View Full Version : Masking color negatives: where/how to begin?

Daniel Stone
4-May-2011, 13:11
Hey guys,

this fall I'm planning on getting back into the color darkroom at my local photo center to print some color negs from this last year, and some new ones from this year. However, I've come to realize that dodging and burning isn't always the best way to attain the results that I'd like to achieve with my prints. Now that commercial "masking" films such as Kodak's former one(which I'm forgetting right now) are gone, I know that most people have achieved great results with TMAX 100. However, I'm not tied to the hip on staying with TMX100, and I've heard that many people also use FP4+. Pro's, con's to each? Also a recommended developer? Muir "soft-shot" is what most people have recommended, since it doesn't produce much color cast in the negative vs. HC110(even at very weak dilutions) or other developers.

I've never done any masking of any sort, color or b/w, but since I contact print for 95% of my b/w work, and Lodima in MAS amidol gives me the results I love in b/w, this will be for COLOR NEGATIVES ONLY.

So... I'll be working from 6x7 and 4x5 color negatives, primarily Portra 160NC, VC and some 400NC/VC(I like variety ;)), so using 4x5 film for all the masking will be easiest from what I can see.

Keeping things in register is key obviously, and I've been watching for negative registration frames on e-prey, but so far no luck. So I've considered making a glass neg carrier w/ pins myself. Can't be too hard I'd imagine? Anyone have any plans for one they've made, and feel like sharing? I'd be greatly appreciative

lastly, any recommendations for things I might have left out?



4-May-2011, 13:45
I would like to know, what exactly is it that you are trying to achieve by masking?

I've never done masking so I don't know what the point is. I've never looked at a photo and thought "I should make a mask"--probably because I don't know how to do it or what it does.

Drew Wiley
4-May-2011, 14:02
Registration gear does come up for sale from time to time. You'd need both a punch and a matching pin register glass with a contact frame. Pretty tricky to make your own
unless you've got machine shop skills and very very precise arbor runout on your
drillpress or milling machine. You've got to be repeatable in thousanths. There are some leads on this forum to current suppliers of masking rigs; but older Condit gear is best, provided you can find them it clean condition. 120 film is a nightmare because it
is acetate-based and dimensionally unstable (won't hold register). Polyester sheet films, including the current Portra and Ektar films, are very nice to work with. Masking is a complex topic in its own right, and it takes some practice to understand what to do, and when it might or might not be helpful. For color negatives, you basically can do
a single mask for contrast reduction, or a positive to negative two-step mask for
contrast increase. Color correction is also possible through this, as well as many more
interesting tricks. But with any new film I'd spend quite a bit of time printing conventionally first, so you can recognize the shortcomings of your current workflow.
Color negs don't always need masking like chromes did in the darkroom. But if you want to take print quality to the next level, this is an avenue worth investigating.
Both TMX and FP4 films work well. You can try Ctein's Muir Softshot, though I believe
he has since switched to my formula which is simpler, and is based on very dilute
HC-110 with a tiny pinch of benzotriazole added as a toe cutter - there will be no
residual stain. You can also tweak the properties a mask with Farmer's reducer.

Daniel Stone
4-May-2011, 20:36
thanks Drew,

I appreciate the insight.

Bettersense: I'm primarily looking to try masking as a way of contrast reduction primarily, I love shooting portraits backlit, like this one here(this one is from a 6x7 400VC negative, 220 base too, so its even thinner than 120 :o):


and I'd like to find a way of bringing down highlight values to a more "straight print". I know that people do color correction masks, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm looking to just try with the basic contrast reduce/increase.

"walk before you run" sort of mentality ;)


Drew Wiley
5-May-2011, 08:33
You don't necessarily need a punch just to start learning. You can expose the masks
on a simple contact frame using oversize pan film, then visually register it on a lightbox and tape the negs together for printing. It's a bit of a headache that way, but
will at least get you into the groove before you need to refine your technique or spend
more money. If you work with 120 roll film, the trick is to do the masking and actual
printing within a period of stable humidity, so the original film doesn't change much dimensionally. Another problem is that you need to fool your pan film into being blind
to the orange mask and its own decreased sensitivity to green. And the final mask
needs to be quite soft, probably no more than .30 density. You can use an ordinary
developer like D76 then clear the residual fog with about minute in a tray of
Farmers Reducer. FP4 tends to leave behind a bit of pink antihalation dye stain, but
is less prone to Newton rings than TMY. You will also need so 3-mil or 5-mil mylar
diffusion sheet, frosted on both sides (don't use frosted acetate).

Lynn Jones
5-May-2011, 13:47
You might try Ilford PanF+ and HC110 at about 1:45 (what I used with Kodak's Pan Masking Film). If the immersion times are too short go on to try 1:60. No I don't remember the times any more. The hard part is learning how to make the masks "un- sharp". I used a contact print frame with "flashed opal glass" instead of regular glass, its a bit had to find but big time glass companies should be able to get it for you. I also would use 2 or 3 sheets of cleared film between the opal the negative and the film.


Drew Wiley
5-May-2011, 14:04
One can simply use frosted mylar for diffusion, provided you have good control over
registration. But if you need more diffusion, FP4 has a neutral gray antihalation layer,
so you can actually expose through the BACK of the film (with proper recalibration for
time). You will still need at least one diffusion sheet, however. I don't know what the
mytique about discontinued Pan Masking film is anyway. It was a lot like Plus X but without an antihalation coat, and had too much toe to be ideal for this application.
You were basically exposing on the long toe in order to prevent a contrast buildup.
The current film choices actually work much better if you diffuse properly. You don't
need anything with terribly micro grain structure if you keep the film plane on the
neg carrier in shallow focus.

Ben Syverson
5-May-2011, 14:24
Obviously I'm working with a web resolution JPEG here, and the red channel of the scan is blown out, but what about this?

Drew Wiley
5-May-2011, 15:43
Ben - the whole game of curve correction is obviously easier in PS given a good scan,
especially for MF negs, but the final look is also quite different. In a well-done direct optical print, both the tones and the detail are going to a lot more seamless. You're
printing right from the neg itself - true film masking isn't going to change that - right
onto a paper media mated to it. No intermediate retranslation of the dyes. The print
will look sharp, not "sharpened". Film masking is actually fairly easy once the skill set
is acquired, but it does take some experience. If fact, for LF it can be much less work
and expense than digital workflow. With MF, digital correction is more of a temptation. I suppose a few folks will want both options in their tool kit; but color neg masking in general is fairly uncommon. I personally getting prints from optical enlarging which
look almost like they came from chromes - very crisp, clean hues, without the "mud"
symptomatic of most color neg work even digitally printed. But with steady changes
in the selection of available films, the learning curve just keeps on going.