Create Palladium-Looking Inkjet Prints

PHOTO Techniques: Mastering Digital Technique, 2003

By Hugh O. Smith Back to

palladium printing, digital printing, hugh o smith

I’ve always been a sucker for vintage photography. Thirty years ago, I bought every Ansel Adams “how-to” book he wrote. I shot with view cameras, experimented with the Zone System,mixed my own developers like D-23 and Amidol, and spent chunks of time in the darkroom.

But how things change. We’re in the “new age” of photography, witnessed by technological leaps with digital cameras, scanners and inkjet printers. En route, we’ve managed to lose some of the mystique and wonder of the good old days when we mixed our own concoctions and “struggled” for the good of our art.

I’ve recently discovered a way to meld the past with the present, and also have the chance to experience the art of photography—without the major hassle. I found a way to recreate palladium-style photographs from any slide or color negative film.

Palladium: a labor-intensive process

As many know, palladium prints required a photographer to shoot with a view camera—which was quite common in the 1880s. He preferably shot with an 8×10 large-format glass, and later, slow negative films. The photographer prepared his printing paper by coating it with a solution of platinum salts (highly poisonous), first allowing it to dry and then exposing the negative to sunlight for an inexact period of time. The time required often took days!

Today, however, palladium can be almost completely reproduced in a “light room” using a computer, a scanned image, a good inkjet printer, and heavyweight matte paper.

For this image, I scanned my original transparency (shot with Fuji Provia 100 F professional slide film) on my Polaroid SprintScan 4000+, then imported the image into Photoshop 6.0. My technique couldn’t be simpler—and is seemingly geared for those of us who still don’t completely understand the complexity of Photoshop’s layers, channels or paths. In fact, anyone can use this technique with almost any slide or negative.

My technique

First, you scan the image. I’ve found a low-budgetscanner is capable of scanning transparencies just fine. (In fact, the “inability” of the scanner to scan in highoutput is somewhat of a “bonus” feature for the final print.) Remember, the likes of Steiglitz and Weston did not have lenses or equipment that even comes close to what some of our cheaper cameras and equipment are capable of today.

The image I chose was a fairly low-contrast transparency I took one foggy Thanksgiving morning on the American River in Sacramento, Calif. Fog landscapes and “mood” photos are particular favorites of mine. This one was taken at 7 a.m., and required a tripod for its
1⁄4-second exposure.

As you can see, the fog had a distinct blue cast; even a corrected-color image didn’t convey the mood I originally saw in my Olympus SLR. I set out to relate the translucent atmosphere typically seen in finished palladium prints.

palladium printing, digital printing, hugh o smith

Photoshop adjustments provide the “magic”

I first “drained” away the color in Photoshop by clicking on Image: Adjust: Desaturate. This gave me a low-contrast black-and-white image. Then I clicked on Image: Color Balance. By selecting the midtone ratio button, I used a mixture of red and yellow to give me the faint, warm “sepia” brown look of an old palladium print.

Finally, I opened the levels dialog and changed the black output towards the middle, transforming the darkest blacks to gray, thus creating a low-contrast image.

Once my image appeared as I wanted it, I loaded my Epson 2200 printer with a sheet of Epson Archival Matte paper, and slowly watched my “palladium print” appear in a short few minutes. To be honest, I actually like it better than the original, and it’s easier to make (and a lot less toxic). The upside is that I can produce any size image repeatedly.

My love of old processes—especially palladium prints and their subtle, sun-exposed tones has remained. Some may see it as taking two steps backward, but I see it as a leap back to the future. Times and tastes may change, but the nuances of these “old/new” prints are as captivating as ever. Just remember to have plenty of paper on hand, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

About the Author

Hugh O. Smith
Hugh Smith runs a commercial photography business in Sacramento, Calif., and was an official photographer for the 2003 Sacramento Jazz Festival. His fine art prints and Polaroid Transfers hang in several private collections, and he has exhibited several oneman showings in Jacksonville, Fla. and Philadelphia.