I have had a number of requests recently to explain the use of paper negatives in pinhole photography. What I describe here is of course not restricted to use in pinhole cameras but can be applied to any camera which can be modified to accept a non-standard negative. I have used paper negatives with extremely good results in a standard 4×5 camera as well as a range of pinhole devices. Using paper rather than film seems to be shrouded in notions of difficulty and unpredictability when in fact it is very easy to use and, if cost is an issue, extremely cheap. Apart from the need for some kind of makeshift or permanent darkroom, the principle obstacle encountered is the excessive contrast of photographic paper but this is in fact quite simple to control and produce images with a smooth tonal range.

First of all, be aware that photographic paper is more sensitive to the blue wavelengths of light so any subject reflecting or emitting blue light (e.g. blue skies) will over-expose more easily than might be expected with panchromatic film.

The second thing required to control contrast (assuming that is what you aim to accomplish) is pre-flashing of the paper negative under the enlarger prior to loading it into the camera or film holder. Pre-flashing is quite simple but it does need a bit of experimentation. Basically what you need to achieve is to add some exposure to your paper but not enough to alter the pure base white.

Practically speaking, in order to pre-flash, set up your enlarger with no negative in the carrier and a sheet of unexposed paper on the baseboard. I have have found an exposure 2 seconds at f16 with the enlarger head set at approx 65cm from the base board works for me, although your setup will be different, no doubt. Next make a test print with intervals of, say, 2 seconds between one and the next. It might be worth stopping down a bit more than I do to give a bit more latitude for different exposures. Develop fully, wash and dry, then in good light find the exposure BEFORE the exposure which gives you the lightest of light grey (Zone IX in zone system parlance). For example, in the picture below, 2 seconds would be the optimum exposure, one second being too little and 3 seconds too much.

You might have to do this a few times to find exactly the exposure needed. Once you have found it though you can pre-flash a number of sheets and keep them for use like film. Make a note of the settings and just run a quick confirmation test when you make your next batch of pre-flashed sheets. I use a grade 1 filter whilst preflashing on Ilford Multigrade and end up with a negative medium with a sensitivity of around ISO 6. In my experience there is always a slight change from one session to the next but the basic exposure you establish will be a pretty sound starting point. After this no other contrast control should be necessary beyond a sympathetic assessment of the colour temperature of the light at the time of exposure. Experience will be a good guide here.

At the point of development a very dilute or partially exhausted developer will help you to control the contrast by allowing you the time to pull the negative out of the bath before it goes too dark or contrasty. Again, experience here will help you get things right. I prefer to alternate the negative between a weak developer bath and a water wash and allow between 2 and 10 minutes of development according to the density of what appears. It is a fairly imprecise process from start to finish so you will have to play things by ear! I wouldn’t worry if the negative looks flat (either under the safelight or after washing). I find that even very weak or flat negatives can scan very well. The hardest to work with are overly contrasty or over-exposed negatives. If you intend to make contact prints I think you will find things harder to get right but scanning and digital printing will give plenty of leeway for adjustments.

There is some discussion amongst aficionados regarding the finish of the paper employed as a negative, glossy or matt. If using a curved film plane (e.g. a biscuit tin) you may find that the shiny surface of glossy paper reflects back on itself causing unwanted lighting blemishes. If you wish to avoid this it may be preferable to use matt or satin-finish paper although glossy paper will produce a sharper final image as its surface has little or no texture to blur the contact between the negative image and the platen of the scanner or the surface of the contact printing paper. Personally I always use Ilford Multigrade satin paper as I find its slightly uneven texture adds a certain unpredictability to the result which for me is part of the excitement and charm of pinhole photography.

As a final plug for the benefits of paper, in these post-polaroid days if you need a quick confirmation of exposure or composition and happen to be working near a darkroom, it is possible in just a few moments to see the result obtained. And there is always the thrill of seeing a print come to life under the red safelight, a thrill which never seems to diminish no matter how many prints pass through the developing tray.

16 thoughts on “Paper negative – the underestimated medium

  1. Thanks for this post – you have no idea how timely it is for me. I have a pinhole camera that takes 4×5 but am not ready to delve into processing that format film and had been thinking of trying paper negs as a way to get started. This is very useful info.

  2. Good information, Mark. Thanks for sharing this.

    I often use paper negatives myself and prefer a grade 1 or 2 paper over the multi-grade papers. I have found multi-grade paper to have too much contrast for me. But I have not tried “flashing” the paper as you recommend. I flashed some paper this morning to try this out with pinhole solargraphs. These cameras will be exposing direct sun rays as a test for the next few days. I’ll let you know if I can detect any difference with the flashing.

    I always enjoy your posts – the information as well as the images.

  3. Mark – this is good solid information that I’m glad you posted. From the type of paper you use to how you flash your paper and then showing the excellent results that you get. Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to find grade 1 and 2 paper, so most of us have to suffer by using higher grade paper. A question came up while I was reading your post. I wonder if you could flash your paper by quickly turning on and off a low wattage light bulb? Anyways, thanks again for this and keep up the great work! Cheers -Chris

    1. Hi Chris,

      I am sure that low-wattage light bulbs would work, the process would just be less reproducible. Evidently an enlarger or a preflash unit such as those made by RH Designs makes things easier. The enlarger also makes the use of multigrade papers at lower contrast possible, as all the light striking the paper is passing through the multigrade filter effectively enabling the reproduction of the grade 1 or 2 papers you refer to.

      It could be argued that the additional uncertainty introduced by the use of a bulb for pre-flashing might bring about exciting and serendipitous results. Experimentation is king!

      All the best.


    1. Hi Cak,

      I have always used an enlarger but I am sure with a low-wattage lamp and a way of making the light it sheds controllable and reproducible you could manage very well. Bear in mind that I preflash for 2 seconds @ f32 with the enlarger head at approx 60cm from the baseboard so the illumination is really very weak.

      There are preflashing units available from companies like RH Designs which are designed for controlling values when printing and these would work perfectly too.

      Let me know how you get on.


  4. This is a great post, it inspired me to try preflashing without an enlarger. I took a 2 part box (lid and bottom) and cut the top off the lid and stretched two layers of translucent plastic over the opening. I lay my photo paper in the box, aim the plastic at our 75w bathroom light and turn it on and off quickly. This reduced my exposure time from 7 to 5 minutes in a test. More recently I have been preflashing twice. That leaves the whites slightly greyish in my finished negative, but they still make nice contact prints. Well – I say nice, but have to warn you, I’m interested in the atmospheric image, not perfect ranges of greys. Anyway, it’s a great blog – thanks to you Mark, and to the previous commenters. Here’s an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/judithhoffman/5667253129/in/photostream/

  5. I’m delighted to have found your site (via @deborahparkin, I think); always good to see folk still using _real_ materials.

    What dev do you use? I’ve not done much paper neg work, but lately have been trying HC110 to control the contrast. Most recently I’ve been using it for some old blue-sensitive aero dupe film, but more experiments are required (and more finished photos…). I did a write-up of paper/HC110 here: http://www.redbubble.com/people/duncanw/journal/4202129-paper-negative-processing-for-pinhole-and-other-photography

    1. Duncan, to be honest I would use any paper developer to hand. I tend to use Ilford Multigrade paper developer simply because it is easy to get. I am not very technically precise with my methods but usually use a dilution of around 1:19 and alternate the negative between the dev and a wash tray to prevent the developer running away with itself. I have found that with experience I can judge more or less when the negative should be finally pulled, washed and fixed. Under the red light, a paper neg will often look darker and more contrasty than it is in reality so there is some interpretation and risk involved in this way of working but I prefer to work from gut feel and be actively involved like this rather than to work mechanically. I get some failures but on the whole the final negative tends to be good and is rarely unusable. I could technically get more from the materials by being more clinical in my approach but I find if I am excited about the image, marginal technical improvements don’t interest me too much. Having said that, it’s always good to experiment.

  6. I came across your site while looking information on pinhole photography and wanted to thank you for writing this interesting article about using paper negative. I’d be interested to hear what kind of focal lengths and hole diameters your pinhole cameras have. Paper is quite slow compared to film.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Paula. The two 4×5 cameras I use mostly have a 0.3mm pinhole / 50mm focal length (f167) and 0.4mm pinhole / 100mm focal length (f250). I don’t tend to be too precise about exposures although I do use a hand-held light meter at times. I prefer on the whole to use a gut feel for the light intensity coupled with experience of what has worked in the past, and in what conditions, as a basis for my exposure. I also find that as the exposure progresses I change my opinion of what is required and frequently extend the exposure time. I would always err on the side of giving more exposure rather than less, as the effect of reciprocity failure will mean you are fairly unlikely to overdo it. However, under exposing will often mean total failure. Paper is slower than film but this is usually an advantage in my opinion as I like the additional thinking time. Also when you need longer exposures for effects of movement it is far superior to film. It is also a lot easier to work with.

  7. For an easy DIY paper flasher, just take an old safe light, remove the filter and replace it with one or two pieces of foam core. I flash Ilford Multigrade for about 8 seconds with this setup around 6 feet from the paper. It’s actually quite surprising how much light it takes to get to the threshold. Made me a lot less worried about small pinhole leaks in my darkroom!

  8. This is a great article, thank you for this. I’m new to Large Format photography and since film is hard to get where I’m from I’m thinking of using paper negative which is easier to buy. My question is how do I calculate for the exposure time?

    1. The only way to do this really is to experiment until you find what works for you. I work on the basis that the pre-flashed paper I use has an ISO of about 6 so it is possible to use a light meter to measure the required exposure fairly accurately (or to calculate it by adding stops of exposure to whatever reading you manage to make if your meter will not measure as low as 6). With a pinhole camera I prefer to estimate the exposure based on experience with the cameras I use and I find this surprisingly reliable. For paper negatives in a shuttered/lensed camera meter at about ISO 6. It is easier when the weather is overcast as paper is much harder to expose correctly in bright sunshine especially as the resulting image will be much more contrasty than on film.

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