Better shadow separation on prints
Attaining good shadow separation on the print is a problem that's been driving me nuts forever. In order to get max black on paper I find myself having to print through (and lose) all sorts of detail that's very obviously on the negative. Is there any combination of paper/developer that does a better job of it than the norm? So far I've tried the Ilford flavors of paper along with "long scale" stuff like Fortezo without any luck. Ultimately, the answer is probably to raise my shadow exposure, but that's tough when I'm already dealing with 2 - 3 hr exposures in some instances.
Things that will not work include selenium intensification of the negative, since that's proportional and contrast is already high in most of my subjects, and moving up to a contact printable format -- I'm already shooting 4x5 with extremely long exposure times.
The truly revolting thing is that even a straight scan of these negatives on my Epson 3200 gives better shadow separation than I can attain in prints. INTOLERABLE!
First we need some information. What grade of paper are you printing on? What developer are you using?
I have an question with one of the phrases you used in your post "In order to get max black on paper I find myself having to print through (and lose) all sorts of detail that's very obviously on the negative."
Not every image will give you max black. Enjoy the grays. If you have detail and tones that are on the negative but not in your print. I have found this to mean your contrast (of the paper) is too high and/or you exposure is too long.
Have you tried doing a step test for exposure on just the black areas of your image? Then you know what exposure the dark areas need, then you can move on and find the exposure that your highlights need.
The things that George mentioned are all things to be considered. The steps that you have taken and found wanting such as selenium intensification are not surprising to me since selenium intensification is proportional in it's affect. With most of the effect being on negative highlight density.
Are you printing to maximum black as your first parameter? I print to highlight value as the determiner of my exposure and then adjust paper contrast to affect my shadow values. I find that this works for me.
If this still does not give you what you want then there are other steps that can be taken. Some of the negative masking techniques work really well in this regard. Typically these amount to a compression of the negative density range through the use of an unsharp mask. This is then followed with a shadow enhancement mask to really punch a limited portion of the shadow pallete downward. These measures typically are not used on every print.
Have you tried dodging and burning selected areas.
Have you tried split contrast printing for images that have large areas of shadows??
If while you're printing in the high contrast mode, you dodge the shadow areas, you effectively bring up all those little bits of information in the shadows. (ie: making your shadows a higher contrast then the rest of the scene).
You can then print to the deep black you're looking for, but also gather details that were otherwise printed down too much.
If you're moving up to larger formats to contact print or if you're using alternative process or graded papers, this is not the answer... But if you're enlarging and want to try VC papers, it's worth a go.
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Where you have a thin underexposed negative you need to use a harder paper grade and be very careful to get the exposure absolutely right, I regularly print to 2/10th of a second and it does make a difference. If the negatives have contrast but thin shadows do as Joe suggested and use split grade printing and when exposing the soft filtration dodge it out in the shadow areas so that they get exposure to only hard filtration. That is one of the great benefits of split grade printing.
Keep us posted and if you need further help let us know.
Split grade printing as Joe suggests or even using a lower grade paper / filters may help. In addition, use a developer which gives you really good blacks (such as ANSCO 130/Formulary 130), maybe you are trying too hard to get max black with a developer thats not really known for giving deep blacks. Off late, I have been able to get shadow details which I had earlier given up on by exposing the negative for barely enough time to get the rich blacks and leaving the print in the developer for a longer time (3+ minutes). BTW, after seeing the results I got with F-130, I have pretty much stopped using Dektol (my previous choice).
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In addition to the suggestions above, you could try local selenium intensification by brushing straight KRST onto the neg in the shadow areas. If these are small negs, use a magnifier and small retouching brushes. John Sexton mentions using this technique, though as others have said, selenium intensification is generally best for pushing up the highlights.
When I last compared several premium graded FB papers, one of the things I was looking for was ability to hold difficult shadow detail while maintaining good overall tonality, and I think Cachet/Maco Expo RF graded can do this better than any other paper I tried. Lately I develop it in Michael Smith's amidol formula for enlarging papers, but I did the original tests with Agfa Neutol WA.
Thanks for the input so far.
To give a bit more info: For the moment, the negs that are driving me crazy are 5x7s of a very dimmly lit scene emerging from blackness -- a good deal of the negative is indeed clear and it's this space which, on the finished print, must at least make a convincing stab at being black. Right now I'm working with contact prints since my enlarger for the format is broken, but the eventual goal is to enlarge. The contact prints do point out the problem at its worst, though, because when I print to hold some of the obvious detail in the negative, the surrounding "black" in the scene is shown to be a muddy grey compared to the absolute black of the edges of the paper that extend beyond the negative. In short, if I expose to cut through the base/fog, a whole lot of shadow detail gets lost as well.
I've tried Ilford MG RC and fiber and Ilford WT with both grade 2 and 1 1/2 filtration (developed in Dektol) as well as Fortezo grade 2, which in reality is what I'd call grade 1 1/2 at best. I haven't tried Les' suggestion of UPPING the contrast since my fumbling attempts in that direction have always had the opposite effect of quickly expanding the lower zones down to black. Perhaps it's really a matter of 2/10ths of second subtlety to make that work, and I'll give it a try. I also have the makings for ansco 130 so I'll try that as well.
As it happens, this scene should easily lend itself to selective masking or even selective intensification as David suggested. And I knew some combo of those was going to be my fallback tactic. But before going through all that hassle, I thought I'l look for input from others...
Another thing you could try is selective bleaching in the shadows like Bruce Barnbaum uses. This will open up the shadows with higher contrast then dodging.