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
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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.