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Recently the weather cooled down enough to make it possible to set up the darkroom again without it turning into some sort of peculiarly dark and chemical infused sauna. It’s not a big room, and with the door and windows closed and safelight and enlarger chucking out a fair amount of heat it doesn’t take too long before its pretty warm. Along with the favourable temperature, I had another motive – having nipped in to the shop to collect some rolls of Ektar after processing, I’d picked up a 10 sheet packet of 30×40 (12″x16″) Ilford Multigrade paper, so I finally had a chance to try printing my medium format negs at a size that would start to do them justice.

Using my smaller prints as a basis for things like the multi-grade filter choice I produced four 30cm (12-inch) square prints:

Big silver prints

They are lovely things to behold; the larger size really shows off the detail present in the MF negs so you can just keep looking at them for ages. However, they were hard work – I found it much more difficult to make prints this size. The first reason for this was the sheer size of the trays. Thinking I might possibly be able to do 40cm square prints I got the largest trays I could (they’re about 75x50cm – 18×24 inches), without realising just how much space three of them next to each other would require. I had to shift the darkroom layout around slightly to fit them all in, which gave me less room to work in. On top of that there’s the amount of liquid required – 8×10″ trays require about 0.5 litre to get enough depth to properly cover a print, but these huge things needed 2.5 litres to get enough for a satisfactory depth everywhere. This isn’t so much of a problem for stop and fix, which I can re-use, but for developer it could get expensive if I’m not printing a decent quantity. Emptying them again afterwards is also a bit difficult, at least if I don’t want a carpet full of fixer.

Next there’s the size of the paper, which gave me problems cutting it to size as I no longer had sufficient desk space. It also gave me problems due to lack of a large enough easel, but I improvised with an old white MDF kitchen unit section, which is nice and flat and has a hard, smooth white coating. The other problem with the large paper was getting it smoothly into the developer – it doesn’t seem to slide as easily as the smaller stuff, which maybe is to do with the lack of enough liquid. I also had problems getting liquid off them after they were washed, and finding somewhere to keep them flat when drying. I think I may have to invest in a clothes airer…

The next problem was the enlarger which although capable of large enlargements clearly wasn’t designed with them in mind since the two rods for the focus rack actually intrude into the image at certain heights. You can see it in the bottom left large print in the photo above – a white blob on the left-hand edge. I’ve solved it now by hacksawing a couple of cms off the bottom of each rod, but it is still annoying. The other thing with the enlarger is that for large prints, it’s much more awkward to focus with precision due to the relative position of my head, looking into a focus finder, and my hand adjusting the focus knob. Not good for the spine.

All of this made adjusting the enlarger that little bit more complicated and everything just took longer. Then there were test exposures. I found it harder to cover a decent range of tones in a test strip, without using what were quite large, and therefore not cheap, bits of paper, so again things took a bit more time than necessary. I’m hoping a lot of this will improve with practice.

Now onto the positive side of this experience. Thanks to the increased distance from the baseboard, I found I had much more control of dodging and burning. Partly because the increased distance meant longer exposure times so I didn’t have to rush too much, and partly because I could achieve softer edges by moving the bit of card or whatever nearer the lens relative to the paper than for a smaller print. These two factors alone let me get much more out of a given negative than with a smaller print. I can already see the difference in the four I’ve done here so hopefully when I restock with paper, and set up again I can really fine tune these prints. Can’t wait.

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