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Until very recently1) making prints from negatives was beyond our grasp, leaving us to scan our negatives and have them sent to printers online. While this is acceptable, it is not optimal, for several reasons: first, in any analog to digital conversion there is (potential for) considerable loss in quality, second, these sites tend to be somewhat expensive, and you don't know anything about the quality of your prints until you get them, and third, working in an analog-heavy environment is a huge part of why we love to shoot film, and making prints allows us to capture and display photographs without ever involving digital technology more complex than a lightbulb.
This page exists for two reasons. One, it fits the form of every other page on the site. Two, we had an incredible amount of trouble finding good (read: consistent) instructions for making prints. As it turns out, very little about making prints is quantitative (very much unlike developing film) and “winging it” is recurrent theme. Despite that, we're going to try and make this guide as quantitative as possible. Mostly for ourselves, but also for like-minded individuals who are interested in making prints and don't believe in entirely winging it. We may be delusional, but at least we're happy.
- Negatives. We're using all 35mm because our cameras are 35mm, but if you're shooting 120, 220, 4×5, whatever, it doesn't matter - the process is all the same.
- Paper. We're using Ilford Multigrade IV
- An enlarger. Ours is an Beseler 67SC. Very typical 35mm/120/4×5 enlarger with a 50mm lens, 75w type PH140 bulb.
- Developer. Our first batches of prints were developed in Ilfosol 3, a film developer. Technically this is bad practice and we should have used paper developer, but in the future we will be buying and using Ilford Multigrade Developer.
- Stop bath. This is just acetic acid, so you can use vinegar from walmart if you want. Unlike when developing film where stop bath is not necessary because of how easy it is to rinse film, rising paper is a pain, so the development progress should be stopped properly.
- Fixer. The stuff you use for film works.
- Water. Technically a chemical. You're going to want access to a lot of it. Preferably in sink or tub fashion.
- A real darkroom. This is absolutely necessary, because unlike film which is small enough (and consistent enough) to be developed in the sealed environment of a developing tank. We used a bathroom with no window, the door shut, and a towel against the threshold, to make a darkroom.
- A timer. The enlarger must be precisely time-controlled. There are special timers meant for controlling them (as well as your safelight) for making prints. Ours is a GraLab Model 400. The Model 300 is the newer version and is essentially the same.
- A safelight. You can buy a “real” $20 bulb and toss it in a desklamp, spent upwards of $100 on a “proper” lamp, or, do as we did, and go to walmart with $5 in hand and buy a red CFL. So far it's worked well.
- Trays. There are proper photo developing trays, but we used 9×13 baking tins from walmart. They cost about $1/each. Make sure to test them for leaks prior to adding chemicals, though.
- A thermometer. Like film, photo paper should be worked with at as close to 20°C as possible.
- Gloves or tongs. Not “necessary” if you're not afraid of getting very diluted chemicals on your hands. Be warned, though, if you have cuts or scratches, the chemicals will sting.
The first thing you're going to want to do, after assembling your supplies in a neat and orderly fashion, is configure your darkroom. Keep in mind that a considerable amount of work done in this room is done in complete darkness. Not “really dark” like when you're outside at night and there are distant streetlamps or the moon or whatever, but absolute darkness. You're going to want the layout to be orderly, with no cables running anywhere you might be standing. Everything needs to be easy to find, so don't stack things up or tuck things in weird places. Things that may be incredibly easy to find with your eyesight can be just as difficult to find when blind.
Once your darkroom is configured, acquaint yourself with it. Be one with the darkroom. Get used to performing tasks such as operating your timer, accessing and moving the pans, turning on/off the safelight. Do lots of mock trials of the entire process (listed below) so you can be entirely familiar with the process before you actually start. There aren't a lot of steps, and once you get used to the motions you can make high quality prints very quickly, but when you first get going it can seem a bit overwhelming and especially disorienting when you're working in absolute darkness.
Positioning the Paper
Easily one of the most difficult parts of making prints, for us, was properly positioning the paper underneath the enlarger. You'd think this would be easy, I mean really, how hard is it to put a piece of paper under a light? Well, remember that this piece of paper has to be positioned in complete darkness, and should be centered as well as possible under the enlarger. Luckily, this is something that can be practiced many times prior to making real prints, so you can become an expert at it without wasting supplies.
If you already have an enlarger at this point, I imagine you've played with it enough to be generally familiar with its operation. There's a base where the paper sits, some sort of vertical track, and a box somehow connected to the track. This box, the lamphouse, is where everything happens. Light from the lamp is focused down onto the film, and that light is focused through the lens. On the side of the lamphouse there is a lever used in raising the lamphouse up about half an inch off the lens base. When this is raised, a tray containing the film negative can be slid between the condenser (lenses used for focusing the lamp light) and the back of the main enlarging lens.
With the negative in place, the enlarger's lamp can be powered and a blurry image from the negative will be displayed on the base of the enlarger. If this image seems dim, consider the following: the bulb is only 75w and it is being focused through a series of lenses, a film negative, and a lens with a fairly narrow aperture (ours ranges from f/3.5 to f/16). The photographic paper for which it is intended to be displaying an image is very sensitive to light, not much is needed, and on top of that it is meant to be used in total darkness, where it doesn't need to compete with sunlight or room lighting. To become familiar with the enlarger and it's operation, I suggest you use it in a dim room with the f/stop wide open, so you can see the projected image as clearly as possible.
There are two knobs that adjust the size and focus of the image on the enlarger. One knob, typically located toward the back of the lamphouse, near the track upon which it is attached, is used for making the image larger and smaller, by moving up and down. The farther up the track the lamphouse goes, the larger the image, while the closer the lamphouse gets to the base, the smaller the image - as you might imagine. The second knob is attached to the lens diaphragm at the base of the lamphouse. This is the focus adjust knob, and it moves the objective lens nearer and farther from the negative in order to have the image display as sharply as desired. Neither knob is more important than the other, and both must be constantly adjusted in order to have a sharp image that fits the paper well.
A good way to get started is by getting a piece of printer paper the same size as your photo paper and positioning it on the enlarger's base. Turn on the enlarger, and by using the two knobs, adjust the displayed image so that it fills the paper as you desire and it is well focused. Whether you want the image to fill (or even overfill) the paper or have a nice 1“ margin is up to you. Once everything is positioned well, use a pencil and mark the edges of the paper so you know where it sat.
The hard part, now, is figuring out a way to set your piece of photo paper in the exact same place - in complete darkness. The method we came up with is very simple, and only requires a few small pieces of foam tape. The foam tape we used is about 1/16” thick, and when placed at the edges of the paper forms an excellent sort of stopper system. We placed pieces around three sides, close to their centers. This way we could slide the paper in from the top and have it be locked in place, so to speak. Practicing this procedure a few times in the dark is always a good idea, because it can be a bit harder than it sounds.
Keep in mind that the if the positions of the lamphouse or negative within the lamphouse change even a little bit, this positioning will be off a little bit, so always do a “dry test” of the exposure to make sure it's aligned how you want it.
Prepare the Developer
Exposing the image happens very quickly, so the necessary chemicals need to be in place before the image is exposed. In our case we used three 9×13“ aluminium baking trays.
Exposing the Paper
Once you have the enlarger set up so that the image is the right size (and in focus) and you have some sort of paper positioning system in place, all you have to do is expose the image - something that, provided everything works right, should only take a few seconds.
Exactly how many seconds depends on a few things: the desired contrast, the f/stop the lens is set to, and how the paper will be developed. At the time of this writing, we don't know how exactly these things interact. I know we promised a quantitative guide, but we here at LJCK are honest folks, and when we don't know something, sometimes we just don't know it. What we do know, though, is that some of the values we've used have worked very well in our developer. We used 10-15 seconds at f/11 with good results. The time is set, of course, on the timer.
Our timer, the GraLab Model 400, is like most other timers: it has two modes, one for focusing and one for exposing, as well as two power outlets: one for the safelight, and one for the enlarger. When in the focusing mode, the enlarger is powered, the safelight is off, and the timer is inactive. When in exposing mode, the safelight is on until the timer is activated with the button on the top. When the button is pressed, the safelight clicks off, the enlarger clicks on, and the timer begins counting down from whatever it was set at. When it reaches 0 the enlarger is turned off and the safelight is turned back on. Like everything else, familiarize yourself with the operation of the timer, in complete darkness, until it's more or less second nature. One nice feature of our timer is that the seconds have very clear detants between them so you can easily count out the number of seconds needed for the exposure without having to see the face of the timer at all.
With the timer set and ready, you can now get the paper ready. Photo paper is a type of film, just like the film you developed to make these prints. And like that film, it is highly sensitive to light and must be treated with great care. A good rule of thumb is to never even begin to consider opening the box it's stored in until you're in a completely dark environment and ready to expose it. Unfortunately, because of this, handing the paper is not something you can really practice; unless of course you're willing to risk wasting paper. We're not, so instead we just chose to be as careful as possible. On the bright side, handling the paper is very straight forward and not hard to figure out.
In a completely dark environment, open the paper box. Within it will be a very heavy plastic bag with the opening sort of folded over. Carefully unfold this and reach in to grab a single sheet of paper. At this point we should mention that your hands need to be both very clean and dry for this procedure. It can be hard to get your hands on it initially, but whatever you do make sure you don't bend it and that you only get one piece. Once removed from the bag it is incredibly hard to put back! Once the one sheet is out, unbent, you need to act quickly and do three things. First, fold the bag back over and close the box so as not to risk letting any light in. Second, place the paper on the enlarger's base, aligning it with the stoppers you made earlier. Third, press the button on the timer and let the exposure begin!