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.

10 thoughts on “Are your film negatives good enough?

  1. wayne

    Dear Andrew.
    Many thanks for the blog , advice and info. Iam finding a marked improvment to my negs after following your methods, have got all your books which i find inspiring. Things are looking up again many thanks. Wayne.

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  2. Wayne

    Dear Andrew,
    is it possible to get a perfect neg that needs no burning,dodging ect during the printing stage (darkroom not scanning ). All have just tried ilford dd-x, and got on well. with it. Many thanks Wayne.

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    1. andrewsandersonphoto Post author

      Dear wayne, it is possible, and we always aim for this. But it is not usually desirable to do a straight unmanipulated print or contact print, as the eye views the scene selectively so the print can look wrong. Usually the sky will need darkening and shadows will need lifting a little. This is easier with a properly exposed and processed negative. Regards, Andrew.

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      1. wayne

        Dear Andrew
        have just developed 2 films with a 20% reduction in time , much better still plenty of shadow detail but no solid blacks. I think these things make more sense when you try them, many thanks for your help Wayne

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      2. andrewsandersonphoto Post author

        I’m very happy that you have had a good result from that. I always found that I learned the most about a technique when I did it wrong, then figured out a way to correct it.

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  3. wayne

    Dear andrew
    hello, just made a couple of prints from the negs with the 20% reduction time . Wow! That makes a massive difference to the printing stage. Many thanks again.

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  4. rpavich

    This made me smile because it was my experience; that my scanner (with it’s density correction) was fooling me about the quality of my exposures, and it wasn’t until I started to darkroom print (and make contact sheets with just-barely D-Max) as explained in the article, that I found out just how badly I was doing.

    The good news is that it caused me to stop, evaluate my exposures, evaluate my developing and contact sheet making and I’ve really improved over a short time. I’m still a babe-in-the-woods when it comes to this stuff, but now I know what I’m shooting for.

    Thanks for a good article.

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  5. Tomás

    I will give this a shot. I’ve been stand developing (or semi-stand developing) for years, just because I’m lazy and frugal and it seems like an idiot-proof way to develop film. However this year I’ve started printing, and it seems to be going fine.

    However I recognise that I am at the stage of conscious competence, and I think now if I did try a new way of developing film I might actually have a chance of recognising the change.

    So I think I will do your test, use a roll on a nice scene and try one half with stand developing and one half with whatever the Ilford SOP is.

    It’ll be fun to see the difference 🙂

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