There were a few reasons why I moved from a 4×5 camera to an 8×10 one, but the main reason was simple – contact prints. I think contact prints are the most pure and fulfilling way to translate a photograph from your mind to the negative and then finally to the paper print. There’s no cropping, enlarging, or hiding anything. The frame of your ground glass, and the border of your negative, is exactly what you get in the print. You can dodge and burn, but you had better be quick, as your exposure times are normally between 3-10 seconds (unless you use special contact speed paper).
A darkroom can take up a lot of space, but almost everyone has a place where they can hang a bare light bulb three feet above a piece of paper. Edward Weston used this method and printed his 8×10 negatives as gorgeous contact prints.
Our tiny bathroom is perfect to make contact prints. It has no windows and is right off a darkish hallway. It’s very easy, even in the daytime, to achieve total darkness. To start contact printing, I purchased the following supplies from our local hardware store:
8×10 sheet of 1/4 inch thick glass (had the glass guy smooth the edges)
20×24 piece of plywood (to place over the bathroom sink)
8×10 Piece of thick black felt
15W light bulb (later replaced with 7W)
To complete what I needed to get started, a friend sent me a safe light that he didn’t use anymore. I used my iPhone voice recorder as a timer. I made a voice memo counting seconds of exposure and marking each step in the process in 30 second increments. For instance, 2 minutes in developer, 30-60 seconds in water (stop bath), and 1 minute in the fixer. The voice timer helps, because I can start the timer and turn the light off on my phone. Even the dim light from a phone can cause fogging.
After putting the piece of wood over the sink to provide a flat, hard surface. I placed the felt and sheet of glass on the wood. I secured the clamp light on our shower curtain rod so that the lightbulb would hover directly over the felt and glass. The light ended up being about 36″ above the glass. I laid out my trays (developer, water, and fixer) in the bathtub and plugged in my safe light.
That’s it as far as set up and preparation. You turn out the lights, turn on the safe light and then open your box of paper. You place the paper, shiny side up, on the felt (don’t forget to close up your box of paper!), put the negative, emulsion side down, on top of the paper, and put the sheet of glass over the negative/paper. Make sure they are lined up and then you are ready to expose your contact print.
For my first print, I guessed that I should do a five second exposure. I placed the exposed paper in the developer and within 30 seconds it was almost totally black. Hmmm, maybe 3 seconds next time? I exposed my second sheet for 3 seconds. It was much better, but still too dark. For the next exposure I only kept the light on for 1.5ish seconds. That was perfect. However, it’s difficult to replicate a 1.5ish second exposure with my primitive materials. So, back to the hardware store I went for a lower wattage bulb. I snagged a 7W bulb and went back to work. The 7 watts gave me a perfect exposure at 5 seconds.
I could have done a test strip, but it took very little time to achieve the tright exposure. For these tests, I was exposing 4×5 negatives on 5×7 Ilford Multigrade IV RC Paper. The result is above.
After feeling comfortable with my setup, I grabbed an 8×10 negative and a box of Ilford Multigrade IV FB Paper. My exposure time was again 5 seconds and I had a gorgeous 8×10 contact print all ready for the wash. Oh the wash… The difference in FB (Fiber) prints is that they must be thoroughly washed to remove the fixer. I don’t have a print washer and I don’t want to waste a lot of water, so I used frequent changes of fresh water in large trays for an hour. This is labor intensive, but I’ve always liked the feel of a heavier paper.
After your print has been nearly washed to death, you squeegee it on both sides and then begin the drying process.
If the washing process seems daunting, then the drying process will seem cruel. Most people with a darkroom will have presses or heating devices to dry and flatten their FB prints – not your humble contact printer though. For my first two prints I just placed them face-up on a clean surface and left them overnight. The next morning the prints had curled like mad. I placed them separately in between pages of a heavy book and put weights on top. After a day or two they are mostly flat. I’ve heard the process of flattening can take a week. That’s okay, I’m patient.
One thing that does help is allowing the contact prints to dry between screens. They dry overnight and the curling is much less frightening than open-air drying. Then I place these in the pages of a book under weights as well and they will be flat – eventually.
One step that I left out in this post is toning. If you want your paper prints to last forever, you should tone them. I’m still researching this and am open to any suggestions or experiences that others may have.
I know that many people use specialty papers, but I’m using Ilford Multigrade papers of both the RC and FB type. I trust that Ilford will be around for the long haul, so they are my paper of choice. For testing and casual prints, I’ll use RC paper. For sale prints, I’ll use fiber.