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Printing with variable-grade paper - darkoom guide

Printing with variable-grade paper - darkoom guide - Using variable contrast papers will save you loads of money while you're learning to print and can also improve your creativity as you become more experienced.

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Category : Darkroom Printing
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Words and Photos Heather Powell

What is graded paper
When buying photographic printing paper, you are provided with a wide choice and one of the main options you should consider is contrast.

The job of a black & white printing paper is to reproduce tones found in the negative so that the print you make has a desired level of contrast. Unfortunately not all negatives are exposed or processed to maximise this, so sometimes you end up with a soft negative that will produce a flat grey photo or a hard contrast negative the produces a soot and whitewash print.

To overcome this papers are graded in a range from 0 to 5. Manufacturers have slightly different ways of grading their papers, so you may find differences using the same grade from Kodak and, say, Ilford, but generally Grade 2 is considered to be normal. This gives the best results from perfectly developed negatives, but not all negatives are perfect! A paper with a grade 0 will tone down a negative that displays excessive contrast by reducing the tonal range and reproducing a larger number of intermediate greys. At the other end of the scale a hard, grade 5, paper broadens the tonal range, eliminating some of the greys making it the choice for printing low contrast flat negatives.

This would suggest that you need to have a range of graded papers in your darkroom, which could prove costly and inefficient. The solution is to use variable-contrast paper - a paper with a blend of two emulsions, one high contrast, the other low contrast, each containing dyes that are sensitised to respond to different parts of the visible spectrum. With the use of filters, it's possible to alter the contrast of the paper and reduce the need for a wide range of different grade papers.

What filters do I need?

If you are using a black & white enlarger you will need a set of filters, which are made by Ilford and Kodak. These sit above the negative in a filter draw or below the lens in a custom holder. Below the lens variety can cause distortion of the projected image and consequently degrade the effective quality of the lens, especially if they have become soiled and marked with use. Another notable point about these types of filters is that you should be sure to focus your image on the easel with the filter in place as they can cause a shift in focus.

If you use an enlarger with a colour head, filters are not needed because you dial in equivalent values using the enlarger's yellow and magenta filters. The values below, supplied by Ilford, are a guide to what filtration is needed for each grade in half grades from 0 to 5. Most enlargers fall under one of two categories of filter system so first see which list yours appears in

Durst
Kodak
Dunco
Beseler
Durst
De Vere
Kaiser
Fujimoto
Leitz
Jobo
Lupo
LPL
 
Omega
 
Paterson
 
Vivitar

Then read off the approximate filtration needed for the desired grade from the tables below. Dual filtration values usually need longer exposure times than single filtration values, but need less adjustment to exposure times when changing contrast. Either option will deliver similar results.

Filter setting
 
Single filter
method  
Ilford MG
Durst
Durst
Kodak
Exposure Factor
 
Max 130m
Max 170m
   
0
70Y
90Y
90Y
2.3
1/2
50Y
70Y
70Y
2.1
1
40Y
55Y
50Y
1.7
1 1/2
25Y
30Y
30Y
1.4
2
0
0
0
0
2 1/2
10M
20M
5M
1.2
3
30M
45M
25M
1.3
3 1/2
50M
65M
50M
1.6
4
75M
100M
80M
2
4 1/2
120M
140M
140M
2.4
5
130M
170M
199M
2.6


Filter setting
 
Dual filter
method
 
Ilford MG
Durst
Durst
Kodak
Exposure Factor
 
Max 130m
Max 170m
   
0
88Y 6M
100Y 5M
90Y 0M
2.3
1/2
78Y 8M
88Y 7M
78Y 5M
2.1
1
64Y 12M
75Y 10M
68Y 10M
1.7
1 1/2
53Y 17M
65Y 15M
49Y 23M
1.4
2
45Y 24M
52Y 20M
41Y 32M
0
2 1/2
35Y 31M
42Y 28M
32Y 42M
1.2
3
24Y 42M
34Y 45M
23Y 56M
1.3
3 1/2
17Y 35M
27Y 60M
15Y 75M
1.6
4
10Y 69M
17Y 76M
6Y 102M
2
4 1/2
6Y 89M
10Y 105M
0Y 150M
2.4
5
0Y 130M
0Y 170M
n/a
2.6

Printing using variable contrast paper
1
Place your negative into the enlarger. Set the column to the required height. Focus the image and set the enlarging lens down two or three stops depending on its brightness.

2 Make a test strip showing increases of two seconds, using variable-contrast paper filtered to grade 2 and evaluate the results.

3 Having come to a decision on the exposure time, you have to decide whether you like the contrast or not. It's not easy to tell from a test strip which grade to choose so it's sometimes worth making a full sized print to be sure.

4 Some people like images with a lot of contrast while others prefer them slightly flat. If you prefer a greyer image then you need to select a filter lower than two. For more contrast, select anything higher than 2.

5 Select the filter that you think appropriate and make another test strip. This step has to be repeated because the coloured gel between the light and the negative mean you are increasing the amount of time it takes for the light to reach the paper.

6 Assess the test strip. If the contrast looks correct, select the right time and make your print. If not then select another filter and try again.

Perfecting your eye for contrast can take a while, but this little experiment may help:

1 Select a normal negative - one that has a good tonal range.
2 Make a normal print. If you are using variable-contrast paper, this is normally at Grade 2.
3 Repeat step 2 but using a grade 0 filter.
4 Continue doing the same until you have a set of 6 prints all printed at different grades.
5 Mount the images next to each other in sequence on one sheet of paper.

This provides you with a visual reference point to see what effect each grade has on a normal image. You can then use this as a guide when you need to use a filter in the future.

When you become proficient an advance technique is to treat different areas of a print with different grades of filters to locally control contrast, more of that in a future issue.

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