Tim Layton Fine Art | DIY Large Format Contact Printing Setup (Prototype Video 1 of 2)

DIY Large Format Contact Printing Setup (Prototype Video 1 of 2)

April 17, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

In this article and video today, I share how to make a DIY large format contact printing setup in less than an hour.  The video is at the bottom of the article.  

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One of the things that I love about large format is the ability to make beautiful contact prints without the need for any type of modern technology.  I always think about the simplicity of Edward Weston's setup and how he focused on creating versus complicating his setup and processes.  A large format silver gelatin contact print is like a jewel that stands out in the crowd in my opinion.  

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Of all the types of prints that I make, I am most proud of a contact print because there is no where to hide from mistakes, anywhere in the process.  You composition has to be exactly what you envisioned or the print doesn't work.  You have to nail your exposure and development to produce a good negative that is going to print good. And, you have to be able to express your creative vision in the print via your darkroom skills.  I love all of this because you don't need any type of modern technology or computer equipment to make high quality fine art prints.  I think that is important because we live in a fast-paced technology oriented world today and it is refreshing to unplug from all of the modern life pressures and just make some very simple, but beautiful and elegant fine art prints by hand in the darkroom with very simple methods.  Don't mistake simplicity for lack of value or a print that lacks emotional impact.  

You may like my Large Format Contact Printing Quick Reference Cards or my new Large Format Video Workshop Series.  I also have an eBook that walks you through every step in the process to make beautiful split grade silver gelatin darkroom prints.  


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I wanted to make a simple, but very effective and inexpensive contact printing setup that I could use just about anywhere.  I wanted to be able to make 8x10 contact prints, so my design had to accommodate this requirement.  

I headed down to my local hardware store for a couple parts and then I stopped by Walmart to pick up some art board.  In the section below, I will list all the parts I used and in the video you can see how I put it all together.

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For the box, I used 4 pieces of white art board 20"x30" that were $0.88 cents each. I taped three of them together in a way that would allow it to fully collapse flat. I purchased 6 pieces to have extra in case I messed something up or needed more than I anticipated. 

For the light source, I purchased a variety of incandescent low-wattage bulbs and LED lights.  In the end, I settled on the 7.5W bulb because I determined that I needed 1 EV of light to make a print in the 30 second range with the light source 30 inches from the print.  I tested both types of bulbs and both of them worked equally as well.  I like having enough time to dodge and burn if needed, so that is why I aim for a 20 to 30 second printing time.  I also do split grade printing, so I half my total exposure time between two different exposures via my variable contrast filters. 

I needed a way to mount the light, so I used a simple shop light that I purchased from the hardware store.  I removed the chrome reflector and mounting clamp and I cut a hole in a piece of art board and simply pushed it through the hole.  

Since I wanted to be able to control my contrast, I needed a way to place variable contrast filters below the light source.  I decided that I should use the Ilford 6" x 6" variable contrast filters, so I made a little tray out of art board that was 3 inches below the light source.  In the video, you get a good look at how I made that.  I just cut the pieces and duct taped them to the top. It is simple and effective.  

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I also knew that I needed to probably adjust the volume of light reaching the contact printing frame, I picked up a dimmer cord and switch.  I used an old enlarger timer that I had laying around the darkroom, so I could easily control my exposure time by varying the volume of light.  I plugged the dimmer cord into the wall outlet and the enlarger timer into the dimmer so that I could control the light during exposure.  

It turns out that I ended up using the 7.5W bulb as I mentioned above and I did need the dimmer to trim the light down to 1 EV vs. the 3.5EV that the bulb emitted without any adjustment.  My original test with the 35W bulb was way too much like at 7.3 EV.  Now that you know you need 1 EV of light at a distance of 30 inches, you can build your own contact printing setup and adjust it to meet your needs.  

You could even make your contact printing setup mostly light safe if you need to work in an area that isn't fully dark.  

Since I had an 8x10 contact printing frame, I decided to use it to sandwich together my large format negatives and darkroom paper during the exposure, but I could have use a simple piece of glass or any number of other ways to hold the negative flat against the paper.

I am excited to share my new large format video workshop series with you.  

The entire project from design to making a beautiful contact print from one of my 5x7 large format negatives took about 2 hours.  You can build your large format contact printing setup in a fraction of the time and start making some brand new silver gelatin large format contact prints.  If you do, send me a note and a photo of your setup.  

Later this week, I plan on exposing some 6x17 film and contact printing them too.  I think these 6x17 panoramic contact prints will present very well after I determine the right amount of mat board that will draw in the viewer to these small, but impressive prints.  I am thinking that I will use a larger board, maybe something in the 14"x17" range, but I will have to see when I get there what I like best.  If it turns out well, I will write an article and share some photos with you.  

I also really like 4x5 and 5x7 large format negatives printed on 8x10 paper too.  I cut out a custom mask from black art paper so that I can print on a full sheet of 8x10 paper and end up with a naturally framed print that looks great even without a mat board.  


You can view the second video where I share the things I learned and provide you with an update. 

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