How can I achieve high contrast B&W film photographs?
April 5, 2009 2:35 PM   Subscribe

How can I achieve high contrast B&W film photographs?

I am a beginner hobbyist photographer and take various indoor and outdoor pictures. I understand aperture and shutter speed well and know the basics of developing film and paper. I have a darkroom set up in my apartment and my paper and chemicals are in good shape.

I took a couple rolls of B&W film using a Canon 35mm camera and 400-speed film. I used a B&W enlarger to make prints but they turned out really muddy and low-contrast. I want them to contain proper whites and blacks.

I guess have two-point-five questions.

1. In the future, what are some tips for taking high-contrast pictures?

2a. Presently I have some medium contrast negatives so how can I make the best of them?

2b. How do colour filters work with the enlarger? Which one should I use? I have a set that are numbered 0.0, 0.5, 1.0... 5.0.

posted by cranberrymonger to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
With film you need to experiment around with the various film chemistry available. If you want ultra-high contrast, I recommend getting some T-MAX 3200 and going nuts. You can (supposedly) push the film to ungodly speeds (like 25,000 ISO or something crazy), though the grain will be abominable. Pair it with a reasonably fast lens and you could shoot a black bear eating a mime in the middle of the night.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:43 PM on April 5, 2009

You can affect the light entering the camera in the first place with coloured screw-in filters for your lenses. Various grades of yellow and green are typical for small tweaks, e.g. to darken foliage. Red has the strongest effect of the typically available lenses, and can really bring out contrasty skies, etc.. The cost of filtering is some light loss, and sometimes 35mm cameras' meters were not too good at measuring the scene with a red filter on. But, the effects are nice.

For your existing negatives, consider getting some multigrade paper and a filter set from the same manufacturer (e.g. Ilford) and reading the instructions on how to use them to vary print contrast.
posted by galaksit at 3:09 PM on April 5, 2009

1. High contrast pictures can be achieved a number of ways. Lighting alone can be a major factor; if its a cloudy, overcast day vs. bright sunny day at noon, the first will naturally be much less contrasty (because of the diffused light), and the latter will be naturally more contrasty (direct light creating sharp/more shadows). You can also try faster film (as Civil_Disobedient suggested, though I haven't had the best luck with tmax 3200), or push processing (a quick google search should yield helpful results, or I can explain it if you'd like, as this is what i do about 95% of the time with my film). Or, as galaksit suggested, you can use screw-on filters on your lens.

2a. The best way to make the best of them now is to use filters when you're printing.

2b. Color filters go, as you said, from 0.0-5. 0 will add the least amount of contrast, 5 will add the most. Test strips can help you decide which to use. If they're muddy, maybe start at 2 and work up from there. Keep in mind that filters work by adding some density to the image (it blocks the highlights while the shadows get darker... this can also result in white areas getting blown out if you add enough contrast), so your print times will be longer the stronger the filter.

I tend to ramble, so if you have more questions or something I said wasn't clear, let me know. :)
posted by lisawin at 3:34 PM on April 5, 2009

I swear by Kodak Tri-X film and heavy red filtration for high-contrast, distinctly grainy shots. Tri-X is still readily available at decent photo shops, and you can often pick up used screw-on filters for a very reasonable price. As an added benefit, Tri-X is (reportedly) very easy to process in less-than-ideal environments, which made it a popular choice for field photojournalists.
posted by fracas at 5:14 PM on April 5, 2009

Underexpose and over develop = higher contrast.
More agitation = higher contrast.
Use paper developer on film = higher contrast.
posted by Fins at 5:29 PM on April 5, 2009

Google "Zone System". Don't let the technical talk intimidate you, apply yourself to it and you will learn a lot.
posted by matildaben at 6:06 PM on April 5, 2009

There are many ways to affect contrast, some of which are mentioned already. But keep in mind that photo papers themselves also have different contrast properties.

You might find this page helpful.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:21 PM on April 5, 2009

When I was learning b&w development, a friend of mine told me to use multiple exposures using multiple filters.

So, start with that 0.0 filter. Expose the paper for say 6 seconds. The 0.0 filter helps you get a perfect white. Then, switch to your 5.0 filter and expose for say 12 seconds. This gives you a perfect black. Sometimes you have to modify this a bit since you're in essence exposing the paper twice. So for the example times I'm referring to you might have to cut the 0.0 filter exposure to 5 seconds and the 5.0 filter to 9 seconds. As mentioned, test strips take the guesswork out of all this and so will save you some time and money.

I sometimes found that 5.0 was actually overkill. So if a negative had a fair amount of contrast to begin with, I might go with a 0.0 and and say the 3.5 or 4.0.

General advice: make sure your home dark room is actually dark. I had a small light leak in mine that caused some grief until I fixed it.
posted by aperture_priority at 7:27 PM on April 5, 2009

Seconding the Zone System. Ansel Adams knew a thing or two about a thing or two.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:55 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Can you help me find a good processor to go with...   |   Shirt Tie Combination Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.