My previous post talked about making a pinhole from a body cap to use on my Fuji X-series cameras. I made three of these pinholes yesterday morning although the first was too large so was put to one side. This post talks about what happened next.
As I was putting away the few tools I used to make my pinholes I remembered the first cap which I’d put to one side. Could I remove the aluminium pinhole and thus free up the cap for further use? Despite being superglued it came out with a little bit of persuasion and some downward force. The body cap survived and therefore before clearing away for the day I had another go, this time using a small dressmakers pin. Popping the finished item on the Fuji X-Pro1 I was very happy to note that this was, as I’d hoped, a small improvement on caps two and three.
One thing I had noticed was that I could preview the image on the Fuji’s LCD screen. With the X-Pro1 it’s a rather dim image until you depress the shutter part way when you also get the exposure preview.
Finally, some of the guesswork taken out of framing a scene, especially helpful for getting in close.
This morning I thought I’d try the pinhole cap on my Fuji X-H1 which has an articulating LCD screen so easier to use when working low down which is my habitual way of working with the pinholes. The first thing I noticed was that I didn’t need to half-press the shutter to see the exposure preview. I did pop in and get the X-Pro1 and double checked that exposure preview hadn’t got turned off by mistake – it hadn’t!
The next thing I noticed was the screen … the live preview was showing the effect of sun flare in all its glory. I had the camera on a tripod so took the picture then compared that to the live view … they matched. I was able not just to frame the image but also to preview how the light was going to react with the sun in the frame or close to it.
I then had the idea for a pinhole selfie. Before now these have been very hit and miss and often ended up with a very central subject, but I realised I could get the composition more accurate. By standing behind the tripod-mounted camera and holding my hand in front I could work out where my face would need to be to sit where I desired in the frame (see above).
So, will my new found pinhole freedom tempt me away from my film pinhole cameras?
Absolutely not! I love the unpredictable nature of my pinhole cameras and the serendipitous images that seem to occur more regularly than you’d expect. Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction from knowing that you’ve definitely nailed the sun flare but there’s also a great sense of anticipation when removing a roll of 120 or some sheets of 5×4 from the tank and holding them up to the light for that first look.
So, whilst the digital body cap pinhole won’t be replacing my film cameras any time soon, it will be something I will probably keep with the camera at all times. On occasions, usually when out with Senior Management, I will take just a compact camera with one lens. This is usually the Nikon L35AF but occasionally I will take a digital mirrorless Fuji instead. I don’t always get the opportunity for some dedicated photography time but one of my small cameras in my pocket or shoulder bag is a good insurance policy should an opportunity arise. Having a pinhole option without carrying two cameras will be a good bonus.
In part 1 of this series I introduced my digitising set-up and in part 2 I then talked about how I hold the negatives flat and steady for copying. In this third and final instalment I want to cover the copying itself and finally the post production.
Let me start by saying that I keep it simple. No stitching, no fancy software, no wet-mounted negatives or any of the other interesting things that you may be aware of. So, keep that in mind. This is not a highly technical article but the real-life process of someone who recognises the need to digitise his film especially for sharing on social media but dislikes doing it and rarely prints digitally. My printing is done in the darkroom and only very occasionally do I purchase an inkjet print (I do not own an inkjet printer).
I guess that is the first point I would make for anyone contemplating getting into digitising their negatives. What are you going to use the files for? If it’s just for social media, websites or blogs etcetera then I believe that my method as described here will work very well. If however you want ultimate quality then what I am going to describe may not be your best approach. That said, I believe that the results from this form of digitising negative film can be far more than simply adequate! I will give an example at the end of the post.
Capturing the files
So, let’s start with the hardware that I use to capture the files. The copying set-up (left) was briefly discussed in Part 1. It comprises a Fuji X-T3 mirrorless digital camera, a 60mm f2.8 Nikkor Micro lens with adapter, a copy stand and various holders.
I’ve already mentioned that I work in a darkened room to avoid reflections but it is worth knowing that the 60mm lens I am using has a front element that is very deep-set in the lens body so I doubt any stray light is going to be striking the lens but nevertheless I am continuing to work in the dark.
I use a solid copy stand so everything is kept as stable as is possible and I also use a cable release so I do not need to touch the camera itself. I use an aperture of f8 or f11 and move the camera up and down the stand until I fill the frame from left to right with a single negative. I manually focus on the negative using the focus peaking feature of the camera to guide me. In practice I find that once I’ve set the focus for a roll of film then I do not need to touch it again for that roll, however I keep an eye on the LCD screen throughout to make sure the focus peaking lines are still glowing.
I manually set the shutter speed using the histogram to guide me. I will typically bracket one stop either side of the camera’s recommended shutter speed* but often find that I can create four exposures that all fit within the histogram without clipping. Incidentally, when considering clipping don’t forget that black parts of the holder or bare parts of the light pad will skew the camera’s recommended exposure. At some point I will do some experiments to see whether simply exposing for the highlights/shadows is all that is needed but for now I like having my options open without needing to rescan the negatives on another occasion. Hard drive space is cheaper than my time at present but one day I will sit down and work out which works best for me.
Me. Now, that’s an important word for You. Whatever you read, watch or listen to is only that person’s way of working. It’s what works for them and you are right to use it to inform your experiments but ultimately it’s what works for you that matters. Ooops, nearly slid the soapbox out from under my desk then! Back to business.
* Since preparing this post I have found a resource which suggests exposing at the camera’s metered exposure, or one stop over (exposing to the right). All of which seems to validate my approach – apart from making one exposure at -1 of course. I will adopt this going forward.
Converting the files
So, I have a memory card holding my newly copied files with a choice of exposures and also saved in both RAW and JPEG. This is an old habit from when I worked exclusively with Fujifilm digital cameras but is actually helpful given that I process the files on two different systems. Depending on where I am and/or what mood I am in I will typically convert my files using either the iPad or my desktop computer. Whilst all these negative images are destined to live on my computer hard drive I typically use the JPEGs on my iPad and the RAW files on the computer.
As a rule of thumb, and pending any proper experiments, this approach of effectively bracketing exposures currently works for me. I typically use the file with the most central histogram as it usually gives a flat, low-contrast image with which to work. Why make life complicated if you don’t need to?
SNAPSEED is my conversion software of choice on the iPad. It is simple to use, does everything I need and was free. I start by straightening the image and cropping away all the extraneous parts, leaving me with just the negative itself in whatever format I was using. I then apply a normal black and white adjustment to ensure I have no colour cast. I capture JPEGs as monochrome on the Fuji so this is probably a redundant step but it keeps the process consistent compared to my desktop conversions.
I then Invert the image using a Curves adjustment (again as I would on the desktop). This gives the basic image from which to work and from here it’s a case of using the normal local and global adjustments to convert the image to taste.
ADOBE CAMERA RAW (ACR) and sometimes Photoshop (PS) are my weapons of choice when using a desktop computer. I use the RAW files, hence I always start in ACR and oft times that is enough. However, if I want to add borders or undertake anything more involved I will take the initial conversion into PS. I have tried to keep the desktop workflow very similar to that used on my iPad and on the whole this is what I do, however there’s no escaping the greater scope that PS offers when required. Whilst I try to avoid using the computer as much as I can I will sometimes take a few of my digitised negatives into Photoshop for a “play” – more on that perhaps in another post.
So, my basic workflow in ACR is as follows. Open and immediately crop and rotate as required. I then reduce Saturation to -100 and invert the Curve to give me the basic conversion. I then make any global adjustments in the Basic panel, typically adjusting contrast and overall brightness using Clarity, Dehaze, Exposure and Contrast. If that gives me what I want I will add a vignette if required and sharpen both from within ACR and save out my finished file.
Sometimes, perhaps if I want to add a Duotone or a border to the final image, I will take the file into PS for finishing off but I will still do all the basics in ACR. For my recent woodland series this was the approach I took; tidying up the crop and a basic conversion in ACR then into PS for the duotone and final tweaks before adding a large white border.
None of this is overly sophisticated and of course it only relates to black and white and not colour negatives. I do occasionally use colour and for what it’s worth use Lightroom and Negative Lab Pro for my conversions but that’s out of the scope of this post. In fact, I use it so rarely I wouldn’t be so bold as to write about how I use it!
My specific reasons for digitising negatives, to give me something to post to social media, informed all of my choices from the start to the finish of this process. Yours should too. I share my images with like-minded folk on Twitter and often use a film image for my picture-a-day challenge on Flickr. But that is usually the limit of my expectations for these files. If my reasons change then I will of course be re-evaluating the current process in the light of any revised requirements.
Finally, I did mention that I occasionally have a digital print made and recently I had a 24×12 inch metallic print made from a 35mm negative from the Horizon S3 Pro. The negative had been scanned using the method described here and was processed in ACR and PS again using the approach described here. I didn’t do much in Photoshop apart from add the large white border and rather than sharpen in ACR I did sharpen it in PS too. Framed, and on my wall, it looks fabulous.
I hope that these notes are of some interest/use to you the reader. I’m always happy to share my workflow and experiences and when I do eventually sit down to work out the optimal exposure for the digital copies I will be sure to post my thoughts here. Don’t hold your breath though as this is working at the moment – for me!
In Part 1 of this series I talked about my set-up and the gear I use for digitising negatives. In this second part I will describe my experiences using the two film holders that I briefly introduced in Part 1. How I set-up the Fuji X-T3 and my workflow once the negatives have been copied will go into an (originally unintended) Part 3 as this part got very long very quickly.
When I first saw the Pixl-Latr I immediately thought that it was a simple and very practical solution and looked far better than the Lomography Digitaliza masks I’d been using up to that point. Up until then I had only been copying negatives occasionally so it was something I put up with but with my film usage increasing I wanted something to make the process easier.
The premise is simple. Use the supplied gates to create a masked area into which the negative sits. Turn the frame over, place the negative into the opening you’ve created and pop the diffuser back on. Turn the whole assembly back over, place under the camera and off you go.
Except for me it wasn’t as straightforward. I found that every time I turned the frame over to put the diffuser at the bottom I had to hold it really tight to avoid it all spilling open and me having to start again. It is not practical to load film with the frame and diffuser the correct way up and even turning the diffuser over made no difference. For a while I went back to using the Digitaliza for 35mm and 6×6 120 film. With no alternatives for 5×4 however I found an uneasy peace with the Pixl-Latr for the limited amount of large format copying I carried out. (Stick with me – there’s a happy ending and I really like this mask).
That might have been how the story was left if it hadn’t been for Josh from Pixl-Latr who got in touch with purchasers to see how they were getting on via an after-market online survey. I shared my experiences happily mainly because I wanted to help this small company to continue to thrive. I was very surprised however when Josh got in touch to find out more and even more surprised when he offered to send me a replacement frame and diffuser as to him it sounded like I probably had a less-than-perfect kit. He was right, the new one arrived whilst I was working on this post and it is a big improvement. Top marks for customer service Josh!
A recent addition was the Pixl-Latr A4 Mask which has three primary functions:
– Masks extraneous light – Helps prevent pixl-latr from slipping on the surface. – Grips strips of roll film either side of pixl-latr
All of which it does and it has replaced my home-cut foam board mask. I’m not normally big on after-market accessories but this was one I was pleased to have bought. As an aside, the diffuser on its own is fabulous for copying glass plates, I simply place the mask over the diffuser to mask out unwanted light from the light pad and pop the glass plate on top.
Lockdown wasn’t kind to many people but one person who probably had a better time than most was Andrew Clifforth. To quote from his website: “The Essential Film Holder started as my ‘lockdown project’ and has now shipped nearly 3,000 units to film enthusiasts in over 29 countries around the globe.”
Pretty impressive figures and as one of those 3,000 or so enthusiasts I can attest that the holder is pretty impressive too. The Essential Film Holder (EFH) delivered everything that was claimed for it on the website and has considerably sped up the process for me. I have 120, 35mm and 35mm panoramic masks and using these I am able to copy entire rolls of film in one go. Set up once and then copy until the roll is finished.
The EFH is a self-contained unit with a built-in diffuser and a 120 mask forming the next-to-bottom layer of the unit. Above this can be placed masks for other formats including 35mm panoramic (XPan format) and standard 35mm frames. These are held in place by wing nuts and the design cleverly means the 120 masks can stay in place permanently. Once in place you thread one end of the full roll of negatives into the unit and then push/pull the strip through stopping as each new frame comes into view and making the exposure. I use my right hand to gently push the negatives through and my left hand to release the shutter using a cable release.
The one fiddly part is removing/replacing the guides and masks when changing format. I find the retaining nuts fiddly. Not a deal breaker by any means and you really do need to replace the wing nuts to be able to control the grip on the negatives. I have large hands and slightly arthritic fingers though so I cannot imagine it will be an issue for many!
When considering which of the many systems to use it makes sense to consider how often you will use it, what you will be copying and whether or not you use multiple formats. If I only copied negatives occasionally and used multiple formats then the Pixl-Latr wold be a no-brainer for me. If I only used the standard 35mm format then the EFH would be my choice regardless of how many rolls I digitised a month. That said, you do need to consider the cost per roll if you only use film occasionally. I will exceed two hundred rolls of 35mm and 120 combined this year so the cost/roll ratio is less relevant.
So, my current set up for holding the negatives uses both the Pixl-Latr and the EFH and to my mind plays to their various strengths. Whilst it can easily cover all my formats, for me the Pixl-Latr is perfect for my 5×4 sheets, for non-standard formats such as the 35mm panoramic negatives from my KMZ FT-2 and for larger 120 negatives such as the “stream of conscious” pinhole images I occasionally create on 120 film. It is also just right for my glass plates as I’ve already mentioned too. The EFH on the other hand I use primarily for quickly copying a roll of 35mm or 120 before cutting it for sleeving and filing and it is amazing how quickly I can work through a full roll. Perfect for someone who doesn’t enjoy this process!
This simple set up is a far cry from the days when I spent more time loading negatives into the Digitaliza frames than actually copying them. The EFH is used before the rolls are cut for sleeving and it handles the bulk of my copying needs quickly and efficiently at a reasonable price. The Pixl-Latr is very competitively priced and very versatile. I choose to only use part of its potential but know that if needed it has all my bases covered. In particular, it covers everything that my current EFH rig cannot as yet (I’m choosing words carefully as I know that EFH are working on further improvements).
So, there you have it. A lot of words which perhaps can be summarised in a sentence. I digitise all my film with the help of EFH and Pixl-Latr holders to hold the film in place. I hope this has been of interest. Part 3 (of what was intended as a two-part series) will cover the digitising and post production itself.
Disclaimer: My only connection with these two companies is as a very satisfied customer and these notes are based purely on my personal experience. The links below are provided as a service, I have not been asked to post them and I receive no reward or other incentive from their use.
I am in the fortunate position that following the end of home schooling there is a spare desk in the house so I’ve been able to set up a reasonably permanent digitising/scanning station. It isn’t immune from being dumped on by other people off-loading their junk onto the nearest clear(ish) space but on the whole it’s generally ready to go at a moments notice.
So, what do I have on the desk? The one indulgence is a proper copy stand. I did buy a cheap stand from a certain auction site but it almost toppled when I added the camera and, not for the first time, I decided it had been a false economy. A tripod would not have been practical given the lack of floor space around the desk and as I wanted to have an ever-ready desk-based system I came to the conclusion that a copy stand was the most practical option. After researching and then checking prices I purchased a Kaiser RS2XA copy stand which on checking this morning has gone up considerably in price since I bought mine. However, having a rock-steady means of holding my camera and lens with a good-sized baseboard has made home digitising a far more pleasant experience in the long run.
The camera I use is a Fujifilm X-T3 and this is paired via an adapter with a Nikkor Micro 60mm f2.8D lens. Both pieces of kit were already in the gear cupboard (my digital set-up is a Fuji mirrorless system and pre-Fuji I worked with full frame Nikon DSLRs). A cable release (just sneaking into frame bottom left) is permanently attached and held in place with a blob of blu-tac.
I have a generic A3 lightpad which I use for looking at negatives and a small Kaiser Slimlite Plano, which was a birthday gift and probably more than I actually need, that I use to illuminate the negatives when digitising. Also on the desk is a normal desk lamp. I work with the curtains drawn and room lights off so this gives me a spot of light when reloading film holders etc and is easily turned on/off without leaving the desk.
I haven’t done any testing to see whether it is strictly necessary but I like to exclude as much extraneous light as possible so have made some masks from old mounting boards into which the film holders can be sat. The usual small tools of the trade such as dust blower, pens, loupe etcetera sit at the top of the desk along with the 35mm film cutter (every 35mm photographer should have one IMHO). To the right are scissors and a small plastic box to hold trimmed negative ends prior to them making their way to the bin. A minor thing perhaps but it’s great not having bits of negative strewn across the desk!
Holding the negatives is the aspect that I’ve seen more words written about than perhaps any other aspect of digitising negatives apart perhaps from which software to use. My approach, as it is with all aspects of this, is to keep it simple. I have a couple of Lomography DigitaLIZA film scanning masks which for quite a while were all I had. Effective but fiddly and certainly not time-efficient when digitising a lot of film. So. when it first came out I invested in a Pixl-Latr film holder which came with a diffuser as part of the kit and several “gates” which can be used to mask-off the negatives. I will write more about using the Pixl-Latr in Part 2 but suffice to say it’s still in use despite adding a second system to my kit a few months ago.
The Effective Film Holder came to my notice during one of the Lockdowns and after a lot of reading and thought I purchased one as, based on my experience to that point, I felt it would complement the Pixl-Latr. It’s not going to spoil Part 2 by saying that my hunch was correct and that these two relatively inexpensive systems together meet all of my home digitising needs.
In Part 2 I will talk about my experiences using these two film holders. I had intended to also use part 2 to write about how I set-up the camera and my workflow once the negatives have been copied thus making this a two-part series. However, as I typed, part 2 quickly became longer than expected so these aspects will be covered in Part 3. Fingers crossed I don’t end up with a four-part series!
So, a couple of days away have ended and we are back home. I travelled light (blog post to follow) but still got back with six exposed rolls of 35mm film. Time for a morning on my feet in the kitchen and the developing of six rolls of film. I find this a very relaxing process. That might not resonate with everyone but I’ve developed over 340 rolls of film and almost 100 sheets of film in the last twenty months so it’s done mainly on auto-pilot which makes for a reasonably stress-free morning. I’m a stickler for order and method too and this means that muscle memory is strong as my routine barely wavers.
I took two cameras this time. The KMZ FT-2 had the last roll of Rollei Blackbird and as you need a changing bag to load and unload this beast it was going to stay in the camera until I got home. The other camera though was a Nikon L35 and I used four rolls of Tri-X and a roll of Kentmere 400. I was asked by someone recently how I remember which film is which when I am away from home and therefore having to store film up for developing later, especially with more than one camera.
The answer is simple. I carry a permanent marker pen with me and use this to clearly number each roll, sometimes adding date and the ISO used. I then use the note taking facility on my phone to record all the relevant details. If I’m working with large format I have a notebook in my bag because I record full details for every single exposure but for a day out with a 35mm the phone app works well. If I’m using 120 I sometimes want exposure details etcetera for some frames and these are easy enough to jot down too.
Back home as I load each film into the tank I prepare a slip of paper with the relevant number on and keep this with the developing tank, noting where appropriate which film is on the bottom reel and which on the top (see picture above). This slip gets pegged up next to the corresponding film on the drying line (see below) once I’ve finished.
So, there we have it. My very simple method of keeping track when working with multiple rolls of film. Most days I only expose and develop one roll in a day so this level of organisation isn’t a daily routine but it works well at times such as these.
The KMZ is an idiosyncratic camera and nowhere else is this more apparent than in terms of loading film. Whilst it uses normal 35mm film that’s as far as normal goes. The film needs to be transferred into the proprietary cassette before loading. It then needs to be attached to the four-part take up cassette before being loaded. Now, all of this can be done in daylight but you do lose a good lump of film in the process and given how few frames you actually get the loss of even one is a big reduction.
Add in the fact that I do not have a cassette to hold the film before it is exposed and so I am having to fudge matters a little then you will appreciate that this process becomes even more interesting. All things considered I have made the decision that whilst some parts can be done in daylight and others need to be done in the dark, for simplicity I am doing everything in a large changing bag.
Whilst researching how to load the camera before Jon forwarded his to me I found these instructions on Flickr. They might have been uploaded nine years ago but they illustrate very clearly the process when using the proprietary cassettes and I found them very easy to follow.
Having transferred the film into the right-hand cassette and attaching the take-up cassette I popped everything into the changing bag to actually load the cassettes.
Jon’s camera as I have said came with both of the cassettes and I found that by following these instructions and then using a changing bag to load the film into the camera I was getting the maximum number of frames per roll. I should add that when I finished the roll I popped the camera back into a changing bag and immediately transferred the film directly from the camera and onto a reel and into the developing tank.
But, with just one cassette matters are a little different and I have experimented with a couple of ways of loading the film so far. Both methods that I’ve tried to date need some simple DIY however.
The simplest is to cut down the spindle from a normal 35mm cassette as shown (left) removing the top and also filing down the ridge at the bottom of the spindle. I used a hacksaw and a sheet of sandpaper for this job.
This hacked about spindle slides snuggly into the FT-2 and from my experiments with a roll of Fomapan, my copy of the FT-2 remains light tight and the film remains scratch-free. Leaving film loose in the camera body isn’t ideal I guess but it works. My concern is whether or not every copy of the FT-2 gives such a light-tight environment.
So, on to experiment two.
Wanting to protect the film to some degree I took a plastic reloadable cassette. The spindle was hacked as before. Removing the locking cap from the cassette I proceeded to remove plastic from top and bottom, reducing the height of the cassette until it slid snugly into the camera. It turned out that I had to remove the top and bottom completely so this wasn’t going to be a totally light tight solution. However, with the spindle inserted it did keep out most of the light and of course would give some protection from scratches. The natural light-tight property of my FT-2 would do the rest.
Everything still needs to be done in the changing bag of course.
I am going to keep looking for a more robust solution of course (and for a second cassette) and as I try out other ideas I will share the results here.
FOOTNOTE: Bill T, if you are reading this I was going to create a video showing transferring the film and loading the cassette before loading everything into the FT-2; a picture can often be worth a thousand words after all. However, my FT-2 is currently loaded so I haven’t been able to do so as yet. If you would find it useful however then DM me on Twitter and I will do it for you when I’ve used this roll.
After that first success I wanted to give the HP5+ in Perceptol a try in 120 format too not least because, panoramic cameras aside, I use more 120 film than 35mm. The camera I chose was the Zeiss Ikon Nettar 518/16 mainly because I had loaded it with a roll of HP5+ a few weeks ago to take with me on a trip out and then never used it (because I forgot to pick it up as I left the house if I’m honest). I only took a short stroll but it encompassed a scene dominated by trees and greenery, some of my usual urban details and a view across the valley. All things I’ve photographed before so I knew what to expect.
After reminding myself how this camera focuses, or more accurately remembering to actually set the focus ring, I made a first exposure thirty yards from my garden gate before heading to Gog Hill to recreate an oft-captured scene. The light in the lane under the trees was too low for me to handhold so I walked further down to a point where the overhead trees are less intrusive and where I could get a shutter speed I was more comfortable with. When I pulled the film out of the developing tank to hang it to dry, this negative (see above) blew me away with its detail and clarity. This camera was made from 1949 until 1957 so is older than myself (one day I will make the effort to narrow down its age more precisely).
Whilst I was making images to test the new-to-me film/developer combination I couldn’t but help to notice how instinctively I was using the Nettar. I haven’t used it since a trip to Liverpool in 2018/2019. Aperture and shutter speed are set around the lens which needs to be cocked before each exposure – it’s like using a large format lens but in miniature. The thing I need to remember to adjust is the focusing ring, hence the slightly off focus above, but I think I only forgot to do that the once.
For the record, this was the second roll of film I had developed in this initial batch of stock Perceptol. Reading the information sheet that Andrew had sent me I noted that development time should be increased by ten percent for the second film so the original thirteen minute development time now became fourteen. The only off-putting thing is going to be development times I suspect but I’m just going to think of the rewards.
So, there you have it. A typically dull day but the negatives are full of detail and texture. I tried a variety of scenes with foliage, brickwork and sky all represented and even let the rather milky sun creep into the top left corner of one image. I was already a convert after one roll but this just consolidates my thoughts. My bulk roll of 35mm HP5+ is due to arrive today and I’m ready for the off.
It’s no secret that one of my film/developer favourite combinations is Ilford HP5+ and ID11 diluted 1+1. A couple of times recently however I’ve been caught out with HP5+ in my camera in totally the wrong situation and I’ve ended up knowingly overexposing the film and pulling it from the developer early to compensate. But is there a better way of dealing with this situation? It’s something I’ve been giving some thought to recently.
Coincidentally, at around the same time that I was quietly pondering this matter I also posed a question to the #believeinfilm community on Twitter regarding the developer Perceptol as I’d been given a few boxes a while back and it wasn’t a developer I am familiar with. Amongst the responses was a direct message from Andy (author of The Death of Photography) who is not only familiar with Perceptol but was wondering why I’d not used it with my overexposed HP5+. Was serendipity about to offer me a solution that resolved both questions?
“… when you did it, I thought Perceptol might be better …”
Andy and I continued to exchange messages on the subject, whilst at the same time others were chipping in on Twitter and I also set to it, researching further and eventually formulating a plan. Not an original plan mind you, turns out this is a fairly common approach but it’s new to me.
Which is why after breakfast I loaded a roll of HP5+ into the Horizon S3, set my meter to 250 and went for a walk around the block. Now, admittedly, it’s distracted me from writing up my thoughts on loading the KMZ FT-2 (sorry Bill T) but I needed to check this out for myself. And I needed to do it … now!
One of the reasons that developing HP5+ in Perceptol is a common approach is that this is a very fine grain developer and properly exposed negatives have a very clean and detailed look to them. There seems to be some debate at whether or not you should meter at box speed of 400 or at 250 although in photography this sort of disagreement is normal. I decided to take Andy’s advice not least because another photographer, co-host of The Lensless Podcast no less, also got in touch to recommend metering at ISO 250. You don’t ignore good advice when given so freely and it was also the whole point of the exercise – dealing with a theoretically overexposed roll of film.
The Ilford website recommends developing HP5+ rated at 250 in stock Perceptol for 13 minutes and at this stage I see no reason to ignore this advice. Whether or not I vary from that in the future will depend upon the results over the next few months. So, I will be taking a break from writing this post to develop the film and will be back later with my conclusions.
INTERLUDE: Insert Muzak of your choice …
So, welcome back. Hopefully you enjoyed your choice of music … but don’t blame me if you didn’t!
We have negatives and they look very nice to me. Bags of detail, crisp and clean. Unfortunately, the digital scans that I am able to produce at home, whilst perfectly good for most things cannot do total justice to any negative. These have a pleasant, well-controlled grain and when compared on a light box with some pulled negatives using ID11 are noticeably cleaner.
So, from an online discussion on Wednesday I was out with the camera on Thursday morning to expose a roll of film, which was developed Thursday afternoon and now a blog post uploaded on the same Thursday teatime.
Am I happy? Yes. The developer gave me everything I was looking for and I wish I’d been aware of this before I pulled my over-exposed HP5+ prematurely from a tank of ID11 on Tuesday. It is however another tool in my personal tool kit and that is a positive. I am going to deliberately over-expose some HP5+ over the coming weeks to see if these results are repeatable (I strongly suspect they are). As I already enjoy HP5+ rated at 400 and I regularly rate it at 800 it’s looking as if this film might also fulfil my needs at lower ISOs too. No wonder someone described it to me recently as the Swiss Army knife of black and white films
In closing, I would reiterate that photography is a very personal thing and just because one, or a hundred people say something is the way to go doesn’t mean to say it’s the way for you. Your tastes, your aesthetic are personal to you and I’d always recommend listening to the advice and thoughts of others but then trying things for yourself before committing to a method. I followed my own advice today and tried the suggestions of various people for myself, was very pleased with the results and have just order a bulk roll of HP5+ which by my estimation will use up the four litres of Perceptol I have here … by the end of that I will have tested thoroughly and will know if this is to become a regular feature of my photography.
Finally, thanks to Andy, Andrew, Jason and John amongst others for their thoughts on this process and for helping me down this particular rabbit hole! Also a huge shout out to John Martin who saved me from a technical meltdown!
I know I said I wouldn’t deliberately pull 35mm Ilford HP5+ again.
Let me explain.
I’ve not yet written about the KMZ FT-2, the latest addition to my camera collection and a swing lens panoramic camera to boot. I will rectify that shortly (ie within the next few weeks) but suffice to say, this is an interesting camera to load not least because it needs to be done in the dark. It also means that swapping out a film is not really a straightforward task. So, having loaded HP5+ the night before expecting an overcast day there was no way that when I awoke to clear blue skies and sunshine that I was going to swap the film out for some FP4+. Choice of film speed is critical with this camera by the way as it has one aperture (f5-ish) and a fastest shutter speed of 1/400th of a second. That probably puts things into perspective.
What to do? Leave the camera behind? I was loath to do that as I’m still working out how to best overcome the camera’s physical handicap (more later – you tease!) and this was to be the first non-test roll. I would also be in somewhere other than Elland which doesn’t happen very often at the moment. Brighouse was to be the destination and whilst the wife was shopping I was to have a thirty minute pass to take some photographs.
Underneath the road bridge (see below) I took the first meter reading of the day. At ISO 400 I was getting 1/60th at f16. A breeze for the Horizon S3 but extrapolating for the circa f5 aperture of the KMZ FT-2 meant a shutter speed of around 1/1000th second. With a nominal top shutter speed of 1/400th of a second and allowing for the flexibility of the film emulsion this was still a good stop adrift. It was either, put the camera away, expose at 1/400th and trust the film could handle it or rate the film at 200 and pull in development. The first was a non-option. The second wasn’t ideal given I’m still feeling my way with this camera and so I went with the option to pull the film. Given the contrast in the scene it turned out to be the best choice too.
The image, above, of reflections underneath the bridge has really benefitted from the pulled process as it’s brought the contrast in the negative down nicely and made for an easy conversion in Snapseed. I rarely mention my choices for hybrid working but I really like to keep it very simple. I copy the negatives with a Fuji X-T3 and an old Nikon micro lens before opening the file in the Snapseed App on my tablet.
I mentioned last time that pulling HP5+ wasn’t something I’d do on a regular basis but I’m really glad that I had the technique up my sleeve as it were when I went out yesterday. Knowing your film stock and knowing how it reacts to different processing methods is a very useful thing. To acquire it you need to work with the film regularly and be prepared to experiment. Putting in the effort to do so may seem like a pain at the time but it rewards the patience in the long run.
I promised in a recent post to share my metering approach when using the 5×4 camera and as the weather here is disgusting at present what better time to do so. I’m also very aware that my last dozen or so posts have been very “dry” too; which it certainly isn’t outside!
Why did I specify 5×4 and not just generalise? Well, my approach differs depending on what camera I’m using and how I’m using it. With pinhole photography I’ve found that a reading taken with the App on my phone, adjusted for reciprocity and with a bit added on for luck gets me where I need to be pretty much every time. I’ve written before about how I use my Horizon S3 panoramic camera and my metering approach there is based on an initial reading as I leave the house which is adjusted based on experience so that I can enjoy the free-flowing experience of using that camera.
Similarly, on the rare occasions that I use an SLR, typically a Nikon F801, I make use of its onboard meter, putting the camera in aperture-priority and only interfering with what the camera determines when I have a specific need to. When using the Bronica cameras handheld I usually adopt the same approach as I do with the Horizon S3 but when I take the trouble to lug a tripod about I automatically default to my 5×4 methodology which is what I’m going to talk about here.
Now, my current methodology has not been a tried and tested system that’s worked unchanged for years but has been evolving over those many, many years. Over the last few years however it has gradually settled into a more consistent approach using a spot-meter. Realising that I had settled into a set routine in the last twelve to eighteen months I recently decided to harness this further by formalising my note-taking so that I had all the information at my finger tips when getting ready to develop the films or when reviewing the negatives on the light pad.
In the field
Every DDS has a post-it note on the back with the holder number and the film it contains written upon it. This helps me determine between empty and loaded film holders as well as being a reminder of what is loaded. I scribble brief exposure notes on these at the time (f32 1/15 for example) but I also make more detailed notes in an A5 notepad I carry with me. Once home these scribbles are transferred to an A4 sheet which captures and organises the information in a logical fashion. One thing I always do in the field is a rough sketch of the composition on to which I write/scribble the spot-meter readings. The example below has a recent innovation … a picture of the scene captured with my phone (see above) to replace the pretty rubbish field sketch I made at the time.
Whilst this sheet is for a couple of glass plates it is exactly the same method that I use for film too.
The numbers on the image of the scene represent the spot-meter reading for that part of the scene. They represent the EV value for that area given the speed of the film in use. I take a series of readings from around the scene making sure I capture areas of highlights, shadow, middle tones and particularly the darkest area of shadow where I want to be able to see some detail in the finished print. Many of you will realise that this approach uses the Zone System as it’s basis and if you’re not familiar with this method I’d encourage you to check it out in more detail. For me, these readings, give me everything I need to calculate the exposure I need.
For the scene above I was keen to retain some of the details in the area at the base of the building which has been painted black. There was a lot of small details there such as a ventilation grill, gas bottles and other detritus and I wanted these visible rather than an amorphous lump of black shadow. The EV reading was 9 and so that gets plotted on the grid to the left as Zone III. This is the lowest zone that will render texture and detail in a print. Where we “place” this value on the grid is as much an aesthetic choice. I could have chosen Zone IV for example and brought out even more detail but for the image I had in mind I chose Zone III.
The next thing is to determine what the range of tones is in the image. My method is to simply count down the grid and seeing on which Zone the highest EV reading will land. In this example EV 14 lands on Zone VIII which is perfect for my needs. This gives a full range of tones which are also within the tonal latitude of the film. Had the highlights fallen on Zone IX or higher then they would have been completely blown out with no detail visible in the print. A choice would then need to be made in this case – whether to sacrifice the shadows, the highlights or to expose for the shadows but make a note to adjust development time to bring the highlights back into the tonal range. As this doesn’t apply here we will leave development adjustments to a later date and a later blog post.
So, I now have all the information I need. I know where my shadows need to be for my creative intent and I therefore know where Zone V, or 18% grey, sits. I also know that the full range of tones in the scene can be captured with out needing to make any adjustments in development. So where do I get my aperture and shutter speed from?
Well, depending on my aesthetic intentions I firstly choose either the aperture I want to use or the shutter speed I need. In this example I wanted everything sharp across the scene so I chose an aperture of f32. I then take my Zone Wheel from my bag, a high tech mix of cardboard and metal work, and setting the readings on the discs I can read off the necessary shutter speed.
So, the EV value 9 has been placed alongside the Zone III marker, see how the other EV values slot in just as they did on my grid? Look at the bottom and you will see a range of f-stops. I wanted f32 which, reading off the time opposite gives me half a second. I wasn’t using any filters and reciprocity isn’t a factor at this shutter speed for this emulsion so my base exposure becomes 1/2 second at f32.
At this point I could adjust matters if I thought 1/2 second was too slow, for example, on a blustery day when I wanted no movement in the image, but these changes are just extrapolations of the base exposure. I could open up to f8 for example at 1/30th second for the same overall exposure.
My final decision is whether or not to tweak the exposure based on my experience. However, the exposure we’ve calculated will give a good result so it is not an absolutely necessary step. In this instance I was using a dry glass plate and my experience with these shows that an extra stop would do no harm and therefore I opted for a one second exposure at f32.
Back home I try to sit down with my holders and my notebook and a supply of blank forms and write everything up as soon as practical. The scribbles in the notebook provide most of what I need, but I have the post-it notes as a back-up and by doing it whilst everything is fresh in my mind I can capture some of my thought process too. If I need to adjust development times I note this in large letters on the form and also on the post-it note which will stay with the film holder until the sheet of film is transferred to the developing tank.
Once the films have been developed the post-it notes and on location scribbles get put in the recycling bag and I file the A4 sheets along with the negatives in a ring binder so everything is together where it can be referred to as required. When it comes to printing the negative in the darkroom the reverse of the form can be used for printing and development notes – one day I will formalise these too!
So, there you have it. I have tried to keep this focused on the practicalities of calculating exposure in the field but there is plenty more to learn. I have referred to the underlying principles which relate to the Zone System and would recommend further reading as a full appreciation of this methodology will help you to use this approach more successfully in the field.
FOOTNOTE: whilst many people decry phone-based metering apps I’ve found the one I use to be reasonably reliable. In the example above the App suggested 1/4 second compared to the 1/2 second I calculated. Bear in mind that I was specifically looking to hold detail in a small area of shadows and you will see that it isn’t a million miles away.