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Printing Tips


Equipment / Safelights / Enlarger / Cold Light Heads and Timers / Viewing Stand & Lighting

Chemicals / Developer / Stop Bath / Fixer

Developing Prints

Consistency of Printing Paper

Making a Print

Test Strips / Stepped Scale Test Strip / Small Sheet Test Strip

The Work Print

Burning & Dodging / Burning Technique / Dodging Technique

Keeping Notes

Final Tweaking

Checking for Dry-Down

The Final Run



Producing a fine print is difficult. First the printer must master the technical aspects; mixing chemistry, handling paper, operating the enlarger, and getting the tones you want on the print. That's hard enough, but then the really hard part (for me) is making the endless aesthetic decisions. What shade of gray should that foreground be? How about if that cloud was a little lighter?.

A truly fine print is made of subtleties. Each tone in the print, the contrast, the color all have to be exactly right. When you get it right, the image jumps off the page at you. Until then it's just so-so.

This takes a lot of time and patience to get it just right. I'm good for about two or three hours of printing at a stretch. During that time I am occasionally able to make a print I like; more often however I go back for a second or even a third session before I get it right. That's with a new image I haven't printed before. If I've printed it before, can find my notes, have kept an example of the finished product, and I decide not to try a different interpretation of the image, one session will usually do it.



I can't stress enough the importance of testing your safelight. I've wasted a lot of time and money by being lazy and assuming my safelight is ok. Don't believe the manufacturer's recommendations. Do the test: .

I learned this the hard way once when I was running some tests with VC paper. My test results were all over the place. I didn't believe the safelight was the problem (or didn't want to believe it…one of the hard things to learn in life is believe what your eyes are telling you). So I did the test. It took about a half hour. Wow was I surprised. The VC paper was fogging like crazy. The graded paper was fogging after about 5 minutes under the safelight, which is not acceptable.

So I replaced the filters in my safelight with new ones. Even though the manufacturer claimed that everything would be fine, I did the test anyway, and guess what? The VC paper was still getting fogged!

I've solved the problem by closing down the louvers on the safelight when using VC paper. The Kodak test determines how long it is safe to leave the paper out before exposure and after exposure. I tested all my paper types and posted the results on the wall. I also make an effort with all papers to keep them away from the safelight as much as possible; don't leave anything out.


Your enlarger should be properly aligned and free of vibrations.

Improper alignment can make it difficult to achieve a sharp print. Proper alignment means that the negative carrier is parallel with the paper and the lens axis is perpendicular to them. Check your alignment by focusing an image at the largest size you're likely to print, and check the focus at the corners and the center with a grain magnifier.

Using a shaky enlarger on a rickety old table is a great way to prevent a decent print. The enlarger and easel should move as little as possible while printing. A good habit to acquire is to never touch the table while making an exposure, and if you do happen to bang something between exposures, wait a moment for the vibrations to fade away.

My setup might seem overboard for some. I built an enlarger table with 2x4's and thick plywood. I tested its stability by placing a glass of water on it and then doing things I normally would while looking for ripples in the water. I can rest my elbows on the table and wiggle a dodging card around without rippling the water.

The enlarger is one of the older Zone VI models and is attached to the concrete wall. It does not actually touch the table, but sits about 1/8" over it. Short of an earthquake, it's pretty solid.

Cold Light Heads and Timers
Cold light heads are great but they suffer from one major drawback; the warmer they are, the brighter they get. A one second exposure with a cooled off head will be a lot different from what you'll get with one second with a warmed up head.
I've solved this issue by using a 'compensating' timer which measures the light output and adjusts the actual length of each 'second' accordingly. With this setup, each second gets shorter as the lamp warms up, delivering an equal amount of light per 'second'.

There's an easy way to handle this problem without an expensive compensating timer, though it may be slightly less accurate, it's better than nothing. Always make your exposures with a fully warmed head. It takes my head about a minute to get fully warmed up. It takes about 15 minutes or so to go back to cold. So for the first exposure, run the head for a minute first. Put the paper in the easel and cover it with an opaque card, run the head for 10 seconds to make sure it's hot, and then expose the paper. See "The Print" by Ansel Adams; it worked for him, it'll work for you.
I find it very convenient to use a footswitch to turn on the enlarger; this way I can use both hands during exposure, as explained in the section on making a print.

Viewing Stand and Lighting
To accurately judge a print, you need a viewing stand and light of some kind. For a viewing surface, I use a 20x24 sheet of opaque white acrylic, or the back of a white flat bottom tray. Don't use glass or some other clear material; try to approximate the final mounted condition. The surface should be smooth and big enough to look at two prints side by side.

The viewing light is an often ignored item. I think it is best to reproduce the lighting conditions where the print will eventually be displayed. A print which looks great under an overly bright viewing light will look too dark under 'normal' conditions.

I have not yet had occasion to make a print intended for a specific location, so I try to make prints suitable for an 'average' display space. If and when I do need to do this, I will take a meter reading at the display space and duplicate it as well as I can at the viewing stand.

The light sources I currently use for viewing wet prints are 2 40w daylight floods 4 feet from the print with window screen over the bulbs as a diffuser.

Chemicals Setup
I start off with setting up the solutions. I use 14x18 trays with a gallon of solution in each for 8x10 and 11x14 prints. Using a whole gallon of solution may seem excessive, but it's very nice to not have to worry about too little solution. Everything lasts longer and I can run many prints at once. I arrange the trays from left to right developer, stop bath, fixer, water holding tray. I have one 20x24 flat bottom tray which I lean against the back of the sink to use as a viewing stand. On the floor to the right I keep a bucket of hot clean water for rinsing hands. Occasionally I'll use two trays of developer (for contrast control); in this case the two developer trays are stacked using a tray ladder.

I've been using Dektol diluted 1+2 for 2 minutes at 70 degrees for several years. Dektol is very popular and easily obtained. Mixing your own is also an alternative. For lower contrast I use Selectol-Soft or Ansco 130. See 'The Darkroom Cookbook' and 'The Print' for more info.

Temperature of the developer is critical for consistent results. My darkroom is normally on the cool side; around 63 to 68 degrees, a little colder in the winter. I use a submersible aquarium heater designed for tropical fish to keep the developer at a constant temperature. I fill a large tray with water deep enough to cover the heater, and have cut four short sections of pvc pipe which act as legs to support the developer tray on top of the water.

Stop Bath
I still use an acetic acid stop bath, though I hear more and more often that it's not necessary. Many printers use plain water. My concern is that active developer will get carried over into the fixer. If you are tossing your fixer after each session that's fine. If not, I recommend a stop bath.

I mix my fixer from scratch using the Kodak F-6 odorless formula; chemicals from Artcraft.

Developing Prints
Developing prints is much the same as developing film. The same considerations of time, temperature, dilution and agitation apply. Keeping these four variables under control is key to getting consistent results, and makes it possible to achieve a fine print in a reasonable amount of time and materials.
As with film, the four variables have an effect on print contrast as well as overall density. It is important to establish a 'normal' procedure which you can change for expressive control. Slight changes in the variables will make a difference in the print; and often all that stands between a good print and an outstanding print are subtleties.
My standard at the moment is 2 minutes at 70 degrees, using a dilution of 1+2. Slide the paper in emulsion side up and flop it over a few times, then flop it every 15 seconds, rocking the tray in between. When there is 10 seconds left on the timer, pull the print by one corner and let it drain for 10 seconds, then go straight into the stop bath.
When developing many prints at once I slide them in one at a time as quickly as I can, then shuffle them by pulling the bottom one out from the back, laying it on top, and carefully pressing it down into the soup. I try and keep the shuffle rate so that each print gets moved once every 15 seconds.
I always use my hands instead of tongs; the few times I've tried tongs I've dented the prints. Wear latex gloves if you wish. Handle the prints by the edges as much as you can. Keep a bucket of hot water nearby for rinsing your hands.

Consistency of Printing Paper
A related variable is the paper itself. While it should be obvious that one brand or grade of paper will act differently from another, it is also true that there may be variations from box to box of the same brand & grade. Paper properties change over time, gradually losing speed and contrast. Storage conditions have a big impact on how quickly the paper goes bad. Also, different brands go bad at different rates.
Paper boxes usually have an emulsion number and a 'use by' date. Two boxes of the same emulsion & date, purchased at the same time from the same place and stored together until use are probably pretty consistent.
A good practice is to always start a new print with plenty of paper from one box. It's pretty frustrating to open a new box in the middle of a print only to find that the speed and contrast are different enough to make you start all over. With 8x10 paper, I open a new box if there's less than 25 sheets in the current one. Use the old paper for proofs. With larger sheets I either take my chances (and usually regret it), give it away or chuck it.

Making A Print
This section has been revised for using variable contrast paper.

Set up your enlarger to print; insert the negative and focus on the desired print size.

Insert the #2 filter, or if using a variable contrast enlarger, set it at the middle of its' range.

Cut a test strip large enough to cover the lightest and darkest areas of the image. Place it on the easel, guess an exposure and expose it. Through experience I can usually guess within a stop or so what the exposure should be. If in doubt, use 10 seconds at f/16 for an 8x10 print.

Write the time, aperture and grade (filter) on the back of the print in pencil, and process the test strip.

Chances are this first strip will be obviously too light or too dark. So make another one by changing the exposure. More light = a darker print. Opening the lens by one stop gives double the amount of light.

Once you're in the ball park with a reasonable looking print, start looking at the contrast. Find an exposure which looks about right for the lighter values in the print. Change the filter or adjust the contrast settings to get what you want in the darker areas of the print.

I find it helps to aim at first for a slightly "flat", low contrast print, and then gradually increase the contrast.


The Work Print

At this point you have arrived at a print which looks pretty good with no burning & dodging. You've settled on a contrast grade, determined your basic exposure and development time. You have created the work print. If you've truly followed all the steps, you've already produced a print far superior to most. Keep the work print for future reference. Now it's time for refinements.

I've printed very few negatives which didn't need further refinements; most of them do. There will be areas of the print which could benefit from a little more or less exposure.

The classic example is the sky in a landscape; 90% of the time it needs to be darker, to be burned in. The foreground in a landscape can often be improved by being a bit lighter by dodging.

Take a good long look at the work print. Sit down and take your time. This is often where I'll stop a work session, clean up and begin with the work print next time.

Looking hard at the work print, try and identify the areas which might look better a little darker or lighter. Think about drawing the viewer's attention around on the print. Where do you want them to look? Our eyes are drawn to contrasts. We also tend to look at lighter areas first.

With landscapes there are often areas of the print around the sides which provide context but are not central to the statement being made. A good way to direct attention away from these less important areas is to burn them darker.

An object or area which is central to the statement can often draw more attention if it stands out from its' surroundings.

Burning & Dodging

Deciding what to burn and dodge, and how much, is at this point pure speculation. Would the sky look more dramatic if it was darker? How much darker? How about that rock in the foreground? Should it be lighter? How much lighter?

Burning Technique

A common burning technique is to add a little exposure around the edges of the print. The edges of a work print are often too light, and the image seems to drift off the edges, diluting the statement. Flare inside the camera makes the edges of the negative a little denser than the middle, and light fall-off during printing (because the edges of the print are further away from the light source than is the center) are the main causes. I think there is also a psychological effect at work here. In any case, most images can benefit from having some edge burning. See The Print for details.

Once you've decided to burn a certain area, you must determine how much. I was taught how to do this by Fred Picker.

Let's assume you're printing a standard landscape. The top third or so of the print is a blue (grey) cloudless sky. If you were smart you shot it with a filter to bring the value down already. Let's assume we want the sky darker.

Let's assume the exposure for the work print is 12 seconds.

We know that the sky will need more than 12 seconds, but how much more?

The answer is to make test strips. Sometimes I use full sheets for these, sometimes I cut strips. It depends on what I'm trying to find out. There's usually other parts of the image I'm wondering about too, so using full sheets is a good idea. Of course if you're printing on 16x20 paper, I'd think twice about it. If you cut strips, make them large enough to cover the area you're working with.

In this case I would expose 3 full sheets (or strips) for 15, 18, and 25 seconds respectively. Make sure to write the exposure on the backs. Process them all together.

Put the work print on your viewing surface, and lay the test sheet on it. If they're all wet they'll stick together nicely. Check the longest burn first (the 25 second one). Is it too dark? If it is that's good, you've gone too far. If it's not too dark or you're not sure, make sure. Run a few more with even greater exposures. Keep going until you've made one that's too dark.

Keep in mind that the longer an exposure is, the more change in time is needed to produce the same difference in density. I know that doesn't make much sense. Think of it in terms of numbers, it's easier. With a 10 second exposure, adding 1 second is adding 10%. Add that same one second to a 20 second exposure and you're only adding 5%.

Experience will guide you in deciding what exposure to give your test sheets.

If you're using full sheets, fold the test sheet back so that you're only seeing the part you're working on, and lay in on the work print.

Find the exposure that's too dark and work back from there. You may find that one sheet is too dark and the next lighter one is too light. You can run some more tests in between or just guess at this point.

Dodging Technique

This is the same as burning in reverse. The way I do it is by holding light back during the initial exposure.

Here's another trick learned from Picker - the dodging tool. My dodging tool is a wire coat hanger bent into a circle. Two pieces of black sewing thread are stretched across it so that they form an 'x'. A piece of masking tape, torn and folded to the desired shape and size, is stuck to the threads at the 'x'. The wire of the coat hanger is far enough away that it doesn't interfere with the image.

Keeping Printing Notes

I keep a sheet of printing notes for each print, and file it with the negative and the work print for future reference. My sheets are based on the ones which used to be available from Zone VI.

Keeping good notes keeps me from getting lost while printing. Also they are very helpful if I ever need to make more copies of that print.

Across the top of the sheet are recorded the image title, dates printed, negative number, paper type and grade, print size, f-stop, developer and time, and the amount of compensation for dry-down.

The body of the sheet has a numbered column of boxes, each representing a discrete printing step. Inside the boxes I sketch the important features of the image if needed for reference.

Step 1 is the basic work print, over which I'd write the basic exposure. Any dodging would also be recorded here beside the first box.

Subsequent burning steps get their own boxes. Shade in the area to be burned in the box, and write the amount beside it. See The Print for more details.

Take it Where It Wants to Go

As you are working, be open to what the image is telling you. While I usually have a pretty strong pre-visualized image in my mind, sometimes I find myself pursuing a different interpretation. One instance in particular is 'Ledge and Black Water'. The water in the work print was as visualized on zone IV. As I printed, I kept asking how it would look darker. Eventually I settled on a very dark value for the water with just a trace of tone visible.

I later showed it to my wife and she suggested I make the water pure black. I tried it and she was right. It's not 'natural', but it works. It's a drag to frame because every little speck of dust shows up on the black print.

Final Tweaking

I keep burning and dodging until I've exhausted all the possibilities, and answered all of the questions. When I no longer am wondering how a part would look lighter or darker, I'm done.

Quite often, burning one area of the print will require some adjustment in another. It's all related in a coherent whole. This is where it's handy to have kept all the test sheets in the water tray; I can go back and see how something might look at that exposure.

As I close in on the final print, I fine-tune all of the exposures by small amounts, again keeping careful notes. This is where it really becomes difficult; making the small aesthetic decisions.

Quite often, reducing the main exposure by 5% after all the burning and dodging steps will improve the image in a subtle but emotionally important way.


There is a lot a debate about the existence or not of the elusive "dry-down" effect. Some claim there's no such thing, some do. Essentially what we're talking about is the fact that a dry print will look different than a wet print. I have tested my papers and found that the high values get just a tiny bit darker when dry. The main difference, to me, is in the low values; the shadows in a wet print seem to lose some detail and a feeling of depth when dry.

When I'm ready to make my final run, I take the latest print, which is supposedly as good as it can be, wipe it off with a paper towel and dry it in the microwave. Sometimes I find that some adjustment for dry-down is needed, sometimes not.

The Final Run

Finally I'm ready to make the final prints. I remove the negative, carefully brush off any dust, and fine tune the focus. I toss all the test sheets except the work print, and put fresh water in the holding tray.

Since it takes so much time and effort to arrive at the final print, I usually make at least three copies. Expose them, put them in a box, and develop them together. Three is pretty minimum; it seems that one or two always fall victim to some calamity while trimming, mounting & framing. If I really like an image I may make as many as ten.

Edward Pierce Photography 1131 Bartlett Hill Road, Berlin, Vermont 05602

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