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The Art of Black and White Printing: Now The Fun Begins!

By Mason Resnick

If you've read parts I and II of this tome, you may be wondering, "what kinda fun is this?" Well, you are about to be rewarded: black and white printing is where the science, art and creativity converge.

Here you are in control. The results can be seen in minutes. Watching the image--your photograph--emerge gradually from that blank sheet of paper in the developing tray is nothing short of magic.

Every decision you make in the printing process will have a direct effect on the final image you print. Want a high-contrast, semi-abstract look? Prefer a subdued, realistic photojournalistic look? Want your pictures to have that old-fashioned brownish-sepia tone? Borders on your prints? Yeah. You can do that.

The more you know about what you can do in the darkroom, the more you can be in control of your images.

The things you can do in the darkroom could fill a book...and there are several out there. So this will be an overview of what's possible. As the Resource Center grows, we hope to fill in the details (any volunteers? If you're interested,emal me!).

The Basics

As in film developing, there are three basic chemicals in the printing process, and a few more added to streamline it. These are Developer, Stop Bath and Fixer. Developer brings out the latent image--the magic part of the process. Stop bath stops the image from coming out any further, and fixer prevents any white light from darkening, fogging, fading or otherwise affecting the finished print.

You can add more chemicals to reduce washing time (and as a result save on your water bills) and to adjust tonality, paper warmth, contrast and other characteristics.

When you have a roll of 36 exposures in front of you, it is not realistic to expect that you're going to print every last one. Fortunately, you don't have to. The contact sheet previews an entire roll on one 8x10-inch sheet. Each photo measures about 1 x 1 1/2 inches, and you view it through a magnifier called a Loupe. Print up a contact sheet before you start printing and look at the tiny images. Select the best. You're ready to go.

The Theory

The process of transforming a tiny negative into a larger print (8x10 is the most popular size) is based on a theory that's similar to exposing film when you're taking a picture. In this case the light source comes from one place--the enlarger head, projecting the negative onto a sheet of light-sensitive material, in this case the printing paper.

The amount of light that hits the paper can be controlled by adjusting the aperture on the enlarger's lens; a timer controls duration. The variable in this equation is the negative: how dense is it? The greater the density, the more light you need (either by opening the aperture or increasing exposure time) while the thinner negatives, which let more light through, require smaller apertures and/or shorter exposures.

Assuming a roll is processed properly and exposures are fairly consistent, it won't take you long to establish a good basic exposure that will give you acceptable results which you can fine-tune to create works of art. How do you arrive at that basic exposure? Through Test Strips.

The Test Strip

A test strip is a thin, long strip of printing paper with the negative printed at several different exposures. The purpose? To see which exposure yields the best looking print. The how-to's are easy: lay down a strip of paper under the enlarger, take an opaque board and hold it over all but a small section of the paper. Expose for two seconds. Move the board to reveal more of the paper and expose for two more seconds. Repeat until you've exposed the entire sheet once and process normally.

This will give you a sliver of the image with bands of increasingly darker versions of the image. Pick the one that looks the best, count from lightest band to the band you've picked, multiply that number by two. That's your correct exposure time.

Now print a full sheet at the exposure time, and you have your basic print. This is where a commercial lab would stop (unless you give them lots of money). But because you're running the darkroom, you can refine your print (if you feel it needs refinement. Some won't.)

Beyond the Basics

So you've made your print, but it's kind of dull. It needs more snap. The solution? Boost the contrast! Photographic paper is available in two forms: single-contrast or multiple contrast. Single-contrast papers will give you, as the name implies, one contrast. The "average" contrast is 2, on a scale of 0 to 6 (6 is basically black and white, no middle tones, while 0 is mostly gray).

Multi-contrast paper is more versatile, but you have to buy a set of multi-contrast filters. An advantage of multi-contrast is that most filter sets come in half-contrasts. So if contrast 3 is not enough but 4 is too much, use the 3 1/2 filter. Single-contrast papers only come in full-contrast increments.

Contrast control offer you the opportunity to interpret the basic negative. Greatly increasing or decreasing contrast when it is not necessary to bring out all of the information in the negative (your first goal) is a decision that could enhance--or detract from-- the composition.

Another way to control your print: part of your print is too dark, part is too light, but most of it looks just fine. This is not unusual. Localized dark areas of the print can be lightened via "dodging", where the light is blocked to that area for part of the exposure time; the too-light areas can be darkened via "burning", where you expose just the light area for a little more time. There is an art to this which is almost impossible to describe here. The best way to learn these skills is by taking a darkroom printing class. I highly recommend this.

The next step is up to you.

These are some of the skills you'll learn as an advanced beginner. The next step may include tonal control, printing archival (so the image will last a lifetime without a blemish), alternative processes (like printing on fabric) and zone system printing. Over these last three months, you've learned the basics of black-and-white processing, but that just scratches the surface. The art and science of darkroom work can fill a book (In fact, it fills dozens of ïem.)

If you want to go beyond the basics, you have plenty of resources. A good place to start is Black and White Printing, by George Schaub (Aperture). Ask any specialty camera store and they can point you to bookshelves filled with darkroom how-to books, including those published by manufacturers of darkroom supplies.

Now get in there and print--and be proud of the work you're going to produce!

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