Archive: Black & White Printing

I’ve backdated this post many years—to the time I was last working with black and white film in the darkroom. It was never my intention to use this blog for technical topics, or “how-to” articles. But as I’ve looked over my old notes, I realized there were piles of information, much of it based on original research and late-night trial and error. It would be a shame if this knowledge followed me to the grave. I’m not using it anymore, largely because my work has changed, and the materials are no longer available. But there’s a cottage industry that sometimes manages to revive old materials, or create new facsimiles. Maybe some of these formulas and techniques will be useful to someone. Or maybe they’ll just join the historical record of archaic processes.




Everything here was developed for my Wilderness project, which comprised all my work between 1993 and 2004. I made the images with a 4×5 camera, and spent the first several years refining my darkroom techniques, with the goal of achieving a particular print quality. This work was broadly about run-down and overgrown places (like all the places I’d lived after college, and like many places across the country in the recessionary 1990s). It was easy to see resemblances to documentary work or the “New Topographics” tradition from a couple of decades earlier. But for me the work was more personal, and I wanted to use print quality as one indicator of this. I thought the prints needed an immersive and sensual feel, as opposed to the more in-your-face, high-key grittiness of 1970s urban landscapes. But I did not want them to feel self-consciously overwrought, or to hearken back to 19th century Romanticism. So platinum / palladium prints and other hand processes were out of the running.

This left me with the American and European Modernists as inspiration, particularly Paul Strand’s silver prints, which had the right qualities and which I still feel are unequalled. The trouble is that materials similar to what Strand and his compatriots used had fallen out of fashion, and black-and-white materials generally were becoming increasingly marginalized. Specifically, there wasn’t much in the way of rich-looking, subtly warm-toned gelatin silver paper available. During my introduction to photography in college, I found myself surrounded by elders who were mourning the loss of the last of the great papers—in their opinion embodied by a previous version of Agfa Portriga Rapid. It had been discontinued (technically, new-and-improved) at some recent point in the 1980s. My teacher at the time, Edward Ranney, had apparently teamed with likeminded photographers and offered Agfa some colossal sum of money to make them a batch of the old stuff. Agfa said no.

As the story went, Portriga’s manufacturing process resulted in some kind of heavy metal, possibly cadmium, flushing into the wastewater, in violation of Germany’s rather strict ecological laws. And so there was no going back. The new and clean Portriga lacked the richness, the perfect color, the responsiveness to developers and toners, and the lickable satin-smooth surface sheen of the old stuff. As a result, I embarked on my darkroom studies in a pre-embittered state, already nostalgic for something I’d never experienced.*

What it took me years to realize: this frustration describes most of the history of darkroom photography. We use a technological medium that puts as at the mercy of manufacturers, who respond to market forces, ecological laws, raw material availability, and whims—and who are all eventually bought, reorganized, or dissolved. Nothing lasts forever. Edward Weston apparently threw an epic fit when commercial platinum papers were discontinued. He threatened to quit photography. He sulked. Then he pulled himself together, adapted to the silver papers that were available at the time, and went on to do the best work of his life. So it goes.

With somewhat less drama, I did my college work using the same easy-to-find papers that everyone else used, especially Ilford Multigrade. Outside of a few unsuccessful toning experiments (the stuff tones poorly) I left it in its native greenish-gray, and treated it with nothing but the occasional dilute selenium solution, with the (likely misguided) hope that this would increase archival permanence.**


From Hungary with Love


Shortly after college, when I was putting together my first darkroom, a friend in Chicago called with news about some cool paper that a local camera shop was importing from Hungary. It was called Fortezo and was sold in plain brown craft paper packages with a generic label. My friend said it looked just like old stuff I’d raved about in my 2nd-hand descriptions: rich, warm, luscious.

By the time I was able to check it out, it had acquired a proper US distributor, who had designed branded packaging in a rather garish metallic gold, and had supposedly worked with the company to improve quality control—my friend and others complained that beautiful as Fortezo was, no two sheets in the same package responded alike, making printing on it an exercise in futility. I was lucky enough to never experience the early inconsistency.

While it took me a couple of years to really master this paper, I could immediately tell it was unlike anything I’d used. Its distinguishing feature, for me, was its responsiveness. You could push the tonal scale around almost anywhere you wanted just with changes in development. And you could push the color almost anywhere you wanted with changes in toning. Modern papers were not at all like this. Photographers like to attribute these qualities to “thick emulsions” or to more silver. Chemists at Kodak have told me that neither of these is really a thing, but they remain good metaphors for the impressions created by old-style materials.

Where did Fortezo come from? I’ve never found anything official or definitive, so take this all with a grain of salt, and please set me straight in the comments if you know something. Supposedly the Forte factory was built by Kodak in 1922. I’ve heard (with no sources given) that it’s where they produced the legendary Medalist paper. Why did Kodak choose Hungary? Lax environmental laws? Who knows. I also don’t know when Kodak abandoned Forte Photochemical Industry VAC, and what the factory did between then and the early 1990s when the paper started appearing under its own brand.

How good was Fortezo, really? Pretty damn good. Its flexibility and tonability were its star qualities. The look of its untoned image, in any developer I tried, was nothing special. The surface was nothing special; it was no old Portriga in this regard. It had a maddening habit of curling up or getting wavy with any hint of high humidity. Or was it low humidity? Maybe both. But it allowed me to make my work look the way I felt it had to look. And for this I’m forever grateful.

Which version of Fortezo? I could never get the variable contrast version to tone properly. The graded versions worked much better, and in fact I found the grade-3 paper gave the best toning performance of all of them. Since it was so easy to push the contrast of the paper around with chemistry, I settled on using grade-3 for everything. I tweaked my film development (see the next post) to produce negatives that would on average print well on grade 3 developed according to the following system.

An Old-School Paper Merits Old-School Potions


I found that a 2-bath development process allowed for an unusual amount of control of contrast and the tonal scale. My developers of choice were Ansco 130, a high contrast open-source formula that uses metol, hydroquinone, and glycin; this was preceded by Ansco 120, its low-contrast counterpart that’s metol-only.

Stop, fix, hypoclear, and wash steps were conventional. Eventually I switched from the Kodak versions of these chemicals to Sprint, because the latter’s packaging and 1:9 dilution liquid concentrates were more convenient. I made most prints with a split process, because the night was not long enough to print and tone in one session (more on toners below). The schedule looked like this (constant agitation in all trays):

  1. Develop in Ansco 120 1:2
  2. Develop in Ansco 130 1:1
  3. 30 seconds in indicator stop bath
  4. 3 minutes in non-hardening ammonium thiosulfate fix
  5. 10 minute rinse in running water

At this point it’s safe to let the print dry and wait for toning the next day:

  1. Tone (multi-step process, see below)
  2. 5 minute rinse in running water
  3. 3 minutes in non-hardening ammonium thiosulfate fix
  4. 4 minutes in hypo-clearing agent
  5. At least 40 minutes in archival washer


Developing Times


I found I’d get the best colors post-toning if I kept the developing times short: about 1 minute per developer for normal contrast. This is at the standard 68°F / 20°C. My darkroom, however, being situated on the top floor of an uninsulated civil war-era paint warehouse, was not exactly insulated or sealed against drafts. I could hold trays of chemistry at 68° during just a few short months out of the year. The rest of the time, I had to adapt. I decided to graph the temperature / developer activity of my developers and just modify the time according to temperature. This was much simpler than trying to control the temperature through some kind of thermostatic water bath. An afternoon of experiments led to the following charts:

I found, counterintuitively, that with short total development times, I’d get a cooler brown after toning; with longer total development times, I’d get a warmer, redder brown. I was usually after the former, so my standard development was 1 minute in each developer. If I wanted less contrast, I’d emphasize the first developer: up to 2 minutes in the Ansco 120 and skip the Ansco 130 altogether. For extra contrast, go as far as 2 minutes in the 130, skipping the 120. If the chemistry was warmer or cooler than 68°, I’d adjust the times according to the chart. This system, maybe surprisingly, gave almost perfect consistency.




Here’s where things get a little esoteric. Fortezo is wildly reactive in every toner. The challenge is taming and controlling it. And of course, finding the toner that gets you into the right ballpark. I tried just about everything, and ended up with a 2-toner system. The main toner is Nelson Gold Toner, a gold chloride and sulfide toner that dates to the 19th century and was rumored to be Paul Strand’s favorite, at least at one point. By itself, this gives tones on Fortezo that are too red for my tastes, so I pre-tone in a very dilute Kodak selenium toner. This cools the final image to a cooler, more neutral brown. Both toners need to be more dilute than their usual recommended strength.

Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner: 20ml/L at warmer temperatures (toning time has little effect). or 40ml/L at cooler temperatures. Only long enough to achieve a visible color shift.

As th selenium toner approaches exhaustion, it causes the paper base to stain to a yellowish tint in the subsequent Nelson Gold Toner. The effect is generally too pronounced to be useful. It’s better to control this with the gold toner (see below).

Nelson Gold Toner 1:2 : Heat to 140°F / 60°C. It will cool as you use it and will stop toning below 110°F /43°C. Tone as long as is needed.

As the Nelson Gold toner poured for the session approaches exhaustion, it will lead to split toning. You’ll see a disproportionately warm tint in the highlights, and it will slightly stain the paper base to a warm creamy color. This appears to be exaggerated by partially exhausted selenium toner. I find these effects can be beautiful and can enhance the sense of space with some prints. But it’s very challenging to control; this is why some of my editions include only 3 or 4 prints. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to you to use this effect.

I formulated a replenishing solution that can keep a bottle of Nelson Gold going almost indefinitely. It will eventually still die, possibly from contamination. But I’ve gotten over a year out of a batch. Details in the formulary below.




I’m only mentioning this because there’s so much lore based on strange fantasies about the physical world. Many old archival washer designs incorporated air bubbles, presumably to increase agitation. This feature is probably harmless, but it accomplishes nothing. One popular purveyor of boutique darkroom gear sold a custom-designed print washer that drained from the bottom, because “hypo is heavier than water, and the law of gravity has not been repealed.” This is either cynical marketing, or evidence that someone was out back smoking weed when they should have been doing their 9th grade chemistry homework. Chemicals are washed from your print’s emulsion by diffusion and dilution. Nothing else. Gravity doesn’t matter in the slightest. Agitation matters only to the degree that you can replace water that’s absorbed chemicals with fresh water. A very slow rate of flow is all you need.

You can even do it without any flow. Put a print in a tray of water. Agitate it a few times over the course of 2 minutes. Dump out the water and replace with fresh. Repeat for a total of 6 water exchanges. Your print will be as well-washed as it will ever be. An archival washer doesn’t do a better job, it just keeps you from going crazy with boredom.


In Summary: My Unedited Notes


  • Grade 3 gives the most control and the best color with my toners.
  • Ratio of time in soft developer (Ansco 120 1:2) to time in hard developer  (Ansco 130 1:1) has greatest affect on contrast, with no affect on color.
  • Changes in overall time affect contrast and color (color after tone gets WARMER with INCREASED development—counterintuitive)
  • Changes in dilution of the developers affect contrast and the shape of the scale. Weaker dilutions open up the shadows and elevate midtones; stronger dilutions darken shadows and suppress midtones and shadow values. Rarely helpful, except with odd negatives.
  • 2 minute total effective development time will give cold browns; 4 minute total effective development time will give warm (red) browns.
  • In all cases, effective time (actual time multiplied by temperature factor for the developer used) is the important factor.
  • Selenium pre-treatment cools color slightly compared with Nelson Gold  toning alone. It also stains the paper base to a slightly warmer white (once it’s been used a few times). Usually gives best results.
  • Strong dilutions of selenium (40ml/L) cool the most; and give results that vary most with time (so times must be kept relatively short to keep color from getting too cool—in this case toward a purple brown).
  • Weak dilutions of selenium (20ml/L) yield slightly warmer results. Changes in time at these dilutions produce little effect. However, especially at warmer temperatures, it ’s easier to get consistent results with the weaker dilution, because the stronger ones work so quickly. If toning times are less than a minute in the stronger dilution, switching to the weaker one makes sense.
  • Intensification of blacks is not significantly affected by changes in time and dilution of the selenium toner (much stronger dilutions than these will give significant intensification, but the color is ugly). Blacks do seem to intensify progressively with increased time in the Nelson Gold, but the change is not dramatic.
  • The length of time in the Nelson Gold toner affects the intensity of the tone. If you don’t have a water bath available (to keep toner at 110°F) you can start at 140°F and let the toner cool as it works. This seems to have little affect on performance, although might damage unhardened emulsions (old Portiga, etc.).
  • Nelson Gold Toner works too quickly at normal strength. At 1:2 it’s easier to control.
  • When the selenium toner approaches exhaustion, the stain of the paper base becomes too pronounced.
  • When the gold toner that’s been poured for the session approaches exhaustion, it begins to split tone—in this case to give a disproportionately intense, yellowish color to the highlights. The solution gets rejouvenated by being poured back into the bottle (with all the magic sediment). It’s a good idea to have plenty of stock solution around, so there’s 2000ml of clear stock available for every 15-20 8×10 prints. It goes farther when it’s new; less far when it approaches its maximum capacity (150 prints/L of undiluted stock).
  • Using adequate volumes, and topping off with a 22 ppm gold chloride replenisher solution, keeps the toner working consistently over its lifespan.




Ansco 120

Water (52°c) 750 ml
Metol 12.3 g
Sodium Sulfite (desicated) 36 g
Sodium Carbonate, mono. 36 g
Potassium Bromide 10% 1.8 g
Water to make 1.0 l
Notes: Soft developer. Nice print color and scale. Excellent first developer.For more softness, dilute 1:2 (up to 1:3 for extreme softness)For long scale and open shadows, dilute 1:1

Ansco 130

Water (52°c) 750 ml
Metol 2.2 g
Sodium Sulfite (desicated) 50 g
Hydroquinone 11 g
Sodium Carbonate, mono. 78 g
Glycin 11 g
Potassium Bromide 10% 5.5 g
Water to make 1.0 l
Notes Glycin-hydroquinone developer for warm-black tones. Normal Dilution 1:1 Excellent second developer. Dilute 1:2 for more open shadows. Extremely nice two-tray companion to Ansco 120

Nelson Gold Toner

Solution 1
Distilled Water (175°F) 750 ml [All water must be distilled! Any hint of chlorine will kill the toner] Sodium thiosulfate, pentahydrate 240 g
Potassium persulfate 30 g
Distilled Water to make 1000 ml

(Anhydrous thiosulfate can be used–if so, innitial temp need only be 125°F. Disolve hypo thoroughly. When persulfate is mixed solution should turn milky white. If not, solution was too cool–warm until milkiness ensues.

Solution 2
Distilled Water (room temp) 16 ml
Silver nitrate 1.3 g
Sodium chloride 1.3 g

Disolve all silver nitrate before adding salt. Stir vigorously after precipitate forms.

Stock Solution A
Bring solutions 1 and 2 to room temp. Vigorously stir solution 2 to disperse precipitate, and pour into solution 1. Stir. A precipitate may or may not form. Transfer, including any precipitate, to the storage container.

Stock Solution B
Distilled Water 52.5 ml
Gold chloride 0.25 g

Gold chloride is a deliquesent, so may already be partially liquefied. Be sure to disolve all of it. Ideally, mix in a small vial, and be sure to rinse all gold chloride into vial from cap and threads, etc. Shake or stir to make homogeneous.

Add 1/2 of Stock Solution B (about 26 ml) to Stock Solution A. Cap the vial and save–the remainin quantity of Solution B is the replenisher. Let combined solution sit overnight–to give sediment time to form.

To Use
Decant carefully–leave sediment in storage bottle. Heat to at least 100°F. Either keep at 110° with water jacket, or start at 140°, so during use it won’t cool below 100°. Agitate a wet, fixed and washed print until it looks right. Ideally, compare with an untoned print. Usually takes 3 to 10 minutes. Can be diluted for use to control rate of toning with exceptionally active papers (1:2 with Fortezo). Works well on selenium toned prints (brief selenium pre-toning can result in slightly cooler print color). Return to bottle when done. rinse, 2nd fix, hypo-clear, and wash prints after toning.

Topping-Off Replenisher for Nelson Gold

My invention, based on average water loss of 200 ml/12 8×10 prints (17ml per print) and average recommended replenishment of 4ml gold solution per 50 8×10 prints (0.08 ml per print)

Gold Chloride 1% 2.2 ml
Distilled Water to make 1000ml

The solution is 22 parts per million of gold chloride in distilled water. Purity is very important. Clean vessels thoroughly before mixing, and don’t pour anything back into the bottle.

To use, just top off working toner solution (to original volume) after each use)



*I did find a package of 25 8×10 sheets of the old stuff collecting dust at Shewmaker’s Camera shop in Colorado Springs, which I snapped up and commenced hoarding. It was too little and too precious to really do anything with. I did make a coupe of prints, just to try to fathom what the fuss was about. I didn’t know enough about printing yet to make a good one, but can attest that it made a nice cool brown color in selenium, and the the surface texture is the nicest thing I’ve ever seen. I still have the remaining sheets in a box somewhere.

**Research at Kodak demonstrates that anything short of selenium toning to completion—which looks hideous—offers little if any protective benefit. Gold and sulfide toning processes are much more effective.


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