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Making a black & white fine print

Jesus Coll shows how learning to master exposure times and dodging and burning will help you produce fine art prints.

| Darkroom Printing

Learning how to master exposure times and dodging and burning will help you produce fine art prints
Words and photos Jesus Coll

As beginners in the darkroom many of us experience the seemingly crisp wet print that lies in the fixer tray, made with some uncontrolled burning here and some dodging there, turn disappointingly flat and dull when dried.
   Fortunately, aver the years and with practice I've learned the craft from the masters, and going to the darkroom to try making a Fine Print, is much more fun and rewarding now, than those early years. Please note I say 'try making', as doing a Fine Print is not just a matter of science, but also involves aesthetic and emotional feelings too. Having an open mind before you start working, (say to yourself 'I'm going to have fun in the darkroom, whatever I get'), helps a lot on not having the pressure to come out necessary with a Fine Print.

For me, one of the most important words or goals I try to reach when I print is balance. Contrast and density are very important too, but I assume that, depending on the lighting conditions or even the mood of the printer, one can deliver a print with slightly more or less contrast or density that is still pleasant to the eye.
At the opposite end, I find a print that hasn't had its values balanced may be very annoying to the eye. It's like a spot of dust - invisible to our eyes, but very clear what it affects.

Getting a Fine Print not only involves aesthetical concepts, but physical too.
You may well be a connoisseur of the darkroom craft, but I will give general guidelines of what a 'physical' Fine Print could be.

The print should be treated carefully along the whole process and should have no gaps, scratches or any default on its surface.

Making a black & white fine print
A couple of views of the darkroom where the print was done

To start work I arrange four trays: developer, stop bath, fixer and running water and the sequence in the trays is as follows:  The print should be given full developing time (about 2-3 minutes), passed through to the stop bath for about 30 seconds and fixed twice. Ideally the first and second fixer should be fresh solutions, but you can rotate to be more economical. The first solution becomes exhausted and contaminated quicker than the second so the time in the first fixer should be kept at the minimum, let's say three minutes, to remove the unexposed silver. At the next darkroom session, the second fixer becomes the first one and a fresh second one is mixed.

I always tone my prints in selenium to enhance their archival permanence. After processing the print in the second fixer, for 3 minutes, it is removed and immersed in the selenium toner solution without rising and kept there until the desired slight tone change has been reached. After that, it's treated in a hypo clearing solution for the manufacturer's recommended time (usually around three minutes) and the print is given a final wash for an hour.

The print I made for this tutorial Pacific Ocean, Big Sur, California, is a difficult one to print, and hopefully most of your negatives should be easier to work with to get a Fine Print. The technique is from my beginnings, when I had not even heard of the Zone System and getting a good negative was quite a guessing game.

Making a test print
Make a test print of different exposure times, with each strip showing a clear difference from one to another. Because of the failure on the reciprocity effect, I look for a basic exposure time no longer than 50 seconds and I normally use five second intervals between each strip, to give me a vast range of tones from too light to too dark. Exposure times shorter than 20 seconds, are not advisable because we could not fine control the further dodging & burning times. To accomplish a Fine Print successfully, it is very useful to have a metronome, as used by musicians, so you don't depend on your eyes watching the clock running, while you concentrate on the print. We need to handle a piece of cardboard and control the enlarger light to go on and off. This way, we hear and count mentally each second beat as we expose the print.

Making a black & white fine print

I exposed an Ilford Galerie, fibre based, grade 2 paper with five seconds intervals, from 5 to 40 seconds. It seemed pretty good to me, but one of the most important areas of the image, the hills, looked flat. As I wanted to rise the contrast a little bit, I did the same test on the grade 3 of the same brand of paper.

Making a black & white fine print

Once developed and dried, I put both prints side by side. They look similar, but grade 3 paper is much better, giving crisp detail and a broader range of tones. Always evaluate a print when it's dry, especially a high key photograph because the dry down phenomenon, provoked by shrinkage of the fibre based papers, makes the middle and high values appear much darker when dry.

Work print
The grade 3 test print, indicates that the right exposure for the hills will be between 15 and 25 seconds, while the exposure for the ocean would need 30 or 35 seconds. So, I figured out that I would expose a straight print for 30 seconds.

Making a black & white fine print
A 30 seconds straight print on grade 3 paper shows that the hills are clearly too dark, the sky too light and the ocean lacks balance.

I cut three pieces of paper and exposed each for 30 seconds on the hill part of the negative, dodging to give 15, 20 and 25 seconds for the hills. The results were great! One of these strips will probably be the right exposure for the final print, but I will leave this for later.

Making a black & white fine print
Dodging strips of -15, -20 and - 25 seconds on a 30 seconds basic exposure.
Obviously, the -25 seconds strip shows too much dodging applied.

I proceeded the same way for the sky, but instead of dodging, I burned in giving +20, +40 and +60 seconds on each of the pieces of paper.

Making a black & white fine print
Burning strips of +20, +40 and +60 seconds on a 30 seconds basic exposure.
The +40 seconds burning was about the right choice but it still lacked balanced.
So, I had to give additional burning on the left side for +20 more seconds and dodge the upper right for -15 seconds.

The results for the sky, are a different story. As the general burning of +40 seconds seemed about right, it was very imbalanced. It shows the left part too light and the upper right too dark.
   Following the same procedure, I also did some dodging tests on the lower right ocean that looked too dark and, using a piece of cardboard with a hole, I did some more burning tests on the surf area.
   Once I had all the strips processed, I cut them off and began to play!
I placed the different test strips over the straight print, trying to find out which value was the most appealing. This way, I could build up an image of the final print. When doing this, it's advisable to have spare strips that are too light and too dark, to show that we went too far on the process.
    As you must guess, I choose a -20 seconds dodging for the hills. (Fig.5)
For the sky, I choose dodging the upper right corner for -20 seconds, burning the whole sky for +20 seconds, burning the half left for +20 seconds and finally burning for +40 more seconds the upper left portion. This combination would render a balanced sky and would need additional dodging on the lower right ocean, and some burning on the surf area of the ocean to produce an ideal print.

Making the fine print
Once you have the exposure times clear in your head, write or drawn them on paper so you can follow them easily under the darkroom safelight. Then proceed to expose the final print, applying the chosen values. 

The print was processed normally and at the end of the session, was fixed on the second fixer solution for three minutes, toned in selenium (1+10) for five minutes. Then was treated on a hypo clearing solution for three minutes and given a final wash on an archival washer for an hour.

Making a black & white fine print
The final Fine Print on grade3 paper

Producing a Fine Print out of a darkroom, it is not so hard or disappointing if you follow this method. The technique needs some practice, and a degree of self-criticism to evaluate results, but I hope it inspires you to disappear into the darkroom to craft it.

To whet your appetite even further have a look at a few examples of prints I've made using this technique and Zone System exposure.

About the Author

Jesus Coll was born in Mataro, a medium size city, close to Barcelona on the North Eastern region of Spain. He became acquainted to photography with his father's old bellows camera and soon started developing and printing his own negatives. 
Making a black & white fine print
Over the years he has won several awards, including the Golden Medal FIAP in 1988, the PHOTO magazine price in 1980 and the Diapogalicia in 1989. Jesus now alternates his personal B&W work along with colour stock photography, represented worldwide by agefotostock and
   He also runs GraficArt, a company who take on assignments on travel, fashion and commercial photography as well as offering graphic and WEB designer services and leading several workshops and lectures about Ansel Adams Zone System. He has also taught Fine B&W Printing in the Polytechnical University of Catalonia. You can see more work of Jesus Coll at  or e-mail him at [email protected]
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