View Full Version : Newibie question: Contact prints, VC paper, light source

2-Apr-2014, 10:33
It seems to me that most available photo papers are variable contrast.
If I want to do "standard" contact prints of 4 x 5 negatives at medium contrast, and don't have an enlarger (yet), what sort of light source do I need?
I had originally planned to get some #2 contrast paper and just use the room's ceiling light. If the available photo papers are variable contrast, would I need to rig up a light source with a diffuser and a #2 filter glued to it?

Or, do most people just scan in their 4 x 5 negatives, reverse tonality in Photoshop (or equivalent), and use the scans to review, select, file the images?

Francisco J. Fernández
2-Apr-2014, 10:40
would I need to rig up a light source with a diffuser and a #2 filter glued to it?

OK, is one good option

Mark Woods
2-Apr-2014, 10:45
Edward Weston used a bare bulb directly over the neg & paper. I'm sure he used graded paper, but you could use a lamp with a shade with the interior painted black and then tape, or build a little frame to hold the filter.

Good Luck!

2-Apr-2014, 11:39
Why not just cover your frame and VC paper with a 6x6 Ilford filter?

2-Apr-2014, 11:49
I believe that most VC papers when exposed without any VC filter act as a Grade 2. So, if all you want to do is contact print on a medium grade paper you should be OK with a low watt (7 or 15w would be my guess) bare bulb without a filter. Different brands of paper will likely give you somewhat different contrasts. To do any contrast changes you would need to cobble together some way to to use contrast filters with the light.
I hope this helps.

2-Apr-2014, 12:02
Thanks, all. I just want to set up a "standard" proof procedure to allow me to start evaluating negatives and to file images. I am a real newbie, starting with unfamiliar format (4 x 5), film (HP5+), film developer (HC-110, probably at 1:63 dilution), and paper (Ilford seems to be the one brand carried locally). Bear in mind, I did 135 format over 30 years ago, Plus-X and old-style Tri-X, Microdol, Kodak variable contrast fiber papers, and Dektol. It is somewhat sobering to realize that all these products are gone or significantly altered (except maybe Dektol).

By the way, any suggestions on RC paper and developer?

I just need to get myself in the groove again.

Mark Woods
2-Apr-2014, 12:14
Ilford RC is a good paper, although not archival. I use Clayton CT P-90 developer 1:7. BTW, I wouldn't put the lifter on top of the glass, it's another optical element that show scratches, etc. The further away it is from the paper the less problematic it is.

Drew Wiley
2-Apr-2014, 12:55
You could probably find a small colorhead enlarger for free. Since it's just for projecting colored light onto a contact frame, it wouldn't even have to be a full 4x5
sized enlarger, though it would be nice to have something full-sized just in case you change your mind about enlargement per se. But if you use a halogen bulb
per se the problem will probably be too much brightness to control. Use can use neutral density as well as heat-tolerant colored lighting "gels" over them, but make
sure them are properly air-spaced to prevent a fire. Gel holders which do this can be acquired from the same studio sources as the gels themselves. But for the
investment, you probably could get a used enlarger even cheaper. Most of the current VC papers seem to me to hit around Grade 3 with no supplementary filtration, but that would depend on your exact light source. Scanning and reviewing on a scrren is a completely different ballgame, and less likely to give you an accurate impression of how a neg will actually print in a darkroom. If you just plan on posting subject matter on the web, or digitally printing per se, it's OK.

William Whitaker
2-Apr-2014, 13:29
Why not just cover your frame and VC paper with a 6x6 Ilford filter?

Seems any scratches or defects in the filter would show in the print if you did that. I'd keep the filter close to the light source.

There was a time when I made some contact prints in a bathroom and simply turned the room lights on and off at the wall switch.
It was crude, but effective and worked surprisingly well. But I can think of better ways to do it now, especially if I wanted to burn or dodge an area.

MIke Sherck
2-Apr-2014, 14:31
If you're using a bare bulb suspended over a contact frame with a negative in it, (or just a piece of clean glass over it,) you can hold a contrast filter a couple of inches or so under the bulb for the length of the exposure. Take care not to shadow the negative with a finger and it'll be fine.


jose angel
3-Apr-2014, 00:46
Nancy, personally I way prefer to scan my films and then to visualize via computer screen. Although I use to wet print every week, I find way more useful to have a digital archive of my films, in all formats.

I use Printfile or Clearfile type sleeves for film storage, and I simply scan the whole pages with a flat bed scanner capable of transparency scans.

This way I always have a good, fast system for viewing or searching, and I don`t waste printing paper. It`s way easier to check small photo details this way than with the crappy smallish traditional contact prints, where you need to even make proof prints to check the optimal printing time and paper grade (with the scanning system I don`t care about exposure... this method let you to still check photo details even with fairly over or underexposed images).

Make your life easier, don`t waste a minute nor a cent making traditional wet contact prints.

Doremus Scudder
3-Apr-2014, 01:37
... Make your life easier, don`t waste a minute nor a cent making traditional wet contact prints.

Hi Nancy,

I'm going to disagree strongly with Jose here. A contact sheet on a known contrast of the paper you plan to use to make prints will save you time and money when printing. It gives you a good idea of which contrast to start with and, once you get some experience with a particular paper, the exposure as well. But, to each his own.

As for light sources: You can expose any VC paper with a regular "white" light source such as an incandescent bulb. The resulting contrast grade will be around grade 2 depending on the color temperature of the light you used. If you always use the same light source, then the contrast will at least be consistent. Any variation would likely be on the softer side, e.g., grade 1.5 or so.

If you want to try graded papers, there are still a few left: Gallerie, Foma, Slavich (if you can find a distributor), and Freestyle's house brand, AristaEdu. You can get both RC and fiber base.

I'd recommend using the same paper you intend to enlarge with. Even if you don't have an enlarger yet, you can choose one paper to kind of start with and use it.

If you decide to go with a VC paper, you can either just use the white light and figure out later what exact contrast it is by comparing it to filtered prints, or you can rig up a filter holder for your light source as described above.

Best of luck,


3-Apr-2014, 02:30
Just a couple of things:

Exposing with an enlarger has one big advantage: controllability and repeatability. The light goes through a lens with a diaphragm. Your hands can be free if you use a timer or a foot switch so your hands can be used for dodging and burning.

The materials Weston used 50-75 years ago are not comparable with anything used now. The contact papers he used back then were so slow that it took a very long exposure to make an image. Going two seconds shorter or longer doesn't make much difference in a two minute exposure but really do if you are using a 15-30 sec. exposure. Remember, also, that Weston extensively used development by inspection for his negatives. The film of the day was slow enough and the desensing of the film which goes on in development allowed him to look on and check the progress by use of a green safelight for a second five minutes into development. If he used ortho film, he could view the negative through the entire process.

Personal opinion regarding 'digital proofing': Printing with a 5x7 or larger negative can be the essence of simplicity and low expense. Get a $25 (or free) enlarger with a lens, a heavy piece of glass to hold down the negative and you are in business for printing. Add some blackout for the windows if you don't have a dark room, three trays, a screw-in lightbulb for the safelight, the three chemicals and you are good to go. With the way silver photography is going, you might be able to get all the stuff for free. A scanner with 8x10 capacity is $400+ to acquire and, of course, a computer needed. Looking at a digital image on a screen is not the same as holding a paper print in your hand a foot from your face- as God and George Eastman intended. There is a reason some form of large format photography will always be around: there is nothing else that looks like it. The only way that a proof is worth anything in the whole process is if you can look at it and make decisions regarding the final product from that proof. There is nothing "morally wrong" with any aspect of digital photography. You will not be thrown into a lake of fire for making digital proofs. But, it's not traditional large format photography. It's something else.

jose angel
3-Apr-2014, 03:01
Well, from a learning and "photographic" point of view, I must admit you guys are right.

I was mostly (and wrongly) thinking on a massive image archive like mine... I started to enjoy my photos in a much higher grade when I turned to a digitally based archive. I have been surprised with many images I considered worthless, or that I was not aware of its existence (!)... and now, thanks to the digital archive, I`m taking to the enlarger for my biggest enjoyment.

I`ve just noticed Nancy is asking for "plain" sheet film contact printing (as well as other considerations), rather than really organizing a current archive, so I have to agree with you.

jose angel
3-Apr-2014, 03:27
I did 135 format over 30 years ago, Plus-X and old-style Tri-X, Microdol, Kodak variable contrast fiber papers, and Dektol. It is somewhat sobering to realize that all these products are gone or significantly altered (except maybe Dektol).

By the way, any suggestions on RC paper and developer?

I just need to get myself in the groove again.
Things are more or less the same, I`d say some RC papers are much better than those, although they are different. I still use the very same chemicals, although some new ones could be considered better in the fact that they are very good for certain purposes and also less toxic. Certain films are better for some, although not an issue to me that I tend to use old fashioned ones. Some products have (sadly) disappeared, but I think there are still many options to choose.

About RC papers, maybe the most extense catalog these days belong to Ilford (at least in Europe), with so many options in surface finishings and tones, even in paper weight. Beware that to achieve the special tones of some of this papers, specific type developers should be used. Ilford papers are made by Harman in the UK, and look committed with darkroom users, offering and keeping supplies of all their whole catalog.

But I`d use the one that is regularly available (and reasonably priced) at your surroundings. Same for the developer, any standard type developer will work (e.g. Dektol); with powder ones, expiring time is less of an issue, and use to be cheaper.

(Do you remember this? :D A D76 can from the seventies, -now the very same thing but on a different envelop-).

Bruce Barlow
3-Apr-2014, 04:32
I think you want a light source dim enough so that your exposure times are relatively long - meaning 10-20 seconds - so that you can be consistent. Especially if you're only proofing. Figure out how to calibrate your exposure time to get maximum black through clear film with the minimum time, but that time should be long enough to enable some precision, control, and subsequent consistency. That exposure time will then give you proofs that show everything on the negative - blacks are fully black, and whites are fully white, but no more or less. Then, by looking at the proofs, you can actually see what's there, and start thinking about adjustments to exposure and negative development time. It's a good tool.

Fred Picker, years ago, called it the Proper Proof, and it has served me and many others very well.

That may well require something like a 7-watt bulb. And I'd get me a cheap timer, too, for consistency.

Of course, when you want a "good" print, Proper Proofing time is only a starting point.

I'll point out that Weston was using contact printing papers like Azo, which are very, very insensitive to light, and so he could use a regular bare bulb. He could do it by sight, without a timer, because he had made thousands of prints that way, including, as I recall, 5,000 paid portraits. He wrote that he rarely needed a second piece of paper to make a final print. I'll also point out that he was Weston... Sigh. This is in no way a criticism of the poster who mentioned Weston's bulb, but rather an excuse to bloviate in awe of a hero. I'll have a big bulb in my new darkroom for Azo and Lodima printing, for my freezer full of Lodima. Don't think I'll live long enough to make 5,000 prints, however.

Have fun!

3-Apr-2014, 10:28
Bloviate away, Bruce! Yes, I am working my way through your "Finely Focused", and realized that I hadn't the materials on hand. Off to the local camera store and to a hardware store to buy a glass sheet on Saturday...

I use Ilford and Epson digital printing papers as well. Harman/Ilford seems to be committed, thankfully, to both traditional and digital photography.

Jose, I will be scanning as well, if only to get images catalogued in Lightroom, and don't need a fancy scanner for "placeholder" scanned .jpg images. I am a fan of the LR organizational tools, which can be used for images that one doesn't intend to actually edit in LR, for example, my Sigma Foveon .x3f files, not supported by Adobe. A small .jpg can be keyworded, "collected", starred, etc, and when one wants to edit it, one returns to the original .x3f and Sigma RAW editor.

Bruce Barlow
3-Apr-2014, 10:49
I'm good at bloviating. To which the masses will attest.

3-Apr-2014, 11:14
I would like to point out one thing that Jose mentioned. I recently bought a Epson X700. I have been going through my history with photography by scanning almost every image I have ever taken (barring those that grew legs and wandered off). But as Jose mentioned there are images that I have never considered "worthy" that are have gained some varying degree of value. I don't know what it is, changes in tastes with age, poor review methods, or my lousy eye sight, but that scanner is worth every penny I paid. Now, I have only been through the 135 film so far but I cannot wait till I get to the 645s. Because of this discovery I intend to scan all my 4x5s and make contact prints. I like the idea of the low wattage bulb.

Some great advice. Thanks

Mark Woods
3-Apr-2014, 11:46
I recently re-contact printed 182 rolls of film from Berkeley 1968-73. I put the negs in my 8x10 enlarger and blew the "contacts" up to 11x14. It's been very helpful. It took quite awhile, but it really familiarized me with my own material since I spent a fair amount of time doing this process. My feeling is whatever works for you to enjoy your photography.