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An Introduction to Photogram/Contact Printing

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This post is part of a series called Film Photography.
A Guide to Russian & Soviet / Former Soviet Cameras

In this tutorial, I will be going through a black and white printing process that does not require a great deal of equipment, time or money. This process is called contact printing, used for creating photograms (a photographic image made without a camera). This process does not require the use of a photographic enlarger nor is it absolutely necessary to use processed film. Below is a step by step explanation of how to create photograms. You will be astounded at just how easy and fun it is to print images using this method.

The Final Image

photogram contact printing

Recommended Gear

You'll need to have a few different pieces of equipment to hand, though none are particularly expensive. Firstly, you'll require four chemistry trays:

photogram contact printing

The first tray for developer solution, the second for stop bath solution, the third for fixing solution, and the fourth for plain water rinsing. You will follow the same sequence as described in the darkroom setup tutorial for developing and fixing your images. Four tongs for placing images from tray to tray will be needed, and always make sure to label your tongs and trays according to which tongs were used with which trays. This is to avoid any paper or chemistry contamination. Finally, you will need black and white photographic paper.

photogram contact printing

Image Sourced from Ilford

For further darkroom setup please consult the darkroom setup tutorial.

Locating Image Subjects

For the process of creating contact prints or photograms, you will need to gather any three dimensional or two dimensional objects (i.e. paper cut outs, wrappers, toys, your own fingers/hands/feet, statuettes, processed negatives, memorabilia of sorts) anything you can think of or that you would like to see translated into a photographic image.

photogram contact printing

Even try opjects that you would never have thought to posses opaque qualities, you will be surprised at how and where the light manages to creep through parts of objects that you would never have thought to be possible. Its all about experimentation, so push the limits and have fun with it.

Photo Setup and Composition

It is extremely important to always remember that the only light that can be on while dealing with unexposed black and white photographic paper, is that of the safelight - nothing else. If the paper is prematurely exposed, it will get fogged - either taking on a greyish tint, or just turning black once placed in the developer. There is nothing worse than establishing your image, feeling excited to see how it comes out, and it turns black. In order to print economically, you will want to use your black and white photographic paper spraringly. Premature exposeure or fogging will happen occasionally, but always be safe rather than sorry and take extra care.

Place the paper shiny side up in a dry area of your darkroom and on a dry surface. Place the object(s) on the paper. This is where your creativity comes into play - try out different options, positions and layering to see what works for you.

photogram contact printing

Once the objects are placed on the paper as you would like it, switch the main lights on and off as quickly as possible.

Remove the objects from the paper, and place face down in the developer. Agitate (rock back and forth) for approximately two minutes, flipping face up in-between. With the developer tongs, pinch the corner of the image, holding it above the developer tray to drain any left over developer from the print.

photogram contact printing

Place the image into the stop bath tray:

photogram contact printing

Agitate for approximately 2-3 min or until you think the image is rinsed of developer. With the stop bath tongs, pinch the corner and hold above the stop bath tray to drain.

Place the image face down into the fix tray. Agitate for 30 secs then flip. Agitate for another minute, and leave in fix until you are ready to place the next print into the fix solution.

photogram contact printing

It is always good to consult your chemistry bottle labels for different processing times. I personally follow a default time for each tray, but if you are the perfectionist, listen to what the label on the bottle suggests.

With this method of contact printing, you will see how the light penetrates and creeps through the objects onto the paper in areas you would not have considered. This is a method that I use a lot as I am able to experiment with a lot of images in a short amount of time. It's the element of surprise that keeps me hooked. There is not much fiddling and changing that needs to be made when it comes to printing photograms, compared to when dealing with an enlarger. It's the perfect introduction into manual photographic printing.

Common Problems

One problem that may occur is that of switching and leaving the lights on for slightly too long. This of course will over expose the image. Prior to printing, test out your main light source. Make sure it has the ability to switch on and off at a rapid pace. try and be as prepared as you can before exposing your sheet of black and white photographic paper.

Another problem may be chemistry contamination. This can happen if using the tongs from the developer tray in the fixing tray, vice versa, or with any other chemistry tray and set of tongs for that matter. Also, if your hands come into contact with any of the chemistry, when handling your images, you run the risk of contaminating the image from the left over residue on your hands. The best way to avoid this problem is by keeping things in a neat and orderly fashion, as well as keeping your hands and everything else as clean and dry as possible. It's always better to be safe than sorry when in the darkroom. Keep the dry and archival objects in a dry and archival area, and the wet objects in the wet area.

Most importantly, always remember, have fun with it. The experimentation is endless, so reach for the stars - experimenting with the photographic process doesn't necessarily require a camera!

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