How To: Make RA-4 Colour Prints
RA4 printing is a lot easier than people credit it to be. Although tricky to get to grips with at first, once you are used to the procedures involved it is rewarding and enjoyable. It’s easy to get carried away with black and white printing and not give colour it’s merit. True, black and white is much more variable what with toning and split grade printing etc, but sometimes you just need a little colour in your life.
The main reason I print my colour negatives is because i hate scanning. I don’t think flatbed scanners can get the detail, tonality and saturation of a negative. Many times I have printed a shot and scanned it as well so I could compare the two. I can never get my scans to look like my prints, they are often oversaturated, have a dodgy colour cast and just don’t look like they should. If I had a drum scanner then i’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem, but I don't so it is.
It’s worth giving RA4 printing a try at least once, just so you know what is involved and what you can create on your final print. So, let’s get on into it.
If you already develop your own colour film and have an enlarger then you have likely got all you need to print RA4. I should state here that there are a couple of ways you can develop colour prints. I will be using my Jobo rotary processor but it is possible to develop the print in trays, and some people even have tabletop processors where you pop your paper into one end , wait a few minutes and out pops your colour print from the other end. I haven’t done that before so I can’t really comment on it. So, let’s run through a quick list of what you’ll need:
- RA4 printing chemicals (i use a Rollei Digibase 3 part kit)
- RA4 paper (such as Kodak Supra Endura or Fuji Crystal Archive)
- Enlarger (preferably with inbuilt colour filters – failing that you will need to buy some colour filters)
- Jobo rotary processor with print drum/developing trays
- Kodak viewing filters (not necessary but they come in handy)
- Bottles/graduates/thermometers etc
Step 1 - Preparing Your Chemistry
Ok, you’ve got your gear together. The first thing you need to do is fill your Jobo with water and get it heated up to 37.8 degrees, just like your C41 film. While that’s heating up let’s get our chemicals mixed. The Rollei RA4 kit is inexpensive, lasts ages and gives great results. It comes in 3 parts – starter, developer and bleach-fix (blix). On each bottle is mixing instructions to make 1 litre of working solution. Now, when I am printing I only like to make a few prints at a time. If I mix up a litre of working solution it is going to expire long before I use it up. I like to split my chemicals down into smaller batches so I can do five or so prints at a time. The Jobo drum I use requires 120ml of solution to process the print properly. So if I divide the mixing instructions by 8 I can get 125ml of working solution per batch. A bit of maths is involved but it’s worth it so you don’t waste any chemical.
So, take your mixing instructions, divide by 8 and then you will have your 125ml batch for your first run. What isn’t included is a stop bath to go between developer and blix. You can use water but I prefer using a black and white stop bath (in this case Ilfostop). Mix up 125ml of stop and add it to a clearly labelled bottle. Put this bottle as well as your developer and blix bottles in your Jobo bath and leave them to get to temperature.
When using a Jobo patience is key. All too often when I first started home processing film I would only leave my Jobo for twenty minutes or so and that just isn’t long enough for it to get heated up to a level temperature. You need to leave your Jobo for an hour minimum so that it can reach (and maintain) the correct processing temperature..
Step 2 – In The Darkroom
While your chemicals are heating up it’s time to head into the darkroom. Clean your negative and holder in the usual way and load them into your enlarger, get your box of paper out and ready (but don’t open it). If you are using under-enlarger colour filters get them ready. Take your Jobo drum, remove the top section and look inside. You will notice the drum has a cross section that looks like this:
One deep ridge at the top, 3 at the bottom. Make sure these ridges line up with the corresponding ridges on the drum base or you will struggle to load your paper. If this is your first time printing RA4 you’re going to need to put some practice in here as you will be loading the paper into the drum...in the dark! That’s right – no safelight allowed when it comes to colour! That means you are going to be fumbling about blindly – if you haven’t rehearsed that’s going to be tricky! So, grab and old print and your drum and have a few practice runs loading either in the dark or with your eyes shut. For this tutorial let’s say we are printing 8 x 10. Take your paper (use an old print) and bend it gently lengthways into a "U" shape, making sure you don’t sharply fold or crease the print. Imagine putting a poster into one of those long cardboard tubes, that’s the motion were going for. Make sure that the emulsion side is facing into the print, not the drum wall otherwise you wont get a good development. Shut your eyes and feel for the top ridge with your fingers. Align the long side of the print along this ridge and then feel for the other length of the paper. Gently push this paper into the wall of the Jobo drum and you will feel the edge hit the left hand of the three ridges. Your print should now be nice and secure. If it feels loose have a grope around, you may have aligned it with the bottom or right ridge. Open your eyes and take a look, if your print is sandwiched between the top and left ridges then well done you! If not then keep practicing! It may take some time but soon this action will become second nature.
So, you’re now competent at loading your drum. Time to setup for a test strip. Open your lens wide and focus your image. If you look on your box of paper you will see a suggested filter pack. Dial in the settings either using your built-in filters or your under-lens filters (usually it’s around 40 magenta 50 yellow – written as 40M 50Y). Set the f-stop you want to print at on your enlarger lens. Now, lay your paper and drum within easy reach and turn off all room lights and safelights. Wait a minute or so for your eyes to adjust. If you can see light block it out as it WILL affect your print. Once your room is fully dark find your box of paper and take out a sheet. Feel for the side with the emulsion on (if glossy it should be obvious, if matt it normally has a slightly rougher texture than the paper backing). Put your paper into your enlarger easel and grab your card to run a test strip (card is used to sequentially uncover a section of paper so you have varying exposures on one sheet – see my black and white printing tutorials). RA4 printing requires much shorter exposure times than black and white so running a strip from 0 to 10 seconds should be more than adequate. Once your test strip is done, find your print drum and load the paper just as you previously practiced. Put the lid on, make sure your paper box is closed and then fumble for the light switch! Now it’s time for...
Step 3 – Processing
Your chemicals should now be nice and warm at 37.8 degrees Celsius so it’s time to get processing. We’ll start with a prewash, follow that with the developing and stop, then rinse again, blix and final rinse. The whole process takes just over 5 minutes so it’s relatively quick. Processing times are as follows:
Final Rinse: 1:30s (change of water after 45s)
If you develop your own film then you will be used to the process, it’s very similar – just shorter. After your processing is complete take a deep breath and remove the lid of your drum. Peel the print away from the drum wall and you should have a test strip, much like this.
You will notice that your print has blue shadows when wet. As always, prints are best evaluated when dry so grab a hair dryer and blast it. The good thing about RA4 paper is that it dries rapidly. Once your print is touch dry your shadows should have lost the blue and gone black.
Step 4 – Evaluating the print
You will likely see a strong colour cast, probably magenta. Ignore that for now – we want to get our exposure correct first. Look over your print and see which exposure gives you good detail in both highlights and shodows. It all depends on what you want your final print to look like of course. Once you have chosen your exposure time make a note of it. Leave your print and head back to the darkroom. Dial your chosen time into your enlarger and follow the previous steps to make a straight print at your chosen time. Process as usual and dry it out.
Look at the print closely, still ignoring the colour cast. Is the exposure correct? Does it have good detail in critical places? If you’re not happy with it go back and make a new print with a different exposure, be it longer or shorter, until you’re happy.
Step 5 – Altering the Colour Cast
This is the first print I came up with from my test strip. As you can see it is too dark and too magenta:
We will now use filtration to add or cancel colour to the print. This is where viewing filters come in handy:
We can look through the viewing filters at our print and see how it changes the colour. For example, the above print is too magenta. The opposite of magenta is green, so if we look at the print through the green viewing filter we will see the magenta cast reduce. Each viewing filter has 3 windows with varying strengths of colour. This helps to narrow down the filtration you will need to get a natural coloured print.
If you don’t have any viewing filters then that is no problem, it is still relatively simple to make adjustments. The general rule is add/subtract 5cc (colour filtration is measured in cc) for a small adjustment, 10cc for a moderate adjustment, and 20cc for a large adjustment. The most important thing to remember is that to reduce a colour you must increase filtration for that colour . Remember that! In this example we want to reduce the magenta so we would add magenta filtration. I made another print and added 40cc of magenta (a drastic change) so you can see what happens:
We end up with a very green print indeed! Clearly too drastic a change. I reduced the magenta filtration by 20cc (so +20cc from the original) and added 5cc of yellow to cancel out a slight blue cast I still had in the shadows. I also decreased exposure so as to bring out more detail in the shadow area beneath the window. This sacrificed some colour and detail in the trees and sky outside the window, but it made the print feel more natural overall:
The best thing now is that this filtration can be used throughout the rest your roll of film. When you try another frame from your negative your filtration should be in the ballpark area. You may have to make a few small adjustments depending on your print, but the filtration should be pretty close so make sure you keep a written record of it.
So that is pretty much the process. A basic tutorial but it gives you everything you need to get going in RA4 printing. Once you get accustomed to the process you will alter exposure and filtration as you go. It is also possible to dodge and burn colour prints, and even alter filtration whilst dodging and burning so you can alter the colour of one part of the print. But to be honest I haven't done much of that yet. My exposure for my final print above was just over 2 seconds. Imagine trying to dodge and burn in a fraction of a second! I suppose if you are printing on much bigger paper like 16 x 20 then your exposure would be longer which would help, but in all honesty I haven’t needed to dodge or burn a colour print yet which is a relief!
There is a great sense of achievement when you finally get the print that you want using the RA-4 process. Although long-winded and often frustrating, colour printing is a rewarding process which I urge you all to try at least once in your lives! So, if you feel the urge give it a try and, as always, happy printing!