Making Large Format Photo Negatives from Digital Images
By David Saffir
Until recently, our main options in photographic printing lived in two worlds—analog and digital. It didn’t seem possible that we’d ever have an option that would let photographers easily move back and forth between them. HP has introduced a solution that extends a bridge between those worlds, one that lets us print our digital images using traditional, darkroom-based silver halide/silver gelatin process. HP calls this the Large Format Photo Negative solution.
It all begins with a digital image. This can be created using a digital camera, or a scan. This digital image can be edited and manipulated in Photoshop or similar application. This original image can start in color or black and white.
To create the negative, you load an HP Designjet Z3200 printer with a transparent or translucent inkjet film manufactured for this purpose. Companies like HP, Pictorico and others manufacture this material. It's readily available; I purchased a roll of the Pictorico material at Freestyle Photographic Supplies in Los Angeles. It's also available at online retailers like B&H Photo and Adorama.
This image shows the film coming off the printer. I placed a white background underneath the film to help visualization.
Additionally, HP has created special printing pre-sets that are used through the normal printer driver. Install these on your host computer before the next step.
in Photoshop, create a simple adjustment layer that alters the tone curve of the image, which will optimize the negative for darkroom printing. The positive image is inverted and reversed to a negative, and sent to the printer.
The result is a black-and-white negative printed on the transparent film, which can be used in a conventional darkroom workflow. A contact printing frame is used to "sandwich" the large-format negative and printing paper, and standard chemistry can be used. Any color balanced light source can be used, although I recommend using a color enlarger with a lens and dichroic head.
The HP pre-sets ensure that the negative will yield a print that has excellent dynamic range, good shadow/highlight detail, and excellent transitions throughout.
Once the digital negative is made, you can print on most darkroom papers, using conventional chemistry and a contact printing frame.
Once the digital file is created, the printing process is quite repeatable and consistent.
Contact printing, done correctly, creates very sharp, consistent prints
Silver gelatin prints are of proven archival quality, and if handled correctly will potentially last as long, or outlast, any other process available.
A wide range of toning processes can be used to customize the print as desired.
One doesn't need to be an expert in darkroom processing, but strong familiarity and attention to detail will go a long way.
Use a fiber-based, multi-grade paper, such as the new Ilford or ADOX, to start.
Use a contact frame with new, clean glass. This will keep the negative flat - a key element in sharpness. We made one from an old picture frame and a new piece of glass.
Just about any controlled, diffuse light source can be used. Use the enlarger lens to help control exposure. The lens will also help render the contact print a bit sharper.
Use an archival-level wash, and rack dry to ensure that your prints are of highest quality.
The negatives scratch fairly easily; wear lint-free gloves, and if you store them, use interleaving paper. The good news is that it’s a snap to make a fresh one.
One last tip: keep tight control of the contrast in the print, and protect your shadow and highlight detail.
This new process provides new options for photographers. While it has been possible to use a number of techniques to make digital negatives and contact prints, the older procedures have been, in my view, too complex for the mainstream. Now we have the tools to make this a viable option in almost anyone's fine art photographic work.
When I first made these prints, I partnered with an established fine art printmaker, Tony Zinnanti, of Santa Clarita, California. We tried a number of media types, and settled on the ADOX multi-grade. A moderate selenium toning and archival wash finished off the prints nicely. I also had prints made off-site, by Digital Silver Imaging of Massachusetts. The results were gratifying, to say the least. These prints have a luminance and presence that I just don’t get from inkjet production.
If you already own one of these large-format printers, you're in a great position to try this technique yourself. And, of course, you could print the negatives for other photographers. If you don't have one, well, there's plenty of people around who do. It's well worth exploring and making some exciting additions to your portfolio!