View Full Version : Help in understanding Masking

Jeff Dexheimer
11-Apr-2013, 13:18
I have done some minimal darkroom printing in the past, about 2 years ago, but it was really sloppy and I had no idea what I was doing. Fast forward to recently, I studied up as much as I could to prepare myself for several days of "figuring it out." With a bunch of 8x10 and some 11x14 paper I spent 5 days working in a local darkroom. I got several successful prints out of it, and after 5 days I feel pretty good as to where I am at (knowing full well I am still a beginner). Here is one of my prints


I am happy with the contrast of the image, but would liked to burn the sky a little more, but that's a different question. What I am wondering is how does a person go about masking? I have read to article here and searched the web. Unfortunately whenever I search google, I always get results related to photoshop. I get the overall concept of masking, but what I don't get is the mechanics of it. Forgive my ignorance, but in my mind here is how i see it playing out:

1. I make the mask, preferably using ortho film and a registration punch
2. Once the mask is developed and dry I place it on the carrier with it registered to the negative
3. I place my paper in its easel and the negative/mask combo in the enlarger
4. I expose the the paper with the masked negative
5. I remove the mask from the carrier
6. Using only the negative I expose the paper once more
7. Develop as normal

If I am totally wrong in that sequence I need help. What confuses me most is what I have as steps 5 and 6. Won't removing the mask cause my negative to become unaligned with the paper below? I am specifically thinking of highlight masks and unsharp masks

11-Apr-2013, 13:52
Check out Way Beyond Monochrome. That's the only reference that I'm aware of that goes into masking in any detail. I do know that masking is time consuming, labor intensive and the necessary materials to do it are becoming scarce. That's without even mentioning pin registration gear. Alistair Inglis (Cross-Jet washer guy) sells pin registration easels, punches and negative carriers, but you better be ready to shell out some serious cash if you choose that route!

I admit I know nothing about your background, experience level, or exactly what you're trying to achieve so a second opinion might be in order here. If I were to give you any advice, I think I'd spend some time getting proficient in basic printing skills - you can spend several years on this alone - before you tackle something like masking - especially unsharp masking, which appears to me quite complex.

I'm not trying to discourage you from doing something that interests you, but I'll bet if you were to poll all the darkroom printers here you wouldn't find too many who regularly use masking techniques as part of their normal printing routine. I can only speak for myself, but I sure don't and I'm a reasonably experienced printer. I've yet to come up against a negative where masking was the only way to achieve the desired results, but that's just me. Still, I'd be surprised to hear there were more than a couple folks here (out of hundreds) who considered traditional masking a routine part of their printing.

Drew Wiley
11-Apr-2013, 15:24
It's easier to learn split-printing with variable-contrast papers, which largely does away with the need of masking. There are many masking options, but the simplest is an unsharp very low-contrast mask created in a registered contact frame. After development, this is then taped in register back onto the original neg to print together as a sandwich. You DON"T remove the mask and reexpose the paper! It lowers overall contrast, so you generally need to print on a harder paper grade, but is an elegant way of increasing micro-contrast without blowing out the extremes. There is quite a bit in print per generalized technique, and registration equip is still being made for up to 4x5, though you can also adapt graphic gear which is fairly abundant. I think Radeka and Inglis supply instructions with their punches. The older Condit equip still turns up from time to time, but was mainly used for color printing. Or just to test the concept you can simply register the film carefully over a lightbox. Masking is either as simple or complicated as youwish to make it. It's really a set of tools rather than a single technique. Alan Ross markets an odd but effective competing technique to unsharp masking which some printers like.

11-Apr-2013, 15:47
I got the condit registration outfit many years ago and made a lot of masks. While it did snap up the sharpness, and moderate the tones, I was never fully convinced that I liked the look. If you're not careful it can look like a bad digital print with halos around the edges.

Drew Wiley
11-Apr-2013, 16:02
Absolutely! Overdone and it looks just like its ugly stepdaughter, overdone digital sharpening. But I just remembered that
Howard Bond was real into black and white masking and taught workshops on it in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps there are some relatively recent articles by him somewhere. I do color masking quite a bit, but not much for black and white printing anymore. Mostly, I liked to overdevelop HP5 to get wonderful mackie line effect and expanded midtones, but then the
highlights would blow out on graded paper, so I reigned them back in with a mask, plus got even more microtonality in the
mid's. It worked wonderfully. But with today's very high quality VC papers and films like TMY, I rarely resort to that option anymore.

Andrew O'Neill
11-Apr-2013, 17:44
I've been masking my negs (unsharp masks) for years. You do not need a registration punch. I've never needed one. Save your money for masking film. Ortho film works and so does xray film (cheeeeeeap!) In the beginning, I used TMAX 100, Efke 25 (still have a few sheets left), APHS film, and now xray. I leave the mask taped to the negative through the entire printing process.
I used Howard Bond's method as it saves yourself from wasting film and produces consistent results.
Used subtly, can result in very beautiful prints. John and Drew are correct in that going overboard looks down right ugly. Some people put too much space between the negative and film when making the mask, and expose and develop for too high of a density range, which looks very much like an image way over-sharpened in PS. The thickness of the negative's film base is enough spacing.
If you can get your hands on Howard Bond's unsharp mask article from back in the 90's (PT magazine, I believe... maybe it's online in free articles?), it's an excellent read.

Jeff Dexheimer
11-Apr-2013, 20:12
Thanks everyone for the help. I certainly don't want over sharpened images, but I do want to add some snap to my prints. My experience is quite limited so far, but I do plan on wet printing being my primary printing method. Andrew, I will surely look into the Howard bond's method.

12-Apr-2013, 05:08

Jim Noel
12-Apr-2013, 06:37
It is not easy to see the image of the print, but here is a suggestion. Images such as this often benefit from pre-exposure of the print to bring down the overly bright areas. This skill is more easily learned, and much less costly that masking.

Drew Wiley
12-Apr-2013, 08:38
Totally different effect, Jim. Pre-flashing might reduce contrast, but muddies up the scale, esp shadow separation. Masking accentuates microtonality throughout the range while containing overall contrast - you can have your cake and eat it too!
If one is masking just black and white originals, a number of masking films can be hypothetically used. For color masking,
one has to be very selective and use an appropriate pan film, so that the color balance is not skewed.

Drew Wiley
12-Apr-2013, 12:34
Postcript - a registration punch is worth its weight in gold if you plan on doing much of this and don't want to go either insane or blind. You don't necessarily need such equipment just to learn the basics. Any masking film should be polyester-based, not acetate, for the sake of dimensional stability (acetate shrinks and won't maintain register very long). For a diffusion sheet inbetween I prefer mylar frosted both sides, and keep both 3-mil and 5-mil on hand. You can get this at any serious art supply store. Frosted acetate is quite inferior. Very dilute HC-110 is will give a very low contrast mask on films
like FP4 and TMX, and probably most other films. #76 works too, but produces more of a sweeping toe.

Nathan Potter
12-Apr-2013, 17:25
I agree with Drew about flashing, it has limited value in what you are trying to do in that it just shifts the density uniformly to a slightly higher value all along the sensitometric curve.

Masking in the context of B&W film boosts density in the clear shadow areas of the negative to be masked "shadow mask" (restrains shadow area density build up) whereas with positive chrome films it is a "highlight mask". The results are similar for both in that the overall contrast of the original film is reduced selectively in the shadow area for negs and the highlight area for positives. And it is reduced non linearly. Of course with color chromes a panchromatic mask needs to be used to preserve color attenuation more or less uniformly across the spectrum.

To really be in control of masking it is necessary to have a standard process for generating the masks. That involves generating a transfer characteristic curve which relates a density of the original film to be masked to the degree of density one gets in the mask. If this is done carefully and consistently then you'll be in control and always will know what you are getting.

I use Tmax 100 for masking as many other do principally for Ilfochrome masking but occasionally for B&W negs also. Here is one of my old plots from 2007 just to give you an idea of how I handle the mask generation. I can't recommend a hit or miss approach over the long haul.

http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8379/8643897342_c58967860f_z.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/argiolus/8643897342/)
transfer-2jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/argiolus/8643897342/) by hypolimnas (http://www.flickr.com/people/argiolus/), on Flickr

I calibrate the derivative process using a calibrated Stouffer density step wedge. This is done under an enlarger where the incident illumination is recorded and in this example an intensity of EV 2.5 is used. That is 15 lux for 8 sec. so dose of 15 X 8 = 114 lux•sec. at 00 density of the Stouffer wedge. The resulting mask density is plotted on the vertical axis. Mostly for chromes I'll use a highlight mask that can range from about 0.1 to 1.0 density. I do one mask at a time in a small 4X5 tube.

Nate Potter, Austin TX.

12-Apr-2013, 19:53
The links below should give you some ideas on solving your dodging issues.
I took Howard Bond's masking workshops years ago and he demonstrated a masking technique on one of my 4x5 negatives that had a similar problem as you described. We made a dodging mask using a piece of tracing paper and a charcoal pencil. A light touch with the pencil added around a stop and a half density. Put the mask above the negative separating with a piece of blank film. The non-penciled area got burned in making the negative much easier to print.
Good luck,

Drew Wiley
15-Apr-2013, 09:10
It ocurred to me that an important distinction should be made between two different categories of "unsharp masks". One is the kind we have been describing, basically a pan film contacted to the original with a diffusion sheet inbetween, which results in enhanced edge effect and microcontrast. A completely different definition is simply something that acts as an automatic dodge/burn tool. You could simply smudge pencil or use creosin dye on the back of a black and white neg, or in
the sense of a printing "mask" apply this to a registered sheet of frosted mylar instead. Alan Ross sells a masking system
more akin to this latter example, while what Howard Bond taught was equivalent to the former. Of course, you can use such
things in combination too.

Jeff Dexheimer
16-Apr-2013, 11:04
Thanks everyone for your input. This helped greatly and I will be purchasing a mask kit from Radeka.

Since I started printing in the darkroom I have made leaps of improvement, however I still have plenty to learn and the curve is steep. When I have learned enough to feel confident in my darkroom printing, masking will be another tool I can use.

Eric Biggerstaff
16-Apr-2013, 12:03
Depends on what type of masking you are wanting, some are complex while others, like dodge and burns, can be very easy and not expensive. Contact Alan Ross for articles on his technique, very easy with no expensive equipment required and it works great.