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.

We’ve Moved!

Yes, we’ve moved! Not the family you understand but me and my enlarger. Having had to close my previous darkroom so one of the older grandsons could have a bedroom I then set up a darkroom in the corner of the cellar last year and whilst I had some good sessions down there it was never a place I was keen to go. The last time I used it was February and that had been the maiden session for 2020. Once I received the instruction to isolate I thought that I might at least get some darkroom time but eleven weeks in and I’ve not been down there once.

The drawback is the need to set up and then pack everything away; the cellar is in daily use and just recently there have been more things to store as we have been doing one large shop every fortnight rather than smaller shops three or four times a week. It’s amazing how much extra space is needed for two weeks worth of groceries rather than the usual two or three days! It’s also uncomfortable. I’m over six foot tall and the ceiling is barely half an inch from my head. The floor joists are level with my forehead and the light fitting attacks my nose if I forget to duck. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve nearly knocked myself out!

Add to the physical constraints the difficulty of keeping developer at twenty degrees when the ambient temperature is a constant fourteen and the picture hopefully becomes clearer. Washing prints means a walk up some old, steep stone steps to the kitchen or if that is in use up to the first floor to use the bathroom. I’ve also lost count of the number of times someone has opened the cellar door forgetting I’m down there – fortunately only two prints have been spoilt this way.

So, after eleven weeks of endless opportunities and not having once been down those stone steps with a bucket of water (for holding prints until washing) it was time to take some action. One option would be to mothball the darkroom equipment again but given the number of rolls of film I’ve developed this year so far (over fifty B&W and 25 colour) that wasn’t very appealing. I have nothing against scanning, the so-called hybrid approach, but much prefer darkroom printing largely because of the sense of satisfaction it gives me. Selling the gear was not even an option but where was I going to put a darkroom in a house with very little spare space?

My study has two desks and computers (his and his – mine and another of my Grandson’s) so no space there.

Unless…

A surprisingly quick negotiation with Senior Management and I had permission to move his desk and computer into the spare bedroom. He’s been doing his schoolwork there, ironically on my original darkroom table, so it made sense to put his computer and all his bits and pieces together with his “school” books. I’d moved everything within three hours of completing negotiations.

The next job was to create a black-out. Usually a simple job – visit to the DIY store, pick up what I need and home to sort the job out. But I’m “shielded” so that wasn’t going to happen even if I wanted to queue for hours to get into a DIY store. Wickes home delivery to the rescue and amazingly I managed to get delivery within 48 hours too. The materials arrived at two pm and by four-thirty I was testing how successful the job had been. Our house is over one hundred and fifty years old and there is not a right angle in the place. Windows are almost rectangular, door frames are rhomboid, you get the picture. I’ve still got a few niggly bits to sort out but to all intents and purposes I have a functioning space.

© Dave Whenham
Des-Res!

So, I now have my darkroom in the corner of my study (see picture above) and I’m now sat in the living room feeling very smug because less than a week after first starting the train of thought I have prints hanging to dry and I’ve just resolved a couple of teething problems with my new set-up so am ready for a “proper” session tomorrow.

© Dave Whenham
Back in business! Bronica SQ-A, Rollei Infrared 400 – scan (oh, the irony!) of darkroom print

The one big compromise I’ve had to make is in the way I process the prints. Since I first started printing I’ve always used open trays. Watching the image appear in the developer was what hooked me back in the 1970s and even now it’s not lost any of its impact. But, there is simply not enough space in my study for a proper wet-side. So, I’ve had to use the slot processor I impulse bought last year but have never used for various reasons. It was this that caused teething problems but they were quickly resolved and I’m now looking forward to being able to print a negative without having to schedule it up front and then spending forty-five minutes getting everything set-up and put away afterwards.

Watch this space!

Film Friday #6

Another digital scan of a darkroom print. This one is a 10″x8″ print on Fotospeed RCVC Oyster paper.

Taken with a Canon EOS 600 with a cheap and cheerful 28-105mm lens and the film was out of date Kodak 400TX, commercially developed, which had been in the camera since 2016 before I finished the roll recently. The print was a straight print with no dodging or burning.

Stand developing: follow-up

Any lack of sharpness is down to poor camera craft!

As a brief follow-up to the Stand Development post, here is an image printed in the darkroom from one of those negatives.

A brief recap. The camera was a Nikon EM with a 50mm “E” lens. The film, Kodak 400TX (expired circa 2013) with this particular image being taken in early 2016, so the latent image has been languishing in the camera for over three years.

The print is grainier than I would prefer but as I already noted this was not the perfect situation for trying stand development. However, this is a straight print and despite the tonal differences between Zac and his background the whole print had a 17 second exposure under the enlarger and I have not needed to use contrast filters or any dodging and burning.

So, whilst it is unlikely that I shall be using stand development for 400 ISO films in the future I shall certainly be employing the technique from time to time and it’s a useful tool in my developing (pun intended) toolkit.

Birch Trees and Limestone

I took the Hasselblad with me to the Isle of Skye recently and this weekend I developed the black & white film before retiring to the darkroom to print a couple of frames.

It’s been three weeks since I printed owing to the trip away and other domestic duties and I was keen to get in the darkroom to try the Fotospeed RCVC Oyster paper I bought recently.  It proved to be an excellent choice of paper and I was very pleased with the outcome.

© Dave Whenham
Birch trees on limestone outcrop Hasselblad 500C/M, Ilford FP4+, Fotospeed RCVC Oyster

My favourite from the first roll out of the Hasselblad was taken on the road to Elgol showing a small group of birch trees  on a limestone outcrop. There was a lingering mist and scudding clouds so it was not ideal weather nor light but I was keen to capture the atmosphere and the roll of FP4+ made the Hasselblad the perfect tool for the job.

The paper is a variable contrast paper, something I never used back in the 1970s, and my initial test print was printed on an equivalent grade of 2½ which rendered the cloud and mist very nicely. After producing the envisaged print (above) I then experimented with a harder grade which made a dramatic difference to the foreground and even accentuated a narrow band of light falling at the foot of a distant mountain.

© Dave Whenham
Hasselblad 80mm lens FP4+ Fotospeed Oyster RCVC All 4 secs 0-90-0 Sky + 19 secs 0-30-0 5mins in Kodak selenium toner