Barstow Mural: This image was made on Kodak Portra chromogenic
black and white film, which gives good tones but has weak
overall contrast with black and white papers. Print (above)
was made with a Grade 3 filter exposed for 85 seconds.
Print (below) was made "only" with Grade 5
and Grade 00 filters, resulting in more vibrant tones.
Exposure through the Grade 5 was 150 seconds while exposure
through the Grade 0 was 35 seconds. (All prints made on
Ilford Warmtone RC paper.)
Photos © 2003, Bill Davis, All Rights Reserved
There's no denying
the greater convenience variable contrast printing paper affords. With
only one box of paper and using appropriate filtration you can get virtually
any contrast rendition you desire. But another benefit of multicontrast
papers is that you can evoke different contrast renditions within the
same print. Known as multi- or split-contrast printing, it allows you
to burn in sky, for example, without having to battle the perhaps higher
contrast grade you had selected for the ground. Today's variable
contrast papers are a far cry from their predecessors, which could exhibit
rather harsh tones or have inconsistent contrast ranges. True, different
papers might have slightly different ranges, but for the most part their
contrasts are consistently spaced. Also, there are a staggering 12 grades
of contrast to play with at present, all the way from extra-extra-soft
(00) to extra-hard (5) with five half-steps in between--all this
in a single sheet of paper.
So, with such a cornucopia available to us, you'd think we would
all be jumping with joy. Not so. Prior to the availability of variable
contrast the big question was whether our negative would print best
on a Grade 2 or a Grade 3. Now we spend our time plotting strategies
for burning in the sky with one contrast, the clouds with another, and
the shadows with yet another. We might find ourselves immersed in a
combination of filters that can barely be remembered, and takes forever
to print through.
Some VC Background
During my years of teaching photography at the University of New Mexico-Taos,
I've developed a method of working with variable contrast filters
and paper that simply does the job, with a gain in quality to boot. This
technique assumes, of course, that you have a halfway decent negative
to work with, one with reasonable shadow detail and densities in the highlights
that aren't the consistency of cast iron. But first, some background.
Multicontrast papers are basically made up of a high contrast layer and
a low contrast layer, each sensitive to a different color of light, principally
blue and green. Today the layering is more complex than this, but it essentially
still works the same way. Early on, printers of an independent mind determined
that it was possible to create a multitude of contrasts by printing with
two exposures. Since a green filter would activate the low contrast layer
and a blue filter would activate the high contrast layer, they proposed
obtaining a range of contrast exceeding the regular 1, 2, 3, etc. simply
by creating a mix of the two layers by varying the length of two exposures
made through a blue and a green filter.
Landscape: Kodak's Technical Pan film has extremely
fine grain and is very sharp, but can display too much contrast
for subjects with extreme contrast range. The first print
I made had blocked up highlights and lost details; it was
made with a Grade 1 filter in an attempt to control highlights.
This much superior result was exposed for 100 seconds through
a Grade 2 filter, an 80 second exposure through a Grade
00, and an 18 second exposure through Grade 5, which yielded
a very tonally rich yet controlled highlight print.
Unfortunately, such a method
had one frustrating drawback: an extensive amount of trial and error might
be needed in order to arrive at the correct exposures to achieve the desired
contrast. Nevertheless, the basic idea was sound, and this is really what
the standard contrast printing filters do, except they do it by using
mixtures of yellow and magenta. Blue/green filtration is simply an additive
color system while yellow/magenta is a subtractive system, but both achieve
the same end: they allow the printer to control contrast.
Multicontrast filters do have the advantage, however, of having been mixed
to achieve standardized levels of contrast (the usual 1, 2, 3, etc.) and
consistent densities that do not require extensive re-testing of exposures
with each change of contrast. All this sets the stage for making it fairly
simple to obtain the tonal range one prefers. After an initial exposure
test the resulting print can be re-evaluated to see if it needs additional
Highlight And Shadow
The technique I use borrows from the two-filter concept by using only
two filters from the standard pack, the Grade 00 and the Grade 5, for
additional work after the initial exposure time has been made using whatever
filter matches the "base" contrast needs of the negative.
This technique also eliminates the need for careful masking or holding
back exposure, the bane of conventional split-contrast printing, relying
instead on the fact that these filters each act upon different tonal values
or densities within the print.
Tonal Differentiation: To better render and separate the
light gray of the wall from the window sill and deepen the
palm shadow, I used a Grade 1 filter overall for 50 seconds
and then added a Grade 00 for 27 seconds and a Grade 5 for
The Grade 00 primarily affects
the lightest values in the print while leaving the mid and lower ones
virtually unchanged. The Grade 5 does the opposite, affecting the mid
and lower values but having almost no affect on the lightest. By making
additional exposures with these two filters, a print can be made to yield
sparkling highlights with delicate detail while still having robust lower
mid tones and maintaining whatever level of detail is desired in the darker
values. Given that these filters create such mutually exclusive effects,
it is also easy to use them in burning in without creating too much crossover
into adjacent areas. Fringing effects can be subtly feathered and kept
totally unobtrusive with only a modicum of effort.
Indeed, I have found that by using this simple technique, it is possible
to create prints with values that are extremely subtle, often pushing
the eye to its limits of perception. Such printing is black and white
at its highest and finest level and is a hallmark of the well-crafted
silver print. There may not be a lot of interest among the public in the
subtleties of the black and white print, but that should not deter printers
from making them.
I hasten to add that none of this is inviolate, and encourage the reader
to make whatever substitutions you think are warranted, though I would
remind you this is an exercise in simplicity, so do not get carried away
lest things become unduly complicated again. I admit to using filters
other than Grade 00 and Grade 5 where I feel the print warrants it, either
in exchange for or in addition to them. Just be sure you have thoroughly
explored the basic concept I've outlined here before you start trading
Grade 1 for Grade 00, and so on.
To yield more highlight "pop" and open shadows
the basic exposure with a Grade 1 filter was 45 seconds,
augmented by a 30 second exposure using Grade 00 and 9 second
exposure with a Grade 5.
The Grade 00 filter will require a considerable exposure time to be effective,
often 60-80 percent as long as the original exposure. The Grade 5, on
the other hand, can affect the darkness of the mid and lower values quite
dramatically, and thus should be used very judiciously. Fortunately, exposure
times with the Grade 4, 41/2, and 5 filters have only half the effect
of those made with the Grade 3, 31/2, etc. Even so, use short times with
them (say 10-20 percent of the initial or base tested exposure) until
you become familiar with the corresponding effect.
While all multicontrast papers will work with the concept I've put
forward, I currently enjoy printing on the warmtone papers that have become
so popular in recent years, principally Ilford's Warmtone Multi-Grade
and Agfa's Multicontrast Classic, which gives a bit more contrast
and is the bargain of the group. The Agfa Classic does not tone as dramatically
as the Ilford, but if you do not use toners other than selenium for a
protective effect this is not a real concern.
So give the technique a try. Start by determining your base exposure and
contrast suitable for the negative and then use these "extreme"
filters to further modify tonal values as required. This way you'll
be working with a truly variable contrast printing technique that greatly
simplifies the complexities of split-contrast printing.
Bill Davis is a fine art photographer
and printmaker who for the last 30 years has been based in Taos, New Mexico,
where he's represented by the Fenix Gallery (www.fenixgallery.com).
His works are in the collection of Yale University and several New Mexico
museums. Last year, 2003, marked his 40th year in photography.