Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Basic split grade printing

Fig 1
Soft test print

A while a go I was on the FADU forum in the articles section reading up on another subject, when I came across an article by Les Mclean on basic split grade printing. I had a quick read and printed a copy off to read again and give it a try. It is suggested that using this method leads to a more finely toned photograph. Is this the case?  And how difficult is it to get right?


Before the introduction of Multigrade and varitone papers photographers used to buy individually graded papers. This led to a working method that was tailored to what grade of paper they had on the shelf. To a certain extent I still do this aiming to produce negatives that print well at grade three. Then burning in (more light) or dodging (less light) areas to gain a well balanced final print.

After reading the article several more times to get the basics into my head I was ready to give it a try. I chose a negative that  had a very wide range of tones, that would normally require burning in. The negative used was taken  on Agfa APX 100, ISO 100 developed in PMK Pyro. These negs on average print well at about grade two and half.
Fig 2
Hard test print

Split grade printing requires you to produce two test strips. One at grade zero a soft test strip (Fig 1)  and the second at grade five a hard test strip (Fig 2). Quite simple until you put it into practice for the first time! It maybe an idea to produce an idiot list, for a procedure prompter,  to help jog your memory hopefully reducing the mistakes.


First of all it is a good idea to start with a fresh print developer as it may take more prints than you expect to arrive at the end result. For this test I used whole sheets of Foma variant 311 gloss RC 10 x 8. Developed in Moersch 6 blue tone. I will also process a print in my usual way as a reference.


1.           The first test strip should always be the soft one at grade zero which in my case I dialled in to the enlarger head. You can use individual multigrade filters. I have set the enlarging lens to F8 which is what I would normally set.

2.           I have used five second intervals to obtain the right exposure for the soft print (fig 1) If you feel you need to refine the tonal separation then you can do a further test strip of two second intervals. I have kept to the five second test strip to keep things simple.

3.           Once the test strip is processed and preferably dry, under good lighting check the strips. The trick is to look at the bright tones of each segment the one that produces the best bright tones is the one to choose. In this case about 16.9 sec's. The contrast has to be forgotten about it is all about tone. (fig 1) Be careful not to over do it as it can lead to a muddy looking final print.

4.           This is the start of the hard grade test strip (fig 2). Place a new sheet of paper in the easel and expose the whole sheet at grade 0 at your chosen time (16.9 sec). Be careful not to move the easel. I also covered the photographic paper with a piece of black card to protect it from any stray light when I turned on the enlarger, so I can see the dials when adjusting them to grade five. This is where I think using pre set filters has the edge.

5.           Cover a section of the exposed paper as a reference point from which you can see the increase of contrast. Now expose the following sections at  two second increments. (fig 2).

6.           Once the test strip is processed and preferably dry; under good lighting you are looking for the best section of tonality and contrast that will provide you with the image for your taste. In this case I have chosen eleven seconds.

7.           Now you are ready to combine both the times in the one print. Begin with grade 0 the soft settings (the tonal exposure) this should always be done first as it has the most influence on the final out come; then grade 5 the contrast setting. The picture oppsite shows the result. I must admit the outcome is brilliant in more ways than one. It has an unexpected vibrancy that conveys how sunny and warm the day was.


The picture below, is my reference print as you can see it requires more work to produce the tones for the wall in the background and sky. I get the sense that this image is lacking in something. A subjective notion that is a very individual interpretation.



Les Mclean's article sets the process out in a way that is easy to understand. I have followed it to the letter and the result speaks for itself. When embarking on new processes there is a certain amount of settling in. Once you are past these initial stages you are only two steps away from a finely toned image, that anybody, novices included would be more than pleased with. I think it is a more efficient method of producing prints and in some cases possibly more cost affective. This is only a basic introduction to the use of split grade printing but I can already see that it has advantages over the standard grade print, achieving a better toned image more easily.