When it comes to photography, artists have always been eager to come up with more and more creative and innovative ways to bring out the beauty of their subjects. For this, apart from their creativity, the artists have tried to make full use of whatever technology was available at that time. While many innovations have been the result of hard work, there are some discoveries, which have happened through Serendipity – i.e. by accident. Solarization is one such technique of photography.  

File:TAG Sunflower Solarised.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

What is Solarization?  

Technically termed ‘Sabattier Effect’, and commonly called Solarization, it is a photo technique which was made very popular by the famous American visual artist Man Ray. To define Solarization in simple words, we can say that this is a technique of photography, where there is a tone reversal. The light areas appear dark and the dark areas appear light.   

In this technique of photography, the image that is captured on a photographic print is completely or partially reversed in tone. Due to this, the final photograph (Positive print), looks as if it was negative. This occurs when the photographic paper gets re-exposed to white light during the process of development.  

During this redevelopment, the areas that are already developed will remain unchanged, but the areas, which are undeveloped or still under development, will get a tone reversal. This happens because these areas still have a lot of unexposed silver, which is available for re-exposure. A successfully solarized print has an eerie silver finish because it contains distinct white or light lines, called Mackie line, between the shadows and the highlighted areas.   

As a result of this tone reversal, the resultant image ting image has a kind of unusual halo or banding effect. This effect was accidentally achieved first time due to extreme overexposure of the camera negative. Since the first scenes were captured in direct sunlight — that’s how it got the name “solar” ization.  

History of Solarization:  

The term Solarization in photography is used to describe the effect of tone reversal observed due to extreme overexposure of the photographic film in the camera. The technique was discovered accidentally by Man Ray and Lee Miller.   

The solarization effect was most likely first observed in scenery photographs including the sun. The sun, as we know, is the brightest thing in the universe. In these photographs, the sun, instead of being the whitest spot, turned black or grey. For example, Ansel Adams created a solarized sun image, titled Black Sun, Owens Valley, California, 1939, by overexposure. Similarly, Minor White's photograph of a winter scene, The Black Sun 1955, was captured accidentally, when while shooting pictures of the sun, his camera got frozen in the open position. This resulted in severe overexposure of the film, which produced a solarized image. Another fashion photographer Erwin Blumenthal also played a critical role in popularizing the solarization technique in the 1940s and brought it to the mainstream.   

Contribution of Man Ray:  

The credit of popularizing goes to Man Ray, who quickly adopted this technique. He wanted to move away from usual photography and escape from banality. He experimented a lot with photographs of female nudes. He used the halo-like outlines around forms and areas of partially reversed tonality to highlight the body contours.  

Evolution of Solarization:  

The photography technique of Solarization requires a lot of manipulation through a variety of methods to achieve certain specific results. Artists use varied colour lighting, colour contrast, and camera placement to achieve different results.   

These days, achieving a solarization look is quite easier with Lightroom presets or by photograph’s manipulation of an image in specialized software Photoshop or Lightroom. In film photography, solarization can be achieved through chemical means and by exposing the film to actinic light during development.  

The Process of Solarization: 

The process of solarization process begins with processing, developing and agitating the photo paper in a normal manner. Once the image begins to appear, the print is removed from the developer and placed in a tray of water for about ten seconds. This slows the development process.  

The paper is then re-exposed to light for two seconds with a low watt light source of about 15 to 20 watts from a distance of about three to four feet.  

The last step is to put the paper back into the developer for the remaining development time. The process gets complete with stop bath, fixer and final wash.  

 Tips for getting the best results.  

  • Use high contrast papers to get a more dramatic effect.  
  • Use slow films, as they require longer exposure to develop and hence are easier to work.  
  • To achieve the most dramatic results, use print with a lot of areas, as re-exposure affects the highlights.  
  • Finally, experimentation is the best way to produce dramatic arts. So, spend some extra time in the darkroom to turn your black and white prints into dramatic works of art.