The recent reoccurrence of analogue may well be new to many of us. For me I grow up in the 80s but even this process called Lith is something entirely new for me. While it maybe daunting for many, in fact its relatively easy to do and highly addictive.
I will hope to share my Lith journey with you. It begins in the darkroom where a forgotten underworld that produces grainy and contrasty controllable results. This tour I now lead you on will cover delectable tones made on vintage photographic papers from decades ago. There will be plenty of examples which are shown through out in this article below.
- What’s a Lith?
- Back in the 80s
- An Infectious History
- How does Lith work ?
- Lith Developer Recipe
- Why the heck would you Lith ?
- Paper & Tones
- Identifying Papers
- Papers under test
- The Fixer
Firstly I must give a mention to Tim Rudman. He is known to be one of the leading experts on the subject, much of the information regarding materials such as papers and chemicals is still very much relevant. But it begs the question: Is Lith doable today? The short answer to that is yes, I’ll explain why but first what is a Lith?
Let start with the word, originated from the Greek “lithos” meaning”stone”. Lithography is a method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water. The printing is from a stone or a metal plate with a smooth surface. It was invented in 1796 by the German author and actor Alois Senefelder and was initially used mostly for musical scores and maps. [Wikipedia]
However the photographic Lith process only borrows the inking idea from this process.
“Lith printing is a darkroom technique of overexposing a black & white, infrared, or color negative onto a suitable gelatin silver paper, and then only partially developing it in a very dilute Lith developer. This can produce prints with special properties and characteristics in terms of tonal distribution and response to toners. The choice of papers, developers, chemistry temperature, number of prints run through the developer, etc., can all produce hugely varying results. This is what makes Lith printing somewhat unpredictable and fun. I never cease to be surprised by some results.”
Anton Corbijn created many of the incredible portraits of legendary musicians back in the day. Many were darkroom printed using the Lith process as far back as the early 80’s. Leading artists such as U2, Nick Cave, Nirvana and the Rolling Stones. Most probably the London based printer Mike Spry introduced the Dutch photographer to the idea of using Lith. Spry was one the first to try Lith out on Oriental Seagull papers imported from Japan by Martin Reed of Silverprint UK.
Gene Nokon was one of the first to make Lith printing popular, along with work from Michael Becotte, Bob Carlos Clarke, Les Krims and Robert Hirsch to a name just few.
It’s really hard to say when or how Lith was invented or discovered. The idea of Lith has been around a long long time. We can certainly go back to Feb. 10th, 1931 when Kodak registered the name ‘Kodalith’ for papers and film. Most likely this where part of the name resides from.
Kodak Kodalith paper was a thin, matt, orthochromatic graphic arts paper that was not intended for pictorial purposes. However, when it was used for pictorial expression its responsiveness to time and temperature controls during development enabled one to produce a wide range of grainy, high-contrast, and sepia tonal effects. Its unusual handling characteristics also meant that photographers had to pull the print at precisely the right moment from the developer and quickly get it into the stop bath, making each print unique.
Some time late the prefix ‘Koda’ was dropped as other papers exhibits the property to be Lith-able or to have Lith like effect. However that is just its name. If we look further back when the main ingredient in most film and paper developer contains hydroquinone.
Hydroquinone and it’s dilution is responsible for the Lith process to start what’s called the infectious development. But I’ll mention that later. The chemical substance Hydroquinone was only discovered to be a developing agent in the early 1880s. As you can see it’s hard to pin point an accurate date if any as to when the process was invented. No one really knows a definitive answer.
Over the decades it has fallen in and out of favour by well known photographers of the age. Plenty of examples can be found from the sixties, seventies and eighties. It remains a very much an experimental process.
Even with the most documented books such as Tim Rudman’s,”The Master Photographer’s Lith Printing Course: A Definitive Guide to Creative Lith Printing”, repeating a Lith to achieve the same effect is difficult but not impossible according to Rudman. For me at least each time I print it will be unique.
For Lith, a very weak paper developer is used. The image is basically burnt onto the paper by 2-4 stops over exposure. The key to understanding Lith is, the print is never let to fully develop in the tray. It’s taken out of the developer before it reaches its finish development.
The process can create a contrast that no Multigrade and graded paper can achieve. While also introducing a coloured tone and grain depending on the papers and chemical ratios/dilution used for the process. Even the temperature and how spent the developer is will contribute to the final image especially the grain. As you can see a lot of variants come into play.
Now slow all this down by diluting the developer to make that main component hydroquinone unstable and you got the perfect situation to exploit the paper’s chemical make up and this where the Lith effect begins!
Side Note: In fact you can actually do something similar to enhance warm tone of a some papers. If you overexpose by giving more light under the enlarger and developing for 45 seconds to 1 minutes instead of the usual 90 seconds, in a developer solution which contains no more the 50% of complete spent developer. The spent developer which is bromide rich and will make the paper even more warm. However all this depends on the paper used. This is partially how Liths gets it’s tonal property. But is certainly not the whole story regard Lith. However it may be something else you like to try before investing in a Lith developer.
The Lith developer I’m currently using is Moersch’s Easylith kit which is a pre-mix available in part A and B. However you can try mixing your homemade Lith developer too. While there are made recipes for a Lith developers many do contain formaldehyde which is a probable carcinogen. Therefore it’s best to avoid.
Even though Kodalith came about in 1931, another Lith developer, D153 from Kodak came directly from Agfa. Kodak gained access to all Agfa recipes during the second world war when Germany was under control by the US. However the Kodalith developer D85, will give much better edge sharpness compared to D153. But unfortunately D85 contains the dreaded nasty Formaldehyde.
Here is the recipe for Agfa 70 aka Ansco 70, Kodak D153, and Ilford ID-13. They are are all identical!
Stock Solution A
Hydroquinone 25 g
Potassium Metabisulphite 25 g
Potassium Bromide 25 g
Water to 1 litre
*Add a few grams of Sodium Sulphite to improve its keeping properties
Stock Solution B
Potassium Hydroxide 50 g
Water to 1 litre
*Great care is needed in mixing sodium hydroxide; always add to cold water as the dissolution is exothermic.
How to use: Dilution for Lith printing is 1 part Solution A, plus 1 part Solution B, plus 23 parts water; e.g. 40ml A, 40ml B, 920ml water. Don’t expect to develop more than two 18x24cm prints and a test strip before it’s exhausted. Development times can be between 5-15 minutes at 30ºC.
Other public recipes such as Du Pont LD2, Ansco 81, Defender 15-D, Kodak D-9 don’t use any Formaldehyde at all. Note both Ansco 70 and Kodak D-9 uses Sodium Hydroxide which is caustic.Defender 15-D and Kodak D-9 are two part solutions which your can be pre-mixed. All that been said, there is little information of anyone getting results out of these recipes in modern times. Agfa 70 (and its other names) is probably the most popular that I can find examples of on the Internet. But if you have used any of these other recipes leave a link in the comments below.
Why wouldn’t you is a better question. Exploring new possibilities and interpretations of your images is probably the best answer I can give. But I’ll let you be the judge of that as I’ll give plenty of examples in this article.
The papers I’ve used in a Lith process have a major effect on the aesthetics of the final image.
So I went on further to test even more papers bought from various sources such as Ebay and online classifieds. In the back of my mind I’m wondering what an non-lith-able paper would look like. I guess the built in developer usually found on modern papers would kick in and take over. Bare in mind all my papers are pre 90’s and well expired, so probably no surprise that everything so far is lith-able. That being said, it doesn’t mean it’s fit for purpose.
Papers are usually made of a combination of chloride, bromide and iodide. Ratios and portions of these give the paper it’s tone. Bromide papers such as Samum’s Austron Bromaton is most definitely an example of a bromide biased paper which produces cold tones.
Such bromide rich papers are hard to find these days and very few if any really exist any more.
Cadmium salts also plays a role too as it makes up part of the emulsion. It tends to accelerated development of metallic silver in the shadows. Though Cadmium has been banned by law in EU from around 1992 as it’s heavy metal. So many paper manufacturers had to removed it.
It’s another reason why old vintage papers Lith so well. However modern papers can be used you just need to be more selectable. Key to most alternative processes is to learn and try it out for yourself. I’ve even found expired Ilford papers from the 80s work quite well too. Again try it out and see!
Having said that, there of course are plenty other Lith-able papers available and techniques to make them work too. Whether it’s by chemical formula or by re-developing a modern B&W print a second time by bleaching and then redeveloping in the Lith developer. There are many ways to achieve a Lith print. But let’s keep on track…
The papers that I’ve tried span from the early 60s into the 90s such as Agfa, Ilford, Kundl, LabaPhot, Orential, ORWO and Tellko to name a few. You of course are free to try out other brands. There’s no fix and fast rules to this just try!
While many of these manufacturers you will no doubt have never heard of. But that’s ok, neither have I! That’s joy of researching the history of a paper and the company behind it – if that floats your boat.
Each paper will exhibits different characteristics in terms of tone and grain within the Lith process. Now I’ll help you identify these papers which should serve and assist when buying them second hand. I need to mention, it’s always a gamble as you never know how they are store, if someone has opened them up, etc… There’s always a certain amount of risk.
In the past, there were a multitudes of manufacturers of photographic papers and film. These are some of the Germany ones (as I’m based in Austria and know many of these best). I’ve also used Swiss, Austrian, Japanese and English papers too which I’ll show an example too.
- Agfa (Bayer-Leverkusen)
- ADOX (Frankfurt)
- Mimosa (Dresden or Kiel)
- Leonar (Hamburg)
- Argenta (Munich)
- Orwo (Wernigerode)
- TURA (Düren) or Perutz (Munich)
The “mysterious” number combinations used to identify the papers are easy enough to grasp.
The first letters are usually manufacturer-specific such as “B” for Brovira, “R” for Record/Rapid, or “P” for Portriga if they are Agfa.
The letters EW, W, S, N, H and EH stand for “soft”, “special”, “normal”, “hard” and “extra hard” respectively. Later these letters were replaced by numbers 1 for “extra soft” to 6 for “extra hard”. Equivalent to graded papers.
A well exposed and developed negative should deliver an optimal result when using the paper types “normal-N” or “special-S”. However this isn’t really important when working with the Lith process, so don’t worry too much about the grade.
An old photo paper may have a three-digit numbers, eg 111, 112, 113, 114, 118, 138, etc.
In the case of three-digit numbers, the first number (hundreds) indicates the paper thickness. “1” means “heavy weight” usually fibre based paper.
The second digit determines the colour. eg
1 stands for white, 2 for “chamois/cream”, 3 for ivory.
While the third digit is surface.
- The “1” stands for “shiny”. Papers with this finish can be dried on chromed metal plates, layer down, with a high gloss finish.
- The “2” stands for “semi-matt”,
- The “3” for “matt”, T
- The “4” for “noble matt”. The noble matt surface is also marked by an additional “e”.
- There is also the last digit “7” for “silk gloss screen”,
- the “8” for “silk gloss structured”.
- If you only have a two-digit or one-digit number, i.e. without the hundreds or tens digit, it is thinner paper, so-called “paper thick”, more for the amateur sector.
** Not all manufacturers kept to this format, some had their own system.
Let’s get start with a small list not a complete list by any means.
Note: Not all Ilford Ilfospeed papers can Lith often the reminding small amount of developer built into the paper will override your Lith developer and make the solution or paper go completely black.
A list of papers
- Austron Bromaton
- Fomaspeed RC
- Kundl Berlin
- Oriental Seagull Bromide
- ORWO Universal
- Roland Risse Papers
- Tura Excellent
Oh ye baby, Broma, Broma all the way. This bromide rich girl still has a lot to offer a guy after sixty years under raps. This cold tone paper is infectious, in terms of development. The shadows will take over in seconds if you don’t snatch quickly. Give this girl plenty of attention otherwise she’ll leave you in the dark! You’ve being warned.
Expired: ca. 1960
OMG – Oh my grain! I find the Fomapseed RC has a nice grain. I recommend using this paper at the beginning of your Lith developer as at the end the grain can go a little too crazy.
Who would have thought an Ilford RC paper would Lith and Lith it does with quite great results. Depending on the age and type of Ilfospeed you maybe in for a surprise. However more modern versions as we go into the nineties may not Lith at all. The built in developer on the paper will override the weak Lith developer and the print might go all black. It’s very much trial and error here!
The two example show how completely different the look can be.
Expired: ca. 1985
The curry wurst is a Berlin staple. Like this Berliner classic paper it never fails to satisfy.
Expired: ca. 1970
The original company, founded in 1901, manufactured photographic paper in Charlottenburg-Berlin and was bought by Ilford in 1994.
Labaphot company was founded in 1949 by Louis Langenbartels GmbH. The company had also made film too but paper was what it is known mainly for.
Expired: ca. 1990s
“Turning Japanese”, by the Vapors has a lot in common with this Japanese imported paper. Both produced in the 80s and you’ll probably spend more time with yourself in the darkroom. Now swiftly moving on, originally imported into the UK by Silverprint and used by Mike Spry and Anton Corbjin. This bromide baby is bright in highlight and soft on grain. Its quite sought after on the second-hand market as it’s sadly not produced any more.
Expired: ca. 1986
The cold war may be over. I’ve nicknamed this paper Nikita. Oh no you’ll never know how Lith-able ORWO is until you have a go.. Oh no! (forgive me Elton John btw nice Nikon FM)
It’s has a cold soul with lovely tonal details. It’s such a pleasure to use whether for B&W or Lith. I suspect it bromide count is higher than most. Hence the cooler tones in the image it produces.
Country: East Germany (former DDR)
Expired: ca. 1985
When you go down the rabbit hole of old papers. Many manufacturer no longer exist and the Internet gives bugger all information. You end up reading old scanned pdfs from books in German. One such paper is Roland Risse Fotopapier.
This what I could find: Roland Risse, fotochemische Fabrik GmbH, Floersheim-Main. Found in 1875, they resumed production in the begin of 1948 after the war. The produced X-ray, Portrait and Amateur papers for photography.
Roland Risse’s seem to had offered 17 different types, 12 bromsilber, 3 rapid, 1 portrait-rapid and 1 photo linen.
Expired: ca. 1960
This historical Swiss paper, before they became part of CIBA is a real gem. Eventually CIBA would buy Ilford. Then open a paper plant in Switzerland but close it in the last nineties. It was never really successful unfortunately. However Tellko paper proved to Lith with very pleasant results too.
Expired: ca. 1960
TURA went bankrupt in 1994 however many of their papers appear on the second hand market from time to time. A lovely paper to Lith but remember it’s fibre based paper and requires proper fixing and washing afterwards.
Expired: ca. 1990
After reading quite a bit, concerning fixing paper, at least it seems very clear that alkaline type fixers are the way to go. Especially if you are going to tone or stain your print afterwards. Just remember to use water as a stop bath not an acid based one. Washing times are reduced similar to an acid fixer when using a hypo clear agent (HCA).
Note: most Alkaline fixers are based on the TF-4 formula which is a commercial one however TF-3 and TF-2 are publicly known. Now the question arises, the two-bath fix approach or one bath ? I would be of the one bath party, on this one. However I only use the fixer for a maximum of 20 prints of 18 x 24cm or 10 x 8″. As the fixer gets exhausted.
Just remember fibre based paper requires at least twice the amount of fixing compared to resin coated papers. Both Spur and Moersch manufacturer Alkaline fixers both have a dilution ratio on 1:10 for paper and cost about 15 euros for a litre.
Having said all this, standard rapid fixers are more than suitable it’s just a little easier to wash for FB papers and tone. So don’t worry too much if you’re starting off.
Tip: to save fixer chemicals only mix batches of 500ml, if you are not making prints larger than 18×24 cm. This way you can double your darkroom sessions but with half the prints per session i.e ten prints
Being alive in 2022 without digital is pretty much impossible to avoid. For better or worse digital it is part of our every day existence.
So on the matter of instruction for at least the darkroom and its processes, real physical books are an essential must have. There is simply not enough information or even more importantly complete information on the Internet. A book like “The Darkroom Cookbook”, by Steve Anchell is good for starters.
Good books teach us how to manage a darkroom no matter how big or small it is. It’s necessary to know how to respect and handle chemicals. This knowledge is invaluable and crucial in this regard.
Again a book like Tim Rudman – ‘The Master Photographer’s Lith Printing Course‘ will save you frustration and time also The World of Lith Printing: The Best of Traditional Darkroom And Digital Lith Printing Techniques.
Of course you can use an e-reader which I thought about myself but flipping back and forth to recipes and references isn’t too much fun either. I don’t know about you but I’m definitely old school on this one.
For myself I can say, this was an incredible adventure into a new world of Lith printing, an alternative process done under red light in the darkroom using a simple Lith developer. My goal – to keep it simple, to find new artistic expression and extend traditional black and white darkroom printing.
Do hope I’ve inspired you to try it. Let’s me know what papers and methods work you in the comments.