How to do Tonal Reversal and Solarization

How to do Tonal Reversal and Solarization


Anyone who's made the mistake of turning on the darkroom light while the print is in the developer will have noticed the strange tonal reversal this produces. With a little care, you can harmless this error to create unusual landscape images.


This tonal reversal, usually called solarization, is characterized by a darkening of the lightest areas of the print, and by a wiry line that traces abrupt changes in density. You can produce the effect on film, but solarizing paper is more predictable and repeatable.


Some basic steps for reference is shown below:

  1. Start with a negative that has bold shapes and high contrast - fiddly detail soon gets lost in the process.

  2. Make a test strip in the normal way on hard resin-coated paper (grade 4 or 5) to determine the correct exposure, but develop the test in undiluted paper developer.

  3. Remove the negative from the enlarger and make a second test strip - of plain white light. From this test, note the aperture and shortest exposure time that just causes the paper to darken. This is your "fogging exposure".

  4. Return the negative to the enlarger, and expose a print for the time determined in the first test.

  5. Remove the negative, and prepare the enlarger for the fogging exposure. Put the print into the developer, and as soon as the image starts to appear, transfer the paper to a dish of plain water.

  6. Now place this under the enlarger, and give the fogging exposure.

  7. Finally, return the print to the developer, and process as normal.

You'll probably find that the resulting print is very dark. If so, rinse and dry the paper, and press it into contact with a fresh sheet, emulsion-to-emulsion. Cover both sheets with a piece of glass, and shine light from the enlarger through the sandwich to make a contact print. This process usually creates a copy with a lot more contrast.


Negative printing creates images which resemble those produced by solarization. If you shoot color transparencies, you'll have no difficulty making negative prints - just put a transparency into the enlarger in place of a negative, and print on ordinary black and white paper. You'll need a soft grade, preferably. This will not give a tonally correct result - red areas of the transparency. For example, print as white - but in negative form this hardly matters. If you don't use transparency film, simply copy a negative onto black and white film to create a positive monochrome transparency, then use this in place of the negative.

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