I am enthralled by the pictures that Andrew Sanderson makes with paper negatives.

My last visit to his darkroom was spent wholly on paper negatives. So I am now experimenting with what I learnt, and where better to begin than at the beginning …

I bought Andrew’s excellent little book to get me started.

I am not going to repeat all the advice that Andrew sets out in his book. For that you will need to buy his book or get a tutorial from him.

Having established the speed of the paper that I am using (Ilford FB Warmtone semi-matt) I decided to look at ways of controlling the contrast of the paper negatives. I looked at altering the dilution and time of the developer, the Sterry method and a combination of exposure/development times.

Developer dilution

To start I decided to take test photographs in a medium contrast environment, which in this case was near a window but not subject to direct sun light.

I cut 6×6 centimetre squares of paper under safe-light conditions and loaded them into the backs of my Hasselblad 503. I then developed the paper negatives as follows:

  1. Multigrade developer 1:18 dilution for 4 minutes (half normal dilution for double the normal FB time)
  2. Multigrade developer 1:18 dilution for 3 minutes
  3. Multigrade developer 1:18 dilution for 2 minutes
  4. Multigrade developer 1:18 dilution for 1 and half minutes

As I do not have access to a proper darkroom during lockdown I scanned the negatives into Photoshop, converted to monochrome and using the Levels layer set the appropriate black and white points on the histogram. No other adjustments were made. I used the matt version of the paper to reduce the danger of reflections of a glossy paper when scanning.

Results:

So I am looking for highlight detail. I see that reduced development time brings in some highlight detail on the cat and the white patterned jar. Image 4 has the most highlight texture but at the cost of some muddiness. I prefer image 3 but for a hybrid technique involving PS, I would be happy with image 4 because I would not need to resort to extreme digital measures which would bring in other artefacts. The situation for darkroom printing might be different.

Here is the result of image 4 after some minor PS tweaks.

Modified Sterry Method

I then looked at a modified Sterry method. In the early 1900’s Sterry used Potassium Dichromate to rescue images whose high contrast made them very difficult to print. He treated the latent images (on film and on paper) to a dichromate bath before developing those images in developer.

As Carson Graves notes in his book, a weak dichromate solution reduces the density in dense areas proportionally more than in less dense areas. So for a paper negative the dark areas (highlights in the print) will be reduced more than the light areas (shadow areas in the print).

Rather than using dichromate, we can use potassium ferricyanide.

First we make a stock of 10% ‘Ferri’. Dissolve 100g of potassium ferricyanide and 33 g of potassium bromide into 800 mls of water then make up to one litre. This stock solution will keep for a year or two. The bromide is used to help prevent fogging.

Then make a 0.1% solution: 10mls of 10% Ferri into 990 mls of water. From this make a 0.001% solution: 10mls of 0.1% Ferri in 1 litre. This is the base solution for the bath.

I took three test photographs. All three metered for f22 at 40 seconds using the paper speed I was using.

  1. Image 1 was developed in half strength Multigrade for 2 minutes thirty seconds.
  2. Image 2 was treated in a Ferri bath for 30 seconds then developed as for Image 1
  3. Image 3 as for Image 2 except the Ferri bath was for 1 minute.

I then scanned the negatives into Photoshop, converted to monochrome and using the Levels layer set the appropriate black and white points on the histogram. No other adjustments were made.

We see that the first image has blown highlights. The second image recovers this a little whilst still retaining some tonality in the shadows. The third image reduces the high densities even further but at some cost to the shadows.

Building on the additive effects of developer dilution/timing and the Ferri bath the optimal point would probably be immersing the paper into a 30 second Ferri bath then pulling the paper negative from the developer after 2 minutes, rather than the two and a half minutes. A further test would confirm this.

Here is Image 2 after some minor PS tweaks.

Pictorial Development

It is normal for many darkroom workers to overexpose film negatives and under-develop them. This tactic normally secures the best chance of ending up with a negative that most easily prints but retains shadow detail.

But perhaps this tactic needs to be questioned when developing paper negatives. After all when using paper negatives you are not normally trying to emulate what film can achieve. Paper negatives are synonymous with a pictorial style.

In the test pictures below I have inverted 9 paper negatives and placed them in a grid according to exposure and development time. On the horizontal axis exposure is changed by one stop when moving one picture left or right. On the vertical axis, development time in Multigrade is changed by one stop when moving up or down by one picture.

It would be normal to choose the overexposed and underdeveloped frame for further work, but actually I think the underexposed and overdeveloped frame has more potential, as I see it below. I prefer the more ‘pictorial’ quality of it – less contrast and a softer texture.

Overexposed, Underdeveloped
Underexposed, over-developed