Emulsion Lifts/Polaroid Transfer

An Introduction to Emulsion Lifts/Polaroid Transfers

Definition and Overview - Unlocking the Magic of Polaroid Artistry

This artistic technique involves detaching the emulsion layer of a Polaroid or instant film from its backing and transferring it onto another surface, normally wood, canvas, or paper, creating ethereal, painterly effects that elevate ordinary snapshots into works of art.

Embracing the art of emulsion lifts and polaroid transfers opens up a world of creative possibilities where nostalgia meets innovation. As you explore this tactile process, remember that imperfections often lead to the most beautiful outcomes.

Each smudge, tear, or ripple adds character to your work, telling a story beyond what the eyes can see. So go forth with confidence, experiment fearlessly, and let your imagination soar on wings crafted from delicate emulsions and vibrant transfers!

A polaroid transfer is the most common type of emulsion lift and involves separating the top layer (emulsion layer) from a Polaroid and placing it onto a new base.

It can be performed with any type of Polaroid film and also Fuji peel-apart films.

Originally designed to be performed on peel-apart films such as Polaroid 669, 59, 559 and 809 or Fuji FP-100C , all of those films are unfortunately discontinued so we must now use modern polaroid film such as Polaroid i-type, 600 and sx-70 film.

Polaroid modern films

Unfortunately Fuji instax is not suitable for this as its image is not in the 'goo' like a polaroids is.

We sell suitable Polaroid Film in our shop here

A History of the Technique 

The roots of emulsion lifts and Polaroid transfers can be traced back to the mid-20th century when instant photography first gained popularity. Artists and photographers began experimenting with manipulating Polaroid prints beyond their intended use, seeking new ways to express their creativity.

The technique gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s as artists like Robert Rauschenberg embraced it as a means of pushing boundaries in traditional photography. 

A Robert Rauschenberg Polaroid Transfer

Materials Needed for Emulsion Lift/Polaroid Transfer

Polaroid or Instant Film

To create stunning emulsion lifts and Polaroid transfers, you'll need to start with the right kind of film. Instant film, like Polaroids, works best for this technique due to the unique chemistry of the emulsion layer.  We sell suitable Polaroid Film in our shop here


Water is a crucial element in the emulsion lift process. It helps loosen the emulsion layer from the Polaroid backing, making it easier to transfer onto a new surface.

You should have two development trays full of water, one warm and one cold.

Soft Brushes or Squeegees

Having the right tools can make all the difference when it comes to achieving precise and smooth emulsion lifts. Soft-bristled brushes or squeegees are ideal for delicately separating the emulsion from the Polaroid backing without damaging it. Choose brushes with fine tips for detailed work or squeegees for smoother transfers over larger surfaces.


Scissors are used to cut off the frame so the emulsion layer can be separated

Receiving Surface (e.g., paper, canvas)

The final piece of the puzzle is selecting a suitable receiving surface for your transferred emulsion. This could be anything from high-quality art paper, watercolour paper to textured canvas, depending on your desired aesthetic and finished look.

Experimenting with different surfaces can lead to unique effects, so don't be afraid to get creative with your choices! Ensure that your receiving surface is clean and flat before transferring the emulsion for best results in showcasing your masterpiece.

Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Separating the Emulsion from the Polaroid Backing

When it comes to creating stunning emulsion lifts or Polaroid transfers, the first step is separating the delicate emulsion layer from its sturdy backing. This process requires a gentle touch and careful precision. Begin by carefully cutting around the edges of the image with a sharp blade or scissors to separate it from the backing.

Then, using a small brush or your fingertips, start peeling away at one corner of the emulsion, slowly lifting it off in one smooth motion. Be patient and take your time to ensure that you don't tear or damage the emulsion during this crucial step.

You can bravely grab the print with your fingers; you will not damage the print, but it is not recommended

Transferring Magic: Placing the Emulsion onto a Receiving Surface

Once you have successfully separated the emulsion from its backing, it's time to transfer this ethereal layer onto your chosen receiving surface. Prepare a shallow container filled with water and gently place the emulsion into it, allowing it to float for a few moments. The emulsion will start to curl and warp as it absorbs water, which is perfectly normal.

Using a soft brush or squeegee, carefully slide the emulsion off its support.

The hotter the water, the quicker the emulsion will release, but be wary of too high a temperature as it may damage your film.

Framing Your Vision: Adjusting and Positioning the Image on the Surface

With the emulsion now delicately resting the water, it's time to place your desired base in the cold water development tray. Use your brush or squigee to transfer the emulsion to the cold water tray. The hotter the water in the first tray, the more the emulsion will curl after putting it in the cold water.

To fine-tune its placement for optimal impact. Use your fingers or a clean brush to adjust, stretch and position the image as desired on the surface. You can create interesting effects by gently pressing down on certain areas of the emulsion or leaving others more free-flowing.

Experiment with different angles and orientations until you find a composition that speaks to you creatively. Take your time in this step, as small adjustments can make a big difference in how your final piece will look once dried and finished.

Finishing The Transfer: Allowing the emulsion to harden

Remove your finished emulsion transfer from the development tray and leave in a cool dry area, allowing the emulsion to harden onto your selected base, be very careful though as while the emulsion is still wet, any motion can cause it to move on your base.

Finishing Touches and Preservation of Emulsion Lifted Images (Optional)

Sealing the Image to Protect it from Fading or Damage

Once you've successfully completed your emulsion lift or Polaroid transfer, it's essential to take steps to preserve your artwork for the long haul. One crucial method is sealing the image to protect it from fading or damage. You can use a clear acrylic spray sealant designed specifically for art projects.

Make sure to apply the sealant in a well-ventilated area and follow the instructions on the product carefully. This protective layer will not only shield your artwork from environmental factors but also enhance its colors and longevity.

Displaying Your Finished Artwork in a Frame or Protected Environment

Once your emulsion lift or Polaroid transfer is sealed and fully dried, it's time to showcase your masterpiece! Consider framing your artwork to give it a polished look and safeguard it from dust, moisture, and other external elements that could harm its delicate surface. 

Alternatively, you can display your artwork in a protected environment such as a shadow box or encased in glass if you want to preserve it without framing. Remember, proper display not only enhances the visual appeal of your creation but also ensures its longevity for years to come.

Tips and Tricks for Successful Emulsion Lifts/Transfers

Using Fresh Polaroid Film for Better Results

When it comes to creating stunning emulsion lifts and transfers, one key tip is to use fresh Polaroid film. Fresh film tends to have a higher success rate in terms of achieving clear, vibrant transfers.

Older film may result in faded images or difficulties in separating the emulsion from the backing. So, if you're looking to elevate your transfer game, investing in a pack of fresh Polaroid film is definitely worth it.

Experimenting with Different Surfaces for Unique Effects

Another exciting aspect of emulsion lifts and transfers is the ability to experiment with various surfaces to achieve unique effects. You can try transferring the emulsion onto textured papers for a rustic look or onto smooth canvas for a more polished finish.

Each surface will interact differently with the emulsion, creating endless possibilities for artistic expression. Don't be afraid to think outside the box and explore unconventional surfaces like wood or fabric to add an extra layer of creativity to your artwork.

Creative Applications of Emulsion Lifts/Transfers in Art and Photography

Creating Mixed Media Artworks with Emulsion Lifts

Emulsion lifts offer a fascinating way to blend traditional photography with mixed media art. By transferring the emulsion onto various surfaces like wood, fabric, or even metal, artists can create visually captivating pieces that combine the nostalgic feel of Polaroid images with the texture and depth of other artistic mediums.

The layering effect achieved through emulsion lifts adds complexity and intrigue to the artwork, allowing for endless possibilities in terms of composition and visual storytelling. Artists often experiment with incorporating additional elements such as painting, drawing, or texturing techniques to further enhance the unique characteristics of emulsion lifts.

Incorporating Transfers into Collages or Scrapbooking Projects

The versatility of emulsion lifts makes them a perfect addition to collages and scrapbooking projects. These transfers can seamlessly integrate into mixed-media compositions, adding a vintage flair and personal touch to each piece. Imagine incorporating an ethereal Polaroid transfer of a blooming flower into a botanical-themed collage or using a transferred image of an old family photograph as a central element in a heritage scrapbook layout.

The juxtaposition of contemporary visuals with retro Polaroid aesthetics creates an intriguing visual contrast that draws viewers in and sparks curiosity. For those who enjoy documenting memories or telling stories through art, incorporating emulsion lifts into collages or scrapbooks provides an innovative way to preserve moments in time while adding artistic depth to each page.

Popular Artists Known for Their Work with Emulsion Lifts/Transfers

Highlighting Notable Artists Who Have Mastered This Technique

Emulsion lifts and Polaroid transfers have captured the imagination of many talented artists who have honed their skills in mastering this unique technique. One such artist is Jenifer Altman, whose ethereal and dreamlike emulsion lift creations have garnered widespread acclaim in the art community.

Another notable figure in this field is Matthew Brandt, known for pushing the boundaries of traditional photography by incorporating emulsion lifts and transfers into his experimental works. These artists exemplify the creative possibilities that emerge when traditional photographic methods are reimagined through the lens of emulsion lifts.


Resources for Further Learning and Inspiration on Emulsion Lifts/Transfers

Recommended Books

For those eager to delve deeper into the world of emulsion lifts and polaroid transfers, "The Art of Polaroid Transfers" by Kathleen Thormod Carr provides a comprehensive guide with stunning visual examples. Another valuable resource is "Instant: The Story of Polaroid" by Christopher Bonanos, offering a historical perspective on instant photography and its artistic applications.

Online Tutorials

The internet is a treasure trove of tutorials for aspiring emulsion lift enthusiasts. Websites like YouTube and Skillshare offer step-by-step guides from experienced artists, sharing their techniques and tips for achieving captivating results. Online communities such as Reddit's r/Polaroid are also great places to seek advice, feedback, and inspiration.


Attending workshops led by seasoned emulsion lift artists can be an enriching experience. Look out for local art studios or galleries that host hands-on sessions dedicated to this unique technique. Workshops not only provide practical guidance but also foster a sense of community among creatives passionate about analog photography.


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