Split Grade Printing Part 1 – Darkroom Filters and Papers

Understanding split grade printing in the darkroom is essential. There’s a lot out there about how to make a good print in the darkroom. Everyone has their own way, and there is no right or wrong.

Split grade printing consists of using multiple magenta/orange/yellow colored filters to alter the contrast of an image. Sometimes you can get away with one, sometimes you need two.

Filters come in two different flavors, under and above the lens, and they do exactly do what they say they do. Ilford and Foma are still making filters, and there are some second hand Kodak ones floating around on the internet. Buying new can get expensive so check out eBay or OLX for used ones. Just try to make sure they are not scratched or faded as this can affect the contrast and image quality (I got a set of Ilford filters in excellent condition on eBay for about $30 with shipping).

Some people will say that putting a filter between the lens and image will degrade the quality, but…

  • the quality loss (if there is any) is minor,
  • your life will be so much easier with below the lens. With above the lens, there is a chance you will knock the image out of alignment, and
  • and if your enlarger doesn’t have a filter drawer, below the lens is your only choice.
  • Another option is using a color head. These come with built in filters for adjusting color casts with color prints, but can be expensive and difficult to use. If you do happen to have a color head, the tech sheet that came with your paper should have the settings for different contrast grades. Just know that color heads can have a difficult time reaching the lowest and highest contrast a paper is capable of.


ilford multigrade fb classic paper

Papers also come in different varieties.

Graded papers have one contrast grade and to change it, you have to use a different paper. I personally have no problem with graded paper and have actually used it quite a bit because it’s cheap. There are some ways to play with the contrast. Using certain developers (Dektol, for example) at different dilutions can give you up to a grade of contrast either way, and technically you can use filters, but only expect to get about a one grade difference at most.

Variable contrast (VC) papers have grades 00-5 built in. You can change the contrast of your image just by changing the filter.

VC papers work by combining different emulsions into one paper. Most are grade 2-3 contrast when a filter is not used. One problem with graded papers is with dodging and burning. Let’s say you have some hair on a portrait you want to dodge to bring out some detail but still want some contrast. You can do this with graded paper, but the contrast will remain the same. With VC paper, you can control the contrast while dodging and burning, so you can have different contrast grades on different parts of an image.


There’s a lot of technical information on how photo paper works on the internet so I won’t get into it (I don’t even really understand a lot of it). But the concept of split grade printing is simple.

For the rest of these articles I will use 00 for the lowest contrast filter and 5 for the highest. Yours might be labeled differently but you get the point.

With split grade printing, you are making two different exposures on one piece of paper, one for the shadows and one for the highlights. If you think about high contrast as simply black and white and low contrast as grey it makes a lot of sense.

Do an experiment. Make several prints using each of your filters. See how the contrast changes. A print made with the 00 filter will look flat and grey. A print with filter 5 will be black and white, almost no midtones. You may see that one of your prints looks good, but remember, split grade printing is about having total control.

Take your prints from filters 00 and 5 and imagine them in one photo. The When you expose with filter 5, the highlights are still white, for the most part not even exposed. That’s where the 00 filter comes in, to fill in those unexposed areas

By taking two filters and playing with the grade and time, we can bring more detail into a print but keep the overall contrast we want.

In the next article, you will learn three methods of determining what exposure times to start out with when doing split grade printing.

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