Darkroom Papers and Printing: A Beginner’s Guide – Dave Butcher

Final Print © Dave Butcher

Final Print © Dave Butcher

The key to good black and white printing is control of the contrast. To make it easy to follow, numbers have been assigned to contrast levels and these are referred to as grades. The scale can vary between manufacturers but typically the contrast range is numbered between grades 0 and 5. Normal contrast is around grade 2 or 3, low contrast is 0 and high contrast is 5. As the grade number increases so does the contrast.

The papers are sensitive to blue and green light (as well as white light of course) but not orange and red. This means that they can be handled for exposure and processing under red or orange colored lights. These are called safelights.


Types of photographic darkroom papers
Graded Papers have fixed contrast levels. If you need to change the contrast in a print you have to purchase another box of paper with a different contrast. Although popular in the past, because of the availability of Variable contrast papers, there are less graded papers available to buy. For example Ilford only makes grades 2 and 3 Galerie graded paper. If you use graded papers, your film needs to be processed so that the contrast of your films is roughly matched to the contrast of the paper.

Variable Contrast papers provide all the contrasts from grades 00 to 5 in one box. Filters used to change the color of the light changes the paper contrast. A leading example of this type of paper is Ilford Multigrade and it has effectively replaced graded papers for creative printing.

web_PapersPaper also comes in a Resin coated (RC) or Fiber based (FB) versions. Because this paper incorporates a polyethylene coating, RC paper is much easier and quicker to use, it processes, washes and dries quickly. Fiber based paper gives the ultimate quality, maximum black density and an archival lifetime if properly processed. The increase in density as prints dry is very difficult to judge, even for an experienced printer. It is much more difficult to use properly so I suggest that you try RC papers first, then as you gain experience move on to FB papers.

Surfaces of photographic papers
Paper is available in a variety of surfaces, and surface choice depends on both the use of the photograph and the preference of the photographer. Glossy gives deepest blacks and hence greatest contrast. There will be lots of reflections off the surface making fingerprints and other marks highly visible. It is not good for situations with lots of handling of prints.

Matt makes black areas appear very dark grey when compared to a glossy print. It is best for high key images or those that don’t have strong blacks. It is also good for displaying prints in areas where there is lots of light as it will not pick up reflections on the surface.

Pearl is the compromise between glossy and matt. It is good for framing prints without a window mat as the lightly textured surface prevents patterns forming between glass and print surface. It also easier to handle as any marks appear less obvious.

If you are new to darkroom printing I suggest you start with RC Pearl paper.

How photographic darkroom papers work
There is no ink in a darkroom print! The density in a black and white darkroom print is silver metal. The silver is coated with gelatin to hold it in place and is often referred to as a silver gelatin print. Contrast comes from having different levels of silver built up across the print. With Variable contrast papers contrast is controlled using specific colors of light.

The useful colors that make variable contrast papers work range from blue to green light. In practice, filters are used to block particular colors.

Ilford Multigrade papers contain three emulsions with different sensitivities to blue and green light. All three emulsions have the same high sensitivity to blue light, which gives lots of density and this increases the contrast. Using blue-green or green light the sensitivity of each emulsion varies so this produces less density and in turn lower contrast.

In practice, exposure times are shorter using the complementary colors of yellow and magenta. A yellow filter blocks out most of the blue light for low contrast, magenta filters allow blue light to pass through resulting in high contrast.

Filters for variable contrast papers come in various shapes and sizes. Some enlargers have variable contrast heads with the filters built-in. These are the easiest to use. Under-lens filters and above lens filter drawers are quite easy to use too. Filter kits cover all of the grades from 00 to 5 in ½ grade steps. Under the lens filter kits are usually provided with a universal filter drawer that will fit any enlarger.web_MG_FILTERS

Color heads on enlargers are not as easy to use but tables of filter settings for different enlarger heads are provided in every box of paper. The yellow and magenta filters built in to every color head enlarger can be used but lack the high contrast and will not give grade 5 and some struggle to reach grade 4. Also, exposure times vary as filters are changed unlike filter kits where exposure times are constant as grades are changed.

An advantage of variable contrast and color head enlargers is that they produce diffused light that reduces hair and dust that would be visible on prints from other types of enlarger.

The Process
dave-butcher-darkroom_webTo make a black and white print there are three essential chemical steps, Develop, Stop and Fix, You will need three trays and they must be labeled to avoid contamination of the developer. A trace of fixer in developer can lead to inconsistent results. Use the times and dilutions stated on the products that you buy. The chemicals are usually liquid concentrates. You just pour out the required amount of each, add water and stir.

The first solution is called a developer – it develops the latent image formed in paper by the enlarger exposure.

The second step uses a so-called ‘stop bath.’ The only purpose of this is to stop development by converting the print from being slightly alkaline to slightly acid. This has the effect of extending the life of the fixer so that more prints can be processed (note that fixer is much more expensive than stop bath!). Water cannot be used as a stop bath, it must be weakly acid and commercial products are either acetic (smells of vinegar) or citric acid (odorless).

The final chemical step is fixing with a fixer solution. This is essential as it makes the print stable to light by removing surplus silver that hasn’t been used in forming the image on the paper. If you skip this step your print will go black when you turn on the room lights!

After fixing you can turn on the room lights.

The final step is to wash your print in running water. RC papers only need about five minutes and the temperature should be above 50ºF for it to be effective. FB papers need at least 30 minutes.

The print can now be hung up to dry for an hour or two on a clothesline over a sink, or dried with a hair dryer, which usually takes a few minutes. FB papers need many hours to dry.

During each step agitation is crucial. Don’t just put the print in the tray and wander off, rock the tray to move the chemicals around the print. This avoids local exhaustion of the chemicals in contact with the print.

Note that the basic photographic chemicals for black and white printing are not hazardous when used correctly. Follow the health and safety recommendations on the chemical packaging.


Basic Test Strips

In order to make a print you need to choose an exposure time by making a test print. In fact you usually cut several strips of paper about 2 inches from one sheet. Remember to handle the paper only under safelight conditions!

Take the negative carrier out of the enlarger.

Select the negative you want to print and place that strip of negatives into the carrier shiny side up (emulsion down).

Put the negative carrier back into the enlarger and turn it on so you can see the negative projected onto the baseboard of the enlarger. If you have a ‘filed’ negative carrier (slightly wider than the negative) you should be able to read the writing at the edge of the film when you view the image on the baseboard. If it reads backwards the negative is in upside down.

Put your paper easel on the baseboard directly under the lens and adjust the blades to the paper size you are using. The easel holds the paper flat and stops it from moving during exposure. The blades give white borders to the print that can make your prints look quite smart. Non-adjustable easels usually have smaller borders.

Move the enlarger head up and down until you have the desired size image for the paper being used. Check the manual for your enlarger so you are familiar with all the controls.

Fine-tune the focus with a grain magnifier then turn the enlarger lamp off by switching it to timer mode, assuming it has one! (Many famous printers simply counted out the seconds, so don’t worry if you are trying this without a timer).

Set the lens aperture to f/8 or f/11 for best sharpness.

Select filter 2 or 2.5 and place into the filter drawer. This is a good starting point for normal contrast negatives.

You are now ready to do a test strip.

A typical test strip made in the darkroom

Making a test strip
There are several different methods for making test strips, this is the one that I use. Take one of the two-inch wide strips of paper and place it emulsion up on the easel in a part of the image so that each of several steps will have light and dark areas, if possible. You will make about 4 to 6 steps on the strip of paper so work out how big each step will be. In the example here we will use 4 equal steps.

Expose the whole strip for 10 seconds.

Take a piece of cardboard (thick enough that light can’t penetrate) and cover up about a quarter of the length of the strip. It’s best if the paper and card surfaces touch to avoid light piping around the edges and on to adjacent steps. If the strip of paper is not being held down by the edges of the easel, put a piece of double sided tape under the paper to stop it form moving.

Expose for a further 10 seconds.

Cover up another quarter of the strip and so on for 4 exposures.

Process the test strip as described above.

There is an alternative test strip method which doubles the time for each step. This can be useful if you don’t have a clue what the required exposure time will be. The steps would then be 10, 20, 40 and 80 seconds in this example. Hopefully, you will quickly get the feel for the likely range of exposures and the simpler method described can be used most of the time.

Note, you should avoid exposure times over 50 seconds or so as the papers rapidly lose sensitivity here. Open the aperture ring by one stop to halve the exposure times instead, for example, use f/8 instead of f/11.

Print Evaluation
First you need to look for the first step that shows small areas with some black, not dark grey. If you have steps where one is too light and the next too dark choose an intermediate value. If in doubt do another exposure with smaller steps. If needed as a final check, expose an entire strip at these settings before committing to a full sheet of paper. Check the strip again for blacks across the area. If the strip exposure still looks reasonable make a print on a full sheet of paper at this exposure with the same filter.

Now judge the overall image for exposure and contrast. If there are large areas of white the contrast is too high and you need to reduce the grade. If the print has lots of detail everywhere with little or no bright areas try increasing the contrast using a higher grade. If you have too much black with no detail try reducing the exposure time.

Final Print © Dave Butcher

Final Print © Dave Butcher

Judging prints comes with practice and the more you print the easier it becomes. Remember that different negatives will require different exposure times and contrast settings.

If all else fails with exposure and contrast changes affecting the whole print then local adjustment of the density and contrast are needed. This uses simple techniques called dodging and burning or a different basic technique like split-grade printing.




About Dave Butcher- Dave Butcher has been a full-time professional photographer, printer and author since 2005. He worked for Ilford Photo Ltd., in the UK for 21 years as a photographic research scientist, technical service management, regulatory affairs manager and in project management. The author of four books including City Light, Cities of the World…and Buxton published 2013. Dave’s work has been published in dozens of magazines, books and used for advertising. As an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (ARPS) Dave gives workshops and lectures on black and white printing. davebutcher.co.uk