Into the Woods

Over the course of five days last week I made four visits to a small wooded area close to where I live. Carrying an Intrepid 5×4 camera in my backpack and a tripod in my hand it was my intention to use the dull, dismal and damp conditions for some atmospheric woodland images. To be fair on the fourth visit the sun did play cat and mouse with us a little but it was still quite challenging and every time I got something set up and metered the sun disappeared/reappeared just as I inserted the film holder into the back of the Intrepid and I had to repeat the metering dance again, only to revert to the original when the sun promptly did an about face.

My mission was twofold. Practice with the 5×4 was high on the agenda as most of my 5×4 work this year has been with various pinhole cameras. As I’ve already mentioned, I also wanted to test myself in less than ideal conditions to produce something atmospheric and engaging. Another consideration which quickly revealed itself under the tree canopy was focusing. I quickly recalled that the last time I’d tried using the 5×4 in a dimly lit woodland I had considerable difficulty focusing the 90mm lens with its f8 maximum aperture. I had previously removed the fresnel screen as I’d not been happy using it despite it adding some brightness. A few visits with more time to spend would of course help me hone my skills and also I hoped determine whether or not I’d made a mistake and I needed to restore the fresnel screen.

Over the course of four visits I exposed a selection of black and white films. Some Fomapan 100 and 400, a couple of sheets of Ilford HP5+, my last two sheets of Ilford Delta 100 and a dozen sheets of Ilford FP4+ kindly given to me by John Martin.

I thought however that I’d use this post to share my approach. John shared his thoughts on “the dance” of large format photography recently and it’s a performance that all large format photographers can probably relate to. I have found that having a set routine definitely helps avoid schoolboy errors but sometimes, especially with rapidly changing light, it can be a bit of a scramble to do everything in the correct order and complete it all before the light changes again. That’s where practice comes in so useful – muscle memory is only created through repetition.

With the tripod and camera set up and the composition chosen the next step for me is to focus, something I always do before worrying about exposure. Deciding where to put the main point of focus is the first decision and then deciding how much needs to be in focus follows quickly; both are aesthetic choices even if achieving the desired result is a very technical process. Choice of aperture comes in here too as it is closely allied to the focusing considerations. I’m not going to walk through the focusing process here, it’s something better suited to the video format I think, but it was one of the main skills that I was practicing last week. I found over the course of the eleven to twelve hours in total that I spent in the woods last week that I could focus in the dim light even at f8 but I needed to let my eyes become accustomed to the gloom under the dark cloth before attempting the final, critical focusing. I also needed to ensure I was looking at the ground glass screen straight-on and not from an elevated or indeed lowered position. It reinforced the concept of practice, practice and practice, so if anyone reading this is new to large format photography let me reiterate that there really is no substitute for putting in the time.

Focus achieved its time to consider exposure. Aperture was already determined as part of the focusing process. Film speed is determined by the film being used so in reality it’s time to determine the shutter speed. If you’re my regular reader you will already be aware of my general approach to metering from a blog post earlier in the year. I use a spot meter for determining exposures but recently I’ve also taken to using a metering app on my phone to record a snapshot of the scene to keep with my exposure notes. This also shows what exposure the app would suggest and a couple of times I found this useful as it was so different to what I was planning on using that I stopped and rechecked everything thus averting possible exposure errors (on one occasion the app had been set to 100 and the meter to 400 when I was using 400 speed film so my chosen exposure was correct but on the other occasion it was the spot meter that had the incorrect film speed and not the app).

On my first visit I wasn’t really sure that what I was capturing was meeting my original “moody” objective but back home with negatives developed and scanned I could finally get a look. The first couple reminded me of some images I’d taken at another part of the woods a few years back with a converted digital camera creating false-colour infrared images. Those had what I can only describe as an under-the-sea kind of feeling (sort of) due to the rendering of the false colours and so on a whim I applied “Vintage” filter 10 in Snapseed and immediately knew that I’d met my objective and that I’d also found the “look” for this series. It’s a split tone basically, something I’ve played with in my digital past as Duotones in Photoshop. Incidentally, whilst all of the images posted to my Twitter account last week were created with Snapseed I’ve since reprocessed all of them in Photoshop using a custom duo tone. I shall hopefully be using the PS versions in a ‘zine later in the year. The pictures here are a mixture of both.

Now whilst I’ve tried to fully embrace the hybrid digital/analogue approach it’s always been an uneasy alliance at best. Last week, probably for the very first time since I moved to a primarily film-based approach two years ago, I fully appreciated what the hybrid approach could do. For the first time I wasn’t just using the digitising as a way to share images in social media I was actively using the software, first Snapseed and then Photoshop, to realise my artistic vision. A small lightbulb moment but an important one. On the final two visits I was trying to think in terms of a split/duo toned final image.

I tend to use the darkroom mainly in the late Autumn and Winter months so my printing gets saved up for me to binge-print as it were. Whilst I’ve always restricted my software usage to the types of things I can do in the darkroom this is the first time that I’ve consciously gone beyond that to create a coherent series of images. Yes, I can tone in the darkroom but not with the finesse and fine control that I can in the software. I shall get some of this series digitally printed when funds permit and it will be interesting to compare them with what I create in the darkroom. Time will tell how fully I embrace the hybrid method; all of us who share film photography on social media have to accept the need to digitise our creations, whether that’s the negative or a darkroom print.

Toning? Take your pick!
Or keep it black & white!
Spot the walker!

One thing I have been pondering is how to replicate the subtle glow within the darkroom that the Snapseed filter has added to some of these. Or, indeed, if it is achievable. Quite by chance I found the answer. With no wifi in the holiday caravan I was pleased that I’d taken an old book to read. It was a series of film landscape images with notes on how they were taken and in many cases how the print was handled in the darkroom. Much of the text talked about bleaching and toning prints but towards the end of the book is a woodland landscape, and the photographer has used a diffuser under the enlarging lens for a third of the exposure. Not only that he actually specifies which filter, the Cokin A Diffuser 1, a filter which I have somewhere in the depths of one of my drawers back home. I have the beginnings of a printing plan!

So, how did I do against my original objectives? Well, I certainly got some focusing practice in low light and looking at the negatives I definitely got them right. I started by using f32/f45 just in case but by the fourth trip most of the images were exposed at f16 or f11, using front tilt to achieve the desired plane of focus. I did replace the fresnel screen at the weekend but haven’t yet been out again to see if it is an improvement.

Ilford Delta or FP4+?

In terms of the images themselves I’m very pleased with the series I’ve produced and they’ve also had a positive reaction on Twitter particularly the toned versions. The proof though will be in the printing!

If you’ve made it this far then I applaud your stamina! There were frustrations aplenty along the way, and no doubt more are ahead when I open the darkroom in a few weeks time. But, overall it has been a very successful project with hopefully a little more to be wrung out of it in the coming weeks.

Whet your appetite Wednesday

I’ve been for a few walks in a small local wood over the last four days. Accompanied by an Intrepid 5×4 large format camera, a couple of lenses and a bagful of assorted black & white sheet film I have battled dry, damp, dull and dimly lit conditions in the pursuance of my art. Blog post to follow when I’ve finished developing and scanning.

120 into 5×4 does go

Some time ago I bought a 120 roll film back made by Horseman which has a plate to mount the back to a 5×4 camera fitted with a Graflok back. The Graflok fitting has been the de-facto large format accessory mounting standard internationally for the past seventy years or more. My simple aim was to use 120 roll film with my Intrepid 5×4. My first roll was a disaster, I simply couldn’t get the film advance to work correctly, and try as I might I couldn’t get to grips with it. I had been able to load it correctly and that first test roll eventually became a sacrificial lamb as I struggled in vain. I decided to leave it for another day, but I was at least confident in actually loading the back so I loaded a roll of Fomapan 100 ready to try again in a day or so.

That was last October.

Yesterday afternoon, I came across the back, along with its cardboard template, in a cupboard and with time available decided to work it out once and for all. I reread the manual, not once but a few times, and after playing with the back noted what I’d been doing wrong. There’s a silver switch you move to the left to enable wind on. I’d been holding it to the left which was why the film was continually advancing as I stroked the wind on lever. It needed pushing to the left and immediately releasing! Bingo! And Doh!

The template sits on the ground glass of the 5×4 Intrepid to show the area of the scene covered by the 120 film (see example of the mask in use below)

Time to expose some film in earnest. I’d used my Zero Image 5×4 as the host camera whilst I experimented, and eventually solved, the problem yesterday and had ended up with six exposed frames (the back is 6×9 so I should have got eight.)

Zero Image 5×4 pinhole camera and 120 Fomapan 100
I just love pinhole sunlight scattering – flare? Fomapan 100

Encouraged, I developed the film to make sure all was well. It was – see examples above. So, I loaded a roll of Fomapan 400, collected the Intrepid 5×4, and exposed a couple of frames in the dining room with the 180mm lens fitted.

The next morning I took the Intrepid and the 90mm lens into the backyard and exposed the final six frames. Forty minutes later there is a roll of film hanging to dry with eight successful negatives.

Cracked it!

The 6×9 mask in place. I remove the mask for focusing.
This what happens if you don’t use the mask – that’s the full negative on the right. The view of the ground glass has been rotated for ease of comparison – it is usually upside down

The beauty of this is four-fold I think. Firstly, I can practice with the Intrepid without wasting more expensive sheets of film. Secondly, it gives me access to a much larger range of films to use in my 5×4 cameras. Thirdly, I can change film whilst out; as I finish a roll I can put another in and keep working. Finally (fourthly), I can also use this film back on both my Zero Image 5×4 pinhole and my Intrepid field camera meaning I can get both pinhole and lens-based images on one roll of film.

90mm Fomapan 400
90mm f16 1/4sec Fomapan 400

Despite the unintended crop I do like the image of the two wine bottles (one mine and one the Boss’s). It was an oversight to forget the mask but serendipity was on my side as I had photographed the ground glass with my phone so it was an opportunity to illustrate the value of the mask.

Backlit (window light) 180mm f16 with front tilt and 230mm extension.
3.5 minutes exposure allowing for reciprocity failure and bellows extension. Fomapan 400
Only here because I was pleased with my spot metering! Fomapan 400

So, there you have it. A 5×4 camera and a 120 roll of film. All the benefits of tilt etcetera and quality large format less with the convenience and economy of medium format roll film. Eight 5×4 sheets of Fomapan would set me back around £6 whilst a roll of 120 is around £3.50. But, cost isn’t the big factor her, film choice is. In particular colour film. I have stopped using colour film almost totally but with Autumn approaching I’m beginning to wonder what a few rolls of Ektar 100 would look like through this combination. I can send the exposed film to Peak Imaging for developing and if needs be scanning too – a tempting proposition.

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 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.

#Dave’s Pinhole Camera World Tour 2021

Little did I know when on an impulse I offered John Martin the loan of my homemade (not by me) 5×4 pinhole camera that this would be the genesis of a collaboration with photographers from around the country joining in.

What if we send it round the world and make a ‘zine? Round the world may be a bit ambitious but certainly round the UK is doable.

The whisky talking?

I was sat in a cafe with a pot of tea on 16th June 2021 when John messaged me via Twitter. He’d been chatting to James, another photographer, about the camera he’d been lent. James was keen to try it out and John knew I’d be more than happy. After a few whiskys though they came up with the idea of a world tour for the camera and perhaps also a ‘zine. Thus was born this collaborative project.

Ready to start it’s tour

The camera itself was the result of an impulse buy I made from a charity shop; I figured that even if I didn’t use the camera regularly I was still doing some good for the charity. So, you could say that this whole project was founded on impulses.

Next week the camera moves on, down to the south coast if I recall, and the recipient is I believe a complete newcomer to both pinhole and large format photography. One of the things John and I are keen on doing is encouraging people who’ve never used large format before and to this end John is lending three DDSs to the project – which will be going south fully loaded!

The maiden image

The camera has a 50mm field of view, a 0.2mm pinhole and an effective f-stop of f250. To put that in context, a scene that meters at 1/30th second at f16 becomes an exposure of eight seconds BEFORE taking into account the reciprocity failure of the film stock. So, if you are using Fomapan 100, which is my go-to for 5×4 pinhole, this 8 second exposure becomes 56 seconds once reciprocity is factored in. If, like me you also routinely use a contrast filter for black and white photography (a yellow/green in my case), then this becomes seven and a half minutes!

The project already has five participants in addition to John and myself and we’ve only been kicking the idea around for ten days or so. Hopefully, as more images are shared with the #DPCWT2021 tag then more people will want to get involved. Watch this space!

Sunday Pinhole

Even after more than nine years of retirement I still cannot lie-in bed once I wake.  Nor does my body seem to want to change the habits of a working lifetime and whilst I’m not crawling out of bed before 5:30am these days I rarely sleep beyond 6:30am.  Today was no exception and so at 7am I was out of the house with a 5×4 camera and a few sheets of film in my shoulder bag.

Sheet 1: I could have got a lot closer to the gates

The detectives amongst you will have already worked out from the title that it was a pinhole camera, a Zero Image 5×4 to be precise.  The plan was to visit four locations around town that I have visited recently and recreate the images using the pinhole – and one sheet only, no bracketing and one composition only.  I often impose restrictions on myself to make things more challenging and keep me on my toes.  With the cost of 5×4 it is also a sensible approach.  Being a Sunday each location was quiet meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting in peoples way, especially at the final location which involved me standing the tripod in the middle of the road. That was sheet five (see next paragraph) however so won’t be making an appearance here.

I took six sheets of film with me and used five.  Why five sheets and just four locations especially given the parameters I’d already set?  User error!  At the third location I set everything up, metered the scene, adjusted the reading for the pinhole and adjusted for reciprocity and finally removed the dark slide ready to open the shutter. Except it was half open already.  A lapse of concentration as I generally check the shutter as I place the camera on the tripod and also just before I remove the dark slide.

Take 2!
Spot the difference

Except it was half open already. 

A lapse of concentration, as I generally check the shutter as I place the camera on the tripod and also just before I remove the dark slide.

My Stearman tank holds four sheets of film, part of the reason for limiting myself to  four locations.  I developed the first four sheets, from the first three locations, as soon as I got home. I chose Rodinal at a dilution of 1+49 partly because I’d not used it in this way before and I was hoping this would give a good compromise between the typical dilution of 1+25 and a semi-stand in 1+100.  A dilution of 1+25 generally gives good contrast and acutance whilst I really liked the grain and detail I got from the semi-stand series so wondered if a dilution midway would give good negatives without a forty five minute semi-stand.  By 9:30am the four sheets were hanging to dry, the errant third sheet clearly showing the effect of accidental pre-exposure on approximately a third of its surface (see above).

It was at 9:31am that I remembered I’d not had any breakfast yet – but that’s another story!

Sheet 2: This will be a challenge to print – on the negative the centre is much brighter than the edges

I was very happy with the negatives as they came out of the tank and impatient to get them on a light box and under a loupe but of course these things can’t be hurried so after breakfast I started this blog post in readiness and anticipation. 

With all four sheets on the light pad I was very happy with the fruits of my morning’s labour, despite the momentary lapse. There’s plenty of detail in each sheet and the grain is very restrained. They all scanned nicely (with a mirrorless camera not a scanner) and on the whole look as if they will print well even if the puddle reflection above will take some work to tame the much brighter central portion.

Sheet 4: A Sunday morning pinhole – around 7am to get an empty car park! Zero Image 5×4 Pinhole camera, Fomapan 100, 2 second exposure, developed in Rodinal (1+49)

The Zero Image at 25mm gives quite a strong vignette but I like this effect so it doesn’t displease me. With high contrast scenes it can produce tricky negatives as with sheet 2 above but these challenges are all part of the fun of pinhole photography and darkroom printing. The field of view is very wide (I have three frames but only used one today which equates to approximately 25mm) and in all of these images I could have got much closer to the subject if I’d wanted to. For the reflection image I used a mini tripod at the very edge of a deep puddle so perhaps not that one but certainly I will revisit the third location (sheet 4) and place the pinhole much closer to the rusty door in the middle of the frame.

If you’ve not given pinhole a try yet I can very much recommend it – especially as an introduction to the joys of 5×4 large format photography.