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Making Digital Negatives

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This article was written a few years ago and is in need of updating. However, it proved so popular that I have included it here again in the hope that it may help those attempting this technique.

Introduction

I enjoy traditional darkroom work, but the bulk of my photography is now digital. That's partly because I find it more convenient and partly because I believe I can produce black and white prints from digital files that very nearly equal the tonality of the film-based negative-positive process. Plus you get a full colour original file should you need it. For colour work, I don't think I'll be buying colour film again any time soon (I actually still have a freezer well stocked with the stuff!).

But, there is still something about well-processed, finished black and white prints on silver-based fibre photographic paper that stands them apart from current digital prints, so I thought I'd try making some 'digital negatives' from my raw format digital files and then contact print the result onto silver-gelatin paper.

So what is a digital negative? It's a print made with an ink-jet printer on transparent film. Not just any transparent film, but a specially coated material that holds the ink. For anyone in the UK there lies the first problem, the film is not available anywhere here at the time of writing. There are two types that seem to meet requirements: the first is made by Mitsubishi in Japan and is called Pictorico Ultra Premium OHP Transparency Film; the second is made by Inkpress and simply called Transparency Film. Both are readily available in the US and Canada, or can be ordered from B&H in New York from anywhere in the world - if you are prepared to pay the shipping costs.

Luckily a good friend of mine in the US was willing to get some shipped to him and forward it on to me. I chose the Pictorico product, 8.5 x 11 inch sheets. Whilst waiting for it to arrive I did a bit of research into other peoples' methods. This entailed getting the standard book on the subject (now out of print) Dan Burkholder's 'Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing'. Published in 1999 (2nd edition) it is pretty old by digital technique standards, but still contains some useful information on his method. If you visit his website you'll find both the book and some more recent material for sale or free download. I picked up a copy of the book from a second-hand bookseller in the US, complete with original CD in the back. It was a slightly cheaper alternative to buying new. Both the book and much of the website are rather out of date now though, although the principles are still sound in most areas.

The second source was Dr Mike Ware, well known for the depth of his knowledge on all things 'alternative' (in the photographic processing sense), I was somewhat surprised to find that he had written a short treatise on making digital negatives but on reflection in makes sense. Many of the alternative processes require a large format negative for contact printing and the ability to produce these from digital files becomes more necessary as time goes on. His concise booklet on the subject of making digital negatives is available for download (at a not too unreasonable price) from his publishers, Siderotype.

I found both of these sources worth reading, with the most recent published addendum (2008) from Dan Burkholder (specific to the Epson 3800 printer) particularly so. The concise and information-rich booklet from Mike Ware was also extremely useful as it explained his (slightly different) approach in a very clear way.

There is a third reference work, the lengthy-titled: Digital Negatives: Using Photoshop to Create Digital Negatives for Silver and Alternative Process Printing by Brad Hinkel and Ron Reeder . I've not read this yet, but a sample chapter is available for free download. You can get it here. You can also download for free his own concise description of a method using an Epson 3800 printer (see later).

In addition, Tim Rudman has a section on making digital negatives in his excellent 'World of Lith Printing' book.

Anyone researching this subject soon discovers that not a lot is given away free by any of the main exponents. That's fair enough I guess, they have to earn a crust, but there really is no great mystery attached to the subject, it's just that not many people seem to do it, or at least if they do they don't write about it on the web for free. As a believer in 'open source', I'm keen to share what I've discovered during my explorations, but I'll respect the 'secrets' of the published material I've purchased and read.