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I just got my first enlarger and I am quite new in the darkroom. I just bought a second hand Durst Laborator 1200 with the VLS 501 head. It seems to be working properly but I cannot get any print to show an acceptable level of contrast and real blacks.

My test strips all come out greyish and muddy. That is, blacks are far from being black (they look grey) and highlights are also kind of greyish.

I have tried exposing a few tests strips with no negative in the enlarger, no filter applied, at increments of 10 seconds (10, 20, 30, 40, 50 seconds). It's just grey, all the way. Not black.

I am using Ilford Multigrade RC Deluxe (an old lot, and a brand new one, tested on both). I used Adox Neutol Eco for the developer at around 22/23°C at 1+9 dilution for about 60 seconds.

I have tried different exposures, varying from 5 to 50 seconds, different apertures, from f/8 to f/22, and different filter settings, from 0 to 5, but nothing gives me acceptable results. I am using a Femobox 450N as the mixing box.

I have tested my darkroom / safe light by leaving a small strip of paper with a coin on it and turned the safe light on for a few minutes then developed it and it was full white, with no trace of the coin.

I don't think my negatives (4x5 Fomapan 100) are the issue as I get very acceptable results when scanning the negs with my DSLR.

What could be the issue? I used fresh developer (new, unopened bottle, fresh dilution).

I am out of ideas. If anyone has suggestions on what else I could/should try, that would be much appreciated!

Edit

It turned out I had only tried with 2 expired paper lots and not the new one I had just purchased and this one is fine! Here are 2 test strips just to illustrate the issue.

enter image description here

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    What bulb does your enlarger use? It might be a little dim for the enlargement you're after. The quantity of light decreases to the square, after all. I recommend using test strips to determine the point of reaching the D-max (f-stop printing might be useful here). If this doesn't work. leave a strip out in daylight to see if the issue might be related to your paper. Daylight should quickly fog the paper to D-max when developed.
    – timvrhn
    Mar 28 at 13:30
  • @timvrhn Thanks for your comment. I will read through that link you provided. For how long should I expose the paper to daylight? I tried my first test strips with old paper and probably an old unopened bottle of developer that the seller had given me with the enlarger. Got barely anything printed on the paper. I then grabbed new developer from my local store and got the disappointing results I wrote about here. I then ordered some new paper and got essentially the same results with both paper lots so I would rule out the paper as being the cause of the issue here.
    – MrUpsidown
    Mar 28 at 14:24
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    @MichaelC I didn't really consider my comment an answer as it's trying to help OP find the actual cause, but seeing as the other answers are equal guesswork I'll post it as an answer
    – timvrhn
    Mar 29 at 7:41
  • @timvrhn Thanks for making it an answer! The only part of the header or question body that actually includes a question mark is, "What could be the issue?" I think your comment is a direct answer to that.
    – Michael C
    Mar 30 at 0:32

3 Answers 3

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Three things to check in this situation.

Are your prints fully developed (that is, are you developing by time rather than snatching the print when it looks right under the safelight)? Adox seems to recommend about one minute at room temperature for Neutol Eco at 1+9, but since prints are normally developed to completion (or virtually so), it will do no harm to try leaving your strips in the developer longer. Agitation is also recommended; if you're just leaving your strips lie, the developer in contact with the print emulsion may be locally exhausting, resulting in loss of blacks. I'm used to continually rocking the tray after putting the print in, since it's only for (in my case, with Dektol 1+2) two minutes.

Are you making contrast grade test strips and inspecting them under the same light you'll view the final print with? You apparently know how to do exposure test strips; a contrast strip is the same thing but with contrast filtration changing and exposure kept constant. I normally print split grade, so I'd use a wide strip or a whole sheet, and expose steps one way with the yellow filter (Grade 0 or 00) and then expose the other way with the magenta (grade 5). You're making your strips without a filter, so you're getting the equivalent of Grade 2 or 2 1/2; if your negatives are low contrast (which will typically scan well) you might need grade 3, 4, or even 5 to get full blacks with an exposure for the mid-tones.

Finally, are you doing the same with your exposure test strips (viewing in the same light you'll use for the final print)? I know you've said this doesn't matter here due to the extreme level of your problem, but I'll leave it here for completeness. Even Ansel Adams (re)discovered late in his career that a change in his inspection light changed his prints -- a brighter light causing him to print darker and bolder.

One of these should fix your "muddy prints" problem in terms of blacks.

Grayish whites, on the other hand, suggest fogged paper. Despite passing a safelight test, your paper could be age- or heat-fogged, possibly before you even received it. If you have the original box, it should have an expiration date on it; if you're years past that date, your paper may be age fogged. You can sometimes help this by adding a small amount (30-40 mg per liter) of benzotriazole to your developer, but that will tend to make the blacks problem worse instead of better. Try developing a sheet or strip fresh out of the box (remember, agitate and go two minutes instead of one) -- and take one sheet and fix it without developing. If they aren't the same level of white, you have fogged paper.

Honestly, the best solution for fogged paper is to either fix it out for alt-process use, or discard it and buy a fresh box.

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    Try developing for two minutes instead of one (I see Adox recommended about one minute, but try longer anyway; prints should be developed to or almost to completion). Contrast grade strips are like exposure test strips, but you change contrast filtration between one and the next. And yes, a picture of one of your strips would be helpful.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 28 at 13:05
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    Noted. And I will provide a picture of the test strips as soon as I can! Thanks
    – MrUpsidown
    Mar 28 at 14:04
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    Correct, from the paper box/bag/safe directly into fixer, skipping both exposure and development. Even fogged paper should come out paper base white this way, to provide a baseline for the unexposed strip you'll develop.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 28 at 14:43
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    I feel quite stupid. It turned out that I had mixed 2 older and 1 newer boxes of paper! Yeah, and you know how it goes in the darkroom; you can't see much! Paper was definitely expired. No problem whatsoever with the new lot. At least this taught me a few lessons... I have learned what a bad developer does, and what fogged/expired paper looks like. Thanks again for all the tips! Got my first good print late last night and I was quite happy with the results!
    – MrUpsidown
    Mar 29 at 7:09
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    @BobMacaroniMcStevens Exhausted developer can cause mottling or weak blacks, but unless it's contaminated with something that fogs, won't cause gray whites.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 29 at 11:02
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What bulb does your enlarger use? It might be a little dim for the enlargement you're after. The quantity of light decreases to the square, after all. I recommend using test strips to determine the point of reaching the D-max (f-stop printing might be useful here). If this doesn't work. leave a strip out in daylight to see if the issue might be related to your paper. Daylight should quickly fog the paper to D-max when developed. In this case we're talking about a timespan of mere seconds.

If the (fresh) daylight-exposed film does not resolve to D-max when developed, you know the enlarger is not at fault, but rather the developer, paper, or a combination of both.

You claim to have checked for leaks in your darkroom with the coin technique. However, as Zeiss Ikon already mentioned, the lack of pure whites indicate a base fog is present. This might not be the cause of a not-so-light-safe darkroom, but the product of another form of fogging. You could take a strip of paper out in the light for inspection (before it fogs naturally). Fixing a blank strip next to this could also be beneficial. The paper should be roughly as white as the non-coated side.

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Place the paper to be developed face down in the developer tray. Develop for 90 seconds and then turn the paper over for a brief inspection and then place the paper in the stop bath. Adjust exposure based on this test.

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  • I place it face down. I will try developing for a longer time (90 seconds) and see if it makes any difference. Thanks for the tips.
    – MrUpsidown
    Mar 28 at 14:06

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