Blundering in the dark

After a break of almost a year I returned to the darkroom this past week. Mainly prompted by wanting to produce a darkroom print from a negative of mine that a friend is producing cyanotypes and kallitypes from. He’s used a processed TIFF that I created from a scan and used that to create digital negatives to then contact print. In conversation he mentioned that he had no darkroom himself these days so I decided to jump back into mine and make him a darkroom print.

So, up front, a disclaimer. I’m a competent printer rather than an accomplished one. I know the basics and occasionally produce a very nice print somehow but I still class myself as a novice. There’s no false modesty here, just simple facts.

Now, one thing I was starting to get reasonably competent at early last year was split grade printing. It was something I’d never attempted first time round back in the 70s as I did not have access to variable grade papers in those days. It was available but generally inferior to graded papers, so these were what was used largely by us amateurs. Variable grade paper began to become more mainstream in the 1980s however but by then I was raising a family and no longer had a darkroom.

Getting there – but base exposures still not right

Variable contrast paper however, has been a revelation to me over the last couple of years and I’ve eagerly researched how to get the best out of it. Split-grade caught my attention mid-2019 and I’d been exploring that process immediately prior to the pandemic. However, returning to darkroom printing I seemed to have totally forgotten everything I though I’d learnt about the process.

Several (OK – many) sheets later and two days in I decided to go back a step by revisiting the really useful online resource I used last time to get me started … but couldn’t find it! However, I did find a couple of tutorials that recommended a different approach which seemed simpler so that was the approach I decided to try. Within two sheets, the negative that had given me two days of grief (not full days you understand) gave up a pleasing image on the paper. Not perfect but acceptable and by now I’d had enough of staring at that negative on the baseboard and in any case was keen to try another. I will return to it later I’m sure though.

Negative two was dusted and popped into the negative holder. Compose, focus, tweak framing, set timer to two seconds and all set for making a test strip. That was sheet one. Fifteen minutes later I was putting sheet two in the easel and had my printing plan in my head. Six minutes later this second sheet was in the washer and I was returning the negative to it’s sleeve. Yes, you read that right, one test strip and one print. Split-grade, localised dodging and burning and most importantly a printing plan I could, in theory, return to later.

Hanging to dry – at the first attempt!

Which I did the following day. Same base exposures but slightly different dodging and burning approach to create a slightly different look. One take and done.

Two images printed a day apart but with different burning plans

Now, my main enlarger is a Durst M605 which has a colour head. I got it a few years back for a steal so even though my colour blindness will make colour printing problematic it was a better buy than a black and white enlarger at the time. When I started split grade printing I realised I could use the colour head to vary the colour of the light (the basis of split-grade printing with variable contrast paper) and initially thought the colour head would therefore save me the cost of filters.

It definitely works, but trying to read and adjust the dials by the dim light of a safelight is an absolute pain. At least it is for me. I end up covering the partially exposed paper and bringing the safelight to within inches of the head and my nose just as close to be able to make mid-printing adjustments.

Long story short I’ve just ordered an Ilford under the lens filter kit to save me the headache of bringing a safelight up close to the enlarger head so I can peer at the numbers on the Y& M filter dials!! It’s due later this week so I shall report back in due course.

Cryptic – but it works!

So, in a nutshell, my new (to me) approach to split-grade printing is:

  • With 2.5 filter in place (10 magenta on my enlarger) create usual test strip
  • Evaluate as normal to determine base exposure (call it B) and also determine dodging/burning plan.
  • Now dial in 0 filter (70 yellow for me) and expose for B/2
  • Without moving paper dial in 5 filter (130 magenta for me). The time in theory should be B/2 but with filters =>4 it needs increasing – I choose to use (B/2)x1.5 as a start.
  • Expose for second part. You now have the basic exposure.
  • At this stage you can develop the sheet and assess however I tend to carry out the planned burning in too.
  • Develop and reassess.

This will hopefully give a very good basis to work from. If the image needs more contrast use a 1 filter in the first step using B/2 as before. If the shadows need controlling then adjust the time for that element. The Ilford rule of thumb for the second exposure is the original base time (B) for filters 4-5 but in my recent experiments I’ve found (B/2)x1.5 a good starting point. You don’t need to restrict yourself to 0 and 5 filters of course but they make a great starting point.

I hope this has been of interest, for a very easy to follow introduction you could do a lot worse than check out this video from Ilford.

3 thoughts on “Blundering in the dark”

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