Back to School: Top 5 Black-and-White Darkroom Papers for Students

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Some of the most cherished memories of my photographic education revolve around spending long hours in the darkroom, making prints into the wee hours of the night. While not as commonplace as it once was, if you’re fortunate enough to have a traditional black-and-white darkroom at your school, be sure to make use of it while you still can. Regardless of whether you’re taking an intro black-and-white class or an intensive printing class, one of the keys to becoming adept at black-and-white printing is, quite literally, to print! And print a lot!

For the purposes of this article, and for comparison’s sake, I’m going to only list 8 x 10", 100-sheet packs of paper; in my experience, this is what I used most often for everything—from test prints, small prints, and contact sheets, before moving to larger sizes if needed. Just know that most papers are available in a variety of sizes, finishes, and different quantities. With that in mind, here’s a look at five recommended black-and-white darkroom papers for students.

Ilford Multigrade IV RC DeLuxe

This is, by far, the most popular paper you’ll encounter in school darkrooms (at least in the USA), and for good reason. It’s an affordable paper that provides excellent results, is very easy to work with, and it comes in a huge variety of sizes and finishes. Ilford Multigrade RC is a resin-coated paper, which means it’s fast-drying and a bit more durable than a fiber-based (FB) paper. Purists and master printers tend to prefer fiber prints, but when you’re just learning, RC paper is definitely the way to go. Another attribute of this paper, which will be common to all of the papers in this list, is that it is a “multigrade” (or variable contrast) paper, meaning you can alter its contrast by filtering the light of the enlarger. This gives you greater flexibility when printing, since you’ll be able to fine-tune the contrast to match the density of your negatives.

Ilford Multigrade IV RC DeLuxe Paper

Arista EDU Ultra RC

Much like their black-and-white films, Arista’s EDU Ultra RC papers are also a terrific value aimed at students or those just learning to print. This is a straightforward variable contrast RC paper, featuring a neutral base color, medium weight, and your choice of a glossy, pearl, or semi-matte finish.

Arista EDU Ultra VC RC Paper

Ilford Multigrade FB Classic

After a bit of practice with RC, once you’ve become accustomed to the basic fundamentals of printing, the natural next step is to move to fiber-based papers. Ilford’s Multigrade FB Classic is the de facto standard of fiber papers nowadays and, much like its RC sibling, is a very nice general-use paper suitable for almost any printing situation you’ll come across. I’m not going to go into a long list of the differences between RC and FB papers, but know that fiber paper is generally considered to be the “better” of the two, but it is also notably more difficult to work with; it’s a bit more fragile in the chemistry, it “dries down” (darker), takes longer to dry, and prints will curl somewhat significantly when drying. But this is all part of the fun of printing. Back to the paper… Multigrade FB Classic is a traditional baryta-coated paper with a very neutral base tone. One additional point worth mentioning is that glossy fiber-based paper is much different than glossy resin-coated paper. Whereas you might not enjoy the high gloss look of glossy RC, give glossy FB paper a shot since it has much more muted reflectiveness.

Ilford Multigrade FB Classic Paper

Oriental Seagull Select VC-FBII

A bit more specialized and distinct than Ilford’s Multigrade Classic, Oriental Seagull Select VC-FBII is a classic FB paper with a bright white base and a slightly cooler overall tone. Oriental papers are known for having rich blacks and crisp whites, along with good response to toners for adjusting the print color. While not exactly the same legendary paper that photographers such as Ansel Adams and Brett Weston used in their heyday, Oriental Seagull is still a fine choice for certain subjects and printing styles.

Oriental Seagull Select VC-FBII Paper

Ilford Multigrade FB Warmtone and Cooltone

Finally, a quick look at a pair of even more specialized papers, which are distinguished by stronger base colors that stray further from a “neutral white” compared to all of the above papers. Ilford Multigrade FB Warmtone is a very popular paper for those who prefer a creamier base tint, with warmer overall tonality that can easily shift to brown with the use of toners. On the other side of the color spectrum is Ilford Multigrade FB Cooltone which, as you might guess, is a cooler paper with brighter whites and a steely overall appearance.

Ilford Multigrade FB Warmtone Paper

What are some of your favorite papers? Which paper did you learn to print with? Let us know, down below in the Comments section.

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