there is white – and there is white

home processed colour print c1971

Toronto. Years ago, black and white processing was a piece of cake. The choice of paper grade determined the basic contrast to match the negative; a wide choice of paper tones and textures could be made; dodging and burning modified areas to give detail in the highlights and shadows; paper surface choices of glossy or matt could be made; You could print an artistic high key or moody noir shot; etc. In an evening, a roll or two of film could be developed and printed.

Colour was another matter entirely. As time went on colour negative film moved from a dense orange filter background to a more neutral background. My earliest experiences were taking an entire night to develop a film and then colour balance and correctly expose a single print! Worse, the colour chemicals quickly lost their potency and the next day a new batch was necessary to print again. It was simpler to have the film processed commercially and returned so you could make prints.

Photographing a grey card in the first frame of a roll helped. This 18% brightness, neutral-coloured card could be used to choose the filter colours and densities for printing (filters were yellow, magenta, or cyan – only two of the three were needed since all three of the same density resulted in  a neutral density). These filters would be the same for all shots on that roll, under the same lighting with the same paper batch. It was still fussy to get the whites as whites in the print  with no pale colour cast. I once spent hours trying to get a light mauve blouse to print white while keeping the skin tones natural – until my wife mention the colour of the blouse…

For film, all the benefits of home processing disappeared with the arrival of commercial one hour processing services. The best you could do with colour prints was make an accurate, colour balanced print. Shifting contrast by varying development time seemed to shift the colour balance too. So rather than spend long nights fiddling with the colour balance and chemistry, it was cheaper to have a local one hour service print a set of 4×6 inch prints and if they were off colour, the service would do a free reprint! It was beneficial to print larger sizes at home, but you needed to have the right equipment and enough chemistry.

By the 1990s, the negatives could be scanned and printed by Photoshop.  With Photoshop or its competitors, you chose a neutral colour (not a full black or full white) and adjusted the R G B ratios to the same percentages. Lightroom made white balance even easier with a single click on a neutral area of the image – and like in Photoshop et al you could still touch up the colour slightly to make the image warmer or cooler. Most modern inkjet printers do a fine job of colour printing on ordinary paper or special photo paper if you choose to print at home. And digital images can be stored on a hard drive or other media.

In this century, with digital cameras and smartphones, it is even easier. In-camera auto white balance can be used – or you can choose some variation based on the lighting. Most photos are stored as images or emailed – few are printed, but again prints are fast and inexpensive at a nearby service shop like a grocery store, Walmart, etc. with a kiosk that accepts smartphones, camera cards, DVDs, etc.

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