Paper Negatives

From the early stages of my interest in photography I’ve always loved offbeat techniques, unusual gear, and the results that they can produce.


525pinhole17Pinhole cameras are a great example of this. When I decided to start building pinholes I jumped into my research assuming that  I’d be using print paper as the recording medium (aka negative). But most of the results I saw from paper negatives had that kind of amateur pinhole look. Everything looked kind of blurry, dark and really high contrast. I also found out people were making pinhole cameras that used film for negatives (I don’t know why film pinholes hadn’t occurred to me before) and, for whatever reason, the results I was seeing from the film pinholes looked much better, so the first pinhole I made was designed to use film. But the more I researched and the more results I saw the more I realized cool stuff could be done with paper negatives too. So… The next pinhole was designed to use paper and was hooked immediately.

Developing the process (get it!)

In addition to liking the way the results look, there are a handful of other things that make paper negatives very cool to me.

I’ve got a sort of makeshift darkroom set up. It’s basically my garage after dark. It’s not the most light free environment ever but it’s always worked okay for printing. That’s been fine for me because I do all my film work in a dark bag and film tanks. When I started getting the itch to do large format stuff I realized it would require new (and way more expensive) tanks. It also seemed like dealing with large format film would be harder in general. So my first paper pinhole was also large format… why not.

525BRDROne of the things playing with that paper pinhole taught me was that developing paper negatives is very easy. I bought 3 plastic containers with lids that were big enough to hold a 4×5. I put the chemicals in them, wait for the sun to go down, plug in my safety light and develop. Since the camera shoots direct to paper, I’m not using an enlarger so I don’t even have to hang out in the garage. It can easily be done in the bathroom. Then when I’m finished I just put the lids on the containers and put them under the sink. Then I just dry, scan and invert the digital image in any editing software. So much easier than dealing with film…

I was happy with the process and pretty happy with the results but pinhole is definitely tricky, at least by my experience so far. Exposure has to be just right or you get that dark contrasty look and exposure times can be difficultly short or long.  Also, my design had to be loaded in the dark so I was limited to one shot a day. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pinhole but… it’s not the easiest most convenient camera to shoot on a regular basis.

The final piece of the puzzle

Of course my general large format itch 525speedgraphicwas always accompanied by a very specific itch for a large format camera (non-pinhole). Shooting with paper negatives in normal cameras was another technique I wasn’t aware of until stumbling across it while researching everything. Perfect! Now that I had a cheap easy system for processing large format I had an excuse to buy another toy. So I started watching ebay and craigslist for a decent deal and finally found something. I got an old Graflex Speed Graphic and a bunch of film holders for one hundred dollars. It’s a bit beat up but it’s perfect for me.

Summary of paper negative coolness

Fun -> Paper negatives are like a gateway drug for building pinholes, starting up a darkroom and shooting large format… that’s like the holy trinity of photo fun.

Cheap film -> A quick search at the time of writing shows the cheapest 4×5 film at $2.35 a shot (before tax and shipping). Compare that to $.25 a shot ($12.50 for 20 sheets of 8×10 paper) and well… I don’t even have to mention the cost savings of not buying large format film processing gear (see what I did there).

Cheap camera -> Building your own pinhole can be pretty much free and, if you ask me, a hundred bucks for a cool old large format camera is pretty good compared to what you can spend on a DSLR these days, even a cheap one.

Easy -> When you eliminate the film development and enlarger steps from your process… all you do is load, shoot and develop. All you need is a bathroom, some tupperware and a safety light.

Pretty -> The results can be awesome. Especially if you’re like me and embrace (love) imperfection.


Community -> There are a couple cool flickr groups for paper negatives. Lots of cool pics, photographers and forums for  inspiration and research.

Positive Paper -> Ilford is making a new “direct positive” paper that is perfect for using as your “negative”. It records the image in your pinhole or camera as a positive! I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. If this works out you’ll be able to eliminate the scanning step from the process too. Shoot, develop and hang it on the wall. How cool is that.

Update: I did some film cost crunching and realized, 1) shooting 4×5 paper negatives is one of the cheapest options at around 20 cents a shot (second only to 35mm film, not bad for large format) and 2) the Harmon Direct Positive paper is only slightly more expensive than regular print paper. Now if I could only find some (it’s still kind of new so it’s pretty rare).

Filters -> I think, in general, filters are always recommended for analogue black and white work. Black and white film tends to see UV and blue light a bit harshly and paper negatives are even more contrasty than film. Filters can help soften that. I’ve been using a green/yellow on everything and I’ve been really happy with the results. Note: Due to the fact paper isn’t sensitive to red light… red filters do not work… I learned that the hard way. Duh!



It took me a while to put all this together. Some of that while was spent struggling to figure out stuff that I now know. If you think anything I know can help reduce your struggle just shoot me a comment and I’ll do the best I can or we’ll figure out how to figure it out together.


5 Responses to “Paper Negatives”

  1. phrenzel Says:

    I am very interested in trying this out but cant find much info on how to get started. Do I use the same chemicals as when I develop my film? Also, what exactly is the type of paper I should be looking for? Sadly, I see that Direct Positive paper is no longer available . Thanks for this post.

  2. 525 Says:

    Hi phrenzel,

    I’m glad to hear you’re interested. So we’re just talking paper negs here right? Are you using them in a camera (as in with a lens) or a pinhole?

    I use whatever paper I happen to have laying around the darkroom. I believe everything on this site was shot on Ilford 8×10 (that I cut into 4 4X5 sheets) –

    Just remember that print paper is like a 2 ISO so it requires a really long exposure time compared to film. I usually use my digital camera set at 100 ISO as a light meter then add like 5 or 6 stops (that includes compensating for the orange filter I always use too). I don’t have it down to an exact science or anything. I try to err on the side of over exposure because, when developing paper negatives you can actually see the image getting darker and pull it out of the solution when you like it. Admittedly this can lead to funky results but I like funky results.

    The development process is the same as it would be for developing prints in a darkroom after you’ve used an enlarger and your film negative to expose the print paper.

    All the chemicals are the same as developing film other than the developer. I use Dektol –

    Also, this is negative print paper so you’ll have to scan and invert the resulting images.

    It sounds more complicated than it really is. Try it a couple times, you’ll get the hang of it.

    Let me know if you have any other questions and/or when you’ve got results to share.

  3. phrenzel Says:

    Hi thank you so much for getting back to me. This is wonderful info. I will be doing it with a homemade pinhole for starters. I also have my eye on a few nice 4×5 and 8×10 boxes if I can get it figured out. So you must load the paper in a dark room or in a changing bag I assume. But during the developing I have seen something about doing it with a safe light. Is that correct information?

  4. 525 Says:

    Right. That is one of the things that makes paper so much easier to deal with. Loading pinhole or film holders, prior to exposure, and all the development after exposure can be done in a safe light.

    So the comment in my original reply, about using my digital camera as a light meter and adding 5 stops referred to my speed graphic 4×5 with a normal adjustable aperture. Pinhole cameras usually have very small aperture so exposure calculation will be different.

    There’s a lot of good pinhole creation and use information out there. Let me know if you don’t find what you need.

  5. philip greene Says:

    Another way to deal with high contrast is to shoot grade 2 paper – I’ve done just fine with that, both through a Speed Graphic and paint can pinhole camera. I meter with a Gossen Luna pro with settings down to – 1.5 ASA, though I meter paper negs at 3. There are also a number of people that shoot color paper negs – but that gets more complicated than BW.

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