Working with Paper Negatives – Part 3: At work in the Red Light District – by Don Kittle

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Welcome to part three of my series on photography using paper negatives aka photographic paper!

If you’re new to the series, please take a moment to read the preceding parts before diving in. Part one introduces the concept of paper negatives and what to expect from this medium. Part two jumps into shooting paper negatives, experimentation, determining ISO and more!

In this article I’ll be talking almost exclusively about developing your paper negatives and covering some lessons I’ve learned while working out my own workflow.



Buying More Stuff

Ugh, right! I’m already into this whole film photography thing for more $$ than I care to admit so it’s off to the local classifieds website to look for darkroom equipment. Some 4×5 trays, some 8×10 trays, and a useless set of tongs, which (I found out too late) leave nasty imprints on the paper if I squeeze too hard. I’m set.

Paper negatives part 3 - Zombie Mummy
Paper negatives part 3 – Zombie Mummy

What chemicals to use? Oh perfect, Ilford’s got you covered! Ilford Paper Developer and Fixer are the obvious choice, but I deviate from plan a bit and opt for some less expensive Kodak stop. Ah, the smell of Kodak stop never ceases to delight me!



The Makeshift Darkroom

Darkness falls and I creep into the bathroom, light up my LED headlamp in red mode and shut the door. Oops, a bit of light comes in around the door. I’m thinking about talking my fiancé into sitting in a dark living room, but no, she’s already putting up with enough. Besides, paper isn’t that sensitive, I should be okay if I stand between the door crack and the trays.

Paper negatives part 3 - Ghosts on the Bridge
Paper negatives part 3 – Ghosts on the Bridge

I’ve been struggling with this whole paper developing process for months and my results have run from awesome to downright cloudy crap with very little consistency. Time to get serious!



Developing a Process

Perhaps I should try diluting the developer. 1:9 might be great for people who actually know what they are doing, but that is not me by a long shot 🙂 I figure that a slower developing time will give me time to correct for all the errors I’m making. Let’s give 1:28 a try for well-exposed shots.

So, developer and water get poured into the tray. I use my (not-so-useless-after-all) tongs to really stir up the mixture. The first paper negative is plunged into the tray much like quickly sliding it into a film holder. I feel like a cowboy who just mastered the quick draw. Slowly, I start rhythmically lifting and lowering the tray to agitate both developer and the paper. About 48.3 seconds later, an image begins to form. Ten to fifteen seconds later and it’s a recognizable scene.

Paper negatives part 3 - Ent Remains
Paper negatives part 3 – Ent Remains

Shadow areas don’t always cooperate with the speed of the development of the rest of the image. At times, highlights burn in black as if the flames of a Balrog were licking them. When you see this happening, keep calm and develop on: pull the paper negative from the bath when the highlights are almost done and tilt, shift and roll the developer on top of the negative into the shadow areas for extra developing.

You can also use a dollar store paintbrush to add a bit more developer onto the negative if needed.



A Sudden Stop

The entire developing process is around one to one and a half minutes at this 1:28 dilution, assuming the exposure was correct. Once the image is looking fine under the LED, err, safe light, I fire the negative into the stop bath. There doesn’t seem to be a need to agitate the tray for this stage. Simply wait for about 30 seconds and then move the negative over to fixer.

Paper negatives part 3 - Flat Iron Building
Paper negatives part 3 – Flat Iron Building

When moving the negative between trays, I use the tongs to lift it up and grab it by one corner with my fingers to let the liquid run off. Ten seconds or so works. As an aside, when I first mix up some fresh fixer, I purposefully don’t run off the stop, tinting the fixer so my paper negatives come out slightly sepia toned.



Fixing Things Permanently

A minute or two in the fixer sets the image on the paper so it can finally be exposed to light. The image gets run under cold water for a couple of minutes and then hung to dry. Well, hanging is great for resin-coated (RC) paper but fibre-based (FB) paper is going to curl into some crazy origami.

Paper negatives part 3 - Meditative Sounds
Paper negatives part 3 – Meditative Sounds

For FB paper (including Harmon direct positive paper), I slap the negative against the tiled wall of the shower, squeegee the paper as dry as I can, and let it stick to the wall for five minutes so the tiles around it dry. The corners then get taped to the tiles using painters tape. After about an hour for RC and a few hours for FB, your paper negatives are ready for scanning. If FB images still have a bit of curl, just put them under a large book for a couple of days.



Why So Dilute?

Paper negatives part 3 - 6-Stop Overexposure
Paper negatives part 3 – 6-Stop Overexposure

Once in a while, I’ve shot a paper negative without stopping down my lens. My first attempts at developing these 5-stop overexposed images in 1:9 solution yielded an image in 5-6 seconds, but it was a crazy scene with milky clouds almost entirely obscuring the original subject. My first experiment with non-standard dilution was developing a 6-stop overexposed shot of some falls in a dilution of 1:56. An image actually formed on the paper after a few minutes in the developer. In the end, it yielded something very low contrast but I was able to rescue it to a passable personal use image with careful scanning and a bit of Lightroom work. I’m sure if I knew how to contact print, I could get something even better out of the negative.



Paper Negs, Not Just For Learning

Paper negatives are a really inexpensive way to get started and hone your skills in large format photography. The look of the images is quite distinct so there is every reason to keep shooting them even after you start exploring film. Developing is very straightforward and Ilford’s RC paper is super easy to work with, both from a safe life perspective and how the paper dries flat.

Paper negatives part 3 - Service Hut on Beach
Paper negatives part 3 – Service Hut on Beach

There are a lot of creative and fun ways to experiment with your developing. Perhaps the most well known is making your own developer from things around the house: caffenol. The proper formulas rely on coffee, sodium carbonate (washing soda) and vitamin C to make sodium ascorbate (the developer). I cheated and used a bit of extra coffee (6 tsp), 2000mg of vitamin C and 3 1/2 tsp of baking soda (instead of washing soda) in 400ml (~13oz) of water.

The developer turned out super weak so I needed to overexpose 3-4 stops but it worked. Someone just suggested putting the baking soda in the oven for an hour to make sodium carbonate so that’s next on my mad-scientist list of things to do.



Signing off

That’s part three done.

Coming up in the final part of this series, I’ll be talking about scanning and the long term aspects of shooting paper negatives. You might be interested to know that I also recorded some video of the developing process I described here, enjoy!

~ Don Kittle


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16 thoughts on “Working with Paper Negatives – Part 3: At work in the Red Light District – by Don Kittle”

  1. Newbie to large format and on a budget and poor in chemistry knowledge too. I’ve a lot of Canon Photo Paper Pro II (inkjet photo paper) lying around. Is it possible to use them on a film back and shoot a paper negative?

  2. I just developed my first batch of my own and they look quite good from what I can tell. I only just discovered your set of articles after doing my own experiments.

    I used Arista Edu Resin Coated Variable Contrast and rated it at ISO 6. I also used a yellow filter to help tame the contrast and it helped a lot.

    They’re drying at the moment and I’m excited to see how they scan and if I’m feeling up to it make contact prints.

  3. @donkittle @ILFORDPhoto Brilliant series, thank you! I will finally give paper negatives a shot towards the end of the year

  4. Cheers Don!

    I’m playing also with paper negs so I come to appreciate the amount of work that must have been done to get you there, thanks for sharing your results!

    On my side I’m still struggling with the harsh contrast of blue light, not satisfied with my pinhole results sonfar, so I’m thinking going the orange filter route or directly the fixed grade paper route… will see when I have time to get back to that.

    On a side note, I was surprised how good, I mean clear/visible, your darkroom video was. Did you just increased the red light to insane levels or do you have some IR video camera?

    Cheers again for sharing your experience, these 3 posts of yours were really interesting!


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