Unblinking Eye


Making Kallitype Prints:
A Fresh Look at a Beautiful Printing Process

by Sandy King

What is a Kallitype? And a Little History.

Kallitype is one of a number of printing processes in the iron-silver family, along with, among others, Vandyke brown and argyrotype. There are some similarities among these three, but in kallitype the light-sensitive element is ferric oxalate; in Vandyke and argyrotype it is ferric ammonium citrate. The ferric oxalate makes a superior process in several important ways: it permits darker shadows, i.e. more Dmax, with kallitype than with either Vandyke or argyrotype. The difference is not huge, but well-made comparison prints side by side show more richness in the shadows of a kallitype than in a Vandyke or argyrotype.  Another advantage of kallitype is greater control of contrast, making it possible to print negatives with a wider range of densities than the other two iron-silver processes.  Another advantage is that kallitype is a developing-out process, which generally translates into greater depth in the shadows than POP processes such as Vandyke or Argyrotype. Shadows in these processes often appear murky because they are fully exposed before the highlights have a chance to print in.

The basic theory of kallitype printing is found in Sir John Herschel’s paper of 1842, “On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours, and on Some New Photographic Processes.” However, it was not until 1889 that W. W. J. Nicol patented the first iron-silver process and he is widely considered to be its inventor. In Nicol’s original patent, the print was developed in a silver nitrate bath. He patented several revisions in the early 1890s and in one of the formulas recommends making silver nitrate part of the sensitizing bath rather than adding it to the developer. This last revision is the method used by most contemporary kallitype printers.

Overview of the Process

In kallitype printing, a suitable paper is coated with a solution of ferric oxalate and silver nitrate, using either rod or brush. When dry, the sensitized paper is exposed to a negative under an ultraviolet light source. Since kallitype is a contact-printing process, exposure requires a same-size negative and some means of making the "sandwich" -- a printing frame or vacuum frame, or even simply two sheets of heavy plate glass. After exposure, the paper is developed, cleared, toned, fixed, washed and dried.

Chatooga River Near Bull Sluice

The Chatooga River near Bull Sluice

The kallitype turns out to be a very close cousin of platinotype. Both processes are based on ferric oxalate as the light-sensitive element, and processing for both is almost identical. In fact, the developers and clearing agents used for platinum can be used for kallitype.  Finally, a well-made kallitype, when toned with platinum or palladium, is for all practical purposes identical in tonal range and color to a true platinum or palladium print.  In fact it would be impossible for even an expert to distinguish between well-made kallitype and platinum prints made from the same negative.

In other words, the kallitype process allows us to make platinum or palladium toned prints that look like real Pt/Pd prints and are just as permanent, but at much less cost. And that is no small thing, because the cost of printing Pt/Pd can be very high. Of course, if we are going to tone our prints, as I strongly recommend, we will spend some money on gold, platinum or palladium, but full toning of a kallitype requires only about 1/4 as much chemistry as a Pt/Pd print, so there is still considerable saving. Savings may be even greater because kallitype  toning is done after development and clearing, when it is fairly obvious if the print is a keeper or not. Thus we don't waste our precious metal on an inferior print. Since platinum/palladium prints incorporate the metal in the sensitizer, the metal from a failed print cannot be saved. (Of course cost differential will vary according to whether we buy the metals in small or large quantities.)

There is another important factor in weighing  relative costs.. Since the actual cost of making a platinum print is  significant, when we add in the number of wasted prints, the cost to print in platinum can be very great. And this cost can cause our creativity to suffer. Carmen Lizardo in her recent article on kallitype in Post-Factory Photography puts it this way: "Since printing kallitype is so much cheaper than printing platinum . . . it allows me to feel free, experiment, have fun, and make BIG beautiful prints." Judy Seigel quotes Man Ray to the effect that an artist must have "contempt" for his materials, which it's harder to do with platinum/palladium. In sum, kallitype frees us to be creative and to fully experiment with our materials.

And one more point in the kallitype versus Pt/Pd comparison. While both processes can produce permanent prints that are visually identical, kallitype has the added advantage that it can easily produce prints of different colors and tones via double or triple toning and  metal additives in the sensitizer. You can, with Kallitype, start with a noble metal, silver, which can be toned with the more noble metals gold, palladium and platinum, and through double or triple toning produce prints with split tones. For example, warm brown highlights and mid-tones
are possible with cold purple/brown shadows, an effect not achieved so easily with Pt/Pd, because in toning it is not possible to replace a more noble metal with a less noble one.

Notes on Image Permanence

As noted, kallitype is based on ferric oxalate, which contains ferric iron, Fe (3+) and oxalate. On exposure to ultraviolet light, ferric iron is reduced to ferrous iron, Fe (2+). To make a permanent print, ferrous iron must be further reacted with something else. In kallitype printing, the something else is the noble metal silver.

The major danger to long-term permanence of a kallitype image is residual ferrous iron, Fe(2+). If left in the paper, even very small quantities of residual ferrous iron will eventually oxidize the silver, and the image will fade. The key to maximum archival quality with kallitype is direct toning in which the image silver is replaced with another noble metal that is resistant to oxidation by residual ferrous iron. The metals commonly used to tone kallitypes are gold, palladium and platinum.  A kallitype processed for maximum archival stability, and toned with gold, palladium or platinum, will have great permanence. We could go even further: a kallitype print toned with palladium or platinum is in every way an exact equivalent, both visually and in terms of image permanence, of a Pt/Pd print. Selenium can also be used, but it tends to stain the print if toning is done before fixing.

Maximum permanence also requires removing all residual ferrous iron from the paper, fixing  to remove unused silver, and removal of all residual hypo via an adequate wash.

Beach at Kiawah Island

The Beach at Kiawah Island

About My Method

One of the things that has turned people off on kallitype is its seeming complexity. Virtually every text on kallitype lists numerous developer formulas, each capable of providing a different color or tone, with an infinite number of variations in processing: time of development, time of clearing, strength and length of fixing, etc, which can be very confusing for the beginner. If you really want to know how complicated kallitype printing can become, have a look at Dick Stevens' book, Making Kallitypes:  A Definitive Guide.

My method is  based on a limited number of working options and is rooted in two  principles: less is more and  the print should be processed for maximum  permanence. Thus, instead of the dozens of developers recommended in some texts, I recommend just one. But, as with any process based on silver salts, the ultimate  stability and permanence of the image depends on careful processing.  For maximum image stability, all kallitypes should be  toned. This article provides instructions for toning with gold,  palladium or platinum, which are toned before fixing, and selenium, which is toned after fixing.

There are many reasons to tone before fixing: shadow  depth is increased, bleaching during fixing is minimized, and the change in tone is much more dramatic. I always tone before fixing, except with selenium, in which case it is better procedure to tone  after fixing. 

Necessary Materials

The Basic Chemicals

Silver nitrate
Ferric oxalate powder
Sodium thiosulfate crystals
Sodium carbonate
Sodium sulfite
Citric acid
Potassium Chloroplatinite 20% solution
Sodium Chloropalladite 20% solution
Gold chloride 5% Solution

Kallitype requires six different solutions: 1) sensitizer, 2) developer, 3) clearing agent,  4) toner, 5) fixer, and  6) hypo-clear.

Kallitype Chemicals

1) Sensitizer

The sensitizer is prepared as two separate stock solutions, solution A and solution B, which are mixed in equal parts just before use.

Solution A  10% silver nitrate
Mix 10g silver nitrate in 70 ml distilled water. Allow to dissolve and then add water to make a total of 100ml of solution.

Solution B  20% ferric oxalate
Mix 20g ferric oxalate powder in 75ml distilled water. Allow to dissolve and then add water to make a total of 100 ml of solution. Ferric oxalate takes a long time to go into solution and should be mixed about 24 hours before use. In powder form it lasts indefinitely, but once mixed with water will slowly degrade, with a resulting increase in print fog. To avoid this fogging, mix no more solution than you expect to use in two to three months.

2) Developer

My preferred developer is a 20% solution of sodium citrate. Add 200g of sodium citrate to 750ml distilled water, stir until completely dissolved, then add water to 1000ml.

3) Clearing Agent

The recommended clearing agent for my method of kallitype is a 3% solution of citric acid. To prepare, add 30g citric acid to 750ml water, stir until completely dissolved, then add water to 1000ml.

4) Toner

See the section at the end of this article for various toner formulas.

5) Fixer

Add 50g sodium thiosulfate, 10g sodium carbonate and 2g sodium sulfite to 750ml water. Stir. When dissolved, add water to 1000ml. You can also prepare the fixer as a concentrated solution at 4X the strength above and dilute 1:3 for a working solution.

6) Hypo Clear

The hypo clear is a simple 1% sodium sulfite solution. To prepare, add 10g sodium sulfite to 1000ml water and stir until completely dissolved.  This solution should be mixed just before use and discarded after about an hour or so, or after use.


Choosing a suitable paper is one of the most important factors in making kallitypes. Papers that will not clear completely in about 4-5 minutes should not be used. Most of the papers that work well with pt/pd printing also work well for kallitype. I have had good success in kallitype with Crane's stationery AS 8111, Platine, Bristol 2-ply Rising, Stonehenge Rising and Fabriano Artistico. Of these, my personal preference is Stonehenge Rising. It has a nice pebbly surface, gives good image detail, and clears easily.

Light Source

Printing requires a light source high in ultraviolet light, of which there are a variety: the sun, a bank of black-light fluorescent tubes, mercury vapor and metal halide HID lamps, as well as commercial plateburners such as the Nuarc 26-1K. More information on light systems can be found in my article Ultraviolet Light Sources for Printing with the Alternative Processes.

The Rooster Store

The Rooster Store

The Negative

Although considerable contrast control is available in kallitype, it's advisable to start with a good negative and then apply corrective controls later.  The best negative for kallitype has a density range of about log 1.8. This is a very contrasty negative that will not print well even on a grade #0 or #1 paper. If you are making in-camera negatives with sheet film, this density range can be achieved by developing the film about 50% longer than normal for silver gelatin #2 paper.

Excellent enlarged negatives for kallitype can also be made digitally from 35mm roll film and sheet film originals. The original negative or transparency is scanned, worked on in Photoshop to give the best possible print on screen, and then printed on overhead transparency film on one of the modern inkjet printers. I make my digital negatives with an Epson 2000P, but numerous other printers can be used. The one great advantage to digital negatives over original camera negatives is that they all have close to the same density and contrast range, so that exposure time and contrast will be virtually identical. A detailed account of making negatives digitally is beyond the
scope of this article, but for working details, consult Dan Burkholder's excellent book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing. There is also a good paper on making digital negatives by David Fokos on the Bostick and Sullivan website.  Unfortunately, Fokos' paper is now several years old and has not been updated to reflect the current generation of inkjet printers. For a really recent study on making negatives with inkjet printers see Judy Seigel's article on making digital negatives in Post-Factory Photography Issue #8.

It is certainly possible to make good enlarged negatives for contact printing with traditional film, but frankly I have found the advantages of working with digital negatives so great that I cannot recommend going back to wet processing.

You will probably want to mask your negatives to eliminate brush strokes on the final print. My preferred method, especially with digital negatives, is to tape around the image area with red lithographer's tape. Another method of masking is to just cut a frame in construction paper or Goldenrod paper slightly smaller than the printing area of the negative and tape the negative to the paper.

Contact Printing Frame or Vacuum Frame.

For sharp prints good contact between the negative and sensitized paper is critical. Lacking good contact, the print will have an overall soft look with localized blurry areas. A contact printing frame is adequate for prints up to about 8X10 inches, but for larger sizes best results require a vacuum frame.

Printing Frame

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