B&W Film Photography, Part V: Enlarging

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Jun 7, 2006
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By terri at Mon, 2006-11-13 22:19

Welcome to the fifth installment of Jim Hannah's Black & White Film Photography! Enjoy the series!

Black and White Film Photography - a Beginner's Primer.

by Jim Hannah

Part V - Enlarging


If there's one part in the B&W process where magic happens, it's in the making of enlargements. Only here can you fully appreciate the results of the combined efforts of subject selection, film exposure and film development. If you've followed the path of the previous articles in this series, you already have most of the materials and skills you'll need to make enlargements.



There are many enlargers available. Here's how to narrow down your choice The first consideration is the size(s) of your negatives. Some enlargers are designed solely for 35mm work. Others have interchangeable negative holders so that 35mm and 120 roll film negatives [4 1/2 x 6 cm, 6 x 6 cm and 6 x 7 cm] can be enlarged. Still others can handle up to 4"x5" sheet film negatives. You should select an enlarger which will take your largest negative size. In addition, if you're seriously considering going to a larger negative size in the future, now's the time to get an enlarger that will handle it. An enlarger is a long-term purchase. They rarely wear out or break down.

Some enlargers are fitted with a color head [Appendix A.] This is a set of internal filters which allow you to adjust the color of the light. You'll need a color head if you're going to make enlargements from color negative film. You don't need a color head for b&w. However, if you are going to use variable contrast [VC] b&w paper, you do need some means of adjusting the color of the light from the enlarger. A color head will do this very well, but with a regular head you can use a set of external color filters intended specifically for b&w VC papers. These go into a holder just below the enlarger lens. In most cases, an enlarger without a color head coupled with a set of variable contrast filters will result in lower total cost.

Enlargers have lenses just as cameras do. If you're going to use the enlarger just for 35mm, you'll only need one lens. If you're going to use both 35mm and 120 film, you will want a separate lens for each size. The standard 35mm lens has a focal length of 50mm. The standard lenses for 120 roll film negatives are 75 or 80mm. You can use the 80mm lens for enlarging 35mm negatives, but the image on the easel will be smaller than if you use a 50mm lens. This can limit the size of the print you can make. A 50mm lens used for negatives larger than 35mm can result in vignetting of the image.

Enlargers tend to age gracefully. Purchasing a used enlarger can be a good way to save some money.

Variable contrast filters.

At one time, enlarging papers only came in individual contrast grades. The #2 grade was used for negatives of normal contrast when a print of normal contrast was desired. For higher [#3, #4, #5] or lower [#1] contrast prints, you had to buy a package of paper in that specific contrast grade. Today, VC papers have changed all that. These papers change their contrast characteristics depending on the color of the light from the enlarger. With a color head enlarger or an enlarger with a set of VC filters, you have a full contrast range at your fingertips from a single package of paper.

There are several manufacturers of contrast filters. Check to see which size will work with your particular enlarger. A basic set of whole steps will get you up and running. If cost is not all that important, a set with steps of 1/2 contrast grade provide the finest control. Unfortunately, there are no sets which 'fill in' the half-steps missing from a basic single step set.


An easel which can be adjusted for various print sizes is preferred to one which only permits pre-set sizes. A good initial choice is an 11" x 14" easel. It will allow you to make prints 11" x 14" and smaller. You can, for example, use it to make 6" x 9" prints which utilize the full frame of a 35mm negative. Easels larger than 11" x 14" can be harder to use because of their size as well as more expensive to purchase.

Hint: If you're at all handy at making things you can easily craft an enlarging easel for a single size of really big stuff such as 16"x20".


While we noted that contact prints could be made by counting off seconds, a timer is almost a necessity for enlarging. You can still use counting, but it's far more convenient to turn the chore over to an electric timer. That way, you can concentrate on the enlargement, especially if you're doing something to it during the exposure.


Contact printing used 8" x 10" paper. In enlarging, you'll need trays which can handle the largest size of paper that you routinely intend to use. Kitty litter trays can be used if you wish to save money, but be aware that their flat bottoms can make it difficult to lift the paper. Commercial photo print trays have ribbed bottoms. Do not use aluminum trays, even though they're tempting. The chemicals will react with them.

Hint: In a pinch, you can process a print larger than the tray. Hold the paper by the two short sides and form it into a 'U.' Then see-saw it in the tray by alternately raising and lowering the sides of the paper so that all of the surface is washed by the developer. Continue see-sawing for the required time. Then move the paper to the stop bath tray, continue the same technique, move to the fixer tray, etc.

Safelight and paper safe.

These were covered in the article on contact printing.



The chemicals you'll need have already been covered in the article on contact printing.


There are many different types of enlarging paper. They fall into several broad categories. We covered VC papers and single contrast grade papers above. Then there are papers which have been resin coated [RC] to keep the base paper from absorbing chemicals. Papers which are not resin coated require much longer washing periods to wash out the chemicals and ensure against browning and fading with age. Papers are also available with different levels of surface shine ranging from glossy to matte.

Finally, there are papers which produce different image 'tones'; warm [brownish], neutral and cold [bluish]. And that's just the broad categories. There are many more types available with quite special characteristics.

A good starting point is a neutral tone VC RC paper in a pearl or semi-matte surface. A 25 sheet package of 8" x 10" will do for a start. The Ilford papers are readily available and are of good quality. You can try different papers with different characteristics as you gain experience with the enlarging process.

Hint: You can print two 5" x 7" exposures on a single sheet of 8" x 10" paper. Just
cut them apart when dry.

Preparation and set-up.


Plug the enlarger into the timer if you're using one. Select the correct enlarging lens for the negative size and install. Check to see that you can read the lens openings easily. Set the lens at its widest opening [usually f3.5 or f4.5.] Adjust the easel for the desired print size and place it on the enlarger baseboard.

Developer-stop bath-fixer.

The tray and chemical set-up is the same as that for contact printing.


Position the safelight so that it provides light for the enlarger baseboard and the chemical trays. It should be at least 2 feet above them. In some instances where the enlarger is a large distance from the developing trays, you might wish to add a second inexpensive safelight.

Make test strips.

The easiest way to get a good idea of the exposure needed for a particular negative is to expose a test strip. Turn the safelight on and turn off the lights. Remove a single sheet of paper and cut it into strips about 2" wide by 8" long. Put the strips back in the paper package or paper safe until needed. Carefully re-close the paper package or paper safe.

Note: Failure to close the package or paper safe usually happens only once. With care, it might not happen at all.

Prepare record sheet.

It's worth while to record certain information for every print you make. With the data you can easily duplicate the print at a later date. In addition, by making use of a set of tables, you can determine the exact exposure needed if you wish to make a print of a size different from the original. As a minimum, you should record the negative identification, print size, color head settings or VC filter used, enlarger lens f stop, exposure time, paper used and the height of the negative carrier above the easel surface.

A yardstick or meter ruler will do the job nicely. [Appendix B]

Making an enlargement.

Exposing a test strip.

Select the negative to be enlarged and place it in the carrier, emulsion [dull] side down. Check it carefully for dust. Remove any dust using a lens brush or canned compressed air. If your negative carrier uses glass, check the glass for dust. Then clean any dust from the negative before placing it in the carrier. Any dust spot you miss will show up as a white spot on the print. It's easier to remove the dust from the negative rather than having to retouch the print later.

Hint: 35mm film tends to curl and form a long 'U' shape. If you turn it so that it is resting on the edges, the emulsion side is down.

Turn the lights out and turn the safelight on. Turn the enlarger on. Adjust the enlarger head up or down so that the image approximately matches the print area of the easel.

Focus the enlarger so that the image on the easel is sharp [Appendix C.]

Note: It will take a few adjustments of head height and focus until the image is the required size and sharply focused. At this stage, you can also crop the image as desired to improve the composition. It usually takes a bit of fussing around to get everything just right.

When everything's ready, turn the enlarger off and turn on the lights. Adjust the color head filter settings or place the correct VC filter in position for #2 [normal] contrast. Set the timer for 32 seconds and set the enlarger lens to f11.

Note: This all seems like a lot of things to do. Fear not. With time, it will become automatic.

Turn out the lights and turn on the safelight. Take a test strip from the paper package or paper safe and place it on the easel. Carefully close the paper package or paper safe.

Hint: The emulsion or image side of enlarging paper is shiny. The back side is dull.

Hold an opaque cardboard strip just above the test strip so that about 1" of one end of the test strip is visible. Turn on the enlarger and begin counting seconds. After 4 seconds, quickly move the cardboard strip so that now 2" of the test strip is exposed.

After 4 more seconds, quickly move the cardboard strip so that 3" of the test strip is exposed. In each position, hold the cardboard strip steady. This will ensure a well-defined edge to the exposure zone. Continue doing this until the final inch of the test strip has been exposed for 4 seconds.

You now have a strip exposed in bands of 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28 and 32 seconds. Now process the strip exactly as described in the article on contact printing beginning with the development step and continuing through the washing step.

Examine the strip to determine which band shows the best exposure time to use for making a full print [Appendix D.] That will be your timer setting to make the full print.

Making the print.

The actual print exposure is relatively simple. Set the enlarger timer for the number of seconds which will produce the best print. Turn out the lights and turn on the safelight.

Open the package of enlarging paper or paper safe. Take out a sheet and put it in the easel. Carefully re-close the paper package or paper safe.

Make the exposure using the number of seconds selected from the test strip. Remove the paper from the easel and process it just as you did for the test strip. Let the print dry.

Evaluation and adjustments.

You now have a full print from your negative. You can consider it as a finished work or use it as a guide toward a better version. Here are some points to consider.


A good print usually has highlights that are almost the pure white of the paper border and darkest shadows very near or at the fullest black the paper can produce. You can refer to the test strip to judge the effect of a change in the exposure time.


The image may be improved by increasing or decreasing the contrast. Changing to a higher contrast number will 'punch up' the image. A change to a lower number will soften the 'feel' of the image.

For each negative, there will be a combination of exposure and contrast which will produce the best print. With experience, you'll be able to judge this quite accurately.


Can the print be improved through additional cropping of the image? Cut out a pair of 'L'-shaped borders about 14" x 17" on the outside edges and 2" wide out of white cardboard or poster board stock. You can adjust these on the print to produce a matte and check the effect of various crops.

Burning in.

This is a technique used to darken a part of the image. The simplest case occurs when a corner area of the print is distractingly light. It can be made darker in a new print.

Here's how to go about it.

First, make the normal exposure. Then, without moving the paper or the enlarger, hold a piece of cardboard between the enlarger lens and the easel to block all light from reaching the paper.

Now turn the enlarger on. Move the cardboard back and forth so that the offending corner receives several seconds of light. By keeping the cardboard moving during the exposure, no hard 'edge' will show and the darkening will taper toward the corner.

Turn off the enlarger and process the print.

With experience, you'll be able to control this technique quite well. You can also burn in an area in the middle of a print by using a piece or cardboard with a hole in it or by forming a hole with your hands.


Dodging [or holding back] is the opposite of burning in. It's used when there's a part of the print that's too dark. You'll need a simple tool for this - a circle of cardboard glued to a stiff length of thin wire will do for a start.

Dodging is done during the exposure of the print, not in a second separate exposure. At some point after the exposure begins, hold the dodging circle between the lens and the easel so that it covers the area to be lightened. Keep the circle and wire moving so that there will be no 'edges' visible. Do this for several seconds and then let the exposure continue on to the end. Process the print and evaluate the results.

Again, this is a technique which requires some experience to use to the best effect. In some cases it's worth while to cut out a form which more closely approximates the area to be dodged. Both burning-in and dodging, if done skillfully, will not be detectable as a print manipulation.


Cut a circle in a piece of cardboard and stretch a single layer of sheer nylon stocking over it. Glue or tape the nylon in place. By placing this between the lens and the paper during a part of the exposure, you will soften the image. The effect can be controlled by changing the percent of exposure time during which the softener is used.

Keep the softener moving gently when in use.

There's much, much more to learn and explore in enlarging. What was covered above just barely scratches the surface. The intent has been to provide enough information for you to get started. Once you have a basic technique worked out, you can branch out and explore to your heart's content.

The next topic in this series will be on putting what we've learned together to form a standardized reliable process, from the initial film exposure through to the finished print.

Appendix A. Color head settings.

Color head enlargers can be set so that the color of the light corresponds to a specific contrast grade of VC paper. Check the instruction manual of your particular enlarger for the settings. If none are given, you can find the information on-line through a search engine.

Enlarger color heads are of two basic filter types: 'Durst' and 'Kodak.' The color filter settings are different for each type. 'Durst' enlargers include the Duncos, Dursts, Kaisers, Leitzes and Lupos. 'Kodak' types are the Beselar, De Vere, Fujimoto, Jobo, LPL, Omega, Paterson and Vivitar enlargers. Locate a table of settings for your enlarger type.

There are tables available which require setting both the Y and M values for each contrast grade. This is done so that you will not have to make any correction in the exposure time when changing from one contrast setting to another for the same negative. It's suggested that you use them if you can find them for your enlarger type.

Some approximate filter values which will get you started are: Grade 0 - 110Y. Grade 1 - 70Y. Grade 2 - 0Y, 0M. Grade 3 - 45M. Grade 4 - 95M and Grade 5 - 170M.

Appendix B. Enlarger head height.

This was covered in part in Article 4, Appendix A. If you record the height for each print, you can not only duplicate the print later, but you can use a set of correction tables to find the exact exposure needed to make the same print in a different size. Recording the height to the nearest 1/8 inch or 2 mm will generally provide more than enough accuracy.

Appendix C. Focusing.

Enlarger lenses have depths of focus [DOF] which increase with higher f numbers just as camera lenses do. For this reason, focus with the lens wide open in order to 'zero in' on the sharpest position. Then stop down to increase the DOF and correct for any small error in focusing caused by a slight curvature in the film. Also, by focusing with no filtration in place, you'll have the brightest possible image to work with. In some instances, you will actually be able to see the individual silver grains of the film. There are focusing devices available if you find that you have trouble seeing when the image is at its sharpest point.

Appendix D. Test strip evaluation.

The ideal test strip exposure will be between 16 and 32 seconds. This is long enough to allow accurate timing and enough time for exposure manipulations [dodging/burning in], but not so long as to become boring. Once you've determined the exposure with the original set-up [enlarger set at f11], you can adjust the time into this range if necessary.

Changing the enlarger lens from f11 to f16 will double the time needed. Changing the enlarger lens from f11 to f8 will halve the exposure time.

If you have any questions about the information in this article, please send a PM to Torus34 right here at TPF! Jim will be happy to help you!
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