The ultimate objective whenever I take out a camera is to end up with something worth printing. The roll of Orwo UN54 I used for my semi-stand week produced some very pleasing negatives and with an opportunity appearing I took them into the darkroom this afternoon.
I’d initially thought I might print these using a split grade technique so I started with a test strip at grade 2 1/2 exposing in three-second steps. I quickly realised I was wrong – these were going to print very nicely using a single filter. I opted for fifteen seconds staying with the 2 1/2 filter and the resulting print was very acceptable. However, I did a second print in order to burn in the right-hand side. Looking again at the test strip I thought that twenty-one seconds would be about right for that brighter area. Dialling in twenty-one seconds I held a card ready to hold back the rest of the print for the additional six seconds.
15 secs overall and an extra 6 secs for shaded area
Looking at the prints once they had dried I was pleased that my assessment of the negatives was born out by the prints. The fact they printed so easily was a huge bonus.
I have mentioned before that I am a competent rather than good printer. So, the discipline of writing down how I printed a recent negative will be good to help me think about my process and might, just might, be of wider interest.
Looking at the negative I realised that dodging and burning might not be the most appropriate approach given the complexity of the shapes in the image. To my mind a split-grade approach would be an appropriate starting point. I described my approach last month in Blundering in the Dark so my first step was to pop a 2 1/2 filter under the lens and make a test strip at five second intervals to determine a base exposure from which to work from. Between 5secs and 10secs seemed to be the optimal and looking at the foliage I decided to try 6 seconds as a base. The next stage was to expose a fresh piece of paper for 3 seconds (half of base) using a Grade 0 filter. Without moving the paper or the negative I then replaced the 0 with a grade 4 filter and created another test strip (see below) which had a first exposure of 3 seconds at grade 0 and then a series of exposures at 1 1/2 second intervals at grade 4.
I liked the look of 6 seconds but thought it could be held back just a touch to benefit the sky so on a hunch opted for 5 1/2 seconds (this is where experience/intuition trumps science I guess). Before setting up for a first print I looked carefully at the test print for any signs of dust, hair (eyelashes are bigger than you think) or other imperfections. I’ve circled these on the print above. I then took out the negative, cleaned it and the negative carrier again before setting up for my first “proper” print. I was aiming for an initial exposure of 3 secs at grade 0 and 5 1/2 secs at grade 4 with no dodging or burning.
I was very happy with this first print but felt that the front of the flats, which were in the full glare of a naked morning sun in a cloudless blue sky, could be a little darker; the sky had benefited from reducing the exposure slightly but not the buildings. I therefore made a second print using the same settings but in addition I burned the front of the flats in to selectively darken that part of the print.
I was using 10″x8″ paper and ended up using two sheets for tests and then a further two sheets to create my final image. To be fair I would usually use strips of off-cuts for the test strips but I chose to use full sheets for the purpose of this blog post (thinking ahead!) as they would be easier to examine. A methodical approach is the key to making best use of precious resources such as paper in my experience. A considered and thoughtful approach, examining the negative and thinking through how to approach printing that specific one will repay in less wasted materials and ultimately save time.
Annotating the back of prints is a useful discipline
To help with this I make notes as I work in my darkroom book (see below) and I also use a waterproof marker to annotate the back of each print (above). This helps me remember what I’ve done and also means I can often get a fairly close first stab at other negatives from the same roll. I printed three similar looking negatives in this session, all had been taken at the same time under the same lighting conditions at the same location. The second negative was printed using the times already established and I then made a second print, again burning in a selected area. The third negative was also printed using the same timings but needed no burning or dodging. Three negatives and just seven sheets of paper is not a bad return for a bit of note-taking and a little thinking time before turning the lights out.
When I brought the darkroom back into use recently I had a problem with the slot processor leaking at one of the seams. It’s an old unit, but it has been very well used and I’ve repaired it before so this was not unexpected although still frustrating. It’s the developer slot that’s weeping but fortunately near the top so I’m fine so long as I don’t want to print along the top two inches of the paper! As I’ve mainly been printing panoramas from my Horizon S3 on 10×8 this has been a mere niggle rather than a hindrance.
But, then I decided to print a few 6×4.5 negatives from the Bronica ETRS. These basically use all of the paper’s surface so the “missing” couple of inches become more problematic. So, Plan B it is then.
Back to the trays!
My darkroom space is small. Three bookcases line one wall, with a small filing cabinet in the corner upon which the slot processor sits. The opposite wall has my desk (this room is my office after all) and on the short wall by the door sit my enlargers.
Adding space for trays therefore is a challenge but needs to be done until I can repair the slot processor. A 4’ x 2’ folding picnic table provides a solution. True it’s a tight squeeze with little available floor space once it’s in place but the legs can be folded up into the table which can then be stood in front of the enlarger table when not in use.
If I’m honest, whilst I really appreciate the space-saving and convenience of my slot processor the one thing I really miss is watching the image “magically” appear before my eyes. The trays provide this “magic”. I’ve just come down from a very pleasant couple of hours using the new layout and I can report that it works very well. It just shows that you don’t need a huge space with running water to print your negatives – just the will to problem solve.
I reported recently on the results I had achieved with a box of rather old, discontinued paper and promised to share a couple of scans. With no childcare today I thought I’d pop a couple on the scanner for you. These are scans of darkroom prints, viewing these on screen is like trying to evaluate the taste of a gourmet meal via the telephone. But, ironically, it’s the only way that many will get to experience these. They have a wonderfully rough texture, are a good weight in the hand and there is something so enchanting about such tactile objects.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the texture of the paper does not scan very well, being scanned into two dimensions has appeared to have compressed the texture making it slightly indistinct. But then , no-one would expect the scans to match the three-dimensional reality of such papers.
OK. Not an exciting subject but a vexed one for many darkroom printers. I generally avoid using FB papers but when I do use them I resign myself to a frustrating period of waiting before I can view them properly. Six, 10×8 FB prints, laid one on top of each other can easily reach six inches in height. So, as I don’t have anything better, the dried prints spend a week underneath a pile of the six biggest books I own.
So, you can imagine my delight when I spotted a YouTube video which promised a solution.
Once the prints have been thoroughly washed simply place two prints, back to back, and hang them to dry (see above). Once dried, remove pegs and you will have prints that lay reasonably flat. Certainly flat enough to trim and properly examine. They will still need a day under the books but what a difference!
I’ve just ordered some clear plastic mini-pegs to use in lieu of the big pegs around the sides and bottom. It’s a small price for flat FB prints – guess who’s going to be using a lot more FB paper going forward!
Some while ago, pre-pandemic certainly, I was given a few boxes of materials by a friend who had decided that as he clearly wasn’t going to resurrect his darkroom again he might as well have a clear out. Long-expired film, photographic papers and chemicals, some opened others sealed, all-in-all a veritable treasure trove.
Much of the film I shot over the next two months as I tested new-to-me cameras. Some of the chemicals were clearly way past their best so these I discarded straight away whilst a few unopened bottles are still in my cellar awaiting investigation. There was a large carrier bag of opened boxes of photographic paper too and as my cellar darkroom was still operational I tested most if not all of these. Some fogged beyond any practical use in the darkroom and some only slightly fogged and therefore usable. The one unopened, still sealed, box remained in my paper store for another day.
That day was yesterday
The paper is Kentmere Art Classic, 9.5×12 inches, with a warm tone ivory tinted emulsion coated on a 240gsm fibre base. I got that from the slip of paper inside the box. It also told me that the paper was around grade two. I wouldn’t be playing with split-grade printing therefore.
The negative I chose was a woodland scene, fairly even toned across the whole of the negative with no large patches of shadow or huge expanses of sky. It was partly a way of keeping it simple but largely I thought the subject would suit a warm tone textured paper. Spoiler: I was right!
An initial test print showed I would be working with relatively long exposure times compared to my recent prints. This initial test also led to a second test strip at 15 second intervals. As I’d hoped the test strips showed that my hunch re the negative was good and that I wouldn’t need any dodging or burning. I decided to make two prints, one at 60 seconds and one at 90. Both turned out very nicely and I loved the tone of the paper and it’s tactile, textural quality. I decided to see if I could buy some more, this was going to be a real favourite.
Long story short? Kentmere discontinued the paper in 2006, and in 2007 their paper making division was acquired by Harman. I won’t be getting any more when this runs out. A shame as I wanted to see what changes fifteen years had made to this lovely paper.
This morning I made a few more prints on this paper and I will post those once they are dried and (oh, irony) scanned. I’m going to hoard it for a while though – or at least until I discover something similar!
Well, the Ilford under lens filter kit arrived this week, you may recall I mentioned it in an earlier blog post. I quickly put it to use and can report it works exactly as I’d hoped and solves the problem I was having. I have some concerns about it being being below the lens rather than above but I’m trusting that Ilford know what they are doing and that image quality won’t be adversely impacted.
I’m trusting that image quality won’t be adversely impacted.
My new workflow entails me placing both filters I need for the print on the base board in numerical order, ascending left to right. When it comes time to change filters it’s a breeze. No more squinting at the dials on the enlarger head. Excellent.
There’s always a but isn’t there. It’s brought another issue into sharp focus. The timer. Mine is a dial version and of course I can set the initial times with the main light on. However, changing timings for the second exposure means getting my nose close to the dial but even then I’m still often a second out in setting the new time. That bothers me because in all of my film processing and darkroom printing I endeavour to be consistent; to make each process repeatable I have a consistent workflow and make notes of what I’m doing as I progress. Admittedly, in the darkroom I often forget to make these notes being wrapped up in creating but my short term memory is good enough to enable me to repeat things during the same session.
A new timer is out of the reach of my pocket at this time so I sat down in the darkroom one evening last week to ponder the problem. The answer was literally staring me in the face. I have two enlargers and two timers. The bigger (5×4) enlarger has a timer with a digital read out which is a joy to use. However, the plugs and sockets are different to those of my main (6×6 and 35mm) enlarger. Now, fear not, I’m not about to discourse on plug physiology, suffice to say with a few minutes on t’internet I’d discovered a world of plugs I never knew existed and most importantly for this tale, a tale of plug adapters.
My wallet is the princely sum of £7.99 lighter but I’ve just been upstairs and can report that the digital timer, plus it’s adapter, is now sat proudly, plugged into my main enlarger and having tested it works I’m all set for a session in the dark this afternoon and evening.
By the by, the images here are a couple of random film photographs from the last few months – I didn’t think anyone would want a picture of a plug adapter, however relevant to the tale!
After a break of almost a year I returned to the darkroom this past week. Mainly prompted by wanting to produce a darkroom print from a negative of mine that a friend is producing cyanotypes and kallitypes from. He’s used a processed TIFF that I created from a scan and used that to create digital negatives to then contact print. In conversation he mentioned that he had no darkroom himself these days so I decided to jump back into mine and make him a darkroom print.
So, up front, a disclaimer. I’m a competent printer rather than an accomplished one. I know the basics and occasionally produce a very nice print somehow but I still class myself as a novice. There’s no false modesty here, just simple facts.
Now, one thing I was starting to get reasonably competent at early last year was split grade printing. It was something I’d never attempted first time round back in the 70s as I did not have access to variable grade papers in those days. It was available but generally inferior to graded papers, so these were what was used largely by us amateurs. Variable grade paper began to become more mainstream in the 1980s however but by then I was raising a family and no longer had a darkroom.
Variable contrast paper however, has been a revelation to me over the last couple of years and I’ve eagerly researched how to get the best out of it. Split-grade caught my attention mid-2019 and I’d been exploring that process immediately prior to the pandemic. However, returning to darkroom printing I seemed to have totally forgotten everything I though I’d learnt about the process.
Several (OK – many) sheets later and two days in I decided to go back a step by revisiting the really useful online resource I used last time to get me started … but couldn’t find it! However, I did find a couple of tutorials that recommended a different approach which seemed simpler so that was the approach I decided to try. Within two sheets, the negative that had given me two days of grief (not full days you understand) gave up a pleasing image on the paper. Not perfect but acceptable and by now I’d had enough of staring at that negative on the baseboard and in any case was keen to try another. I will return to it later I’m sure though.
Negative two was dusted and popped into the negative holder. Compose, focus, tweak framing, set timer to two seconds and all set for making a test strip. That was sheet one. Fifteen minutes later I was putting sheet two in the easel and had my printing plan in my head. Six minutes later this second sheet was in the washer and I was returning the negative to it’s sleeve. Yes, you read that right, one test strip and one print. Split-grade, localised dodging and burning and most importantly a printing plan I could, in theory, return to later.
Which I did the following day. Same base exposures but slightly different dodging and burning approach to create a slightly different look. One take and done.
Now, my main enlarger is a Durst M605 which has a colour head. I got it a few years back for a steal so even though my colour blindness will make colour printing problematic it was a better buy than a black and white enlarger at the time. When I started split grade printing I realised I could use the colour head to vary the colour of the light (the basis of split-grade printing with variable contrast paper) and initially thought the colour head would therefore save me the cost of filters.
It definitely works, but trying to read and adjust the dials by the dim light of a safelight is an absolute pain. At least it is for me. I end up covering the partially exposed paper and bringing the safelight to within inches of the head and my nose just as close to be able to make mid-printing adjustments.
Long story short I’ve just ordered an Ilford under the lens filter kit to save me the headache of bringing a safelight up close to the enlarger head so I can peer at the numbers on the Y& M filter dials!! It’s due later this week so I shall report back in due course.
So, in a nutshell, my new (to me) approach to split-grade printing is:
With 2.5 filter in place (10 magenta on my enlarger) create usual test strip
Evaluate as normal to determine base exposure (call it B) and also determine dodging/burning plan.
Now dial in 0 filter (70 yellow for me) and expose for B/2
Without moving paper dial in 5 filter (130 magenta for me). The time in theory should be B/2 but with filters =>4 it needs increasing – I choose to use (B/2)x1.5 as a start.
Expose for second part. You now have the basic exposure.
At this stage you can develop the sheet and assess however I tend to carry out the planned burning in too.
Develop and reassess.
This will hopefully give a very good basis to work from. If the image needs more contrast use a 1 filter in the first step using B/2 as before. If the shadows need controlling then adjust the time for that element. The Ilford rule of thumb for the second exposure is the original base time (B) for filters 4-5 but in my recent experiments I’ve found (B/2)x1.5 a good starting point. You don’t need to restrict yourself to 0 and 5 filters of course but they make a great starting point.
I hope this has been of interest, for a very easy to follow introduction you could do a lot worse than check out this video from Ilford.
Yes, we’ve moved! Not the family you understand but me and my enlarger. Having had to close my previous darkroom so one of the older grandsons could have a bedroom I then set up a darkroom in the corner of the cellar last year and whilst I had some good sessions down there it was never a place I was keen to go. The last time I used it was February and that had been the maiden session for 2020. Once I received the instruction to isolate I thought that I might at least get some darkroom time but eleven weeks in and I’ve not been down there once.
The drawback is the need to set up and then pack everything away; the cellar is in daily use and just recently there have been more things to store as we have been doing one large shop every fortnight rather than smaller shops three or four times a week. It’s amazing how much extra space is needed for two weeks worth of groceries rather than the usual two or three days! It’s also uncomfortable. I’m over six foot tall and the ceiling is barely half an inch from my head. The floor joists are level with my forehead and the light fitting attacks my nose if I forget to duck. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve nearly knocked myself out!
Add to the physical constraints the difficulty of keeping developer at twenty degrees when the ambient temperature is a constant fourteen and the picture hopefully becomes clearer. Washing prints means a walk up some old, steep stone steps to the kitchen or if that is in use up to the first floor to use the bathroom. I’ve also lost count of the number of times someone has opened the cellar door forgetting I’m down there – fortunately only two prints have been spoilt this way.
So, after eleven weeks of endless opportunities and not having once been down those stone steps with a bucket of water (for holding prints until washing) it was time to take some action. One option would be to mothball the darkroom equipment again but given the number of rolls of film I’ve developed this year so far (over fifty B&W and 25 colour) that wasn’t very appealing. I have nothing against scanning, the so-called hybrid approach, but much prefer darkroom printing largely because of the sense of satisfaction it gives me. Selling the gear was not even an option but where was I going to put a darkroom in a house with very little spare space?
My study has two desks and computers (his and his – mine and another of my Grandson’s) so no space there.
A surprisingly quick negotiation with Senior Management and I had permission to move his desk and computer into the spare bedroom. He’s been doing his schoolwork there, ironically on my original darkroom table, so it made sense to put his computer and all his bits and pieces together with his “school” books. I’d moved everything within three hours of completing negotiations.
The next job was to create a black-out. Usually a simple job – visit to the DIY store, pick up what I need and home to sort the job out. But I’m “shielded” so that wasn’t going to happen even if I wanted to queue for hours to get into a DIY store. Wickes home delivery to the rescue and amazingly I managed to get delivery within 48 hours too. The materials arrived at two pm and by four-thirty I was testing how successful the job had been. Our house is over one hundred and fifty years old and there is not a right angle in the place. Windows are almost rectangular, door frames are rhomboid, you get the picture. I’ve still got a few niggly bits to sort out but to all intents and purposes I have a functioning space.
So, I now have my darkroom in the corner of my study (see picture above) and I’m now sat in the living room feeling very smug because less than a week after first starting the train of thought I have prints hanging to dry and I’ve just resolved a couple of teething problems with my new set-up so am ready for a “proper” session tomorrow.
The one big compromise I’ve had to make is in the way I process the prints. Since I first started printing I’ve always used open trays. Watching the image appear in the developer was what hooked me back in the 1970s and even now it’s not lost any of its impact. But, there is simply not enough space in my study for a proper wet-side. So, I’ve had to use the slot processor I impulse bought last year but have never used for various reasons. It was this that caused teething problems but they were quickly resolved and I’m now looking forward to being able to print a negative without having to schedule it up front and then spending forty-five minutes getting everything set-up and put away afterwards.