Words and illustration by Peter Bargh
Creating good black & white prints needs more than just good printing skills - you have to start with a good negative and that's not just exposure skill it also has to be processed correctly.
If your photos aren't looking like you'd hoped, here's a guide to help you identify where you may be going wrong.
When developing a film you may go to great lengths to ensure the time and agitation techniques are spot to deliver a correctly developed result, but what if the negative wasn't exposed correctly in the first place? Equally you may employ all the necessary skills to produce a superbly exposed photo and then cock up the developing. In an ideal world you would produce perfectly exposed and developed images every time, but there are bound to be times when something goes wrong and there are nine possible outcomes. To help you identify which of these you've fallen into I've created a grid of pictures with various exposure and processing options.
Each has a negative and positive view so you can check by looking at your negatives or at your prints and find the one that matches your results.
The results run horizontally with a row of underexposed, correctly exposed and over exposed negatives. Looking down the columns you'll underdeveloped, correctly developed and overdeveloped. The ideal result is the one in the middle.
When a film is underexposed the negative will have a pale see through appearance. These transparent areas will appear black on the print, but the brightest highlight areas will still have detail.
A correctly exposed film will have detail in all but the brightest and darkest areas of the negative, while a overexposed negative has a dense grey look with lots of black areas producing a washed out print.
An underdeveloped film can easily be confused with an underexposed negative because both are thin, but the underdeveloped version will still have some detail in shadow areas. A correctly developed film will produce negatives with plenty of tonal range and punchy prints. An overdeveloped film produces rich black negatives that print with too much contrast and increased grain.