to tan, and so it is a waste of time to separate them. But separating the solutions can be educational and is probably worth doing at least once. Simply mix one solution with 70ml A and 70ml B in a liter of water, and another with 70ml B and 30ml C in a liter of water. When I did this, I learned to tell the difference between a matrix that has not been bleached enough and a matrix that has not been tanned enough. The optimal bleach time seems to be about 6 or 7 minutes, but some prints require 10 minutes or more to tan fully.

Mix the used bleach solution with used fix or used hypo clearing agent before pouring down the drain.

8Acid Bath. The fixed matrix has a slight grey-green color, caused by residual chrome oxide. This can be removed by a 2 minute bath in 1% sulfuric acid.  Many modern workers omit this step. More than one writer on bromoil has stated that the acid bath allows the matrix to accept ink more easily--however, I can’t tell much difference. I have noticed that sometimes the grey-green color shows through in delicate highlights, such as are often seen in nudes, so I sometimes use an acid bath for such prints.
9. Drying and Superdrying. Air dry for 6 hours and superdry as before.

10. Soaking the Matrix. The bleached & tanned print is called a matrix. The matrix must be soaked in water to swell the gelatin before inking. For me, most papers seem to require a soak of 7 to 10 minutes in room temperature water (generally 70° to 80° F.). Since room temperature varies considerably in different locations, as does water quality, each bromoilist must determine his or her own soak times. Colder water requires longer soak times. In reality, water temperature is more important than soak times, but to start I recommend room temperature for a set time of your determination. For me, Ilford Galerie requires a soak time of 30 to 60 minutes at 105°, but it is not typical. With non-superhardened true bromoil papers, such as Bergger Brom 240, J&C Bromoprint, or David Lewis Bromoil paper, you may be able to see the gelatin in relief as the unhardened portions of the swell more than the hardened portions. With most papers, you can usually feel the difference between swollen portions and hardened portions. The swollen gelatin feels slippery, while the hardened gelatin feels rough.

11. Inking the Matrix. I won't try to describe inking methods, as many more experienced people than myself have done so, and their writings are available online. See the Bromoil Reading Room at It is very helpful to watch an experienced worker ink a matrix.

The matrix must be surface dried after soaking and before inking. First, I place it face down on a piece of blotting paper or several layers of paper towels and dry the back. There must not be any surface moisture on the back of the print, or it will cause uneven inking as the matrix dries. When the back has been wiped down, I place the matrix directly on a piece of glass and dry the front of the print with soft paper towels. Because the gelatin is swollen and delicate, it must not be abraded or treated roughly. Traditional workers use a chamois for drying the print.

The matrix is usually inked on a piece of glass larger than the print. If brushes are used for inking, the print need not be taped down. As the print dries, the corners will begin to curl upward, indicating that the print needs to be resoaked before further inking. If the print is to be inked or cleared with rollers, it should be taped down. I usually use painters' quick release tape for this purpose. The blue Scotch brand works well. Taping the print also helps keep the edges clean. Sticky ink can be cleaned from the white rebate with a wet sponge or paper towel.

I usually place the glass flat on a table, but some people who ink exclusively with brushes prefer to work with the print at an angle. Traditional workers often use a board covered with blotting paper or material, and pin the matrix to the board. Some workers recommend moistening the blotting paper to keep the back of the print from drying out.  I’ve also seen a wet chamois used beneath the print to keep it moist.

12.  Removing Ink. Ink removal is equally important as inking.  It is not discussed quite as much as methods of redistributing ink such as rolling with a brayer or “hopping” with a brush, but it is important to mention various methods of removing ink: Saran wrap, plastic bags, dry brushes, lightly moistened brushes, wet paper towels, cosmetic sponges, cotton swabs, rubber erasers, etc.  In addition to performing these procedures with the print swollen but surface dried, they may also be performed with the print underwater, or completely dry. 


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