Working and creative photographers have used paper negatives since the very early days of photography for two main reasons. First of all paper negatives provided a cheaper alternative to film in the camera. Secondly, enlarged paper negatives were much easier to retouch than film or plates. It should come as no surprise that this practice was particularly popular with portrait photographers.

In fact before the days of the Polaroid Land Camera, “While you Wait” professional portrait photographers, the type seen at fairs and tourist sites, used them in specially adapted larger format cameras. They were processed and printed in the camera using light tight sleeves. At times the final prints were handed over to customers still wet!  

Traditionally paper negatives from 35mm originals were made by enlargement onto monochrome photographic paper. If the originals were negatives the resulting interpositive prints would be retouched then contact printed in order to produce paper negatives. Once again retouching would then be carried out and the final prints made by contact printing onto photographic paper. This was quite a laborious and rather time-consuming process.


What has all this got to do with photography in this day and age? Well, now with the aid of digital imaging there is a new “short cut” method of making paper negatives. The need for an interpositive is removed; retouching or adjustments to the paper negative can be done using digital imaging software. The paper negative can then be printed on an inkjet printer, and ready immediately for transfer to the darkroom for contact printing to produce the final silver print.

The final print is still produced by conventional darkroom printing. Control over the paper negative material and final print surface allows for creative interpretation. Conventional toning can then be applied and the results can be impressionistic and quite unique. For those interested in paper negatives and conventional darkroom printing, this process allows us to maximise the potential of colour slide to monochrome print conversion and creative negative film printing with a difference.


The Technique – Preparing the Paper Negative

Church on the Rock - Originally a colour transparency

Most all digital imaging software packages allow this type of manipulation although the tools used may differ slightly.

If the image is in colour you will need to convert it to monochrome: - 


This converts the image to monochrome. Carry out any retouching or adjustments necessary, such as dodging (lightning), burning (darkening), adding or removing elements etc. When you are satisfied with the picture the next step is to convert the positive image to a negative: -  


You now have a negative image. Paper negatives that produce the best prints are those that look rather flat and grey. Any that look bright and sparkle will print with too high contract. So reduce the contrast slightly: -


Reduce the contrast by say 10 to 15%. 

If you wish the final print to appear as it does on the screen (i.e. right reading) you will have to reverse the image: -        


The image will now appear reversed. 

The next step to resize the image: -  


Set the resolution to 300 pixels/inch and adjust the document size to that of the final print. 

The final digital step is to print the paper negative on the inkjet paper of your choice.

Paper Negative

I have found that lightweight paper works best. Matt 125 gsm 360 dpi ink jet paper produces excellent results. It is important to remember that the final print will contain not only the tones from the paper negative, but also the texture of the ink jet paper. In this respect it is important to experiment with different papers, although you will probably find that heavyweight inkjet papers will be too thick and may cause difficulties when contact printed.

Remember the paper negative should look flat toned and of low contrast. One of the characteristics of this process is the increase in contrast when the final print is made.



Technique - Printing the Paper Negative


Before printing any final adjustments, in terms of strengthening or creating highlights, can be carried out on the back of the paper negative, while viewed on a light box, using a soft pencil.

The final stage is to make a positive print from the paper negative in the darkroom.

Under a safelight, place a sheet of photographic paper below your white light source. Then place the paper negative on top emulsion-to-emulsion side and cover with a sheet of good quality heavy glass, to ensure perfect contact.

I use my enlarger with its lens set at open aperture as a light source, however an ordinary light bulb would also be satisfactory.

Test strips will be needed to determine the correct exposure, mine are usually between 40 and 90 seconds depending on the density of the negative.


Church on the Rock - Paper Negative Printed on Kentmere Art Classic paper

Two factors, apart from the original image itself, determine the appearance of the final print. One, already discussed, is the texture of the paper negative. The other is the surface of the photographic paper. I have found that a heavy art type paper renders good prints from paper negatives. Kentmere Art Classic, a silver rich fibre paper with a heavy textured surface is my favourite. This paper when toned can give prints strongly resembling pen and ink drawings or with a bit of extra treatment bromoils.


Sita - Paper Negative Printed on Agfa Multi Contrast Classic paper


If a softer texture is called for I use Agfa Multi-Contrast Classic, another silver rich paper with the added advantage of contrast control through multigrade filter printing.

If a smooth photo quality gloss inkjet paper is used to make the original paper negative, final images can resemble first generation prints because the grain in this type of material is negligible. They will, of course, appear slightly softer (another characteristic of paper negatives); however, I feel this adds to their attraction 

A wonderfully creative process that combines both old and new techniques to produce moody “Art” type impressionist prints with an old world look and feeling all their own. Experimentation is the key to success, so give it a try and good luck with your paper negatives.







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