Darkroom Masking for High Contrast Negatives

Burning & dodging masks can help you control print exposures within a difficult negative.

Using burning or dodging masks in your darkroom is a set of skills you should have in your printing techniques repertoire. The concept of applying burning and dodging masks to photographic darkroom printing and reprographics was around long before Photoshop arrived with digital masks.

During the darkroom printing of the photograph above, I used burning-in masks to provide local contrast control within a difficult high contrast negative. Using masks affords you greater control and consistency of burning and dodging during darkroom printing.

A high contrast negative with dense, overexposed highlights can be difficult to print without masking

For many applications, masks for darkroom printing can be simple. All you need is readily available drafting film, some 3mm white acrylic sheet, scissors, pencil, and tape. Below, I describe how I use multiple burning dodging masks in preparing a silver gelatin print from this negative.

Benefits of Masking Increased Burning Dodging Control & Consistency

I find burning or dodging in small parts of the print, where there is more than one f-stop exposure difference between adjacent print areas, often difficult to conceal. To have the best chance of successfully printing negatives requiring longer burning or dodging times requires carefully controlled graduated exposures. For accuracy in small print areas, I need to call on burning and dodging masks.

Using masks affords you finer control and greater consistency during darkroom printing. Masks are placed above the negative with a layer of white diffusing acrylic plastic, larger than the negative, in-between. This plastic acts in several ways. As a light diffuser, it helps to hide the masks. The diffuser thickness is sufficient to prevent image forming marks, dust, or imperfections showing in the print. It also creates a small penumbra edge, further softening mask edges.

This allows you to cut masks into various shapes, changing regions of negative density. You can stack masks with cutaway shapes. When placed above the negative they modify its density range, and hence exposure of the photographic paper. Think of mask stacking as applying a gradation in photoshop. I use five simple masks taped into position for printing this negative.

Masking for Dodging Negatives

In the above example, I am using masking for printing a high contrast negative, that is, to burn-in portions of the print during exposure. However, you can also use masks to dodge portions of the print during exposure. For an explanation of simple darkroom dodging and burning techniques please refer to my earlier article.

inkjet mask for negatives
Injet mask for dodging negatives, minus diffusing plastic in this illustration

While I will not be making masks for dodging here, I will briefly mention three ways they can be made, depending upon your preferred workflow.

  1. Apply soft graphite pencil shading directly to the drafting film. Smudge the graphite gently with your finger to soften hard pencil edges. Using a lightbox with the drafting film taped firmly to the diffuser, you can trace an outline of the shape you need to dodge.
  2. Make a contact print from the negative on lithographic film and then place the resulting mask plus original negative in a negative carrier with pin registration.
  3. Scan your negative, use Photoshop and your inkjet printer to print a mask onto overhead projector film. Tape the film onto the diffuser over the negative.

For more detailed explanations of the above techniques explore the web site references at the bottom of this article.

burning dodging masks used with this image
Elements of this high contrast negative will be difficult to print unless burning dodging masks are used

Masking Over-Exposed High Contrast Negatives

I made this portrait image over three decades ago on 4×5 inch Tri X film. It was one of a series of 3 exposures made during an impromptu portrait session. Below you can see how the sudden change from soft overcast to hard direct sunlight changed the exposure and overall contrast range.

high contrast negatives on grade 2 paper
Contact prints made on Grade 2 paper confirm overexposed highlights

When I initially metered for the exposures, the day was overcast. A soft, even light was spilling through the shed doorway. Then, just as I made the first exposures, the light changes dramatically. Hard direct sunlight floods into the shed on my last exposure. Of course, it is this last exposure I wanted to print!

The first sign of the overexposure problem was evident when I viewed these portrait negatives just after development. A proper proof confirmed my exposures of the first two images were within the ballpark, but that my third image was overexposed, as expected. That’s the beauty of making a standard contact print proof. It alerts you immediately to any potential issues you may have before you start printing. This saves time, materials and informs you of your technique and skills.

Measuring the Contrast Range

Before I set about down the road of making masks, I wanted to quantify my problem. One of the key print exposure values is in the face. Using this as my target, I obtained an exposure reading. Without changing lens the aperture, I then metered the more heavily exposed areas. Using the face exposure as my baseline, I compared the exposures for the hat, chicken and kerosene containers.

Minimum exposure for tone or textureSecondsf-stop
face20base line
chicken and kerosene containers88+2
Comparison of print exposures

The face required 20 seconds and the hat 45 seconds. That’s about 1 f-stop more than the face. Not surprisingly, the white chicken required 88 seconds or approximately 2 f-stops more than the face. The sunlit kerosene containers in the lower left-hand corner, made of white plastic, also came in at over 2 f-stops.

I could approach the printing of this overexposed negative using the traditional burning and dodging techniques. But the chicken, in particular, is a relatively small print area to burn-in accurately by hand. Add to that the burn-in exposure is likely to be at least 2 f-stops, meaning it will be noticeable if not done well.

Although I planned to use masks to print this negative, I still was going to combine the broader controls of simple burning and dodging. Using masks does not mean you can’t combine with other methods as well.

Using this information I began to see how I may need multiple masks, grouped, and set out with varied shapes determined by the high contrast elements contained above.

Planning your Masks

I created a drawing on my darkroom whiteboard of the number, and approximate positioning of the masks.

I had three masks cut reasonably close, to within 3mm of each edge, for the lower left hand corner of the print. The cut away corner areas give more exposure to the corner, relative to the rest of the negative each mask covers. The effect is a graduated burn.

I repeat this technique for two other masks that create a contour just above the icecream tub, drop down to encircle the hat and chicken. Again, the effect is to burn in the tub, hat chicken, all the way to include the kerosene containers in the lower left.

How to Make a Simple Burning In Mask

The following images show the basic steps of making burning dodging masks. All you need is some drafting film to cover the negative area, an offcut of thin white diffusing plastic to cover the negative, a pair of scissors, a soft 6B pencil, and some tape.

drafting film above diffuser
drafting film negative mask
customising mask shape
Using a soft 6B pencil to trace onto the mask the cut out shape
burning dodging masks
Cutting the mask to shape
mask cut out shape
The cut burning-in mask
3 masks in corner
Three cut out masks can be layered over on another, creating a graduated burn
burning and dodging masks applied in layers
All 5 layer dodging burning masks in place
multiple masks over negative
Five masks held by tape onto the acrylic diffusing sheet
Projected image with diffuser sheet and 5 masks in situ

Pilot Print with 5 Burning In Masks

Using an acceptable exposure for the face as my baseline, I found that the hat would need at least one stop more exposure than the face. Likewise, the chicken would need at least two stops more exposure. The ice cream tub and the kerosene containers came in midway between the two.

pilot print with masks
Pilot print with masks in situ

After some initial exposure tests for the print highlights, I settled on a base exposure of 27.6 sec for the soft printer. A separate set exposure test for the print’s dark tones gave an exposure of 33 sec for the hard printer. The result of these two print exposures is seen above in a pilot print. For an explanation of black and white printer exposures, please refer to my earlier article on split grade printing.

I’m reasonably happy with the pilot print using the basic split grade exposure. However, the highlights need to be printed down further. I would combine simple burning-in techniques to achieve this.

final print burning dodging masks
Final print with masks in situ plus additional burning
burning-in masks plus traditional burning-in darkroom technique
Burning-in masks in situ, plus additional simple burning-in technique

Using Masks plus Additional Burning & Dodging

My final print was made using all 5 layer masks in situ, plus additional burning-in. For the extra burns, I used a sheet of cardboard described in my post Burning and Dodging Darkroom Tools. The tonal differences between the pilot print and the final print are more noticeable on the fiber-based prints than on the screen. However, these photographs are of the actual prints, and still show additional texture and tone in the highlights.

dodging mask only
Actual 11×14 print size: pilot print with masks only
burning in dodging mask plus extra burn
Actual print size: final print with masks plus additional burning dodging

Final Print Recipe with 5 Masks In Situ

final print recipe burning dodging masks
Final print recipe notes: general burning and dodging combined with masks

My print recipe is described diagrammatically above and summarised below:

  1. Base exposure soft printer, f11 for 27 seconds, all 5 layer masks in situ
    1. Soft printer burn-in +1/3 f-stop from the bottom left-hand corner up to the subject’s collar
    2. and including the icecream tub and hat
    3. including the chicken
    4. Soft printer burn-in +1/3 f-stop, vertical from left to right up to the beam with light switch
  2. Hard printer f11 at 35 seconds.

Unsharp Masks and Selective Contrast Masking

Dodging and burning in masks can be more sophisticated in the darkroom than what I have shown above. For example, you can use a negative carrier with pin registration to accurately hold masks in place. This is particularly important for smaller film formats where higher enlarging magnifications are used.

Masks can also be made from contact printing negatives onto lithographic film, making highly accurate masking maps, including unsharp masks. You can use inkjet printers, film scanners, and Photoshop in the mask making workflow.

And finally, burning and dodging masks can also be printed in colour using inkjets, with the possibility of colour influencing variable contrast paper grades.

If the concept of burning and dodging is new to you I suggest you read my article Burning and Dodging Darkroom Tools, first.

For information about using more complex making techniques with traditional darkroom printing, I recommend you explore the following two web sites:

Additional Masking Resources

Lynn Radeka Photography: Contrast Masking Kits

Alan Ross Photography: Selective Masking

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Since 1989, Alex Bond has published cards, calendars, books, and posters under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images showcase the West Australian environment. Bond's handcrafted, silver-gelatin, fibre-based prints are personally made by the author in his darkroom.

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  1. Beautiful image in a great setting. Your technique isn’t something I’d seen before (i.e., white acrylic masks). I guess the idea comes from the way the old guys used to make pencil marks on the back of their paper negatives to dodge parts of the negative. And I know not all contrasty negs require this amount of work to nail down, but it seems pretty complicated when you get up to 2-3-4-5 separate masks to have all in register at the same time (?). I know it works because you showed us that, but might there be simpler ways to get the job done, such as making a digital negative with all the masking/burning/dodging done in software? I’ve done plenty of internegative masks in my day, and I know how technically complicated it can become. So, just asking if you’ve found your workflow to be a benefit over other more modern ways.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, I have worked with digital files inkjet printed onto overhead film. There are many digital options as you know.

      I wanted to demonstrate simple masking to show its potential. Using cut out masks to increase density, in parts, is relatively simple and faster than photoshop. It doesn’t always require the accuracy of pin registration, simple taping will suffice.

      You are right in that there are many more sophisticated ways to make them.

      I don’t make many masks in my regular printing. But it is a handy technique to have at hand when other printing methods fail to tame those difficult negatives.

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