Contact Proof Prints Standard Exposure Time Part 2

The importance of establishing a standard exposure time for making and assessing your first contact prints.

Contact Proof Prints are a valuable step in printmaking. In this post I will be looking at establishing a standard exposure time for making your contact prints. This follows the first post Overdeveloped negatives – printing from difficult negatives.

Making a contact proof print

Contact proof prints are simply made by placing the negative onto a piece of photographic paper. A clear piece of glass over the top holds the negative firmly in contact with the paper. Then the paper and negative are exposed to 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. Also lacking detail are 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 yields close to maximum black. The unexposed clear edge of the film is usually the thinnest. But you want to achieve this black with the minimum exposure time. You are really wanting to achieve what I term “near black”, rather than maximum black.

Traps to beware – anyone can print black!

contact proof print 1987
Grade 2 Guilbrom paper contact proof print 1987

Establishing a minimum exposure time to yield maximum black can be tricky. The desired exposure is right 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 contact print. Looking at the contact above I have done here in 1987. It has resulted in a high contrast proof print. Shadow detail recorded on the negative is blocked by too much black.

But the contact proof also tells me more. Sunlit areas adjacent to the foot bridge are blocked and lacking detail. This is even despite the overexposure. The highlights of the negatives are overdeveloped and with hindsight reduced development would have been best. Reducing development would assistin retaining more detail in these bright areas on a grade 2 paper. Overall, in 1987, I was disappointed with my contact print. The image contained way too much contrast, 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. The resulting contact proof below 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.

contact proof print 2015
Grade 2 equivalent MG contact proof print 2015

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.

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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. Its all about matching curves. Film to paper. I am now in hybrid mode. Using semi stand development. All the film silver is fully developed. Totally..almost full tonal range. Sadly not great for silver paper. But it looks great on my coated Archers water colour papers.

    • You are quite right Robin, you certainly need to match your contrast to your final medium, in my case it is silver gelatin, other printing methods will have differing needs.

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