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A few weeks ago I described how to peel apart integral instant films from Polaroid or Impossible. Now I’m going to talk about the next step, which is to completely separate the image bearing emulsion from the transparent plastic front sheet. I’m sure there are many different ways to do this, but after numerous attempts on my part, with a few mistakes to learn from, I’ve found the method I’ll describe here allows me to detach the image more-or-less in one piece and without getting it too tangled or folded onto itself.

For this you need a small sharp knife, one or two shallow trays, some warm water, a small artists paint brush and some smooth, flat wooden sticks. I used some large takeaway food trays that I gave a good clean, and lollipop/popsicle sticks. You don’t need a lot of water for this, and in some ways the less the better, but start with around 0.5-1 cm depth. At first I used quite hot water, but found that just warm was fine although it takes a little longer for the emulsion to soften up and come free.

But before we actually get wet there’s another step I found helpful. Using the knife, score along each side of the emulsion abut 5mm in from the edge, just where the actual exposed image starts. This is useful because the emulsion is firmly bonded to the edges – if it wasn’t then when the film passes through the rollers of your Polaroid camera the chemicals would leak out of the sides. By scoring through the thin emulsion, it will be much easier to separate without tearing.

Now we’re ready to start soaking – place the film in the tray of water, emulsion side up. If there’s any of the white titanium dioxide paste stuck to the image – and there probably is – brush it off now, then pour out the water and refill with clean water, to avoid flakes of it sticking to the image later. After a minute or two the emulsion will start to absorb water and soften, while taking on a slightly cloudy appearance.

Now you can start to separate it from the clear film sheet, by gently pushing at the edges with your brush. It should separate cleanly where you scored earlier and start to lift up. This allows more water in between the emulsion and the plastic sheet and speeds things up. This where things get tricky – the emulsion is soft and slightly stretchy, but with a tendency to wrinkle and fold in itself. While it is still floating in water that is not too bad, but eventually you want to get rid of the water and that’s when the wrinkles can really be a pain. This is where I found the lollipop sticks to be invaluable.

Slide two of the sticks between the plastic sheet and the emulsion and gently work them across to the edges. A useful feature of wooden sticks is that they float, so once you’ve got them to a position where they’re along a full edge, you can let go and they will lift the emulsion up for you, freeing a hand to work tricky edges loose with your paintbrush. The basic technique required here is to gradually tease the emulsion free of the plastic, if you are too rough there is a chance it will tear. That’s not a disaster, but it does make it more difficult to control the emulsion when you come to transfer it.

Once you’ve got it to the stage where the emulsion is attached only by one edge you have a choice. You can either loosen the last edge and let it float free or you might want to flip it over that edge like turning the page of a book first and then loosen the edge. The second option is useful when you need the image the right way around – the plastic sheet is the front of the image, so until now the emulsion has been face down. To transfer the image onto paper or another surface you need to slide it underneath the floating emulsion, so if left and right are important you need to flip it over.

Whichever way you do it, once it’s floated free continue using the wooden sticks to support the emulsion and keep it stretched out, otherwise it has a tendency to wrinkle and curl up which can be annoying. Remove the plastic sheet from the water, and your lift is complete. Next I’ll write about getting the emulsion onto a piece of paper, out of the water and dried.