How to Make Black and White Contact Prints in the Darkroom
In this article, I am going to walk you through how to make a silver gelatin darkroom contact print from beginning to end.
Making a silver gelatin black and white contact print is different from making an enlarged print via an enlarger because your negative is literally on top of your paper as opposed to the image being projected on the paper from an enlarger and you need to think about everything just a little bit differently.
Making a contact print means your negative will need to be properly exposed and developed and your composition must be perfect because there are no corrections available for the composition via cropping. I have a comprehensive library of guidebooks and video workshops for analog photographers that can help you take your photography to the next level.
I deeply appreciate large format contact prints because I understand the technical acumen required to make a high-quality print.
There are two ways to make contact prints and I will discuss both in this article. The first approach is for people that do not have access to an enlarger for a light source but do have a regular household light bulb and can make a temporary dark place to work. The second type of contact print that will be reviewed is for people that do have access to an enlarger that can use it for your light source and this approach has a couple of advantages that I will discuss later in the article.
You might be asking yourself why make contact prints at a time when the entire world is effectively digitized and you can just scan your negatives?
For me, it is about the close connection between me and nature. I have a rich experience working with my hands and I love the slower process that analog photography offers. I also think that real silver gelatin contract prints make my work look their best and they are certainly more archival than inkjet prints from scans.
I think making large format contact prints a lot like chess. You need to be patient, learn from past mistakes, and find a way to navigate through seemingly difficult matters at times, but you end up feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment that can only come from experience.
I personally love the simplicity of the process and most people don't realize the difficulty of producing a negative for contact prints. If you get the composition wrong, mess up the exposure or development, you have a failed image. This may sound negative, but I think it pushes you to be a better photographer.
The vast majority of my contact prints are rarely over 14 inches which I mount on the archival mat board. I do have an 8x10 enlarger that I use for very large prints from my 8x10 large format negatives, but my 11x14 camera is contact printing exclusively.
I have a 4x10 camera and a reducing back for my 8x10 camera that I really like for contact printing too. I have a custom darkslide for my 11x14 camera that allows me to create two 5x14 images on one sheet of 11x14 film which I really love. You can check out all of my large format gear and accessories.
Contact printing is a great solution for my style of photography. Furthermore, on an artistic level, I like using some of the contact printing papers which I discuss later in the article. I do also on occasion contact print some medium format negatives which are typically called miniatures. There are entire art shows dedicated to miniature prints. A medium format 6×6 negative produces a 2 ¼” x 2 ¼” print roughly and other formats 6×7 (2 ¼” x 2 ¾”), 6×9 or 6×12 are obviously larger. Medium formats such as 6×6 represent 6 cm x 6 cm.
I started making ACEO (artist card) platinum prints last year and I find them to be captivating. I now have a 2x3 reducing back for my 4x5 camera and I can also use my Fuji 690 Rangefinder to make the ACEO artist cards too. If you haven't made contact prints and mounted them on a larger mat board, you are really missing out and should give it a try. I like to mount odd numbers in a set like 3, 5, or 7 in a single mat and frame. It pushes me to think in terms of multiple images that work together and tell a story vs. just a single larger print.
Before we get into the details and specifics, I want to discuss why in the age of “everything digital” someone may want to make black and white prints by hand in the darkroom. I personally think a fine art black and white print that has been hand-crafted in the darkroom employing two hundred years of knowledge and experience produces a beautiful piece of art.
The sense of accomplishment that comes from making your art with your hands can’t compare to manipulating a digital image on a computer screen in my mind.
While I have no judgment about the people that are passionate about modern digital photography, each artist can choose their own tools and methods and should be able to do so without judgment.
I use digital photography all the time for everything from family snapshots to some of my wildlife photography, I just don't use it for my fine art workflow. The art world has enough space for everyone...
THE BEAUTY & ELEGANCE OF CONTACT PRINTS
A silver gelatin black and white print can exhibit visual elements not possible via other methods. The silver halide suspended on the gelatin is a beautiful sight to my eyes.
Under certain conditions, the subject can appear almost three-dimensional although it is printed on a two-dimensional object (paper).
The brilliance of the print, sharpness and overall mood is something to be enjoyed. The contrast and DMAX when properly selenium toned is a beautiful site that rivals other substrates in my opinion.
A black and white fine art contact print created on a fiber-based variable contrast silver gelatin paper and then finalized for archival and tonal characteristics is not comparable to a print made via any other method. Notice I refrain from saying “better” because art truly is something for each of us to consider and experience in our own way.
The fine prints that I create in the darkroom give me a sense of pride and enjoyment that I am not able to achieve any other way in photography. I think this is because the process is a mix of art and science and my hands are deeply involved along the entire journey while making aesthetic and personal choices that affect the outcome of my print. There is a sense of accomplishment along with an element of “magic” that one gets from hand-making their own prints in the darkroom.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE ART
No one can give you the knowledge needed to create and produce fine art prints. This is a journey that may start today for you, but make no mistake, it is a journey and you will want to keep very good notes along the way. Learn science only as far as you need to be able to express your vision in a consistent and repeatable manner.
Just like you don’t need to know how the engine in your car works to drive your car, you don’t need to be a scientist or chemist to be a great photographer and fine art printmaker.
However, I do think a black and white fine art photographer should understand the basics in order to be creative and leverage everything that is possible in this art form. I will attempt to provide an overview included in the sections below to help you.
Before we jump into the science you should have a basic understanding of the process to make a print. In simple terms you must: a.) expose your light-sensitive silver gelatin paper with the negative on top via a light source b.) use developer to activate the image on the paper c.) use a stop bath to stop the development process and e.) use fixer to make the image and paper light safe as well as protect the print and f.) wash away the unwanted chemicals so the print doesn't continue to develop out over time. Optionally, you may want to selenium tone your print for maximum archival performance.
CHEMICALS & SUPPLIES
First, you need to find a work area that is completely light safe. This could be anywhere from an interior room in your house like a bathroom with no windows, a closet or maybe your basement if you have one. It doesn’t matter where, just that the room is completely dark or could be made that way.
You will need a darkroom safelight and I recommend you get one that says it has an “OC” filter. This could be a special small red lamp that you could screw into the light socket to a more expensive safelight that has an on/off switch and rotating head on it with the proper filter.
Depending on the size of your contact prints you will need four trays that will handle your paper. For example, I use my 8×10 trays when developing 5×7 prints and below. Trays are typically made a little bit larger than their reference name so technically if you were very close on space you could probably use 5×7 trays to develop prints up to 5×7 in size.
You should be able to find these trays and safelight used on your local Craigslist, on e-Bay or usually new at your local photography store. You could go to any of the online retailers such as B & H, Calumet or Freestyle Photographic Supplies as well.
Now that you have a dark room, a safelight, and processing trays you will need to get the required chemicals, a way to store them and of course your paper and a light source.
I will tell you the standard chemicals that I use in my darkroom. There are many other choices so don’t be afraid to explore and use something else.
For your developer, stop bath and fixer you will need photographic containers or jugs to store them in after mixing them up. If you are on a super tight budget you could use old plastic milk jugs but I don’t recommend that unless you have no other option. You will need some type of graduate so you know how much chemical to mix. I use my 1-liter graduate the most but any size can technically work. Next, you will need the actual chemicals. I use Kodak Dektol as my developer, Ilford Stop Bath, and Kodak Fixer. For water, I just use my tap water from my local water supply.
You will need to read the mixing instructions on each chemical and follow it to the letter. The manufacturer will also tell you how long the chemicals will last when mixed, when used in open trays, etc. For this reason, I mark on my containers with a marker so I don’t forget. You will mix each solution per ratio. For example, when I use Dektol as my developer I empty the packet into my 1-gallon jug per the instructions. This makes what we call a stock solution. I dilute my Dektol to 1:3 mean 1 part stock solution to 3 parts water. For an 8×10 tray, I put 8 ounces of stock Dektol and 24 ounces of tap water.
You should put your trays in the order of the process (developer, stop bath, fixer, wash). Just fill your wash tray with tap water and this is where you will initially wash off your prints when removing them for the fixer before ultimately washing them properly for your paper type. As a rule of thumb RC (resin coated) paper washes in 2 to 4 minutes where fiber papers require 30 to 60 minutes depending on your washing technique.
Since you are making contact prints you need a way to make your negative lay very flat on top of your photo paper. You have many different options here. You could get a printing frame which is basically a frame that can be locked down around your negative and paper making a very flat negative/paper sandwich. Another option is to get a piece of 3/8th-inch plate glass from your local glass company. If you are going to print up to 8×10 contact prints then get a piece of plate glass a little bigger such as 10 x 12 and make sure you ask them to polish the edges. I use the plate glass method and lay the plate glass on top of my negative and paper that sits on a piece of rubber mat that I got from Home Depot.
If you have access to an enlarger as your light source then you should start out with RC (resin coated) paper because it is easy to handle, produces beautiful prints, and requires the least amount of work to make a print. Fiber papers are for professionals that need to create fine art archival prints. Art collectors require fiber archival prints for example. If you enter an art show then make sure you read all of the requirements.
As you will read next, your light source also impacts your choice of papers. You will need to pick your own paper out yourself but I can give you a little guidance. If your work or eye is drawn to cooler tones (blues, purples, etc) then Ilford makes an excellent RC Cooltone paper available in many different sizes and finishes. I prefer the Cooltone Pearl for my work. If you want a neutral paper then I would recommend either the Ilford Glossy, Pearl or Satin papers as well. Ilford, as well as others, also make warm-tone papers that are towards the brown and copper end of the scale. Only you can decide what you envision for your prints.
The last topic to discuss is your light source and how this variable relates to your paper choice. When making contact prints you can get papers specifically made for contact prints such as Lodima Silver Chloride, Foma Fomalux 111 Fiber or 312 RC Matt and others. These papers are exposed with regular household lamps because if you recall they are much “slower” and require much more light than modern enlarging papers. The other option if you have it available is to use any type of enlarger as your light source opening up the use of enlarger type papers. You should be able to figure out based on the information I presented in “The Science Behind the Art” section why the different papers require a different intensity of light.
You will need some method of timing your exposure. I use an electronic metronome that I picked up from my local music store and set it to 60 beats per minute so it represents one beat per second.
It would be ideal if you had a paper safe to store the paper you are working with, although this is not technically required if you put your paper back properly in its light-proof storage bag. It is just more time consuming and susceptible to errors.
I suggest keeping a notebook and pencil with you in your darkroom. You can write on the back of your photo paper with a pencil and it will stay on the paper. Also, everything you do should be documented so you can reproduce the print again once you get all of the details to your liking.
I don’t recommend that you touch the processing chemicals with your bare hands so you could use special photographic development tongs or you could use protective gloves such as latex type gloves.
Before making a good contact print we must first determine the base exposure for our paper as it relates to the negative and light source. On my contact prints, I expose for highlights and then burn and dodge as needed. When taking your photos you should be exposing for shadow detail.
Step by Step Instructions
2.) Turn off room lights and rest for a minute or so to let your eyes adjust.
3A.) For enlarger type papers that use an enlarger for the light source I set the enlarger head all the way up as a standard because it will provide enough coverage for contact print size and I can easily repeat this distance each time I want to make prints.
It doesn’t matter what lens you probably have on your enlarger, but as a general rule I normally step down two stops on the aperture as a starting point. I use variable contrast paper so I will need to add one of my Ilford Multigrade filters to the enlarger. I typically develop my negatives with Diafine so they are typically “thin” so I start with a #3 1/2 filter as my standard. I use a 75mm lens at f/11 to get an exposure base between 10 and 15 seconds for most papers based on my configuration. You need to develop your own standard.
3B.) For contact papers like Foma Fomalux you can use a regular light bulb from around the house. I got a silver light reflector from Home Depot for a few dollars and inserted the light in the socket and use the dome as a way to direct my light source. You will have to test for your specific paper but as an example, I use a 40-watt bulb at 3 feet above my Fomalux 111 fiber paper to get a base exposure in the 10 to 15-second range. For my Silver Chloride paper, I use an R40 120-watt flood lamp.
4.) Get your negative to be contact printed and place it directly on top of a piece of photo paper. The negative should be on top (emulsion side down towards paper). The emulsion side should look dull to your eye. Then place your glass on top to hold everything flat. If you are using a print frame then place everything in your frame.
5.) Cover your negative/paper sandwich with a piece of thin mat board, poster board, etc so it is protected from the light. Turn on your light source and then in synchronization with your metronome pull the mat board back in approximately half-inch increments for a predetermined interval. I recommend using 2 or 3 seconds as your interval. You should end up with your paper exposed at 2 or 3-second intervals.
6.) Remove paper from under the glass or contact printing frame put it in the Dektol Developer. Based on your paper you will need to determine your development time. As a general rule, you typically use 1 minute for RC papers and 2 minutes for fiber but be sure to verify for your paper and developer combination.
Start your timer and agitate the prints continually by flipping one sheet of paper at a time end over end and slightly tilting the tray up and down continually moving the developer over the print. The last 10 seconds lift up the print and let the developer run off the print back into the tray.
7.) Place the print in Stop Bath for 30 seconds. Agitate for 20 seconds and pick it up and let it drip for the last 10 seconds.
8.) For base exposure tests and test prints you don’t need to “fix” for the full time as you should for fine prints. Your goal at this stage is to make your print light safe and keep working so you can get the base exposure identified. Place your print in Fixer for 1 minute and agitate continually. After 1 minute you can turn on your viewing light and look at your print to evaluate. I use a piece of Plexiglas that I got from Home Depot to place my prints on so that I make sure to view all prints with the same light and angle ensuring consistency.
Note: for actual prints, you will need to follow the full development process to include proper fixing and washing times.
Determine Proper Exposure
You should review your print under your viewing light and select a development time based on the highlights. You can easily burn in your shadows. You want an exposure time in the 10 to the 20-second range so that you can dodge and burn if necessary.
Record the proper exposure time for each specific paper, film and chemical combination for reuse next time. Note the height of the enlarger head, lens, and aperture on the enlarger, and any filter choices if you are using variable contrast paper.
9.) After finding your base exposure make a “Test Print”. For example, let’s say your best guess is 12 seconds. I will typically make prints at 11, 12 and 13 seconds and then pick the best exposure based on the highlights. Simply repeat this step until you make a print that you are happy with. This is where you may want to add more light or subtract (dodge and burn) to alter the exposure to different areas of your print.
10.) Properly wash the print and dry. For RC papers they wash in just minutes but fiber archival prints take an hour or more and that assumes you are using a proper print washer. For fiber prints, I recommend a Patterson PTP231 for prints up to 10 x 12. If you are making larger prints then you will need a bigger print washer. This specific model is economically priced at about $149.
After your prints are dry you may need to flatten them if they are fiber paper. RC paper is almost always flat and you never have to worry about curled prints and they dry super fast. Fiber paper curls up and requires a fair amount of time and extra steps to flatten the print. Make sure you recorded all the printing information and put this in a standard storage place so you can make a duplicate print in the future if needed. I highly recommend using a standard form to record your information. The Ansel Adam 1, 2, 3 books have good examples. If you refer to book 3 “The Print” there are samples you can use to make your own.
Whether you are an aspiring professional or photography is your hobby my recommendation is to have fun with it and don’t be afraid to try new things. Experience in your own darkroom is what makes you the best printer you can be. In the beginning, you need help getting started and the Ansel Adams books that I mentioned above have everything you need to know from selecting the camera to mounting a fine art masterpiece.
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