FAQ, How to Print B&W?

Printing black and white how to?

How does one make a good B&W print?

This problem is often compounded by an inability to gain access to 'good print' and most people's tendency to not spend any time examining these prints, another drawback is student's tendency to think that black and white means just that black and white with nothing in between!

So if you can get access to a good print study it and study it hard. In the meantime here are some basic tenants that apply to black and white printing, these are:-

  1. Expose for the highlights.
  2. Change filters for the shadows.

What does this mean? Exposure time governs the appearance the highlights. The longer the exposure the darker the highlights. And once these are printed satisfactorily then the blacks are examined to determine if they are satisfactory, if not a change [of filters,or paper grades] is required.

So what is the best exposure time? Funnily enough a very frequent question that is asked of me! Well detail and tonality are the deciding factors here. A highlight can be as dark as you like or as light as you like. [This subjective side to printing is what tends to confuse many beginner photographers. So reference point like a grey card made by Kodak could be used as a help, or a piece of maximum black - exposed to white light outside the darkroom and developed and piece of paper that is unexposed but fixed and washed].

A good way to determine this time is to produce a good test strip, a good test strip goes from too light to too dark across the entire test strip. Then choose the time that best suits your intentions, compare your highlights to the control strip mentioned earlier most highlights-unless spectral such as highlights on chrome for example-should have some detail at the very least. Sometimes it may take several goes to get a 'good' test strip, if the tones are spread out evenly this is a good test strip, if they are bunched up and go real dark with in 3 or 4 steps of a 10 step strip then go back and stop down the aperture and re-test. If there are no tones that appear too dark open up the aperture and re-test, this process may take some time but will be worth it in the end.

Careful choice and positioning of the original test strip may also save you a lot of time and thought, try and include both highlights in all areas of the test trip and in each area of the time steps.

After having chosen the time that best suits your intentions go back and do another test strip at that time alone. Process the paper and examine the test strip outside the darkroom. Now are the blacks black enough or are they too black?

If they are too black lower the filter that you are using, if they are not black enough increase the filter that you are using. [I recommend beginning all printing sessions with a mid range filter such as 2 or 2 1/2, this allows movement in either direction if needed] Re-test if changes are made.

Now go back and make a complete print, this print is called a work print. Examine it carefully go and make a cup of tea or coffee, sit and study it. Squint at it so that the image becomes a bunch of tones. Do any of the tones leap off the paper, too dark or too light? Go back now and make these tones lighter and darker by dodging or burning.

Dodging is a way to 'locally' allow less light to strike the paper, achieved by attaching an opaque piece of cardboard to a thin piece of wire and putting [wave it vigorously] this in the path of the light during exposure

Burning is applying more light locally to the paper, by placing a piece of opaque paper over the areas that DON'T need more exposure and giving extra exposure to the areas that do, [again move it around vigorously].

Continue to burn and dodge until you feel the print best reaches equilibrium, learning what constitutes equlibrium — of course — will take many years of practice as well as studying other good prints.

Further References

Ansel Adams 'The Print'.

Henry Horenstien 'Basic Photography' and 'Beyond Basic Photography'.

'The Variable Contrast Printing Manual' by Steve Anchell, pub by Focal Press, ISBN 0-240-80259-4 (alk. paper)

Also on my page good resources.