Unblinking Eye


Revised 1 October 2006

Preliminary Notes on Bromoil
by Ed Buffaloe

Battle Abbey - bromoil by Ed BuffaloeFor contemporary workers who wish to learn bromoil, I highly recommend Gene Laughter's book Bromoil 101 and David Lewis' book The Art of Bromoil & Transfer.  Richard Farber’s book, Historic Photographic Processes, also contains much useful information.  There is new book available, which I have not yet had a chance to look at:  Bromoil, A Foundation Course, by Derek Watkins.  Before these books were published, the most recent book available was Geoffrey. F. Whalley's Bromoil and Transfer, published in 1961.  His book can still be found used, but often commands a high price due to its scarcity.

There are so many variables in the bromoil process, that it is rare for any two bromoilists to follow exactly the same procedure in detail.  However, there are recommended starting points that have not changed much in the century since the process was invented.

Given below are the major steps, in order.

1.  Paper.  Virtually any silver gelatin paper could be utilized in the early days of bromoil, though the fast bromide papers were generally preferred.  At some point, manufacturers began to superharden the gelatin in their papers as well as make papers with very smooth, glossy surfaces.  Bromoilists found such papers more difficult to ink, so manufacturers began making special bromoil papers with non -superhardened emulsions and matte or semi-matte surfaces.  By the mid 1930’s bromoilists had discovered methods that enabled them to utilize supercoated papers for the process, and eventually the many special bromoil papers were discontinued due to declining sales.

Today there are a few manufacturers that produce papers especially intended for the bromoil process, including Kentmere, J&C Photographic, and David Lewis.  In addition, almost any silver-gelatin paper with a semi-matte or matte surface can be utilized, following the procedure outlined below.  I have had excellent results with Kentmere Art Classic, J&C Bromoprint, Bergger Brom 240, David Lewis paper, Agfa Multicontrast Classic, Forte Elegance Polywarmtone, Ilford Multigrade, and several other papers.


2.  Exposure.  The perfect print for making a bromoil matrix is compressed in the high values and expanded in the shadows.  With the bromoil process, detail is often lost in delicate high values (and sometimes in deep shadows of the image)--if the photograph relies heavily on those values to work it will probably not make a good bromoil (or maybe it will take a master bromoilist to pull it off).  Particularly for a beginner, I think the best image to work with is one with clear definition, where the primary subject stands out distinctly from its background, and which does not rely on delicate tonal values for its effect.  If you wish to have clouds properly delineated, you will often have to burn in the sky considerably. With some negatives, particularly when printed on graded paper, you may find it necessary to dodge the deepest shadow areas.

To start with, find the exposure that gives full detail in the most significant areas of the print.  The general rule of thumb is to double that exposure to make a print suitable for bromoil.  With non-superhardened bromoil papers the exposure increase may be only 50%.  If you wish to reproduce fine high value detail--such as in a high key image or a nude--an exposure increase of 300% may be required.  For most superhardened papers, doubling the exposure is a good place to begin.  Pretend you have a “dark” aesthetic and prefer all your prints to be dark and moody--make a nice, dark print, then double that exposure to make the bromoil matrix, and you will certainly be close.  With experience, you will be able to tell when a print is not dark enough--or too dark.  This can vary from paper to paper.

With variable contrast papers, Gene Laughter recommends using one contrast grade lower than normal for most prints.  This is because the bromoil process tends to increase contrast.  Using a lower contrast grade is not usually necessary with pyro negatives, because the yellow stain acts as a contrast reduction filter--in fact, sometimes I have to use one to two grades higher than normal contrast for pyro negatives.


The goal is to print the high values down considerably, while preventing the low values from becoming totally dark and losing all detail.  When you view the dry print by transmitted light, you should be able to see full detail in the shadows.  But when viewed by reflected light, the image should appear dull and overprinted.  Over time, if you are printing negatives that are similar to each other, you may be able to judge correct exposure without testing.  However, if you change to a different film--or one developed in a different developer, taken under different lighting conditions, or in a format that requires a different enlarger height--you will save time by making a test print (or test strips) to determine a “normal” exposure first.

An alternative method for use with contemporary superhardened papers is to make a normal print, develop it normally, bleach it but don’t fix it, redevelop it in fresh developer, and bleach it a second time.  This technique effectively does the same thing as doubling the initial exposure.  It also allows you to easily salvage prints that did not receive adequate exposure.  The bleach and redevelopment may be repeated several times, if necessary.  If the paper whites are degraded by the redevelopment process, a quick dip in a very dilute solution of Farmer’s reducer prior to fixing will restore them.

3.  Development.  Development should take place with continuous agitation in a very dilute paper developer such as Dektol (1:8), Ethol LPD (1:8), Kodak D-163 (1:8), or in a compensating developer such as Ansco 120.  Some workers even use Rodinal at 1:25 or 1:30, though I have not tried it.  The high dilution of the developer (or use of a compensating developer) is necessary to keep the low values from blocking up.

Kodak D-163


2.2 g

Sodium sulphite, anhydrous

75 g


17 g

Sodium Carbonate

65 g

Potassium bromide, 10% sol.

2.8 ml

Water to make

1 liter

This developer should be diluted with water for use.  Dilution may be adjusted as necessary, from 1:2 to 1:12.  For normal prints, I use 1:4.  For bromoils I use 1:8. 

Many old bromoilists state that you can use any developer but their favorite is an amidol formula--of which there are many.  Amidol was (and still is) favored by many bromoilists because it causes no staining or tanning of the gelatin.  As a test, I developed one print in Dektol (1:8) and another in the amidol formula given below, using the exact same exposure and development times.  These two prints inked identically--I could tell no difference between them.  Though I obtain excellent results with amidol, I don’t regard it as essential for making good bromoils.

If you wish to use an amidol formula, I can recommend the one given by David Lewis, which is simple and quite old.

Amidol Developer given by David Lewis

Sodium sulphite, anhydrous

14 g


2 g

Potassium bromide, 10% sol.

2 ml

Water to make

1200 ml

Lewis recommends lesser dilutions (with 800 or 1000 ml. of water) for increasing contrast.

I have tried using factorial development, as is recommended in some old manuals, but ultimately I found that a development time of about three minutes seems to be optimal with Dektol (1:8) or D-163 (1:8).  For soft working developers such as R77M , Ansco 120, Amidol, or higher dilutions of Dektol, I develop for 4 minutes.

With Dektol (1:8) or D-163 (1:8) and graded papers I sometimes find it useful to use water bath development in order to keep the low values from over-developing: I agitate continuously and allow the blacks in the image to emerge fully, which usually takes 50 to 60 seconds, then I remove the print to a tray of plain water where I let it sit with no agitation for 60 seconds.  Then I alternate 10 seconds of agitation in the developer with 60 seconds sitting still in the water bath until 5 to 6 minutes have elapsed.  If you don't allow the blacks to emerge fully at the beginning of development, they will ink unevenly.

4.  Stop Bath.  Development should be stopped either with a plain water stop (for prints developed in amidol) or a diluted acetic acid stop.  I use 3/4 ounce of 28% acetic acid in one quart of water (or about 22.5 ml in one liter), which is half the amount of acetic acid I use for normal silver printing.  The time in the stop bath is 30 seconds, with continuous agitation.  I then rinse both sides of the print under running water before continuing to the fix--this keeps the plain hypo from becoming too acidic.  I once accidentally mixed a very strong solution of acetic acid stop--I couldn’t tell any difference in the way the matrices inked, so I’m not sure dilution is all that important for print quality or inkability, but it is important to keep the fix from becoming too acidic.


5.  Fixing.  Fix each print for 5 minutes, with continuous agitation, in a 10% solution of plain hypo (sodium thiosulfate). Some practitioners use an acidified sodium thiosulfate fixing bath (such as Kodak fixer) at this stage, but most say they prefer to use plain hypo.  Gene Laughter says he finds that a print fixed in acidified fixer doesn't ink as easily.  The cheapest source I have found for plain hypo is Artcraft Chemicals.  I use one liter of fix for eight 8x10 prints plus test strips, or four 11x14 prints plus test strips. 

6.  Drying and Superdrying.  Prints should be air dryed for six hours. (There are quick methods that recommend drying with heat, but most bromoilists over the years have recommended air drying for the beginner at bromoil. The quick method is for expert bromoilists.)  After the prints have dried slowly in the air, they can then be superdried.  If you have a dry mount press, preheat it to 250 and press the print between two matte boards for 2 or 3 minutes.  You can also move the print over a gas stove burner on medium heat for 20 to 30 seconds.  This drives all remnants of moisture out of the print and leaves it bone dry--it is also said to soften the gelatin and make it take ink more easily.  Superdrying is done again to the matrix just before it is soaked for inking.  If you live in an area where the humidity is very low, superdrying can be omitted.  However, if you live in an area where the humidity is very high, I strongly recommend superdrying.

7.  Bleaching & Tanning.  Mix three solutions as follows:

Trevor Jones Bleach

Stock Solution A (10% copper sulphate)

Copper sulphate


Distilled water to make

1 liter

Stock Solution B (10% potassium bromide)

Potassium bromide

100 g

Distilled water to make

1 liter

Stock Solution C (1% potassium bichromate)

Potassium bichromate

10 g

Distilled water to make

1 liter

For use mix 70ml A, 70ml B, and 30ml C with water to a total volume of 1 liter.  The use of distilled water obviates the need for an acid to clear precipitate, though David Lewis indicates that a drop or two of strong sulphuric acid will speed the bleaching process.  I do not add any acid.  All these solutions will keep indefinitely in brown glass bottles.

Today this is the most widely-used bleach formula, though there are a number of variations.  One liter of working solution will bleach ten 8x10 prints or five 11x14 prints.  Do not print a black border around your prints, as this will reduce the efficacy of the bleach.  The optimum time with this bleach is 8 minutes, but don't be afraid to continue to 10 or even 15 minutes if necessary.

The copper sulfate solution is the bleaching agent, while the dichromate solution is the tanning agent (which hardens the gelatin). It is possible to separate the bleaching and tanning processes, though in general I find that a properly exposed and developed print will bleach in less time than it takes to tan, and so it is a waste of time to separate them. But separating the solutions can be educational and is probably worth doing at least once.  Simply mix one solution with 70ml A and 70ml B in a liter of water, and another with 70ml B and 30ml C in a liter of water.  When I did this, I learned to tell the difference between a matrix that has not been bleached enough and a matrix that has not been tanned enough.  The optimal bleach time seems to be about 4 to 7 minutes, but some prints require 10 minutes or more to tan fully.

An alternative bleach is the Venn two solution bleach.  H.J.P. Venn probably did more research on bleaching and tanning of bromoils than anyone else.  His bleach/tan solutions are widely used by bromoilists in Britain.  They are easy to mix because you can use the three solutions from the Trevor Jones formula, above.

Venn Two Solution Bleach

Solution 1 (Bleaching Bath)

Copper sulphate 10% solution

95 parts

Potassium bromide 10% solution

5 parts

Solution 2 (Tanning Bath)

Potassium bromide 10% solution

20 parts

Potassium bichromate 1% solution

10 parts

Water to make

100 parts

Bleach for 30 seconds past the disappearance of the image  in Solution 1, then tan for 4 minutes in Solution 2.  Solution 1 can be used repeatedly, until bleaching times are too long.  Solution 2 should be mixed fresh for each use.

Mix the used tanning solution with used fix or used hypo clearing agent and a little sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite before pouring down the drain--this helps convert the dichromate to a less dangerous form.

8. Refixing.  The bleached matrix must be refixed at this point.  As before, fix each print for 5 minutes, with continuous agitation, in a 10% solution of plain hypo (sodium thiosulfate).  If this fixing step is omitted, the matrices will slowly turn grey when exposed to light.

9Acid Bath.  The fixed matrix has a slight grey-green color, caused by residual chromium oxide.  This can be removed by a bath of 1% sulfuric acid or 1% EDTA.  Most modern workers omit this step.  David Lewis recommends an acid bath after fixing, rather than before, as was often recommended by early bromoilists.  More than one writer on bromoil has stated that the acid bath allows the matrix to accept ink more easily--however, my own experience is exactly the opposite--the acid bath softens the gelatin so much that I find the matrix very difficult to ink.  I have noticed that sometimes the grey-green color shows through in delicate highlights, such as are often seen in nudes, so I sometimes use an acid bath on such prints, but I do it after the print has been inked and the ink has dried.  It usually takes less than a minute to remove the chrome oxide color.  I then wash the print for an hour to remove the acid.

10. Drying and Superdrying.  Air dry for 6 hours and superdry as before.  Expert bromoilists state that the more wet/dry cycles a matrix goes through, the more readily it takes the ink.

11. Soaking the Matrix.  The bleached & tanned print is called a matrix.  The matrix must be soaked in water to swell the gelatin before inking. For me, most papers seem to require a soak of 7 to 10 minutes in room temperature water (generally 70 to 80 F.).  Since room temperature varies considerably in different locations, as does water quality, each bromoilist must determine his or her own soak times.  Colder water requires longer soak times.  In reality, water temperature is more important than soak time, but for beginners I recommend room temperature for a predetermined time.  For me, Ilford Galerie requires a soak time of 30 to 60 minutes at 105, but it is very atypical.  With non -superhardened true bromoil papers, such as Bergger Brom 240, J&C Bromoprint, or David Lewis Bromoil paper, when adequately soaked you may be able to see the gelatin in relief, as the unhardened portions of the gelatin swell more than the hardened portions.  With most papers, you can usually feel the difference between swollen portions and hardened portions.  The swollen gelatin feels slippery, while the hardened gelatin feels rough.

12. Inking the Matrix.  I won't write much on inking methods, as many more experienced people than myself have done so at length, and their writings are available online.  Read them carefully.  See the Bromoil Reading Room at http://www.bromoil.info/reading%20room.html.  It is very helpful to watch an experienced bromoilist ink a matrix.

The matrix must be surface dried after soaking and before inking. First, I place it face down on a piece of blotting paper or several layers of paper towels and dry the back.  There must not be any surface moisture on the back of the print, or it will cause uneven inking as the matrix dries.  When the back has been wiped down, I place the matrix directly on a piece of glass and dry the front of the print with soft paper towels.  Because the gelatin is swollen and delicate, it must not be abraded or treated roughly.  Traditional workers use a chamois for drying the print.


The matrix is usually inked on a piece of glass larger than the print. If brushes are used for inking, the print need not be taped down. As the print dries, the corners will begin to curl upward, indicating that the print needs to be resoaked before further inking. If the print is to be inked or cleared with rollers, it should be taped down. I usually use painters' quick release tape for this purpose. The blue Scotch brand works well. Taping the print also helps keep the edges clean. Sticky ink can be cleaned from the white rebate with a wet sponge or paper towel.

I usually place the glass flat on a table, but some people who ink exclusively with brushes prefer to work with the print at an angle. Traditional workers often use a board covered with blotting paper or material, and pin the matrix to the board. Some workers recommend moistening the blotting paper to keep the back of the print from drying out.  I’ve also seen a wet chamois used beneath the print to keep it moist.  This is particularly useful when working with very soft ink, because if the print dries too quickly it will take too much of the soft ink in the high values.

A very quick method for getting started with inking is to use a large boar bristle brush and ink the entire matrix until it is completely covered, with no regard for high or low values.  Remove the matrix from the inking area and place it on a flat surface.  Roll the matrix carefully with a wet sponge roller (I prefer the high quality white sponge rollers used by painters, available in the United States at Lowe’s).  The wet roller redistributes the ink very quickly--it increases contrast considerably and removes almost all ink from the high values.  At this point, the print can be resoaked and the highlights inked appropriately.  For a lesser increase in contrast, roll the print underwater.  Be careful not to crease the wet matrix, as this is very easy to do under water.

13.  Removing Ink.  Ink removal is equally important as inking.  It is not discussed quite as much as are methods of redistributing ink such as rolling with a brayer or “hopping” with a brush, but it is important to mention various methods of removing ink: use Saran wrap, plastic bags, dry brushes, lightly moistened brushes, wet paper towels, cosmetic sponges, cotton swabs, rubber erasers, wet and dry rollers, etc.  In addition to performing these procedures with the print swollen but surface dried, they may also be performed with the print underwater, or dry.  When the print is dry, it can also be etched (carefully) with a razor blade or with fine steel wool.  

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