View Full Version : How to deal with high contrast negatives?

3-May-2016, 10:58
Hi everyone! I have some really high contrast negatives.
I am having a hard time printing them.
For example, I have one with shaded trees, but sky with clouds in the background.
There is sufficient detail in both, but I cannot seem to get them both in the same print.
If I print with low contrast, I get a lot of mushy grey tones.
If I up the contrast, the details in the clouds are lost.
Any advice would be appreciated.

bob carnie
3-May-2016, 11:05
Hi There Lightbender

Pre flashing the paper will be the first step , basically you want to do a test strip to see where you start seeing some density.
In my darkroom I would flash the paper just the second before a noticeable density.
I would then use split contrast printing techniques, and I must say everyone has there own version.

My method would be to pick a low starting filter that gives you the highlight density and mid tone you are looking for .

I would then use the #5 filter to bring in the shadow areas.

this is kind of like the effect when you are using Lightroom or Camera Raw and you use the black slider and all of a sudden you have great contrast.

By adjusting the amount of low filter and high filter you can pretty much come up with any combination of contrast your heart desires..

the pre flash is a constant, exposure and should be use each time

Have fun


Hi everyone! I have some really high contrast negatives.
I am having a hard time printing them.
For example, I have one with shaded trees, but sky with clouds in the background.
There is sufficient detail in both, but I cannot seem to get them both in the same print.
If I print with low contrast, I get a lot of mushy grey tones.
If I up the contrast, the details in the clouds are lost.
Any advice would be appreciated.

Michael R
3-May-2016, 11:10
Hi Lightbender,

How experienced a printer are you?

The answer depends on several things. For example, the subject matter and how the tones are distributed throughout the image can guide you to an approach so it could help to see a scan of the negative.

What you describe regarding the way print tonality is affected by changes in print contrast is generally indicative of an inherently high contrast subject (as opposed to say an overdeveloped negative).

My preference is generally to start with burning and dodging. Sometimes it can be hard work but that's ok. Then, using selectively lower contrast grades to burn in highlights can help if appropriate (localized flashing is similar). Flashing the entire sheet of paper is not something I would generally recommend since it tends to flatten contrast too far down into the midtones. Others may disagree, and there are sometimes several ways of getting to similar end results.

If all else fails, I resort to masking.

Occasionally using a proportional reducer on the negative can help.

Drew Wiley
3-May-2016, 13:06
I assume you are talking about black and white images. Most negatives can be tamed with premium VC papers, but specific technique depends on experience.
"Split printing" is a good technique to learn. I've never cared for flashing. Masking is a valuable tool set, yet one with its own learning curve and dedicated
equipment. Try simple things first, like seeing how much mileage you can get out of dodging and burning, along with VC printing controls. Negatives that seem
impossible at the moment might become downright easy with substantially more experience. But if they're overdeveloped to begin with, they can be tricky.

Larry Gebhardt
3-May-2016, 19:41
You could use a simple pencil mask to add density to the shaded areas, bringing them closer to the density of the sky. The masks are simple to make, effective and make it easy to repeat prints. In essence it's just complex dodging with repeatability. Combined with the other techniques listed above you should be able to tame the negative.

Doremus Scudder
4-May-2016, 03:21
You've got lots of great advice so far, so I'll just add a couple of things.

You seem to have a classic case of having a negative with overall too much density range, but that still needs a lot of "local contrast" in the print. No matter what you do, you're going to need to do a lot of dodging and burning to get what you want. What you need is keep the paper contrast grade as high as you can while still getting both ends of the print on paper with manipulations. So, do use a lower-contrast grade, but only as soft as really needed. Some other suggestions:

Even with VC papers, I find using a low-contrast print developer to help many times. I mix my own, but Selectol Soft, ID-3, D-165 and Ansco 120 are classic soft working developers that use Metol only and tend to give warmer tones. The formulae are easy to find and easy to mix. I often have better luck with a higher paper grade and a soft-working developer than just dialing in lower contrast. Also, using a graded paper (e.g., Galerie 2) along with a soft-working developer often gives gratifying results. If you need intermediate contrast, you can split develop using a soft and a harder working developer.

A technique that seems to get little used is using a very dilute print developer and developing paper like film. Since we have a safelight, we can do this by inspection. The trick is to find the right exposure for a fairly contrasty paper grade and then develop it for longer times (watch for safelight fog!) of up to 15 minutes in very dilute developer (think Dektol 1+9 or more). Just like film, the least-dense areas will develop first (highlights in this case) and the denser areas more slowly. The trick is to pull the print when the right shadow densities appear. This is difficult to judge under safelight, but you always have another try...

Flashing paper is a useful tool as long as you realize what it does. It will reduce separation in the print highlights while simultaneously retaining more detail. This works well if that's what you want (i.e., the highlight separation is less important than the lows and mid-tones). The closer to the threshold you flash, the more the highlight contrast is reduced and the more the effect extends into the higher mid-tones. Do the threshold test Bob describes above and start at just below that time. If the highlights are too muddy, flash for less time and see if that helps.

Although I don't split-grade print like a lot of people do, I find that burning in with a higher-grade filter often helps to get some contrast into the highlights while not muddying up the whites. Burning with a soft filter is akin to flashing locally: it brings everything down pretty fast.

Masking is an obvious solution, but as Drew mentions, takes some specific equipment and techniques. There are also SLIMT manipulations of the print. Basically, you bleach the latent image a bit before developing to reduce print contrast. I've use SLIMT techniques for reducing negative contrast, but have never on a print. You can find out more about it here if you're interested: http://www.davidkachel.com/assets/nw_strry.htm . There is also negative reduction, but this endangers your original and should be a last resort. These latter are advanced techniques you can explore if nothing else works.

Best of luck with your print.

Doremus Scudder

4-May-2016, 04:09
Here's something else that sometimes works very well if your negs are VERY hard contrasty, but have muddy, flat (barely any) detail in the shadow areas that you are trying to print on VC paper...

Get a deep blue filter gel (or glass) for your filter drawer, or over the lens, and try that... It puts both the contrast and flat layers of the paper into max overdrive (with a slight tilt of the curve), and gives contrast to the mushy area, and prints the extreme contrast with the softer contrast... When it works, it works surprisingly well... I figured this out when using a very old VC filter kit that had an additional deep blue filter in it marked #0... The exposures are usually very short (and critical) as those layers (blue and even the green layer but slightly less so) are very sensitive to the blue light...

It might work, sometimes...

Steve K

Steve Sherman
4-May-2016, 04:11
Like with so many things in photography it will be a combination of printing techniques which have been the result of high quality Multi-Contrast papers. Flashing the general area of concern is certainly a valuable tool.
It would be of great help to see a scan of the problem areas. In the hands of someone who completely understands the potential of Split Contrast printing with only the hardest and softest Contrast filters especially when dealing with darker trees against the always ligther sky.
If possible could you post a scan and possibly some specific suggestions will follow.

Michael R
4-May-2016, 05:12
I thought it might be helpful to show an example of how much can be done with basic techniques (although it involves practice and patience). I'm hoping this might help Lightbender feel more confident since this particular case presents a tougher challenge than many shadowed trees-bright sky/clouds images.

Apologies in advance for the poor scan, but just to give you an idea.

I do a lot of pictures under very high contrast conditions and have a rather obsessive approach to detail. This one, while not the most extreme, is still difficult for a variety of reasons. Most of the subject is dark, and I wanted strong detail throughout. So I began with a basic contrast setting that suited the majority of the image, and then worked on the light.

Bringing in bright details with highly defined shapes, surrounded by darker areas, is always tough. The challenge in bringing detail into the lightbulb was threefold: (1) There can be no obvious signs of burning in, (2) the values around the lightbulb need to remain somewhat plausible to fit in with the rest of the image tonality, (3) local contrast in the lighted area needed to be maintained. In order to do that, I decided on a careful series of progressively smaller burns at progressively lower contrast grades, until the last burn was pretty much limited to the bulb itself, at low contrast. A localized flash on the lightbulb would also have worked.

An alternative method would be to do some contour and/or pencil shading masking (a-la Alan Ross selective masking). That's another powerful tool which can accomplish what I outlined above, but in a more automated and easily repeatable way - which is especially helpful if you need to make a bunch of prints.

It took experimentation, test prints and some trial runs before it all worked out, but the point is just to illustrate what can be done with work. In the end I am usually able to avoid silver masking (a last resort for me).

Hope this helps.

(can't figure out how to post an image properly so I think you have to click a few times to get the full image).


4-May-2016, 05:22
As a last ditch effort, you might consider scanning. Since I dumped my darkroom, I'm amazed at how easy it is to access everything a negative has to offer when working digitally. I would never go back to the darkroom for printing! The things you are struggling to get are a cinch in Photoshop.

Steve Sherman
4-May-2016, 14:19
The attached Jpeg is direct from a cell phone, has not been retouched, sharpened or even cropped.

The bottom print is a straight grade 2.5 using an Ilford 500 multi contrast head using Ilford Warmtone Multi-Contrast paper.

The top print is from the same negative using Split Contrast printing manipulation using only the # 0 and # 5 filter.

The Multi-Contrast papers of today using the Split Contrast printing technique are very powerful. The finished print has not been flashed so essentially there is even more contrast that could be controlled if need be.
Please post a scan and possibly one of us can provide some direction to tame the contrast you speak of.

25-May-2016, 21:45
Sorry i did not respond. I was in 'get er done' mode for my class.
The example you posted above is fabulous! Did you split print the whole thing, or were you selectively dodging and burning areas with different grades?
What do you start with when printing.. the grade 0 or 5?

1-Jun-2016, 16:31
Use a super-proportional reducer. Kodak R-1 works well.

N. Riley

1-Jun-2016, 16:45

Powerful, could you give us a step-by-step of this print with split grade printing technique?

Steve Sherman
1-Jun-2016, 17:38
Unfortunately the only way to get this information / picture into this discussion is to save as a PDF and then open in PS and save as a JPeg so the quality of the words may suffer considerably. The actual photographs are taken from the a cell phone as seen in previous photo in this thread and sized and sharpened to the best the file will allow. I simply do not have the PS expertise to duplicate my finished prints, both in mid tone contrast as well as the Split toning technique I use.

This picture is part of a manual that is given to each student at every workshop I teach. Check here for a workshop later this month in Connecticut.



1-Jun-2016, 18:47

Superb, thanks! I have to manage my future schedules in the next trip to USA to be present on one of your workshops! I'll try to be on the next year, as this one I have to go to EU in Nov/Dec. Your website is already bookmarked. Thanks again, splendid work,



1-Jun-2016, 20:01
The wealth of good information in this thread is why this forum is still one
of the finest resources on the internet. Gorgeous work, Steve, an inspiration
for us still-learning split grade printers.