There's this step wedge thing again? If the negs are exposed and developed consistently you will be able to make a standard small enlargement (or contact) the same enlarger-height, time and aperture every time - only then go and think what you might want to change, as you will have the baseline to compare to.
With a 4x5 neg you can most simply make a contact-print, setting the time etc. to just give a maximum black value through the base of the film. With the same film and developer, base-density plus fog (ie. the stuff that is there in the base and isn't the silver in the image) will be the same each time and you can then more easily compare the effects of the choices you made for that specific camera-exposure with other shots at other exposures.
There isn't any need to start from zero with every single negative, really not. I don't think I'm being too slapdash in this view.
If you are using multi-contrast paper then yes, start with a grade-2 filter (or half a grade above or below, but consistently) so that the exposure varies less if you feel like changing the contrast after your first print.
It might also be a useful exercise to make an exposure and contrast ring-a-round. That is, select (with advice perhaps) a neg of a scene showing bright and shadow areas, with a wide range of tones then make a standard straight print at Grade 2. Use this time and grade as a basis for prints varying by (for example) a quarter of a stop in exposure per step, for a range of (for example) 1 1/2 stops above and below the original time. Then change the filter by half a grade and do it again, and again, and again etc.
The aim is to give you a series of small prints that you can glue to a piece of card with the "average" print in the middle and showing the result from the same neg with different exposure and different contrast. For example, paste them up with exposure along the horizontal and contrast going vertically.
This might be very handy for you in the future as a reference and help in analysis of what you see in the contact-prints I described above - you will quickly be able to see that, for example, some other neg needs half a stop more exposure and a slight change in contrast to get the look you want, without test-strips or step-wedges.
And by the way, this sort of thing is absolutely not my idea - it used to be a standard exercise because it is so helpful for people starting out. When it seems to make sense it will also be more clear to you when you read Bob Carnie descriptions of his working methods in his many printing threads in APUG. Though he probably 'wouldn't start from here' as they say.
Last edited by MartinP; 11-29-2012 at 10:56 AM. Click to view previous post history.