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Adding a low key vignette to improve your portrait photos

Adding a low key vignette to improve your portrait photos - Adding a vignette to your photos is easy in the darkroom and can be very effective, and the only extra you need is a piece of card. Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine is our guide.

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Category : Darkroom Printing
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Adding a vignette to your photos is easy in the darkroom and can be very effective, and the only extra you need is a piece of card...
Words & pictures Peter Bargh

A vignette is where the edges of a picture are made to go lighter or darker depending on the effect required. An image with a darker edge is known as a low key vignette and is one we will look at in this tutorial (we'll cover highkey vignettes next month).
To create the vignette you need to expose the paper at the edges for longer than the centre and a mask is required to achieve this.


1 To determine the correct size of mask, magnify the image on the baseboard so it fills the area to suit the paper you will print on.
Place a piece of card that's the same size as the paper on the baseboard and make a mark at the top and bottom where you want the vignette to start and end. Now draw an oval about a third smaller than the area you want to use and cut it out. The illustration above right shows the print area we want to cover in black and the area we will use to make the mask as a white outline inside.

2 To ensure the oval mask can be positioned above the print without you getting your fingers in the way tape a piece of straight wire (old coathanger will do) to the card.

3 Now make a test strip to determine the correct exposure for the photograph and then make an exposure on the full sheet of printing paper. Once the exposure is made leave everything in the same place ready for the mask.

4 Hold the mask about three or four inches up from the baseboard so that it's positioned over the print and switch the enlarger on. You'll see from the shadow whether it's in the right place and you can quickly adjust to position it correctly. Move it gently up and down slightly to create a soft edge and allow enough exposure time to make the edges go black when processed (you could do a tests strip to determine this.

5 You can try various things to alter the resulting vignette. Some of these examples are below. Have a play around to create you own versions and make notes so you can recreate the results in the future.



Here's what happens if you lay a piece of card directly on top of the paper. A hard edged vignette with no gradation.

In this version the card is held around four to six inches from the paper to create a soft edged vignette.

Here's the card is still held at four to six inches, like the centre image, but the exposure is reduced to ensure detail still shows in the vignette area.

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