Contact printing

Film processing does not really require a darkroom, but before you can print or enlarge your negatives you will have to organize yourself some kind of blacked-out room to work in. This might have to be the family bathroom, quickly adapted for the evening (see Figure 36.2). Maybe you can convert a spare room, or perhaps you are lucky enough to have use of a communal darkroom designed for the purpose at a school or club, as shown in Figure 36.1.

The darkroom

The most important features to consider when you are planning a darkroom are:

Excluding the light

Existing windows have to be blocked off - either temporarily using thick black plastic sheeting or paper, or more permanently with hardboard. Alternatively, buy a fabric roller blind blackout. As long as you have kept out unwanted white light, the walls of the room can be quite pale toned - a matt white finish helps to reflect around the colored illumination from your safe light, designed not to affect the photographic paper.

Figure 36.2 Darkroom in adapted bathroom (S - safe light).


Working alone for an hour in the darkroom you may not find the air too stuffy, but for groups working for longer times you need a light-tight air extractor fan. A communal darkroom also needs a light trap instead of a door. This helps the circulation of air and makes it easy for people to enter or leave without disturbing others. Wall surfaces inside the light trap are painted matt black, to reduce reflections.

Water supply

In the bathroom, use the bath to wash prints and the hand basin to rinse your hands, free of chemicals. The permanent darkroom has a large, flat-bottomed PVC sink to hold trays for processing solutions, and a tank or tray for print washing. Always separate the wet stages of darkroom work from 'dry' work, such as handling the enlarger and packets of paper. In the larger darkroom, each activity can take place on different sides of the room.


Take special care over your electricity supply, needed for the enlarger and safe light, because electricity and water can be a lethal combination. Never let wires or switches come into contact with water or wet hands. Take your supply from a three-pin socket, and include a circuit-breaker of the type sold for garden tools. Metal parts of your enlarger or safe light should be connected to the earth wire ('grounded'). This is especially important in any board-over-the-bath bench arrangement. Take out any temporary wiring as soon as you have finished work, even though you intend to return within a few hours.

Equipment for contact printing Print processing

Most of the items necessary for contact printing are shown in Figure 36.3. You need at least three plastic trays (1) big enough for your prints - 12 in x 10 in is a good size. One is for developer, one for rinsing and washing, and the other for fixing. Print developer (2) is similar to, but much faster-acting than, negative developer. It comes as a concentrated solution, diluted just before use and discarded after your printing session. The fixer is a less concentrated form of negative fixer, and can be reused.

You also need the measuring graduate (3) used for films and a photographic tray thermometer (blue spirit or LCD with red display). The thermometer (4) stays in the developer tray to tell you if the solution is too warm or cold. Plastic tongs (5) - one for developer, the other only for fixer - allow you to keep your hands out of solutions. A washing hose (6) connects the cold water tap to the rinse tray and turns it into a print washing device. Have a clock (8) to time minutes during processing and (if you have no enlarger timer) seconds during exposure.

Suitable orange lighting is permissible in the printing darkroom (7), as black and white paper is not sensitive to this color. You can buy a bench or hanging safe light (9), which contains a 25-watt bulb behind dyed glass, or use a fluorescent strip light with a special colored sleeve (10). The safe light is positioned near the developer tray (Figure 36.1) but no closer than specified, usually 1 m (3 ft).

Exposing equipment

To expose your contact print you need an even patch of white light, which will shine through the negatives laid out on the paper. You could use a reading lamp fitted with a 15-watt bulb, but as an enlarger will be needed later for making bigger prints of individual negatives, this can conveniently provide your contact printing light. All you have to do at this stage is raise it to a height where it provides a large enough patch of light for your print, as shown in Figure 36.4.

The negative strips can be held down in tight contact with the light-sensitive printing paper during exposure by a sheet of thick glass. Better still, buy a proper contact printing frame - glass with thin plastic grooves on its underside to hold the film, and hinged to a baseboard.

The light-sensitive paper

Most black and white photographic paper is known as bromide paper (due to the silver bromide used in its light-sensitive emulsion). It comes in different sizes, surfaces and types of base, and is available

Figure 36.4 Using an enlarger to give a patch of light for exposing a contact print.

in either grades of contrast or the more popular multi-contrast variety. The 10 in x 8 in size just accommodates seven strips of five 35 mm negatives. Start off with a packet this size of glossy, resin-coated (RC), multigrade paper. You will also need a set of simple enlarger filters to adjust the contrast of the paper.

Printing a contact sheet

It is best to make a contact print from every film you shoot. This way you have a visual file of all your pictures from which to choose the ones to enlarge. Prepare the solutions in their trays and bring the developer to its recommended temperature (usually about 20°C). Now you can change the lighting in your darkroom to safe lighting and open your packet of paper. Position one sheet, glossy side upwards, under the switched off enlarger and re-close the packet. Lay out your negatives in rows on the paper with their emulsion (dull) side downwards. Have all the edge numbers running the same way - it is irritating later to discover one row of pictures upside down. Then cover over the negatives with the glass.

Insert a grade 2 (normal contrast) filter into the enlarger lamphouse. Then, with the enlarger near the top of its column and the lens stopped down two f settings from widest aperture (usually about f8), give a trial exposure of about 20 seconds (see Figure 36.6). Remove the glass and put your negatives carefully to one side. As shown in Figure 36.5, slide the exposed sheet of paper smoothly under the surface of the developer. Note the time on the clock and rock the tray gently to keep the paper fully submerged. Magically, the shapes of the frames on your film appear on the paper, then the pictures themselves - growing darker and stronger all the time. But keep one eye on the clock and remove the print when its recommended development time is up (typically 1 minute at 20°C for RC paper).

Print processing, RC paper. (Rinse tray does double duty as wash.)

Maintain the same time in the developer for each successive print no matter how fast or slowly the print darkens - in the printing process you alter the results by exposure, and always keep development consistent. The print next has a quick rinse (approximately 30 seconds in running water) and then goes face down into the fixer tray. Full fixing generally takes about 5 minutes, although after 1 minute or so you can switch on normal lighting. In the example (Figure 36.7), the exposure given is correct for most pictures on the sheet.

If results were too dark, you would give a shorter exposure time (less than the original 20 seconds) or reduce the lens aperture (change to a bigger aperture number); if too pale, increase exposure time (more than 20 seconds) or widen the aperture (change to a smaller aperture number).

Prints can be allowed to accumulate in the fixer - for up to half an hour if necessary - before you put them to wash as a batch. Washing also takes about 5 minutes, but keep separating the prints now and again, and prevent any floating face upwards to the surface, where washing will be ineffective. After washing, sponge off surplus water from the front and back surfaces and dry your print by pegging it on a line or laying it out on photo blotting paper. RC plastic paper dries quickly, but the process can be hastened with warmed air from a hair drier.

Often, you find that when exposure is correct for some pictures on the sheet it is too much or too little for others. This occurs because of the way that your original negatives vary. This difference is evident in Figure 36.7, where the four frames at the bottom left are underexposed. The easiest way to solve the problem would be for you to make two sets of contacts, one exposed for dark pictures, one for light. But better still, you can use a shaped card (Figure 36.9) to give 50 per cent extra exposure time to this corner of the sheet. Figure 36.8 shows the improvement that this extra light makes. Note also that an ordinary wooden ruler is about the same width as 35 mm film. You can cover up individual rows or ends of rows of

Figure 36.7 The result - correct for most, but not all, pictures. Figure 36.8 The corrected reprint. Compare the bottom left frames with those in Figure 36.7.

Figure 36.7 The result - correct for most, but not all, pictures. Figure 36.8 The corrected reprint. Compare the bottom left frames with those in Figure 36.7.

Figure 36.6 Stop down the lens for the first trial exposure.

pictures by laying rulers on top of the glass, and then remove them according to the exposure times required.

Color negatives can be contact printed to give black and white results in just the same way as monochrome negatives, but often need about two to three times the exposure (see also the section on photograms).

Drying prints

The simplest way to dry your washed prints is to first wipe off surplus water with a sponge or a flat (window-cleaning type) squeegee. Then peg them on a line, or lay them face up either on clean photo blotting paper or a fiber-glass drying screen or muslin stretched on a frame (see Figure 36.10). Special hot-air driers are made that accept RC black and white paper and all color papers. They give you dry results in a few seconds, but even when left at room temperature these plastic papers will dry within about 15 minutes.

If you have made black and white prints on fiber-based paper, which is more like drawing paper, peg them up in pairs back to back to avoid curling. Never attempt to put fiber paper through an RC drier. A few drier/glazers are designed for fiber-based printing papers. Don't try glazing RC papers of any kind - the face of your prints will become stuck to the equipment! Glossy RC paper air dries with a shiny finish.

When the print is dry, number your contact sheet on the back with the same reference number you put on your set of negatives. Check carefully to see which images are sharp enough to enlarge, what people's expressions look like, whether the composition works, and so on. Using grease pencil drawn on the print surface, mark up your best shots, showing possible cropping (see Figure 36.11). As you will probably be checking these contacts in the darkroom, don't use pencil marks in a color (reds or oranges) that makes them invisible under safe lighting. If you have several very similar images in your contacts, double-check the edge number to ensure you put the negative that you selected into the enlarger.

Figure 36.9 Shading to correct unevenness in the set of contact prints.
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