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In this post I will be looking at establishing a standard exposure time for making your contact prints. This is the second post in a series of three, you can find the first post Overdeveloped negatives – printing from difficult negatives here.
Making a contact proof print
Contact proof prints are simply made by placing the negative onto a piece of photographic paper, placing a clear piece of glass over the top to hold the negative firmly in contact, then exposing with white light.
That first contact print above, was made in 1987 using a normal contrast, grade 2, fibre based paper called Guilbrom. It has been printed way too dark, the negative’s edges indiscernible from the paper’s deep black edge. In my enthusiasm and inexperience, to achieve maximum black at the film’s edge, I overexposed my 1987 contact print. The result is terrible. The shadows in the forest understorey show very little detail, as do the sunlit areas, resulting in a print of high contrast.
Minimum exposure for maximum black
Overexposing contact prints can be a trap to using the “minimum exposure time to achieve maximum black” method. A good contact print exposure time is one where the thinnest part of the negative (ie unexposed clear edge) yields close to maximum black on the contact print using a minimum exposure time. You are really wanting to achieve what I term “near black”, rather than maximum black.
Traps to beware
Establishing a minimum exposure time to yield maximum black can be tricky, as it is operating on the curve of the photographic paper’s sensitivity. Small changes in exposure can give disproportionately larger changes to print density (black). So it is easy to over expose the print as I have done here in 1987, resulting in a high contrast proof print which does not show all the possible detail recorded on the negative.
But the contact proof also tells me that the sunlit area adjacent to the foot bridge is blocked and lacking detail, even with this overexposure. The highlights of the negatives are overdeveloped and with hindsight reduced development would have assisted in retaining more detail in these bright areas on a grade 2 paper. Overall, in 1987, I was disappointed with my contact print, they were way too contrasty, lacking important detail in the shadows and highlights.
Less exposure reveals more shadow detail
The second contact print made in 2015 has received twice the amount of light I would normally use as my standard exposure time in creating a contact sheet. That tells me that this negative made over 25 years ago is at least one whole stop denser than my regular negatives I expose today. This contact proof print has been made on the equivalent of a grade two normal contrast paper. Notice that you can just make out the film identification notches in the upper right corner, that the edge is close to, but just off, maximum black.
The shadow detail is much more visible than the first contact print from 1987. You can see within the shadows of the she-oak and karri hazel understorey including leaf detail. There is an overall feeling of enveloping light which I had desired, but the proof still clearly shows that the sunlit areas are too dense and that they require additional print exposure on a grade 2 equivalent paper.
This second contact print is still far from ideal. If I wanted to reveal more shadow and highlight detail on the contact print I could use a softer grade paper like grade 1 or grade 0. But the purpose of showing these two contacts on grade 2 is that, apart from demonstrating the problems with a high contrast scene, care must be exercised when establishing a standard printing time for making contacts.
Importance of establishing a standard exposure
Establishing a standard exposure or proper proofing time can give you valuable information about your film characteristics such as personal film speed, accuracy of your exposure, image contrast, normal development times, expansion and contraction development times and equipment function.
At workshops I am asked: why do I expose 400 iso film at 200 iso and not at the manufacturer’s recommendations? Or how long should I develop brand X film for in brand Y developer? Or how can I determine proper expansion or contraction development times? All the answers can all be found in establishing a standard contact proof print time, and this can be made visually without specialised equipment.
Resources to help and guide you
I won’t reinvent the wheel here, because there are some excellent books out there on how to do this. John Blakemore’s book Black and White Photography Workshop is an excellent reference for establishing proper proof times. My resources page has Blakemore’s book details as well as other books and websites from authors who offer a great deal of information about proper proofing and darkroom techniques.
I make my contact proofs on fibre based paper because it is the paper used in making a final print. If you are confident of your developing and exposure that you are giving a film, it is sometimes more useful in assessing contact prints made on softer, grade one equivalent paper. This shows more shadow detail on the proof, but gives an overall flatter, foggy feel to the contact print proof images of course. This was a method John Sexton shared in a 1995 lecture that I attended, and something I employ today.
A contact proof need not look like the finished print.
Unlike contact printing whose end purpose is to create a finished print with perhaps dodging and burning, contact proof printing has a different objective. At the end of the day, a contact proof print is not about it looking like your final print, but to give you as much information about your negative as possible so that you can plan your final print.