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Why do negatives need an orange mask?

by Donl Mathis, 1994

Why do negatives need an orange mask? The simple answer is "impure dyes." This is generally true of all chromogenic photographic materials, where the dye molecules are made of a color coupler that is built into the emulsion, combined with the by-product of the development of silver by a color developing agent. With this kind of thing going on, the choice of dyes is a bit limited, and we end with dyes that are not as good as some others. Ciba's approach to improving the quality, with Cibachrome (now Ilfochrome), was to put all the dye in the paper to begin with, then remove the part that wasn't needed for a particular print. Another approach is masking, which can either be built into the film (as in color negatives) or done externally (if you are so inclined, and your end-result goal will support it).

The yellow dye layer is the most pure. The magenta dye layer has a noticeable amount of yellow in it. The cyan dye layer has noticeable amounts of both yellow and magenta in it.

How Masking Works

When a print is made from a color negative, it is easy to "tune out" a color bias of any kind, simply by altering the intensity of the red, green, and blue light shining through the negative. For now, consider the problem with the magenta dye -- it has yellow in it. So everywhere there is magenta dye in the image, there will be too much yellow. Suppose we added a little bit of yellow to all of there areas where there is *not* magenta dye, too. Now we have a layer of yellow over the whole image. Part of the layer is in the magenta dye, and the rest of it is in the masking layer. We can simply turn up the blue light while making the print, to compensate for the extra yellow. So the yellow that wasn't supposed to be there has now been effectively removed, and the accuracy of the color increases.

The yellow masking layer is designed to develop in such a way that the more magenta dye there is nearby, the less yellow dye will form. In the end, it all balances out nicely.

The same principle applies to the cyan layer, where we're trying to mask out both yellow and magenta. So we end up with a little more yellow in the mask, and also some magenta. Yellow and magenta make orange.

External Masking

There is no reason the mask has to be built into the film. If you're making a print from a transparency, for example, there is no mask in the film. All else being equal, the color will be less accurate in a slide, because no masking is done, and the magenta and cyan dyes are rather impure. However, we can use clever techniques to make a separate negative of the magenta layer, which, when combined with the original slide, will effectively accomplish the same thing -- acting like yellow dye, which is to say, blocking some of the blue light from passing through the slide. In the end, if such masks are made properly, color prints from transparencies can have color that is as accurate as prints from negatives. It is difficult and expensive, though, so it is not often done.

And, in any case, you're still left with prints that are made from these same impure dyes. The only way to fix that would be to add an orange mask to the print, and illuminate the print with a very blueish-green light to compensate.

Similarly, transparencies for projection could have an orange mask added, if the projection lamp color had enough blue and green to compensate. The color would be more accurate.

Color Accuracy

Note that "accurate" color does not imply anything about the contrast. Some people really love Ilfochrome/Cibachrome, a paper with high contrast and pure dyes. If the print is made from a transparency without masking, however, those wonderful and vibrant colors are a less accurate reproduction of the original subject. You might like it better, and it may be more "colorful", but it is probably not as accurate as a well-made print from a negative would be.

Copyright © 1994 Donl Mathis

Article created 1994

Readers' Comments

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Rolf Ganahl , July 06, 1997; 11:13 A.M.

Photographic papers for color negative printing have characterictics that require the use of a mask that influences the exposure times of the red/green/blue sensitive emulsion layers (cyan/magenta/yellow). With the cyan layer being by far the slowest, magenta faster and yellow the fastest, an orange layer in the film reduces blue light (most), green light (some), red light (the least), thus accomplishing an equalization (somewhat) of the r/g/b exposure times. This equalization is needed in photo-finishing equipment to avoid interlayer effects and cut-off filter conflicts.

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