Monthly Archives: November 2017

A film and development test to improve your negatives. One roll of film.

I was asked the other day by my friend Luis GV Caso, if there was a way of doing an exposure and development test using one roll of film. I knew how I would tackle it if I was working in my own darkroom, but I realised that I had never written this down. After I had sent it to him, I thought it would be useful to post it here.

Hi Luis,you asked if there was a way to do a full test on one roll of film. There is, but I think you would need to use 35mm, as you will need to cut the film into three sections after shooting. Doing this with medium format would leave short, curly bits of film which could become loose in the tank. Firstly, you need to think about the sort of lighting that you usually shoot in, or prefer. It is no use doing this test in full summer sun if you prefer shooting on foggy autumn days. Choose the appropriate scene and light (hopefully constant, and not likely to change for the duration of the test).

With the camera on a tripod, take a meter reading the way you normally do. This might get a lot of other photographers saying: ‘oh no, you need to do an incident reading’, or: ‘You have to do a range of spot metered readings and average them out’. This test is meant to help you get the best out of your way of working, not to get tied up in other people’s methodology or obsessions. Once you have your reading, draw out a range of camera settings which will give you a sequence of exposures from 4 stops under, all the way up to 4 stops over (see the diagram below). Shoot these nine frames, then cover the lens and shoot four blank frames. Shoot the same nine exposures then another four blanks. Shoot the last nine frames and one blank then rewind the film.

In the darkroom you will need to have something light tight that you can store sections of the film in, unless you have three tanks. Cut the leader off, then cut the film into three roughly equal lengths. The blank frames should give you enough space for error. The last length needs a small cut in the end (where the last blank frame was) to identify it. Load the first length into the dev tank and store the middle and end for now. Process this for 20% less than the recommended time. Stop, fix and wash as normal. Process the middle section for your normal time. Process the final length for 20% more than your normal time. When dry, do a contact sheet (longer paper needed for 9 frames, or tape two bits together). The test exposure to determine the correct time (for all 3 strips) should be the shortest possible exposure that will produce black under the clear edge of the film. Wash and dry the final contacts and look for the ‘correct’ frame. It should be frames number 6, 18 and 30, but your results might differ slightly. Contact printing is only an indication of the area you should be working in. You will have quite different choices for printing, depending on whether you are using a condenser or diffuser enlarger. Use the indicated frames to make test prints, but be prepared to see better results in the last section if you are using a diffuser enlarger, and in the first section if you are using a condenser enlarger.

Cutting back development to reduce contrast.

On July 9th 2015, I posted an article about metering and referred to the old adage of; ‘Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights’. In that blog post I referred to the technique of cutting back development to reduce contrast. To beginners, the idea of cutting back, or reducing development is rather worrying. A fear of under development often causes people to go into over development just in case they don’t get anything on the film. This causes the negative to begin to ‘block up’ in those areas which have received the most light. An added problem that students have, is that they take too long between pouring the developer out, and pouring the stop bath in. This adds more time to the process and more density to the negative. Extra density in the heavily exposed areas, such as a white dress, or sunlit clouds is a bad idea, as it prevents light passing through at the printing or scanning stage. This isn’t just a matter of a longer print exposure to push enough light through to expose the paper, it also degrades the image, -with increased grain and ugly tonality in the mid tones, and loss of detail in areas of light grey or near white on the print.

So, if you are going to try cutting back, then how much should you try? Well if your negs are regularly dense, then the film will probably cope with losing up to 10% of the total time without suffering too much, but this depends on how much you are currently over developing. If your negatives generally print ok on a grade 2 Ilford Multigrade paper, then you don’t need to do anything. If you find that you are using Grade 1 or less quite regularly, or are split grad printing to get your light tones and whites to come in, then you should think about cutting your time back.

A simple way to test this is to set up the camera on a typical day, depending on the weather in your location. Sunny conditions will give a more accurate test result, but if you never shoot in bright sun then don’t test in it. Take an incident reading if possible, or establish the exposure of the scene with your light meter by reading from a mid grey (grass is good for this). Don’t use your digital camera as a meter for your film shots, it won’t be accurate.

Fire off a whole roll of 36 exposures at this setting and take the film back to be processed. Cut off roughly a third of the film and load it into a tank. Keep the rest somewhere totally light tight, you will need to process another bit later.

Process this at your normal time. Stop, Fix, Wash and dry.

Process another third of the film, but at 10% less time. Stop, Fix, Wash and dry.

Process the final third of film at a time which is 20% less than your normal time. Stop, Fix, Wash and dry.

Take a strip of negs from the first process, the one which is your normal time. Put it in the enlarger and set it up as you normally would. Pull the negative across slightly so that you can see the blank gap between frames. Make a series of test exposures to determine print time, but look for the first appearance of black where the gap between shots is. You are trying to find the shortest possible exposure to give black for the clear areas of the negative. Once you have established this, do a full print at that exposure. Before you put it in the developer, write ‘Normal dev’ on the back in pencil.

Put a strip of negatives in the enlarger from the film that had 10% less development. Do a full print at the same exposure as the first print. Before you put it in the developer, write ‘10% less dev’ on the back in pencil.

Put a strip of negatives in the enlarger from the film that had 20% less development. Do a full print at the same exposure as the first print. Before you put it in the developer, write ‘20% less dev’ on the back in pencil.

Process all three prints for the full time and then lay them out side by side. The print with the best highlight detail and tone is the indication of what your development time should be from now on.

Let me know if this post has been helpful to you.