Black & White Printing

This is a basic beginner's guide to analogue printing of B&W photos. I am not a master printer and if you want a high quality reference from one, you should read Way Beyond Monochrome.

This guide steps you through what you need, what everything is for and some simple step-by-step instructions for getting an image onto paper. This is the beginner/budget approach; if you're doing a lot of printing then there are tools (not discussed here) you can buy that automate much of the process and will save you test-strips.

Required Equipment

You will need the following capital equipment:

Each item and its purpose is discussed below.


What you need here is a small room from which you can exclude practically all daylight. It should have running water and a drain, because you will need to wash your paper and you'll want a water-proof place to place your trays and deal with splashes.

It's often possible to rent time in a public darkroom but processing at home needs only a laundry with the window boarded up and some towel stuffed under the door.

Make sure that the room light is incandescent and NOT a fluorescent (compact or otherwise). Fluorescent bulbs have a faint afterglow that can cause you problems. LED lighting is fine.

Make sure there are NO devices in your darkroom emitting light. Typical problems are glowing watch-dials, LEDs on clocks and radios, LEDs on washing machines, etc. If you sit in the room for 5 minutes to let your eyes adjust, it's OK if you can make out a faint glow around the door, but you should absolutely not be able to see your hands at any distance.


This is a dim red light that allows you to see what you're doing but will not expose the paper. While you can buy expensive designed-for-photography safelights, the cheapest and easiest option is to get a bright red LED bicycle tail-light. A $3 one bought online is often enough and if not bright enough, buy three!

The safelight should be a couple of metres away from the paper at all times. Best option is to have the safelights facing up and diffused off the ceiling to give good uniformity of light throughout the darkroom without any bright spots that could cause fogging.

You should test your safelight.


Trays hold your chemistry for processing the paper. You need one each for developer, stop bath and fixer, preferably with two more for washing. It's even better still if you can get an extra large tray full of hotter (35C) water to put under the developer tray to keep that warm.


Temperature control for printing is very loose. The only real limits are that some developers fail under 19C and some emulsions get soft past 28C (and the developer oxidises faster). Anywhere around 20C-25C is therefore good.

If your room temperature is about 25C and you let some water (for the developer) reach room-temp for a few hours, you don't need to worry about temperature control at all.


An enlarger is a vertical (usually) projector: it projects an image of your negative onto the paper. You will need one with a lens and negative carrier to suit the size of negative you're printing. A longer-than-necessary lens will often have more-uniform illumination and maybe better sharpness but your maximum enlargement will be a bit constrained. An enlarger designed for the larger film sizes will often be sturdier, which means sharper prints due to reduced vibration.

You can use a "colour" enlarger or B&W enlarger. If you have a B&W enlarger, you will need the contrast-control ("multigrade") filters for it. Old multigrade filters will work but are often faded and a little ineffective. The dichroic filters in a colour enlarger do not fade (they're a layer of metal on glass), though they can be dust-crusted or scratched.

If your enlarger is of the condenser type (has big lenses between the negative and lightbulb), you need to make sure that these are in the correct location. They're generally adjustable by film-format if you get it wrong, you'll have pale corners in the prints because of uneven illumination. Condenser enlargers give higher contrast than diffusion enlargers.

Enlarger Timer

The density of a print is controlled by how long you expose the paper, which is generally achieved by having a timer turn the enlarger on and off. The spectrum of solutions is approximately as follows:

The clock option is remarkably effective, though tedious. You can't time anything reliably for short periods (under 2s) and your prints will vary a bit, but it will work.

A mechanical timer is repeatable once set, but is also inaccurate for short exposures and generally not repeatable between settings for any exposure under 4s. Again, perfectly workable solution.

An electronic timer is perfectly repeatable and reliable. Tends to be a bit spendy unless you can find one being discarded or your enlarger has one integrated like the De Veres tend to.

An f/stop timer is a programmable device that varies exposure logarithmically instead of linearly and will let you program in multiple exposure steps for dodging. This is the bees knees, for example.


You need to be able to write on the backs of prints and test strips, and you need to be able to record your print settings for future reference.

Required Consumables

And you'll need these things for your session:


Your negatives need to be silver B&W negatives, you can't easily print orange-masked C41 negatives (colour film or Kodak BW400CN) onto B&W paper; the contrast will be unusably low. Ilford XP2 can sometimes be used though it is chromogenic because it has no mask.

Hopefully they're negatives that you processed yourself so that when you have trouble printing them, you can make appropriate corrections to your development process.

Printing is hugely time-consuming, especially while you're learning. Expect to spend an hour or five perfecting a single image... so choose the negatives you print carefully.


While fibre-based (FB) paper is arguably better in a number of ways, it's much harder to work with (washing, drying, flattening, mounting) and it's longevity is riskier and depends on your washing skills. This guide therefore describes the use of resin-coated (RC) paper, which is hard to get wrong and should still outlive the average photographer.

Brand doesn't really matter, but consider:

In terms of brand, as far as I can tell there's no such thing as a bad paper. They're all good and subtly different - you could equally well use one brand forever and not miss anything, or you could decide you like a particular type over all others. Ilford seems universally available and it is at least as good as any other so makes a good starting point but there are certainly cheaper options that work well.

Paper is like a B&W photographic negative, except that it's on paper instead of plastic, and it has a few layers that permit contrast control through filtration of light colour. That means it's light-sensitive and you should only open the box in a darkroom; keep it taped closed at all other times. If exposed to normal light before being processed, the paper will be fogged - anywhere from having dull grey highlights to being completely black depending on how much light reached it. It's not sensitive to red safelight.


This stuff turns the exposed silver halide in the paper into metallic (black) silver.

Which you choose doesn't really matter at this stage. Get whatever is in the local shop and mix it up according to the directions. Again, Ilford Multigrade seems to be everywhere and it's good.

Stop Bath

About 2% acetic acid, e.g. from a commercial stop bath or white vinegar diluted 1+3. Or since this is RC paper that isn't very absorbent, you can just use a water bath and drain well afterwards. The main purpose is to prevent developer carried over on the paper from polluting the fixer by raising its pH.


This stuff strips the unexposed silver halide from the paper so that it doesn't go bad when exposed to light.

You want an ammonium thiosulfate rapid fixer; any brand will do. Mix it up according to the directions on the bottle. Keep track of how many sheets you put through the fixer and discard it (take it to a photo lab for silver reclamation; putting silver-loaded fixer down the drain is pretty bad) once it has reached nominal capacity.

Process: Achieving a Print

Here's the interesting part. You need to determine, through experimentation, both the contrast and exposure you want to use so that the print comes out looking how you want it. At each step of the process you will generate a test strip (or several) or a whole print, each should be processed according to these directions.

The process is an iterative one:

  1. get stuff ready,
  2. expose a test strip to find ballpark exposure,
  3. expose small highlight and shadow sections of the print at chosen exposure,
  4. adjust contrast filter if desired and repeat from (1),
  5. make a work-print,
  6. make local tonal adjustments by dodging and burning,
  7. hang the print on your fridge and decide on more adjustments after three days;
  8. start again next weekend.


First of all, mix up your chemistry, bring it to temperature and and lay it all out neatly. Get your paper box out but don't open it. Clean the negative carefully (dust it off) and insert it in the enlarger. Put the Grade 2 filter in the enlarger (or zero the colour wheels if it's dichroic).

Adjust the enlarger height so that you get the print size you want and focus it as best as you can by eye. For fine focus:

With the room lights off and safelight on, get out a couple sheets of paper and cut them into 25mm (1")-wide strips for use as test strips. Keep these in the paper box but outside the inner bag for east access; they're still safe from roomlight if the box is closed.

Making a Test Strip

A test strip is a small piece of photo paper with a set of different exposures on it that allows you to determine visually how much exposure to use.

If this is the first test strip for the print, you want to cover a wide range of exposures, which means you probably want to space the exposures by half a stop (factors of 1.4) from about 4s upwards, e.g.: 4s, 5.6s, 8s, 11s, 16s, 23s, 32s, 45s.

This logarithmic spacing of exposures means you have a constant density ratio between steps in the test strip and cover a wide range. Don't both with linear (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14) spacings because they're too coarse at the short end, too finely spaced at the long end (14s vs 12s is a tiny difference but 6s vs 4s is a big change) and don't cover a wide-enough range.

If this is a fine-tuning strip (e.g. a previous strip determined that a good exposure lies between 11s and 16s), you can do whatever interpolation of times you like. You'll probably focus your attention more towards one end then the other.

You can either expose the strip by progressively covering it up (fast) or by making a separate exposure for each part of the strip (slow but more accurate). Or you can make a whole bunch of little tiles and expose them separately; the advantage here is that each tile represents the same part of the image whereas with a strip, each tile is pictorially different so comparisons can be difficult.

Once your strip (or tile set) is exposed, process it according to the instructions above and have a good look at it. With any luck, it will be too-pale at one end and too-dark at the other - choose the exposure (or pair of) that look best.

If the strip is all too-pale, your exposures are too short. Make a strip with longer exposure times or open the enlarger lens by a stop. If the strip is all too-dark, your exposures are too long. Consider closing the enlarger lens down another stop once your exposures approach 5s or shorter.

Once you've exposed your test strip, process it.

Making Highlight and Shadow Checks

It's usually considered good form to have some part of the print be pure black, so you want to do a test tile on the darkest part of the image at your chosen exposure. Compare it against a grossly-overexposed (e.g. 2 stops more, 4x longer) copy and make sure that the latter is no darker.

There will also generally be parts of the print that are paper-white, and (this is the hard bit, requiring timing accuracy and some finesse) parts that are as bright as you can make them but still hold visible detail. So you expose a tile in these parts of the print too.

Process all the test tiles; make sure that the max-black sections are fully black and that the pale sections have the detail you want without being dull.

You'll probably find after a while that you just run test strips (tiles) at the darkest and lightest parts of the print, except for portraits where you probably want to run strips for eyes.

Adjusting Contrast

If your highlight and shadow checks failed, you might want to adjust contrast. For example, you might find that you need 16s exposure to get sufficient black in the dark parts, but that causes the highlights to be too dark: that would suggest a contrast increase.

Or you might find that the exposure required to achieve detail in the highlights causes too much of the darker parts of the image to descend into inky blackness: that would suggest a contrast decrease.

Points to consider:

To change the contrast with multigrade filters, take the old filter out and put a different one in. The exposure will be similar, excepy when you get to the highest grades.

To change the contrast with a dichroic (colour) enlarger, you need to dial in more magenta (higher contrast) or more yellow (lower contrast). Always leave cyan at zero, and use only one of magenta or yellow. All-zero is approximately grade 2; the grades achievable vary with the enlarger model and a bit of googling will tell you some numbers that might be suitable for your enlarger.

Making a Work-Print

Once you've chosen a contrast and exposure so that your highlight and shadow checks all look good, it's time to make a complete print. Put a whole sheet of paper under the enlarger. Expose, process and dry it. Look at it carefully under good light and be aware that stronger light will make prints look more contrasty; you want to use light similar to where it will be displayed.

Dodging and Burning

Burning means increasing the print-exposure for a small region, causing it to be darker. Dodging means reducing the print-exposure locally, making it paler. To do this, you mask off part of the image with something (bits of paper, your hands, whatever is the right shape) for part of the print exposure so that some of the paper is exposed more or less than the rest.

This is where printing gets really interesting and is presumably the reason for the Adams quote about negatives being a score and prints the performance. You have unlimited latitude to adjust the exposure of each part of the print indepedently.

The typical reason you want to do this is because you have a scene that will not fit within the dynamic range of the paper but you don't want to reduce the contrast of the print and make it look flat. For example, an image containing some interesting foreground that's indirectly lit, plus a neat cloudy sky. The sky will be much, much brighter (denser in the negative) than the foreground, so you have the following options:

Or you might have a portrait where one face is in shade (too much hat?); a spot of dodging with a little circular card on a stick will lighten the face up nicely.

My typical approach to this to make a work print and then cut out the sections that I want to burn. Use test strips to decide how much to dodge or burn, e.g. you might decide on 11s for the foreground and 32s for the sky. Therefore:

  1. do a base exposure of 11s,
  2. stick the foreground-mask (cut-up workprint) under the enlarger,
  3. expose for additional 21s while moving the mask around slightly.

You can have as many separate dodges and burns in your image as you want and can be bothered executing.

This, being a manual skill, is a learned craft. Common problems are:

Yes, it's difficult. You need to try it, get it wrong a bunch of times and then try again. Practise will make it much better.


Once you have a good print, write down the details of how it was printed, including:

If you don't, you'll certainly regret it...

Housekeeping and Tips

You want at least 1cm of chemistry in each tray in order to get the paper quickly wetted.

Many papers expand when wet so you want trays a couple of centimetres larger than your paper; this is especially true for FB.

"Photo" trays are expensive. Shallow plastic troughs from the discount store can be found in the correct sizes for a couple of dollars each; just make sure they have no scratchy moulding nubs on the inside bottom that could damage your paper surface.

Most developers are good for a single session only, so you need to discard them once you're done for the day. Some can be re-bottled and used again for a later session.

Fixer doesn't really oxidise, but it has finite capacity. Check the datasheet for your fixer, but most rapid fixers are good for about 80 sheets of 8x10" per litre at working strength, independent of the concentration of fixer in that working solution. The limiting factor is the concentration of silver ions not the concentration of thiosulfate ions remaining from the fixer. For use on RC paper, you therefore want to dilute your fixer to the thinner end of the scale (probably 1+9) to get the most value from it; that is not a good approach for FB though.

The easy way to keep track of your fixer: make up 1.5L of paper-fixer and then you're done with it when the 100-pack of paper is empty. Keep your paper-fixer and film-fixer working solutions separate.

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