Polaroid Emulsion Lifts and Transparencies

How to Make Your Own and Not Screw It Up

11 min read by Dmitri. Published in Film, Photography.
Two Polaroid SX-70 B&W film frames lifted onto watercolour paper.

Emulsion lifts result in beautiful, fragile, stretchy little “cloths”, floating in the water like jellyfish. Until arranged into a piece of delicate photographic craft.

Aside from the distortion effects, emulsion lifts produce enlargements, which can yield about fifteen per cent bigger photographs. If used with the right paper, they can also add contrast and brightness to the image. In some cases, they can yield images that are more resistant to sun exposure. However, they will still get bleached if left in the bright light for a long time.

Polaroid SX-70 B&W film transparency.

Polaroid transparencies are half-way between the unmodified Polaroid photograph and an emulsion lift. They look like slide film and are approaching large format by size.

During Polaroid Week 2019, I converted my kitchen into a lab of sorts, to extract my emulsion lifts and transparencies. I spent dozens of Polaroid frames testing colour and monochrome film for both SX-70 and 600 series.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Instax film does not work.

 Update: there is now a way to create transparencies with Instax film!

When I lived in Thailand, I had no access to Polaroid film or camera to do emulsion lifts properly. I’ve attempted the technique with Instax Mini, boiling the frames in water like an idiot for hours to no avail.

Polaroid prints consist of a positive or slide-type film sheet, sandwiched amongst layers of protective emulsifier dyes, gelatin, plastic, and a negative — which aid instant development. A Polaroid transparency, the essence of the image, looks and feels exactly like a slice of developed 35mm Ektachrome. Just bigger.

When it rolls out of the camera, the transparency is sandwiched with something that looks like stucco. That “stucco,” titanium dioxide, creates an opaque white background, which completes the photograph. This is the same chemical used in certain paints; a suspected carcinogen.

In the case of Instax, the adhesives keep all of the layers together permanently. But with certain Polaroid frames, they could be peeled apart.

✪ Note: Not all Polaroid frames can have their emulsions lifted. I’ve read, but dared not to test on old family photos, that the older generation of Polaroid frames (pre-Impossible Project) will not work.

“Stucco” and imperfect technique.

Unsatisfactory polaroid emulsion lifts.

I followed Analog Things’ videos, which seem to have the most complete set of instructions on the internet.

AT’s delicate cutting technique, required to open the frames is relatively easy. But when it came to separating the emulsion from the malicious white backing layer, titanium dioxide a.k.a. the “stucco,” the process got tedious.

In his videos, the white layer sticks to the rear black plastic of the Polaroid frame, leaving the transparency free. I’ve had a great deal of trouble achieving this. My Polaroids have easily separated, having the “stucco” remain with the image. I proceeded to try and remove it with some light brushing under warm water.

At first, my technique suffered. I tore holes all over the emulsion, shredding my images. But I kept on getting better at this. It took about five frames to learn how not to tear the photographs.

Alas, the white backing layer refused to give in. It remained attached to practically all colour emulsions, giving them unpleasant texture, obstructing the transparency.

Flexible enough to bend in every direction, in Polaroid frames the “stucco” cracks and bubbles under warm water. It disintegrates quickly but fails to fully come off the emulsion. There were either small bits left, or a thin, translucent layer of white dust still sticking to the emulsion.

This problem was either not evident or stressed enough in the videos I watched and the instructions I read. The problem is well-known, as I found out later, but isn’t well-documented. Many guides chose to disregard the issue of white debris.

The dreaded “stucco,” titanium dioxide, interfering with the photograph through its cracked-up texture.

I spent hours breathing in hot vapour with a strong, unpleasant smell that reminded me of car exhaust and hospitals. I wanted this to work. But every time the “stucco” left the ugly residue of unwanted crackled texture. It would either stay put or force me to rip the emulsion.

Although I’ve got some kind encouragement on Twitter, I was surprised at how difficult it has proven to get the results I wanted.

Are my creative demands unreasonable, was there something missing to my technique, or do I just plain suck? No matter how well I brushed or how hot the water was, the bloody “stucco” clung to my art.

Forest Mushroom.

Its resistance has proven to be so consistent that I’ve tried my hand in adding the texture, characterized by cracks in it on purpose. I’ve done so with the eerie photograph of a forest mushroom my wife took for me.

Can’t say that I’m in love with the result.

Am I using the wrong type of film? Perhaps it was in the fridge for too long?

After a dozen frames, I still had more questions than answers.

Monochrome film for best results. This is how it’s done.

After a few dozen ruined frames I’ve concluded that black and white film, both for SX-70 and 600 series, seems to provide the best results. When recently exposed, it’s possible to get the white titanium dioxide layer stuck to the backside of the frame, leaving a clear transparency free of the debris.

To do this, you will need a photograph, a tray (at least 2” deep) that you can fill with warm water and a watercolour paper. Also, an Exacto knife, scissors, a handy trash can, and a sink nearby to dispose of water. Don’t get any of the waste liquid on your clothes, food, or dishes! A pair of rubber gloves may be a good idea. You will also need a set of soft watercolour brushes.

I’ve done this with photos taken both minutes and weeks before the procedure. Older exposures worked in some cases, but fresh exposures proved to give more consistent results.

The first step towards creating a good emulsion lift is obtaining a transparency. Following Analog Things’ video, thinly slice the left and right edges of the frame. Then insert the knife through the sliced edge between the layers of the thick bottom border. Cut it open. Cut two small black stripes on the sides underneath the open flap and get ready to peel.

Here comes the difficult part. Place the frame facing upwards and begin bending the image side, away from the bottom half. Hold the frame steady and maintain the bend as you methodically move towards the end.

With your frame now fully open, you can fold the back part of the frame over and pull, pealing the white borders off the transparent plastic that holds the image.

You now should be holding a black and white transparent image in hand. You may keep it or continue with creating an emulsion lift.

Should you decide to advance to the next step, I recommend you use your scissors to cut the plastic just outside the black line that surrounds the image. This will ensure that all the layers separate easily when dipped into the water.

Fill your tray with warm water, around 30℃. Submerge your transparency in there facing down and watch the layers come apart. Gently push them away from each other, discarding the rigid plastic and a translucent emulsifier layer from your emulsion.

Submerge your watercolour paper carefully, keeping it below your floating emulsion. Let the paper soak for a few seconds and try to remove the air bubble below it so that it sinks to the bottom.

You can now carefully manoeuvre your emulsion onto a submerged paper with your brushes. Gently lift the paper from the water as you hold the emulsion, stretched over it, by its corners. Be extra careful with this step. You can spend some time to straighten out or style your emulsion on the paper while it is still wet. You can submerge it back should you want the emulsion to move more freely.

On the left, a photo taken with a Polaroid 600 camera; the orange glow is from the camera flash. On the right, a photo taken with SX-70.

Colour film emulsions are more difficult with the new film batches, but still possible.

With the fresh film for both 600 and SX-70 cameras, I’ve experienced very strong resistance from the materials. In my quest to remove the “stucco” I’ve tried boiling, warm, and cool water baths. I spent hours gently brushing it away, only to find it adhering to the emulsion strongly.

Remarkably, dish soap has succeeded in disintegrating the image on the emulsion completely within seconds. Keep soap away from your water!

After spending considerable time online reading and talking to others I concluded that Polaroid colour emulsions have recently changed their chemistry and have become a lot more rigid in the new batches. Or at least with the stuff sold here in western Canada.

Ina who has had a lot of experience working with emulsion lifts recommended I try hairdryer to soften the Polaroid layers. Using this video for reference.

With colour Polaroid film, a hairdryer is required to separate the white backing layer. It does, however, create bubbles — until submerged in water.

Sadly, the video showed another monochrome transparency, which isn’t the same as colour. Determined, I set my hairdryer on maximum heat and minimum airflow.

Keeping the dry, hot air flow close to the face of the image made the emulsion bubble and let go of the “stucco.” It is still a lot more difficult and at least ten times slower to do than with monochrome film.

The resulting transparency, because it’s been heated rapidly, is brittle, often cracking in the middle of the image. It is also not useable as a transparency on its own unless you are looking for the bubbling effect. Submerging it in water can straighten it out, yielding fairly good quality lifts.

I’d imagine that with a few months of trial and error it is feasible to devise the skill necessary to create better emulsion lifts from colour Polaroids. Perhaps even a combination of heat, cool air, and meticulously calibrated speed at which the peeling is happening can yield no or minimal bubbles.

Your health and environment.

The opaque white layer, referred here as “stucco” is titanium dioxide, a suspected carcinogen. It is a common hazard, found in many paints, although the EU is considering removing the requirement for warning labels.

In addition to whatever else’s is in there, the chemical can mix with the water vapour and get into your lungs and onto the skin. I recommend precaution, although I would not advise a full-on paranoia. There are plenty of harmful chemicals all around us; I can’t imagine that limited exposure would cause any more harm than being stuck in traffic.

Waste-wise, nothing is recyclable. The water that you pour down your drain isn’t healthy. Minimizing such waste is important, though it would be unrealistic to think that general household waste has no health hazards. Zero impact is a myth.

Emulsion lifts beyond Polaroids.

Emulsion lifts are not exclusive to Polaroid Originals film. This technique is quite old, dating back to the days when emulsions were first introduced.

Peel-apart instant film is known to produce fantastic results. Even some inkjet printers yield images that can be transferred. Insanely large photographs can be transferred too, like this 20x24 Polaroid print.

In any case, when done well, the technique creates an image that feels complete, exposed, and personal. The transparency is not covered by plastic or layers of gelatine and it is laid on actual paper — rather than titanium dioxide. An emulsion lift has the same approximate construction as a silver gelatine print with a fair amount of imperfection suggesting real human effort and care.

Time-consuming, easy to mess up, but very beautiful if done right.