Dip Pens for the Backs of Photos

Quick Recommendation

Speedball B-5 nib

Rapidraw 3084-F or Reeves & Poole India Ink

The best solution I have found for writing on the back of plastic-coated photos, like those from Costco or most modern developers, is drafting ink. It would seem the inks are usually archival even though the paper is not. The writing is actually readable. When the ink is applied correctly it can be handled without risk of smearing in as little as a few minutes.

If you can’t stand my dip pen solution, more details are available here, where I recommended the Zig Millenium (blotted) or the Zig Photo Signature. The problem with drafting inks is that they cannot be applied with a Bic pen. The inks can by applied with technical pens or with dip pens. Technical pens are a delight, you can cap them—or rather you must cap them. They dry out and clog the pen if not cleaned properly. They are difficult to clean too.

When I’m writing on photos, I tend to do a batch at once, and then none for weeks. Filling a technical pen and cleaning it for an hour’s use is unsatisfying. The alternative to technical pens is the dip pen. Not all dip pens are created equally, or at least not for the same purpose. I had purchased a set of drawing nibs at the local hobby shop thinking I was all set. However, the drawing nibs left puddles of ink on, snagged, and spattered. The photo below shows the bumps and still-wet pools of ink when using some nibs and the smooth, even writing from others.

PensObliqueShot

Different nibs, obviously, perform differently. I thought perhaps different inks would too, and set about to test the pair. A well-performing ink-and-nib combination should

  • apply legibly without spatter
  • leave writing that does not smear after a few minutes
  • be convenient to use

Three simple criteria. Five inks. Six nibs.

Inks

  • Higgins Black Magic (probably latex based) (left)
  • Reeves & Poole India Ink (shellac based)
  • Rapidograph Ultradraw 3085-F (acrylic or latex based)
  • Rapidograph Rapidraw 3084-F (acrylic or latex based)
  • Rapidograph Universal 3080-F (acrylic or latex based)

Nibs

  • Hunt No. 104 (left)
  • Hunt No. 102
  • Hunt No. 56 School
  • Hunt No. 513EF
  • Speedball B-6
  • Speedball B-5

The test involved writing a the ink name and the nib name on the back of a Costco print. The paper is Fujifilm Crystal Archive, which seems to be a common print medium. I wrote each set on the back of the photos. About 24 hours later I scanned the images. After scanning I pressed a wadded facial tissue to the paper and wiped firmly from left to right. Each of the photos below shows the left side, before wiping, and the right side after wiping.

Higgins did not smear, but it did bleed. The detail zoom below is taken from the B-6 test, and the edges are fuzzy and bloomed. This ink, once my favorite, must now be relegated to the scrap.

higgins

higgins_detail

 

Reeves & Poole had very minor smearing with the No. 56 nib. It puddled horribly with the 513EF and the No. 56. It worked beautifully with the B-5, B-6. The No. 104 and the No. 102 both scraped the paper and left little puddles, but might be acceptable.

reevespoole

 

The Ultra 3085-F smeared with the No. 56. It was otherwise a stable ink. It performed well with the B-5 and the B-6 nib. The other nibs either puddled or scratched the photo. The detail below is the with the B-5 nib, and though the line is wide, the mark is very well behaved.

ultra_3085F

Ultra3085F_Detail

 

The 3084-F is darker than the 3085-F, and the ink is as well behaved in the B-5 and the B-6 nibs. I see no reason, based on these data, to prefer the 3085. I should have called it Rapid, not Ultra.

ultra_3084F

 

The 3080-F is dark, which is good, but the lines are very broad and poorly controlled.

ultra_3080F

 

Summary of Ink Performance

Ink Rank Comment
Rapidraw 3084-F 1 (tie)  
Reeves & Poole 1 (tie)  
Ultradraw 3085-F 3 Not very black
Universal 3080-F 4 Poor line control
Higgins Black Magic 5 Bleeding

Summary of Nib Performance

Nib Rank Comment
Speedball B-5 1 Well controlled, wide lines
Speedball B-6 2 Well controlled, but very slight blobbing
Hunt No. 102 3 Scratches, lines blob when crossing
Hunt No. 104 4 Scratches, lines blob badly when crossing
Hunt 513EF 5 Puddles badly
Hunt No. 56 School 6 Puddles extremely badly

Pens for the Backs of Photographs, More Ink

I tested three new writing media for the backs of photographs. I recently went through some 2 or 3 year old pictures I had marked with Higgins Black Magic. In exactly one case I found one photo that had picked up pen marks from another. I do not know if I put them together while the ink was still wet, or if the ink adhered over time. I was displeased, though no harm was done to the pictures.

I suspect the cause is that Higgins Black Magic is a latex-based ink. Like latex paint in a house, it never fully loses its stickiness. I decided to round up a couple more candidates, and I have two new winners and a loser to add to the mix, and one more loser.

I bought a Copic Multiliner SP pen in 0.03 mm (very, very, fine line) and tried it. This pen uses a fiber-filled cartridge refill, so you can’t change the ink. As the unaltered scan shows, after one minute it smeared badly. After an hour or more it seems pretty stable, but it is such a light grey that it is miserable to read.

copic_multiliner_sp

The second test was a product labeled “Royal India Ink Encre de Chine” by Reeves & Poole Group. This smells like alcohol and is almost certainly a shellac-based product. Like Higgins Black Magic the Reeves & Poole leaves a slightly embossed feeling on the paper, but goodness it writes well on photo paper. I do not know if it is archival. Shellac cleans easily with denatured alcohol, which is cheap in a gallon drum from the home center. I doubt it would be safe in a technical pen.

reeves_and_pool_royal

The clear winner is the Rapidograph Black India Universal 3080-F.BLA ink, which left less embossed character on the photo paper, dried almost instantly, and is safe for technical pens. Or at least as safe as anything can be in a pen that requires cleaning. This ink may also be shellac based, it smells of a solvent that is more lacquer-like than latex-like. As with most other inks, I can find no data about archival quality.

The technical pen is much easier than a dip pen and inkwell when your desk is cluttered with photos you are scanning. I am pleased to report this is probably my new go-to ink for photo work.

universal_3080-F

Another Ink Test

This ink test is starting to feel obsessive, but I got a technical pen and it came with Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph Ultradraw (3085-F) ink, which says it is an India ink for use on paper and film—by which they mean drafting film.

I tested it with a dip pen, and smeared part of it after about 10 minutes (the downward smear to the left). After letting it dry overnight I smeared to the right, and the result was very similar. In fact this ink probably doesn’t smear much. After one light swipe there was barely any smearing. I wiped harder which created the smear pattern you see.

img247

As a follow up, I used my new dip pen with Higgins Black Magic to label the most recent batch of portraits from our local studio. It worked marvelously, no accidental smear and everything was dry within minutes.

I am looking forward to trying the technical pen; however, my current bottle of Black Magic is lumpy and old. I’m waiting for a new bottle before I try it through the fine nozzle of the technical pen.

Oh, for reference the indication that coated photo papers cannot be made archival came from http://talasonline.com/photos/instructions/archival%20ink.pdf. This suggests that an “acid free” ink or marking is consistent with the paper quality.

Additional Photo Marking Solution

The problem, recall, is getting an archival (or at least photo safe) ink to stick to the back of a resin-coated photograph. Almost anything consumers buy now is resin (polyethylene) coated.

In my last post I discussed that only the Zig Photo Signature pen and the Zig Millenium produced reasonable results. The remaining problems are:

  1. The Zig Photo Signature smells like a Sharpie, and I am consequently worried that long-term it will yellow and fade like a Sharpie.
  2. The Zig Millenium must be blotted (a minor hassle) and must dry overnight or it will smear. Even overnight it smears a little.

I found another candidate after looking into India inks. It is Higgins Black Magic Waterproof ink. I wrote for the following test with a toothpick, forgive my crummy picksmanship.

HigginsBlackMagicWaterproof-notBlotted-10min

I smeared it with my finger after about 10 minutes, and it was perfect.

The ink is listed by the manufacturer as being acid free, and it would appear to be a pigment ink so it should be more fade resistant than the dye-based solvent solutions. So, by surmise, this ink solves both the previous problems. Whether it is archival or not, compared to resin-coated papers, is not something I have found information on. It is latex based, which may be the same thing sold as acrylic ink, and is likely domestically archival though I would hesitate for museum use.

The downside is that the ink is for use with dip pens or with technical pens. In both cases, after use there is cleanup. Ink could sit in a technical pen for a week, but will dry and ruin the pen if left in long-term.

Pens for the Backs of Photographs

The Problem

As I scan and archive photographic prints I want, at a minimum, to note that they have been scanned and when. I may wish to note some of the subject or photographer information. I have the same objectives for recent prints, for example from the portrait studio.

The first part of the problem is that modern papers are coated with something that is very difficult to mark. It is matte finish, but slick enough that an HB mechanical pencil will not leave a visible line, even though it makes an impression in the paper.

The second part of the problem is that the really well-reputed pigment ink pen, the Sakura Pigma Micron, never dries. I have read that some pens’ ink reacts with the paper, binding to the cellulose. This reaction presumably causes the ink to stop being liquid. I think that Sakura pens, and many others, are in this class. The coating on the back of the photo prevents ink from absorbing, and therefore from reacting with cellulose. I believe the high-value fountain pen inks, like Noodler’s, are in this category.

I have seen recommendations for Creative Memories Photo Marking Pencil, and for Stabilo Wax Pencil, and ProMaster Photo Marking Pen. I have not found these locally or on Amazon, but am interested in them.

Any solution must:

  • Write on the slick finish of modern photo papers
  • Be “archival” (notes follow)
  • Dry in less than one day—10 to 15 minutes is preferred
  • Not smear or transfer to other photos

On “Archival”

There is no official or IEEE standard for what “archival” is. So, anything labeled “archival” means that the manufacturer has, well, labeled it archival. As a result, I look for an archival product that has a history, and that has a good reputation. These are weak criteria.

Another issue—one the manufacturers must struggle with—is that ink interacts with its substrate. The same ink may perform differently on 100% cotton paper than it does on buffered wood pulp paper. How many manufacturers test on the back of coated photo papers?

One note, Sharpies are not sufficiently archival for me. I have personally seen them create a yellow hallow around the writing in just a few years.

The Test

I used five different kinds of pens, of which four are marketed for the archival community. They are:

  • Uni-Ball Signo 207, which contains security ink. I believe security ink binds to paper chemically.
  • Zig Photo Signature pen, which is not a pigment ink pen. This pen dries almost instantly, like a Sharpie. It even smells like a Sharpie. Presumably it fades like a Sharpie. I hope that it doesn’t age to fuzzy yellow like Sharpie.
  • Zig Ball 0.5 mm Archival is a typical roller pen, in most ways similar to the Pilot Precise v7, but without the needle tip.
  • Zig Millennium is a pigment ink, archival pen.
  • Sakura Pigma Micron pen is an archival pigment ink pen that is well loved by Internet sources.

20120225_9403

I wrote on the back of a picture, and on finishing writing I took my finger and swiped along the writing. Except for the Zig Photo Signature, all of the pens smeared.

blotted-2min

I wrote two test sets again, using the pens that smeared, then blotted one set with a clean coffee filter. I left the photo exposed for 24 hours and then swiped with my finger. The results are quite clear.

blotted-overnight

One pen was worth further testing; the Zig Millennium actually dried overnight. I tested it with a timed smear for up to 2 hours, and found that it requires a multi-hour dry time. These timed tests were not blotted.

zig-millennium-time-test

Conclusion

For photos with absorbent paper backing, use the Sakura Pigma Micron, which satisfies all requirements.

For slick-backed photos use the Zig Millennium, but blot and allow to dry overnight. An acceptable substitute may be the Zig Photo Signature, though I am concerned it will behave like a Sharpie over time, and that would be a bad outcome. It does mark beautifully and dries almost instantly.

Oh yes, an example of ordinary pencil…utterly useless. I wrote “A Pencil” below.

pencil

Post Conclusion

It is shocking how little information is available on these pens. I have not been able to find a single set of accelerated aging test results for these pens. And I can find essentially nothing demonstrating these on the backs of photographs.

Digitizing Old Photos

I have been trying to organize my collections photos. One key part of that is transferring content into the computer where tagging, captioning, and annotation is easy. Getting the photos into the computer satisfactorily has proven to be a challenge.

For many pictures the only sensible alternative is to send your pictures to a professional scanning organization. In an hour you can only scan about 32 photos, extrapolating to scan everything is depressing.

Nevertheless, I want to digitize some images myself because they are fragile or because they are not organized enough to send away in a coherent manner.

I struggled recently with two pictures. Neither is a great photo, nor are they extremely important to me, though I have fond memories of the times and places they were taken. I first scanned with my flatbed scanner, an Epson Perfection V100 Photo. The scanner produced unusably bad results on glossy photos and on textured photos.

I have read that texture problems can be defeated by scanning a photo, rotating it 180 degrees, and scanning it again. Then, registering and blending the two photos will help remove the specular reflection (bright marks) from the texture. In my experience rotating and registering two photos like that would require lots of work. Such techniques do not help with glossy photos.

Another technique is to use a camera and copy stand. With proper illumination and careful color control a copy stand should be able to get rid of most of the texture reflections and surface haze. It can be much, much faster too—you can digitize as fast as you can change pictures.

The following two comparison shots show the problem and the improvement available by using the copy stand. In the first one the picture has a dreadful haze, even after being cleaned with PEC-12 and PEC Pads. The copy stand solution is superior.

SplitBusShot

The next photo shows a textured print that left an orange-skin texture of bright white micro-lines in the scanned image. I processed this with a “small scratch remover” filter in Corel Paint Shop Photo Pro X3. I believe that filter is simply a median filter, and I do not like the artifacts it leaves.

Not all of the texture was gone using the copy stand. But the haze was, and enough of the texture was removed to produce a much more pleasing result.

SplitPortrait

Copy stands, purpose-built, are quite expensive. I created my own with four lamps, a tripod, and some clamps. It is fiddly to set up and miserable to change photo size because I have to move the camera closer or farther away. Still, the copy-stand only materials cost less than $30.

CopyStand

The people in the pictures will remain anonymous, unless they wish me to share their names, or of course, remove their photos.

Zoom Lens Comparison

Firstly, credit where it’s due; the pictures were taken by my friend Robert Hohlfelder.  The pictures were taken of a dollar bill from about 15 feet.  The camera was tripod-mounted, and the lenses with VR had it turned off.  The three lenses are the Nikon 55-200 VR, Nikon 18-200 VR, and the Nikon 70-300ED.  Photos were taken with at f/5.6 and 200 mm zoom.  F/5.6 is fully open for the 55-200 and the 18-200, but not quite fully open for the 70-300.  Robert observed that the 18-200 zoom affords significantly less magnification at 200 mm than the other two.  One questions what the claim for “200 mm” zoom really means.  I’m sure the Nikon Corporation would never fib…

What is most striking is the difference in sharpness.  The obvious winner is the 70-300, a lens that lacks VR, but is probably increasing in value at this point.  The second-place for sharpness goes to the 18-200, and the 55-200 gets the bronze.

The shocking truth is in the pictures.  Judge for yourself.  I’m displaying them larger than their native size so the effect is more obvious.

18-200 f5_6

55-200 f5_6

70-300 f5_6