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Print Is Dead. Long Live Print | Part 2: How to Choose the Right Darkroom Photo Paper

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In part two of our printing paper series, we take a look at three key elements of darkroom photo papers.

Texts by Eleanor Scott

There’s something romantic about a darkroom. Maybe it’s that many of us had our first taste of producing our own images in one of these now rare amber- and red-lit rooms, or perhaps it’s the gratifying process of creating something from scratch, or in this case, negative. Without getting too sentimental, it’s clear that even in today’s world of high-tech digital photography there’s still an undeniable allure to the traditional darkroom process. It’s not as surprising as the rhetoric around the supposed ‘death of film photography’ would have it seem. In the past 20 years, as digital photography has eclipsed analogue photography there has been a constant murmur about the death of darkrooms. But the truth is, although there has been an obvious drop-off, film isn’t dead and it never has been. In fact, there is a wealth of printing papers readily available for anyone interested in developing their darkroom skills.

Bayou FilmIMAGE—Bayou Film

“While photographic paper is exactly what it sounds like, paper coated with photo chemicals, there are a few key variables that can help guide your decision making.”

Although it feels like photography has only had two major epochs: before digital and after digital, in reality photography and photographic printing have experienced several major paradigm shifts. From the daguerreotype to the collodion process and autochrome, the medium is constantly evolving – yet there are still modern photographers making incredible images with analogue techniques like the photogravure, a complex process in which an image is etched onto a copper plate, rolled with ink and then transferred onto art paper to produce a print, so why would darkroom printing be any different? Luckily, many photographic material brands agree, and just as there is a passionate contingent of contemporary photographers still using analogue cameras and techniques, there are also plenty of brands offering a broad array of photographic papers – it’s just choosing the right one that proves to be difficult.

Bayou FilmIMAGES—Bayou FilmBayou FilmBayou Film

Like many technical aspects of photography, there are advantages and disadvantages to every decision. As discussed in part one of this series, let your intentions for the image guide your decision, and embrace a bit of experimentation along the way.While photographic paper is exactly what it sounds like, paper coated with photo chemicals, there are a few key variables that can help guide your decision making. With that in mind, below is a simple guide to choosing the right film printing paper according to material, contrast and finish.

LEFT—Resin Coated Paper. RIGHT—Fibre Paper
MATERIAL: FIBRE-BASED PAPER OR RESIN-COATED PAPER

There are two types of paper and the first thing you need to decide is which one will be best for your image. Resin-coated paper is cheaper, so it’s a good option if you’re just starting out as it won’t cost you as much to reprint if you make any mistakes. It’s also faster to process as there’s only a thin polyethylene layer attached to the surface of either side of the paper and it air dries flat. But resin-coated paper is also easily damaged and scratched so if you want your print to last a long time, investigate other options.

Fibre-based paper, also known as bromide or baryta paper, is the more expensive choice and for good reasons. It has more tonal depth than its resin-coated counterpart and is significantly more durable, so it’s less likely to be harmed if any mishandling occurs and is much better for archival purposes. However, fibre-based paper takes a lot longer to process and will curl due to the paper base and emulsion layer drying at different speeds – meaning you’ll need to flatten it before applying any finishes or putting it on display.

CONTRAST: GRADED PAPER VS VARIABLE PAPER

Once you have your material sorted it’s time to move on to the choice between variable contrast papers and graded papers. Both come in grades zero to five. Variable contrast papers allow you to use your enlarger and multigrade filters to adjust the contrast in your print, and you can also use test strips to play around with the levels before you make your final choice. This works really well for one-off images and is probably the best place to start for beginners.

Conversely, graded papers are more expensive and have built-in contrast levels, which means you need to know exactly what type of contrast your image needs. If your image has low contrast you should print it on four or five, or if it has high contrast you should print it on zero to one. Images with perfect contrast should be printed on three. Graded papers don’t leave a lot of room for error and are best used by more experienced photographers producing consistent images.

FINISH: GLOSSY, MATTE AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Finish is where digital printing and darkroom printing have the most in common. The choice is completely subjective and there are several types that serve different purposes. Glossy papers vary in intensity depending on whether you’re using fibre-based or resin-coated paper and tend to produce cool whites and deep blacks. The gloss emphasises the details of the image, so it needs to be as sharp as possible or anything that’s even slightly out of focus ends up looking strange. Matte finishes provide a slightly rougher texture and less glare. They often produce a warmer and softer look that can mask imperfections.

Beyond glossy and matte, there are a number of low-lustre finishes that vary in name depending on the brand creating them. Pearl, satin, semi-gloss, semi-matte – they all fall between glossy and matte. After a while, you’ll develop a preference for one or two types of finishes that best suit your style of photography, but don’t forget to mix it up every once in a while, you never know what you might rediscover.

You can find part one of this two part article here.

FEATURE IMAGE—Bayou Film

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Eleanor Scott

Eleanor Scott is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. With over five years of experience she has written for publications like the Guardian US and Neighbourhood Paper, and her work has always reflected her passion for art, design, photography, and culture. Previously the assistant editor of Australia's most widely read sustainable architecture magazine, if she wasn’t a writer she’d probably have become a designer – or indulged her love of surfing and become a permanent beach bum.