Monthly Archives: January 2016

Are your film negatives good enough?

Are your negatives ‘good’?

As a film user, do you process, then scan, or do you print in a darkroom?
How do you know if your exposure and processing method is giving you the best negative for the kind of work you wish to produce?

If you use a scanner, followed by photo editing software to bring your pictures to life, you can manage with negatives that are way off the mark for exposure, processing, or both. Because of the tremendous ability of software to control and alter the contrast range of an image, many film photographers are producing negatives which are technically incorrect, then ‘pulling’ images out. I see this quite often when a picture is put online in an Face Book group, Twitter, or shared on Google +, I can see at a glance if a shot has poor shadow detail or is overdeveloped. Recently, someone had posted two images and had also included the negatives. It was obvious that the negatives were two stops underexposed, but the photographer was showing the shots as examples of his great talent.

Last year I did a little research into stand development and in a few places on the web there were photographers claiming that all monochrome films could be stand developed in Rodinal for an hour and all of them would be perfect. yesterday I watched a video in which the photographer claimed that two hours was the correct stand time for Rodinal. It didn’t take many films for me to realise that these opinions were started and perpetuated by people who were not printing them in a darkroom. When you print your negatives in a darkroom, you very quickly find that poor exposure and development of your negatives causes difficulties in contrast control and tonal representation. The better your negatives are, the easier and more productive your printing session will be.

So how do you know if your negatives are good?
A difficult question to answer using only the written word. Depending on subject matter, the negative should have a range of tones that run from clear film base, through the tones, up to areas of quite dark grey. You should NOT have any areas that are jet black, even if the subject or scene has the sun in the sky. If you have solid black, you have over processed, either by having the developer mixed too strong, or the temperature too high, or by giving it too long. Beginners often give their films longer in the dev because they are worried about not having anything on the film, but they create negatives which are a real headache to print. Many beginners don’t realise they are over developing, because they like the contrasty look that they get. High contrast negatives can be very creative in the right hands, but how many of us have the graphic vision of Bill Brandt, or Mario Giacomelli? Both of these photographers overexposed and over developed their film (grossly overdeveloped, in the case of Giacomelli), but made very strong work.

The way to prevent over dense negatives is to lower your dev times. This is where beginners start to panic; What if I cut back too much and there is nothing on the film? Well hopefully the detail and tone has been established by proper exposure, so you would have to cut back development severely to lose it all. Taking your processing time down by 25% will make a difference, but won’t lose the images unless your original time was wrong in the first place.
If you are a darkroom worker there is a simple test which will help you determine if your exposure and development regime is within acceptable limits (whatever they might be). Of course this can come down to personal taste, but this sequence will help you get it nearer to the middle mark.
Load your favourite 35mm film into your camera and find a normal scene with a good range of tones. Take a meter reading in the way you normally do and take a shot underexposed by two stops. Take the next shot one stop underexposed, then one at the indicated exposure. Follow this with one frame shot at a stop over and the next, two stops over. You now have a bracketed sequence of five frames with the indicated exposure in the centre. Repeat this sequence until the film is finished. (it is worth wasting one film on this, as it will clarify a number of things).
In total darkness, pull out the whole length of the film and cut it into three roughly equal sections. Load them into separate developer tanks (or, if you only have one tank, load one and store the other two bits in something totally light tight until your tank is clean and dry).

Now develop the first length of film at 20% less than the time you would normally use, keeping temperature and dilution the same. The second section of film should be processed as you would normally do, and the third section should get 20% extra dev time.
When the films are fixed, washed and dried, a contact print should be made of a five frame sequence from each of the three strips. The important thing though, is to realise that you must expose these for the shortest possible time that will give you a black under the clearest parts of the film, ie; the edge of the film, or the gaps between frames. So, your test exposure and the way you read it, must be done in a way that will give you this information. The exposure should be the same for each of the three strips. When the time has been established, contact all three strips (or sections of) on the same piece of paper. Look at the finished contact print and see which frame gives the best representation of the full tonal range of the scene. There should be one frame that looks right and some that are too flat and others that are too contrasty. This will tell you how far out your exposure or processing is. Try that frame as a print, using the same criteria that you used to judge the test for the contact sheet; Choose the first exposure that gives you a black in the clearest part of the film. Check the test, the highlight detail should be the same as the contact sheet. Make a full print at this exposure and compare it to your previous work. Adapt to the new information and establish a repeatable method for creating good negatives from that point forward..

 

Good luck with it all and let me know how you get on.

Contrast control.

I promised in an earlier post that I would tackle the subject of contrast control. My original idea was to explain the methods I use in the darkroom, but I think I need to mention why you might have contrast problems in the first place.

Are you having problems with excessive contrast in your negatives? are you finding it difficult to print them in the darkroom without a lot of messing around with filters? I could give you some pointers for methods to create good prints from them (and I will), but perhaps we should look at why those negatives are so contrasty in the first place.

The first thing I would like to say, is that you might find it strange that exposure is not the cause of your contrast problems. By that I mean that overexposure is not your problem, gross underexposure might give you very thin negs which are difficult to pull detail from, but I am referring to excessive contrast. You only get heavy negs if you overdevelop, and this is the real crux of the problem; Film development is where the contrast is caused. Over development causes increased contrast and grain.

Where are you getting your dilution, time and temperature information from? Some random person who wrote on Flickr? Something another student told you? Check your information with a reliable source, but still be cautious.

Following the developing instructions on the box or the bottle will get you a result, but your negatives could still be over developed if your thermometer is a little bit out, your measuring jugs are not very accurate and if you tend to ‘give a little bit more, just to be sure’. Another thing I’ve seen with students is, they take too long between pouring out the dev and getting the stop bath in, adding another 30 seconds to a minute to the development time. All of these things can make a difference and if you have a combination of them you might be quite a bit out from the ‘norm’. Remember; Over development causes increased contrast and grain.

So perhaps this is one area you might need to look at. If high contrast negatives are giving you problems, then I would suggest running a test film through and processing for 15% less time than normal (this is just a rough estimate, as I have no idea what your negs look like).

Normal and high contrast negatives (simulated).

Normal contrast

High contrast

Printing

If you have negatives in your files which are dense, how can you get a better print from them?

Split grade printing can be very useful for difficult negatives. There are many conflicting ideas about split grade printing, but I shall give you a simple and effective method. The secret to getting good results is in making the Grade 00 exposure first (I am assuming you know how to do the basics). Find out the exposure time for the subtle highlight detail you need, remembering that many papers dry slightly darker. Once this time has been established (and it could be a long exposure if the light has to get through your dense neg and the filter). Next, expose another strip of paper for this amount of time, put a Grade 5 filter in place and do a series of test exposures over the top. These exposures will not be as long as the Grade 00 because you are printing the thinner parts of the negative.

When this two part test has been developed and fixed, look for the point where the black appears, and you will have your Grade 5 exposure. Give the print these two exposures, working in the same sequence as before and develop the print.

The reason this method works better is that the Grade 5 exposure is not increased by the Grade 00 coming after it. (The effect is slight but it does happen).

To add to the technique above, you could pre-flash the paper to lower its contrast, though to be accurate, you would need to pre-flash the test strips and the final piece of paper to the same amount of light. If you want to get really ambitious, you can pre-flash through a mask to confine the pre-flash exposure to the highlight areas! This technique is a bit too much for this article, but I’ll be happy to explain and demonstrate if you would care to come for a workshop.

Let me know how you get on and write to me via the comments here or on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook;  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Sanderson-Photography/243287612520814
Instagram;  http://instagram.com/andrewsandersonphotography
Twitter;  https://twitter.com/PHOTOSANDERSON