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Making a photogram - traditional darkroom ideas

Create artistic shapes on paper in this traditional darkroom technique shared by Peter Bargh.

| Darkroom Printing
Words and pictures Peter Bargh 

Making a photogram - traditional darkroom ideas
A photogram takes the principles of photography right back to its roots using light to paint pictures. The principle is simple - you expose a sheet of light sensitive emulsion, in our example photographic paper, to light and block its path with the subject to create silhouette shapes were the light is blocked. Fox Talbot had used this technique to make shadowgrams, but it was arguably the surrealist Man Ray who made the technique popular. He stumbled across the process by accident when he placed a small glass funnel, graduate and thermometer over an unexposed sheet of paper that had accidentally been previously submerged in developer. When he turned on the light he noticed silhouettes of the objects begin to appear, distorted as the subject became further away from the emulsion. He started to experiment with other objects exposing them first to light and called the resulting photos rayographs. Man Ray's rayographs have a three-dimensional feel with various tones of grey as the 3D subject distorts the light. Fox Talbot's paper negatives are more two-dimensional because the subject, feathers, leaves etc are in contact with the paper.


One image can change us.

A picture, a moment can change the way we feel. Change how we see ourselves. Change our understanding and change the rules. Provoke and change history.

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I'll show you how to make one, but first let's look at what you equipment you need:

A room that's blacked out with enough space to lay three 10x8in printing trays in a row with a bucket of water nearby and an area where you can expose the paper to light.
Some photographers convert a spare room into a permanent darkroom others temporarily black out a bathroom or spare bedroom while they work. 

Light source
Most photographers who make photograms will also be making prints using an enlarger. This provides an ideal concentrated light source for the exposure of the photogram, but is not essential because they can be made using the room light or a reading light.

Sheet of glass
This is used to hold flat subjects in close contact with the paper or to raise the subject from the paper to produce a softer edge.

About 15 
Why you need it: A light source with a red or orange dome that does not fog paper so it allows you to see what you're doing in a room that would otherwise be totally dark.
Alternatives: Red bulb that replaces your household lamp. These can be used providing you do tests with your paper first to make sure it doesn't fog. Some lamps are only coated over the bulb and the base area lets white light through. You'll see the whites become grey, when processed if fogging is occurring.

Pack of 10x8in printing paper
Up to 10 for 25 sheets 
Why you need it: Printing paper is coated with a light sensitive emulsion and is used to expose the items on to make the photogram.
Alternatives: None

About 7
Why you need it: The thermometer is used to ensure the chemicals are at the correct temperature. The temperature of the developer is the most important part but, unlike film, you can watch as the image appears and adjust the developing time accordingly. If you do develop your own films you should already have a thermometer.
Alternatives: The temperature of the developer is the most important but, unlike film, you can watch as the image appears and time the development accordingly. If you do develop your own films you will have a thermometer  

About 10
Why you need it: This is used to time how long the paper is in the developer, stop bath and fixer, although accurate timing is less important than it is with film processing.
Alternatives: If your clock or watch has a seconds finger you can use that. Even the timer on your mobile phone could be used. Or you could count out elephants!

About 3 
Why you need it: A developer reacts with the exposed areas of silver in the paper's emulsion turning these parts black to form an image. Areas that receive more light become blacker when developed. Areas that receive no light stay clear. You have to use a developer to produce a result.
Alternatives: You could make up your own developer. See the article 'mixing your own chemicals'

Stop Bath
About 2
Why you need it: An acid solution that quickly counteracts the developer to prevent over development of the paper.
Alternatives: You can use water but it doesn't stop the developer as quick. As it's acetic acid some people use vinegar, but it's not recommended.

About 3
Why you need it: This dissolves any unused silver halides that were not developed and stops the paper from being light sensitive.
Alternatives: You have to use a fixer otherwise the printed image will eventually turn black. You can make up your own fixer. See the article 'mixing your own chemicals' 

Measuring cylinders
About 2 each
Why you need them: Most chemicals need diluting before use. The dilution rate can be difficult to measure without an accurate measuring cylinder, especially when the chemical to water ratio is large. 
Alternatives: Any household measuring jug can be used providing it has the necessary measuring scales. You must not then reuse the measure for food because the chemicals used for processing are harmful.

Running water
Local water rates.
Why you need it: To ensure all traces of fixer are removed before the print is dried.
Alternatives: It's possible to wash prints in a bucket of water, but keep changing the water to ensure best results and give each print a final wash under a tap. 

Three developing trays
Around 10 for the three.
Why you need them: To hold the developer, stop bath and fix  for processing.
Alternatives: Some photographers use cat litter trays or garden seed trays (without holes). Make sure the trays are shallow and not much bigger than the maximum prints you intend to make to avoid using too much solutions to cover the print.

Print drying rack
Around 20
Why you need one: It is an upright rack that has several slots for prints and allows air to travel over both surfaces to ensure rapid drying.
Alternatives: You can make your own (time consuming), hang them up using a washing line using clothes pegs (may leave mark on border) or lay them on a carpet (back won't dry as quick also dust is more likely to settle on surface).

Let's go
1 Set up the light source so that it covers an area bigger than the paper you are going to use.


2 With the lights out and the safelight on, at a safe distance, arrange your objects on the paper.
 Making a photogram - traditional darkroom ideas

3 Make a test strip (see separate article)

4 Switch the enlarger on and expose for the time determined by the test strip. As a guide ten seconds should be long enough with the lens set at f/8.

5 Carefully take the objects off the paper and place the paper in the developer, then stop bath, then fix (see test strip article for times). 

6 Wash and dry - success your first photogram! Ideally this should have clean white silhouettes against a rich black background. If you use transparent objects you'll end up with results more like Man Ray's rayograms with areas of grey too.

Making a photogram - traditional darkroom ideas

Some subjects to use
Nuts & bolts, keys, feathers, ferns, pieces of cut card shapes, stencils, scissors, tools, nails, safety pins, paper clips, springs, plastic and glass items, netting, developing reels, negatives, bottles, hands, feet, lightbulbs, shells, dried fruit slices...and, most of all...imagination.       






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janni 16 1 United Kingdom
Excellent detailed info. I have no enlarger so have struggled with timing - lighting souce and split second exposure produced moderate results. More info on enlargerless photograms would be terrific too....

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