Monthly Archives: October 2009

Digital is good – digital is bad

First posted 30 October 2009

Nearly five years ago I was kindly given a Canon G3 on semi permanent loan. I had never used digital before and my first impressions were how advanced the technology had become and how easy it was to take pictures which were perfectly exposed and automatically colour balanced.
I particularly enjoyed the freedom it gave me to shoot anything and everything that caught my eye, as cost was no longer a consideration.
It also focussed very close and had a screen that could be angled in many directions, providing the possibility of shooting from unusual positions. All in all, I was seduced, and began using it more and more.
I knew that I had abandoned my friends, the film cameras, but convinced myself that the digital images I was taking were just for reference, and that I was still a film photographer.
The truth of the matter was that I did not touch my film cameras for one whole year and during this time I became lazy. I was shooting hand held and not bothering about distracting, small details because I knew I could rely on Photoshop to tidy up after.
The pictures I produced were nothing special, but I was kidding myself that I was still a real photographer and contemplating the purchase of more and more gear to get the best out of the new technology.
The turning point came when I was trying to photograph a vase of flowers on the kitchen table, I could see too much of the background, even with the lens open to its maximum of f2. -This was because of the small chip size.
I remembered my faithful and trusty Mamiya RB67 which was languishing in my other bag and went to fetch it. The camera was heavy, the metal was cold and as I held it and looked through the viewfinder I was in ecstasy!
Looking into the LARGE viewfinder, seeing the crisp focus and the sudden fall-off in sharpness was like being given the chance to travel back in time! I was suddenly transported back to how I used to take pictures.


From that moment on, I realised that film cameras had a magic that modern cameras had somehow lost. Going back to rich, deep, fibre based prints was also a very satisfying experience.

I had invested in a good ink-jet printer and quality ‘fine art’ papers, but although the tonal range was there and the prints were sharp, the finished prints had no value, I felt that they were disposable because they could be repeated effortlessly.

Since then quite a lot has changed, digital has come on so much that no professional can afford to be without it. Commercially it does make perfect sense; no more worry about exposure, or the film getting damaged at the lab. No more ruined shots because of slight overexposure or unforeseen colour casts (transparency film).
You don’t have to send off your originals to clients and you don’t have to be tied to one film speed at a time.
There are lots of other reasons why digital has become so useful in commercial photography, but I don’t need to list each one here, suffice to say; I understand why professionals use it.
Amateurs on the other hand, have adopted digital for entirely different reasons. The main one in my opinion is laziness, the second reason is because of the (mainly male) obsession with gadgets and new toys.
The third reason is because it appears to increase ability – everyone looks like a brilliant photographer.
The wholesale acceptance of digital by the amateur end of the market has meant that film has become the poor relation in creative photography and all photographic magazines except for a very small few are just equipment catalogues peppered with poor quality pictures.

Why is it that the easier photography becomes, -the poorer the results? Photographers these days seem to be very pleased with second and third rate images, I’m constantly getting twitter messages which say ‘awesome shot by ….’ and when I click on it, the image is a pile of shit.

2299 freesias

In the five years since I first picked up a digital camera I have shot a lot of digital frames (although not a large amount by many peoples standards) and have lost quite a few of those due to broken laptops (3) and hard drives (1).

I don’t care.
The pictures were not for clients, they were just digi shots; throwaway and forgettable.
I still shoot a bit of digital, mainly for illustration purposes such as magazine articles or ebay, but I never print any of them. I gave up printing digital images ages ago because they never felt special, as soon as they came out of the printer I lost interest in them.
Does anyone remember the magic of watching an image come up in the developer? -Is it the same magic when a print edges slowly out of the printer?
I rest my case.


  1. Posted 30/10/2009 at 1:03 am

    I agree with it all.
    I struggle just to be bothered to download my digi images but i’ve just replaced my broken 35mm slr and will use that instead…i’d forgotten how beautifully grainy 35 mm can be.

  2. Posted 30/10/2009 at 11:51 am

    The whole argument about good or bad is overdone. Digital is good for professionals simply on workflow/cost/time considerations. I have seen and continue to work with digital negatives that will allow me to make all sorts of alt process images. But in a way digital is a technical exercise and for me at least film is a craft. It is the craft that true amateurs – those that do what they do for the passion of doing it – that makes the difference. Yes you can get very satisfactory images from a pure digital workflow but there is something special about something that is hand crafted – be it a car, a suit, a piece of furniture etc etc. Do it mean it is worth more to other people is the debatable point – do other people car if the image, car, furniture etc is made by robots, production lines etc as long as it is affordable/cheap and available to the masses.

    This made me think – I have a print from Andrew – the one of his film clips in a box, an image that I have always admired. However, it is on RC paper and has never been framed or put on the wall although it is carefully stored and I always say it’ll be framed next time. When the image is behind glass could I tell it is on RC paper – I doubt it – but the thing is I know it is. This brings me back to if it is a digital print and it is behind glass could I tell from looking with my nose two inches from the frame? My point here is it it the end result or the process/tools etc that have been used. For me it matters because fit is about the craft and knowing the extra effort etc one puts into making something that feel is special, that they have put themselves into and that I can share something and admire it in a way I’d like others to think about my images.

    Just my thoughts/feelings!

  3. Posted 02/12/2009 at 11:33 pm

    Beautifully put.

    I use a D80 and F80 and always feel if I’ve taken a digital image, instead of exposing a frame of 35mm film, that it’s a pity since I cannot then print it in the darkroom, which is where it all counts.

    Thank you.

  4. Edward Voitekunas
    Posted 25/12/2009 at 3:42 pm

    I was thinking about this a lot.That is more deeper problem that only a simple change of recording media which is more convenient/more forgiven/less demanding then other.Main thing is that changing in Photography as in the art itself.As to me standards fell low nowadays and it’s hard to see something really standing out from a range of all alike photoshop adjusted images.That’s colour.B@W even worse.For me a real picture is if I saw it once I’d like to come back and see it more and more enjoing evry detail.Not the case of” forget the richness of tonality range” digital black and white(which is really grey/grey or black/white with blotted grey in a middle).
    I don’t mind digital for some kind of work it’s much better and convenient but there always should be the media which you can compare it with and make your own choice.As for me I like magic.

  5. Posted 02/05/2012 at 4:52 am

    Interesting stuff , Ive shot with both digital and film. I think there is a definite problem when it comes to printing digital. They just never look as good as my old darkroom prints i did at college a few years back. Ive got a tonne of negatives need to fire up a dark and get printing again. some inspirational work and darkroom info :)

    Thanks Pat

Street photography

First posted 25 October 2009

Just over a week ago I found myself in the northern UK town of Bolton. I was there for two days with my university students who were doing a street photography project based on the ‘Worktown’ pictures of Humphrey Spender.
Spender was part of a group of people who were involved in a mass observation project which began in 1937. This was a large scale project which investigated the habits and customs of ordinary people. They observed how people worked, played, interacted and behaved. Their lives were scrutinised, noted, and photographed and this has become a rich archive.

There is a website which explains the project here;

We were given a talk on Spender and shown his original negatives and some of his prints. The students were then instructed to spend the rest of the day walking round Bolton looking for images which were inspired by his work.

I decided to shoot a few frames for the fun of it, as I haven’t done any street photography for many years. We (my colleague Rene Lumley and I) sent the groups off in various directions and went exploring ourselves.
After two full days and four groups of students we returned home and I set about processing my six 35mm films as soon as I could. I had a feeling that I had a few strong images and I was keen to see the results. The contact sheets had many ‘almost’ images, where people had looked away at the crucial moment, or a car had entered the frame as the shutter was fired, but I did get some I was really pleased with.


Not enough hours

First posted 24 October 2009

Since starting back at my job at the university, I have begun in earnest to apply myself to various projects which have been nagging at the back of my mind. The reason for my renewed self motivated drive is because I have been guilty in the past of letting too much time pass before I get things done. The trouble is, I always have about five or more projects on the go at any one time, the current list (and this doesn’t include commissioned jobs I have to do) is;

  1. Getting the last four years of negatives filed in the order they were shot.
  2. Printing up two 10×8 copies of every shot I have ever taken which I consider worth archiving. (Going back thirty years!!!) and scanning them.
  3. Make more videos of my fellow photographers / printers here in the UK (four in the can so far).
  4. Finish shooting all the objects I have collected in my studio for still life.
  5. Make a big Blurb book of all my best family portraits (my family that is), for my wife’s birthday.
  6. Make a 20×16 lightbox for exposing Gum prints and Cyanotypes.
  7. Get out more and do landscapes and night shots.
  8. Promote myself better and contribute to online forums etc
  9. Get out on my bike more regularly.
  10. Write this blog more often
  11. Get an early night now and again.

As you can see, self motivation is not the only problem. Somebody keeps stealing all the hours out of the day before I’ve used them properly! It’s a good job I don’t have a television, as I’d never get anything done.

One other job which tends to lag behind is keeping up with the images for this blog. Personally I don’t like the look of scanned, inverted negatives done in photoshop, I prefer to print the image in the darkroom and scan from the print. This way I can get the tonality exactly where I want it. I am aware that photoshop has millions of ways of altering every parameter of the image, but the look of the middle tones never seems right to me.

Consequently, I need to be in the darkroom more to keep on top of the printing for this as well as the personal stuff I love doing. here is a scan of a recent print, appropriately called; ‘Never got round to it’.

Never got round to it

Flexible film

First posted 19 October 2009

Different photographers have different expectations from a film. They may buy a particular brand because they have seen that someone they admire has used it, or because it is a new type. Some buy films looking for good latitude, others for speed, acutance or fine grain. Others may be expecting contrasty, gritty results.

Buying a film and exposing/developing at the manufacturers recommended settings will usually produce negatives that are a compromise between all of these expectations. Producing the results you really want depends on an understanding of what happens when film is treated differently.
One of the first ways that new photographers try to get different results is by uprating. They read somewhere that a 400 ISO film can be exposed at a higher speed such as 1600, and then stewed in the dev to bring up the image.
This does indeed work, but occasionally at the expense of quality (not always a concern for some). Uprating can produce quite acceptable results with dilute/static processing (see the section at the end of this article) and I have rated Ilford HP5 at 1600 ISO and got results almost as good as when rated at 400.

But if the developer is one which is vigourous, the grain can be exaggerated and contrast can increase to a point where printing becomes difficult and burning in highlights is impossible. This is not always a bad thing, if you look at the work of Bill Brandt you see what can be done creatively with a film which is mistreated in this way.
Going the opposite way, if a film is downrated a couple of stops and the development time is reduced, a finer grain and a longer tonal range is produced. This can look absolutely stunning with larger negatives, especially when photographing subjects with a lot of subtle highlights such as sunlit clouds, or snow scenes at night.
The importance of agitation.
When I did lots of different ratings and development times in the early years of my career, I also found that agitation could alter the look of a negative.
Normal agitation is usually taken to be three inversions of a tank every minute and increasing the number of inversions/agitations will increase contrast. BUT, taken to an extreme, with continuous agitation, contrast actually drops!
I think it is because the developer is not allowed to sit on the surface and work properly when constantly in motion, -but I’m not a scientist, I’m a photographer, so I may be wide of the mark there.
Whatever the reason, there is a marked drop in contrast with continuous agitation as I have just mentioned, and when coupled with downrating produces a negative which has amazing latitude for highlights or overexposure. This means that a reading can be taken from the shadows to ensure detail, and the highlights will never be blown out.
Here is a composite image of four frames of the same film, The film was Ilford HP5 and the developer was Ilford ID11 stock solution at 20C with continuous agitation for four minutes.

all four

These frames are; top left 100, top right 50, lower left 25 and lower right 12 ISO. As you can see, any of these frames could be printed. From this you can understand how the technique could produce a ‘flexible negative’ (to quote my late friend Barry Thornton), and therefore how well they could compress a high contrast scene.

Dilute/static development (also known as stand development, though there are many different methods of this).

Mix up a 1 – 3 solution of Ilford ID11. That is, one part of stock solution (normal strength) mixed with three parts of water.
Get the temperature to 20C
Pour into the tank and agitate ten times.
Start the clock.
Give three inversions every 30 seconds up to ten minutes.
When ten minutes have passed, put the tank down and do not move it at all for 50 minutes. Try to keep the temperature fairly constant.
When that time has elapsed, agitate the tank three times and repeat this agitation each minute.
After ten minutes pour the developer away and use a normal stop bath (Not too strong, weaker is better).
Fix as normal, wash and dry.

With this development method, Ilford HP5 can be rated at 1600 ISO and can produce very good results.

Here is a scan from a 10×8 print made on a Grade 2 paper from one such negative. On the print you can see detail in the dark corners and the sunlit highlights.

 Train carriage

Consistent negative quality

First posted 15 October 2009

One of the most important areas of photography is the processing of negatives. The quality of your images is dependent on how much care and attention you take with your developer, dilution, times, temperature and agitation. Following much of the literature which has been published on the matter though, could give you too many things to fuss over and possibly inconsistent results in some cases.

Each established darkroom worker has their own way of doing things which they have adapted over time and which they have found to work for them and I am going to share mine with you. I can offer a few tips and hints collected from over thirty years of processing. If you have a well tried and tested method, then you don’t need to change a thing, but if you are having some inconsistencies then it might be worth seeing if anything I have in my routine may help.

Beginners often have negatives which are very dense and contrasty, often mistakenly believing that to ‘give a little bit extra time in the dev, just to make sure’ is a good thing. It is not.

Over development causes the most heavily exposed areas of the film to develop to a black, meaning that very little light can pass through at the printing stage. This causes prints to have a very high contrast, ensuring that burning in of skies or white clothing becomes almost impossible. Negatives need to have their development curtailed when the densest areas are dark grey, so that any tone, texture or detail there can be easily printed through. Slight underdevelopment is actually preferable (correct is best).

The other problem beginners have is pale, empty negatives. Thin negatives are more often than not caused by underexposure. Cameras with automatic exposure or users who don’t understand where to point a light meter often get underexposed negatives as a result of too much sky being included in the frame. Shooting towards the light or pointing up at a building will cause the light meter to misread. The meter recommends a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture because of the brightness of the sky, but this prevents enough light from reaching the film in the non sky areas, leaving them empty, this prints as very dark or black.

A simple and accurate way to meter in many situations is to read from the grass. The camera will give a very accurate light reading from grass, as long as it is receiving the same light as the intended subject.

Another method which takes a little longer, but gives really nice results is to use a spotmeter. With this, the reading is taken from a very dark tone in the scene (not completely black) and then adjusted up two stops. If the meter says the reading is 125 at f8, the correct reading is 125 at f16. This sounds a little more complicated than it actually is -but it soon becomes second nature.

Once the light level has been established, the image can be composed and exposed, regardless of what the light meter in the camera now indicates. Once the film has been properly exposed, the important part can begin, -the processing.

The following is my own personal method which has been adapted as I have gone along. It produces consistent results if I stick to the important points.

I have all three of my solutions mixed up, with the developer at slightly more than the necessary quantity. During agitation the developer can often froth up quite a bit and cause underdevelopment along the top edge of the film. I get the developer to 20.5 C because in the UK a darkroom is often colder than 20C As the developer goes into the tank it drops about half a degree to 20 and is then at the working temperature.

Agitation is ten times at the start, then three times each minute, with a twisting action to get the developer flowing along the length of the film as well as up and down through the spiral. This gives much more even development.

I don’t bother getting the stop bath to the correct temperature, it will work perfectly well through a wide range. Some believe that having too much of a temperature difference between dev and stop will cause reticulation, but it is actually the strength of the stop bath which causes it (the sudden change from alkaline to strong acid contracts the emulsion), not the temperature, this is why I always mix it weak. My stop bath is lighter in colour than lager. Because of this it becomes exhausted more quickly, but I usually have a large quantity mixed up and I can discard and replace as necessary.

Similarly, I don’t worry about the temperature of the fix. Temperature does affect how quickly or slowly the fixing action takes place, but there is a simple way round this; As soon as the fix goes into the tank, start the timer. Agitate the tank vigorously for a minute and then remove the lid. Check the film to see if it is still milky, if so, put it back in and continue the agitation checking occasionally.

When the milky look has gone from the film, check how much time has elapsed. Double this time in the fix and you will have a properly fixed film every time. When fix times exceed 8 minutes for ‘rapid fixer’ the fix is exhausted and needs replacing.

The wash sequence is as normal, washing for ten minutes, changing the water a few times, using hypo eliminator and final wash for ten minutes. The films are hung to dry overnight in the darkroom where they will not be disturbed.

There are many other ways to process films, but this is the sequence I have settled on for roll and 35mm films.


First posted 1 October 2009

Looking around on the web I see many, many photographers who are producing sharp, well exposed shots and many of them are very competent photographers.
Often though, there is something missing; Too many of the shots are just BORING.
Making an image which is sharp and well exposed is the easy part, making an image which affects people, which has that certain ’something’ is another matter.

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 22.00.17

Kitchen table and sunlight

So how do you develop (I know it’s a pun) a way of seeing?

Well, that depends on a few things; Where you are, what there is to photograph there and what you are interested in. Are you new to it and enthusiastic, or set in your ways?

Seeing is an important part of it, although not the full story -but I’ll come back to that in a minute…
What are you looking for? perhaps you have been looking in the wrong place?

The most common mistake is to concentrate too much on ‘what it is’ -the subject matter, the thing or person in front of the lens.
That may seem like a perverse statement, but let me expand on that.

The single most important element in Photography is Shape, not the subject matter. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the shape looks good. If you get too fixated on the subject you lose sight of that. The second most important element in photography is Light. As I sit writing this I can see some interesting light on the curtains and I know it would make a decent shot. Curtains are not an interesting subject in themselves, but the way the light plays across them just now makes them so.
The third most important element is Tone, how the tonal range is distributed over the frame.
Photography (and this applies to monochrome mainly) is about shapes and tones within a delineated area, whether that be a square, a rectangle or even a circle. If you pay attention to that, you can photograph anything.
Go and look at some really good photography now and see it in the terms I have described, you will begin to see things very differently.
There is one other thing that I need to mention; To be able to see the good stuff you need to be able to spot the bad stuff! You need to cultivate a highly developed sense of the naff, the corny and tasteless, the boring and cliched. If you can spot it quickly you can avoid photographing it.

I said that seeing is important, but not the whole story, the missing part is presentation. I could show you my best shot, but if it was on poor quality paper and badly mounted in a crap frame it wouldn’t merit a second glance. Conversely, I could show you a simple image as a beautiful platinum print, mounted and framed professionally and it would be far more desirable.
It doesn’t have to be platinum, it could be a print on a good quality Fibre Based paper or an art paper ink-jet. It does however need to be presented as an object of beauty, so don’t use poor quality materials. One of my pet hates is seeing a low quality RC print with glaring whites in a cream coloured mount -Yuck!

Dried noodles

There are plenty of good papers out there, both darkroom and digital, though what is great for one type of image, might look wrong for another. choose your paper to suit the picture.

Think about how the space around the image helps to present it. Narrow borders make you look at the centre of the image, very wide borders make you look at the edge of the image. If you get the proportion right, the full area is taken in by the eye.
Make sure your quality control is high, don’t make do with unfinished prints, make sure your borders are properly square not wonky and don’t think that people won’t notice dust marks on your pictures, – they will. Your laziness will be noticed by others and their impression of you will go down.

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 22.07.10