Let me start by giving credit to Bruce Barnbaum. Many years ago I read an article that he either wrote or one that described his printing methods. He was extolling the virtues of using color heads over cold light heads to make black and white prints with variable contrast paper. I decided to give it a try and have never looked back!
At first it sounds counter intuitive … making black and white prints with a color head, but it turns out to make great sense!
When I first started printing as a teenager I had an Omega B22. From there I graduated to a more solid Beseler 23C, and then on to an Omega D2V and several variants of the Beseler 45MX. Like most people in the Seventies I used the standard issue condenser heads that came with these machines. But then I came across Fred Picker and read the Ansel Adams trilogy (The Camera, The Negative, and The Print). The result … I converted to cold light, which among other things dispenses a softer and more diffuse light.
I’m not going to argue the merits of cold light vs. condenser light sources, except to say cold light is better (less visible dust spots, less harsh prints, greater luminosity, no negative buckling, and more)!
I bought an Aristo cold light and mounted it onto the Beseler. At the time I was still using graded paper. I wasn’t an early adopter of VC. It took some years before it could hold it’s own with the best graded papers. But I finally made that switch due to the dwindling availability of graded papers and the tremendous improvement of VC papers. Thankfully, VC was finally able to deliver the goods that only graded stock had been able to do. Phew!
I eventually moved onto the wonderful and well-built Zone VI Type 2 enlarger with a dedicated Zone VI VC head. I had the Zone VI for several years until I heard about Devere enlargers. Built in the UK, they are straightforward solid machines made to withstand a nuclear effect!
Now back to Bruce Barnbaum. It was around this time that I came across the aforementioned piece advocating color heads as an efficient, flexible and more precise alternative for cold light. Like cold light, color heads are a diffusion light source. A different method of diffusion for sure, but so close in results that it doesn’t matter for all intents in purpose. And let’s face it; if it’s good enough for a Master like Barnbaum, well it’s good enough for me!
Needless to say I found and purchased a Devere 504 with a Devere color head from a local color lab scaling down its darkroom business. Simply stated, I LOVE THIS ENLARGER (but more on that at another time)!!
For me the color head provides all of the benefits of cold light, but is far easier to use and enables greater precision! Best of all, they are plentiful and cheap! All enlarger manufacturers made them and they’re easily available on eBay, Craigslist, APUG, etc. And yes, I also use one on my Leitz Focomat V35 too. Sure, I own the dedicated black and white diffusion VC heads that came with both of my enlargers, but truth be told, why would I want to use them? In my experience the color heads just flat out offer so much more flexibility and ease of use.
So how do I use color heads with VC paper? There are different approaches, and your mileage may vary as they say on the forums, but after so many years of printing with graded paper my that’s the way my mind thinks, so that’s the way I come at it. It’s fast and yields great results. I simply take the paper manufacturer’s recommended color head settings for the “grades” I usually make test strips of and dial in the settings on the color head (Note: I don’t use strips but whole sheets of paper). Grade 2 and 3. I examine both papers under my viewing light to determine the proper basic exposure for each “grade”. Then I make a pilot print for each one. Using my viewing light again, I then dispense with one of the “graded” pilot prints (e.g., Grade 3). Now I go to work to fine-tune the one I have chosen (e.g., Grade 2) and create the finished fine print. Of course I can easily dial up or dial down the contrast for subtle change if I need to. In the past with graded papers I would use Selectol Soft with Dektol or Zone VI developer to lower contrast between grades, or more vigorously agitate the print in Dektol/Zone VI to slightly raise contrast. Finally, I can burn in using the chosen “grade” setting I’ve made, or I can simply dial in harder or softer settings depending on the effect I wish to achieve. So effective and so easy!
So if you are ready to get an enlarger (Note: I didn’t say buy because you might easily pick one up for free!) do consider one with a color head. And if you are currently printing with a black and white head of some kind think about picking up a color head and giving it a go. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!