A man can only take so many “zeros” and “ones”

It’s amazing that after more than 20 years I still remember so well the teachings of my old photography teacher.

Those teachings are carved forever in my mind an I still keep my copy of the “bible”, Basic Photography by Michel Langford.

Having the opportunity to work with an enlarger again, after so long, is slowly bringing up the simple routines one must know in order to make a simple print. However I’ve been experiencing a mix of anxiety and the will to respect what I’ve learned back then.

Anxiety makes me want to print 20 negatives every session.
I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a simple print. One must look at the negative to understand it and then decide how to print it.

There are so many possibilities.

I was in college when Ilford launched a new kind Multigrade paper, if memory serves me right it was the RC kind of paper (not 100% sure though) and basically I’ve learned to print using Multigrade paper and to take advantage of the variable contrast.

I became a graphic designer and after using Photoshop daily for over 15 years I have a pretty good idead about how I want a certain image to look like. The challenge is… can I do it on paper?

Let me share with you my new (baby) steps in the darkroom and some of my thoughts.

As I was told, many years ago, one must start by making an exposure time test.

It’s simple enough. I can set the time increment that I want and uncover a little more of the image for every new exposure. I’ve started on the left with a 4 seconds exposure and ended up, after 4 steps, with an exposure time of 16 seconds on that first strip.

On the above picture I ended up choosing an 8 seconds exposure.
It is very important that the paper develops for the same amount of time when doing the tests.

One must not “control” the exposure by taking the paper out of the developer if all the sudden we see the image becoming too dark.

I’ve heard it over a zillion times back in photography classes.

Every paper developer has a specific dilution and development time, it’s good to respect it.

Okay, now a few examples of a simple mask.

I was printing this negative and the lens of the enlarger was set to f5.6.
The right exposure was around 6 seconds and it came out like this…


It’s a pretty decent print I guess. There’s that black shadow on the top right but the negative has zero information there. No point on masking there. However, the print looks a bit “flat”, the grey is too even. I wanted more contrast and dark areas but not on the dress and feet.

I made a simple mask out of the corner of a magazine.
And it came out like this.


The procedure was simple enough.
A first 6 seconds exposure and then, masking the dress and the feet, more 4 seconds.

Two problems.
The first one is the exaggerated contrast between the dress and feet and the rest of the image.
The second one is, it burned so fast that we can see the border created by the magazine.


In order to make a softer mask, like using “Feather” in Photoshop, I’ve decided to use my hand and to make a slower burn. I set the lens of the enlarger to f8 giving me an optimum exposure time of 12 seconds.

On the second try, I’ve exposed the whole image for 12 seconds and then added 5 seconds more masking the dress and the feet with my hand.

Here is the result.


The first and last print, side by side.

combo 1

Another example using a soft number 2 filter.
The first image came out too light and I wanted to keep it as soft as possible but I didn’t like that brightness on the left shoulder. I gave it a couple more seconds of exposure time masking the central part of the image.



Untitled-5combo 2

A final example of the same situation.
A first print.


An overall increase of the exposure time.


Masking the face.


combo 3

It’s been an adventure guys and it feels great to hold something… real… at the end of the day.
A man can only take so many “zeros” and “ones”.

  1. Rufus Girard said:

    Wonderful account of a dark room day. As you wrote about each step, I was saying ‘ try this ‘ and you did. The old darkroom knows no boundaries. Clearly you are on love with your craft. r.

    • Thank you very much Rufus, I’m feeling like a kid.

  2. "Occam Blade" said:

    Wow. Talk about falling through the looking glass! This harkens back to my own days in the darkroom. That place was/is an oasis to me. Chemistry and temparature and llight and time all merging in varying proportions to create a photograph. Fantastic. Terrific post!

    • Thank you so much my friend, indeed a little oasis. 🙂
      Hours just go by.

    • Mais que prometida, até porque a tua tenho-a pendurada na sala! 🙂

  3. Son of Sharecroppers said:

    Last fall I started printing negatives again (after a long absence from the darkroom). I really like the process.

    I tend to use much higher focal ratios for the enlarger lens (f/22 or even f/32) to get more control over the exposure. The longer the exposure, the more finely you can divide it up.

    Also, in regard to the hard-edged masking: Were you moving the mask continually? I have used either my hands or various paper masks, and I haven’t had a hard edge like that–but I keep the mask moving at all times to blend the shadow edge.

    • No was I was not moving it at all.
      I thought that, being such a short exposure. If I remember right, 6 seconds overall exposure and 2 more protecting that area, the edges would not be as visible as that. My mistake of course 🙂

  4. Son of Sharecroppers said:

    Also, let me note that I really like these shots. I think that the first photo in particular is a very interesting composition.

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