Fine Art Black and White Printmaking

February 20, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

© Tim Layton In modern times, we are fortunate enough to have had many great photographers come before us and perfect many of the processes and techniques that we have adopted and still use today in black and white printmaking.  Julia Margaret CameronWilliam Henry Fox TalbotTimothy O’SullivanAnsel AdamsAlfred StieglitzEdward WestonPaul StrandW. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans, and many others literally pioneered the art and science starting back to the 1830’s when modern photography took a turn like never before.

As modern-day photographers, we employ the principles and science of the legends that came before us.  If you are an American and think about black and white photography then one of the first names that likely comes to mind is Ansel Adams and his famous body of work.  I read his trilogy “The CameraThe NegativeThe Print” on a regular basis because I believe his work is timeless and still relevant for today's generation.  I continue to learn from this American legend and there is no doubt I will continue to learn for as long as I am a photographer.  Ansel, just like others, may not be your cup of tea, however, I think his impact on photography and on the national park system will forever be felt and realized.  

Film photography and in particular black and white fine art photography is an art form that is in short supply these days. I personally find this to be an advantage because my work doesn’t look like the mainstream and that is something that I value and enjoy.  Many universities and colleges no longer offer film-based studies and I personally find that to be a mistake and a shame.  Even for modern day digital photographers the knowledge and skills learned via black and white film photography are extremely valuable.  I should point out that black and white fine art is not limited to gelatin silver prints.  I personally include silver and non-silver processes into my workflow and feel very fortunate to live and work in a time when I have so many options.

This article is a summary of how to develop and process a gelatin silver fine art archival black and white print.  The steps provided here are a summary of Ansel Adam’s processes also referred to as the classic method.  The steps outlined in this article and not necessary for Platinum (Pt) or Palladium (Pd) because these prints already possess the best known archival permanence of any type of print.

The processes listed below are for creating fine prints that are of museum archival quality.  There are a lot of extra steps when making gelatin silver fine prints because you need to ensure their permanence.  These processes also assume you are printing on a fiber-based photographic paper and not modern resin coated (RC) papers.  The steps and process for making a proper proof, determining your base exposure, making working prints and running tests are all assumed to be completed by the time you start these steps.

Basic Print Development

  • Develop your print and constantly agitate it in the developer of your choice.  I standardize on the use of Kodak Dektol, but you may use any developer of your choice.  I dilute Dektol to 1:3 and develop for 2 minutes.  The instructions on the bag for Dektol will tell you to dilute at 1+2 but that is not necessary unless you just want to spend more money.  As an alternate, if you used Ilford Multigrade developer and diluted at 1:14 you would develop for 2 1/2 minutes.  No matter what developer you use pick up the print about 10 seconds before the end of the development time and drain over tray.

  • Quickly place the print in your stop bath for 30 seconds and agitate.  Pick up a few seconds prior to the end of the time and drain.

  • Place the print in your fixer for 3 to 5 minutes and agitate continuously.  I use Kodak fixer which is a hardening type fixer.

  • Drain the print, wash it for a few minutes under running water and place in a clean water holding bath.  The print can be stored here until the end of your printing session or if this is the only print you can move to the next steps.

  • As a rule you should read the mixing and use instructions for all of your chemicals.

Print Archiving

"Summer Lilies" Large Format silver gelatin print"Summer Lilies" Large Format silver gelatin print The next steps assume you are using Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner (KRST).  If you prefer to use a different Selenium toner such as the Ilford Harman Selenium Toner then your steps will be different and you would need to follow the instructions that ship with the toner.  For example, if you are using the Ilford toner then your pre-bath and holding bath should be +39F as it relates to your toner bath.  Using a different toner deviates from the classic method and that is up to you if you want to go down that path or not.  I don’t see a reason to take that risk personally.

Setup three trays in a row.  The first tray should be your second fixer which is a non-hardening type.  Your second and third trays should have a working solution of Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent.  When I mix my Kodak Hypo Clearing Agent I mix it at stock solution and then dilute 1:4 with tap water when I use it.  There are other washing aid products such as the Ilford Universal Wash Aid that are also good products.  Add the Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner to the middle tray.  I use a 1:10 ratio but you will have to discover a time that works for your preferences.  The only way you will know what is right for your intention is to run the tests yourself based on the directions.  For KRST and the goal of archival processing as opposed to toning (cooler or warmer) then a good place to start is at a 1:10 dilution or even 1:20 which will elongate the time and potential effects of toning.

  • Place your print in the first tray of non-hardening fixer and agitate for 3 minutes.  Ansel referred to this as the second fixer or hypo.  Following the classic method, this should be fresh fixer.  Now transfer the print to the middle tray with the KRST and Hypo Clearing Agent.  Agitate the print until the desired change in density is achieved and if your goal is to tone the print then wait for the desired tone as well.  A time range of 4 to 7 minutes is typical for density change and archiving.  For my standard Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber glossy paper I typically have an archival time of about 7 minutes at a 1:10 dilution.  Move the print to the third tray of hypo clearing agent and agitate for 5 minutes.  Then transfer the print to a wash tray and agitate for at least 5 minutes while you prepare your archival print washer.

  • Your washing time in your archival washer may range from 30 to 60 minutes or even longer depending on the efficiency of your print washer.  The only way to know when you have achieved the right wash time is to run a residual hypo test until it is negative.  Most archival print washers move about 1 to 1 1/2 gallons of water per minute for a wash time around 30 minutes.  Run your test on a blank piece of paper that you developed and don’t test one of your real photos.

  • Remove the prints from your washer and squeegee the excess water from them.  I use a small windshield wiper that I got from my local auto parts store. Squeegee the back and then the front.

  • Place your prints face down on a drying screen and air dry.  Fiber prints are going to curl and some papers more than others.  One of the things I like besides the tonal range and neutral tone of Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber glossy is its weight.  It is still considered a double-weight paper but compare its weight of 255gsm to other similar papers and you will find out it is probably one of the heaviest papers in its class.  Whether it is related to its weight or not, I don’t find my prints to have too much of a curling problem.  After the print is fully dry (~24 hours) you can either flatten them in a dry mount press or sandwich between two heavy pieces of plate glass for a few days.  For the proper procedure to flatten via the dry mount press refer to chapter 7 in “The Print” by Ansel Adams.

The next logical step would be to mount your fine print for presentation and archival permanence.  In chapter 7 in “The Print” by Ansel Adams he details the specific steps to properly mount your fine prints.  Until you mount your prints or if you don’t want to mount them then you should store your prints in a archival storage container made specifically for storing archival prints.

Summary of the Classic Method used by Ansel Adams

  • Develop (i.e., Dektol) for two to three minutes.

  • Stop Bath for 30 seconds.

  • 1st Fixer for 3 minutes

  • Rinse and store in water bath.

  • Fresh tray of 2nd Fixer (non-hardening type) for 3 minutes.

  • Selenium Tone with Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner and Hypo Clearing Agent diluted to 1:10 or 1:20 for desired time based on your own tests and goals.  Typical archival time is between 4 and 7 minutes, but could be longer.

  • Hypo Clearing Agent bath for 3 minutes.

  • Rinse under running water for five or more minutes.

  • Archival wash for 1 hour.


One of the things you can do to help yourself is to create standards and reduce variables.  Pick a quality paper like Ilford Multigrade IV Variable Contrast (VC) fiber paper which is my staple.  Over time you will begin to look at your negatives and have a very good guess on the base exposure with your paper.  If you know how to make a proper proof you can eliminate the guesswork completely but that is too detailed to go into in this article.

If you want a warm paper then Ilford makes a great fiber paper in a warmtone version.  If you want an archival cooltone paper then you have a lot fewer choices.  Oriental makes a very good cool-tone paper that I highly recommend.  If contact printing is your thing then you might want to consider some of the papers specifically made for this type of printing like the ones from Foma.  I have tested the Fomalux 111 grade #2 fiber paper with very good results.  I find the paper to be slightly warm and by default to have a slight olive tone.  You can get the paper back to neutral with a short Selenium tone or you can take it to a warm tone with brown and copper highlights.  However, I will tell you that I prefer using my Ilford Multigrade VC paper and be able to use multigrade filters to control various forms of contrast on a single paper.  Using contrast filters on variable contrast papers was a gift for photographers.

For those making resin-coated (RC) prints for non-archival work then the process is even easier.  Develop for about 90 seconds, stop bath for 30 seconds and fix for about 3 minutes.  There is no requirement for the archival steps noted above.  When making working prints you can save even more time and shorten your fixing time to 20 to 30 seconds.  However, you can selenium tone or use other tones on your RC papers too.  Based on the construction of the paper the toners may take longer and have less of an effect, but it can be done.  I have toned many of my RC prints with success.

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