Blundering in the dark

After a break of almost a year I returned to the darkroom this past week. Mainly prompted by wanting to produce a darkroom print from a negative of mine that a friend is producing cyanotypes and kallitypes from. He’s used a processed TIFF that I created from a scan and used that to create digital negatives to then contact print. In conversation he mentioned that he had no darkroom himself these days so I decided to jump back into mine and make him a darkroom print.

So, up front, a disclaimer. I’m a competent printer rather than an accomplished one. I know the basics and occasionally produce a very nice print somehow but I still class myself as a novice. There’s no false modesty here, just simple facts.

Now, one thing I was starting to get reasonably competent at early last year was split grade printing. It was something I’d never attempted first time round back in the 70s as I did not have access to variable grade papers in those days. It was available but generally inferior to graded papers, so these were what was used largely by us amateurs. Variable grade paper began to become more mainstream in the 1980s however but by then I was raising a family and no longer had a darkroom.

Getting there – but base exposures still not right

Variable contrast paper however, has been a revelation to me over the last couple of years and I’ve eagerly researched how to get the best out of it. Split-grade caught my attention mid-2019 and I’d been exploring that process immediately prior to the pandemic. However, returning to darkroom printing I seemed to have totally forgotten everything I though I’d learnt about the process.

Several (OK – many) sheets later and two days in I decided to go back a step by revisiting the really useful online resource I used last time to get me started … but couldn’t find it! However, I did find a couple of tutorials that recommended a different approach which seemed simpler so that was the approach I decided to try. Within two sheets, the negative that had given me two days of grief (not full days you understand) gave up a pleasing image on the paper. Not perfect but acceptable and by now I’d had enough of staring at that negative on the baseboard and in any case was keen to try another. I will return to it later I’m sure though.

Negative two was dusted and popped into the negative holder. Compose, focus, tweak framing, set timer to two seconds and all set for making a test strip. That was sheet one. Fifteen minutes later I was putting sheet two in the easel and had my printing plan in my head. Six minutes later this second sheet was in the washer and I was returning the negative to it’s sleeve. Yes, you read that right, one test strip and one print. Split-grade, localised dodging and burning and most importantly a printing plan I could, in theory, return to later.

Hanging to dry – at the first attempt!

Which I did the following day. Same base exposures but slightly different dodging and burning approach to create a slightly different look. One take and done.

Two images printed a day apart but with different burning plans

Now, my main enlarger is a Durst M605 which has a colour head. I got it a few years back for a steal so even though my colour blindness will make colour printing problematic it was a better buy than a black and white enlarger at the time. When I started split grade printing I realised I could use the colour head to vary the colour of the light (the basis of split-grade printing with variable contrast paper) and initially thought the colour head would therefore save me the cost of filters.

It definitely works, but trying to read and adjust the dials by the dim light of a safelight is an absolute pain. At least it is for me. I end up covering the partially exposed paper and bringing the safelight to within inches of the head and my nose just as close to be able to make mid-printing adjustments.

Long story short I’ve just ordered an Ilford under the lens filter kit to save me the headache of bringing a safelight up close to the enlarger head so I can peer at the numbers on the Y& M filter dials!! It’s due later this week so I shall report back in due course.

Cryptic – but it works!

So, in a nutshell, my new (to me) approach to split-grade printing is:

  • With 2.5 filter in place (10 magenta on my enlarger) create usual test strip
  • Evaluate as normal to determine base exposure (call it B) and also determine dodging/burning plan.
  • Now dial in 0 filter (70 yellow for me) and expose for B/2
  • Without moving paper dial in 5 filter (130 magenta for me). The time in theory should be B/2 but with filters =>4 it needs increasing – I choose to use (B/2)x1.5 as a start.
  • Expose for second part. You now have the basic exposure.
  • At this stage you can develop the sheet and assess however I tend to carry out the planned burning in too.
  • Develop and reassess.

This will hopefully give a very good basis to work from. If the image needs more contrast use a 1 filter in the first step using B/2 as before. If the shadows need controlling then adjust the time for that element. The Ilford rule of thumb for the second exposure is the original base time (B) for filters 4-5 but in my recent experiments I’ve found (B/2)x1.5 a good starting point. You don’t need to restrict yourself to 0 and 5 filters of course but they make a great starting point.

I hope this has been of interest, for a very easy to follow introduction you could do a lot worse than check out this video from Ilford.

It’s a local thing

Unless you are reading this is 2101 there is probably no need to explain why I’ve been shooting local for the last year. Apart from four days in September/October 2020 I have not left Elland in almost a year now. I’ve continued to make photographs though, indeed in 2020 I shot more rolls of film than in any year since I started photography in the 1970s.

Street photography is a challenge when there are few people on the street

Despite the restrictions though I seriously believe that my photographic skills have improved during this period. I’ve been honing my “eye” for a photograph for many years and like to think I can spot a possibility where many non-photographers would see nothing of interest. But walking the same streets day after day I have refined this even further, coming home each time with at least one new image for my efforts. I really hope that this will extrapolate itself to new scenes and locations when I can travel again.

Bronica ETRS | Bergger Pancro 400 | Kodak D76 | 25/2/2021

Even the stretch of canal nearest my house, which I have walked hundreds of times in the years I’ve lived up here has yielded several new images such as the one above. Fancying a change I chose to walk on the main road rather than the towpath. The road only offers access to the canal at a couple of spots along the route, one of which is immediately below the bypass. I stood here for around ten minutes and came up with two or three images that I was really pleased with. Most of those minutes were spent waiting for someone to walk into the patch of light. There’s another one below.

Under the bypass Bronica ETRS | Bergger Pancro 400 | Kodak D76 | 25/2/2021

As is normal for me the vast majority of my images are in black and white whether film or digital. However, we had a few misty mornings recently and I did something I’d not done before when there’s been mist – I went for a walk in the town. Instead of being frustrated that it was misty and I couldn’t get “somewhere” I got on my feet and went into town (for context, the centre of town is a two minute walk from my back door).

Out and about in Elland on a foggy morning: Fuji X-H1
Out and about in Elland on a foggy morning: Fuji X-H1

I even dusted off the Fuji X-H1 and set it to shoot colour rather than my default B&W. Straight out of the camera I had a handful of very pleasing images, none of them compositions I had shot before and all of them within ten minutes of my home.

By taking a camera every time I go for my daily exercise I have been embracing the old adage to practice, practice, practice, and its born fruit. Without consciously intending to, I’ve even started to shoot my digital cameras as if they were film cameras. I’ve shot fully manually for a long while but I’ve now taken to turning the LCD screen off and only taking one, occasionally two, images of any scene. I usually carry one of my film panoramic cameras which restricts me to 21 frames on a 36-exposure roll of film and usually I shoot the whole roll on my walk. If I take just a digital camera there’s rarely more than a dozen images on the memory card when I get home. By being more selective I’ve not only improved my “hit rate” but more importantly I have been training my eye to “see” better. This more discriminate style of working with digital means less time on the computer which is an added bonus. Indeed, ironically, the only images I process on the desktop computer these days are film scans; almost all of my most recent digital images have been processed on my iPad using Snapseed.

Horizon Kompakt and Fomapan 400 developed in Rodinal (1+25). Shot 30th November in the rain/drizzle around Elland town centre Scanned with a Fuji XT-3

It’s not only my “eye”though. During 2020 I shot and processed 180 rolls of 35mm and 120 film and around 50 sheets of 5×4 film. For the first time ever I developed my own colour negative films, saving £££s in the process; I can develop 18-20 rolls for the same price as having three rolls lab processed. I have experimented with different black & white developers but particularly pleasing has been that the consistency of my processing has increased exponentially. Developing film most days has also improved my efficiency and time management during the process. Without wishing to tempt fate I have been very pleased with the consistently good quality negatives that have come out of the tanks.

Horizon 202, Kentmere Pan 100 Shot 1/12/2020 Processed Diafine (3+3)

Early on in the pandemic I was told to shield, something I did religiously for over four months. During this period, embracing the need to stay at home, I experimented with still life and close-up film photography. I also dug out an old hard drive and reprocessed a few earlier images. However, this was not to be the most productive period of the pandemic as being confined to home for so long became very wearing very quickly. When shielding ended for me I vowed not to follow the shielding requirements quite so slavishly should the need arise again and indeed despite being told to shield during this latest Lockdown I am still taking a daily, socially-distanced walk; walking locally of course and avoiding people (which is my preferred option at the best of times). I don’t believe I have driven my car since November last year.

Bold contrasts for Bold Street, Liverpool (pre-pandemic)
March 2020 – darkroom printing underway … but not for long.

There is one backward step to include for the sake of completeness. Apart from a short flurry in March 2020 I’ve not been in my darkroom in the past 11 months. Darkroom work is mainly an autumn/winter activity for me so I was not surprised that I kept away from it during the very warm summer we had which drifted into early autumn too. However, as Autumn progressed there were few signs of me getting back into the darkroom. A leaky slot processor caused some activity in October and I thought that this would be the catalyst for a return to printing (I do not have an inkjet printer) but no. By early December my darkroom was press-ganged into extra storage ahead of Christmas BUT much of that is still cluttering the room three months later.

Took the long way home from the school run and got rather wet in these heavy April-esque showers. Horizon S3 Pro, Kodak Tri-X, D76 (1+1) Shot 12/3/2021

My darkroom – in reality one side of the small study I am sat in at present.

So, in a peculiar way the pandemic has largely been a real boost for my photography. Photography has also helped protect my mental health and has encouraged me to take some exercise every day even if it was just to take the image for my ongoing 365. I’ve been shooting a picture a day since October 2017 and have been determined not to allow a pandemic to get in the way of the Challenge. If I can motivate myself to reopen the darkroom over the next few weeks I will at least have a large collection of new negatives to play with!

One final image: Horizon S3 Pro, Kodak Tri-X, D76 (1+1) Shot 12/3/2021

New Horizons

Back in October 2020 I bought a new-to-me camera, the Horizon Kompakt. A Russian-made, swing lens camera for shooting 120 degree panoramas on 35mm film. In January 2021 I added the Horizon S3 Pro to the bag having also played with an Horizon 202 in December 2020. This post is a summary of the key things I have learnt whilst working with this incredible but very idiosyncratic tools. They are in answer to questions I’ve been asked over the last few months and are in the order they tumbled out of my head!

1. So long as you load the camera properly and wind on smoothly there should be no problems with torn film. Unlike my Kompakt and 202 the S3 is relatively very smooth.

It rained toay … all of the day! Horizon Kompakt | HP5+ | Kodak HC-110 (B) Shot and developed 20th January 2021

2. To the right of the film gate in the S3 there is a silver bar with sprockets – the film goes under this BUT make sure you also thread the film UNDER the black bar to the immediate left of the silver bar. This is important to ensure film lies flat and reduces tearing risk considerably. With all of the models the basic advice is that if it can go under then it should!

3. Some film stock is inherently thinner and prone to snapping, I’ve used mainly HP5+, Tri-X with the S3 although have used self-rolled Kodak XX successfully. The key as I’ve said is to be gentle.

Horizon Kompakt | Ilford HP5+ | Kodak D76 (1+1) Shot 15th Fenruary 2021

4. I use an app on my phone to gauge exposure and it’s rarely too far out. It’s a wide field of view though so I use my experience to tweak if appropriate, especially high contrast scenes such as the one above. I rarely bracket but that’s an option too I guess. If shooting something like HP5+ there’s plenty of inherent latitude within the emulsion itself. 

5. Expect 21 frames on a 36 exp film. Around 14 on a 24 exp film. Don’t be tempted to try and squeeze an extra frame – therein lies film snapping potential 😀

Calder & Hebble Navigation 10th February 2021 Horizon S3 Pro | Kodak TriX | Kodak D76 (1+1)


6. Some users report banding at one end of the frame. Not regularly however and when it does appear it is mainly when the sun is around in my experience – so not that often up here! There’s some debate as to whether it’s light leaking in through the shutter hood as it travels. Myself and many other Horizon users I know tend to keep the camera in our shoulder bags until we are ready to shoot. Anecdotally this does appear to work. In my experience, it’s not as big a problem as many make out though and in any event the negative is wide enough that you can crop it without an issue. Interestingly, the more basic Kompakt seems to suffer less from this phenomenon in my experience.

7. If your Horizon has the handle use it as it really helps keep stray fingers out of the shot. I also hold the right hand side of the camera from the back between finger tips to keep stray fingers out of harms way when pressing the shutter. It feels (and looks) a little odd to start with but is worth persevering with.

8. I used HP5+ exclusively to start with as it’s a film I’m very familiar with. Now I’m confident with how everything works I’ve used all sorts of film stock with success, even home-rolled Redscale. In short, I would say that once you know what you’re doing then anything goes film-wise!

9. Metering: I took my spot meter out just the once but decided that this just slowed me down and took some of the spontaneity out of using the S3. Now I take a basic reading when I leave the house using my phone, set that and then tweak as I need to based on my assessment of the scene. If the light changes dramatically I take a new reading. 

10. One last thought, make sure the film is tight on the take up spool too as this helps ease pressure on the film as it moves through the film gate. 

I’ve not talked about composition here, just the mechanics of using the camera and creating images. I may well pen some thoughts in that area too … but don’t hold your breath as this post is my first in almost six months! I must rectify that.

Bronica ETRS – point and shoot?

I wanted to see if the Bronica ETRS could be used as a P&S relying on the prism to set the shutter speed. This would make it easier when shooting family snaps such as these. Whilst I prefer the 6×6 format for most of my “serious” photography I am finding the 6×4.5 format of the ETRS works ideally for this type of “informal” photography.

Bronica ETRS with 250mm – a family snapper point and shoot?

Above: Frames 9 – 12 from a roll of HP5+ shot using a Bronica ETRS with a 250mm lens and relying on the AEII metered prism for correct exposure. I set the speed to 400 and aperture to f5.6 and left the prism to set the shutter speed. The film was processed in Rodinal (1+50).

Brrrrrr!.

Looking at the strip of negatives hanging up to dry I thought that and overall it had worked and this was confirmed when I scanned them on my Epson Perfection V550. To include the rebate I needed to lay the negative directly onto the scanner glass but I seem to have got away with no obvious moire patterns so it was probably my lucky day.