Best of Both

Since I returned to using mainly film for my photography I’ve established a small darkroom in the corner of my office and have enjoyed reacquainting myself with the “dark arts”.  I’m no more than a competent darkroom printer, at best, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable aspect of the hobby.  It’s also an aspect which provides lots of opportunities for problem-solving which is something I enjoy, not least because it keeps my brain engaged.

Of necessity though I have also had to learn some digital ways, mainly so that I can share images on social media.  Even if I darkroom printed everything I’d still have to scan the prints!  So, I have had to embrace the so-called hybrid approach and I have to say I’ve enjoyed the challenge.  It was also good to refresh some of my digital skills and apply them to a negative-based media.

I was musing on this over the weekend as I was working on a 5×4 negative in the darkroom. I had made the image earlier in the week with my wooden Zero Image 5×4 pinhole camera and after developing the sheet had done a very quick copy with my digital camera. As much of my social media bound images are, this was quickly processed in Snapseed on my iPad and uploaded to Twitter. 

5×4 film negative, scanned and converted with Photoshop

The response was, for a post from me at least, phenomenal.  

I had already made up chemicals for a weekend in the darkroom but hadn’t decided which negatives to print.  I usually only print one or two negatives in a session and, allowing for domestic duties, I expected to get two sessions over the weekend which meant I would usually have earmarked three or four negatives. However, the response to my Brighouse pinhole image meant that there was no need to think too hard … it had been selected for me by my friends and colleagues on the Twitter-verse.

Saturday morning, I set up the trestle table for the developing trays, moved the safelights into position and blacked out the study cum office which as I’ve mentioned before also serves as my darkroom.  I positioned the negative in my aged Johnson V5 enlarger, composed and focused the image ready for a sheet of 8×10 paper.  Everything was ready for when I could escape the domestic chores.  I’d only need to pour out the chemicals and don my apron and I’d be away. As is my usual practice I looked at the negative projected onto the easel for a few minutes before turning off the focusing lamp and heading downstairs.

Something was nagging at me as I walked downstairs and it was whilst I was folding the washing that I realised what it was.  Whilst the digital camera had pulled every last bit of detail from the negative and the localised adjustments applied in Snapseed had created a lovely result the negative itself was horribly underexposed around the bottom and very overexposed in the centre particularly.  This would be a huge challenge for my basic skills.

After my usual test strips to get a feel for the negative I quickly realised that my concerns were real, the bottom left and the centre of the image were going to be tricky. I made a test strip from the whole negative and used this as the basis for a printing plan … which got overwritten numerous times.

Long story short, I had three sessions in the darkroom over the weekend and ended up working with just the one negative and with just one “finished” print hanging to dry overnight.  I’m definitely not finished with the negative however as I’ve not yet created a final print I am totally happy with.  I went to bed a little low but woke up reminding myself that it was a tough negative to print and that I am by no means an expert darkroom printer.  There will be another day!

Almost but not quite

It also reminded me of the importance of getting it right in-camera, something I do strive for and always have, but brought home very forcibly over the weekend.  Could I have done much more at the taking stage? Possibly, possibly not.  I was using an ambient light reading as I rarely take my spot meter out when working with pinhole cameras.  On this occasion I might have made good use of a spot meter though to accurately place the shadows on zone III but without filters the central portion would still have been over exposed.   However, there’s no mileage in playing “could’ve, should’ve” at this stage, simply add it to the store of knowledge and experience and move on.

On this occasion then, my hybrid workflow will eventually* provide me with a nice print from this negative.  I learnt a fair bit from trying to print it in the darkroom and I will no doubt learn plenty more from playing further with the negative in the darkroom; I’ve already started scribbling notes to guide my next attempt.

I’m enjoying this hybrid approach although have to say I’ve also enjoyed being in the darkroom this weekend. 

Which, all leads me to conclude that there is a lot to be said for my approach. Part-hybrid and part-traditional, I am at least able to complete my vision with a print and to me it’s not a photograph until you can hold it in your hand.

*as my regular reader might remember I do not have a digital photo-printer at the moment.  I have however ordered a small printer for this purpose and you can be sure that this will be the first image I print on it!

Dry: successful start to phase 2

This is just a quick update following yesterday’s post. It comprises of just a few images – the negative, positive and “final” version of one of the two plates I exposed on the canal. Both were successful but I’ve only used one for this update as they are very similar and this was my favourite compositionally of the two.

One thing I do need to keep in mind is that owing to the nature of the emulsion detail in skies is probably going to be a rare commodity. The composition that I rejected was in the vertical format with a large amount of sky which was simply a dark block on the glass.

I metered for the shadows in the black area at the bottom of the building and looking at this part of the plate I’ve got exactly the amount of shadow detail I was anticipating. This is good news as it confirms that my exposure calculations, which include spot-metering and a touch of applying my nascent experience, are working out well thus far.

What is very apparent, even in these scans, is the amount of detail in the plates. Of course, I was using a good quality 180mm lens, stopped down to f32 with everything rock solid on a tripod. Nevertheless, the detail, especially in the wall and vegetation in front of the building, is lovely.

For the “final” image I cropped to 16×9 to exclude some of the sky and also gave the image a sepia tone which seems to suit both the subject and the conditions quite nicely. Your mileage may vary of course.

Onwards and upwards (when I get some more plates of course)!

Dry: Seconds out … round two!

Back to the canal today with a couple of J Lane Speed plates (the last in the box) along with the Intrepid 5×4 and a bag full of optimism. I’m using the new ChromaGraphica double dry plate holder. When I used it for the first time last week there was a suspicion of a light leak but I suspected then that it was probably me loading the holder for the first time and in a hurry. So, I had a few dry runs this morning with one of the earlier “failed” plates before loading the two new plates in a changing bag. I realised that the dark slide needs an extra final push to fully seat it in place. This probably explains the slight light leak I experienced a couple of days ago. The slides are currently very tight and need a good push but I suspect they will get smoother with use.

Back to my “muse” location and unfinished business

I headed for Elland Wharf, scene of the previous disappointment but also a favourite location. I also regularly test cameras out here so it was, and is, a logical place to head for as I started phase 2 of the dry plate project. I’ve used the Intrepid a fair bit recently and have got much quicker at setting it up on location so it wasn’t long before I was taking spot readings and determining exposure. I will share the notes I made in a separate blog post – suitably tidied up of course!

The double plate holder is quite a bit thicker than my usual film holders and stretches the Intrepid to its limit. It also needs a little persuasion to sit properly but once it’s in place you know it’s going nowhere. I exposed two plates choosing two slightly different compositions rather than one composition and bracketing the exposures. I chose to do this on the basis that despite all the issues I’ve had, obtaining correct exposure hasn’t been one of them.

Back home, I prepared 500ml of HC110 (dilution B) and headed for the darkroom. Thirty minutes later I had two successful glass plates in the print washing tray. Both look well exposed, sharply in focus and not a light leak to be seen – fingers crossed.

They are now drying and tomorrow I will copy them and share the results in a new blog post and no doubt on Twitter too! The new holder also worked well and I’m keen to crack on with the project. I am however awaiting delivery of a new box of plates but it’s good to know that a corner has been turned and it’s full steam ahead.

Dry: An Update

If it’s been rather quiet on the dry plate front it’s not because I’ve not been busy. Indeed, I’ve used most of a box of the Speed plates in the last ten days or so. So, why the silence? A picture might help here.

Notice anything odd?

The example on the left of the three is something I’ve seen before as it happened on my first plate and I’d put it down to user error. However, chatting to Andy who owns the plate holders I was using, revealed he had a similar plate so unless we were both making exactly the same error, be it with loading or seating the holder, then the likely culprit was the holder. We were certainly not using the same camera and lens!

The issue with the other two is different to the first plate, suggesting perhaps that one holder was used for the first and the other for the second two examples? The shape of the light leak, whilst not exactly the same, is very similar too. There’s clearly an issue so some more thinking and testing was called for.

In the case of all three glass plates, used on two different days, each was exposed using exactly the same set up and at the same time as a sheet of 5×4 film. The sheets of film were all absolutely fine. Looking at the scans above shows that the exposures used for these plates were good too which is a small positive from this. I’ve plenty of experience with 5×4 and whilst it’s not impossible I think I can rule out loading errors. To be sure, I used one of the failed plates to load both holders in daylight and could find no way to mis-load them without it being very apparent.

I’ve even tested the plates from the current box themselves. Taking a fresh plate from the box in the darkroom, staying at least six feet from the safelight and putting it straight into the developer gives a perfectly clear plate. What we would expect. Later that morning I used a plate in an Ilford Obscura pinhole (no holder required) which also confirms the plates are probably fine. The other factor in favour of the plates not being the issue is that my first fail was with one of the plates that Andy gave me initially and not from those that I bought for this project.

As a final test I exposed a further plate with a newly-purchased double plate holder. It was a very bright, sunny day and the holder was positioned with the slide pointing upwards as is my norm for vertical compositions. There is the suspicion of an ingress of light, perhaps from where the slide goes, but nothing like the pattern on the earlier plates. I will remember to cover the plate holder in future just to be on the safe side, although that’s something for another day. Taken with everything else though this final test does seem to suggest that there is an issue with the holders I’ve been using.

Speaking to Andy last night he thinks he can see a split in one of the holders so we’ve both spoken to the manufacturer and explained our respective experiences. He is sending replacements to Andy and is going to test the original holders. I have to say the response from him has been first class and very refreshing.

So, a disappointing end to this phase of the project not to say an expensive one as I’ve used one and a half boxes of plates getting to this point. Undeterred though, my new double plate holder arrived last week and I am going to be ordering another box of plates today, I go into the next phase with some confidence.

Despite the issues I’ve demonstrated that I can accurately calculate exposure and I’ve had valuable hands-on experience in handling the plates. The developing methodology I’ve adopted is working well and I’m pleased with the results from the HC-110 too. So, loads of positives and I genuinely believe that despite the setbacks and disappointments I’ve learnt a lot so far. The next stage is to concentrate on compositions and locations that will utilise the glass plate aesthetic to its full.

That’s gonna be the tough part!

Dry: impatience

Ever since my first, only partially successful, foray into the world of dry glass plates I’ve itched to put into practice my thoughts on solving the practical issues I identified. It’s been at least a day for goodness sake! What was holding me back? I am awaiting delivery of the smaller trays and the bottle of HD-110 developer. Due Monday, although I’m away until Thursday next week and will be childminding that day so it’s going to be Friday at the earliest before I can get back in dry glass plate action.

This Friday I made up a fresh 5 litre batch of my usual ID11 film developer in order to develop that days roll of 35mm panoramic goodness. As I agitated the tank back and forth my mind was busy thinking whatever it thinks when my hands are absorbed in a task which no longer needs the full attention of my aged system. I rarely know what it’s coming up with until a fully formed thought pops into my consciousness.

Simultaneously I was putting away crockery and the like (I can develop film on autopilot) so I was fully occupied and not paying any attention to what my mind was doing. Until it popped!

The small ceramic baking dish in my hand clearly needed liberating from the confines and heat of the kitchen and was being called by the cool, darkness of the darkroom. Where did that come from? Once it had arrived however it wasn’t going anywhere (apart from upstairs) and thus after I’d hung the 35mm film to dry I was stood in the darkroom working out how I could develop a dry plate with one ceramic dish that was AWOL from the kitchen. It was a simple solution really.

Excuse the well-stained towel!

Four jugs, ready to hold developer, stop, fixer and clean water respectively were arranged in order along the bench. The empty dish would first be filled with developer to the required depth to fully immerse the glass plate. Once it’s time was up I would remove the plate with my left hand and pour the developer back into the jug with my right. The dish would then be moved along the bench, the stop would be added and the plate returned to the dish for the required time. Repeat until plate sat in the clean water. It takes longer to type/read than actually do in practice.

That didn’t solve the lack of HC-110 though. But I could spare some of the new batch of ID11. But of course I hadn’t any plates awaiting development. I did have two loaded though into the holders Andy had loaned me.

You’re ahead of me of course. Ten minutes later I was lugging a tripod, 5×4 Intrepid camera, a handful of loaded film and plate holders together with cable release, dark cloth, lens etcetera into the back yard. Earlier in the day I’d hung a mirror on the garden wall above some flowers. That, together with the reflection of a strategically opened shed door might make a suitable subject.

Don’t get too used to colour!

I decided that along with exposing two dry glass plates I would also expose a couple of sheets of 5×4 film using the same set-up. This would be my way of determining if any failures were down to the way I had set up the camera or whatever. The only variable would be the shutter speed – everything else would be locked in and locked down.

I decided to use the lens at its smallest aperture of f45 and after metering and evaluating the scene I chose 1/8th second for the first sheet of Fomapan 400 (this film stock was chosen simply because it was the only loaded film holder). A second exposure at 1/4 of a second was also captured for insurance purposes although it turned out that my initial choice was the correct one.

With the two sheets of film exposed it was time to load the first of the dry plate holders into the camera. Extra care with putting the holder into the back of the camera revealed what had gone awry with my first plate – on the plate holder I was using there is a small ridge across the full width of the holder and this formed a natural stop as the holder was pushed in. Inspection revealed however that it needed to go a touch further for the holder to be properly seated. I’d (hopefully) corrected the first issue that I had encountered on my maiden outing.

Time to calculate the required exposure time. I was staying at f45 as I’ve already noted and these plates have a nominal 2ASA rating. It was middle of the day and consulting the graph of UV sensitivity I calculated that the sensitivity would be between ASA 2 or 3. The meter suggested 5 seconds and as reciprocity doesn’t kick in until 45 seconds that should logically have been my chosen shutter speed. Except. I had a hunch that the scene might need a touch more so I went for 10 seconds. No logic, just put it down to experience perhaps? The second holder was soon in place and I was deciding whether to try the original exposure calculations of 5 seconds or to increase the exposure by a stop and go for 20 seconds.

What would you do?

I went for 30 seconds. Yes, no rhyme, no reason, just instinct. Spoiler alert: both gave good negatives but 30 seconds gave a lot more detail in the reflection of the green shed in the mirror.

Mission Accomplished

The developing went exactly according to plan and it was with a feeling of immense relief that I later took two glass plates out of the wash and placed them onto a drying rack. I’ve compared the film and glass plate images in Dry Comparisons so won’t repeat that here.

So, I successfully applied all the lessons from my first attempt and ended up with two very nice negatives. What is interesting is that despite the differences in the exposure times the garden plants are very similarly toned in both plates, the main difference is to be found in the reflection of the green-painted wooden shed which has really benefited from the extra exposure. It’s clear that experience is going to be a key ingredient in determining the correct exposure with these plates. Good metering technique will get me well on the path to the correct exposure, years of using film will help further but I suspect that experience with the dry plates will also be an important factor.

J Lane Glass Plate (2ASA), Intrepid 5×4 camera, 180mm lens, 30 seconds at f45

Dry Comparisons

I have now copied the glass plate from yesterday and also developed and copied the 5×4 film that I exposed at the same time to act as both a comparison but also a check that my process at the “taking” stage was correct. With the exception of shutter speed everything was the same – same camera, lens, aperture, composition. Everything locked down on a tripod so all I had to do was put the two holders into the back, set the shutter speed and press the cable release. The film was Fomapan 400 simply because that was what I had loaded and the glass plate was a J Lane 2 ASA plate.

Same scene, same camera and lens.

On the left Fomapan 400 5×4 film with a modern emulsion whilst on the right a 5×4 glass plate with a gelatin based emulsion created to an 1881 formula. The “vintage” emulsion is UV/blue sensitive whereas the Fomapan is panchromatic – you can see differences in the lupin flowers which are blue/purple and particularly in the enamel sign reflected in the mirror with its red tomatoes. Note also the bright orange flowers visible in the lower left portion of the mirror – the older emulsion renders these very dark whereas they shine in the panchromatic film.

More on what I’ve learnt so far in a future post but meanwhile here’s the dry plate in its solo glory.

J Lane Glass Plate (2ASA), Intrepid 5×4 camera, 180mm lens, 30 seconds at f45

Dry success

Yes, you read that right. We have a successful dry glass plate washing as I type! I will write more once I’ve scanned the plate and been able to look at it properly but wanted to shout out loud!

Four jugs – one dish

Impatient to check my logic after the failure of my first attempt I decided to liberate a ceramic baking dish from the kitchen and put into service the measuring jugs from my now defunct C41 kit. Add developer, place plate in carefully, 9 minutes, remove plate, tip developer back into jug, pour stop bath into dish, replace glass plate … finally ending in a dish of fresh water.

Excuse all the extraneous reflections – couldn’t wait for it to come out of the wash!

More in a few days when I’ve had time to scan the plate and cogitate/reflect on today’s adventures.

Printing a negative

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.

The test strip also gives a first glimpse at dust or scratches on the negative

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.

The final 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.

Three negatives – one set of notes

Bring out the trays!

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.

Two versions of one negative

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.

View from the slot processor – before the 5×4 enlarger made it upstairs

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.

All lined up – ready to go

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.

A print in the hand …

Calder & Hebble Navigation

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.

Elland Wharf

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.

Woodland on the outskirts of Elland
  • Camera: Horizon S3
  • Films: Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5+
  • Paper: Kentmere Art Classic