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Photography Contrast Masking Faq's

Q: Can't I achieve the same results as masking allows by applying careful processing or printing techniques and using special developers and/or printing papers?

A: Not necessarily. While meticulous processing and printing procedures should always be followed by the careful darkroom worker, many masks can achieve specific results, from subtle to extreme, that simply cannot be duplicated by altering processing and printing techniques and chemicals. Masking procedures open a whole world of contrast and density control possibilities in the photographic darkroom.

Q: Some prominent photographers claim you don't need masking to make good prints if your negatives are properly exposed and developed. Is this true?

A: You never "need" masks. However, if you want to achieve certain values or contrasts in your final print that standard techniques don't allow (because of inherent limitations of papers/films/developers) then masking is a tool that can achieve that goal. Even if your negs are properly exposed and developed, you may want to coax more or less contrast into specific areas in your print (or overall) to achieve your visualization. With masking techniques you can get richer blacks where needed, cleaner, luminous whites in any area of the image, sharper detail, "silvery" tactile values and much more.

Q: Isn't there actually only one type of mask?

A: No. Most people think of the "unsharp mask" when they hear the term mask, but actually there are many more masks which are equally valuable (or even more so). In black & white work, some of these masks are the CRM, SCIM, HLM, Fog Mask, Dodge Mask and Inkjet Dodge Mask (with variations of each). All of these masks are very easy to make and are remarkable in the seamless control they afford the photographer on the fine print. These additional masks should not be overlooked by any serious darkroom printer.

Q: Is it difficult and time consuming to make masks?

A: Not at all. Once initial testing is done, and the photographer develops a "feel" for the specific masks he/she wants, the process is usually quick and effortless. A densitometer or other expensive equipment is not required, and anyone can make an effective mask. In fact, utilizing masks can afford consistent results and can save substantial time if additional images, regardless of size, need to be printed in future printing sessions.

Q: Can these masking procedures be used for color printing as well as black and white?

A: Many of the masks described in the kit can be used successfully for color printing as well as black and white. In particular, the use of Contrast Reduction Masks is especially effective when making Ilfochrome prints. Standard camera films, such as Kodak T-Max 100, can be used as the masking film for this type of printing.

Q: Where can I turn to if I need help with various masking techniques?

A: The book that comes with the Contrast Masking Kit explains each type of mask in detail, from the reasons why a mask may be helpful, to the making of the mask itself, and how to print with each of the masks. Photographer Lynn Radeka is always happy to answer questions via phone or e-mail regarding any aspect of masking. The most in-depth study of contrast masking is available at the Radeka Photography Contrast Masking Workshops.

Q: Is it difficult or expensive to obtain the right films for masking?

A: Not at all. Low cost Litho films are used for nearly all the masking procedures included in the kit. Standard camera films can also be used for some of the procedures. The kit contains sources for easily obtaining these films as well as recommendations for which film to use for each type of mask. Kodak's Pan-Masking Film (no longer available) is not needed for any of these procedures.

Q: Isn't masking just an excuse for sloppy exposure/development/printing procedures?

A: While certain masks can definitely render many poor negs printable, the most important use of masking is to allow the photographer greater creative control to achieve the ideal print that is desired. In fact, the photographer can incorporate or anticipate masking procedures in his pre-visualization routine at the time of exposing the negative, or in the darkroom during post-visualization of the fine print. Masking should be thought of as a creative "tool", not as a corrective procedure.

Q: I shoot small format (35mm) negatives. Can I still use the masking techniques written about in this kit?

A: A few of the masks detailed in the kit (notably the Contrast Reduction Mask, Unsharp Mask and Highlight Mask) can be used with formats as small as 35mm. There are methods and materials available which make it possible to enlarge your small format negatives so that all of the masking procedures can be used. The new chapter on Paper Plane Masking describes additional masking techniques that are ideal for small format as well as large format negatives. Also, the other special procedures described in the kit can be used regardless of negative format size.

Q: Why do I need a pin-registration system? Can't I register masks by eye?

A: Only one or two types of masks can be registered by eye (most notably the unsharp mask and CRM). However, using a pin-registration system will guarantee perfect and quick registration every time, even if the mask is placed in the carrier under safelight conditions. Some masks, notably the SCIM, HLM and Fog Masks, absolutely require pin-registration.

Q: How can I obtain a pin-registered system that will work for my enlarger?

A: The kit contains simple instructions for making a good pin-registration glass carrier as well as the metal registration pins. The process is fairly simple and can be easily adapted to your own equipment. The pins that are included in the kit will work with most standard 2-hole paper punches. These punches are readily available in stores or on the internet. The glass carrier is used both for making masks and for printing with masks. You might also want to consider the Precision Pin-Registration Carrier System, which eliminates the need to make your own registration system, and assures the greatest possible accuracy, ease and speed in mask-making and printing. The Precision system is the ideal companion for all kinds of contrast masking and multiple-exposure printing work, as well as normal printing.

Q: Since some masks require diffusion when making them or when printing with them, can't I use any transluscent material (such as white plexiglass) for diffusion?

A: Most masks which require pin-registration cannot be used with any form of thick material, since it would be impossible (or exceedingly difficult at the least) to place a thick diffusion sheet in between two or more pin-registered sheets of film when printing (such as is required by the Fog Mask and Dodge Mask). In addition, this procedure must usually be done under safelight conditions. Some thin materials, such as vellum, or some other flexible diffusion material can be used, but it ideally should contain no texture whatsoever. Duratrans diffusion material seems to be the ideal substance for both the making of some masks and/or the printing with some masks (such as the Fog Mask and Dodge Mask). This material is included in the Contrast Masking Kit and is also included in the Anti-Newton Ring version of the Precision Pin-Registration Carrier Systems.

Q: Will I need any special equipment or materials to make and use masks?

A: The only item which is helpful for some masks, and required for others, is a pin-registration glass carrier. This can easily be made by the photographer with the instructions included in the Contrast Masking Kit to suit his/her own equipment and preferences. The only special film that may be needed is Litho film of a size preferably larger than the negative format that the photographer uses. This can be purchased at most photography stores, and the masking kit manual lists sources for litho film and other items. A standard two-hole paper punch may be needed as well, and is easily obtainable at most office supply stores or on the internet (see Contrast Masking Kit manual). For the ultimate in accuracy and speed in both mask-making and printing, the new Precision Pin-Registration Carrier Systems are now available. These high-quality systems eliminate the need to make your own registration system.

Q: Will my original negative be punched or damaged in any way?

A: With this pin-registration system, the original negative is never punched or damaged in any way. In fact, this system facilitates subsequent safe handling of the original negative and diminishes the possibility of damage that can occur whenever the original negative is handled. Other systems from other sources require punching the original negative.

Q: Will this system allow for separate storage of the masks and the original negatives?

A: Yes. Because accurate pin-registration is used in the making and use of the masks, no masks are ever "taped" or attached to the original negative. This allows for separate archival storage of the original negatives and masks. This is a major advantage over the usual method of taping masks permanently to the original negative.

Q: Will I no longer need to use variable contrast printing techniques or burning and dodging when using masks?

A: Since masking is an "enhancement" tool, you can achieve even greater control when using masks along with your usual variable contrast papers/procedures, etc. You can still burn/dodge as usual although masking can often reduce the need for complex burning/dodging schemes.


All photographs on this site are copyright © Lynn Radeka. All rights reserved.
Precision Pin-Registration Carrier System copyright © 2002 Lynn Radeka. Patent pending.
Contrast Masking Kit copyright © 2000 Lynn Radeka.