TwelveSmallSquares

The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Make a Black & White Print - Part III - Split Grade Printing

Split grade printing is a powerful tool in the printers skill set and when used correctly it can yield fantastic results.  For some people it works all the time, every time; for others it’s a bit hit and miss; and some just can’t get seem to get the hang of it at all.  Hopefully this tutorial will help you get to grips with the process and give you the impetus to give it a try yourself.

What is Split Grade Printing?

Basically speaking split grade printing involves making two exposures at two different grades onto one sheet of paper.  If successfully accomplished you will end up with a print that has the shadow tones you want and the highlight tones you want..  It also opens up more avenues for dodging and burning (which we'll go into that in greater detail on Part IV).

The Process

You will need all the equipment we have already discussed in parts one and two of my black and white printing tutorial.  Setup your enlarger and chemicals as previously and choose your paper (for this example I will once again be using Ilford MGIV RC VC).  Now, instead of dialling in grade 2 or 3 we will be using the softest (or lowest) grade our paper can manage (usually 00).  

If you look at the filtration table on the datasheet that comes with your paper you will see different filtration settings ranging from 00 to 5 (dual filtration settings may only got up to 4.5).  As you can see from the table below, grade 00 on my Kodak style enlarger requires a setting of 162Y/0M.  Dial that setting in, put your paper on your easel and make a test strip in the same way we did in part two of the tutorial. 

Once you have developed your print let it dry.  Here is an example of a test strip at grade 00 from 26s - 0s:

As you can see it is very low contrast indeed and shadow areas are grey, not black.  Examine your test strip and look for the time that gives you the highlight tones you want. Ignore shadow areas for now and ignore the lack of contrast – your focus should be entirely upon the highlights.  Once you have selected your time make a note of it and, if you want to, make a full print at that time to see how the highlights across the whole print look.  From my test strip i decided to go for 11 seconds.

Now its time to create your second exposure.  Put a new sheet of paper onto your easel and make your grade 00 exposure on  it (11s in my case).  Once your exposure is done don’t move the paper because you’re going to do another test strip on it.  This is where having multigrade filters trumps using a colour head because you need to change the filtration.  If you're using multigrade filters just swap your 00 for a 5, if you're using a colour head you will have to cover your lens, run your enlarger, change the settings and then shut your enlarger off.  Eventually you may even get a feel for just how much you need to turn your colour filtration dials which will mean you can change settings in the dark.  If you reach this level congratulations - you're a filtration master!

Looking back at your paper datasheet you'll see that when using dual filtration on this paper grade 5 is not possible but grade 4.5 is.  That’s fine, just use as high a grade as you can.  So, for grade 4.5 on Ilford MGIV RC VC we need to dial in a setting of 0Y/150M.  Dial that in and then make a test strip on your paper.  Develop it as usual and let it dry.

What you will have is a print with a base exposure at grade 00 and a test strip of grade 4.5/5 over the top.  Note that the grade 4.5/5 exposure doesn’t really effect the highlights much, just the shadows.  This is the key to split grade printing – your soft exposure (grade 00) effects the highlights, the hard exposure (grade 5/4.5) effects the shadows.  Memorise this saying! 

Pick the hard exposure that gives you the shadows you want.  Here’s my test print (again 26s - 0s):

After much consideration I ended up choosing the 16 second exposure.  Once you have chosen the your exposure time your ready to make your print.  Go through the steps above – make your soft exposure followed by your hard and you should be left with a print showing good overall contrast, strong shadows and crisp highlights.  Here’s my final print:

There are a few problems though, if your soft exposure is too long then your highlights will be muddy and overall print contrast will be reduced.  If your hard exposure is too short then your shadows wont be deep enough and again, overall contrast will be reduced.  It may take you a few prints to get to grips with the process but once you get the hang of it it becomes a really versatile and useful technique.

When you are first starting out with split grade printing I find it is best to make a few prints with one negative.  Make a print with a long, medium and short soft exposure combined with a long, medium and short hard exposure.  This will show you how the two exposures work together to change the print contrast.  In the end though it boils down to one simple rule: soft exposure for the highlights, hard exposure for the shadows.  Remember that and you shouldn't go too far wrong.

Of course, we haven't yet mentioned dodging and burning.  When you start to dodge and burn and combine these techniques with split grade printing then you will have a sudden realisation - you have complete control of what emerges on your printing paper.

Part IV of my tutorial will deal with dodging and burning.  Until then, happy printing!