How to Transfer a Polaroid Image to Paper

Here’s a fun little photography project for anyone who loves the vintage look of Polaroids or is just looking for a unique, artsy way to display old instant photos. Matt Day takes us through the steps to do an emulsion lift with instant film. It’s a fun process, and you can play with it a bit to get some really cool final images. I’m definitely going to try this one:

An emulsion lift is basically just cutting open the Polaroid and submerging it in water to remove the emulsion from the plastic backing. Then you take that emulsion and transfer it to whatever you want. Here, Day uses watercolor paper.

What You’ll Need

  • Polaroid picture
  • 2 trays – one with hot or warm water, and one with cold water (You can do the process using only one tray of water, but as the emulsion begins to separate from the plastic, little bits of it will flake off, so two trays helps keep things cleaner.)
  • Scissors
  • Brushes (Day uses the Lift It brush set from Impossible Project)
  • Watercolor paper

Emulsion Lift Process

For your first try, maybe choose a Polaroid picture you’re not too attached to! If you make a mistake, you don’t want to lose it for good, so find a practice photo first.

1. Cut the white border off the picture to expose the layers.

2. Pull apart the layers to remove the black back covering.

polaroid photo layers

3. Take the front of the Polaroid with the image on it and submerge it in the warm water.

4. Use a brush to very lightly push water around the image. This helps to loosen the emulsion and separate it from the clear plastic covering. This step can take a little while, so have some patience. Do it slowly and carefully and you’ll be less likely to rip the emulsion or cause any damage. Don’t drag the brush across the image; instead, use it to throw water at the emulsion to gently lift it. You can use a smaller brush to get closer to the surface along the edges.

remove polaroid image

5. When the emulsion is fully separated from the plastic, gently try to flatten out the image a bit to help make the transfer easier.

6. Slide the paper under the flattened emulsion image to transfer it to the cold water tray. You can use the end of a brush to help guide it.

slide polaroid emulsion onto paper

7. Lift the paper with the emulsion on it out of the water. Use a thicker brush to brush off any white flakes that stuck to it and flatten out any creases or bubbles. You can keep dipping the edges or corners into the water to help straighten it out.

transfer polaroid image

8. Slowly slide the paper into the cold water now. If the image isn’t quite centered, you can use this step to slide the emulsion and place it where you want it on the paper.

transfer instant film image

9. Use the thicker brush again to flatten things out. And, this is where you can get creative. If you did tear the emulsion at all during the removal and transfer steps, you might decide to add some more little imperfections to it. Day had a tiny tear, so he decides to mess up the edges a bit. Using the fine brush, he gently pushes around the edges to create some small wrinkles and give it texture.

10. When you’ve finished setting and manipulating the emulsion, hang the paper over the tray and let the excess water drip off the corner. You can brush out any bubbles using a not-so-wet brush.

polaroid emulsion transfer steps

And, there you have it—10 steps to do your own emulsion lift. Again, you can play around with it and add any effects you want. If you’re going for a near-perfect replica, then smooth out the image as much as possible. But, if you want something that looks worn or just has a lot of texture, then you can add tears or push the edges in. It’s all about what style you like!

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever