Darkroom: Black and White Enlarging Papers

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Though the choices are fewer than they were just a few years back, there are still a number of black and white enlarging papers available to satisfy the printing needs of both amateurs and hypo-stained chemical darkroom diehards.

Kodak has long left the field it all but created, but former rivals continue to produce both fiber-based and RC (resin-coated) enlarging papers.

As a rule, resin-coated papers are preferable for higher volume commercial prints, work prints, school assignments and more casual printmaking. That’s not to say RC papers aren’t capable of reproducing excellent tonal and contrast ranges, but for “keeper” prints—and any print you plan on selling or giving as a gift—use traditional fiber-based papers. Fiber-based papers are the way to go for reasons of aesthetics (fiber-based prints are texturally more pleasing than RC papers), image quality and longevity factors (RC prints tend to fade faster than fiber-based prints).

Regardless of your RC versus fiber-based preferences, black and white photo papers are available in single contrast grade or variable contrast (multi-grade) papers. The single contrast grades are chosen based on the contrast range of the negative you plan on printing. Variable contrast papers are used in conjunction with variable contrast filters. Variable contrast/multi-grade papers contain layered coatings that react to the color temperature of the contrast filter being used. Depending on the color of the filter installed in the enlarger’s filter holder (or filter drawer), which vary from amber to violet, you can produce about four steps of contrast in half-step increments.

Although single contrast and multi-contrast papers can produce equally bold prints, variable-contrast filters allow you the ability to bring out varying levels of contrast within the same print by selectively exposing the image through different contrast filters. You can expand the range of tones from deep blacks to bright whites.

Color enlargers with dichroic heads can also be used to print variable-contrast papers, in place of contrast filters.

Enlarging papers are available in a variety of surfaces including glossy, semi-gloss, luster, matte, semi-matte, pearl, and satin. Depending on the brand and surface, they are available in sheet sizes ranging from postcard through 30 x 44" and rolls ranging from 10" through 50", which are mostly for commercial purposes. Although a majority of black and white enlarging papers are designed for reversing color negative materials, there are also reversal black and white papers designed to make prints from black and white positive (or reversal) films.

With the possible exception of select commercial paper processors, black and white enlarging papers should be processed in chemistry set to (or close to) 68°F and handled only under safelight conditions (amber or red). Although cold temperatures do not degrade enlarging paper in any manner, long-term heat and humidity can fog or greatly degrade the imaging abilities of black and white enlarging paper.

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