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An Understanding Of Film Masking In The Darkroom Part 2

Tim Hall continues to explain film masking in part 2 of his article.

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Words and images by Tim Hall

I noticed long ago that certain prints seemed to be more luminous than most. The most memorable prints I saw in museums had very good local contrast. I could limit my vision to sections of the image and still see and feel a wholeness in them. Often some prints would appear okay when seen as a whole, but when looking at the shadows they seemed flat and lacked depth. High values such as clouds would show detail but lacked good separation. It was as though the area wasn’t burned down enough, and yet I would also see prints where the burning was obvious-where halos around light areas would show, and I found this distracting.

Film masking avoids many of the shortcomings of dodging and burning. It also allows for better local contrast and results in a print that “sings” and allows you to look at it again and again without losing interest. More than anything else it provides a feeling of the subject matter and that feeling transcends the actual object that it depicts. It helps the photograph get to the spirit of the matter instead of the physicality of the object.

Home negative

In order to do film masking you’ll need the following materials and equipment.

4x5 punch and contact frame

  • Registration punch
  • Registration contact frame
  • Ortho Kodalith Film
  • Pan Masking Film


  • Ilford Ortho Film and Diffusion Sheets
  • D-11 or D-19 Developer from Kodak
  • HC 110 Developer
  • Stop Bath
  • Film Fixer

8x10 punch and contact frame

Registration punches and frames can be ordered from any first rate machine shop. Warren Conduit from Rhode Island provided the ones shown in this article. 4”x5” film is punched on the edges and fitted onto pins inserted into glass for contacting. The receiving film is also punched and place in perfect contact with the original. When working with 35mm or 120 films they need to be stripped into the center of 4”x5” sheets of films (Kodalith works fine as a supporting 4”x5” film). When working with 8”x 10” films the punch and frame provided by Conduit Manufacturing places the holes in diagonal corners of the film.

First you need to line up the sheet of 4”x5” film against the left edge metal bar on the film punch. Make sure the film lies flat emulsion down before punching. If you are working with 120 or 35mm film you will need to tape the original into the center of a 4”x5” sheet of film. Used Kodalith film works well in this case. We’ll get back to how to collect used sheets of Kodalith later. Place the 35mm or 120 film in the center of the 4”x5” Kodalith. Keep both the Kodalith as well as the original film emulsion down. Gently place a sheet of clear acetate over the original exposing the edge only. Take a straight edge ruler and hold it down against the edge of the original. Gently cut with a new razor blade along the edge of the original. Do not cut into the original just cut along side of it. Do this to 3 sides of the original and then tape the original down onto the 4”x5” Kodalith. Make sure there are no hairs adhering to the tape. Once that side is taped go ahead and cut the final 4th edge. Then tape on all 4 sides taking care not to overlap any tape. Once the four sides are taped you can flip over the Kodalith and remove the center piece. You will have a single sheet of 4”x5” film with your original in the center. Now you can proceed to punch the 4”x5” film and all the work you do will be in register.

The first stage mask is made with Kodalith film processed in D-19 or D-11 developer. The purpose of the first stage mask is to block the black areas in the image. Ideally that is where the Kodalith will have density and it will be clear everywhere else. When dry this mask is placed on top of the original prior to exposing the main mask. Density will be recorded then in those areas adjacent to the blacks in the image, but the black areas will remain clear. Most likely this will mean the shadow detail areas will be recorded on the main mask.

The exposed film is to be processed in undiluted developer for 2 minutes at 70 degrees. If shadow detail is to be kept you must stop the exposure just when it begins to show. Since the local contrast in that area is very low you will need to develop out just a bit of shadow detail. After fixing use a dilute amount of ferricyanide to bleach the Kodalith. This was the main ingredient in Kodak’s Farmer’s Reducer. You only need a ¼ teaspoon with 16 oz. of water. After soaking the first stage mask for a minute place it back into the fixer and the shadow detail will slowly bleach away. You must do this several times and stop when you reach the point where the shadow detail is gone but the black areas remain. The decision as to when to stop depends entirely on where you want the black to end. Quite often I will make 2 of these masks and sandwich them prior to making the main mask. You will be surprised how much local contrast you will obtain in the shadow areas when you do this properly.

1st mask

After drying the first stage mask (I usually allow them to dry overnight because I want them to register properly) they are placed on top of the original film prior to making the main mask exposure. I should tell you at this point that everything is placed emulsion down on the glass and it is flipped over when making the exposure. The main mask is made with masking film. If you cannot find masking film you can used Ilford’s Ortho film. It works fine but you need to place a sheet of diffusion film between the Ilford film and the first stage mask. Ilford’s Ortho film is not recommended if you are masking for color work, but that is another matter. Masking film has a built in diffuser and makes the darkroom work a little easier,. Kodak used to sell diffusion sheets for this purpose and I am sure you can find a similar material on the web or at your local art store.

The main mask is very low in contrast and doesn’t require much exposure. It is processed in HC 110 with dilution F - 1 part stock to 19 parts water. The film is processed for 4 minutes in 70 degrees. How dark you make the mask is dependent on how much effect you want. I would suggest that in the beginning you make a couple of masks and try printing with both. When you place the main mask on the original film you will not use the first stage mask. That is discarded or, better yet, used to strip in other original films that require masking.

Main Mask

To register the final mask in place with the original you need to cut off the edges of the mask on three sides. Do not cut off the edge that has the holes punched in them. You will need to place both the original and the mask onto pins taking care to keep everything as clean as possible. Place a loop on the center of the mask weighing it down onto the original. Then use artist tape (something strong) and tape along the 3 sides to keep them in register after you remove both sheets from the pins. You’ll need to cut off the excess tape that goes over the original film’s edge. You can do this with a razor blade. I do not use my contact frame with the pins in them to do this. I have a separate piece of regular glass with pins taped down for this purpose. This is because I don’t want to scratch the glass in the contact frame.

Note that the black areas in the main mask are clear. These areas will allow the exposure to come through to print a decent black when it is sandwiched with the original film. The high value areas are also clear. Suppose you use 10 seconds to make a print from the original negative prior to masking. After masking you will most likely need to use 15 seconds or even more. This prolonged exposure will gain you more shadow detail due to the mask and since the high value areas on the mask are clear you will also gain more detail from those areas as well. You will also obtain a denser black on the print. For enlargements you will need a glass negative carrier.

We haven’t talked about the shape of film curves, but the lower areas of the characteristic curve are very low in contrast. It is referred to as the “toe” area of the curve. The mask helps to raise this part of the curve while keeping the lowest part of the curve (the black area) down. This is why you will observe greater local contrast in these areas of the finished print. The upper portion of the curve (the high values) has very good contrast. It does not slope down unless you hit the “shoulder” of the curve with overexposure. Therefore printing with more exposure greatly enhances the local contrast of those areas as well. When I first tried masking negatives back in 1976 I was amazed at the clarity I got in the high value areas. I thought I had stumbled upon a long lost technique, but my father had studied with both Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock and he told me that no one ever spoke of masking.

first print

And that in a nutshell is film masking. For me the most important thing about masking is not how it can alter an image. It is how it has affected my seeing. When I see an image that I want to print I never limit what I want to see based on what is in front of me. That is, I don’t see the world as it is. Instead I see it as I want it. There’s a story I heard years ago about a Zone System workshop given by Ansel Adams. It was given outside beside a river and the other great photographer Brett Weston was there as well. He was observing the class.

first print

After a couple of hours of lecturing the class began to set up their cameras to make their exposures. After a short time it was determined that the contrast of the lighting from the sun exceeded the capability of the photographic process to make a decent photograph, and so they had to stop. Brett Weston, on the other hand, had made his exposure hours ago when the lighting was right. The point being made was that the study of photography can get in the way of making photographs, I guess. But more importantly, for me, the knowledge of masking allows me to ignore the constraints of excessive contrast and to make an exposure anyway. If the image is worth it, I’ll spend the week’s time to work on the negative to make the fine print.

This brings up another memory. Back in 1983 I had been practicing film masking for over 5 years and I felt I was pretty adept at it and wanted to share what I knew with the master himself, Ansel Adams. I was curious to see what he thought of the procedure. I decided to take a Zone System workshop from him in Yosemite, and I sent in my application along with payment and a portfolio of my work shot on 35mm transparency film. I went and purchased all of Mr. Adams’ books and proceeded to read and use them. I was amazed at the technical data he gave me in those books; I especially liked The Negative. I ran all the tests he recommended and learned so much from him. And then a couple of weeks before the class was to begin I received a letter saying that the class was full, and so with an apology I was given a refund.

The following year I received another letter from the Yosemite workshop saying that they remembered me from the year before and offered to save me a spot for the coming workshop in Yosemite. Then within a couple of week’s time it was announced that Ansel Adams had passed away. And so I was never given the chance to show him what film masking did for my prints.

Lately I emailed the wonderful student and great photographer/printer John Sexton. I told him my story of his mentor and my missed opportunity. I did tell him that although I never actually studied with Mr. Adams that I still considered myself a student of his because he taught me so much through his books. Then I asked Mr. Sexton what his teacher would have thought about film masking.

Mr. Sexton was kind enough to respond to me within just a couple of days. He said that Ansel knew about film masking though, to his knowledge, never used it in making any of his own prints. He said that he, himself, used and taught it. As a matter of fact he had a negative in his enlarger at that moment that had a mask on it. He also said that he and I were not alone in our use of film masking, although he said that it was not discussed much.

After that email correspondence I recalled Mr. Adams writing about his “Moonrise Over Hernandez.” He said that that print was a very difficult one to make. He had only a couple of minutes to capture the image before the sun went down and the light escaped from the crosses in the cemetery. In order to print the foreground with more detail he dipped the original negative in intensifier to strengthen the image detail.

This is precisely what film masking does, but it does a better job than intensifier; it is more gentle on the image as well as the negative. So I wonder if the film masking that Ansel Adams knew about was the kind of film masking that I do. Also John Sexton said that he learned film masking from school when he studied in the early 1970s. I didn’t study film masking. I didn’t even study photography; I majored in music. The photography that I learned I learned from trial and error and by the seat of my pants. It was only after reading The Negative (three times) that the principles of sensitometry came into focus and masking began to make more sense.

Lastly I have to say that it seems to me that film masking may have been used as a “remedy” to “repair” shortcomings of certain negatives. I will be the first to concede that film masking is not for every negative that you make. It is a long and tedious (although I find it great fun) task. But for those important images it allows me to savor the process of print making, and it gives me time to impart to the print my conscious endeavor, which in itself may have meaning. This is why I incorporate masking (in my mind) whenever I approach an important subject matter to photograph. I don’t use it as an afterthought, after the negative has been made.

My very first successful attempt at this was when I came upon two chairs in New York City in 1982. It seemed to me that the chairs, which were outside on a street café, were well worn and had their own memories of the many conversations that passed their way. I shot a whole roll of film. I was using a Rolleiflex camera at the time) and marked the roll so that I would know which roll the chairs were on. I remember using a pyro developer to gain the high acutance the developing agent is known for. I had a number of good exposures and it didn’t really matter which one I chose. As soon as the film was dry I stripped it into a sheet of 4” x 5” film and began masking.

I was full of anticipation. Since it took me a couple of days to finish the masks this feeling remained. I didn’t make the fine print until I had an open Saturday and I spent the whole day making a dozen prints. When it was done it seemed like I could at last relax. It wasn’t that I was exhausted. I just felt as if I was trotting along the side of something. It was a feeling I was holding onto as if I would lose it if I didn’t keep up. Looking at the fine print afterwards the feeling was retained in the photograph. The chairs “felt” alive and it seemed my job was done.

Today I still marvel at the feeling I get when I look at that picture. It just has meaning to me, and I think that all the effort that I put into film masking added to that experience.

NY Chairs

In closing I will say that I hope film photography goes on forever and is not buried by digital technology. There is a letter written by the great German lyric poet Rainer-maria Rilke. In it he writes to a young would-be poet. He says that doing something just because it is difficult has its own rewards and that invaluable lessons can be learned only in this manner. In a way the most difficult thing about photography is that it is easy.

Also the dynamic recording range of film far exceeds that of digital camera backs. In a way photographing with digital cameras is like photographing with transparency film except that transparency films can record much more shadow detail than digital cameras. On the other hand if you expose transparencies to the point where the high value details are lost there is no way to recapture information there. Digital captures are like that. If you don’t have the detail in the high values you can’t print them into the photo. On film, highlights can always be burned in and you will be surprised how much can be brought out of those areas with film masking.

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