Film Photography Post-Processing Tips
Darkroom work is time consuming and labor-intensive, but it’s also one of the most satisfying aspects of film photography. Even though the types of paper available for printing your scanned and digitally processed pictures are excellent these days, they don’t even come close to the haptic experience of a classic silver gelatin print on baryta paper.
Much of this satisfaction is due to creating a successful end result, but the interesting aspect of developing film is the process: retreating into a darkened room, working in dim, amber-colored light, and experiencing the moment when the first traces of a picture become visible on a print in the developer tray. There’s something magical in this ritual.
You need certain things to produce your own prints. We are going to deliberately restrict ourselves to black-and-white prints—creating color prints is much more elaborate.
The Enlargement—General Principle
In the simplest case—for a black-and-white enlargement—a negative picture is projected onto a piece of photographic paper by an enlarger and exposed. Then, the exposed paper undergoes three chemical baths. The exact length of the baths will vary depending on the photo chemicals you use.
The exposed paper is placed into the tray with developer solution for about two minutes. After developing, the paper goes into the tray with stop bath to stop the developer action. Then comes the last bath with the fixer. This takes about eight to ten minutes. In the last step, the picture is washed thoroughly to remove the last traces of fixer and other chemical remnants that could limit the storage properties of the finished print.
Note: The photo chemicals used for creating photo prints are not significantly different from the ones used for negatives. Only the dilution of the chemicals is different.
Equipment for a Black-and-White Laboratory
The key for making good prints lies in meticulous handiwork, not automation. You can use relatively simple lab equipment, if it is good quality.
In the dry area of the lab, you will need an enlarger with a suitable lens, an exposure timer, and a masking frame. The enlarger should be sturdy and have a sufficiently large baseboard. The negative carrier, lens, and baseboard should be parallel or easy to adjust so you can make them parallel. As an additional bonus, some enlargers have a head that can be rotated to horizontal. A color-mixing head makes working with variable contrast paper easier. You can get a multitude of lenses of different qualities in specialist shops or on the secondhand market. The focal length of the lens determines the level of magnification. The quality and suitability for larger formats increases with the number of integrated lens elements. Three-element lenses are quite rare these days—they are suitable only for enlargements up to 13x18cm. Usually, you will find four- or six-element lenses being offered for sale. If you value good-quality lenses for your camera, you should apply similar standards to the darkroom, too, so the quality of the enlargement matches that of the shot.
For the wet area, you need at least four sufficiently large laboratory trays that should always be one size bigger than the paper size you are using. For each tray, you need a pair of lab tongs. You should also get enough bottles and measuring cylinders so you always have a full set for each processing step. We would advise you to only use each bottle and measuring cylinder for one of the processing steps. Otherwise you risk cross contamination and spoiled solutions.
The requirements in terms of which room you use are fairly minimal. You must be able to darken the room, and you need to have electricity and water. That’s why some photo enthusiasts regularly turn their kitchen or bathroom into a darkroom. A dedicated room is perfect if it has enough space for a separate dry and wet area, plus enough storage space for photo papers and chemistry.
The Right Paper
As far as the emulsion carrier is concerned, there are two different types of black-and-white paper: resin coated paper and fiber-based baryta paper. With resin coated paper (RC), the paper base is sealed with polyethylene on both sides, which stops water and photo chemicals from penetrating to the core. The necessary processing time, final wash, and drying time are much shorter than for fiber-based baryta paper. Sadly, the longtime storage qualities of RC paper are limited; it lasts for about 30 years.
Fiber-based (FB) baryta paper is the classic photo paper for high-quality black-and-white photos that can be archived and stored for many decades. It features a layer of barium sulfate (baryte) between the paper base and the emulsion. The paper core is not sealed, which is is the biggest disadvantage of baryta paper because it absorbs water and chemicals well, so the final wash and drying time is much longer. The final wash can take up to an hour for optimum storage quality. The drying time is about 12 hours in open air. For making the greater processing effort, you are rewarded with the typical baryta sheen and a subjectively deeper and warmer looking picture.
The light-sensitive layer is the same for both types of paper. It consists of silver halides embedded in gelatin, just as with film. The silver halides are only sensitive to blue and violet light, which is why photo paper can be processed in safelight (yellow-green or amber light in the darkroom).
Black-and-white photo paper is manufactured as variable contrast paper or graded paper in different grades of hardness. Common grades are 0 (soft) to 5 (hard). By choosing the right grade, you can harmonize the contrast range of the negative and the photo paper. A negative with high contrasts needs a rather soft paper for optimal separation of tonal values. For a negative that has less pronounced contrasts, the opposite applies.
Variable contrast or multigrade papers are photo papers where the contrast behavior can be adapted. They have individual emulsions with different gradations. The silver halides in the harder grade layer are sensitized to other colors of light than those in the softer grade layer. Depending on the color with which you expose the paper, you can tease out a softer or harder grade.
Adapting the light in the corresponding spectrum can be done either with color foil filters or by setting a specific color of light in the color-mixing head.
The Contact Print
Especially today, when you can use hybrid processing (see page 169) to get excellent results, it makes sense to reserve working in the darkroom for those special pictures. Darkroom processing isn’t about making a large number of prints as quickly as possible; instead, it’s about achieving the best possible interpretation of your picture and creating a good print based on a specific negative.
The first step is creating a contact print. The contact print is your starting point for the pictures you are going to devote a lot of time to later. It helps with the decision of which picture you are going to use for printing, and which part of that picture will make it onto the print in which orientation.
Under a safelight, place a sheet of photo paper under the enlarger and put the individual negative strips directly on top of the paper. Cover the negatives with a glass plate to ensure they lie flat. If you keep your film strips in a transparent pocket, you don’t even have to take them out. Use softer-grade paper for the exposure so all areas of the negative show good detail. Here, it is more important to get clearly visible details in all image areas than to achieve the best exposure. To determine the exposure, you’ll prepare test strips later.
As soon as the contact print is dry, you can use it to mark which picture you like and which ones you like so much that you want to enlarge them later. With a special easel or a frame made of cardboard, you can cover up all the unimportant image areas on the contact print and find the part of the picture you want to print. You can either mark the desired area directly on the contact print or put the contact print into a transparent pocket and then draw on it with transparency pens—just in case you change your mind one day.
With the finished contact print, you have a decision-making tool for later processing steps in the darkroom. You can retreat back into your photographic red room with a clear idea of how the picture should look when it’s finished.
This article was taken from The Film Photography Handbook by Chris Marquardt and Monika Andrae. You can learn more about film photography from their book—available now!