Proofing Your Black and White Photos

Posted: 12/01/2011

Have you taken the plunge into black and white photography yet?  Unlike color negative film, black and white film needs special attention when it comes to actually viewing your images.

Even if you know nothing, it's no hassle to get prints or scans from your rolls of C-41 color negative film.  You can drop your film off at a drugstore or a lab that offers the bare minimum of services, and their automatic processors will give you great looking scans or prints - whichever you prefer.

"Darkroom in Use" by Dan Domme

If you try handing your black and white film negatives over to a drugstore, though, good luck getting them to do a scan.  Most equipment is only set up for color scans, and unless you're dealing with a professional lab, they may not have the capability or know-how to scan black and white negatives.

However, even if you have a lab that will scan your negatives or you've invested in your own scanner, how can you be sure that you have "good" negatives?  Properly exposed negatives offer a wide range of tones, while poorly exposed or poorly processed negatives could only have traces of an image present.  Yet, scanners and software packages are great at extracting as much of an image as they can.  You could be messing up your exposure without even realizing it!  This leads to grainier images and poor prints.

One of the great things about using photo paper is that you can make uncorrected proofs.  These are controlled exposures that show you what you captured on the film "as is."  If you underexposed a shot, for example, there's no correcting factor imposed by a piece of software.  It would turn out dark; what you see is what you shot!

My favorite method of proofing is the famous "contact sheet."  You've seen them, right?  The sheets of paper that photographers look over to pick the perfect shot.  It takes its name from the fact that your film is put in contact with a piece of photo paper, and a timed exposure is made.  It lets you review all the negatives from a given roll of film on a single piece of paper (usually an 8x10) and you can see if everything came out too dark or too light.

A Sample Contact Sheet

To make a contact sheet, you need to line up your negative strips and put them in contact with the paper emulsion.  PrintFile sleeves are excellent for this - you don't even have to take them out of the sleeves to make the print!  While holding the two in contact with a sheet of glass or inside a contact printing frame, you expose the paper for a certain time.  A quick test should show you the ideal printing time.  If shooting 35mm film, it's the point at which the sprocket holes disappear.  That ensures that "pure black" on the film appears as pure black on the final contact sheet.

Another way to proof requires a different test.  By testing how long it takes to print a bit of blank negative to pure black for a given film/developer combination and enlarger height, you can come up with a base exposure time.  Print your negatives at this height and time, and you've got full-size proofs that will tell you whether you're too light or too dark, and will also reveal little details like out of focus areas and motion blur that wouldn't be apparent on the contact sheet.

Personally, I do a mix of contact sheets and scanning.  I will make a contact sheet to not only review how good the exposures are, but also to tape to the back of my PrintFile sleeves for a quick overview of the roll's shots.  It's far easier to review positives than negatives!  The finer details of each shot, however, are best revealed after a trip through the Epson V700 scanner, where I'll see things like focus problems and blur without having to waste a piece of photo paper.  Also, if I decide the image is something of a "keeper," I can upload it to Flickr with a minimal amount of work, and potentially well before my next chance to visit the darkroom.

Regardless of whether you're printing from scans or printing on photo paper, you never really know what you have until you see some sort of positive image through proofing.  From there, you can decide which of your photographs to invest time into, with the end goal of making beautiful prints.

Dan Domme is a film photography enthusiast and PhD student in the Acoustics department of Penn State. He's been a serious photographer for the last two years, and now shoots nearly exclusively on film. You can view his Flickr stream at or his photography blog at


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