Lith Printing

Lith printing is a technique in which conventional black and white paper is heavily over exposed and then developed in very dilute, high contrast lith developer.

I first tried Lith printing a couple of years ago. It is almost impossible to reproduce a print exactly and it is more time consuming than conventional printing. You can often end up wasting more paper too. However, the effects obtained can be stunning and are well worth the effort.
Despite the advances in digital printing, I've not yet seen anything to match a selenium and gold toned lith print on fibre paper.

The Lith Printing Process

Lith printing is fairly straightforward. The paper is first over exposed in the enlarger by around 2-3 stops. Exposure is not as critical as in conventional printing and is used to control contrast. More exposure decreases the contrast.
Development must be carried out in a tray rather than a deep slot tank because the final stages must be observed under a safelight.

Development progresses very slowly to begin with but then speeds up rapidly. A process known as 'infectious development'. Development can take from 3 to 20 minutes depending on temperature and how exhausted the solution is. Because the developer is very weak, it can become exhausted after only 3 or 4 prints. Using exhausted developer can lead to excessive development times, streaking and fogging.

Forget the darkroom timer during development. The paper is snatched from the developer and quickly placed in the stop bath when the shadow areas are judged to be as dark as required. Getting the snatch point right is critical and is not always easy to judge under a safelight. Too early and the print will look flat and under exposed. Too late and the print will be too dark with loss of detail in the shadow areas.

The stop bath, fixing, washing and drying stages are no different to conventional printing.

Depending upon the paper chosen, Lith development produces prints with a range of different colours. So far I have only tried Kentmere Kentona. This gives delicate warm peach highlights and deep brown/black shadow areas. These days, Kentona is manufactured using a formula that no longer contains Cadmium. This reduces the salmon pink effects that were characteristic of the original paper. The best colour effects are obtained when using developer that has been left exposed to the air for a while and has darkened through oxidisation (known as old brown). Adding some old brown to fresh developer produces similar effects.

Lith prints respond well to toning - particularly when split toned in selenium and gold. With Kentona, the selenium turns the dark areas brown/purple while the gold turns the highlights blue/grey. Gold toning should be carried out before the selenium.

Lith printing works well with infra-red negatives. I have found the best results are from images that do not have large dark shadow areas.

Tim Rudman's book "The Master Photographer's Lith Printing Course" is the definitive guide. It lists the papers that respond well to Lith development and describes the Lith developers available.

Lith Developer

I originally used Fotospeed LD20. This comes as a two solution kit with full instructions for use with paper and works very well. The kit also contains two sachets that can be added to prevent pepper fogging that can occur with some papers. I have never found pepper fogging to be a problem when using Kentona.

More recently I have been making up my own developer from raw chemicals. This not only works out cheaper, but since the chemicals are supplied in solid form rather than as a liquid, it means that the developer is always fresh. I have been using the formula for Ilford ID13 as described in Eddie Ephraum's book "Creative Elements".

Solution A

  • 750ml Water at 50 degC.
  • 25g Hydroquinone.
  • 25g Potassium Metabisulphite.
  • 25g Potassium Bromide.
  • Water to make 1000ml.
  • Solution B

  • 750ml Water at 30 degC.
  • 50g Potassium hydroxide.
  • Water to make 1000ml.
  • Note: Potassium hydroxide produces an exothermic reaction when added to water and so the crystals must be added slowly and the water should not be too hot to begin with.

    I use 100ml part A plus 100ml part B and dilute with 1000ml water to give 1200ml. To this I add 100ml of old brown. This is about the right amount for a 12x16 tray. Using the developer soon after mixing while it is still warm will keep the development time down. I discard the developer after 3 prints. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting 20 minutes for the image to develop only to find that the developer has become exhausted and the shadow areas will not darken. It's a good idea to have some fresh developer solution available to add to the tray should this happen.