My commitment to Ilfochrome and the wet darkroom process is rooted in a passion and appreciation of the tradition of the handcrafted image. Ilfochrome is unique in that tradition. And by understanding and respecting Ilfochrome’s characteristics, I can create original handmade prints, one at a time, that have an expressive quality uniquely their own.

Film Evaluation

Film originals on light table
4x5 transparency film placed on my light table for evaluation.

For me, the Ilfochrome print being at the light table and selecting a well suited image for printing. Ilfochrome is a very high contrast paper so it's best to start with transparencies that have relatively low overall contrast. This matches well to my style of photography which conveys intimate scenes in indirect, ambient and reflected light. However, the image that looks best on the light table does not necessarily correspond to the best image for printing. I tend to prefer slightly over-exposed images which I can control with contrast masks but, paradoxically, underexposed low contrast images printed on Ilfochrome can actually exhibit increased contrast in the final print.

Contrast Masking

Within the wet darkroom, controlling the degree of contrast in a print requires contrast masking. Contrast masks are created from black and white transparency film (exposed from the original color transparency) and then sandwiched on top of the original in the negative carrier. Sitting on top the original, the mask balances the density of light passing through the original to reduce contrast when creating the print. In addition, contrast masks provide the benefit of unsharp masking which increases edge contrast across the print, giving it a sharper appearance.

Ilfochrome (Cibachrome) contrast masking example.
An overall contrast mask for the print, Autumn Symphony.

Contrast masks are controlled by three primary factors; exposure, development time and filtration. A basic overall contrast mask is created by exposure and development time alone. Exposure controls the mask's density and development time controls the mask's contrast. For even greater control, red, blue, and green filters can be used (separately or combined) to control the density of light on specific colors in your image. Masks can be made across an entire image or controlled to only work in a certain area of an image. Multiple masks can be created and combined to control a combination of overall contrast, specific color contrast, and target area contrast. In short, the possibilities are endless.

Exposure and Creative Options

Initial test prints focus on determining proper exposure and color mix — there is a critical interplay of light and color when producing Ilfochrome, the proper balance of which really makes the print sing. Once this balance is determined the printmaker has a limited set of creative options to further finesse the print. Dodging and/or burning (darkening and lightening) specific areas of the print with cutouts or even your hands is common. Advanced techniques such as flashing or contrast masks can be used to affect local contrast and color densities.

Print Processors

Once exposed, the paper is processed. Processing machines ranged from the tabletop Cap40 (for prints up to 16 inches wide) all the way up to the Kreonite Processor which could print mural size prints for the small price tag of nearly $50K. Another option was the Jobo tabletop processor - a drum based light-tight system for processing both color and black and white film and prints up to 20 x 24 inches. The nice advantage of the Jobo processor was that it could be used outside the darkroom in the light and was portable enough to run anywhere from the garage to the bathroom with relatively minimal set-up. Jobo processors can still be easily found on auction sites like eBay.

Jobo CPP-2 Processor, Ilfochrome (Cibachrome)
The JOBO CPP-2 processor used for producing Ilfochrome prints up to 20x24 inches.

Print Processing

Once exposed the print is mounted on the processor and goes through the following processing steps over a period of about 15 minutes:

Drying the Print

Once the print is finished washing, it should be dried as efficiently as possible. Prints can be squeegeed (very carefully) and hung dry with clips or heat dried with a blow dryer. Drying temperature should never exceed 160°F. Even after drying prints should be allowed to cure for 24 hours before being matted or stored.

Ilfochrome and a Digital Workflow

Many photographers who admired the aesthetic quality of Ilfochrome were unaware the paper could be used in a digital printing workflow. A scanned or digitally captured image could be printed to Ilfochrome utilizing a OCE LightJet or ZBE Chromira digital printer to create a true continuous tone photograph by traditional photochemical means. Unfortunately, Ilford's financial troubles coupled with the rise of inkjet printing limited interest in digitally printed Ilfochrome and only a few select labs ever offered the service.

Environmental Concerns

A common "rub" against Ilfochrome with sensitive environmental overtones has been the dye-bleach solution. Highly acidic with a a pH of about 0.7, the bleach can be corrosive to ordinary plumbing materials if disposed of directly through common waste lines and sewers. Fortunately, the current bleach solution can be neutralized with the simple addition of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and rendered safe for disposal.