Blueprint paper photography

Back in highschool, when I was even cheaper than I am now, I was looking for a less costly way of taking pictures.

In my highschool drafting class, there was this blueprint machine, which we used on rare occasions. There was also a supply of blueprint paper. The interesting thing about this blueprint paper was that it produced a positive image, instead of a negative one. The paper also had to be kept in the dark, so it was obviously also sensitive to ordinary light.

So I asked for some of this paper, and put it in my old Polaroid Land camera model 95A, which I believe is the second model of the first commercial instant camera. This is a beautiful camera, although I am told its not terribly valuable. Back in 1981, I was still able to get black and white film for it, but I stopped using it because at $1 per photo, it was a bit expensive for me.


    Polaroid on tripod
    My Polaroid Land camera on the tripod exposing a picture  

The first image I tried taking with it was with the camera on a table, pointing at the old barn. When I took the camera inside, I looked at the undeveloped paper (which does slightly show the image), and decided that it was useless. I put away everything and forgot about it. Months later, I opened up the camera, and the photo looked much better. Blueprint paper does have this self-developing characteristic which causes it to develop all on its own. This also tends to ruin paper stock after a few years. The image looked quite decent. Ironcially, the subject of the photo, the old barn, had burned down in the meantime. So this was the last picture ever taken with the barn on it.

I finished developing the picture by exposing it to Windex fumes. I guessed this would do it, because the developing machine had a terrible ammonia stink to it, and Windex also contains ammonia. The first try was to spray the windex onto the paper, but this washed the dye right off the paper, so not practical. So I used a small sandwich box, sprayed windex in the bottom, put spacers made of lego in it to keep the paper from contacting the liquid, and then floated the sandwich box in a pot of lukewarm water to evaporate the amonia from the windex. Worked beautifully.


    log shed
    One of the better pictures I took with blueprint paper  

This is a picture of a log shed, which served as a sauna in the 1970's. The place my parents bought was pre-owned by finns, and finns always seem to have a sauna.

Like all pictures I took on blue print paper, this one's a mirror image on account of the optics. The polaroid I use shoots a paper negative, which then squishes against the positive to transfer the image. With just the paper in there straight, it produced a mirror image. The modern polaroids don't do this, and they all bounce the light off a mirror at 45 degrees behind the lens to flip the image.

I was fortunate that my home made wooden tripod is fairly stiff. Even though it was windy (you can see some plants all blurred at the front), the camera held quite steady for the exposure.

Another catch is that the paper is only sensitive to blue light. The sky is always saturated, while the grass is underexposed. I tried to take a picture of the dandelions on our lawn with it once. I even told my sister, who was mowing the lawn, to leave the part of the lawn that I was photographing unmowed during the exposure, but on the resulting shot, there was no dandelions to be seen - they are yellow, no blue component.


    workshop addition
    We were working on the building during the 4 hour exposure  

The correct exposure time was 4 hours in bright sunlight with the F/8 lens fully open. This works out to roughly an ASA rating of 0.0001. I was limited to taking a maximum of two pictures per day, weather permitting. Despite the sunshine, the pictures all have no distinct shadows, as the sun forms quite an arc across the sky in four hours.

I took the above photo while we were working on an addition to the new workshop. (the old workshop was in the old barn that I took the first blueprint photo of). You can see a lot of semi-transparent members in the structure, especially the studs in the wall nearest to the camera. This all happened because they were added during the exposure. You can also faintly see a ladder through the roof, which was there for several hours while the pictur was taken. The wood pile at the front of the building also has motion blur, as we used up part of it during the exposure.


Some questions people have asked

Can I use a 35 mm camera to take bluepint photos?
    Yes. A 35 mm camera works, but your pictures will only be 35 mm wide. Using a large apperture lens can really cut down on your exposure time. Be sure to use a camera with a totally mechanical shutter release (one that runs even without batteries), othewise the battery will not be enough to keep the shutter open for hours.

    I recommend finding an old polaroid camera, Ideally the manual focusing kind with bellows. Those tend to be quite cheap. Then just either rip out the shutter, or jam it open somehow (I hope you got your's cheap). The apperture on those is typically around F/8, so the exposure will take a while.

Can I do this with a pinhole camera?
    Depends on how many months you want to wait. The apperture of a pinhole camera might be f/100. With such a small apperture, it will take around 600 hours of bright sunshine to finish the exposure, or about two months of good weather.
Where can I get blueprint paper?
    That's a though one. Blueprint paper only really made sense before CAD systems and large plotters / inkjet printers. Places that sell blueprint paper typically also sell the ammonia for developing it. So if you search the net, search for the literal string "blueprint paper" and ammonia. Click here to perform such a search on google

    The other catch is that undeveloped blueprint paper does go bad over the years, so don't buy a huge amount, and don't hope for some stache being left in some office somewhere.

For a more modern cheap photography hack, try Building a digital camera from a cheap flatbed scanner

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