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Making Digital Negatives

All contents and images ©Dan Burkholder

Digital negatives have pumped new energy into the alternative printing arena. Since the first edition of my Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing was published in 1995 (I call that long-past period the Paleolithic era in digital imaging), I've heard from people all over the world who are thrilled with their new power to combine the old (chemical-based photography) with the new (digital capture and control).

Today the friendliest way to make digital negatives is with Photoshop and modern inkjet printers, using these inkjet negatives to print on classic photosensitive materials like cyanotype, platinum/palladium, and silver gelatin. When we do the steps properly, we can make contact prints that rival the quality of prints made from camera-original negatives. You gotta admit, this sounds like fun!

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Figure 1: Windmills, Spain, Platinum/Palladium Print from a Digital Negative, by Dan Burkholder

How Do We Make a Digital Negative?

We can break our negative making procedure into a couple fundamental steps:

  1. Preparing our image with the proper contrast.
  2. Printing the negative on clear transparency material.

Because our inkjet printers were not designed to make negatives on a clear transparency, we must prepare our images in specific ways before hitting "Print." This preparation isn't difficult, but it must be done with a certain amount of care if we want our negatives to print correctly. In a nutshell, we must change the contrast of the image before printing. A Photoshop Curve is the ideal way to do just that. Figure 2 shows a typical Epson 2400/7800/9800 curve I use to make a negative for platinum/palladium.

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Figure 2: A Typical Digital Negative Curve for Epson 2400

This curve will not make your image look better on your screen. In fact, it will make your image look too light. That's normal; you just have to remember that the finished negative will have the contrast you want and need for printing on photosensitive materials. Just as a glob of clay isn't as pretty as the finished pottery, your contrast-adjusted image on your monitor is just raw materials.

Now that you know about changing the image contrast via curves, you'll be happy to know that I've created a Photoshop file that semi-automates the negative creation process, including applying the Curve mentioned above. I call this Photoshop file a Template.

Dan's Inkjet Negative Template

I call it a Template because it is a prepared image file into which you simply drag your flattened grayscale image. Figure 3 shows the Template. Think of it as a container for your image. Notice the included step tablet. This step tablet is an important troubleshooting/diagnostic tool; if your negatives don't print properly, you use this step tablet to easily fix contrast problems.

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Figure 3: The Inkjet Negative Template

Figure 4 illustrates how I drag my flattened (no layers) grayscale image into the Template.

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Figure 4: Dragging Your Image into the Template

Figure 5 shows the Template with the image on its own layer. Notice the Layers Palette to see where the image lands in the Template. Once the image is positioned in the Template, it's as easy as clicking on one of the Layer Groups (in the layers palette) to have your image ready-to-print. In the Layers palette I've included Layer Groups for various Epson Printers and printing processes. There's one for the Epson Stylus Photo 2400 and Platinum and another for the Epson Stylus Photo 2400 and Silver Gelatin. Just turn on the Layer Group that matches your printer and process, and you're on your way.

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Figure 5: The Image in the Template

With your image in the Template, it's a simple matter to prepare it with the proper contrast. Figure 6 shows how I've turned on the 2400 Platinum Layer (made visible by clicking the eyeball column). This Layer Group applies a contrast adjustment curve and inverts the image to create a negative, exactly what you want to send to your printer.

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Figure 6: Turning on the Layer Group

For Certain Printer/Ink Combinations we use a Spectral Density to create a colorized negative. This red-orange color blocks UV light and is ideal for making negatives for printing on ultra-violet sensitive processes like platinum/palladium. Figure 7 shows the Template with the Layer Group for the Epson Stylus Photo 1280 (a dye-based inkjet printer) turned on.

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Figure 7: Colorizing the Image

When the image has the contrast and/or color applied via the nifty Template layers, you are ready to print on Pictorico OHP transparency Film. This material has a superior ink-absorptive coating and is the best I've found for making digital negatives. There are cheaper materials available, but you'd be amazed at how many stories of wasted time and paper I've listened to from users who tried to save a few cents per negative. Use the Pictorico OHP and you won't be one of those unhappy souls.

In Figure 1 you can see the final hand-coated platinum/palladium print as made from the digital negative. One of the huge benefits of working from digital negatives is that every print gets the same exposure time with no burning or dodging needed since all those corrections are made in Photoshop before making the negative. This first-print-is-perfect way of working saves you massive amounts of time, paper and chemistry in the darkroom.

As I wind up this short synopsis of the digital negative making process, I hear readers bemoaning that, "there has to be more to it than that." Yes, I have truncated the steps for brevity. In the spirit of full disclosure, here are a few other issues you should know about:

  • As you may have guessed, the settings you make in the Print dialog box play a big role in how your digital negative turns out.
  • You might have to adjust your contrast curves to meet your combination of variables (like papers, developers, humidity, sun spots, etc.).
  • You might have to swap black inks (costing you money) for your digital negs. Most printers do better with the Photo Black (PK) rather than the Matte Black (MK) ink.
  • Though I've limited my testing to Epson printers, other brands of printers can make swell negatives.

My Inkjet Negative Companion goes into much more detail on these (and plenty of other) digital negative issues. This supplement to my book provides a thorough step-by-step for those wanting to use Epson printers to make great negatives for their contact printing needs.

There's nothing like combining the precision of digital imaging with the elegance of the handmade print. Now that you can make high quality inkjet negatives right on your own desktop, you can experiment and play with your photography like never before.

The classic darkroom once again becomes the magical place where creativity and chemistry mix to create beautifully crafted fine art.

Things You Need to Make Inkjet Negatives
Your shopping list is actually pretty small.

  • Photoshop CS or later
  • An Epson Stylus Photo 2400, 2200, or 1280 printer (or their "big sister" equivalents)
  • My Inkjet Negative Companion (includes the Template image and complete how-to PDFs)
  • Pictorico OHP Transparency Film (www.pictorico.com)
  • Oh, and a computer...
  • ...and electricity

Dan was one of the first photographic artists to embrace digital technology in the early 1990s. His book, "Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing" is regarded as a photographic benchmark. His forthcoming monograph, "The Color of Loss: an Intimate Portrait of New Orleans after Katrina," is being published by University of Texas Press. You can learn more about Dan's photography and digital negatives at www.DanBurkholder.com.