Creative possibilities in RA4 printing

Sometimes I read comments on RA4 printing like “it doesn’t allow for much creativity given the required tight process controls”. Well, I don’t agree. Recently, when I read a comment along these lines, it triggered me to list the more creative ways RA4 printing can be done. Here’s that list, with a brief explanation to go with each entry.

Ready? Here it is:

There are probably a few more that I didn’t even think of; feel free to add them in the comments below!

Most if it is pretty obvious, I suppose, but let me elaborate on a few of these.

Creative / non-realistic color filtering

Not all that much to say about this one. Why limit yourself to filtering for a realistic image? Especially abstract compositions can be set free color-wise. I often subtly adjust filtration to emphasize certain hues or color contrasts. Admittedly, most of the time I remain well within the boundaries of what looks realistic, but there’s no actual need to do so, right?

Negative exposed at around 11am in bright sunlight after the rain had cleared. Print filtered to look like it was shot at midnight, illuminated by a streetlight.

Burning & dodging

This one can be a bit tricky especially with today’s color papers, as they’re quite fast and exposures tend to be short. Still, it’s possible, and in a number of occasions it has helped me to overcome extreme contrasts in negatives, by e.g. burning in a bright sky.

Pre- and post-flashing

Here, it gets interesting, in my opinion. Exposure of silver halide materials (including RA4 paper) is cumulative. This means you can effectively stack one exposure onto another. Combine this with the fact that there’s a threshold before a silver halide grain becomes developable, and the ingredients for a powerful technique arise.

The first application for this is contrast control, and I’ve been using this quite extensively lately. In this application, the paper is first exposed with diffuse light (i.e. without an image/negative, or through a diffusion filter). The exposure is set to not quite produce density without further exposure. If developed after only giving the pre-flash exposure, the sheet will come out pure white. However, since all silver grains are already taken to the threshold of becoming developable, an additional image exposure (through the negative) will bump these grains into a developable state, even if they receive only a small amount of light. The result is that in a high-contrast scene, the light areas (e.g. a swath of bright clouds) end up in the print just fine, without significantly affecting density in shadows and highlights. Effectively, it’s a form of contrast compression that looks very natural.

Pre-flashed RA4 print to obtain detail in the sky

The print above was made from a very high-contrast negative. It’s a story unto itself, as it’s not a normal C41 negative, and I will follow up on this at a later point. In any case, the contrast of the negative was simply too high, so I gave a pre-flash exposure through a diffusion filter. The unexposed borders remain white, but the grey clouds in the sky render more like how I experienced them out in this field. In the straight print, the sky was virtually pure white.

The other application for paper flashing is to introduce (or fix) color crossover in the print. It’s a technique that’s used extensively for instance by Peter Svenson from AAP lab (a great guy and awesome analog printer!) The principle is simple: the pre (or post) flash exposure does not have to be in the same color filtration as the main exposure. In the print above, I didn’t change filtration because I wanted the clouds to render in a neutral grey, and in the same color balance as the foreground. But what if you want to tear this color balance apart? Using different filtration settings for both exposures allows this.

“Split-toned” print, made by giving a pre-flash exposure filtered for strong yellow, followed by a main exposure through the negative filtered for deep blue.

Here’s that ‘midnight blue’ street scene again, but now printed as a split-toned print. Here, the pre-flash exposure has activated mostly the yellow-forming emulsion, so that’s the color that gets pushed into a developable state in the highlights. The main exposure (through the negative) was dialed in to give a very cool/blue toned image. Coincidentally, since the contrast of the negative was far too high for the paper, the pre-flash also helped to curb this, preventing the stripes on the tarmac from blowing out into pure white.

Supplemental masking

I have to be honest with you here – I don’t do this. Ever. I’m not a masochist. However, it’s possible, and it’s by far the most powerful trick in the book.

Take what I said about flashing in the previous section and add infinite control to this. Supplemental masking means that you make one or more separate ‘mask’ transparencies that affect certain parts of the image, or certain parts of the image curve. If you combine this with separate exposures for each color, you can pretty much tailor an image exactly to how you want it to come out. Want to bump the yellow channel a slight bit about 2/3 up the curve? No problem. Enhance shadow contrast, but retain linearity from the midtones upwards? Sure.

The catch is that this takes a lot of work. This can either be done digitally, by scanning the negative and then making separations and masks as desired in digital space, outputting them onto e.g. inkjet transparencies. Alternatively, the old-school route is to do this process on film, in the darkroom, with an enlarger. Tailoring curve shapes is a matter of figuring out the correct filtration, exposure and development parameters for each possible adjustment you’d like to make. It’s one of those “spend 10,000 hours to learn the basics” kind of things. That’s why I don’t go there – I need those 10,000 hours for other things that I find at least as interesting.

But this is, and remains, the only true way of truly and reliably fixing e.g. the green/magenta crossover issue that RA4 paper is prone to since it was tailored to digital exposure. If you’re bothered by it, of course. It so happens I’m not, fortunately.

Bleach bypass

This one is not as relevant on RA4 paper as it is on e.g. C41 film, I admit. The concept is simple: develop the paper, and fix it. Just skip the bleach step. The same can be done with C41 (or ECN2) film. You end up with a print (or negative) with not just the color dyes, but also the developed silver image that was instrumental in producing the colors.

So why is this not so relevant on paper? Well, RA4 paper just doesn’t contain all that much silver. If you’re curious: Fuji paper contains exactly 281 mg of silver per square meter. Feel free to forget that number, and instead remember that if you develop out all this silver, all you get is a weak grey tone that’s not quite 18% grey, even.

If you leave the silver image in a color RA4 print, what this achieves is that it will add a slight amount of density, but not all that much. Perhaps equivalent to 10% or 15% increase in exposure. The other thing it does is since the silver image is neutral grey, it reduces color saturation a tad. This effect is a little more significant than the added density. I can see how it’s useful in e.g. a portrait, where you might want to subtly suppress color saturation a bit for a more muted look.

On color film, the silver image is in my experience a lot more significant, or it has more ‘presence’, if you will. If you bleach bypass color C41 film, what you tend to get is a rather grainy/gritty negative of relatively harsh contrast and somewhat reduced color saturation. Yes, of course – this technique was used in Saving Private Ryan, which was probably its (re)claim to fame in recent years. Another notable instance of use was in the 1984 version of 1984.

One other thing this technique has going for it, is that it’s easy. Just use regular RA4 color developer and B&W fixer. It’s probably best to use a pH neutral fixer, although acid fixer in my experience works fine with modern papers as well. That’s it, simple!

Bleach and redevelop

This is in the same corner of the techniques landscape as bleach bypass. I could dedicate an entire page to this, and…well, I already did, so click here to read about it!

Solarization / Sabattier

Just like with B&W paper (or film), it’s possible to expose an RA4 print to bright light during development, making the tonal scale flip over, making shadows go light(er) and highlights go dark(er). Of course, with color paper, you get the additional opportunity to alter the color of that mid-development flash exposure.

I’ve done this on occasion using the red safelight I use for B&W printing. This created a cyan-dominated Sabattier effect. I’d have to dig up the resulting prints from storage, but let me assure you it wasn’t all that pretty of an effect (I’m not a huge fan of cyan, I guess). But the technique itself is quite powerful, and one that I perhaps should explore a little more one day.


Why use a negative in the first place, if you think about it? Just place some objects onto a sheet of paper, expose with any color light you fancy, and see what happens. No, I’ve never done this – I’m far too boring a photographer for this. But it seems that fine arts photographer and committed RA4-printer Sonia Mangiapane has included this technique in her 2018 project Color Studies.

Fogging / light painting

Speaking of Sonia Mangiapane’s work, and in particular her Color Studies work – this is a great example of exposing color paper with whatever light source you can think of and that appears suitable. Laser pointers, the little LED light on a keyfob, your smartphone…hey, that actually reminds me of this other great artist I’ve got to know recently: Andrey Piletsky (yes, the one who commented on some blogs of mine!) One of his ongoing projects involves exactly that: projecting color images onto RA4 paper using digital screens. Perhaps we’ll do a blog together on this one day, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, all I can share in this category is one more happy little accident. It’s a quick test print on a piece of Kodak Royal Digital paper that was stored improperly at the bottom of a box, without a light-proof bag. As a result, it was partially fogged by room light while inside the box. The effect is…interesting. Unintended, but I probably like the image better this way than the straight print I had made before this one. (Alright, that mostly means it’s not a very interesting photograph. I get it!)

Foggy skies. Partially and unintentionally fogged Kodak Royal Digital paper.


If you can mess about with the light, or the negative (objects) you print with, how about the chemistry? The possibilities are endless, but frankly I have not yet explored them at all. I imagine you could expose a print to certain colors of light and perhaps paint developer and/or fixer onto it selectively. During my bleach & redevelop adventure, I noticed that ferricyanide bleach tends to do funny things with just the cyan layer, and I imagine that could be exploited as well.

The other day, I had an accidental chemigram happen to me. It was during a printing session when a sheet of paper got stuck halfway my Durst RCP20 due to the curve – it was freshly cut from the center of a roll, and paper tends to curve pretty badly that way. Anyway, in removing the stuck sheet, I splashed some blix around, and a few drops found their way onto the take-up rollers at the start of the development bath. Here’s what that looked like:

Accidental chemigram: drops of blix smeared out onto the paper just before it went into the developer.

No, I did not try to recreate it and I was mostly happy that the problem went away after another print. But I have to admit that I quite like this happy little accident. And I suppose its an apt illustration of one of the many, many possibilities of torturing RA4 paper with chemicals in ways Fuji and Kodak never intended you to do. For me, that would be reason enough to have at it!

Printing from non-C41 negatives

Let me tell you a little secret: I’ve shown you some examples so far, guess how many were made from C41 negatives. That’s right! None! Really? Yes, really.

The street scene shots were actually exposed on…Ilford Delta 100. That’s not even a color film! I know, right? Still, you can make very interesting color prints from B&W negatives. Give it a try! You’ll find that low-contrast negatives work the best; negatives that would print nicely on grade 4 or even grade 5 B&W paper tend to give more or less normal contrast on RA4 paper. The Delta 100 negatives you’ve seen before are actually pretty hard ones (grade 1.5 to 2 or so), so pre-flashing was used (also) to curb contrast.

How about the color ones? These are a little less outlandish; they’re some Kodak Vision3 250D tests I was doing the other day. This is ECN-2 film intended for the cinema industry. It’s conceptually similar to regular C41 film, but it has a different contrast and color balance. Informally speaking, it’s kind of a mixture of a C41 film (in that it’s color negative with low-ish contrast and an orange mask) and E6 slide film (because the dyes are designed for processing with CD3 instead of CD4 color developer, like E6 film). Hey, you can make color prints from the stuff.

RA4 print on Kodak Endura from Kodak Vision3 50D ECN-2 developed negative I made a few years ago. The blue/purple shadow is typical for the massive blue/yellow crossover I used to get with that film, printed on RA4 paper.

And I bet you can make interesting prints from color slides as well. Or from digital inkjet negatives. Or…well, be creative! If it fits in the enlarger, it’s fair game. How about a collodion negative? Sounds sweet!

Reversal processing

One more in the category of ‘controlled chemical mistreatment’, I suppose – but a special case, because it brings this unique possibility of turning a negative-working material into a positive-working one. The elusive alternative to Cibachrome, in a way.

The theory, as often, is simple: expose the paper, develop the silver in a B&W developer. Then bleach out this silver image to get rid of it. Expose the paper (and the remaining silver halide) to white light, and now develop in a color developer. Finally blix out the remaining silver image (or leave it in if you like) and you’re done.

You’re now left with an inverted image, so if you started with an exposure from a negative, you end up with a paper negative. I’ve never seen anyone done that with color (but it’s an interesting creative exercise – try it!), but doing this with color slides is quite popular. It’s the most straightforward way to make full analog prints from color slides in the darkroom. Recently I came across the most convincing attempt I’ve seen to date by a guy named Jeff Neale, reported on Silvergrain Classics.

Of course, you could even cut out the film and enlarger from the process and expose the paper directly in a large format camera. I’ve done some very quick & dirty tests with this a few years ago, and certainly, I got images. I never worked my way to accurate/convincing color reproduction – seeing the principle work was enough for me at the time. Others have done the necessary legwork to get this process to work (somewhat) reliably and consistently. A very recent video by the Naked Photographer is in my view the most transparent, clear and compelling approach. Perhaps I should give it another go one day – the unique nature of a direct positive print is, well…unique!

Physical print manipulation

This is something I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do, apart from the obvious possibility of cutting pieces out of photographs and making collages or artworks with them. And I guess cutting your ex out of your family photos counts as well!?

But there’s more – for instance, I’ve scratched prints on more than one occasion when I squeegeed them dry. This creates some interesting effects and opportunities, since it’s at least theoretically possible to selectively remove material from the layer stack of the image. The cyan image lies on top, with magenta in the middle and yellow at the bottom. If you scratch a color print (especially when it’s wet), you tend to get these yellow, orange and red edges to the scratches. I have a feeling there’s creative potential there. I wonder if it’s possible to use e.g. household bleach or a sodium hydroxide solution to soften the emulsion, and then scrape bits off in a controlled way.

Emulsion lift / transfer

This is actually the same as the well-known Polaroid emulsion lift and transfer techniques. In principle, this can work with any gelatin emulsion, including color RA4 paper. But I really should place this technique between brackets. I’ll explain.

I was actually presenting this list of techniques to some people involved in color paper manufacturing at FUJIFILM, and they immediately balked at this one. Twice! Well, it wasn’t so bad, but it did elicit a response alright!

The first thing they shared was an anecdote – or perhaps more accurately, a bit of industrial/printing lore. ‘Back in the day’ (as these stories always begin), when you ordered a color print on canvas, it was apparently made by doing a very nicely controlled emulsion transfer. The Fuji lab at least in The Netherlands that used to do these transfers allegedly used Kodak paper for this purpose. Apparently, the Kodak paper worked better in this application.

The second thing relates strongly to the first, and also to my remark why this technique should be placed in brackets. The reason why Kodak paper was originally used for transfers, was because it was the only paper that actually allowed the image layers to be peeled off the paper base. This behavior is largely unintentional, since it’s very undesirable that this would happen accidentally during regular processing, or in the hands of the customer.

As a result, companies like Fuji have spent a truckload of research on figuring out how to make the image emulsion adhere permanently and inseparably to the RC-coated paper base. When I mentioned the emulsion transfer technique, the immediate question of one of the FUJIFILM guys was “but you didn’t manage to do this with our paper, did you?” There was distinct concern in his voice and I soothed him by saying that to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever managed to do an emulsion lift off of contemporary Fuji RA4 paper. I have dissolved away bits of emulsion with strongly alkaline or chlorine bleach solutions, but even this is difficult. Looks like Fuji’s paper is pretty bullet-proof, which is good news for pro-labs and 99.98% of its users, but a bit of a pity if you had some artistic emulsion lifts in mind.

No, I have not (yet) considered bribing the Fuji people to take a break while preparing the subbing emulsion for the RC paper base to make emulsion lifts possible once more 😉

2 thoughts on “Creative possibilities in RA4 printing”

  1. Great survey!

    One thing you didnt mention is contrast increase / reduction through the developer- Add 1 gram sulfite/litre for reduction, or add peroxide in the developer for contrast increase (not sure of the exact amount here).

    1. Yes, you’re right; I really should have included this. I’ve only tried this once or twice, years ago, and didn’t really like it as it irreversibly messed with the developer and I run a replenished system. That’s why it slipped my mind when I wrote this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *