Paper Negatives | James Jasek

I have been intrigued by the paper negative ever since I was first introduced to the concept in 1961. Over the years, I have experimented with the process with absolutely terrible results, but for the past several months I have worked with it again, and this time I am getting excellent results.  Considering the super high cost of sheet film, using paper in place of film to make a negative is an interesting prospect, especially if the results are good enough to continue.

I started out using a  Variable Contrast paper and a K2 Yellow filter exposed at ISO 6. Photographic paper is ultra sensitive to blue light, and the K2 Yellow filter cuts down on the this, but also reduces the ISO. The first results using ISO 6 were greatly underexposed. 

The K2 Yellow filter is close to the variable contest filter 00, and since the 00 filter has  a contrast of 120 Yellow, it is understandable why the ISO was  reduced to a very low value. The Yellow filter reduces the blue light sensitivity of the paper, allowing  the high values in bright sunlight to show detail in the highlights. The ISO I am using seems to be around ISO 1, making it difficult to use an exposure meter. Rather than using a light meter, I ‘know’ the light and set the exposure from  experience. 

I began testing using different exposure times, and, depending on the lens I was using, the time was from 5 seconds to 90 seconds. Lenses for large format such as 8x10 will stop down to a very small aperature. I have been testing using an  f6.3, 300mm Commercial Astragon lens at f90, to ensure the greatest depth of field. At f90 using the K2 filter, the tested  exposure time was a count of 25 seconds. I count the seconds rather than using a electronic timer, as a few seconds off does not seem to effect the exposure.
For processing the paper negative, I am using Kodak D-52, a soft working  developer. The Kodak D-52 is similar to Kodak Selectol, no longer sold by Kodak. I chose D-52 over Kodak Selectol Soft, as D-52 contains Hydroquinone in the formula to provide some added contrast.   

The formula for D-52

Water around 125F       750 milliters
Metol                                1.5 grams
Sodium Sulfite               22.5 grams
Hydroquinone                6.0 grams
Sodium Carbonate        17.0 grams
Potassium Bromide       1.5 grams
Water to make               1000 milliliters

For use, dilute one part D-52 to one part water.  It has a very long tray life. I  pour the diluted developer back in a bottle and use it for days before it becomes exhausted.

Since Metol is the first chemical added to water, it is a good idea to add a pinch of Sodium Sulfite to the water before adding in the Metol. The Sodium Sulfite prevents oxidation of the Metol.

I have all the individual chemicals in my darkroom, so I am able to mix any developer. Photographers Formulary,, sells pre-mixed D-52 for very reasonable prices, for photographers  who are not interested in working with the individual chemicals.

Here is my first 8x10 paper negative. Notice the full detail in the shadows as well as in the highlights. The exposure was f90 with a K2 Yellow filter for a count of 25 seconds, then processed in D-52 for three minutes.

To make a print, the paper negative  is laid on top of a sheet of enlarging paper, emulsion to emulsion. The light shines through the paper negative and exposes the enlarging paper.To keep the negative and paper in close contact,  I use a wooden  8x10 contact frame. The enlarger was used as the light source. The exposure was 8 seconds though a 40 Magenta contrast filter. I use  the Edward Weston formula for Amidol for print development:

64 ounces of water
2 tablespoons of Sodium Sulfite
1 tablespoon of Amidol
10 milliliters  of  10% Citric Acid
10 milliliters of 10% Potassium Bromide

All the prints were processed in Amidol.

There is fine detail in the final print, down to the finest tree branches, power lines, and the detail in the white buildings. The overall paper negative produces finer detail than a Pin Hole image,  but not the same detail as film, but the results are still excellent.

Using the 8x10 camera in my own yard is  easy, but taking the large heavy camera on location to further the tests, I decided to switch to 5x7, as the camera is lighter, less bulky,  and easier to carry out on location. I am using two lenses: An Eastman Kodak 7.7 Anastigmat 203mm lens in a No 2 Supermatic Shutter. This lens stops down to f80. The second lens is a Bausch & Lomb f18  Protar V  141mm with a K2 filter, and stops down to f90 .

Using the same set up in the yard, here is the paper negative. using the 5x7 camera and the Protar V lens set at f90, a K2 filter for a count of 30 seconds. Notice there is good detail in the shadows and in the  highlights. The highlights appear to be too dense in the negative, but the wooden sides of the house are visible in the print.

A contact print from the paper negative yielded an amazing print, considering it is paper rather then film. The exposure by enlarger light was 10 seconds with 50 Magenta filter. Processed in Amidol for two minutes.

I moved the camera to the front yard where the light was very contrasty to see what detail could be recorded in the dark trees. Exposed at f90 for 90 seconds with K2 filter. Notice there is some slight detail in the  trees

A contact print shows pretty good detail in the dark trees, the homes, and even the street address number of 2013 along the street is readable. Enlarging the image I am able to see fine detail that I would only expect from a negative. Trees in the darker shadows show no detail, but this was to be expected as the trees were in total shadow. The exposure for the paper print was 9 seconds with a 50 Magenta filter.

Taking the camera into the field was the next step. I went to our large Cameron Park along the Brazos River in Waco, Texas, for further testing. In the winter time all the leaves fall off the trees bringing, out their beauty.

The exposure with the Protar V stopped down to f90 with a K2 filter was a count of 30 seconds, and processed in D-52 for two minutes. There is detail in the tiny tree limbs and in the bark on the tree.

Here is a print from the paper negative. 

The exposure by enlarger light was 12 seconds through a 30 Magenta filter.  A very pleasing photograph of the trees and the river.

The next paper negative was photographed on Kite Trail, one of the mountain bike trails in the park.

It was exposed using the Protar V lens set at f90 with the K2 filter for 40 seconds.This is a very busy image, but it was chosen to see what detail I would be able to hold in the darker shade of the mountain bike trails. Notice the sun lighted trail appears to be over exposed.

The print from this negative gives good tree and shadow detail. Contact printed at 12 seconds with a 50 Magenta filter.

The print is very busy, but it id a good example of what is possible with the paper negative. The  print shows minute detail in the trees into the shadows, with good highlight detail in the bright sun lit trail. 

I moved the camera to a trail known as California 56 and shot this negative using the Protar V lens set at f90 for 40 seconds with the K2 Yellow filter. Processed in D-52 for thee minutes. Notice the highlights appear very dark and the shadows look underexposed.

The  following print was exposed under enlarger light for 7 seconds using a 50 Magenta contrast filter.

There is good detail in the print, and the highlights printed with detail. Processed in Amidol.

Back to the Brazos River, I exposed one more paper negative of the trees. Using the Protar V lens at f90 the exposure was 70 seconds with the K2 filter. Processed in D-52 for three minutes.To ensure good density in the highlights, the D-52 developing time can be increased to 3 to 5 minutes.

The print was exposed for 14 seconds through a 50 Magenta contrast filter.

Overall, I have been very pleased using  a paper negative  in place of film.  I have found the longer exposure times  produces more density in the highlights. The added density makes  the paper negative easier to print, and the longer exposure times also add to the shadow detail.  

The the paper negative gives an artistic look and feel to prints. I will continue to use this process in place of film, as paper is more affordable than film, especially in 8x10.


Avid film photographer and darkroom wizard James Jasek lives in Waco, Texas. You can see more of his work here on our website.