Split Grade Printing Part 1

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Since the growth and improvement of VC papers over the past 15 years, the facility to split grade print has brought another dimension to making fine black and white prints. There are a number of different methods that can be employed, none of them are wrong but we all have our favourite way of doing it. I prefer to use only the grade 0 and grade 5 filters to build the contrast I require in the final print and find that using The StopClock Professional enlarger timer that provides accuracy and repeatability to mix the two filtrations together in separate exposures enables me to achieve absolute contrast control, see http://www.rhdesigns.co.uk  Once the basic exposures have been decided there are several options available to fine tune the final print but this article sets out to lay down the foundation of how to use the two filter method that I employ. I use the fstop printing method when making my prints, but because this article is about split grade printing I decided that it would be best to simplify it by using the more widely used linear method of timing the enlarger exposure. I will be publishing a comprehensive article on fstop printing on this site at a later date. 


Clearly, the negative has a significant roll to play in the making of any print. My personal preference is to make a negative that is higher in contrast than what is normally considered to be a good negative. When I started making photographs 30 years ago I was encouraged to avoid high contrast negatives, they were “the enemy”, and produce negatives that “newspaper print could be read through” in the words of the experienced photographer who passed on this information. For many years I followed this direction and I am very happy with the prints I made from the resultant negatives, but when I started to experiment with negative contrast in conjunction with split grade printing I quickly decided that contrast was no longer “the enemy”, in fact it became a very strong ally. Consequently I now expose and develop my negatives to create the range of contrast I have learned best suits my method of split grade printing using only grade 0 and grade 5 filters.

The negative used for this article and reproduced here was made on Ilford FP4 Plus film using my Mamiya 645 Pro with my favourite 35mm Sekor lens. I used a 1 degree spot meter to read the light value at the base of the door and though it was not the darkest shadow I placed it on Zone IV, the brightest highlight on the wet chrome handle fell on to Zone IX. The 120 film was developed in Precsysol for 8.5 minutes at a dilution of 5 parts A, 25 parts B to 500ml water. Precsysol is a two part staining developer manufactured in the UK by Peter Hogan of Monochrome Photography http://www.monochromephotography.com/


My starting point when split grade printing is to make a test strip using only the grade 0 filter, often referred to as the soft test strip. In the example shown here I used 2 second increments of exposure and chose the 14 second step as the exposure that produced the tone I required in the brightest highlight of the image. I base the choice of exposure on just seeing tone in the highlight that I select as the brightest in the image. I do not look for significant detail or contrast in the grade 0 test strip that will come when the grade 5 filtration is applied.

  A common problem that I have found when teaching this method of printing is the tendency to select a step where there is significant tonality in the darker tones of the image because the pupil is looking to achieve a degree of contrast in the test. I always point out that the contrast will appear when the grade 5 exposure is added at the next stage. The choice of how much grade 0 filtration exposure is given will have a significant effect on the final print, more exposure with grade 0 than 5 will result in more rounded tones and if using warm tone paper, a warmer print colour, a change that I have repeatedly observed although I cannot give a reason why. Less exposure with grade 0 and more using grade 5 will result in higher contrast and more brittle tones.

Clearly, contrast and tonality is very subjective, some printers prefer softer more rounded highlights and tonality throughout the final print while others favour higher contrast throughout and brighter more brittle highlights. Neither is wrong, and so it is clear to see that this method of split grade printing is an effective way for printers to realise their interpretation of the final print.

The illustration here is a straight print at 14 seconds grade 0 and shows the typical tonal range that I expect to achieve with only a soft filtration exposure and you can see that there is no significant contrast present. The key to making a print that glows with good clean highlights lies in the subjective decision of how much grade 0 exposure to give that produces the delicate tonality required in the higher values of the final print. Too much exposure using grade 0 will result in degraded highlights and possibly a generally muddy final print. Having decided on the correct exposure needed to produce your required highlight value, next step is to make the grade 5 test strip.


The starting point in making the grade 5 or hard test strip is to expose the blank test strip for the exposure selected for the grade 0 test which is 14 seconds as shown in the illustration above. Without moving the paper in the easel make the grade 5 test strip using the same procedure as described above for the grade 0 test strip. I used 2 second increments but this time I covered the first step of the test strip so that it received no hard exposure and left a reference point that received only the soft filtration exposure. Process the test strip and examine it under a good light to determine the exposure that produces the contrast and tonality you want for the image. First, look at the chrome part of the handle to see a significant increase in contrast produced by a 2 second exposure using grade 5 and as the exposures continue to increase along the test strip, note how the contrast increases. The low values get progressively darker but the highlights remain relatively untouched by the hard filtration. The reason for this is twofold; the negative density in the highlight areas help block the grade 5 image forming light projected by the enlarger and the grade 5 filtration produces high contrast, although if enough exposure is given it will eventually produce tone in the lighter areas but at the expense of losing detail in the blacks.

 After due consideration I chose the 8 second grade 5 exposure, for it gave me a maximum black in the dark areas immediately adjacent to the chrome handle, had little effect on the highlight tonality, but did greatly increase the local contrast that is an important factor in any fine black and white print. In addition the 8 second exposure allowed me to hold the detail of the raindrops in the dark areas at the bottom of the image. The final print was made by first giving 14 seconds exposure at grade 0 and then 8 seconds at grade 5. Note, that it is important to make the final print exposures in the same order as the test strip exposures, to do otherwise will produce a subtle change in the contrast of the final print.

Car Door Handle: Final Print

This description of my approach to basic split grade printing using only grade 0 and grade 5 filtration has simply laid the foundation of making fine black and white prints and is the first in a series of articles exploring the versatility and benefits of the method that I will publish on my website.

Les McLean

June 2006