Making a Contact Sheet
One of the first steps after you’ve developed a roll of film is to create what is known as a contact sheet. What this sheet does is provide you with a positive print of all your negatives to help you select the black and white photos you’d like to print. The contact sheet is very easy to create because it does not need to be a perfect print; it just needs to provide you with something to look at. Essentially what you will do is place down a piece of photographic paper with your negatives on top. The negatives should be emulsion side down (the emulsion side is the “dull” side). The light from your enlarger will expose the paper through the negatives and create your positive images – black parts of the negative stay white as it blocks light and clear parts of the negative print black as it lets more light through.
The easiest, most affordable solution for printing contact sheets is to buy a piece of 8”x10 “clear glass and use it to hold the negatives down on top of the photographic paper. This will ensure the emulsion of the fit holds tightly to the photographic paper. For a contact sheet your negatives can remain in the plastic sheet holder.
In order to know the appropriate length of exposure time you create a test strip. The test strip is designed to show your image at various exposure intervals to help determine the best length of time to expose the paper. In order to create a test strip you’ll need a pair of scissors (or a paper cutter) and a piece of cardboard that does not let light through (the cardboard backing on a pad of paper works). In the darkroom with the lights off and safelight on, trim an 8″x10″ piece of photographic paper into 4 eight inch strips. This small piece of photographic paper will be used to create your test strip. To begin printing your test strip follow these steps:
1. Place an empty 35mm negative carrier in the enlarger and turn on the light.
2. Place an 8”x10” piece of ordinary typing paper beneath light on the enlarger baseboard and move the enlarger up or down so that light completely covers the paper. The ordinary paper will simply serve as a place holder for you.
3. Stop down the enlarger to around f11.
4. Turn off the enlarger light and place a test strip on top of the ordinary paper, followed by the film negatives (emulsion side facing the paper) and finally your piece of glass. Make sure a row of film negatives lines up with your strip of photo paper.
5. Cover all negatives over the photographic paper with your cardboard. Reveal one of the end frames so that cardboard is not covering it and the paper beneath it is visible.
6. Turn on the enlarger light and expose the single frame paper for 3 seconds.
7. Reveal the negative frame next to the previously exposed negative and expose for another 3 seconds. The first frame has now been exposed for 6 seconds.
8. One by one continue revealing and exposing the next negative frame until all have been exposed. By the end of your strip, assuming there were 5 negative frames, you’ll now have one frame exposed for 3 seconds, one for 6, one for 9, one for 12, and one for 15.
9. Develop test strip – see below for more details regarding print development.
10. Find the frame where true black first shows and you have the correct exposure time.
Once you’ve figured out the exposure time you can go back to your enlarger and place an entire piece of photographic paper beneath the negatives and glass and expose for the time provided by your test strip. As you print more and more contact sheets you will find a rhythm and setting that works best for you and may not need to continue creating test strips for the contact sheet. But when you first begin printing you should always make a test strip.
For this section it is assumed that you are using resin-coated (RC) paper. If using a fiber-based paper then you’ll need longer development times. Print development does not require the same exacting time as exposure of the print or development of film, however you should try to stay as close to the recommended time as possible. Having said that, you may use a wall clock to help time development of your prints rather than a timer or stopwatch.
1. Slide your print face up into the developer and ensure that the entire surface is submersed. Print should be in the developer for 90 seconds.
2. Agitate the developer by gently rocking the tray. You do not need to continuously agitate the developer but should do it often. Try not to come in direct contact with the print until ready to move it into the next chemical. Note: The image will start to appear fairly quickly in the developer. Do not remove the print if you simply believe it looks developed, wait at least 90 seconds.
3. Carefully remove the print with your tongs from the developer and hold it above the developer for about 5 seconds to let excess developer drain off the paper. Then carefully place the print in the stop bath.
4. Agitate the stop bath the same way as the developer for 30 seconds.
5. Carefully remove the print and hold it above the stop bath for 5 seconds to let it drain and move it into the fixer.
6. Keep your print in the fixer for about 5 minutes and agitate every now and then.
7. Once fixed the print is safe to take it out into the light. You can also turn the lights in your darkroom on but just make sure any unused paper is not out in the open if you do. If you are only creating a test strip you can fix for a minute and take it out to look at it; but note by doing so your test strip will not be safe for long-term storage.
8. Wash the print for at least 10 minutes under running water. Collected water should be dumped every now and then and replenished with fresh running water.
9. Hang your print to dry. You can use a squeegee to help remove excess water and speed up the drying a bit.
Once your contact sheet is developed you can look to see which negatives you’d like to start printing. You do not have to wait for your contact sheet to fully dry at this stage, you can look at it after it has been in the fixer.
When you decide which negative you’d like to print first you can move on to creating your black and white photography print.
Printing B&W Photographs
First Black and White Print
The process to printing black and white photography in the darkroom is nearly identical to that of printing a contact sheet. The process of creating a test strip and developing the print is exactly the same but the main difference in a photo print is that instead of placing the negative directly on top of the paper you place the negative near the light source of the enlarger to show your image on the baseboard.
Your enlarger will have a film holder (also called film carrier) that does exactly what it says – it holds your film. The film holder is two identical pieces held together by a hinge that opens and closes around the negative, like a sandwich. For a 35mm film carrier there will be a hole just large enough for a single frame of 35mm film. Open the film holder and place the negative you wish to print so that it rests on the hole. Your film should be emulsion side down. (The emulsion side is the “dull” side.) Often times there are raised clips inside the holder to secure the negative from moving so make sure the film rests inside the clips and then close the negative holder. There is a lever, typically on the right hand side of the enlarger, which forces the enlarger to open like a set of jaws for you to place the negative holder in. Before you place the negative in the enlarger you should make sure it is dust free as the dust will show on your print as white specks. You can use a can of air to blow any dust off the negative. When you have the film holder in place and turn on the enlarger light you should see your image reflected on the baseboard. Open the aperture all the way to make it as bright as possible to assist with your print adjustments.
To make prints you need to have your easel on hand. If you have an easel where you can make custom sizes you should create the size you want at this point. Place the easel beneath your enlarger and move the enlarger up or down to fill the print space of your easel. On the right hand side of the enlarger is a focusing knob to adjust sharpness. It may help to place a white piece of ordinary paper in the easel to make the image slightly more visible. You can also purchase focusing tools that look like miniature microscopes and allow you to see very close, detailed aspects of the enlarged image so that you can make it as sharp as possible. Once your image is in focus close your aperture down to f11 to start.
Using the same steps that you did to create a test strip for the contact sheet, do the same for your first image. (Only this time you’ll have a negative in the holder rather than an empty holder.) After developing the test strip check to see where the richest blacks are without losing detail as well as where the whitest whites are without losing detail. If the test strip is too dark overall close your aperture 1 stop to lessen the amount of light that hits your paper and if the test strip is too light open your aperture 1 stop to increase the amount of light and make a new test strip. Alternatively, you can also add more time to your test strip if it is too light. When ready, expose a full piece of black and white photography paper using the exposure time you’ve determined and develop the print using the same guidelines that were used to develop the contact sheet.