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  • Victoria Stokes

Seawater Cyanolumen Prints

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Lockdown led people down all sorts of creative rabbit holes. I was no exception. My particular rabbit hole was one of the fascinating world of alternative photographic processes.

Whilst working on my environmental project 'acidopHobe' I wanted to ensure I was repurposing photographic waste, but also using an alternative process which would act as a metaphor for our need to seek-out alternative approaches for a more eco-centric future. This led me to experiment with the cyanolumen process which I was able to further develop.

What is a Cyanolumen Print?

Lumen prints are a form of camera-less photography whereby placing an object on light sensitive paper and exposing in sunlight you are left with a negative image.

Cyanolumen prints are similar, with the extra step of coating the light sensitive paper with light sensitive cyanotype chemicals.

Why seawater?

Having spent countless hours experimenting with the wet cyanotype / cyanolumen process to create different visual effects (using salt, vinegar, sugar, turmeric, soap....anything I could get my hands on.) I began experimenting with the acidity of the water, with which I would make my cyanotype solution.

My project 'acidopHobe' tackles the subject of ocean acidification which, in short, is due to the rising levels of atmospheric CO2 being absorbed by our oceans. It seemed appropriate, in this case, that I make the cyanotype solution with seawater (which I could only collect once lockdown restrictions had eased!) If I was to change the acidity of the seawater it, I felt it should reflect what is happening in nature, so this should be achieved by using dissolved CO2. For this, I employed the use of my trusty SodaStream!


'acidopHobe' - The Process

I chose my subjects due to the fact that ocean acidification will not only inhibit the growth of many marine organisms but they will also weaken, as their existing skeletons slowly dissolve. In order to show this, I partially dissolved the majority of my subjects in vinegar before photographing them.

Once I had selected my final images I turned them into digital negatives using Photoshop, then printed them on transparency film.

In order to then expose the images I coated expired silver gelatin paper with cyanotype solution and placed the digital transparency on top. I then used a clip frame to secure the layers before placing the frame outside in direct sunlight.

The experimental stage of the project, although time consuming, proved invaluable.

Resin coated paper worked infinitely better than fibre based and produced the most visually interesting results due to how the chemicals reacted. I found that different types of RC silver gelatin paper also reacted very differently.

Dry 'V' Wet

Allowing the cyanotype solution to dry before exposing, rather than exposing whilst it was wet enabled me to have more control over the final result by allowing me to precisely apply the solution to the paper. It did however turn out blue each time.

Exposing the image whist the solution was wet produced more variation in visual results.

By using a wet process I also surrendered control to the environmental conditions, which meant that the end result was neither predictable or repeatable. Each cyanolumen print I created was unique and as a result of the pH of the chemistry used and the environmental conditions present at the time of exposure.

Initial pH experiments, using regular water

My initial experiments with pH were carried out using regular water (before lockdown restrictions permitted me to make a beeline for the coast to collect seawater!)

In order to make cyanotype solutions more acidic I carbonated the water then, using a jewellers scale, made up small quantities of cyanotype solutions. I diluted the most acidic solution with regular solution and using a pH tester I was able to ensure that all of the levels were different.

Although quite painstaking, I found that by using this method (rather than making larger quantities to use over multiple days) I was able to reduce waste and get the most variation in visual results.

After exposing the images I did an initial rinse in water before transferring them into a fixer bath. This was then followed by another thorough rise.

Once the prints had dried I scanned then immediately to capture the colours at their brightest. Usually with lumen printing this next step would require processing, to convert the negative images into positive. The images I produced were exposed using the negatives I made, so this final step could be ignored.


It was incredibly important for this project that that the emphasis on any visual variation in the final images was due to the pH of the chemistry used, so as to reflect changes in ocean chemistry.

I therefore prepared multiple negatives, used expired silver gelatin paper from the same batch then exposed sets for the same amount of time. This ensured that the environmental conditions were the same for comparable images and the only difference in the process was the pH of the cyanotype solution.

It was also important for me to ensure that the images were a true representation of the results. Although I scanned them onto my computer the images have not been manipulated in any way.



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