Sam solarised and the negatives

The first and last images are the Monochrome and negative image.  In the middle is the positive and negative solarisation.


Initially, the term solarisation was used to describe the effect observed in cases of extreme overexposure of the negative in the camera.  The sun, instead of being the whitest spot in the image, turned black or grey.

The effect generated in the dark room was then called pseudo-solarisation.  It was usually caused by accidentally exposing an exposed plate or film to light during developing. It may also be known as the Sabatier Effect.  The artist Man Ray perfected the technique.  Man Ray developed an approach that was accidentally discovered in his darkroom by a fellow artist Lee Miller.

JA - 1c Man Ray

Man Ray gelatin silver photograph – nude with solarisation – measuring 25.3 × 18.6 cm (image) in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1973

The Man Ray nude in the National Gallery of Victoria (right) is a good example of the technique.  The straight image would have had a black background.  The dark pigment however failed to set when the development was interrupted by the light exposure.

The areas of dark and light become separated by  a narrow band or rim called  Mackie lines.  These lines are dark or light depending upon whether the light exposure occurs during development of the negative  or the film. (source Wikipedia)

I showed the above picture to Arthur Farmer our clubs pre-eminent black and white photographer.  He lamented, wishing he had his time again (and a willing model) to explore Man Ray’s technique.

The process can be imitated in the digital process by creating a solarisation curve.  Below is an image of a female torso that I photographed in the South Australian Art Gallery.  The following two images are examples of solarisation curves applied to the original image.

Below is an example of the curve used to create the solarisation effect.  You will note that the curve is essentially an inverted U shape.  Half of the image is positive and half is a negative.  You can also use an N shape or even a W curve.  The output image has enhanced tonal relationships as the gradient is steeper than the original in almost every part of the tonal range.


I find the process fascinating and would like to see what could be achieved with different  subjects.  Perhaps you might be interested to experiment yourself.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  However you have to admit that the images are dramatic and demand attention.  In my books that’s good.

To finish off, another Man Ray solarisation.