- Ensure you have a good maximum black reference.
Most images only really shine if they use the full tonal
scale the paper can achieve, from maximum black to "paper-white".
This doesn't mean the darkest and lightest parts need to
take up large parts of the images, just that there needs
to be some spot or highlight in the image that sets the
boundaries of the prints tonal scale. Unless you have a
maximum black reference of your paper, it will be dificult
to judge if you truly use the entire tonal scale of the
paper. Be aware of the fact that each paper has its own
maximum black / density. E.g. a paper like Ilford MGIV Warmtone
has a very beatiful deep black, while normal MGIV is clearly
less. To create a "reference", simply take a small
strip of the paper from a package, switch on the normal
lights in your darkroom so as to completely expose it, and
process it. Dry it, and keep it as a reference... just be
aware that there is still a difference between the wet state
of the paper, and the dry state, especially with fiber based
papers, but it should help determining if you have maximum
black in your image.
- Use the Zone System for B&W photography.
Invented and described by the world famous photographers
Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, the Zone System is a system
designed to give greater and predictable control over contrast
in your negatives and prints, based on a conscious decision
about exposure in relation to possible adjustments in film
development and printing. I won't go into detail here, there
are plenty of excellent references to be found on the web...
Although I have respect for those analog photographers who
have mastered this system and therefore have almost complete
and predictable control over contrast and tonality, I have
not yet mastered this fully. I have begun to explore exposure
and development adjustment though. In addition, I have found
Ralph Lambrechts "Zone Dial" an invaluable help
in "setting" zones. It can be found on his Darkroom
Magic website, in the Library section. Also strongly
recommended is his "Way Beyond Monochrome" book,
that I still must acquire, but seems highly regarded in
the analog photography community. But in as much as the
final image result, I also make every effort to control
contrast and tonality at the printing stage. Using multigrade
paper in combination with different filters and dodging
and burning, there is a tremendous amount that can be done.
Especially since many of my negatives are challenging anyway,
considering contrast ranges in access of what can be captured
on film, learning how to control contrast and tonality in
the printing stage is a must. Making conscious decisions
of what is allowed to go completely black or white, is part
of photography and printing too.
- Make test strips for each new negative. Especially
with 35 mm photography, one is easily tempted to take a strip
of negatives and fast print them based on the correct exposure
of a single negative. In my experience however, for correct
tonality, it is crucial to judge each negative separately
using test strips. Yes, it does mean more time, but any small
differences in the negatives exposure, may result in a disappointing
print if you have not corrected for it. So don't be lazy...
- Fiber based prints have a tendency to considerably
darken after been left to dry. This means you need to take
into account this process already in the printing stage.
I have wasted quite a bit of paper on this issue, thinking
I was creating a good print, only to discover the next day
that my print was way to dark. As a rule of thumb, you need
to take about 10% of the paper exposure time to get the
result you want. E.g. let's say a test strip printed (not
yet dried!) shows a good exposure and tonality at a 20 sec
exposure time. Now in order to have the same result in the
final print, you will need to print the final image with
an exposure of about 18 sec, even if this means that some
of your highlights appear washed out compared to the 20
sec print, they WILL have definition after drying.
- Judge your print the day after when it's dried
and make corrections then. Attempting to create a finalized
print in one day is not always wise. Just as with every form
of art, giving your print a second thought is a good thing.
If you've been printing in the evening hours, judging your
print the next day with proper daylight available, is often
shockingly revealing and may lead to an entire different approach.
I have managed to reduce this issue by installing a proper
daylight type lighting source in my darkroom, see below.
- Install proper lighting in your darkroom. Although
I have heard of photographers claiming to be able to judge
their tonality and contrast under darkroom safety lighting,
in my experience a proper *daylight* source of lighting, is
of vital importance for judging tonality. My darkroom has,
besides it's safelight, a total of 72W of daylight type fluorescent
lighting, which I consider a bare minimum. I switch on these
lights on a regular basis during printing, to judge my prints
and make corrections (of course only after all my prints have
left any of the chemical developing baths..., and my paper
properly tucked away in it's boxes...). Please note that daylight
type fluorescent lighting is different from the average fluorescent
lighting you can buy in shops, often these tubes need to be
specially ordered. I use two Philips TL-D 18W/54-765 SLV type
tubes, which have a color temperature of 6200K, and one TL-D
Super 80 36W/840 SLV, with a color temperature of 4000K. The
54 type tubes are slightly to "cold" compared to
daylight, the 840 tube is slightly to "warm", together
they mix into something very close to daylight light "temperature".