Contact Printing from Paper Negatives

Posted on 16 April 2010 by Brian Auer

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As a follow-up to the previous video post on developing paper negatives, we’re now getting into making contact prints from those paper negatives. This is all aimed at the DIY Large Format Project, so check out some of the previous posts if you’re new around here. What I’m presenting here is a simple method for making contact prints, so here are some show notes to supplement the video.

I also apologize for the crappy and abrupt transitions in the video. When I shot it, I didn’t realize that there was a 10 minute time limit on YouTube uploads, so I had to really chop it down (the original was 16 minutes).

Equipment List

All of the equipment used in this tutorial is readily available via Amazon or online/local photography shops. These are affiliate links.

I should also note that the brand/type of paper and chemicals are a personal preference. I use Ilford products because that’s what I’m used to using and that’s what is most readily available at my local stores.

Process Overview

This is just like any other black and white printing — the fact that we’re using a paper negative only makes the process slightly easier.

  1. PREP THE DARKROOM
    Mix your chemicals and get the rest of your equipment ready to go. Seal off any stray light from doors or windows. And right before you flip off the lights and expose the first print, adjust the temperature of your developer to the recommended value (in fact, check this before every exposure for better consistency).
  2. PICK YOUR SPOT, RUN A TEST STRIP
    The first print you’ll want to make is a test strip. I usually cut my paper into 1/4 sheet strips to produce four 8×2.5″ papers (and remember to do this with the safelight on). Then choose a location on your negative where you have an array of shadows and highlights so you can evaluate the full spectrum of tones. Place your test strip face up and your negative face down against each other and expose the entire thing for your starting time (something like 2 or 4 seconds). Then take a mask (something thicker than paper) and mask off about 1/4 to 1/3 of the test strip area without moving your print. Expose again for the same time as the first. Then mask another 1/4 to 1/3 and expose for twice the time. Keep going until you’re out of room on the test strip. This will give you a 1-stop spectrum of exposures along your test strip.
  3. DEVELOP
    Drop the exposed paper in the developer bath quickly and try not to touch it. Agitate as you see fit — more agitation yields higher contrast, more time yields darker print. Keep your agitation and time constant while changing other variables such as exposure and contrast filters. My choice of developer works well with a 60 second development time.
  4. STOP, FIX, WASH
    Refer to the previous article on developing paper negatives — nothing here has changed.
  5. EVALUATE EXPOSURE
    Take a look at your different areas of exposure and evaluate if you need more or less to reach good levels on your shadows. If things are too light, you need more exposure (and visa versa). Run another masked test strip if you need to, or move to a single exposure test strip for evaluating contrast.
  6. EVALUATE CONTRAST
    If you’re using an enlarger to expose, you can use multigrade filters to vary your contrast just like you would with film. Once your exposure is somewhat dialed in, you can experiment with different contrast filters and evaluate which works best for the print.
  7. REFINE
    Keep going with the test strips until you have your exposure and contrast settings where you want them. It’s frustrating when you waste a dozen full sheet prints, so stick with 1/4 sheet test strips until you’re fairly sure of yourself.
  8. RUN A FULL TEST PRINT
    Test strips will only take you so far, and you can’t fully evaluate a print until you see it from corner to corner. Run a full print, allow it to dry, and evaluate your exposure and contrast. Chances are, you might need to run another 1 or 2 full sheets before you’re happy with the results. This is normal, don’t sweat it.
  9. FINAL PRINT
    Your final print will be no different than your full sheet test prints, except for the fact that your settings are finalized and the outcome is satisfactory. Beware of evaluating prints while they are wet — things change after they dry. When you’re done, don’t forget to write down your exposure settings, chemicals used, dilutions, and developing times. If you need to go back and reproduce the print, these things will save you a bunch of time.

Final Print VS Negative Scan

In the previous article, I scanned the negative and processed the image as if it were digital. For the contact print, I scanned it and processed the digital copy to match the actual print as close as possible. You’ll notice a bit of difference in the exposure and contrast (particularly in the shadows). The digital negative scan performed well in this area. You’ll also notice a difference in sharpness, and again the digital negative scan performed better than the contact print. Not sure why this is… it’s not like you can control focus on a contact print. My only guess is that the paper negative scatters the light and produces slightly soft prints.

Here’s the scan of the contact print (matched as closely to the real thing as I could get).

Final Contact Print

And here’s the digital-adjusted scan of the negative.

Scanned and Inverted Negative

Contact printing… maybe not everybody’s cup of tea. But it’s a good intro to printing optical enlargements from film. The process is much the same and you don’t have as much setup time with framing and focusing the image. Contact prints with a paper negative seem to produce a softer focus, but I’ll have to run a few more tests before I draw any conclusions.

Has anybody out there noticed the same sharpness issue with contact printing from paper negatives? And has anybody tried exposing the prints without an enlarger? I’d be curious to hear about the light source and how it worked out.

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Rince Says:

    thx for this tutorial, i was wondering how to do it and didn’t realize it was as simple as putting two sheets on top of each other :D

    One tip i got in regard of the timer being off: instead of adding all the exposure times together to get the total time, light the paper in the same intervals as you made the test trips. In that way, you get the same exposure time as your test strip. eg: if you made a test strip with 4 sec intervals (4-8-12-16), and you choose the 12secs total, than light it as 4sec-4sec-4sec instead of one exposure of 12secs.

    well thats all, thx 4 the great tutorials
    grts
    Rince

    [Reply]

  2. Janne Says:

    I just saw a tip from another forum to wet the paper negative and paper before exposure. It makes the negative a bit more transparent, and makes them cling together properly so there’s no chance of a gap or them moving during the exposure.

    I’ll have to try this once I get version 2 of my camera built.

    [Reply]

  3. Billy Says:

    Did my first ever contact printing today, came out well, was wondering if I can cut out a strip of that photo paper and expose it in my old medium format camera, a Yashica TLR, what amount of exposure time or ISO I’d need.

    Thanks

    [Reply]

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