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How to make a print

In the same way that all roads lead to Rome, all parts of the photographic process lead to this - the making of a print. If you're not going to see it right through to the end and make a glorious print to hang on your wall, then you'd be as well sticking with digital - the equivalent of getting off the Rome express in Brighton.

So how do we go about making a darkroom print in the most practical, easy and foolproof way? As in getting a good negative, it pays to keep things nice and simple. Tried and tested rather than flashy and complicated. That means making use of resin-coated (RC) multigrade paper and test strips. Multigrade will make it easier for you to select the right contrast grade for your negative and test strips take care of the exposure. Resin coated is easier to process and wash than fibre-based and dries flatter.

The old adage applied when dealing with negative film - expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights - is used in reverse in the darkroom - sort of. We expose for the highlights and choose the contrast grade of paper to deliver the right shadow detail.

Assuming you've got your developer, stop bath and fixer set out in trays on your darkroom bench, pop the chosen neg (preferably one with a good range of tones and a similar density all over rather than one with very bright sky or overly dark foreground) in the enlarger's carrier, frame it and focus. For the purposes of this article, we're going to stick with what works when you're starting off and not what might be the very best so choose the middle f-stop on your enlarging lens and switch off the enlarger (top quality enlarging lenses might be sharper a stop or two from their maximum rather than stopped down to a middle f-stop).

Make a test strip
If you're using, say, 10x8 inch paper, cut it length-wise into three strips ten inches long, put two back in the packet and place one on the easel where it covers the highlights in the photograph. Choose the under lens filter that gives grade two contrast or dial in the colour or variable contrast filters on the enlarger head for the same effect. Leave the entire strip of paper uncovered and switch the enlarger on for five seconds. Then, using the piece of stiff, opaque card you prepared earlier, cover up a fifth of the paper (along its length) and give it another five seconds. Cover up another fifth and give it another ten seconds. Cover up the penultimate fifth and give it twenty seconds and expose the final fifth for 40 seconds. What you'll have is a strip of paper with five separate exposures of 5,10,20,40 and 80 seconds.

Develop for the time recommended in the developer instructions, stop and fix. Turn on the room lights and check the highlights carefully, ignoring the shadows for the moment. One of these exposures should be fairly close to having highlights that are nice and bright with detail in them and not empty white or a light grey. If they're all too light, open the lens up two stops and repeat the test strip procedure and shut the lens down two stops and repeat if they're too dark. This test strip is quite "coarse" in that the interval steps are a little too wide apart for an accurate exposure guide. However, it should ensure that your first test strip gets you in the ball park. There's nothing worse than going to the bother of making a test strip with five seconds between steps only to find that even the longest exposure is way too short. Or vice versa.

Refine the exposure
Now you've got a rough exposure, then make another test strip in the same fashion but in such a way that the exposure time identified in the first test, let's say it's twenty seconds, is in the middle of the five separate exposures and with just five second gaps between the steps, i.e. 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 seconds. Again, check the highlights for the nice, bright ones neither empty nor light grey, ignoring the shadows. We'll say the best exposure is 22 seconds.

Now, look at the shadows on the 22 second strip and see what you find. Ideally, there will be one or two areas where the shadows are as black as can be but most will have detail visible in them. If large areas are jet black, then the paper grade is too hard or contrasty. Conversely, if the shadows are dark grey but nothing is really black then the paper grade is too soft of lacking in contrast. If the shadows are too dark, then switch to a lower, softer grade of paper (change the filter under the lens or the enlarger head setting but be sure to make the necessary adjustments if more or less exposure is required at the new grade) and expose your final strip of paper at the same 22 seconds. Hopefully, the print will look very nice. If the shadows are still too dark, cut another three test strips, move to the next softer grade and expose a strip at 22 seconds again. If all looks good, pop a sheet of 10x8 in the easel and give the 22 second exposure. With careful work, good judgement and the right negative (taken with frontal lighting and not into the sun) you'll have a nice print having used just two sheets of paper.

If you're using RC multigrade, then the print will need just a few minutes under running water to wash it. If you've decided to go with fibre-based paper, lovely stuff but more work, then you'll have to wash it for a good 30 minutes in a tray with water flowing into it to get rid of the fixer. With RC, where the paper is coated with a kind of plastic, the chemicals lie on the surface and just have to be thoroughly washed off - a simple enough matter. With fibre-based, they soak into the paper and need to be diffused out. Running water quickly over them wont do the job: you need to allow the chemicals to soak out of the paper.

An alternative to the half-hour, flowing water in print tray method involves placing the print in six successive baths of clean water with a gentle rocking every so often for a combined time of about an hour. That should ensure the prints will not be affected by any residual chemicals for a very long time. They'll quite possibly see your boots off - yes, even the untied ones with the stick-up tongues as worn by the hipsters!

The method I've described will work with most negatives that have a fairly normal contrast range. It will not work if you have, for example, shot into the light and captured very bright sky along with a dark foreground. In this case, once you've worked out the exposure for the bright sky, the foreground will remain too dark regardless of how soft the paper grade. This is when the skills of dodging and burning come into play but you'll be getting a little ahead of yourself if you go down that road before you've had a chance to learn the basics.

So best to stick to subjects where there isn't this huge range of luminances. Keeping the sun behind you or to one side when taking a photograph should help in that goal. I'm not suggesting this approach will give you the most artistic images but it will definitely get your printing career up and running with the least bother.

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