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.