The Ultimate Guide To Platinum & Palladium
Fine Art Prints
For Art Buyers and Collectors
Although complex and costly to create, platinum prints are the sine qua non of photographic art.
Discerning collectors value platinum prints because of their ethereal beauty, permanence, rarity, and longstanding investment track record.
In this guide, platinum is synonymous with platinum & palladium except when noted.
Once a platinum print is experienced in person, it is usually a visual revelation because of its tremendous tonal range and delicate characteristics. Platinum prints are also referred to as Platinotypes in the historical literature.
The platinum print dates back to the mid-19th century when chemists and photographers explored ways to make more permanent photographs. It started in 1842 when Sir John Hershel discovered an iron-based printing process. About thirty years later, William Willis Jr. patented the platinum printing process that builds upon the light-sensitive research of Hershel.
Platinum and Palladium are noble metals and one of the most stable known to science. Both are more precious than gold, and because of the stability, a handmade platinum print made to archival standards can forever. The elemental platinum and palladium will never change over time. The paper would have to be damaged or have an issue for the print to change.
Palladium is technically less stable than platinum, but you are splitting hairs at this point. Both platinum and palladium are archival fine art prints revered by collectors and curators for a good reason.
In the 21st century, the vast majority of people's lives and photography have been digitized. Only a few dedicated platinum printmakers are actively creating original artwork with platinum and/or palladium, and I am one of them. Since platinum prints are made entirely by hand, each is unique, which is essential when considering original artwork and contributes to their investment potential.
Platinum prints are unparalleled in their beauty; many people describe them as having a three-dimensional appearance. When a platinum print is made, the light-sensitive iron particles chemically react with the platinum and palladium to form fine elemental platinum and palladium particles into and on the top fibers of the paper. Because the resulting platinum is woven into the fibers and sits on top of the paper, platinum prints have a depth about them unlike any other type of fine art photography. Since the beginning, artists have saved their best work to be printed in platinum because of the special and rare qualities possible with these precious and noble metals.
Platinum and Palladium Terminology
This confusion is about artist transparency; both precious metals will produce an archival print. There are technical and aesthetic reasons to use each precious metal independently or in combination.
When purchasing a platinum print, the artist should fully disclose the chemical composition of each piece of artwork.
For every one of my platinum, palladium, or platinum/palladium prints, I write in pencil on the print the exact chemical composition processed into the fibers of the paper, making this essential information a permanent part of the artwork. The chemical composition is also included in the certificate of authenticity.
There are technical reasons why an artist may use platinum, palladium, or a combination of both precious metals, but the artist should disclose the ratios. Hence, the buyer fully understands the composition of the artwork they purchase.
Platinum and palladium prints are historically valued more than any other type of fine art photography. Over the last two years, palladium topped over $3,000 per troy ounce, costing more than twice platinum.
I believe when an artist markets their artwork as platinum, palladium, or platinum/palladium, it is a reasonable assumption the artwork should note the precious metals used along with their ratios.
Platinum vs. Palladium Visual Characteristics
The most noticeable difference between platinum and palladium prints is tonality and exposure range.
Platinum prints have elegant silvery-gray highlights and open shadow values. Platinum prints can be much more demanding technically and sensitive to chemical impurities in the paper. Platinum has a shorter exposure range resulting in more contrast than palladium. Pure Platinum prints can exhibit an undesirable grittiness typically offset by adding some palladium.
Palladium prints are typically warm-toned with beautiful creamy-looking highlight values. A palladium print is typically more tolerant of paper impurities than platinum, which can be a benefit over time. Palladium prints are known for their elegant and long exposure range and exquisite highlight values.
How Platinum & Palladium Prints Are Created
All platinum, palladium, or platinum/palladium prints are handmade using a contact printing analog method.
An archival paper is hand-coated with the “sensitizer” consisting of iron salt, typically ferric oxalate, and precious metal or a combination of platinum and palladium. The light-sensitive iron and precious metals are mixed right before the paper is hand-coated.
The artist has to create a suitable negative the same size as the print, which is why most platinum or palladium prints are a more intimate size.
Many contemporary artists use a digital negative versus an analog film negative because making an actual analog film negative is much more complex and costly. I only create large and ultra large format real analog film negatives for my artwork because I can see the difference in tonal values and depth of the image. My workflow is 100% analog from end to end, which mirrors the 19th-century way of making platinum and palladium fine art.
Negatives for platinum or palladium prints require much more contrast and density than other fine art prints like silver gelatin. The photographer must possess the technical understanding to create a negative that takes advantage of the long tonal range offered by platinum and palladium prints, or the prints will look flat and emotionless.
Based on the discovery of Sir John Hershel in 1842, light-sensitive iron salts, typically ferric oxalate, are mixed with a precious metal (platinum and palladium) and then exposed to ultra-violet light before being chemically developed and cleared.
Because of the lower contrast and extended tonal range of platinum and palladium prints, a restrainer chemical can be used in the sensitizer formula or the chemical developer. This is a personal choice of the photographer based on their creative vision and desired aesthetics.
The photographer has much discretion regarding their choice of developers, which can significantly impact the final print's visual characteristics.
The iron starts in its normal ferric state, and when combined with platinum and palladium, it is converted to ferrous iron. The ferrous iron chemically reacts with platinum and palladium while exposed to ultraviolet light. When chemically developed, it returns to its ferric state with tiny particles of platinum and palladium woven into and on top of the fibers of the paper, making a truly unique piece of art.
Archival & Permanence Matters
While platinum and palladium precious metals are incredibly stable, the paper that holds these precious metals and how the artwork is processed directly influences its archival permanence.
Papers used for creating platinum prints, in particular, must be 100% pure with no chemical by-products or agents, typically used in manufacturing contemporary papers for other types of photographs. Palladium is more tolerant than platinum for suitable papers, thus making platinum prints even more challenging.
I create all of my platinum and palladium prints on Hahnemühle Platinum Rag fine art paper because I trust the manufacturer. Hahnemühle paper mill has been in business since 1492 and has a proven track record over five centuries.
In addition to choosing a substrate (paper), the photographer must follow proper archival methods to “clear” the unwanted iron compounds and by-products from the iron and platinum/palladium reaction. If these elements are not appropriately removed through a time-consuming series of archival clearing baths and final archival wash, the print will eventually stain and damage the paper leading to failure. This is why the workflow of the artist matters.
Standards For Platinum & Palladium Prints
There are no formal standards for platinum or palladium prints. However, I will share my standards to provide a point of reference. I think you will find my standard reasonable and logical.
Platinum Prints: My platinum prints are a minimum of 85% platinum, with the rest typically made with palladium. This is not an industry-standard because one doesn’t exist, but I feel it is an honest and credible standard based on transparency with my art buyers and collectors.
In contrast, 18-carat gold, the international standard for “pure gold,” only has about 75% gold. The small amount of palladium in my platinum prints has to do with the way the precious metals react to the light-sensitive iron when the image is formed with the chemical developer and not for aesthetic reasons. A minimal amount of palladium in the platinum sensitizer supercharges the reaction process and produces a stunning print with an extended tonal range and soft and delicate highlight values.
Palladium Prints: Palladium has similar properties and qualities to platinum, but palladium will create a warmer set of tones versus the black and silver associated with platinum. All my palladium prints are hot-toned artwork made with 100% palladium and developed in potassium oxalate. I choose palladium when the artwork is best rendered with these tonal values and a warm aesthetic.
Platinum & Palladium Prints: When a print is made with more than 15% of either precious metal, I consider it a platinum and palladium print.
As a fine art collector, there are several things that you can do to ensure your artwork is in the best possible position for future generations. I will summarize some of the essential concepts to help you.
Tip # 1: Make sure your platinum or palladium or platinum/palladium print is made on 100% cotton rag paper because it is the most durable form of paper with a very pure cellulose content lignin free.
We know based on history that cotton rag documents have survived from the middle ages in excellent condition, so this is a point not to be overlooked.
Tip # 2: Either frame behind glass or store your platinum or palladium prints, especially 100% pure platinum prints, in archival polyester sleeves to protect them from atmospheric influences. Framing isolates the artwork from harmful gases, especially sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is thought to be catalyzed by platinum into toxic sulfuric acid. Though SO2 emissions have decreased considerably over the last few decades, there is no way to know future levels.
Tip # 3: If you want to display your artwork without glass or leave them out without being stored in polyester archival sleeves, choose 100% palladium prints for the best archival longevity. Scientific research shows no evidence that palladium facilitates the catalyst conversion of SO2 to sulfuric acid. However, remember that we are likely talking about the archival performance of hundreds or thousands of years.
Tip # 4: Ensure the artist processes your platinum or palladium print to museum archival standards. By confirming that 100% cotton rag paper is used and the artist performs proper archival clearing, you are taking the vital steps to ensure the longevity of your artwork. The harmful iron and chemical by-products must be removed during the clearing process to achieve optimal permanence.
Important History of Platinum & Palladium Prints
Platinum and palladium prints have unique properties compared to the classic black and white silver gelatin prints.
Through the printing process, platinum and palladium are woven into the fibers and sit on top of 100% cotton rag paper.
In contrast, the silver in silver gelatin prints lies in a gelatin emulsion that coats the surface of the paper resulting in a semi-gloss or glossy presentation.
Since no gelatin emulsion is used for platinum printing, the final platinum image is matte with a deposit of platinum and palladium absorbed slightly into the exposed cotton rag paper.
I use an archival UV blocking varnish with a semi-gloss or satin sheen to hand coat a protective layer on my platinum and palladium artwork. This also enhances the darker values in the artwork and helps improve the viewing experience.
In 1873, thirty-four years after Louis Daguerre in Paris and William Henry Fox Talbot in London presented the discovery of photography to the world, the platinum process of printing photographs was patented. However, we know that platinum printing started decades before the official patent by Willis.
Since the late 19th century, platinum's use in photography has had an almost unbroken continuity to the present day—being interrupted only by the World Wars.
During the First World War outbreak, platinum could no longer be obtained. Russia had almost 90 percent of the world's supply at that time, and what little platinum was available went into the strategic needs of the war.
When peace returned to the world, platinum was prominently resurrected by Alfred Stieglitz, who mainly printed on platinum and palladium papers. His young and now famous protégés Paul Strand and Clarence White also preferred Platinum.
Edward Weston also used platinum and palladium papers throughout his early years, as did Irving Penn, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and most of the greats in the history of photography have all produced perfect, beautiful images in platinum.
After World War II, few photographers immediately resumed using platinum because the commercially made platinum-coated paper was no longer available.
This meant that the photographer had to hand-coat the paper. While we appreciate the handmade artisan aspect of hand coating platinum prints today, it was not viewed as such during the late 1940s.
Laura Gilpin was among a few post-World War II photographers who did maintain the use of platinum, hand-coating her papers and creating images of the Southwest that would ultimately become legendary.
Although platinum was again obtainable after World War I, its price remained extremely high and out of reach for many photographers and collectors. Because of these market conditions, experimentation with palladium photography began.
In an odd turn of events, palladium is now twice the cost of platinum (2022).
By the early 1900s, it was understood that platinum was one of a family of "platinum metals": the closely-related elements platinum, palladium, iridium, osmium, and rhodium share many similar physical and chemical properties.
During this time and for many decades, Palladium remained less expensive than platinum and in better supply putting it within reach of more photographers. The costs of precious metals are continually changing over time; now, palladium is twice the cost of platinum and has recently exceeded $3,000 per ounce.
Certain compounds of palladium were found to be nearly indistinguishable substitutes for platinum. However, palladium produces a "warm" image with less contrast and is frequently my choice based on my creative vision for the artwork.
In the following years, photographers began to experiment by mixing platinum and palladium in varying proportions to achieve results that were not possible when the precious metals were used alone.
Two key aspects make the platinum print so unique and so loved by collectors worldwide - their delicate beauty and permanence.
The unique beauty of a fine platinum print involves a broad scale of tones from black to white with delicate highlights and open shadows unlike anything attainable in silver prints. In the deepest shadows, the platinum print still presents information; the platinum whites are delicate, and the depth of the image is alive and three-dimensional.
Platinum prints are stunning and among the most permanent types of artwork that you can purchase. The platinum metals (platinum and palladium) are more stable than gold.
Throughout history, man has used many methods of expression, such as daguerreotype, albumen, carbon, gravure, and most commonly, silver emulsions. But for master photographers, platinum has always held a special place.
Despite its extra labor and cost, platinum is often preferred for the photographer's most personal, unique, and rare images.
Alfred Stieglitz referred to platinum as "the prince of media."
Frederick Evans, one of the best platinum printers in history (whose prints of medieval cathedrals in Britain and the Continent are still regarded as quintessential), refused to use anything else and gave up photography when his precious platinum became unavailable due to the war.
His friend, George Bernard Shaw, wrote that platinum is "on the extreme margin of photographic subtlety."
In recent decades—with the appreciation of photography as an art and its accelerating value as an investment to collectors—platinum is again in a renaissance among artists.