Practical tips for Polaroid Lifts

When working for The Other at Durham Sixth Form a request was made for more information on Polaroid Emulsion Lifts.

On the 1st of March I jumped on the metty to Newcastle, then on a train to Durham. I’m sure that a Durham train used to stop at Sunderland but no such luck that day. Luckily, I’m quite fond of using the trains to run about. I’ve never been to Durham Sixth form before but it was a really great college in a brilliant location. There was a gaggle of geese in the car park on the way in. That’s quite different from the ASBO seagulls that we get closer to the coast.

The group are creating zines and considering techniques for their final exhibition. I talked about how I use different techniques in my work, and of the many there was an interest to learn more about Cyanotype process and Polaroid Emulsion Lifts.

I have tried the following technique on Polaroid 600 film, and used a rudimentary polaroid camera that I bought from a thrift shop in Byker. The film is around £18 and available online. You can pick up cameras for £30 or more, depending on the model. I also tried this with Instax Wide film which totally didn’t work. I have yet to try instax mini.

How to make a polaroid lift

Set up for polaroid emulsion lifts

You will need:

  • An exposed polaroid photograph
  • 2 tupperware or ceramic baths
  • Watercolour paper
  • Scissors
  • A soft flat head paint brush
  • Patience
  • Hot water and Cold water
  1. Cut the frame away from your polaroid in the crop that you would like to use. Dispose of the frame.
  2. Fill one of the tupperware containers with boiling water.
  3. Put the cut polaroid into the boiling water to soak for a minimum of 10 minutes.
  4. Get a cuppa.
  5. Check the polaroid to see if the plastic front and back have started to come away. The hot water should soften the glue that binds the polaroid together.
  6. Carefully using your fingers (make sure the water is not too hot at this point), peel one of the plastic sides away. I generally try to aim to take the back off, but go with whatever seems to be the easiest.
  7. Place the remaining part of the polaroid into warm water and using the soft brush gently peel away the gel that contains the image. This is very fragile so take your time.
  8. Once the emulsion is free it will float in the warm water. Place your watercolour paper into your second bath.
  9. Transfer the polaroid gel to your second bath of very cold water. This will act to firm up the gel and will make it easier to manipulate.
  10. Carefully float the gel on to the paper. Flatten and shape the gel using the brush, and then leave to dry.

Finished emulsion lift on paper by Jo Howell

You don’t need any glue for this. As the gel and paper dry they contract and bond together, though you may want to use a clear varnish to help seal the image more thoroughly. This video may help.

Polaroid Emulsion Lift on wood

I had a nice piece of bur wood that I wanted to try the technique with. To prepare the wood I sanded it down to a near polish. The flatter the surface the easier it is to apply. Using the exact same instructions above you can apply the emulsion gel to quite a few surfaces. Wood was probably the least successful for me. You need to use glue on the wood to get the gel to adhere, as it will just curl away from the surface when dry. And once dry I had to add varnish to ensure it stayed. I only did this the once because I was a bit disappointed with the result vs the effort.

Polaroid Emulsion Lift onto glass

Once again you use exactly the same two bath technique to get your emulsion out of the polaroid. Carefully brush the wet polaroid onto the glass. The suction created by the gel as it cools and contracts should be enough to adhere the emulsion to the surface.

In this example I transferred the polaroid lift on to the reverse side of the glass bottle so that you are viewing the image through the text. This was an antique glass bottle and so the surface had many imperfections. The lift did stick to the glass bottle, but once again I was fairly underwhelmed with the result.

Another attempt on to glass that I had collected from the beach. The sea had rasped the surface of the glass so I wasn’t sure how the emulsion would fix on to it, but I had some nice results. The abrasions on the glass make it more opaque than transparent which meant that the image was more defined than those on glass that hadn’t been abraded. It is very much a game of chance with this process until you have trained your hands to be steady and delicate when removing the emulsion, and transferring it on to the given surface. I didn’t use any glue in this transfer but I did seal the edges with varnish.

Working back into your emulsion lift

You may just want to leave the polaroid lift exactly how you managed to make it, but I found that I quite liked the fun of working back into the resultant images on the watercolour paper. You can use pens, gold leaf, paints, inks etc as long as the paper doesn’t get wet enough to effect the transfer.

So, I hope you find this information helpful. Enjoy making your emulsion lifts!

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