Burning in detail

Peter Bargh shows us how to improve our darkroom printing skills using selective exposure control.

| Darkroom Printing
Words and Pictures Peter Bargh

Covering parts of the printing paper when making an exposure will prevent light reaching that area and allow other areas to receive extra exposure. This is a technique known as dodging and burning. In this part we look at how to burn in detail.

The print I've selected for this tutorial is typical of one of the sorts of problems we get with landscape photography. The contrast range from the bright sky to the dense woodland is so wide that it can't all appear correctly exposed when printed, unless you apply a bit of craft.

Burning in detail: Burning in detail

When you make a print the enlarger covers the paper with the same amount of light so if you increase the exposure time to allow a sky to appear with detail, for example, darker areas will become a silhouette. Equally if you hold back the exposure so that shadow areas have detail, lighter areas will become washed out.
By making shapes with pieces of card you can place these above the print in the path of the light to prevent parts of the print receiving exposure.

1 If you have a good eye and can spot what's needed from a negative you can go straight to step two. Most of us need to see a print first. If so make a rough print using the exposure determined by a test strip, process and allow to dry.

2 Look at the print and see which areas are too light and which are too dark. In this example we would like the skyline to become darker allowing more density in the trees and a less distracting sky. Mark the areas over the print using a felt tip pen.

3 Cut a curve shape out of a piece of black card making the piece you keep with an edge rounded like a barrel.

Burning in detail: Burning in detail

4 The overall exposure was 10 secs at f/5.6 and the trees will need another three or four seconds. Place the paper in the enlarging easel and make the 10 second exposure. Then, with the enlarger's red filter in place, switch the enlarger on and move the mask so it's positioned over the paper and below the enlarge lens and so it masks off the area that doesn't require any further exposure. Switch the enlarger off, move the red filter out of the way and expose the unmasked sky area for four seconds.

Burning in detail: Burning in detail

5 Process the paper. When dry examine to make sure you're happy. I wasn't, the brightest areas still needed more exposure and the foreground could do with a touch to make the middle distance bolder stand out.

Burning in detail: Burning in detail

6 Cut a hole in another piece of card and use this to burn in the three white areas in the sky (a further six seconds each). Then turn the original card upside down and expose for the foreground grass covering the rest of the print for about four seconds.

Burning in detail: Burning in detail


  • You can make any shapes - the rougher the edge the better.
  • Gently move the card as you're printing to avoid hard edges.
  • Hold the card about six inches away from the paper.

Next month
We'll show you how to make and use dodging tools.



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