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The Azo and Amidol Story
Michael A. Smith
Today, almost no one prints
on Azo, the last of the silver chloride contact printing papers, and
the finest paper on which to print black and white negatives. Most of
those using large-format negatives and making contact prints are printing
on enlarging paper, or, dissatisfied with their silver prints, are making
platinum prints. When asked if they have had any experience with Azo,
most photographers answer that they cant get good prints with
it or that it is not being made any more. Surprisealthough most
camera stores do not stock it, Azo is still being manufactured. Azo
is the longest continuously manufactured photographic paper ever made.
It was first introduced by Photo Materials Company in Rochester back
in 1898. In July of that year Kodak bought out Photo Materials, and
has been producing Azo ever since. This article will describe this unique
paper and explain how you can make beautiful prints with it.
My own early experiences
In 1966, when I first began
to make photographs using a 35mm camera, the camera store I dealt with
told me that if I was going to make contact sheets as well as enlargements
I would need contact printing paper. They sold me a 100-sheet box of
The quality of those first
contact sheets was far better than my enlargementsthe blacks were
richer and there was a glow to those small prints that I just couldnt
get in the enlargements. At that time, and for many years after, I assumed
the inferior quality of the enlargements was due to the enlarging process.
It was not until laterafter I had spent eight years making contact
prints on chloro-bromide or bromide enlarging papers and still could
not achieve the quality of those Azo contact sheetsthat I came
to realize that the problem was due to the enlarging paper itself.
As I learned more about
fine print quality, I experimented with many papers: Kodak papersKodabromide,
Medalist, and Polycontrast; Agfa papersBrovira and Portriga Rapid;
and DuPont papersVelour Black and Varigam. I settled on Velour
Black. After only nine months of working in 35mm, I began using an 8x10-inch
view camera and began making only contact prints, but I continued to
use Velour Black. From time to time I would hear murmurings about Azo,
and about once a year would try to make prints on it, but I was unable
to do so to my satisfaction. In 1975 when I showed my photographs to
Dody Thompson, once Edward Westons assistant, and she confirmed
that something in my prints was missing, I determined to learn to print
on Azo. And now it is the only printing paper I have used for over twenty
About ten years ago I reprinted
my earlier 8x10-inch negatives on Azonegatives that originally
had been printed on enlarging paper. Even though I had been printing
with Azo for ten years, I was still surprised by the difference in the
quality of these reprints. They were remarkably and vastly improved.
In some cases, the new Azo prints looked almost as if they were from
different negatives. And the printing process was far easier and quickerless
dodging and burning and still more detail in the highlights and in the
The main thing that distinguishes
Azo from enlarging papers is its incredibly long tonal scale. Even without
dodging or burning, the dark tones and high values do not block up,
but hold full detail. It is as if the curve of the paper is a long straight
line, with neither toe nor shoulder. One photographer, an excellent
platinum printer, who tried printing on Azo, told me that his prints
from the same negatives that he had previously printed on platinum had
a longer tonal scale when printed on Azo.
Besides having an extremely
long scale, Azo has particularly rich blacks. And recent tests I have
conducted show that when compared to enlarging papers it has more contrast
in the midtones, giving the prints a glowing richness and greater depth.
How to use Azo:
Silver chloride papers are
much slower than enlarging papers. Exposure through an enlarger is impractical;
the times would be prohibitively long. I recommend using an R40
300-watt light bulb, one with the silvered part on the neck of the bulb.
The average exposure should be between 10 and 20 seconds, but fine prints
can be made with exposures as short as 3 seconds and as long as 3 minutes.
Azo can handle almost any negative.
To make contact prints,
any contact printing frame will work fine, but use of a vacuum frame
is preferable. It is much quicker. (So that the noise of the vacuum
pump is not a distraction, I keep it outside of the darkroom, two rooms
away, running a long hose through the walls.)
Dodging and burning take
place between the light and the negative, not between the negative and
the paper as with enlarging. To cover a large area a large card is used.
You cant raise a small card closer and closer to the light bulb
as you can when an enlarger provides the light source. Keep in mind
that because of Azos long tonal scale far less dodging and burning
are needed than with enlarging papers. As stated earlier, dark areas
of Azo prints will not block up; they will maintain openness and detail.
At the other end of the scale, the highlights will not wash out easily;
they hold tone and detail into the lightest areas. This is one of the
reasons that Azo is extremely easy to use.
Here is another area where
working with Azo is significantly different (and easier!) than working
with enlarging papers. Where enlarging papers usually take between two
and three minutes to develop, the ideal developing time for Azo is only
one minute. Even less timedown to 45 secondscan be okay.
Rarely is more developing time necessary or desirable. The longer the
developing time, the cooler Azo becomes and the more "on the surface"
of the paper the image seems to be. The shorter the developing time,
the warmer Azo is and the more depth the print seems to havethe
more in the paper the image appears to be. Scientifically, this may
be the exact opposite of what is actually happening; usually, the longer
the development time, the more in the depths of the emulsion the image
is physically, but here ones visual perceptions must override
I have used Amidol since
1970 when I was still contact printing on enlarging paper. While I believe
most print developers would work with Azo, I have not done extensive
experimentation and testing in this area. While my decision to use Amidol
may have been originally determined by the, "If it was good enough
for Edward Weston, it is good enough for me" approach, use of this
print developer for over twenty-five years has convinced me that it
has significant advantages over other more commonly used developersthe
most important being, of course, that with continual use it will stain
your fingernails black, marking one as a "real photographer."
Actually, agitation by rocking the tray, rather than by putting your
hand in and swishing the paper around will keep your nails from turning
entirely black. Note: Never use tongs with Azo. It is a fragile single
weight paper and is easily creased and damaged.
Amidol is the most active
developer knownit has the greatest reduction potential of any
developer. However, in this formula it is a soft-working developer.
The major difference between this formula and others is the extremely
small amount of Potassium Bromide used. Thats the secret. The
Citric Acid acts as a buffer and extends the life of the developer.
Contrary to the rumor that Amidol lasts for just 1520 sheets of
paper, a tray of developer can be used for an entire printing session
with no reduction of its developing strength.
Note that in tripling the
volume of water, not all of the ingredients are tripled; the Amidol
is only increased two-and-a-half times and the Potassium Bromide is
increased four times. For quantities larger than three liters or in
between one and three liters, simply extrapolate.
Sometimes it happens that
a negative prints too soft on a lower grade, and too contrasty on the
next higher grade. When using a water bath a compensating action occurs
and it is possible to get to any point in between those grades. The
print is first immersed in the developer with full agitation. Then at
the appropriate moment, the print is taken out of the developer and
put in a tray of waternow with no agitation. What happens is that
the darker areas of the print will stop developing, having used up all
of the developer that was in contact with the paper at those locations.
In the highlights, development continues. The result is a print with
both fully detailed highlights and open shadow areas. Relative to the
highlights and shadows, the mid-tones are unaffected. By using one grade
of paper higher than necessary and the proper use of the water bath
it is possible to get the lighter and darker tones the way they would
be on the softer grade, yet having the midtone separations of the higher
grade. This imparts a wonderful glow to prints that would otherwise
be either a little too dull or a little too contrasty. Use of a water
bath in this way is not unlike the use of a two-developer method (Dektol
and Selectol-Soft, for example), but the use of a water bath is much
Water bath development works
particularly well with Amidol because it is the most powerful of the
known developing agents. Because its reduction potential is so high
it is not necessary to go back and forth from the developer to the water
bath as it would be if another developer were used. To use Azo and Amidol
in this way, go from the developer to the water and then directly to
the stop bath. The time in the water bath counts as time toward the
one-minute development. Of the one-minute development time, an average
water bath use would be half the time, or 30 seconds. However, I once
made a print with as little as 12 seconds in the developer and 48 seconds
in the water. At the other extreme, I have also used as little as 10
seconds in the water bath. To know when to transfer the print to the
water bath, look at the dark tones; when they start coming in to about
60%80%, it is time to make the transfer. Too much time in the
water bath (over 35 seconds or so) can sometimes result in streaking.
The only solution I have found is to keep trying and hope the streaking
does not occur.
The use of Amidol as a print
developer complimented by the inherently long scale of Azo makes for
an extraordinary combination. When they are used together, especially
with a water bath, there is no need to resort to time-consuming, complicated,
or esoteric processes and methods such as the use of ferricyanide and
masking. And because far less dodging and burning are required than
when using enlarging papers, printing becomes a real pleasure with Azo
My only experience with
toning Azo is with Rapid Selenium Toner. Older Azo was noted for its
ability to split-tone. Newer Azo does not split-tone as well, but will
change color drastically if left in the toner too long. I recommend
toning with highly diluted selenium tonera dilution of 1:128 for
only three minutes at 68°. This is mostly toning for archival permanence,
but even with this modest amount of toning the slightly green cast of
Azo will be eliminated.
Except for Grade 2 in 11x14
size, Azo is available only in Single Weight. After years of using double-weight
enlarging papers, I was quite concerned about using single-weight paper
when I began printing on Azo. But I quickly found that with careful
handling, damage was infrequent. I also learned that single-weight paper
dry mounts better, the surface being closer to the mount board. To handle
single weight paper there is only one bit of advice: Do not hold the
paper with the thumb on one side pressing between two fingers on the
other side. If you do, invariably a crescent shaped crease in the emulsion
will result where your thumb falls between your two fingers. Hold the
paper between the thumb and just one finger.
Although Azo was previously
manufactured in grades 0 through 5, due to lack of demand it now only
comes in grades 1 through 4. In the table below are grades, sizes, and
quantities that can be ordered one box at a time from your camera store.
However, all grades are available in all sizes on special order.
Because of lack of demand,
certain grades and sizes were taken out of the catalogue last year.
This does not mean they are unavailable; it just means that a special
order is required to get them. At this time size 20x24 in Grade 3 and
Grade 4 are "Special Order" onlythey must be purchased
in minimum orders of nine 50-sheet boxes. That is a large order and
will dissuade all but the most committed user from ordering it. To make
it available to those who would like to purchase it in less daunting
quantities, I have arranged with a camera store to sell it one box at
a time from the large stock of paper that I have bought for myself.
See information at the end of this article on how to contact me for
From time to time rumors
surface that Azo is no longer being manufactured. These rumors are not
trueyet. However, if demand is not sufficient, then this excellent
printing paper will be taken out of production. My wife, Paula Chamlee,
herself a fine photographer, and I have told Kodak that we would buy
sufficient quantity to keep this paper in production at least in the
Recently there was a manufacturing
problem; the surface of one of the grades of Azo was mottled. Among
fine-art photographers in particular, the Eastman Kodak Company generally
does not have a good reputation for listening to photographers or responding
to their needs. But when Paula and I brought this problem to Kodaks
attention, much to our surprise, we found that they were very attentive
and very concerned. After we sent them samples of the defective product,
they invited Paula and me to Rochester to see exactly how Azo was made
and to try to solve the problem. The executives and engineers at Kodak
were delighted by our interest. We were given a tour of the manufacturing
facility, and together with the engineers figured out the cause of the
problems. After several modifications to the production process, Kodak
solved the problem and once again Azo is perfect. We heartily commend
the responsiveness of the folks at Kodak to fine-art photographers.
It was contrary to all expectations.
I strongly recommend that
anyone making contact prints give Azo a try. Not only will your prints
be richer and more glowing, but you will find the printing process to
be significantly faster and easier; you will be more pleased with your
prints and you will have more time to make new negatives.
A. Smith 1996
|© 2015 Michael and Paula|
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