Most art schools today, throughout the United States, have completely cut their C-printing (‘c’ refers to chromogenic printing) labs. I was taught that it is an outdated, dangerous, and difficult process and that it was not researching, let alone doing. I bet if you asked majority of second or third-year photography students what c-printing is, you’ll more than likely hear, “what’s that?” or “umm…is that digital?” However, through comprehensive and thorough research and conversations with friends, the process isn’t outdated, isn’t all that dangerous, nor is it difficult if you’ve built up a strong skillset in the darkroom through the silver gelatin process.
I began with silver gelatin and quickly fell in love. This process, unlike c printing, is still pretty prevalent and majority of students do understand how to do it, or they know of the process. It is very similar in relation to c-printing due to the fact that it utilizes light, aperture, exposure, and time in order to create a photograph. The only difference is that c-printing has cyan, yellow, and magenta filters that require a special ratio in order to have the correct color balance. The paper itself is actually quite sensitive to all of these elements, whereas silver gelatin is a little more lenient with its settings.
Chemistry for c-printing is RA-4 printing is both similar and different to the chemistry used in the C41 process. There are only two steps, developer and blixing. The developer for RA-4 printing contains “Diethylhydroxylamine,” which is used for image stabilization and a combination of a bleaching agent (Sodium Metabisulfite) and a fixing agent (Ferric Ammonium Ethylenediamine Tetraacetic Acid). These two are the only steps you need for color printing.
So, let’s say I shot a roll of film and I want to do three different prints from the roll. I walk into the photo lab and pour roughly around 10-12 fl. oz. of water, developer, and blix into three different cups (you’ll use 2 oz. of each for each print, so 10 will get you 5-6 prints). After filing each cup, I put them in a larger container and fill it with hot water, not running, but hot enough to get my water and chemicals to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees Celsius. Unlike, silver gelatin prints, I don’t bother with doing contact sheets, because after scaling from such a small negative to a larger 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 print or even larger, both the exposure and the color settings change. Not dramatically, but just enough to where it feels like you’re restarting.
Okay, I’ve chosen which photograph to print first. Kodak recommends you start with the color settings at 0 cyan, 50 yellow, and 40 magenta. These settings won’t be accurate with your print, but they’ll be close enough to get you started. You RARELY use the cyan filter because, it stops all red light from passing through. I also change my aperture depending on the size of my print. If I’m doing an 8 x 10 print, I shoot at f/8, and if I’m doing 11 x 14 or larger I shoot at f/5.6. After doing a test sheet with five 5 second increments, I decide that 3 seconds is best. I recommend that if you’re just starting out, don’t evaluate the color settings until you’re confident in the exposure time. Color settings are rarely changed -/+ 15 stops, so be careful when evaluating your prints.
After printing, you go develop. This done differently depending on which lab or if you’re at home doing this. Some labs will offer a machine that’ll pre-wet your paper and run it through the two chemicals, whilst keeping your chemicals at the correct temperature. However, I do not have this luxury, nor do I think other art schools across America do. So, I use a Unicolor Unidrum that I load my paper into, pour chemicals in and agitate by rolling it back and forth.
In complete darkness, I roll my paper in to the drum, lock it, and walk out to the sink with my preheated chemistry. I do a 30 second prewash, roll back and forth until the time is up, a minute of developer, and a 1 minute and 30 second blix. After I rewash all the chemical residue on it before drying it.
I made my first print, I squeegee it and blow dry it (gives you the best results for evaluating). Looking at it, I see it that it is way too green for my liking, so reduce the amount of magenta in my print. Depending on how much color there’s too much of, I recommend changing it by 5’s to give you the easiest and most accurate settings possible. Also, if you’re starting out, have the money, and want to try it out, I started by using a Kodak Color Print Viewing Filter Kit that shows you roughly what your print would look like with the adjustments.
Overall, the process to me, is much more expensive, harder to get used to, requires patience and mental math (eww), as well as a perfectly exposed photograph. However, I think the process is much more unique, gives you such an amazing feeling of accomplishment, and also that exclusivity (LOL). RA4 is something I had to teach myself because my school and thousands of others have gotten rid of the program. Of course, it’s 2019 and we’re in the era of AI, which I fully accept and enjoy, but this process is what the fundamentals of photography are all about. I chose c-printing because of the process, but other people will find other things about it they really enjoy or even hate. It allows both the artist and the viewer to experience a different type of photograph they might not be used to, especially with this younger generation.