Hand printing a photograph from a negative is a process like no other. From conception of an idea, the setting up of the shoot and the taking of the images is something every photographer is familiar with. To then take the next step of processing the film, selecting the negative and then producing a print is a series of tasks few photographers undertake in modern times and this is their loss.
The opportunity to revisit these skills was something I was looking forward to as it had been many years since I last used a darkroom. The smell of the chemicals and the dark environment brought back so many memories.
I was amazed how much of the process I was still familiar with but also dismayed on how many of the details I had forgotten. Processing times, chemical concentrate solutions, processing chemical effects, multigrade filters and paper types were all areas that contained details I had to re learn.
Initial problems with two of the enlargers also added to my learning curve, as the timer on the first enlarger wasn’t working correctly and the second one wasn’t producing a strong light so exposure times were very long despite the widest aperture on the enlarger lens. I solved the first problem in my third darkroom session by purchasing a small digital stopwatch and ignoring the built in enlarger timer. (A qualified engineer is being arranged to overhaul all the enlargers as none of them appear to be working 100% correctly.)
Once this initial hurdle was passed my old skills slowly returned and were then built upon. Selecting a negative and placing it in the enlarger, focussing the projected negative to ensure maximum sharpness, producing a test strip image with each stepped section at 10 seconds exposure to determine the best exposure for the final print. Next creating a print for closer analysis with a view to assessing for dodging and burning (this enables parts of the print to be selectively lightened or darkened) to improve the final result.
Hand painting potassium ferricyanide solution directly onto the print to highlight under exposed areas was something I’d heard about but never seen. The effect was to lighten specific parts of the print enabling dull highlights to be brightened. This was a better technique than the normal dodging and burning as very small highlights can’t be lightened in this way. The use of potassium ferricyanide enables very small highlights to be manipulated.
The technique involves mixing a small amount of potassium ferricyanide with water, brushing the area of a fibre based print you want to affect, then washing the area with fixer solution. Only once the fixer solution is added can the degree of ‘bleaching’ be seen. The more powerful the potassium ferricyanide solution application the lighter the bleaching becomes. Protective gloves must be worn as the chemical compound is dangerous to health.
Printing fibre based paper also is markedly different to printing on resin paper. The fibre paper is markedly different in consistency to resin in that its thicker and more card like. The longer a FB print remains in the developer the darker it becomes. Additionally a dry print is 3% darker than a wet one which must be factored into the development time.
FB paper though is much better at producing unique results in that hand colouring, toning and other manipulation techniques work well. Archiving a print using Selenium Toning also works well on FB paper.
To practice these skills I printed a couple of frames from a test film I shot in December at a winter scout camp in Hertfordshire. Also I photographed a McDonalds restaurant as part of my cut up project for unit ART 18-2 and printed one of these frames.
Resin RC paper Fibre FB paper