Producing a fine print is difficult. First
the printer must master the technical aspects; mixing chemistry,
handling paper, operating the enlarger, and getting the tones you
want on the print. That's hard enough, but then the really hard
part (for me) is making the endless aesthetic decisions. What shade
of gray should that foreground be? How about if that cloud was a
A truly fine print is made of subtleties.
Each tone in the print, the contrast, the color all have to be exactly
right. When you get it right, the image jumps off the page at you.
Until then it's just so-so.
This takes a lot of time and patience to
get it just right. I'm good for about two or three hours of printing
at a stretch. During that time I am occasionally able to make a
print I like; more often however I go back for a second or even
a third session before I get it right. That's with a new image I
haven't printed before. If I've printed it before, can find my notes,
have kept an example of the finished product, and I decide not to
try a different interpretation of the image, one session will usually
I can't stress enough the importance of testing
your safelight. I've wasted a lot of time and money by being lazy
and assuming my safelight is ok. Don't believe the manufacturer's
recommendations. Do the test: .
I learned this the hard way once when I
was running some tests with VC paper. My test results were all over
the place. I didn't believe the safelight was the problem (or didn't
want to believe it
one of the hard things to learn in life
is believe what your eyes are telling you). So I did the test. It
took about a half hour. Wow was I surprised. The VC paper was fogging
like crazy. The graded paper was fogging after about 5 minutes under
the safelight, which is not acceptable.
So I replaced the filters in my safelight
with new ones. Even though the manufacturer claimed that everything
would be fine, I did the test anyway, and guess what? The VC paper
was still getting fogged!
I've solved the problem by closing down
the louvers on the safelight when using VC paper. The Kodak test
determines how long it is safe to leave the paper out before exposure
and after exposure. I tested all my paper types and posted the results
on the wall. I also make an effort with all papers to keep them
away from the safelight as much as possible; don't leave anything
Your enlarger should be properly aligned
and free of vibrations.
Improper alignment can make it difficult
to achieve a sharp print. Proper alignment means that the negative
carrier is parallel with the paper and the lens axis is perpendicular
to them. Check your alignment by focusing an image at the largest
size you're likely to print, and check the focus at the corners
and the center with a grain magnifier.
Using a shaky enlarger on a rickety old
table is a great way to prevent a decent print. The enlarger and
easel should move as little as possible while printing. A good habit
to acquire is to never touch the table while making an exposure,
and if you do happen to bang something between exposures, wait a
moment for the vibrations to fade away.
My setup might seem overboard for some.
I built an enlarger table with 2x4's and thick plywood. I tested
its stability by placing a glass of water on it and then doing things
I normally would while looking for ripples in the water. I can rest
my elbows on the table and wiggle a dodging card around without
rippling the water.
The enlarger is one of the older Zone VI
models and is attached to the concrete wall. It does not actually
touch the table, but sits about 1/8" over it. Short of an earthquake,
it's pretty solid.
Cold Light Heads and Timers
Cold light heads are great but they suffer from one major drawback;
the warmer they are, the brighter they get. A one second exposure
with a cooled off head will be a lot different from what you'll
get with one second with a warmed up head.
I've solved this issue by using a 'compensating' timer which measures
the light output and adjusts the actual length of each 'second'
accordingly. With this setup, each second gets shorter as the lamp
warms up, delivering an equal amount of light per 'second'.
There's an easy way to handle this problem without an expensive
compensating timer, though it may be slightly less accurate, it's
better than nothing. Always make your exposures with a fully warmed
head. It takes my head about a minute to get fully warmed up. It
takes about 15 minutes or so to go back to cold. So for the first
exposure, run the head for a minute first. Put the paper in the
easel and cover it with an opaque card, run the head for 10 seconds
to make sure it's hot, and then expose the paper. See "The
Print" by Ansel Adams; it worked for him, it'll work for you.
I find it very convenient to use a footswitch to turn on the enlarger;
this way I can use both hands during exposure, as explained in the
section on making a print.
Viewing Stand and Lighting
To accurately judge a print, you need a viewing stand and light
of some kind. For a viewing surface, I use a 20x24 sheet of opaque
white acrylic, or the back of a white flat bottom tray. Don't use
glass or some other clear material; try to approximate the final
mounted condition. The surface should be smooth and big enough to
look at two prints side by side.
The viewing light is an often ignored item. I think it is best to
reproduce the lighting conditions where the print will eventually
be displayed. A print which looks great under an overly bright viewing
light will look too dark under 'normal' conditions.
I have not yet had occasion to make a print intended for a specific
location, so I try to make prints suitable for an 'average' display
space. If and when I do need to do this, I will take a meter reading
at the display space and duplicate it as well as I can at the viewing
The light sources I currently use for viewing wet prints are 2 40w
daylight floods 4 feet from the print with window screen over the
bulbs as a diffuser.
I start off with setting up the solutions. I use 14x18 trays with
a gallon of solution in each for 8x10 and 11x14 prints. Using a
whole gallon of solution may seem excessive, but it's very nice
to not have to worry about too little solution. Everything lasts
longer and I can run many prints at once. I arrange the trays from
left to right developer, stop bath, fixer, water holding tray. I
have one 20x24 flat bottom tray which I lean against the back of
the sink to use as a viewing stand. On the floor to the right I
keep a bucket of hot clean water for rinsing hands. Occasionally
I'll use two trays of developer (for contrast control); in this
case the two developer trays are stacked using a tray ladder.
I've been using Dektol diluted 1+2 for 2 minutes at 70 degrees for
several years. Dektol is very popular and easily obtained. Mixing
your own is also an alternative. For lower contrast I use Selectol-Soft
or Ansco 130. See 'The Darkroom Cookbook' and 'The Print' for more
Temperature of the developer is critical
for consistent results. My darkroom is normally on the cool side;
around 63 to 68 degrees, a little colder in the winter. I use a
submersible aquarium heater designed for tropical fish to keep the
developer at a constant temperature. I fill a large tray with water
deep enough to cover the heater, and have cut four short sections
of pvc pipe which act as legs to support the developer tray on top
of the water.
I still use an acetic acid stop bath, though I hear more and more
often that it's not necessary. Many printers use plain water. My
concern is that active developer will get carried over into the
fixer. If you are tossing your fixer after each session that's fine.
If not, I recommend a stop bath.
I mix my fixer from scratch using the Kodak F-6 odorless formula;
chemicals from Artcraft.
Developing prints is much the same as developing film. The same
considerations of time, temperature, dilution and agitation apply.
Keeping these four variables under control is key to getting consistent
results, and makes it possible to achieve a fine print in a reasonable
amount of time and materials.
As with film, the four variables have an effect on print contrast
as well as overall density. It is important to establish a 'normal'
procedure which you can change for expressive control. Slight changes
in the variables will make a difference in the print; and often
all that stands between a good print and an outstanding print are
My standard at the moment is 2 minutes at 70 degrees, using a dilution
of 1+2. Slide the paper in emulsion side up and flop it over a few
times, then flop it every 15 seconds, rocking the tray in between.
When there is 10 seconds left on the timer, pull the print by one
corner and let it drain for 10 seconds, then go straight into the
When developing many prints at once I slide them in one at a time
as quickly as I can, then shuffle them by pulling the bottom one
out from the back, laying it on top, and carefully pressing it down
into the soup. I try and keep the shuffle rate so that each print
gets moved once every 15 seconds.
I always use my hands instead of tongs; the few times I've tried
tongs I've dented the prints. Wear latex gloves if you wish. Handle
the prints by the edges as much as you can. Keep a bucket of hot
water nearby for rinsing your hands.
Consistency of Printing Paper
A related variable is the paper itself. While it should be obvious
that one brand or grade of paper will act differently from another,
it is also true that there may be variations from box to box of
the same brand & grade. Paper properties change over time, gradually
losing speed and contrast. Storage conditions have a big impact
on how quickly the paper goes bad. Also, different brands go bad
at different rates.
Paper boxes usually have an emulsion number and a 'use by' date.
Two boxes of the same emulsion & date, purchased at the same
time from the same place and stored together until use are probably
A good practice is to always start a new print with plenty of paper
from one box. It's pretty frustrating to open a new box in the middle
of a print only to find that the speed and contrast are different
enough to make you start all over. With 8x10 paper, I open a new
box if there's less than 25 sheets in the current one. Use the old
paper for proofs. With larger sheets I either take my chances (and
usually regret it), give it away or chuck it.
Making A Print
This section has been revised for using variable contrast paper.
Set up your enlarger to print; insert the
negative and focus on the desired print size.
Insert the #2 filter, or if using a variable
contrast enlarger, set it at the middle of its' range.
Cut a test strip large enough to cover the
lightest and darkest areas of the image. Place it on the easel,
guess an exposure and expose it. Through experience I can usually
guess within a stop or so what the exposure should be. If in doubt,
use 10 seconds at f/16 for an 8x10 print.
Write the time, aperture and grade (filter)
on the back of the print in pencil, and process the test strip.
Chances are this first strip will be obviously
too light or too dark. So make another one by changing the exposure.
More light = a darker print. Opening the lens by one stop gives
double the amount of light.
Once you're in the ball park with a reasonable
looking print, start looking at the contrast. Find an exposure which
looks about right for the lighter values in the print. Change the
filter or adjust the contrast settings to get what you want in the
darker areas of the print.
I find it helps to aim at first for a slightly
"flat", low contrast print, and then gradually increase
The Work Print
At this point you have arrived at a print
which looks pretty good with no burning & dodging. You've settled
on a contrast grade, determined your basic exposure and development
time. You have created the work print. If you've truly followed
all the steps, you've already produced a print far superior to most.
Keep the work print for future reference. Now it's time for refinements.
I've printed very few negatives which didn't
need further refinements; most of them do. There will be areas of
the print which could benefit from a little more or less exposure.
The classic example is the sky in a landscape;
90% of the time it needs to be darker, to be burned in. The foreground
in a landscape can often be improved by being a bit lighter by dodging.
Take a good long look at the work print.
Sit down and take your time. This is often where I'll stop a work
session, clean up and begin with the work print next time.
Looking hard at the work print, try and identify
the areas which might look better a little darker or lighter. Think
about drawing the viewer's attention around on the print. Where
do you want them to look? Our eyes are drawn to contrasts. We also
tend to look at lighter areas first.
With landscapes there are often areas of
the print around the sides which provide context but are not central
to the statement being made. A good way to direct attention away
from these less important areas is to burn them darker.
An object or area which is central to the
statement can often draw more attention if it stands out from its'
Deciding what to burn and dodge, and how
much, is at this point pure speculation. Would the sky look more
dramatic if it was darker? How much darker? How about that rock
in the foreground? Should it be lighter? How much lighter?
A common burning technique is to add a little
exposure around the edges of the print. The edges of a work print
are often too light, and the image seems to drift off the edges,
diluting the statement. Flare inside the camera makes the edges
of the negative a little denser than the middle, and light fall-off
during printing (because the edges of the print are further away
from the light source than is the center) are the main causes. I
think there is also a psychological effect at work here. In any
case, most images can benefit from having some edge burning. See
The Print for details.
Once you've decided to burn a certain area,
you must determine how much. I was taught how to do this by Fred
Let's assume you're printing a standard landscape.
The top third or so of the print is a blue (grey) cloudless sky.
If you were smart you shot it with a filter to bring the value down
already. Let's assume we want the sky darker.
Let's assume the exposure for the work print
is 12 seconds.
We know that the sky will need more than
12 seconds, but how much more?
The answer is to make test strips. Sometimes
I use full sheets for these, sometimes I cut strips. It depends
on what I'm trying to find out. There's usually other parts of the
image I'm wondering about too, so using full sheets is a good idea.
Of course if you're printing on 16x20 paper, I'd think twice about
it. If you cut strips, make them large enough to cover the area
you're working with.
In this case I would expose 3 full sheets
(or strips) for 15, 18, and 25 seconds respectively. Make sure to
write the exposure on the backs. Process them all together.
Put the work print on your viewing surface,
and lay the test sheet on it. If they're all wet they'll stick together
nicely. Check the longest burn first (the 25 second one). Is it
too dark? If it is that's good, you've gone too far. If it's not
too dark or you're not sure, make sure. Run a few more with even
greater exposures. Keep going until you've made one that's too dark.
Keep in mind that the longer an exposure
is, the more change in time is needed to produce the same difference
in density. I know that doesn't make much sense. Think of it in
terms of numbers, it's easier. With a 10 second exposure, adding
1 second is adding 10%. Add that same one second to a 20 second
exposure and you're only adding 5%.
Experience will guide you in deciding what
exposure to give your test sheets.
If you're using full sheets, fold the test
sheet back so that you're only seeing the part you're working on,
and lay in on the work print.
Find the exposure that's too dark and work
back from there. You may find that one sheet is too dark and the
next lighter one is too light. You can run some more tests in between
or just guess at this point.
This is the same as burning in reverse. The
way I do it is by holding light back during the initial exposure.
Here's another trick learned from Picker
- the dodging tool. My dodging tool is a wire coat hanger bent into
a circle. Two pieces of black sewing thread are stretched across
it so that they form an 'x'. A piece of masking tape, torn and folded
to the desired shape and size, is stuck to the threads at the 'x'.
The wire of the coat hanger is far enough away that it doesn't interfere
with the image.
Keeping Printing Notes
I keep a sheet of printing notes for each
print, and file it with the negative and the work print for future
reference. My sheets are based on the ones which used to be available
from Zone VI.
Keeping good notes keeps me from getting
lost while printing. Also they are very helpful if I ever need to
make more copies of that print.
Across the top of the sheet are recorded
the image title, dates printed, negative number, paper type and
grade, print size, f-stop, developer and time, and the amount of
compensation for dry-down.
The body of the sheet has a numbered column
of boxes, each representing a discrete printing step. Inside the
boxes I sketch the important features of the image if needed for
Step 1 is the basic work print, over which
I'd write the basic exposure. Any dodging would also be recorded
here beside the first box.
Subsequent burning steps get their own boxes.
Shade in the area to be burned in the box, and write the amount
beside it. See The Print for more details.
Take it Where It Wants to Go
As you are working, be open to what the image
is telling you. While I usually have a pretty strong pre-visualized
image in my mind, sometimes I find myself pursuing a different interpretation.
One instance in particular is 'Ledge and Black Water'. The water
in the work print was as visualized on zone IV. As I printed, I
kept asking how it would look darker. Eventually I settled on a
very dark value for the water with just a trace of tone visible.
I later showed it to my wife and she suggested
I make the water pure black. I tried it and she was right. It's
not 'natural', but it works. It's a drag to frame because every
little speck of dust shows up on the black print.
I keep burning and dodging until I've exhausted
all the possibilities, and answered all of the questions. When I
no longer am wondering how a part would look lighter or darker,
Quite often, burning one area of the print
will require some adjustment in another. It's all related in a coherent
whole. This is where it's handy to have kept all the test sheets
in the water tray; I can go back and see how something might look
at that exposure.
As I close in on the final print, I fine-tune
all of the exposures by small amounts, again keeping careful notes.
This is where it really becomes difficult; making the small aesthetic
Quite often, reducing the main exposure by
5% after all the burning and dodging steps will improve the image
in a subtle but emotionally important way.
There is a lot a debate about the existence
or not of the elusive "dry-down" effect. Some claim there's
no such thing, some do. Essentially what we're talking about is
the fact that a dry print will look different than a wet print.
I have tested my papers and found that the high values get just
a tiny bit darker when dry. The main difference, to me, is in the
low values; the shadows in a wet print seem to lose some detail
and a feeling of depth when dry.
When I'm ready to make my final run, I take
the latest print, which is supposedly as good as it can be, wipe
it off with a paper towel and dry it in the microwave. Sometimes
I find that some adjustment for dry-down is needed, sometimes not.
The Final Run
Finally I'm ready to make the final prints.
I remove the negative, carefully brush off any dust, and fine tune
the focus. I toss all the test sheets except the work print, and
put fresh water in the holding tray.
Since it takes so much time and effort to
arrive at the final print, I usually make at least three copies.
Expose them, put them in a box, and develop them together. Three
is pretty minimum; it seems that one or two always fall victim to
some calamity while trimming, mounting & framing. If I really
like an image I may make as many as ten.