Van Dyke Brown Contact Print Tips

Old not hard

Old photography techniques always fascinated me. So one day while enjoying an article detailing wet plate photography I stumbled upon a video which showed how to make a Van Dyke Brown print and decided to take a side step from my wet plate adventure and dive into Van Dyke Brown printing. I really loved the look and the relative simplicity of the processes, and figured this would be a nice introduction to alternative photography in general. I’m not regretting it!

Digital negatives

If you think that these techniques are only for the darkroom veterans, think again! You can print out perfect digital negatives and start printing with these techniques in no time. Interesting enough, these alternative processes have become a lot easier with today’s cheap inkjet photo printers. My aim is to get you a nice head start with this post, so you don’t have to do all the searching around that I had to do. I’ve learned this process by reading other peoples articles and a excellent book on printing digital negatives (not to mention making a lot of mistakes), I will link and refer to all of it, so you can check it out your self. Let’s get started!

Although I did make prints with 4×5 negatives, I will focus this post more towards the digital workflow. I shoot mostly film these days but when making a Van Dyke Brown I have the habit of scanning the negative (16bit) and convert it in Photoshop to a perfect Van Dyke Brown negative, more on this later.

Let’s start with what you need and why.

The tips

  • Van Dyke Brown emulsion is only sensitive to UV light. Some people will also refer to Van Dyke Brown to Sun Print. So what you need is a UV light source. The sun of course will work fine, I made my first prints this way. Even on a cloudy day, you’ll have enough UV light to expose, although your exposure times will increase. Because the sun will output a different amount of UV light depending on the weather and time of day, I decided to buy a 15 euro UV face browning unit on e-bay. Even new, you can get these units for around 50 euros. They work really well and produces a constant amount of UV light. That’s really the only thing that’s important if you want reproducible results, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes as long as you make the same mistake every time (not counting forgetting to switch the light on, of course).
  • You also need something to press your negative against the paper when exposing. The best thing would be a split back contact printing frame. Instead of me using a lot of words to describe what that would look like or what it is just watch this video on YouTube, it also provides a nice overview of the complete processes, be sure to return though as there is some more information I can give you to make your VDB life easier, here it is. Impressive, isn’t it? As you can see, this guy made a beautiful homemade split back contact printing frame. He really needs it, too, as he’s using sunlight to expose. The good news is that you probably already have a contact printing frame and never knew it! A plain picture frame! This is what I use, I just went out and bought one of those really handy a4 sized frames they sell now, be sure to get one with a wooden back and not cardboard. When you get home, just grab the thinnest saw you have and saw it in two at about 1/3 of the back, grab some duct tape and duck it back to gather. There you go, a split back contact printing frame. Pressure between the print and the negative is important so later on you can always buy some screws and metal plates that you can move around to make a better fit, I’ll do a write-up on that as well and show you what I did. But don’t worry too much about it now, just get started. If you can’t wait to start building, here’s a really good how-to
  • Okay, moving on! Now for the really easy part. Getting the chemicals needed, if you’re living in the US you’re in luck, you guys got all the cool shops that sell everything for alternative processes. I bought my first set from Bostick & Sullivan. I recommend getting this set as it contains enough chemicals for lots of prints, and it includes the fixer, everything you need, and you don’t have to mix chemicals your self. It also includes a nice manual which will give you a couple of good tips. In my experience, the amount of sensitizer they advise using is a bit on the high side, however this also depends on the paper you use. In Europe, we have Moersch for all your photochemical needs, they also sell the VDB sensitizer, this set only contains the sensitizer so no fixer.
  • A brush to paint the sensitizer on the paper. I like to use a nice soft goat hairbrush, you can get these at art shops, no problem. You can also use a foam brush, these are something like 1 euro, and you can also pick them up at an art shop
  • Now that you’re at that art shop anyway also pickup some watercolor paper. This is what you will use to paint the sensitizer on. I suggest starting with a bit thicker paper, Arches hot pressed and Arches cold pressed will work nicely. There is a lot to be said about paper, I started out with the cheapest watercolor paper I could find. In my case that was still 100% cotton and it worked fine. Want to know more, check here, they keep a list of what papers work well. And here and explanatory video on paper
  • Okay, almost there! Last thing on your list should be transparency film for your ink jet printer. This last bit is important it has to be for ink jet printers, it’s really easy to accidentally buy it for a laser printer which will not work and make a big sticky inky mess of everything. The film you see everyone recommending is the transparency film from Pictorico, which you can buy here. However, I had some trouble finding that here in the EU, so I just went to the office supply store and bought some random stuff, guess what, works just fine. Now when I say, “works just fine” I really mean for my needs, a master printer that goes for perfection will probably have some really good arguments against it, however I’m not looking for perfection I’m looking for acceptable random imperfections. This is what make prints come alive to me.

So after you collected all this, you’re ready to start. Here are a couple of links that with step by step instructions:

Making and mixing the emulsion is by far the most finicky, but with buying the ready made emulsion means you can skip those steps in the links above.