Alternative Process: Intro to Lith Printing

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Guest post written by Dave Kirby. A 28-year-old photographer from Preston, England, Dave has been photographing for two years using only film. His favorite things are developing and printing in the darkroom, and he loves shooting 6x6. Check out more of his work on his blog and Flickr stream, or follow him on Twitter.

*Disclaimer: This tutorial on lith printing covers the basics, but also assumes the reader has a minimum knowledge of darkroom printing. For some background info and help getting started in the darkroom, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography.

The Basics: What Is Lith Printing?

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Lith printing is a process using traditional black and white photo paper combined with “lithographic” developer. This process results in very high contrast, black shadows, delicate highlights and coloured mid-tones. Lith prints tend to have a very gritty/grainy look in the lower mid-tones and shadows. 

Lith printing can breathe a whole new life into an everyday image; I have a few shots which looked dull and boring with traditional printing, but that I really love when lithed.  Colour is a natural by-product of the lith process.  Different papers combined with different ratios of developer at different temperatures yield different colours.  There is an almost endless combination of variables in the lith process that can produce different colours and textures.  (This can be extended even further by toning the prints.)

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When I first started looking into making lith prints I did a lot of research online, and noticed the two same names popping up over and over again - Wolfgang Moersch and Tim Rudman.  Both of these men are (current) pioneers of lith printing - trying out every kind of paper and developer at every temperature and dilution to see how each print reacts to different toners. Tim Rudman’s book, ‘The Master Photographer’s Lith Printing Course’ provides a vast wealth of information and is a great place to get started if you are serious about lith printing.  Wolfgang Moersch also provides some extensive articles about various lith procedures, including an area to purchase his own personal blends of lith chemicals and toners. 

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Equipment Needed:

Besides standard darkroom materials,  you’ll need lith developer and compatible paper. There are a variety of developers available; as already mentioned, Wolfgang Moersch makes and sells his own, but Rollei and Fotospeed also make them.  Personally I use Fotospeed LD-20.


Papers are a bit trickier, as some papers work well with the lith process and others don’t.  Foma is the primary brand still producing “lithable” photo papers which are available today. As a general rule of thumb, grade 3 papers and papers with a higher-than-average silver content work well with the lith process.


Some example brands of papers that work well:

  • Fomatone (particularly 131)
  • Fomabrom (gives a “grittier” feel to the print)
  • Adox MMC
  • Ilford Art 300
  • Agfa MCC 118
  • Fomaspeed N 313

The Process: Exposure & Development

Keep in mind: the two “Golden Rules” of lith printing (as stated by Tim Rudman) are as follows:

First, highlights are controlled by exposure, shadows are controlled by development.
Second,  colour, texture and contrast are related to grain size in the emulsion - which is related to development.

On to the process:
 

  1. Mix your developer.  Everyone has a different ratio they like to use, but your best bet is to start at 1:9.  Developer comes in two parts: A and B. Mix a ratio of 1:9 of A and 1:9 of B with water. You can vary the ratio to make the solution stronger or weaker, which will affect print colour.
  2. Pour the mixed solution into the developing tray. Keep the temperature at 20 degrees Celcius. (Higher temperatures speed up the developing process, but this requires a bit of experience.)
  3. Set up the rest of your paper chemistry as usual.
  4. Expose your paper in the enlarger. Test strips are a good idea, as lith print exposures can require up to several minutes. Pick the exposure from the test strip that has the highlight detail desired. Exposure note:the more you overexpose a lith print, the lesser the contrast and the higher the highlight detail. Most lithable papers allow up to 5 stops of overexposure.
  5. Place your paper in the developer. Lith printing differs from standard printing in that your image appears over a very slow period of time through a process called ”infectious development.”  The blackest points of the print appear first and will gradually get darker and darker. Second, the midtones will start to appear and get darker, followed finally by the highlights. Once the shadows hit black, development increases rapidly.
  6.  Pull your paper out of the developer when the shadows reach your desired black and put in the stop bath. Note: There is no set amount of time for this - it depends on your developer strength, developer exhaustion and the paper.  For example, my Fomaspeed N 313 takes about 8 minutes of developing before I get the print I want whereas my Agfa MCC 118 takes over an hour.
  7. Continue the fix and washing process as usual.

Let’s take a look at a print example to explain.  This was made using Fomaspeed N 313:

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The shadow on the left arm of the chair is totally blacked out with not much highlight detail in the snow at the bottom.  Before the arm of the chair got this dark, there was lovely detail there but I delayed - clearly I kept the print too long in the developer.  In order to get more detail in the highlights and midtones while retaining detail in the arm of the chair I would have to overexpose the paper more, such as 4 or 5 stops as opposed to the 2.5 stops used here.  (Note: When over-exposing your paper it is best to extend your exposure time rather than alter the f-stop on your lens to maintain image sharpness.)  Tim Rudman’s book is invaluable for this as he provides examples of how one print looks as exposure and development time are increased.


As mentioned earlier, different papers yield different colours - yellows, golds, browns, purples, blues etc (remember golden rule 2 - colour, texture and contrast are related to development). 

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Lith prints react very well to toners.  For example, Selenium toner can give everything from golds and browns to blues and purples (depending on paper.)  Gold toner turns prints a very soft blue. As a test, select a print you don’t love, drop it into the toner and leave it there for an hour or so. Watch how the print changes colour over time and  make a note for future reference. 

Hopefully this article has inspired you to makeyour own lith prints.  Looking around on sites like Flickr really helps you find new things to try with lith.  I haven’t looked back since starting - I absolutely love it and I’m sure you will too.