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Craig Pindell


My Test Print and Safelight Test Procedure

By Craig Pindell


            Many people think making test strips are a waste of time, and many people have never thought to do a safelight test in their darkroom.  I am a firm believer in both, I encourage you to join me in both practices. Using the methods I use will save you significant amounts of paper, chemistry, and processing time in the darkroom.

            In the 1950 edition of The Print, Ansel Adams describes his method of making test strip prints, by the 1983 edition, he had slightly modified the process.  The method of exposing the test strip was consistent, but by 1983 he was comfortable using ½ or 1/3 sheet of paper rather than a full sheet.

            I learned from the 1950 edition and I still use a full sheet of paper when making 8x10 and smaller prints, for 11x14 and larger, I use ½ sheet of paper.  Ansel Adams timed his printing with a metronome, set to 100 counts per minute.  I use a Jobotronic 2000 quartz timer.  Ansel Adams used 10 beats per strip, I use 3 seconds per strip.  Ansel Adams preferred 5 strips per sheet, I prefer the strips to be about 1 inch wide, so it could be 8 or 10 on an 8x10 sheet.

With my negative in the enlarger and sharply focused, the lens set to the appropriate aperture, and the correct contrast filter in place, I put the unexposed paper in the easel and block off all except 1 inch of the paper with a mat board scrap I keep in the darkroom for making test strips, for testing safelight fogging, and for burning prints. I should mention that the choice of aperture and contrast are based on experience and best guess.  There are times when your guess will be very wrong, but the more you use this method, the more accurate your guesses will be.  It is not very often I change contrast from what I see in the test strip, I can make a better choice when I see the first print.

            I expose the first strip for 3 seconds, then move the card to cover 1 inch less of the paper, and expose that strip for 3 seconds.  By doing that, the first strip has now received 6 seconds of exposure and the 2nd strip has received 3 seconds.  Continue making 1 inch strips with 3 seconds of exposure to the end of the paper.  1 inch strips are the size that is comfortable for me.  If you prefer 2 inch strips, you should make 2 inch strips. I would encourage you to not use smaller than 1 inch, but it is your choice in your darkroom. 

     After exposing the paper, develop as normal for you.  One note, though, if you are a darkroom technician that develops paper by inspection, rather than by time, I am sorry I have wasted your time.  This article is not for you.  You will not be able to duplicate any of the strips from test to final print.   If you develop by time rather than inspection, let’s continue.

     Once the test strip print is developed, fixed and well rinsed, transfer it to the viewing area and squeegee the print. (if you don’t squeegee, the highlights seem brighter than they really are)  Evaluate which strip has the best highlight and shadow detail.

     I try to set the aperture so that the “best” strip is close to the middle of the page, but there is no requirement for this.   I do it so that I have as many options as possible.  Once I select the best exposed strip, I count by threes from the right side to determine the printing time, and make a print using this time.  No burning or dodging – just a straight print.   This straight print allows me to judge the contrast of the print, as well as the exposure in the areas I consider the most important.  My printing manipulation choices come from the straight print. 

      If I choose to change the contrast of the print, I make another test strip and straight print. I want the print exposure and contrast to be decided before I burn, dodge, bleach, or any other manipulation. 

     Using this process has helped me stop making prints over and over trying to sort out contrast and exposure and manipulation.  Resolve one variable at a time and be deliberate as you print. 


Using the Test Strip Print to test for Safelight Fog

            It is important to test regularly for safelight fogging.   This fogging can cause the highlights to lack brilliance and can cause prints to have an overall muddy look.  It is any easy situation to overlook, but this simple test can help you be sure you are not a victim.

            The usual procedure for testing for Safelight Fog includes flashing the paper to create a base exposure and to increase the sensitivity before testing.   I have used this method in the past and it takes a lot of valuable darkroom time, as well as consuming a lot of paper and chemicals.  

            I have found the method using the test strip is the most effective and only costs one sheet of paper and less than 15 minutes of your time.

            What I do is make a test strip print, but before I remove it from the easel, I cover half of the sheet with the mat board I use for making test strips.  I then set my developer timer for 5 minutes, being sure that the safelight is the only light on in the darkroom.

After the five minutes, I process the sheet as normal, rinse and squeegee.

     If there is no evidence between the side that was covered and the side that was not covered,  there is no safelight fog issue.   If there is any difference visible, in any of the strips, the cause must be found and corrected.  In this print I created a bit of fog as an example of how it will show in some strips, but not in others.

     The evidence of the fog is most visible in the left part of the print, especially in the cloud area, but it is also apparent in strip with the tree trunk. This quick test doesn’t require a densitometer, or any calculations to determine paper threshold .  And I find that using this method is quick and easy enough I don’t mind doing this test often.

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