(More darkroom articles available at The Online Darkroom)

My friend and Ilford Master Printer Andrew Sanderson, who has been testing the new Ilford FB Classic and FB Cooltone papers for the company, sent me a few sheets of both so I could give them a try. I'd actually contacted Andrew to see if he could send me a work print or test strip done on Ilford's Multigrade Art 300 as I'm trying to decide which paper to get for the
wee portfolios I want to start. I love it when there are decisions like this to be made: it's one of the best things about analogue photography and darkroom work.

I'm thankful to Andrew for his help as I can safely say that whatever Art 300's properties are, it's surface sheen is not one I like. I think it gets in the way of shadow detail too much so it's been crossed off the list of possibles.

The two new papers, however, are both lovely and definite contenders. I've always had a preference for slightly warm tone papers but I like the new FB Cooltone just as much as FB Classic. With just four sheets of each to play with, I didn't want to get bogged down printing negatives that fell into the "tricky" category so I picked a couple that were nice and straightforward.

FB Cooltone developed in Spur Straight Black

A Little Dodging

They're both about 12-years-old and it was fun getting them under the enlarger again. They're from a time when I couldn't see past Ilford HP5+ developed in Perceptol 1+3. It must still be one of the best combinations out there. Neither one presented any special difficulties. I dodged the far wall on the top print a little and the top right and bottom left corners on the gate pic. I also burned in the bottom right corner on the latter a little. That was about it.

The developer was Spur's Straight Black for the Three Doors shot and Fotospeed's WT10 Warmtone for The Gate. I'd no cold tone developer so I can't say just how cold FB Cooltone will go. In Straight Black, it was neutral to slightly cool. FB Classic picked up a bit of warmth in the Fotospeed developer - that's a combination that I like.

FB Classic developed in Fotosped WT10 Warmtone developer

So what can I say about the papers? The first thing that struck me is how quickly the image appears in the tray. With FB Classic, it came in with a vengeance around the 30 second mark and FC Cooltone wasn't far behind. I usually develop fibre based papers for about two-and-a-half to three minutes but I didn't see much point in going beyond two minutes for the new papers. Ilford recommends 1.5-3 minutes in its Multigrade developer at 1+9. A two-minute dev time produced lovely deep blacks and luminous whites.

The contrast range doesn't appear to be much different from Multigrade IV FB but what I like is the papers' more linear response time to different filter grades. The paper speed remains the same for grades 00 to 3 and is only slightly slower at 4 and 5 as the tables below show. That's a useful characteristic and will make it easier to programme the RH Designs Analyser Pro for the new papers. FB Cooltone is just a shade faster than FB Classic. IV FB, by comparison, was slightly slower at 200 ISO up to and including grade 3 but then halved for the harder grades.

Anything that makes printing simpler has got to be a good thing. If you're the type who might change filter grade but forget to dial in the required new time (come on, we've all been there!) then you might just about get away with it such is the similarity in speed across the new papers' grades. Will you always notice a 1/10th stop underexposure or less going from grade 3 to 4?

ISO paper speed
Filter 00 0 1 2 3 4 5
SPEED 250 250 250 250 250 225 225

ISO paper speed

Filter 00 0 1 2 3 4 5
SPEED 230 230 230 230 230 210 210

ISO paper speed
Filter 00 0 1 2 3 4 5
SPEED 200 200 200 200 200 100 100

Ilford claim the new papers are sharper than MG IV FB. This may be the case but I'd need to do a side-by-side comparison before being able to comment. Certainly, I had no complaints about sharpness. The other thing I noticed was that the new papers seemed to dry a little flatter than MG IV FB. There was less of an overall curl but perhaps more of a waviness along the edges. However, after sitting under some heavy books for a few days the new products emerged flatter than I'd expect the outgoing IV FB to have done.

Dry Down?

When the papers were dry, I checked out the glossy surface and initially thought it was somewhat different from IV FB. My initial impression was that the new papers had a surface that was similar to those high quality fibre based inkjet papers that try to mimic the non-glazed glossy surface of silver gelatin prints. After comparing the old and new papers side-by-side, I don't think there's a big enough difference in their surface qualities to be noticeable in stand alone prints. I'll need to do more prints to be sure but dry down doesn't seem to be much of a problem with these papers.

One of the advantages of FB Classic over MG IV is the former's greater responsiveness to toning. I've seen a couple of online prints where selenium toning produced a beautiful, deep tone with just a hint of "coolth" but I'll leave that aspect for a later date. I'll need to get some selenium for a start! I used to tone prints but I've always treated selenium as if it's nuclear waste. There seems to me to be a nastiness about it that I don't like. It's certainly toxic but it shouldn't be a problem if handled properly. Regardless, I still think I'll be doing my toning on a table in the garden or at least by an open window.

This isn't a test: just some of my early impressions about the paper. From my limited use of them, I'd say Ilford have got a couple of winners on their hands. All three papers in the FB range - Classic, Cooltone and Warmtone - are of very high quality and will cover most photographers' needs. I'm fairly sure I'll plump for one member of this great triumvirate for my portfolios.