Split-Contrast Printing

Achieve richness and control using different filters for highlights and shadows

By Steve Mulligan Back to


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.

Making a print

My first exposure is the hard-contrast one, which lays the foundation upon which the tonal range is built. It gives the shadows a strong depth, and is almost always of short duration, usu- ally from one to three seconds. I generally use the middle apertures during printing—either ƒ/8 or ƒ/11—as a standard. These apertures provide a sharp enlargement at reasonable exposure times that are long enough to perform any required dodging. The hard-contrast exposure puts down a dark shadow ghosting that the lighter layers expand upon. It can be applied either with a hard-contrast filter, or with the hard setting on a variable-contrast control box.

The next exposure is soft-contrast, and is usually longer, averaging from 8 to 15 seconds. If a VC control box is being used, the range within each dial should be explored, although I have found these controls to be less important than the exposure lengths—varying the base times gives much more control than altering contrast settings. When using contrast filters, duration is the only real control available and is of the utmost importance. This exposure should be done with one of the soft- contrast filters if a VC control box isn’t being used. The soft exposure fills in the middle and upper tones, finishing the base-exposure series. Basically, it is building on the hard exposure, filling in the upper tonalities, drawing the maximum range from any paper.

This technique also works well with variable-contrast filters. (Ilford Multi-grade filters perform well with this approach, and I used them for decades before switching to a VC control box.) The base exposure is laid down with one of the high-contrast filters, usually in the three-to-five range. As with the previous method, this generally is of short duration. The second, soft exposure usually is in the zero-to-two filter range, filling in the rest of the tones, and is for a longer time. The duration of the two exposures is of the utmost importance; slight time changes can make large contrast and tonal alterations.

Employing the hard and soft filtration, rather than one middle filter, greatly heightens the control over contrast, making the split-contrast technique superior to a traditional approach. Subtle tonal shifts can make a massive difference in the final print, especially in the shadow and highlight areas.

As a rule, a negative with normal contrast has a short hard-contrast and a longer soft-contrast exposure. A flat negative, one with a short contrast range, has a longer hard-contrast exposure (to build up contrast), and a shorter soft-contrast time. An extremely flat negative may only need a hard-contrast exposure, although this is rare in my experience. Conversely, a very harsh negative may only require a soft-contrast exposure (again, a very unusual circumstance).

Exposure balance

Figuring the exposure balance between the two contrasts, although time consuming, is the key to split-contrast printing. With experience, it becomes relatively easy. Test strips are the key to this methodology, and will save time and paper.

Split-contrast printing requires that two test strips be made for each negative. The first is made with soft contrast, either with a filter or the soft-contrast dial. After covering most of the strip with a piece of cardboard, make a series of two-second exposures, each building on the previous one. The second strip will be exposed in the same manner, but with a hard- contrast filter or setting.

Develop the strips in the same sequence that will be used for the final print, and use each to decide the two base exposures. The soft-contrast strip will determine the highlight tonalities, so pick the exposure that contains the desired highlight detail. The hard-contrast strip will decide where the shadow detail falls, so this should be the determining factor for this exposure.

This method gives you the beginning exposure from which to work out the final combination that offers the contrast range desired for any particular negative. After the base exposures are decided, begin fine tweaking, which mainly consists of deciding which areas need burning and dodging.

With all my negatives over the years, there has never been an instance where a final print was produced in the first printing session. Some particularly stubborn images have cost innumerable pieces of paper and multiple sessions over a period of years before I managed to understand their printing requirements.

About the Author

Steve Mulligan
Steve Mulligan has published four black-and- white and two color books, and is sole photographer for seven calendars. His latest book, The Art of Composition, will be released in early 2008. He was featured in the Professional Photographer's Showcase at Epcot Center. This article is adapted from his book Black and White Photography, A Practical Guide.