Resources for Photographers
This site isn't an exhaustive exploration of black and white photography; rather, it is intended to give you some ideas about how to start exploring photography and darkroom work inexpensively. I don't plan to do much in the way of updating and maintaining this page, as I'm not doing much wet darkroom work these days. The Links list contains additional resources.

Rolling your Own: Building a Home-brew Darkroom on the Cheap

So you wanna build a darkroom, eh? Fortunately, this isn't as expensive, or as difficult, as it sounds. Here's what you need:

  1. A darkroom enlarger. This is the heart of any darkroom. You can usually find one of these for sale cheap in the paper, or at a garage sale. That's the biggest piece of equipment you'll need; the one I'm using now was picked up at a garage sale cheap. You can find them online, at garage sales, or from schools for a song; so many people are moving away from darkroom printing that used enlargers are easy to come by. This will be the basic piece of darkroom equipment, around which the rest of your darkroom will revolve.
  2. A few shallow developing trays.
  3. Some tongs.
  4. A timer (if you don't want to shell out $50 for an enlarger timer, do what I used to do and use a light switch and a stopwatch).
  5. A Safelight. This is a special light that won't fog photographic paper. You can buy one for about $15, or make one by using a 7-watt night-light bulb in an enclosed housing, and covering the housing with rubylith (available at art supply stores).

Setting up a typical bathroom to work as a darkroom is a breeze. I mounted the enlarger on a TV tray with wheels and shelves, so I can keep everything together and wheel it out of the bathroom when I'm not using it. Sealing the room so it's light-tight is simple if you use a clever trick: Take an opaque black shower curtain, cut a piece about 3" bigger than the bathroom door all around, tape it around the edge. Viola! A light-proof seal for the door that you can put up and take down in seconds. If the room has windows, same thing there.

If you want to be able to process film, you will also need a small film developing tank. This, plus the other supplies and chemistry you'll need, can be found inexpensively at a photo supply store; alternately, you can order it from a mail-order supply house like B&H Video.

The basic theory behind black and white printing is really very simple. The photographic paper, like photographic film, is sensitive to light. The paper is placed under an enlarger, and the negative is loaded in the enlarger; the enlarger simply projects the image on the negative onto the paper, in the same way a slide projector projects an image.

The paper is then placed in a liquid developer solution, which causes the image to appear. Once this image has appeared, the paper is placed in a stop bath (to stop the developer and rinse it from the paper's surface), then placed into a fixing solution (which makes the paper no longer sensitive to light). The paper is then washed in running water, dried, and the print is finished.

Of course, the actual practice is somewhat more involved. When you make a black-and-white print, you can control how dark or light the print is, and how much contrast the image has. Controlling how light or dark the image is is done by controlling how much light hits the paper, either by controlling how long the enlarger projects the image on the paper, or by the amount of light leaving the enlarger, or both.

Contrast is regulated according to the grade of paper you buy, or the type of paper you buy. Some paper ("graded paper") has a fixed contrast; Grade 4 paper, for example, will give you a more contrasty picture than Grade 2 paper will. Other paper has a variable contrast; you use special filters in your enlarger to control how much contrast the printed image has.

In either event, the procedure for determining the amount of exposure and the amount of contrast that will give you good results for an image must be done for each negative you print. For most negatives, you can start with a contrast grade of 2 or 3, then create a "test strip" to determine the amount of exposure. This test strip is made by taking a small scrap of paper, mounting it under your enlarger, and covering it with something opaque. Leave a small strip uncovered, and expose it for 2 seconds. Move the opaque covering to expose a bit more of the scrap of paper, and expose it for two more seconds. Keep doing this until the entire paper has been exposed; develop the paper; and find the strip that looks like it has good exposure. Then, just count how many seconds were given to that strip, and use that as a starting point for making your print.

Automatic exposure meters are available which will calculate an exposure for you electronically, so you don't have to go through this process--if you're willing to spend the money on them. Likewise, exposure filters are available which you can place over a scrap of paper that you expose for 60 seconds, and the image will give you a good idea of your starting time. These devices make printing much more convenient, but they aren't really necessary.

Film and Paper


One of the more interesting things to happen to black-and-white photography recently is the advent of pseudo-black and white, or "chromogenic," film. This film, which acts like B&W but is processed like color film, is available from Ilford under the name XP-2 and Kodak under the name TMAX 400CN. The advantage of this kind of film to an amateur photographer is that it can be processed by any one-hour photofinishing place in less than 20 minutes (assuming you tell them not to make prints), for about what it costs to process conventional B&W film yourself. In addition, printing the Ilford on color paper produces a gorgeous sepiatone effect. Both films are rated at ASA400, although both can be pushed as high as 3200 and both are high-resolution, fine-grain films that yield negatives about as sharp as conventional 125 speed panchromatic film. The Ilford film is moderate to low contrast; I usually compensate for its lack of contrast by printing on high-contrast paper. Many of the images in the Gallery were originally shot on XP2.

The biggest drawback to pseudo-black and white film is its low contrast. Traditional black and white (panchromatic) film gives much better contrast, although the negatives are grainier (which is not always a bad thing!). I like Kodak's T-MAX film, particularly T-MAX P3200, which has a nominal ASA rating of 3200 and can be pushed to 6400 speed without significant degredation. Shooting P3200 in bright light with a very fast shutter produces striking, high-contrast, high-grain photos. (You can't really appreciate the feel of these photos across the Web, due to limitations on file size and resolution. Try it yourself!)


There are two basic kinds of black and white photographic paper: resin-coated (or "RC") and fiber-base (or "FB"). Resin coated paper, which is covered with a plastic-like coating, is what most people normally think of when they think of photographic paper. Fiber-base paper, which is uncoated, is usually used for archival or museum-quality prints; the surface of FB paper is not as smooth as RC paper, but properly cared for it will last virtually forever.

Working with RC paper in a home darkroom is much easier than working with FB paper, and for people exploring the world of do-it-yourself darkrooms, it's usually a better choice. RC paper develops, fixes, and washes much more quickly than FB paper; and unlike FB paper, it does not curl when it dries. FB paper can be very difficult to wash, which is a problem for home hobbyists because paper that is not properly washed after it is processed tends to turn yellow or brown with age.

Paper is further divided into graded and variable-contrast (aka VC, multi-contrast, or multigrade) types. Graded paper is purchased in a particular contrast grade; the higher the grade, the more contrasty the images printed on that paper will be. Variable-contrast paper, as the name suggests, can produce images with whatever level of contrast the photographer desires. Modern VC paper produces results as good as the old-fashioned graded paper, and is much more flexible. In addition, it makes printing problem negatives using split-contrast printing techniques possible.

I almost always use Ilford's Multigrade IV paper for printing. It's available both resin-coated and fiber-based, and by using different filters in the enlarger it can produce a range of contrast grades (from a low-contrast Grade 00 to high-contrast Grade 5) in half-grade increments--very nice. I occasionally use Agfa fixed-grade fiber-based paper and sometimes use Kodak's multigrade paper, although I'm less fond of them than I am of the Ilford.

Specialty Paper:
Printing B&W from a Color Negative

Every so often, you may find yourself in a situation where you want to make a black-and-white print from a color negative. Doing this presents a special challenge, because ordinary paper is designed not to be sensitive to red light. This creates a problem, because any object in a color print which is cyan or blue is red in a color negative, so blue or cyan objects--skies, for example--do not turn up on a normal black and white print; the print stays white in those areas.

Kodak has a special black-and-white paper, Panalure, just for this purpose. Panalure is printed and developed just like any other black-and-white paper, except that it is not safelight-safe; you must handle it in total darkness. It is available in three contrast grades (Soft, Medium, and Hard), and is highly sensitive; if you use it, you'll probably have to use very short exposure times. Printing nudes and figure studies on Panalure hard-contrast paper produces an ethereal look similar to what you get when shooting on black and white infrared film.


TONING is usually done to a black-and-white print for one of two reasons: To change the color of the print, or to preserve the print for archiving. Toning is a process where the finished photograph is immersed in a chemical (or chemicals) which react with the silver in the print to change the color of the image. These chemicals can be found in most photo supply stores, and are available in a range of formulations to produce a number of interesting shades in the final print.

A black and white photograph, like a color photograph, will deteriorate over time. The silver in the emulsion oxidizes and fades, and the photograph gradually degrades. Toning a photograph in a selenium-based toner, however, will prevent this deterioration. It may or may not change the color of the print noticeably; typically, it will make the darkest areas of the print slightly darker, and may make the image overall slightly blue-black, depending on the type of paper being used; on some papers it doesn't cause a noticeable change at all. Properly toned, however, the print may last hundreds of years. (A very dilute--about 200:1--solution of Kodak brown toner can have the same preservative effect without changing the color of the print noticeably.)

Several interesting effects can be produced by colorizing a black-and-white print with a colorizing toner. Cold blue-and-white images and sepiatone images (which are a yellow-red or muted reddish color, similar to old-fashioned prints) are among my favorites. A couple of examples (sepia and blue toning):


(Click on either image to see a larger version)

Toning resin-coated (RC) paper is usually a bit more difficult than toning fiber-based paper; two step (bleach and redevelop) toners usually work better than single-step toners on RC paper. Single-step toning is very straightforward: just dunk the black-and-white photograph into the toning solution. Two-step toners work a little bit differently: First, you soak the print in a bleaching solution which causes the black-and-white image to fade away. After the print has been bleached, you place it in the second, toning bath to bring out the toned image. (The Kodak sepia toner used to tone the picture above left, is a two-part toner; the blue toner used on the example on the right is a one-step toner.)

Lighting and Special Effects Techniques on the Cheap

Fact of Life #1: Studio lighting is obnoxiously expensive.

Fact of Life #2: With a little creativity and some of those bright halogen work lights, you don't need it--particularly if you're doing black and white work where the color temperature of the light isn't important. The best investment I've made in lighting has been $25 for a Scotty's Hardware quartz-halogen work light, $50 at a garage sale for a slide projector, and a bunch of large sheets of Foam-Core. The Foam-Core makes a good soft reflector; by placing the shop light on the ground facing toward your subject, putting a piece of Foam-Core in front of the light angled upward at 45 degrees, and putting another piece of Foam-Core above that (on the ceiling) angled toward your subject at 45 degrees, you'll end up with lighting similar to what you might get with an expensive umbrella-type reflector.

An old slide projector makes a very good spotlight. More importantly, an old slide projector opens up endless vistas for specialty lighting effects. One technique I use frequently involves creating patterns in a computer and sending them to a service bureau to be imaged on small pieces of imagesetter film, which is usually used for making the plates for printing presses. Imagesetter film is threshold film; it's either completely black or completely clear. Normally, a negative is made for a particular printing plate, at the same size as the plate, and the negative is used to expose the plate. What I do is make an imagesetter negative at 24 by 36mm (at that small size it's cheap to do, since most places charge about $12 for an 8.5x11" sheet of imageset film). I mount the imagesetter film in a slide carrier, drop it into the slide projector, and viola! Instant lighting mask, and it can be as complex as I want. (You can find places that do imagesetter output by looking up "prepress" or "service bureaus" in the Yellow Pages.) Some examples of effects that can be done this way:

thumbprintThis image was made by taking a scan of a thumbprint, sending it to an imagesetter, and placing the imagesetter film in the slide projector. Any kind of design can be used, although it must be created as a high-resolution bitmap (no shades of gray!). The file that gets sent to the service bureau should be 24x36mm at 1200dpi or higher.

Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version (107K)

Some service bureaus can send a computer graphic directly to 35mm slide, with a device called a slide imager or film recorder. Slides created this way also make excellent special-effects lighting tools, although they tend to be expensive and the computer files necessary to create them are large (typically about 45MB). An example of this kind of technique:

The lighting in this image comes from a 35mm slide created from a low-resolution computer graphic. This is the only light in this shot, which was exposed on TMAX 3200 film.

Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version (54K)

Imagesetter film can also be used to create a number of darkroom effects. For composite prints, creating masks of just about any type or complexity is easy to do. Although the imagesetter film is either completely black or completely clear, you can simulate shades of gray by using a high-frequency halftone screen (tell your service bureau to use a 200 line screen or higher, if they can, when you create full-sized photographic masks).

Retouching the Old-Fashioned Way: Dodging and Burning

One of the most valuable techniques in black-and-white printing is localized brightness control. Often, a photographic print looks good, but has problems--perhaps a shadow is too heavy on a person's face, or a hilight in the image is too bright to show any detail. Problems like this can be corrected by techniques called "dodging," which makes part of a photographic print lighter; and "burning," which makes an area of a print darker. Almost all photographic prints can benefit from some dodging or burning.

The basic idea here is really very, very simple. In dodging, a small object of some sort--usually a small disc of black paper mounted to a thin, stiff wire--is held between the enlarger lens and the photographic paper for a period of time while a print is being made. The disc casts a shadow on the paper, blocking the light from the enlarger from reaching it. The longer the disc, or "dodge tool," is held there, the lighter that area of the print will be. (You can make a dodge tool yourself by taping a 3/4-inch piece of black construction paper to an unbent paper clip.)

Burning is just the opposite. After the print is exposed, the photographer holds his hand over the enlarger lens and turns the enlarger on again. He then opens his hand a crack, so that a sliver of light falls from the enlarger and strikes the paper in the place where the photograph is too light. This additional exposure darkens the photograph wherever the light falls on it.

The key to successful use of both techniques is to keep the dodge tool or your hand moving at all times, so that the image does not end up with a hard edge between the areas you are trying to control and the areas that are not being dodged or burned.

Experimentation is necessary to make effective use of this technique. Usually, a single test print is made from a photographic negative; this test print is then evaluated under full light to decide if certain parts of the photograph should be darkened or lightened. A new print is then made, with dodging and/or burning applied to correct the image.

Experimentation is necessary as well to determine how long to dodge or burn the photograph. In general, the longer you dodge a shadow, the lighter it becomes; the longer you burn a hilight, the darker it becomes. So if you had a print which required, say, a 40-second exposure time under the enlarger, a ten-second dodge might be enough to lift a bit of shadow off a model's face, whereas a fifteen-second dodge might be required to reveal detail in a deep shadow between two buildings.

Dodging and burning can be learned relatively easily; the basic theory is simple, and while it takes some practice to get the hang of it, it soon becomes second nature.

Printing Problem Negatives: Split-Contrast Printing

An interesting technique for printing difficult-to-print negatives, which makes use of variable-contrast paper, is called "split contrast printing."

Often, you may discover that you have a negative which you can't seem to make a decent print from, because parts of the negative are too contrasty, or because the print always looks flat and lifeless unless you use paper or filtration that is so contrasty the print starts looking weird. Occasionally, such a negative can be printed using split contrast printing.

The idea behind split contrast printing works like this: When you print a negative using low-contrast paper, hilight detail tends to be more visible, but shadows tend to be gray, not black. When you print on high-contrast paper, blacks are rich and dark, but hilights tend to be blown out.

By using variable contrast paper, you can create a print with good blacks and good hilight detail.

To do this, you start by using the lowest contrast filter you can. Make a test print using a low-contrast filter. This test print should have good detail in the hilights, though it will probably be very flat, with washed-out shadows. Don't worry about that; you'll take care of it in the final print.

When you are satisfied with the way the hilights look, record your exposure and time. Then, create another test print, using the highest grade of filter. You will want to find the minimum exposure you can that will produce a rich, solid black in the shadows. Never mind that the hilights will look washed-out and underexposed. Just look at the shadows, and record your exposure and time.

Now, to create the final print, place the lowest grade of filter in your enlarger, and expose the paper according to the exposure you wrote down when you made your first test print. Then, without disturbing the paper or enlarger, remove the low-contrast filter and insert the high-contrast filter. Now expose the paper again, using the settings you determined when you made your high-contrast test print.

Develop and fix your print normally. You should end up with a print that offers good tonal range and excellent shadows, while preserving detail in the hilights.

Printing Problem Negatives: Flashing

Occasionally, you might find a negative that won't respond even to split-contrast printing. It may be that the negative is so contrasty that even with very soft paper, or very low filtration, the negative stubbornly refuses to yield a decent print.

The main problems you may encounter when trying to print a very contrasty negative are that with proper exposure for the shadows, the hilights will be completely washed out, and that the midtones will look extremely flat.

Often, such a negative can be printed by "flashing" the paper. Flashing is a technique where the paper is exposed briefly to a small amount of plain white light, which will pre-sensitize the paper, and make it pick up hilight detail more readily.

The technique for flashing requires about as much work as the technique for split-contrast printing. First, you will need to make a test strip showing how much white-light exposure you'll need in order to sensitize the paper.

To do this, remove the negative from the enlarger, and close the aperture down as far as possible--to f/22 or smaller, if you can. Then, take a strip of paper. Put the paper under the enlarger, and cover one edge of it with something opaque--the edge of an easel works well. This protects the edge from receiving any light, so you have something to compare to in the later steps.

Now you're ready to make the test strip. Cover all but a sliver of the paper, and expose it for one second. Make a mark with a pen where the cover was. Move the cover down a bit to reveal a little more of the paper, and expose for another second. At each step, make a mark to show where the cover was.

When you've exposed the whole strip of paper this way, develop it. Now look for the point where you just barely begin to see the paper turning gray. (Compare the exposed part of the paper to the edge of the paper that was covered by your easel. You'll be able to see the point at which the paper just begins to turn gray.)

Your flash exposure is the point just before the paper begins to turn gray. If your test strip shows the paper just turning gray at the 5-second mark, then your flash exposure is 4 seconds.

Flash an entire sheet. Then mount the negative in the enlarger, and re-set the enlarger for the f-stop that gave you good shadows when you tried to print it before. Expose it for the time you used to get good shadows, develop, and inspect the print. The flashing should significantly improve rendition in the hilights and midtones.

Note that you may have to adjust your overall exposure time to compensate for the flashing. It might be necessary to reduce the exposure by a few seconds, as the flashing tends to make the midtones and shadows somewhat darker. You may find it helpful to flash a couple of sheets of paper, and use one of the flashed sheets to make a new test strip.


"Solarization" is a term used to describe exposing a photographic print to a light source while it is still in the developing solution, before it is fixed. The technique is more properly known as the "Sabatier effect" (technically, the word "solarization" refers to a technique in which film is overexposed to the point where additional exposure reduces, rather than increases, the density of the developed negative, but "solarization" is often used interchangeably with "Sabatier effect" in common usage).

The process of solarization is very simple. After a sheet of photographic paper has been exposed under the enlarger, it is placed in a tray of developer and developed. Then, while it's still in the developer, a light is flashed briefly on the paper. (I use an ordinary 60-watt light bulb in a regular light fixture, and flash the light briefly--less than a second--from about four feet away from the developer tray.)

This causes the image on the paper to become a half-negative. The dark areas of the picture stay dark; the light areas become dark; and the middle tones stay pretty much unchanged. For example, here is a print that has not been solarized, and the same print solarized. (Click on either thumbnail to see the image full-size.)

normal (unsolarized) solarization (solarized)

A solarized image tends to be very dark (naturally). If the tray of developer is not disturbed or agitated during solarization, the print will also exhibit strong lines around areas of high contrast; these lines, called Mackie lines, are the result of localized exhaustion of the developer solution in the darkest parts of the print. (The solarized image above has a Mackie line around the model's body which is quite evident in the enlarged version.)

A solarized print can itself be used as a paper negative to produce a positive, "reverse solarized" image. To do this, the negative is placed in the enlarger flipped over, so that the print which is made is backwards. This backwards print is then solarized, fixed, and dried. After the print is dry, it is placed upside-down on a new sheet of photographic paper, and a light is shined through the solarized print to make a new image on the sheet of paper underneath.

A print which is used in this fashion is called a "paper negative." The print made from a paper negative must usually be exposed for a long time, because very little light passes through the paper negative. All sorts of images, not just solarizations, are good candidates for printing in this way. For example, a positive transparency (slide) can be placed in an enlarger and printed, but the print will be a negative, not a positive. This negative can then be placed upside-down on a new sheet of photographic paper, which is exposed to produce a positive image.

Normally, a sheet of glass is placed over the paper negative to keep it in firm contact with the sheet of paper underneath. If this is not done, the paper negative will not remain in firm contact with the sheet of paper underneath, and light will diffuse through the paper negative, producing a "cloudy" effect in the image. Sometimes, this can produce a striking effect.

Below is an example of a reverse solarization. This image is the same as the image above. I made a backward print, solarized it, then used the solarized print as a paper negative to create the print below. I did not use a sheet of glass when I made this final print, so there is a billowy, cloudy texture to the final print (again, you can click on the thumbnail to see the image full-size).

reverse solarization

If you're interested in learning more about solarization, there's an excellent Web page with many examples here.

Recommended Reading

The Camera
by Ansel Adams

Volume I of a three-volume set on photography written by master photographer Ansel Adams. Each book covers one topic thoroughly: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. This series explains the "Zone system" and offers exhaustive analysis of the art and science of photography.

The Negative
by Ansel Adams

Volume II of Adams' complete series on photography.

The Print
by Ansel Adams

Volume III of Adams' complete series on photography.

An overview on alternative photographic processes. While many of these print processes were discovered in the nineteenth century, they can still be done by hobbyists; they produce beautiful handmade prints quite different from conventional black and white photographs.

Complete reference book, from the basics of building your own darkroom to advanced lith printmaking. Everything you need to know about do-it-yourself darkroom work.

Black & White: Photographic Printing Workshop
by Larry Bartlett and Jon Tarrant

Many examples of black and white printmaking; covers dodging and burning techniques extensively.

 The Links have been moved to their own page.