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Wednesday, January 29

Split Grade Printing - Guest Post

I stumbled upon this article on the Filmwasters website a while back and asked its author, Jeff Warden, if I could publish it here. He kindly agreed. It's a good description of one way of doing split grade printing and will give you a good understanding of the process if it's something you haven't tried before. There's always more than one way to skin a cat, though, and other photographers will use different methods of split grading. Jeff's technique is well-explained, however, and the sample photos he uses to illustrate the various stages do a great job as well. So over to Jeff.

Split Grade Printing

by Jeff Warden

For the past few days I have been experimenting with split contrast printing. I have enjoyed the process of learning how to do it, so this post is for those who haven't tried it but have an interest.

I'll be walking you through the numbered prints above. I'm loosely following the technique outlined in the book 'Way Beyond Monochrome' by Ralph Lambrecht.
The idea of split contrast printing is to forget about contrast, and just print highlights (with a low contrast filter) and blacks (with a high contrast filter) with separate exposures on the same page. The midtones are supposed to take care of themselves, mostly. There are advantages and disadvantages to this process, but the first advantage is that you quickly get to a 'working print'. I think split contrast printing might be faster than single contrast for me.

Check the image above. The first step is to find white while using the lowest contrast filter possible, the 00 filter.  (Filters go from 00 to 5 in ten steps). You can see on the first test strip 3 seconds is too bright and 6 seconds is too dark, so I made another test strip using only 4 and 5 seconds. I decided on 5.  Printing the entire image like this (which I wouldn't normally do but did today so you could see it) would result in image 1 below, which has nice lighter values but no dark ones:

The next step is to establish blacks. The process is the same as establishing white, except you're using the highest contrast filter, #5. The test strips below show that process:

I didn't label those, but I think you've got the idea. The best black also happens at 5 seconds, and if we were to print the entire image that way (which we wouldn't) it would look like image #2, below.  Notice there is no sky at all:

Now that we know where black and white are, all we need to do is expose one paper twice; one five second exposure at 00, and one five second exposure at 5. The pleasing result is below:

Now we have a working print that goes all the way from black to white, and has all the values between.  It's the starting point for dodging and burning. So let's get on with ruining the thing.  :-)

The cool part about split contrast printing comes when you want to dodge and burn, because you have multiple opportunities to do it, during or after the high and low contrast initial exposures. You can softly dodge the barn during the 00 exposure for instance, to add some brightness to the highlights of the wood without affecting the shadows. If you were exposing the image only once (say, with a #3 contrast filter) and dodged the barn both the highlights and shadows would lighten.

For me, that's a real benefit of split contrast printing.

Now a personal preference - I like 'straight prints', so I like print #3.  Normally I would just stop there, but for sake of experimentation I decided to burn some depth into the water and sky. The water was pretty straightforward, a simple six second burn using the 5 filter:

The sky was trickier. Recall from image #2 that the 5 filter has no effect on the sky whatsoever.  I decided to try a burn test strip at 00, but the results weren't quite right, so I tried again using a #3 filter and liked that more.  They look almost identical here but in person there is a difference.

So, let's put it all together.  To make the "final image", we:

expose 5 sec at contrast 00
expose 5 sec at contrast 5
burn water 6 sec at contrast 5
burn sky 8 sec at contrast 3

That gives us image #4 below:

I vaguely recall a quote from Ansel Adams where he said he didn't know if he had gone too far until he actually did it, or something like that, and I think this print goes too far. I do like the added depth in the water, but the sky just looks 'burned in' to me, which of course it is. 

So I backed up one step, grabbed the working print from before and just selenium toned it (which adds some depth to the dark values without affecting the light). It doesn't have the same pop as image #4, but I sure like it more as a straight print. It looks like the scene I remember:

So this is the one I'll keep.  

That's it in a nutshell. I hope you enjoyed it!


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The Unsharp Photo


Paul Glover said...

Very nice writeup of this technique. I've just recently started to experiment with split grade printing (using half-stop increment test strips), and have found it both quick and convenient as far as getting a good exposure and contrast dialed in.

marty said...

Hi, Bruce. Extremely useful tutorial, straight and clear. I wish I read it when I first tried this technique which I find very good to work with particularly "difficult" negatives. I should use it more often as I understand it might give some extra "sparkle" or "pop" even to simplest of the prints, but in most cases I'm too lazy to go beyond a straight print. I really must do something for this bad attitude :-)).
Thank you for bringing it to our attention, and also thanks to Jeff Warden for sharing his craft.

Cheers, M.

David McCormack said...

Hi Bruce,

Been enjoying your blog for sometime now having followed a link from Andrew Sanderson’s blog.

As you say there is more than one way to print with split grades. I’ve not printed in a darkroom for a few years now (still using film but circumstances mean I’m scanning my negs and printing digitally at the moment) but I used to enjoy split grade printing and it became my standard method for all negs as it was so easy to quickly get to a good work print as mentioned above.

I think it’s worth mentioning that the grade 5 exposure strip should first be exposed to the established grade 0 time before making the grade 5 steps. This will produce an accumulative exposure time for the shadow detail.

I found that doing a grade 5 exposure test without first exposing the grade 0 filter would always result in darker shadows on my full size work print than I had expected. I think there are differences of opinion on which filter should be exposed first but the second filter test should always be carried out on top of the first filter’s exposure.

Hope that makes sense?!

Enjoyable blog, thank you.

Bruce Robbins said...


I do split grade printing the same way as you with the grade 5 test strip done over the top of the grade 0 exposure. Jeff's method is nice and straightforward, though, if you want to get a feel for it.

Mark Bau said...

I'd like to see a walk through of split grade printing where there is no local burning. People like David Vestal and Howard Bond claim that nothing can't be achieved with one exposure and that all this half exposure with ultra soft filter and half with an ultra hard filter is a total waste of time. Please note I am not talking about local burning or dodging with a different filter

Steven French said...

Mark, you are in luck! If you want a walk through without local burning, all you need to do is press the "back" button on your browser and refer to image #3 (as well as the last image).

I also find this method to be a time saver, especially with difficult negatives. This was an excellent write up, especially with the added info to make the #5test strip over the #00 established print time.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for a synopsis of how this is done, as I've recently gone to LF, and really need to get to grips with producing something a bit better than I have in the past, as the big paper is very expensive!

This is really nicely explained, and, on the face of it at least, sounds relatively straightforward!

Marion Villines said...

Thank you for clear and informative instructions. I've been looking all day for something this concise. Off to the darkroom with my favorite difficult negative!

Marion Villines said...

I have a question. I print with a Leitz Focomat V35. According to the charts, you dial in both yellow and magenta to change the contrast grade.

Should I use both filters, or should I print with straight magenta for the hard, and straight yellow for the soft contrast?

Anonymous said...

Use strait filters. Make strips for both.
Good luck.

Clive Harrison said...

Thanks very much for the article, indeed thanks to the moderator/Owner. I stumbled upon this thread from somewhere on the interweb... I have been blessed by the find. Just got back from a trip to Tasmania with what I thought were going to be four rolls of 'on the money' shots. I have had two weeks of fruitless endeavors in my darkroom trying to get a decent print... Found this website and have read quite a few of the very helpful articles. Purely by chance I read the split grade printing article and thought I'd give it a red hot try. Purely by chance I got my grades mixed up and started with G5. A very passable test print emerged. Several test strips later and I have (to my eyes) a pretty good print. Now looking and reading through the "how to 'read' a negative... I might have inadvertently under developed/under exposed the film (Further investigation/reading here required). As most of the negatives require a G5 paper to get some 'sparkle' into the print and a ooG exposure 'muddies' up the print very quickly. I pretty much exclusively use BT's two bath developer and love the results I normally get and it's much more fun mixing all my own solutions from scratch. Also given up on the densitometer part of the enlarger timer - I'm actually getting better results with good old fashioned test strips.