My preferred printing technique involves layering exposures, gradually building the print’s tonal range until a final, rich balance is achieved. Light is slowly applied onto the print through a series of exposures, gradually setting the tonal range, stretching it out, drawing the longest possible scale from any given paper. This technique involves the subtraction of light through dodging (reducing the exposure over selected areas), and through burning (adding light to small areas), which can make a huge difference in the final print. Gradual tonal layering such as this allows for an outstanding level of control, much more than any other style of printing.The control inherent in split-contrast printing is amazing, and can produce a decent print from almost any negative.
This printing technique can be used with almost any enlarger set-up, whether it employs variable-contrast filters below the lens, in a tray above the lens, or a variable- contrast (VC) control box. The latter is my favorite, and the Zone VI VC enlarger works well with this technique. This equipment has a control with high and low dials, each offering several levels of contrast.
Keep printing records
You should record every negative’s printing requirements; this will save untold time and trouble in future reprinting. After finally understanding a negative—something that can take a huge amount of time and effort, often years—this information is invaluable. The main information should be: enlarger height and lens; aperture setting; paper and developer used (including developer dilution and time in both the straight and diluted solutions); the time and contrast used for both hard and soft base exposures; and a diagram showing where and how long any burning and dodging was applied. I use two types of dodging: flash-dodging, in which a small tool, usually a circle attached to a thin wire, is waved over an area for a portion of the exposure; and large-area dodging, in which light is subtracted from an area using a large, round tool.
Large-area dodging must be done with care, because manipulations are obvious when applied poorly.
I also list any burning done post- exposure, the areas burned, and the time and contrast used. Again, I use two basic techniques: flash-burning, in which a small hole in a piece of card- board is rapidly moved over a bigger area; and large-burning, in which a larger hole in cardboard is moved over an area, darkening the tones. This technique must also be practiced with care, as quickly becomes evident.
Very large areas may be burned-in with the edge of a large piece of board, but constant movement is a must. This works when skies need to be darkened, but jagged horizon lines make this type of burning difficult. Duration for these large burns must be short, and a soft- contrast filter or setting is almost always required.
I often make custom burning and dodging tools, tailoring them to fit the needs of a particular negative. While this technique works, it must be used with care and always applied with vigorous movement to hide the work being done.