It's time to go all the way. Your digital camera has been on the shelf for months, entombed in dust. When it comes to loading your film camera, you're like a well-trained photographic assassin loading your sniper rifle. Your bathroom has a lingering odor that can't quite be identified by your friends, but that smell of fixer during your morning shower is like your first cup of coffee: necessary and refreshing. You're a film nut and you're proud of it. But once those negatives have dried, you're again stuck behind a screen while you scan and tone your images. It's time for that to change, and the first step in moving toward a full darkroom is understanding photographic paper.
How Does It Work?
Photographic paper works a lot like film. When light hits film it causes a chemical reaction that causes special silver-halide crystals to turn black when processed with developing chemicals. Therefore on film, the brightest parts of the image appear the darkest on your negative. When placing a photo under an enlarger, this process is reversed. Light is shined through the negative, and those dark parts on the negative block the most light. Photo paper also has silver-halide crystals in it, so the parts hit with the most light, turn the blackest. Photographic paper is simply that, paper coated with photo chemicals. The paper can be thick or thin just like normal paper, and it can be made from a variety of materials. The chemical coating can also have different qualities.
Controlling the Print
When you think of printing a color image, there are a lot of things to worry about. The tone and tint of the image, the brightness, the saturation, the contrast, and more. When developing a black and white image, your controls are reduced to brightness (exposure) and contrast.
You and your enlarger will control the exposure of your image. You usually determine the exposure by doing a test strip, but an enlarger works just like a camera. It has an aperture on its lens and a timer that works like a shutter speed. Typically, you choose an f/stop based on overall thickness of your negative and the position of your enlarger head to the paper.
The thickness of your negative will be determined by the type of film you’re shooting and your initial in-camera exposure. The position of the enlarger head is used to make different sized prints. If you’re making a large print or really cropping in on your negative, your enlarger will be farther away from the paper. If your negative is really thick or your enlarger head is really far away, you’ll want a wide open aperture. The inverse is also true. You’ll then use a strip of paper to finalize the exposure by developing sections of it at different times. Photographic paper has a little to do with exposure, but it can have everything to do with contrast.
Contrast is defined as the difference between light and dark areas of an image. A super high contrast image would have solid black areas and solid white areas with no in-between grays. A super low contrast image would be one middle tone of gray with nothing black or white. You obviously want something between those two. The usual guideline is that every image needs something that’s solid black and something that’s solid white with many tones of gray represented throughout. When printing in a black and white darkroom there are two general ways to control contrast. The first is by using graded papers, the second is by using different densities of magenta filters with variable contrast paper.
Graded papers are not as popular as they once were. This popularity drop has caused graded papers to become sort of “elite.” They are usually high quality and a bit expensive. Graded papers come in grades zero – five. Zero produces the least amount contrast. Five produces the most contrast. If your negative has perfect contrast, printing it on paper graded three would work perfectly. If you negative has very high contrast, you’ll want to print it on zero or one. Conversely if you negative has very low contrast, you’ll need to print it on four or five. Obviously, if you print a lot of images, you’ll have a stock a variety of grades of paper.
Variable Contrast Paper
Variable contrast paper is a single paper that can produce a variety of contrasts through the use of magenta filters. There are two types of printing enlargers, black & white and color. When using a black & white enlarger you’ll have to buy a set a magenta filters. These will be graded similarly to graded papers. You’ll typically have five or so different magentas to choose from. The more dense the magenta filter, the more contrast your print will have.
Your other option is printing with a color enlarger. A color enlarger will have a built-in graduated magenta filter, allowing you to fine tune your contrast even further. Keep in mind that when using variable contrast paper, the more magenta you add, the less light the paper is receiving. So if you add magenta you’ll need to add time to the exposure (or adjust the aperture).
There are two general types of paper as well. The first is fiber-based paper (often shortened to FB). Fiber paper is known to produce really good tones and be very stable after processing. Museums and exhibitions often use this paper for prints due to the quality and archival nature. On the downside, due to the porous nature of the material, it takes a longer time for chemicals to saturate the paper fully. Fiber paper is also very fragile when wet, so it has to air dry as opposed to being dried in a machine.
The other type of paper is resin-coated paper (often shortened to RC). RC paper is quick to process, but slightly less stable after development. Because the chemicals only affect the outer layer of the paper, the developing and fixing process is quicker. It’s also much sturdier, so the paper can be dried in a matter of minutes using a rolling drying machine instead of hours or days hang drying or screen drying.
This is about the only area that darkroom papers overlap with their modern inkjet paper equivalents. A paper’s finish is the texture and reflectivity of the outer most layer of material. There are several types of finishes that serve a variety of purposes.
A glossy finish has a high reflectivity and smooth texture. It gives the impression of richer contrast and emphasizes the details and sharpness of an image. Even slightly out of focus images can look really bad on glossy paper. High contrast images also often look too surreal or odd on glossy paper. When displaying your prints, glossy paper needs to be positioned carefully in relation to light sources or glare will make viewing the image difficult.
Matte paper has a rougher texture and low reflectivity. It tends to mask imperfections and provide a softer look. In contrast to glossy papers, if an image is driven by sharp details, it will look significantly less dramatic on matte paper. Sharp images tend to look a tiny bit soft when printed on matte paper. It looks absolutely great behind the glass of a frame since the texture allows a microscopic bit of space between much of the surface and the glass itself.
Semi-Matte, Luster, Pearl
There are a number of finishes that fall in between glossy and matte: not totally shiny, but not totally rough. Depending on the brand and the type of paper, these finishes may be called semi-matte, luster, pearl or satin. For the vast majority of images, these in-between finishes work wonderfully. Of course, your final choice of finish will be based on your personal preference. Most darkroom-savvy photography have one or two favorites. You’ll rarely see a museum exhibition where each photo is printed on a different paper, so the choice isn’t normally based on the content of the images. Once you start printing for yourself, you’re sure to find one that fits your style.
Black and White Paper Index
Bergger produces a small line of high quality photo paper. Unlike the bigger producers, they don’t name their different types of paper. You can get fiber or resin-coated paper, and in either case get a neutral tone or a warm tone to the paper. Most of these options are available in glossy, semi-gloss and semi-matte. All can also be variable contrast, but only the fiber papers are available in grades as well. These papers aren’t cheap, but for gallery-quality prints, you won’t go wrong. But, it should be noted that the brightness of the base is not as white as some other brands.
Fomatone is the premium variable contrast paper in the Foma line. It’s available in both warm tone and classic white, resin coated and fiber, and in matte and glossy. The warm tone fiber paper is noted for its ability to maintain its warm tone in the blacks as opposed to going completely black like other papers, which can ruin the warm tone effect.
Fomaspeed Variant III is the standard Foma resin coated paper. It’s available in glossy and matte. Compared to other brands it’s relatively inexpensive. Fomaspeed is favored by students, and those looking to buy paper in bulk. While it doesn’t knock your socks off, it gets the job done. For a utilitarian variable contrast paper, it’s a great choice.
Fomalux is a specialty paper offered by Foma. It allows people to experiment on a budget. It offers two of most common things new darkroom chemists want to try: graded contrast control and a matte finish. After taking a beginner’s class with Fomaspeed, this resin-coated paper is a great next step. While the selection and variety is limited, Foma’s reputation for utility is carried on in this product.
Polygrade V is the main line of papers offered by Forte. It’s a reasonably priced, resin coated paper available commonly in glossy and semi-matte. Forte produces an even more limited line of papers than Bergger. While the cool tones of the paper are great for stark, delicate imagery, it typically needs to be mounted. The light weight paper base makes it prone to curling.
Polygrade Warm is also a resin coated paper available in glossy and semi-matte. It suffers the same lightweight problems as Polygrade V, so mounting or tight framing are need for flat prints. Both Polygrade V and Warm are variable contrast, as their name suggest. Any weight issues with this paper are made up for in the treatment of tones, especially in the highlights.
Ilfobrom Galerie is one of the most expensive papers available. It’s reserved for those looking for elite, ultra-high quality prints. It’s a graded, glossy, fiber paper that will make you weep. It’s heavy weight and incredible quality make it appropriate for any application. In many ways, it’s the paper against which all others are judged. The graded contrast steps are perfect and the tonal quality is second to none.
Ilfospeed is the standard level, graded paper in the Ilford line. As with many Ilford papers, you are paying for quality, so expect a higher price. This paper is resin coated, unlike Ilfobrom, and is available in glossy and pearl. Ilford semi-matte “pearl” finish is infamous for its luscious texture and retention of detail. You won’t be disappointed with this as a graded paper option.
Multigrade IV is the flagship of the Ilford line. It’s offered in many options including fiber paper in glossy and matte, and resin coated paper in glossy, pearl and satin. Satin is another one of Ilford’s signature finishes. While the cost of this standard variable contrast paper is a bit higher than most, it’s quality more than makes up for it. It’s a great value that can be seen in galleries and art houses around the globe. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, adaptable paper that will always look incredible, Multigrade IV is perfect.
Multigrade Cooltone is, as the name implies, the opposite of warm tone papers. Instead of giving everything a brown/orange cast, it offers a blue cast. This is a resin coated, variable contrast paper and can be purchased in both glossy and pearl finishes. Cool tone papers are rare, so Ilford doesn’t have a lot of competition in this category. That didn’t stop them from making a good paper. Ilford is known for its consistent results, and this paper doesn’t break from that tradition.
Multigrade FB Warmtone is the traditional warm tone paper from Ilford. Because warm tone is more popular than cool tone, it’s offered in great variety. Both fiber and resin coated versions are available. You can get a glossy paper in both version, as well as a semi-matte in fiber and a pearl in resin coated. This paper is noted to be easier to dial in and use than most other warm tone papers.
Fineprint is the glossy, fiber paper in Kentmere’s variable contrast line. All Kentmere papers are slightly cheaper than premium brands. They are known for having a high degree of sharpness in their prints. They offer quite a few options when it comes to paper, allowing people to experiment without spending a fortune. But Fineprint and other lines have reportedly reacted badly when used with certain developing and fixing chemicals.
Bromide is the graded version of Fineprint. It’s also a glossy, fiber paper. The cost of this paper is very reasonable compared to versions of this paper in other brands, but the thin stock and odd coating can make it hard to mount and dry properly. If care is taken and standard chemicals are used, you’ll have no problems, and this paper is a great entry point to graded fiber papers.
Ketona is the warm tone version of Bromide. It’s a glossy, graded, fiber paper. Among warm tone papers, it has a good reputation. Most warm tone papers are harder to control than regular papers, and Ketona doesn’t seem to be any more or less troublesome than other brands. It’s also a very affordable warm tone option. For the money, you won’t be disappointed with the performance.
Select is the standard line of resin coated, variable contrast paper offered by Kentmere. It’s available in both a glossy and luster finish. The important difference between all Kentmere papers and other brands is the speed. Photo papers have different speeds like films. Kentmere papers are “fast” meaning they need less light from the enlarger. This translates to shorter times or smaller f/stop settings when making enlargements.
Kenthene is the graded version of Select. It’s also a resin coated paper and is also available in glossy and luster. For the money, Kentmere’s graded papers perform very well. While you might still have problems with weight, the grades are consistent and offer solid, standard steps. Like Select and all other Kentmere papers, it is fast. When enlarging without light-diminishing magenta filters for contrast control, the print times get even shorter. Be sure to stop down your enlarger when using this paper.
Seagull is the flagship paper in the Oriental line. If there’s a photo paper version of Lomo film, it’s oriental. This paper is extremely affordable and very flexible. Like Lomo, its “disadvantages” are often exploited and loved by its users. This is a standard, variable contrast, resin coated paper available in a glossy or pearl finish. It’s been known to vary quite a bit when using different developing chemicals, and it tends to be on the thinner side.
Seagull Cooltone and Warmtone versions offer even more flexibility in Oriental papers. They are all glossy, variable contrast, fiber papers. The price of these papers is comparable to Ilford prices, so don’t look to save a lot of money using these papers over other brands. Since cool tone papers are so rare, this does offer a different take on the technique.
Seagull G is name given to the graded papers offered by Oriental. These are offered in fiber and resin coated versions. For the resin coated paper, you can get glossy, matte and luster finishes, but the fiber finishes are more limited. Again, do not expect to save money or sacrifice quality using these papers. Graded Seagull papers are as expensive as anything else out there. And the quality is on par with Ilford. These papers show that Oriental has many entry points and offerings for every budget and skill level.
Varycon is the standard paper produced by the company of the same name. It’s a resin coated, variable contrast paper. You can choose between glossy and matte finishes. Varycon is one of the smaller paper producers and is based in Europe. Their standard paper can produce wonderful results, but takes some getting used to. Unlike standard papers offered by Ilford and Oriental, Varycon papers are not forgiving. So make your changes small and be as precise as you can.
Emaks is the graded, fiber paper offered by Varycon. The finish options are again limited to glossy and matte. The grading standards with Emaks vary a bit from other producers, but can be excellent when working with very troublesome negatives. Reserve the low contrast grades for the most high contrast negatives. These low grades seem to perform even lower than they’re rated.
Varycon Variable is the variable contrast version of Emaks. It’s a fiber paper available in glossy and matte finishes. When working with this paper and others in the Varycon line, keep in mind that half a stop of exposure can drastically affect the image. If you typically do test strips in two second steps, reduce that time to one second or even half a second. These papers require precision.