Black & White Papers and Developers
by Chuck McKern
The best thing about doing your own darkroom printing is you have the ability to make a photograph look the way you want as opposed to the way somebody else thinks it should look. Over the years I have come to appreciate a well-done black and white print, especially black and white portraits. In talking to people I have also learned that a lot of people don't like black and white portraits because they look "cold". In some cases this helps deliver a particular mood, but it isn't a print that some would necessarily hang in their home or office. In this article I'm going to talk about different black and white papers and developers and how they can change the way your prints look and "feel" to the viewer. Toners and other specialty chemicals can also be used for effect; they'll be the subject of a future article.
If you've been away from the darkroom for a while you'll be surprised how much has changed in both chemicals and papers. But before you mourn the loss of a favorite old paper, try some of the new papers. As with everything in photography over the last ten years, manufacturers have been constantly improving darkroom chemicals and papers in terms of quality and shelf life.
Fiber base papers don't have the absorption barrier of resin-coated papers and require much longer drying times. So why use fiber base papers? Their advantage is that they yield a higher level of detail and are easier to retouch.
Within these two broad types of paper you have two major styles, variable (or selectable) contrast and graded contrast papers. Variable contrast papers allow you to alter the contrast level using filters placed below the lens or between the lens and the light source (depending on the enlarger). With graded contrast papers you cannot alter the contrast with filters. The papers are designed for different contrast levels and you buy the paper(s) with the contrast(s) that you prefer.
So much for generalities, lets get into some specifics. I'm going to use Kodak black and white papers as examples as they are one of the most popular paper brands and are widely available. But Kodak is far from your only source. Companies like Ilford, Agfa, and Oriental all make high quality papers. Some retailers such as Jessops (U.K.) even offer their own lines of papers. As you get experience in the darkroom try out competing papers to determine which brands have the qualities you're looking for.
Resin-Coated Variable Contrast Papers
Kodak Polymax II RC has similar qualities and outstanding highlight detail. It's available in the same surfaces and produces exceptionally rich neutral black tones and great separation of dark tones. You can tray process this paper in the same chemicals as Polycontrast III RC.
Resin-Coated Graded Contrast Papers
An excellent paper for fine art applications is Kodak P-Max art RC. This paper comes in (2) medium and (3) hard contrast that produces neutral to warm black tones. The surface of this paper is double matt (V). The unique surface of this paper makes it an excellent choice for hand coloring with oils, pastels, pencils, and liquid or dry dyes. Kodak recommends processing in Dektol, Polymax T, or Ektonol developers.
Fiber Base Variable Contrast Paper
Dektol is the most common. It is a powder mix used for producing neutral and cold-tone images with cold-tone papers and warm-tones with warm tone papers. Besides its versatility, Dektol is popular because it has a high capacity and a long shelf life for a developer. It has a uniform development rate and is unusually free from muddiness, sludge, and discoloration.
Polymax T developer is a liquid concentrate good for producing neutral or cold-tone images form cold-tone papers. Polymax also has a high capacity.
Ektonol is a powder base that is intended for use with warm-tone papers. It stays uniform through its useful life and keeps image tones consistent from print to print.
After reading and understanding the distinct characteristics of each of these papers and developers, you can see that you can easily create a different "feel" in a print just by changing to a different paper or developer.
As I said earlier, there are numerous companies that make their own variations of these papers. Once you find a look you like, try one or two of the other manufactures and compare the results. The good news is that most of the other companies make their papers so compatible with Kodak developers so you won't have to buy different chemicals just to try them out.
Warm tone papers can look good when used for scenic photographs as well as for portraits. Used properly you can create a slightly "rustic" look without going into sepia toning (and the smell that goes along with sepia toning). Just be forewarned. Darkroom work can be addictive. But it's not the smell of the chemicals you become addicted to. It's the ability to create prints that are exactly what you've envisioned in your mind's eye.