Going Negative

Some images work better as negatives than they do as positives

By Howard Bond Back to


In books I bought in the 1960s, Minor White and Paul Caponigro included a few photographs shown as negatives. But it wasn’t until nearly 2000 that I decided that a couple of my photographs should be presented as negative images. Pleased with the result, I wrote an article called Negative Prints (PHOTO Techniques, Nov./Dec.2000). It included a detailed description of a method for contact printing a negative on film to get a positive from which to make a negative print and also, a procedure for planning the density range of the film positive.

In recent years, I have made several photographs that I like better as negative prints, increasing my interest in this technique. Here, I will suggest a starting point for people who want to try making film positives without the aid of a densitometer. However, if you have a densitometer, you will doubtless appreciate the control offered by the article mentioned above.

All of the examples were made with a 5×7 Deardorff, negatives and positives were developed in D-76, and masks were made with Kodak Pan Masking Film developed in HC-110. Kodak P.M.F. is no longer made; T-Max 100 and Ilford FP4 Plus are good alternatives, with appropriate neutral-density filtration.

A film positive is exposed in a contact-print frame under an enlarger with the emulsions of the film and negative touching. To eliminate Newton rings, you may have to replace the glass with anti-Newton-ring glass, which is available from Focal Point in Florida. (They have moved since my 2000 article, and their phone number is now 386-860-3918; their Web site is www.fpointinc.com.) Because the film positive needs long development to have a density range approaching that of the negative, I suggest the use of T-Max 100 to minimize grain.

Enlarger setup

Regardless of whether you use the method in my earlier article or trial and error, adjust the enlarger height and bellows extension to make the illumination of your print frame match mine, and mark these positions. If your film is not ISO 100, alter this illumination, bearing in mind that doubling or halving the film speed is a one-stop change, while adjacent ISO numbers differ by 1⁄3 stop.

Lay a piece of white mount board on the print frame and set the enlarger lens to ƒ/5.6. Most enlarging lenses have ƒ/5.6 available, which will make the mount board bright enough to be metered. Holding the meter close to the lens axis without casting a shadow, meter the mount board with only the enlarger on. A Pentax meter should read 21⁄3 and other meters should indi- cate 1 second at ƒ/4, ISO 320. If you have an ƒ/8 lens, a Pentax reading should be 1, and other meters should indicate 1 second at ƒ/4, ISO 800. If your enlarger is still too bright when raised as high as possible, set it so the meter reading is one stop brighter and add a .3 neutral-density filter when exposing film positives.

Trial-and-error method

For your first attempt, select a negative that prints well with a) little or no dodging or burning, b) your normal paper-contrast, and c) an exposure that isn’t unusually short or long. Try exposing 1.2 seconds at ƒ/22. The thinnest part of the film positive should have some detail in order to avoid empty black areas in the negative print.

If you think in Zone System terms, development should be around N+11⁄2 or N+2. Try 12:30 in straight D-76 at 70 ̊F in a Jobo processor, or 13:10 in a tray. If your highest paper contrast isn’t high enough to print your film positives, develop them longer. Since I routinely make unsharp masks for my negatives, I also make them for my film positives. The procedure is the same. To avoid excessive grain, I aim to develop positives just enough to achieve density ranges that will allow me to use gentle (.2 to .3) unsharp masks. To print the negative/mask combination, I usually need a high-numbered variable-contrast filter.

If you would like for some of your photographs to represent their subjects less literally and perhaps be a bit mysterious, consider making some negative prints.

About the Author

Howard Bond
Howard Bond is a fine art photographer who teaches printing, unsharp masking, D/B masking, Zone System, and view camera workshops. His photographs are in the collections of more than 30 museums in the United States and Europe. He has had over 60 one-man and 40 group exhibitions. The recipient of a Michigan Council for the Arts Creative Artist Grant, he has published 2 books and 23 limited edition portfolios of prints. His educational activities include 24 years of writing for Photo Techniques magazine and 34 years of teaching workshops that have been attended by over 2000 photographers from 5 continents.