paper negative photo of an old computer with swirly developer effect. © 2013 thorley. All rights reserved.

Paper Negative

Paper negative

I have enjoyed photographing on paper and am here to share a sample of process. There is a freedom I encourage you to experience by breaking outside the normal photographic format, which seems to satisfy most people. This freedom often comes at the cost of labour and convenience, there are a lot of drawbacks to making photos on darkroom paper, but first I’d like to focus on the positive characteristics.

  • Darkroom paper is much cheaper than film.
  • You can treat it like paper by cutting it, folding it, gluing it or taping it.
  • The paper is an incentive to not explore other cameras.
  • You can just hang it on the wall and say it’s finished.
  • Load and develop your paper in safe light.
  • You can pretend it’s the 1800s on account of the slow exposures.
Two scans of an Apple 2e photographed on darkroom paper 8x10 format. This is an example of a poor development (felt) and a more photo realistic development (right). The swirls on the left are created by the agitation or turbulence created by inserting the paper into a tray of standard Dektol developer. I like the effect and prefer it to what would otherwise be just an old black and white computer. Image on the right is developed as described below. I’m sorry I neglected to save a scan of the negative before flipping positive, I will add one if requested.

Choosing a darkroom paper

If a developed negative is intended for display as the finished product, you would have the same considerations as when printing. However if you want to convert your negative into a positive then resin coated paper is the obvious choice. Resin coated paper often referred to as “RC” on the packaging is full of plastic, which means there is no fibre texture which would show up if you were to contact print through a fibre based paper. Other advantages to RC paper are that you can leave it in rinse water over night, it is cheap and it is easy to dry without warping.

Camera for paper negatives

It seems everyone has eight by ten inch paper which is a very practical size for simple prints and has a place in every darkroom. For me the attraction to shooting paper negatives is an easy and affordable way to practice large format photography. I either load the 8×10 paper into my double dark slides or I cut it into quarters to fit my 5×4 camera. Exposing on paper is a good reason to take advantage of the freedom to customise a pinhole camera to create something unique. Anywhere there is a focused light you can turn off, you can make a paper negative. If you’re doing something quite unconventional make sure there is nothing behind the paper that could reflect the light that passes through the paper, so mat black or consider having open space behind the paper for something different.

close up crop of large format photo of an old apple e2 floppy drive. photo shot on 8x10 paper negative. I scanned my 8×10 paper negatives at 1200 dpi giving a file enabling me to print 40″ at 300 dpi. After this crop I still had to down sample to fit the image into this blog. I’m very happy with the resolving factor of my Dagor lens from around the 1890’s.

Exposure for paper negative

My process could seem a bit strange to people who are familiar with darkroom printing or even film speeds. I was taught to fully develop paper when printing, so that the only variable is the exposure and development completely consistent. This is probably the single best tip for printing I ever got, but it does not apply to photographing with paper and it almost never can. The reason for this is because the image from an enlarger is lower in contrast than most scenes we photograph. From the darkest highlights to the brightest shadows in a good printable negative, you would prefer to have about two stops or les of range projected on the print paper. Now when you are photographing there will almost always be more contrast than what is displayed by an enlarger. Now we understand that exposure is a lesser problem than contrast control and we need a process that can constrain contrast.

Darkroom paper ISO

The most golden rule of black and white photography is “expose for the shadows then develop for the highlights.” This is why I abandon the supposed sensitivity of paper ISO 12 – 24 and I rate my paper with an ISO speed of 3. I look forward to reading some comments from people informing me that I’m wrong and if you do other things other ways then yes I am wrong. The way I shoot paper negatives which suits the way I develop them sees me rating my paper at 3.

Now this I can’t prove and haven’t demonstrated in a controlled test but I believe. The rate at which light is exposed to the paper affects the contrast, more so with paper than with film. If the light were low enough to expose for over thirty seconds at ISO 6 then I believe the paper would record decent contrast range at ISO 6. I have what I would call a decent exposure of a self portrait where flash was used and there was only enough flash power to shoot at ISO 6. The image did succeed but clipped detail out of both the shadows and the highlights. The higher you rate the paper the narrower your range of recorded contrast will be.

Self portrait of Nick Thorley sitting next to an old apple computer. Here I am in my eighties jacket, appropriate to shoot with the computer that gave me some of my first computer experiences, but it’s black. I also needed flash and more of it than I had. With the light that I had I was shooting as for ISO 6 f9 so it was a lot of flash. Notice the detail clipping in both the highlights and the shadows, this is not an ideal photo to be using paper negative. I look like I just got back from holidays, this is because the darkroom paper favours red light the least for exposure. Be warned not to use this process on someone who hates their freckles.
Paper negative developing formula

I don’t know why people recommend Kodak Dektol for this but they do, and that is why I have a formula for it. I don’t believe it is superior to other developers to this application and would consider designing a process with Rodinal or Adinol. I take powdered Dektol and reduce it according to the liquid concentrate instructions on the packet. I then reduce it ten parts water to one part Dektol concentrate. With a temperature of 20-22c development times are about five to seven minutes, which feels like an eternity if you are staring at one sheet of paper.

Thank you for reading so far, your feedback would be appreciated and I would hope someone feels empowered to go create images.

3 Comments

  1. As a teacher I’m always looking for great lessons for HS students to learn new ways of seeing the world and to interpret it. Thanks for posting this informative message.
    M

  2. James R. Kyle

    Great site here — I have been experimenting with photo-paper negatives for 2 years. Not only does it put my Crown Graphic 4X5 and a B&J “Orbit” 4X5 and the Ansco 8X10 back into service… This experiment puts to use over 1000 sheets of 8X10 that I have had sitting around since the 1970’s and 80’s. The added benefit is that it is making a better photographer out of me. It IS a S L O W process of capturing an image… You MUST think everything through = and in that when I go to digital photography, I feel it make me think better about what I am about to do.
    After all…… “The Only Photographer To Compare Yourself To Is The One You Use To Be.”
    I began Making photographs just a little over 52 years ago when I was a photographer for my high school newspaper and yearbook.

    • thorley

      Thank you for an excellent comment and I completely agree. I hope you do well with you very old paper. I have had mixed results from old paper, often donated from an unknown storage condition. Last time I used old paper it had a brown vignette and spots 🙂

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