How to Make a Black and White Darkroom Print with Variable Contrast Paper

April 02, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

8x10 B&J in the warm morning light at Shaw Nature Reserve8x10 B&J in the warm morning light at Shaw Nature ReserveYou can subscribe to my Darkroom Photography Newsletter and my Large Format Photography Newsletter to get special inside tips and information from me. In this article I will walk you through the process of making a black and white print via an enlarger in the darkroom.  The overall process and techniques are the same for most prints, but each print is a unique  piece of art and literally requires a set of variables that are revealed to you when you are in the darkroom.  The information in this article can be used with any enlarger and film (e.g., 35mm, 120 medium format, 4×5 large format, etc). You may want to read my article about how to make black and white contact prints as an alternative to creating an enlargement.

I thought my photo of the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site located in Burfordville Missouri was a good photo to illustrate because there were a lot of differences in contrast in this scene.  I took this photo with my Mamiya 7 Rangefinder which uses 6×7 medium format 120 film.  I used Tri-X 400 film and developed in Diafine.  My plan is to walk you through how to make this photograph in the darkroom using variable contrast paper and contrast filters.  There are generally two types of darkroom photographic paper: graded and variable contrast.  Graded papers have only a contrast (i.e., grade 2, grade 3, etc) and variable contrast papers have a range of 5 or more grades depending on the specific paper you are using.  As you can imagine this was a gift for photographers and darkroom printers.

Determine the Base Exposure

The first thing I needed to do was establish a base exposure time.  To save on paper I cut an 8×10 sheet into thirds.  I wanted to ultimately make a fine print that can be archived so I am printing with Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber paper.  Resin Coated (RC) papers are not used for fine art archival prints at this time so that is why I use fiber papers.  Based on the contact proof I knew there was a several stop difference between the barn, sky and Mill (this is the challenge).  Based on this knowledge I placed the test strip so it would have partial coverage of all these areas.  I noted my lens, f/stop, filter, paper and developer in my working notes.

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I know based on experience and using the same paper, enlarger, lens, filters, etc about what my base exposure time was going to be with a number 2 contrast filter.  If you are just starting out then you will just have to put your time in and follow the principles of light.   I would recommend focusing at wide open with your aperture then stepping down 2 or 3 stops to something like f/8 or f/11.  More times than not I end up at f/11 with my setup.

As a general rule I always start with a number 2 filter and determine my base exposure for my highlights completely ignoring the shadows.  This is a concept that you want to embrace and play close attention to.  I learned this the hard way and thanks to a much more experienced photographer he saved me from my misery!  If you try and determine your base exposure for variable contrast paper another way you are going to waste a lot of time, paper and chemicals.

I knew my exposure would probably be between 10 and 20 seconds so I made my first base exposure test in 3 second increments.  I simply laid a mat board over the test strip and exposed in 3 second increments until I reached the end of the paper.  I developed, stopped and fixed to view the results. When making test strips and working prints I only fix for 30 seconds and turn on the lights versus my normal 3 minutes for my first fixer when processing for archival prints.

I made a judgment call to stop down my lens another stop and therefore pushing my base exposure time out a little.  This is something you need to understand as well.  I started at f/8 with a proposed exposure time of 6 or 7 seconds.  I always try and get my base to 10 seconds or more to allow for edits and I also think in terms of percentages so 10 seconds makes that very easy.  I stopped down to f/11 and ran the test again.  My 6 second exposure looked just like my new 9 second exposure as I knew it should.

Based on my test strip I decided to make a full working print at 10 seconds using my #2 contrast filter.

The Working Print

After reviewing my working print and inspecting my highlights (sky) I knew my base exposure was right on the money.  If this were a very important print I would make a base exposure at 9 and 11 seconds respectively to make sure I was still right.

Now my job was to turn my attention to the shadows.  Everything was in good shape except for the pavement in front of the bridge and a portion of the grass.  I cut the print in half vertically and put one half in my microwave for 30 seconds to simulate the dry down effect of my print.  Basically when your print is full of water it is all shiny and when it is completely dry, depending on the paper, it can dry down a little bit darker.  The microwave trick was borrowed from Ansel Adams and you can read more about it in “The Print“.

Using my standard darkroom form I made notes about my working print.  I needed about 30% more exposure time on the pavement and grass in front of the bridge.  I wanted to target the shadows so I put in a #3 contrast filter for this burn.  I also burn my corners as a standard practice on all my prints.  The effect is very subtle and is intended to draw the viewer into the print.  I have included a markup of what my notes looked like in the darkroom in the photo on the left so you have an idea of what I am talking about.  Next, I made my adjustments and processed my print.  I was very happy with the results so I noted my variables so that I could reproduce this print again in the future.

On a side note I sign, date and make notes on the back of my prints with pencil.  The writing becomes part of the print and you can use this for reference later and also keep someone from steeling your work by making an unauthorized reproduction by another professional.  If a professional see’s another persons name on a print or photo they will not reproduce without permission.  I wanted this photo to possess full archival qualities so I followed my standard fine art archival print processing procedure.

I used a dilution of 1:10 for my Selenium toner at 7 minutes.  This combination when used with my paper achieves full archival processing without toning.  I also get a little bump in contrast and DMAX (maximum black) as well.   I didn’t want to tone (cool tone, warm tone, sepia, etc) my fine print without knowing what to expect so I used an identical test print to test with the Selenium before processing my fine print.

After I completed the archival processing I put the print on my drying screen to air dry.  My drying screens are nothing fancy.  They are simply old picture frames that I took all the hardware and glass out of and stapled some nylon screen on the back.  To squeegee my prints I use a small windshield wiper that I got from my local auto parts store.

I hope this article was helpful to you.  If you have specific questions feel free to email me at any time.  If you want in-depth information on making a fine print then I highly recommend reading “The Print” by Ansel Adams and in particular chapters 4 and 5.  You will have to read it many times for all the information to soak in but if you keep at it and follow up with real-world experience in your own darkroom it will all come together.  I speak from experience in this regard and when the light finally comes on it is a wonderful awakening that you will enjoy for a lifetime.  The Print is the third book in Ansel’s three volume masterpiece on photography.  The first books is The Camera and the second is The Negative.  If you are even mildly serious about photography then these three books are the next three books you should buy.  The advanced amateur should expect to spend between 1 1/2 and 2 years working through these three books and truly learning and ultimately adapting the vast array of core principles into their own style of photography.


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-Tim Layton

Tim Layton | Darkroom Photographer
Darkroom - Large Format - Traditional Photography
© Tim Layton | All Rights Reserved | 1983 - 2015

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