How to Make a Proper Proof Sheet

Copyright 1991, Tom R. Halfhill

[ 35mm PROOF SHEET ]

Proof sheets get no respect. Many photographers, intent on producing the highest-quality black-and-white or color prints possible, spend hours fussing around in their darkrooms -- aligning enlargers, polishing lenses, cleaning condensers, calibrating analyzers, testing new developers, and fine-tuning their processing techniques. But they'll pay scant attention to one of the most valuable pieces of darkroom "equipment" of all...the lowly proof sheet.

Also known as contact sheets, because they're made by pressing strips of negatives in direct contact with the print paper, proof sheets are a convenient way to view a roll's worth of shots at a glance. They're also indispensable for evaluating the quality of your negatives -- but only if they're properly made. If you don't do the job right, a proof sheet will tell you next to nothing. Unfortunately, many photographers are so anxious to start making enlargements that they hurry through this step and sacrifice a lot of information. Some photographers don't even bother with proof sheets at all, trying instead to judge their negatives by peering at them with a loupe.

That's a shame, because anyone who goes to the trouble and expense of setting up a darkroom is obviously someone who's interested in top-quality results. If you're among the minority of photographers these days who follow their exposures all the way from the camera to the developing tank to the drying rack, it just doesn't make sense to shortchange yourself by taking a dubious shortcut.

A proper proof sheet takes only minutes longer to make than a sloppy proof sheet, but it can tell you much more than merely what your pictures look like. You can determine whether the negatives are under- or overexposed, if they're too flat or too contrasty, if they're sharp or fuzzy, and whether or not they're worth blowing up into full-size enlargements. You can even draw some preliminary conclusions about the true speed of your film, which you might be surprised to learn is different from the manufacturer's rating you've probably been using for years.

In addition to improving the technical  quality of your photography, a carefully organized file of proof sheets and negatives can sharpen the artistic  quality of your work as well. (More on this later.)

Let's start by reviewing the few simple steps required to make a technically accurate proof sheet, sometimes called a "proper proof." Although this discussion is concerned primarily with black-and-white proofing, many of the principles apply to color work, too.

Maximum Sharpness

You don't need a fancy proofing device to make good proof sheets. In fact, a fancy proofer can sometimes make the job more difficult.

For instance, I have a contact proofer that has a good, solid base padded with foam rubber and a heavy, hinged lid made of clear glass. It's a great proofer, except for one thing: the fancy film clips. Underneath the lid are metal spring-clips designed to hold the negatives absolutely flat. To use them, you have to attach both ends of each film strip to the tiny clips, which slide back and forth to accommodate different lengths of film. As you might imagine, attaching the flimsy negatives to these clips is a formidable task. It's almost guaranteed to leave fingerprints on the glass, the negatives, or both. The clips are such a bother that I never use them.

All you really need to make good proof sheets is a piece of clear glass at least 8x10 inches in size. Simply place a sheet of print paper on the baseboard of your enlarger (emulsion side up, of course); lay your strips of negatives on the paper (emulsion side down); and cover them with the glass. The weight of the glass alone should be sufficient to press the negatives absolutely flat, even if they have a tendency to curl. Adjust the enlarger so it projects a focused beam of light that's large enough to cover the entire sheet of paper.

If all that's needed is a sheet of glass, why do I still use a fancy contact proofer? Well, for one thing, I found my proofer at a yard sale for only $5. But aside from that, I appreciate the hinged lid of my proofer. It means I don't have to handle a delicate sheet of glass by hand. I can't cut myself on the edges or accidentally drop the glass in the dark.

Some contact proofers have a lid made of clear plastic instead of glass. I prefer glass because it's flatter and optically pure. Just be sure the glass is clean!

What about those archival plastic storage pages designed to allow proofing without removing the negatives? I use them, because they store easily in three-ring binders and help keep my fingerprints off the film. Also, at the top of the plastic page, I jot down the month and year the film was exposed, a sequential roll number, and the main subjects on the roll, such as "July 4th parade" or "Cape Hatteras lighthouse." If you use a permanent black marker pen designed for writing on plastic (such as a Sanford Sharpie), your notes will appear in bold white lettering when you make the proof sheet. This helps to keep your negatives and proofs well organized.

When I first began storing my negatives in archival plastic pages, I was worried that my proof sheets wouldn't be as sharp or as accurate in terms of exposure and contrast as negatives printed without the plastic pages. But to my surprise, side-by-side comparisons of proof sheets made both ways revealed no visible difference. Sometimes, however, I do notice apparent dust spots and scratches which turn out to be defects on the plastic page, not on the film. If there's any doubt, you can easily resolve the matter by withdrawing the negative from the plastic page and examining it with a loupe. I rarely bother to do this, because I'm very scrupulous about processing my film, and I generally have little trouble with embedded dust or scratches.

Whether or not you decide to make your own proof sheets through plastic pages depends on how much you mind handling your negatives. I prefer to handle mine as little as possible.

Maximum Black

To reach any useful conclusions about the quality of your negatives, it's absolutely essential that your proof sheets be properly exposed. Unfortunately, this is the most common mistake people commit when making proof sheets. They determine their enlarger exposure by judging the images on the film. When they make their test strip (if they even bother with this important step), they choose the exposure time which leads to the best-looking images, as if they were making a finished enlargement.

The trouble with this approach is that it never reveals the hard truth about your negatives. If your film is underexposed, overexposed, underdeveloped, or overdeveloped -- or some combination thereof -- you'll never know it by looking at an improperly exposed proof sheet, because you've "corrected" the exposure to compensate for the problem.

In fact, you probably won't even discover you've got a problem until you try to enlarge the negative. Then you'll find yourself burning, dodging, switching paper grades, and resorting to various other darkroom heroics in order to make a passable print. Although printing bad negatives is a good way to refine your darkroom skills, it doesn't have to become your life's work. Ideally, these techniques should be reserved for creative or expressive purposes, or to correct a situation that the film simply couldn't handle. A properly exposed and developed negative should yield an acceptable print when printed "straight" -- no manipulation, on normal-contrast paper. If you frequently find yourself burning, dodging, and switching paper grades merely to produce an acceptable print from what should be a normal negative, then something's wrong. A proper proof can put you on the track to discovering the solution.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to determine whether your proof sheets are properly exposed. Here's the key: In a proper proof, the clear, unexposed edges of the negatives should be as black as the areas of print paper between the strips of film. And those areas should be as black as the paper ever gets.

This principle is called "maximum black," and it's extremely important. If you underexpose your proof sheets, the clear film surrounding your images will appear on the proof as a very dark gray, not a true black. For a proper proof, the clear film must be printed down to the paper's maximum black. An overexposed proof sheet is more difficult to spot, but the vast majority of people err on the side of underexposure.

Why is maximum black so important? Because if the clear film on your negatives can't be printed down to true black without making the rest of the picture look too dark, then you can't produce a print with those smooth, rich tones you've probably admired in the work of the very best printers. If you shorten the printing exposure to make the picture look right, you've automatically sacrificed your blacks. It's like disconnecting the woofers in your stereo speakers -- your print won't have any "oomph" at the low end.

Sure, you can try to compensate by switching to a higher paper grade. The higher-contrast paper will indeed push those almost-blacks down to a true black. But remember, the effects of using a higher paper grade won't be limited to the blacks. Near-whites will be pushed upward into blank whites, and delicately shaded middle tones throughout the whole print will be shoved together into harsher tones. The extreme example of this is a high-contrast print that has only two tones: pure black and pure white.

So to learn the real truth about your negatives, you have to make a properly exposed proof sheet. And that means determining the minimum amount of exposure that will produce maximum black through the clear film.

This isn't very hard. All you have to do is make a test strip. But instead of picking the exposure that makes your images look right, pick the one that results in the deepest black through the clear film in the shortest amount of time.

Making A Proper Proof

Start with a test strip cut from the same paper on which you'll make the proof sheet -- same contrast grade, same surface, same package, same everything. Adjust the enlarger so it covers an area at least as large as your desired proof sheet (usually 8x10). Focus the lens and close down a couple of stops.

Next, set everything up as if you were making an actual proof sheet. If you have a fancy proofer, follow your usual procedures. If you're using a plain sheet of glass, simply place the test strip on the baseboard emulsion-side up. Lay a strip of negatives on top of the test strip, emulsion-side down. (By the way, it should be a sample of the same negatives you're about to proof, because the density of the clear film will vary from one type of film to another, and even from developer to developer.) If you plan to make your proof with the negatives stored in an archival plastic page, then make your test strip with the negatives in the plastic page, too.

Now expose your test strip. I expose mine in 5-second increments, ranging from 5 to 30 seconds. Some people prefer to use the doubling method, starting with a 1-second exposure and following with exposures of 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. Either way works, although sometimes you'll have to make a second test strip to fine-tune the proper exposure.

Be sure to fully develop the test strip. That means at least 60 seconds for fast-working resin-coated papers or 90 seconds for fiber-based paper. Some people prefer to extend these development times by 30 seconds or more.

After the stop bath and fixer, rinse the test strip in water and carefully examine it under very good room light. All papers "dry down" (get darker) as they dry, especially those with nonglossy surfaces. For this reason, you should allow the test strip to dry before making your evaluation. This isn't a problem with resin-coated paper -- even without the urging of a hair dryer, it'll be sufficiently dry in a minute or two. If you prefer fiber-based paper, you might want to consider switching to RC paper only for your proof sheets. It costs less than premium fiber-based paper, and you'll have dry proofs in minutes.

When examining your test strip, remember that you're looking for the first (shortest) exposure that yields maximum black through the clear film. If you're proofing 35mm film, the easiest way to spot this is to observe the sprocket holes. The holes will reach maximum black before the clear film does. When the surrounding film is as black as the sprocket holes, you've hit maximum black.

Once you've zeroed in on this exposure, start making your proof sheets. Don't change the exposure, the enlarger, the paper, the development time, or anything. The result will be a proper proof.

However, the result may also be a disappointment. Your images may be far too dark or too light. You may protest, "But how can I choose which frame to print if I can't even see it?"

Maybe you can't. But don't blame the proof sheet -- the problem is your negatives. For perhaps the first time in your life, you are seeing your negatives as they really are. If your pictures seem too dark, your film was either underexposed in the camera or underdeveloped in the darkroom, or both. If your pictures seem too light, your film was either overexposed in the camera or overdeveloped in the darkroom, or both. If the pictures seem too contrasty, the film was probably overdeveloped. If they seem too flat, the film was probably underdeveloped. Whatever the problem, it's about time you knew the truth, isn't it?

Now, if you really need to print those negatives, and they're too obscure to see on the proof sheet, you can go back and make a second proof the old way, a proof that's "corrected" to bring out the images. But don't fool yourself -- it's the negatives that really need correcting. You should immediately begin an investigation to figure out what you need to do to produce normally exposed, normally developed negatives.

Of course, that's a topic which fills hundreds of books, but here's a tip to get you started. If you're proofing black-and-white film and your pictures look too dark, the very first thing you should suspect is underexposure in the camera. Over the years, I've tried almost every black-and-white film on the market, and not one has ever yielded optimum results at the manufacturer's rated film speed. If you divide the rated speed in half (open up one stop), you'll be much closer to the mark. Sometimes you'll have to move even lower on the speed scale to get full shadow detail and good overall exposure.

Won't this extra dose of exposure blow out the highlights? Not unless the film is overdeveloped, and a proper proof sheet can help you determine that, too, if you pay attention to what's happening in the white areas of your pictures. Ideally, you want a negative that has strong shadow detail, printable highlights, and good overall exposure in the middle tones.

Once you start making proper proofs, the corrective measures you need to take will soon become apparent. Proper proofs are an invaluable aid in perfecting your technique -- both in the darkroom and when you're shooting with your camera.

Creative Advantages

So far we've been talking technique. But how can proper proofs help you improve the artistic  quality of your work, as I promised at the beginning of this article? Simple: The most important function of a proof sheet is that it allows you to become a picture editor when evaluating your own work.

Few photographers, even professionals, have the advantage of working with a skilled picture editor who has the seemingly instinctive ability to select the very best frames from a stack of proof sheets. A good picture editor, like a good copy editor, can take raw input and turn it into polished output.

You can learn to become a picture editor, too. In fact, it's a must if you want to make artistic progress with your photography. Fortunately, if you have any talent for photography at all, you probably already possess the basic skills, though they may be unsharpened. In effect, you're acting as a picture editor whenever you snap the shutter of your camera. Photography is the art of selection, and the small, rectangular part of the world which you choose to capture on film is really just the first step in the editing process.

The next step is the proof sheet. It shows you an entire roll's worth of shots at a glance, and you can scrutinize each frame more closely with a loupe. You don't have to enlarge every frame into a finished print, of course. Indeed, you don't have to enlarge any frames at all, if you don't like what you see.

Viewing your own work with a critical eye isn't easy, though. Have you ever noticed that it's often easier to weed out the bad shots and zero in on the good shots when looking at someone else's photography? That's because you're approaching their work with a fresh eye and a more objective state of mind -- more like a picture editor. You're not influenced by various factors unrelated to the work itself, such as the emotions they felt when they took the photographs.

For instance, let's say you're on vacation in the mountains and shoot some pictures of a breathtaking waterfall. You're certain that you've captured some prize-winning shots, perhaps the best you've ever taken.

But are they really that good? Or are you being influenced by your feelings? When you took the pictures, you were probably enjoying the leisure of your vacation and were excited by the spectacular display of nature's beauty.

A week later, when you get home and make the proof sheets, those waterfall shots might not be so breathtaking after all. But looking at them brings back happy memories of a cherished moment, and that could influence your judgment. You go ahead and enlarge the shots, then pass them around to all your friends. Although your friends might be too polite to say anything, perhaps they're silently wondering why you're so excited over a bunch of mediocre pictures.

Of course, if your main reason for taking the pictures was to preserve your memory of a cherished moment, then they serve their purpose. But if you're trying to create art, or to sell pictures to a magazine, you've got a problem. Your opinion is clouded by your feelings. You're seeing the photos through an emotional "filter" that wasn't on the lens when the pictures were taken.

So how can you evaluate your own work as objectively as a picture editor would? Often it helps to put some distance between yourself and your work. One way is to allow some time to elapse between the moment you shoot the pictures and the day you attempt to edit the proof sheets. Generally speaking, the more time, the better. If you allow enough time to pass, and if you shoot many more pictures in the meanwhile, you may even reach the point where you've practically forgotten about the earlier photos. You can then approach the proof sheets almost as if they were someone else's.

This can be more useful than you think. Some shots get worse with time, but some get better. True, you may be disappointed to discover that some of the shots you once believed were fantastic are now rather humdrum. But your review will almost always turn up some shiny nuggets that you previously ignored. A shot that seemed humdrum when you snapped the shutter might suddenly reveal qualities that weren't apparent at the time.

Naturally, this patient approach to picture editing isn't a luxury you can afford if you're producing photographs on deadline. And some shots are obviously great, even if they were taken only a day ago. But if you periodically go back over your old proof sheets, you'll be surprised at how often something interesting turns up.

For that reason, it's very important to proof every roll you shoot, and to organize all your proof sheets and negatives so you can easily find and review them later.

One danger of this approach, however, is that you might allow so much time to elapse before editing your work that you lose interest in it. Or maybe the proof sheets pile up so high that the task of editing them becomes too daunting to tackle. Either way, the result is a body of unedited work that does nobody any good.

This actually happened to one of the most famous photographers of our time, Garry Winogrand. When Winogrand prematurely died of cancer in 1984 at age 56, he left behind a mind-boggling legacy. His survivors found 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped black-and-white film, plus another 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not proofed, plus another 3,000 rolls that had been developed and proofed but not edited. Almost all of these 12,000 rolls of film were pumped through his Leicas during the last six years of his life. That adds up to about 432,000 pictures that Winogrand took but never saw.

It was a picture editor's nightmare. Fortunately, a small committee of Winogrand's friends, headed by John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, obtained corporate grants to have all of this film developed, proofed, and sorted. Then they spent months laboriously examining the proof sheets, searching for images that seemed to reflect Winogrand's controversial style. They chose 25 pictures to accompany a retrospective of Winogrand's life work that was exhibited at MOMA and later published as a book (Winogrand: Figments From the Real World).

Of course, it's not necessary to postpone your picture editing to this extreme. But you may find, as I have, that even a delay as brief as a month or two will markedly sharpen your objectivity. That little bit of extra distance can help you evaluate your work more critically so you can make more satisfying progress toward your goals.


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