How To: Make a Black & White Print - Part I - Getting the Gear
Black and white printing is the logical next step from developing your own film. Nothing (and I mean nothing) will ever compare to the feeling you get when an image starts to appear on the paper in your developer.
You actually need surprisingly little to get a basic darkroom setup. I’m not going to deal with actually setting up your darkroom because there isn't much to say beyond the obvious - make it dark! Personally i have a shed which i have turned into a darkroom. It is a simple setup but it serves me perfectly. So let's assume there's no light getting into your room and you're ready to get printing, what equipment do you need?
Your main piece of equipment in your darkroom is going to be your enlarger. Basically it is a column attached to a base board with a light source on top. The light travels through the negative which is held in a negative carrier and is then projected onto the base where your paper will go. You can get both black & white and colour enlargers so it's up to you which one you go for. Obviously if you get a black and white enlarger you won’t be able to do colour prints in the future which you may be fine with. Be aware though that you can use a colour enlarger to print black and white (which is what I personally use). There are also two different light transmission methods in enlargers – condenser and diffusion. There are positives and negatives to each and are much debated topics in the photographic world, but personally as long as light is transmitted evenly over my negative i don’t mind which i use.
Colour enlargers tend to cost a little more but personally i feel it's worth the investment. Ebay and Gumtree are the best sites to look for enlargers (or Craigslist if you're in the US) as so many people are now switching to digital - you can pick up entire darkroom kits second hand for a ridiculously low price. For example I got my enlarger (an LPL C7700), boxes of printing paper, a bag full of 35mm film and loads of trays/chemicals and processing tanks for a mere £75. The paper alone was worth that! Shop around and you’ll be able to find yourself a bargain.
Some used enlargers will come with a timer which plugs into it and allows you to merely input a time to expose, press a button and the enlarger will turn on and shut off automatically when the time required has elapsed. These are very handy and I strongly suggest getting one. As i got more and more into printing i splashed out and treated myself to a RH Designs f-stop timer and i have never looked back. More on f-stop printing in other tutorials, for now a simple timer will suffice.
You need to think about what size negatives you will be printing. If you only use 35mm negatives and have no plans to go any bigger then a 35mm enlarger will do the trick. I shoot medium format film and so i use an enlarger that will take up to 6 x 7 negatives. When you buy an enlarger make sure it comes with a negative carrier – this is a little tray that sandwiches your negative in it and keeps it flat so that light transmits through it evenly.
Of course once you have got your enlarger you will need an...
The lens you use in your enlarger will affect your final print. Just like on a camera, a bad lens looks bad, no matter how high quality the camera body is. Cheap lenses look cheap and just aren’t worth it. It’s best to fork out a little extra and buy a good quality lens so that you can get a sharp print. It is generally agreed that companies like Rodenstock and Schneider make the best quality enlarging lenses. The general rule is that the more lens elements the lens has the better quality it is. The focal length of lens you require will be affected by the size of negative you are printing. The general rule of thumb is as follow:
Negative Size Focal Length
6 x 6 80mm
6 x 9 105mm
4 x 5 135/150mm
When looking to buy your lens make sure that the thread will actually fit the lens board on your enlarger. The last thing you want is to get your shiny new lens delivered and then discover that it won’t actually screw into your enlarger. Of course, when buying a lens you will need to check that the glass isn’t scratched, mouldy or fogged and that the aperture ring steps down smoothly. I got my Schneider 80mm lens for a mere £30 on Ebay and it's been worth every penny.
If you’re wanting to make prints then you’ll obviously need some paper to print on. There are many different companies making many different papers and it can get confusing trying to choose what to use. Basically it boils down to two types – Resin Coated (RC) or Fibre Based (FB). RC papers are like the photos you get back from Boots or those photo kiosks in chemists, quite plasticy and stiff. FB papers are more like papyrus or watercolour paper. There are advantages and disadvantages to both; RC papers are cheaper and quicker to process but (generally speaking) less receptive to toning. FB papers tend to cost more, take longer to process but are easier to tone and (to my eye anyway) tend to give richer and deeper tones throughout the print. Some may disagree with that statement but that’s just what I have found with my personal workflow. There is much debate in the photographic world as to which is best between the two types. Personally I keep a supply of both types in and then choose which one to use depending on what the negative I am printing is like and what the final result I am after is.
Papers come in two other categories. Graded or multigrade. If you don’t know what paper grades are then allow me to explain. If you develop your own film then you’ll know that changing exposure, filtration and development affects the contrast of your negative. Well, contrast can also be altered at the printing stage. I’ll cover this in more detail later on when we actually get into how to print but for now let me just say that papers come in different grades. As you go from grade 00 to grade 5 the contrast of the print will increase. Graded papers are set at one grade only whereas multigrade papers can print at a variety of grades on the one sheet. Personally I prefer multigrade papers because it saves having every single grade available in your paper supply and it saves money.
You can get papers in different sizes and obviously the bigger the paper the bigger the cost. The smallest I print is 5 x 7 inches and I go up to 16 x 20 inches (at the moment anyway). Its good to have a variety of sizes in your supply but it’s your choice of course.
Ilford make a wide range of photographic papers and all are pretty much the 'industry standard'. Multigrade IV RC is the standard resin coated paper of choice for many and it is a fine paper. Kentmere VC Select is also another fine paper which I like to use (a bonus is it's slightly cheaper than Ilford). As for fibre papers I tend to pick up whatever I can find on Ebay and the like. I have some old Orwo paper and some Agfa which are both nice FB papers, but for paper that is still in production I tend to go for Ilford’s Multigrade IV FB or FB WT. The best thing to do is look at what is available from your darkroom retailer of choice and then look at reviews online before you buy.
Papers also come with some tonal variation - cooltone, neutral and warmtone. Cooltone give almost blueish shadows, neutral is self explanatory and warmtone give browner tones to your print. These can all be emphasised with different developers which also come in cooltone, neutral and warmtone. It's great to experiment with different paper and developer combinations. Who says you can't process a warmtone paper in a cooltone developer?! As we're just starting out it's probably best to stick to a neutral developer and paper.
Obviously once your paper has been exposed to light you will need chemicals to process it. You will need a developer first and there are loads, just like in film. It comes down to preference and what you can get in your local area. At the moment I use Ilford Multigrade developer as a 'workhorse' developer and Ethol LPD as a warmtone/cooltone developer (dilution of this developer effects final image tone). After developer comes the stop bath; again I use Ilford Ilfostop. Lastly comes the fix; and yes – I use Ilford Rapid Fix. I’ll go into more detail later when we get into the process but for now it’s best to see what’s available to you in your area and use that.
You’ll need a few other things. Trays to put your chemicals in are necessary. It’s best to get one size bigger than the paper you will use. So if you are printing on 8 x 10 inch paper then use a 9.5 x 12 inch tray – it’s just easier as you have a little more room to work with. If you can't get hold of specialist trays for some reason hit your local garden centre. It’s handy to have tongs as well for lifting prints from tray to tray and keeping your hands chemical free. If you’re not going to use tongs then I recommend wearing disposable gloves or washing-up gloves when handling chemicals.
If you are using a black and white enlarger then you will need a set of multigrade filters. These are what you will use to change the contrast of your image if you are printing onto multigrade paper. If you are using a colour head then you will have colour filters built into your enlarger which you can use instead of these.
You'll need a safelight if you don't want to work in complete darkness. Most safelights are red and allow you to see as you go about working in the darkroom. Make sure that your light is at least 1.5 metres away from any paper. You can conduct a test to see if your safelight is fogging your paper (adding density, just as if it was being hit by very dim light) but if you're safelight is at least 1.5 metres from your paper you should be ok.
A stopwatch is handy for keeping track of your exposure and chemical processing times. I just use an old wristwatch that has a stopwatch function on it. If you use an old watch make sure that it doesn’t light up when you use it or you’ll expose your paper to unwanted light. The only light you want touching your paper is the light coming through the enlarger.
A focus finder is an extremely handy tool for getting your print as focused as possible. It's basically a mirror which allows you to look up the light coming from the reflector and focus on the grain of the negative, thereby ensuring your print is as focused as possible.
One more thing that is incredibly useful is an easel/mask. This is a rectangular frame of metal with two or four adjustable blades on each side attached to rulers. These allow you to mask off your paper and leave a white border on your print. Most importantly it will keep your paper flat. You will need to buy one to match the maximum size of paper you will be using. Some people make their own but they're pretty easy to get hold of, you may even get a few when you buy your enlarger.
The last thing that comes in quite handy is something to dry your prints with. You can get dedicated racks that you stand your print in to drain or you can buy one of those hangers with clothes pegs attached that you use to dry your washing on - either works just fine! I'm not really a fan of print dryers that blast the print with hot air, i don't mind waiting an hour or two for a print to dry naturally.
And that's about everything you will need. As always if you have any questions feel free to get in touch and i'll help you out as best I can. Read on to Part II to see how to start making some prints.