Category Archives: Darkroom

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.



Which photographers do you enjoy looking at? What inspires you? Do you have friends who share your enthusiasm, either in your locality or online?

I think it is always interesting to discover that another photographer really appreciates the same historical or contemporary photographers as yourself, or is a fan of the same style of work as yourself. It establishes a connection and deepens a friendship to have things to share.

It suddenly occurred to me today that I had a long list of names that I very rarely get a chance to talk about and that I should write a little about them. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I will be interested to read your responses.

Should you welcome the influence of other photographers? Most University and College photography courses in the UK force students to work in the style of a short list of contemporary photographers and the criticise them for not being original. I’m glad that wasn’t the case when I studied photography.

In my early days as a student I found myself easily influenced by any photography that I saw. I wanted to develop a style that was my own and didn’t want to be influenced by anything that had gone before, so I made a conscious decision to stay away from as much of it as I possibly could. I avoided exhibitions, books and magazines (there wasn’t anything else in those days, except for TV and that was rubbish). I couldn’t keep it up, because photography is everywhere and I had to think of another strategy. I decided on the polar opposite approach: To look at as diverse a range of work as I possibly could, and lots of it. This had the effect of giving me an enormous range of styles and techniques to choose from, and it really opened my eyes to what was possible.

You will I expect, be able to spot one or two of my influences in this list and that is fine. I have not tried to deliberately copy them, but I love the style of work they do and enjoy working in that style sometimes. I make no apology for this, after all, there is more than one band playing blues music.

There are quite a number of photographers in this list and I can’t include all the pictures that I love (I’m not even sure of the copyright issues with that), so instead of putting them in this blog post, I am going to give you a link to my Pinterest page where you can see a large and diverse selection.

I don’t have space here to say why I love the work of these people, but I hope that the images work for you too. I also hope that you discover work that you were unaware of. Please comment and let me know what you think, and perhaps recommend other photographers I might have missed.

Richard Avedon, Roger Ballen, Bill Brandt, Zeke Berman, Harry Callahan, Trevor Crone, Robert Demachy, Baron Adolf De Meyer, William Eggleston, David Eustace, Lee Friedlander, Horst P Horst, Rhodri Jones, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Josef Koudelka, Wright Morris, William Mortenson, Leonard Missone, Raymond Moore, Arnold Newman, Robert Parke Harrison, Irving Penn, Sabastiao Salgado, Edwin Smith, W. Eugene Smith, Frederick Sommer, Edward Steichen, Josef Sudek, Jerry Eulsmann, Bradford Washburn, Albert Watson, Edward Weston, Minor White, Joel Peter Witkin. Francesca Woodman, Ion Zupcu,


My Pinterest page of photographers work;

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

The contrast is caused by allowing the dense parts of the negative to develop too long. This extra density prevents light getting through, either when printing, or scanning, leaving those areas to be totally white and without detail as a positive image. By careful control of temperature, volume and time, you can stop development at the correct point, giving you a negative with a long tonal scale that will print or scan properly.


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). Put a Grade 00 filter in, and do a test strip in the densest part of the image. 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), expose a strip of paper for this indicated time Next, put a Grade 5 filter in 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. Make this second test in a shadow area of the image.

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 full 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.


Intensifying thin negatives

We try our best as film photographers to get a correct exposure every time, but occasionally there are times when we inadvertently cock it up.
It may be because we have forgotten to add extra exposure for bellows extension or a filter factor, or the fact that long exposures need a calculation for reciprocity failure. Sometimes light meters may be set to the wrong ISO/ASA. Then of course there might be a problem in processing with temperature drop, out of date chemicals or just bad luck.
Whatever the reason, we have a thin neg and it is a problem to get the tones that we require in the print.

There is a way to rescue these negatives though, they can be chemically enhanced to increase density and this is most easily done by toning the negative, giving a brown colour to the negative image. The brown image blocks more light for blue/green sensitive papers so the negative is effectively darker and denser and this prints lighter.

To illustrate this technique, I took a second rate 10×8 negative and chopped it in half. I Bleached one half in the standard sepia toner bleach bath (formula at the bottom of the article) until all the silver had gone, this left me with a pale pink negative.


After a ten to fifteen minute wash, I immersed the bleached negative in the toning solution and In less than a minute it had gone a deep brown.


I then washed it for twenty minutes and hung it from one corner to dry. I contact printed the two halves on one sheet of 10×8 paper to see the comparison and this was the result;

Toned split neg

Split print

You can see quite clearly that the right hand side is much improved.

Some darkroom workers tone their negatives using Selenium rather than sepia, and this works just as well (when using Selenium, the bleach does not need to be employed).

The bleach is made up of two chemicals; Potassium Ferricyanide and Potassium Bromide. Measure 100 grams of the Ferricyanide and stir into 1 Litre of water. When it is all dissolved, add 50 grams of Potassium Bromide to the solution and stir until that is also completely dissolved. The bleach is ready to use immediately and works quite quickly.

The toner I used was a Thiocarbamide toner, though a Sulphide toner works just as well. This is made as two stock solutions which are mixed together before use.

Stock A. Water 1000 ml, Thiocarbamide 100 grams.

Stock 2. Water 1000 ml, Sodium Hydroxide 100 grams.

Take 200 ml of each and mix together, immerse the bleached print and gently agitate. The print will be toned within a minute.

Wash negatives for 20 minutes and hang up to dry. The mixed solution can be kept for months if tightly stoppered and stored in the dark.

If toning prints, wash for 20 minutes (RC), or 40 minutes (FB).



Demystifying photography

  Today’s blog post is taken from my book ‘Home Photography’ Published By Argentum in 2003.

The quality of photography that you produce is dependent on the amount of time that you are willing to devote to it. So the obvious question is: are you shooting enough? A possible reason for not producing many good pictures is that you are probably not taking enough — the more you do it, the better you get. I don’t mean pick up the camera once a month and run off a number of films at a sporting event or whatever. Shoot every day, think about pictures every day, use the camera every day.


The ability to see pictures comes from exercising that part of your mind as much as possible; any period of abstinence causes you to become ‘rusty’. It is definitely not like riding a bike, the ability does not stay with you unless you use it. One way to keep it functioning well is to look at the work of good and great photographers. Avoid looking at the work of poor photographers, as this will also influence your vision. Seek out high quality photography and think carefully about how it was done. Many times there are big clues in the picture. For instance, ask yourself where the light is coming from, are there two or more sources of light? If so, then how has that been achieved, by the use of artificial light, or reflectors? Is there a hard edged shadow or a very soft one, is it midday sun or late/early in the day when the sun is lower? Can you estimate the focal length of the lens used? Is it a wide angle shot or standard? Perhaps a longer lens? Has it been shot on 35mm or a larger format?


Look closely and see if there is plenty of depth of field throughout the photograph, indicating a small aperture. Perhaps the picture shows very little evidence of depth of field, indicating a wide aperture and probably a fast shutter speed. If there is subject movement in a shot displaying shallow focus, then this would suggest low light or a very slow film. There are many more ways to extract the information from photographs, but to list them would get boring. You must work it out for yourself. This is a useful exercise which helps to demystify photography. Asking these questions puts you next to the photographer at the moment of exposure. The important thing to bear in mind after the technical information has been extracted is: it is essential that you ask yourself whether this picture would have worked if any of these details had been different. Would the picture have been poorer had a larger or smaller format been chosen? And so on. Once the essential points have been established, you have a valuable reference point for creating strong images in a similar situation. This kind of detective work saves a lot of wasted film and can be a fascinating exercise which can be enjoyed whilst reading a magazine or watching a film. Old black and white films are rich in such details.