Tag Archives: analogue

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.

Facebook;  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Sanderson-Photography/243287612520814
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Ilford films, -the results

So I finished the task, (see previous post) -though I did need to ask for a weeks extension. All of the images were shot over five weeks and I spent another week working late into the night producing over 100 10×8 proof prints. The final selection has not been made, but I present my favourites below. I would be interested to hear your responses,…

Although I was very lucky with some days regarding the changeable British weather, I also had odd days which were a bit of a disaster, with shutter problems on one camera, meter inaccuracies on another and a misaligned focusing screen on a new camera I purchased on ebay, which meant I lost a number of shots. I also discovered a couple of inaccuracies in the processing information for one of Ilford’s film developers and worked out a new ’stand’ process for a couple of the films and this has proved to work very well. All of this will give me enough material for a number of future blog posts.

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  1. Keith

Posted 29/05/2014 at 1:55 pm

Well done Andrew, obviously you undertook was a long task for Ilford.

Which of the Ilford film developers did you find that the information was inaccurate?

The stand development may also be of interest to followers of your blog.

  1. Alex

Posted 02/06/2014 at 4:04 pm

Congratulations on completing such a difficult job. I hope you will share your detailed objective conclusions with us.
A comparative analysis of different films in some kind of spreadsheet form could prove to be a great source of information for many of us.
And of course, the new stand development is always an interesting topic.

  1. Tom Kershaw

Posted 16/06/2014 at 6:06 pm

Hello Andrew,

Perhaps an odd question, but what was the aim of this comparison, simply to show a variety of results or make aesthetic judgements?

I have considered doing something similar for my own purposes in the past but have now decided on using a small number of film & developer combinations, centred around XTOL. I would think about using DD-X if I didn’t want to work with a powder.


Back to gum printing

I’ve been promising myself for a while that I would get back to doing some gum printing. For one reason or another it hasn’t happened, though I have written articles on the subject on a number of occasions, -but for those I have used existing prints, done quite a bit ago.

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In October, I was in conversation with a friend; Maxwell Doig, who is a very good painter. I was at his house and he had an old gum print of mine framed on the wall in his studio. It was so old I had totally forgotten doing it, but it was nice to see it from the viewpoint of a newcomer. We got into conversation about the process and Max encouraged me to do more with it. I had intended to get right onto it, but only got as far as pre shrinking the paper until yesterday when I made gum prints all day. It was a real treat to get back into it again and having so much uninterrupted time meant that I could fully concentrate on it. Gum printing is quite a slow, labour intensive process, but it is very rewarding. It requires the image to be printed more than once to give depth to the tones, and the images shown here have all had four separate coatings and exposures.

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The greatest difficulty in the process is devising some way of getting your negative back in registration with the image for the second, third, or fourth exposure. Even though I had pre shrunk the paper by soaking it in alternate hot and cold trays of water, it still altered size enough to ruin a number of prints.

If you fancy having a go at it, there are many videos on Youtube, but they don’t give you much information about the finer points. I will put a PDF copy of a recent article in Dropbox here, for those who wish to read more on it.



  1. Oscar Carlsson

Posted 07/01/2014 at 7:37 pm

I really like that last image, it is very tender and carefully treated.

  1. wayne

Posted 11/01/2014 at 4:23 pm

The gumprint of the dog and girl is stunning

  1. Thomas Binsfeld

Posted 05/03/2014 at 1:43 pm

The technique fits to the image of the trees shown very good. I like it very much.
I am interested in alternative processes but only have experience in lith-printing.
Often my own images are too sharp, too much like a photo, but I do not know how to alter this.
I have seen some cyanotypes and like those too.
The reason I do not comment often is, because english is not my mother tongue.
I am usually only reading, but this time I pushed the comment button

  1. Chris

Posted 13/03/2014 at 3:39 pm

Love these pictures. Will have to give it a go once my darkroom is built. Thanks for posting these.

  1. Vanessa Marsh

Posted 20/03/2014 at 10:08 pm |

I am a photographer working in Oakland, CA and just came across your blog and website in my research on paper negatives. Thank you for providing this wonderful resource!

  1. Bob

Posted 28/06/2014 at 6:08 pm

A good rag paper hardly moves but even the cheapest watercolour paper can be tamed by saturating the BACK of the paper with water using a brush. The important thing happening here is that the size WON’T WASH OUT, and with a good well sized rag paper and the useful amount of preshrinking you should have very little problem with reregistering.

View Camera Magazine

I was recently contacted by a writer / photographer in the USA asking if I would like to be included in an article in View Camera Magazine. The article is on photographers using unusual film types, such as duplicating film and X-Ray. I have been shooting on X-Ray film since 1988 and have written a number of articles on the subject, but was surprised and flattered to be asked.

The article is called Alternative Films, Extraordinary results. and is in the July/August 2013 issue.

It is also mentioned on the esc4p.org blog, -resources page

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Spürsinn two bath developer

I was recently asked to give my professional opinion of one of a range of developers made by a company called Spürsinn. These are well known in Germany where they are produced, but I had not heard of them. Looking at the accompanying literature for the two bath developer I had been sent, known as HCD-S and HCD-2, I could see that they had done extensive testing. There were development times and detailed dilutions for 38 films and some of those had a long list of possible ratings and dilutions, -for instance there were 22 for Efke 50 alone.

They claim good results rating many of the films at a wide range of ISO settings. HP5 for instance can be rated between 25 and 25600 ISO. They also claim that these developers have excellent edge sharpness, good tonality and low chemical fog at all ratings. AND they have excellent keeping properties.  My first thoughts were that these were amazing and possibly exaggerated claims, so I began my tests hoping to be astounded, -but at the same time prepared for a disappointed thump of reality. These developers couldn’t be as good as they claim, could they? I needed to find out for myself.

I began my tests with the best film in the Ilford stable for sharpness and fine grain: Delta 100 and I shot 35mm because I wanted to use maximum enlargement to evaluate the quality. The first couple of films were very dense and I thought I had done something wrong. I checked my times and dilutions, shot another couple of test films, and after processing found exactly the same results. I contacted Spürsinn and they were extremely helpful, they looked into it and let me know pretty quickly that I had been working to a misprint (which apparently, 500 previous customers had not noticed!), and they supplied me with corrected time/dilutions, which worked better. The test prints from some of these negatives looked very crisp and the mid tones were punchy –what some refer to as micro-contrast and I found that the crisp detail that this developer produced showed one of my lenses to be not as sharp as I had previously thought!

I set about processing a few other films that I had in my darkroom. Next was FP4, this too turned out with punchy tonality, -ideal for low contrast subjects, but perhaps a bit too punchy for scenes of high contrast, or overexposed frames. This punchy quality is great for showing texture in low contrast subjects, like the mid to dark areas of a scene where you have similar shades, for instance: in weathered wood , like this old block.

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Having processed a few films with the HCD-S / HCD-2 combination, I can see that these developers do produce clean shadow areas and enhanced sharpness, but with the enhanced grain that this micro contrast brings. Personally, I think this is a nice quality in 35mm photographs and one of the reasons why I shoot 35mm. In medium format negatives the grain would be much less noticeable and with even greater sharpness, so that is probably where this developer would really come into its own. I don’t know if you can see from this crop of the 35mm image above, but the detail is very good.

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Density and contrast.

I am of the belief that what is considered correct tonality in a monochrome print is not absolute, but varies from region to region. In Eastern Europe for example, there seems to be a preference for higher contrast in their images. I think that this developer is designed for that kind of approach, but for the British photographer who, I think prefers a longer, smoother tonal range, it might be a little harsh. If you are getting negatives which are of a higher contrast than you are used to, the normal technique is to reduce the development time by 20%. If your negatives are still of a higher contrast than you would prefer, try a reduction of 25%. The instructions for the two bath process here, should, if it were a conventional two bath, need adjusting only in the second bath, but the instructions say to alter both. What they recommend is that you alter your dilution (both baths) but keep the time the same. So calculating 20% off a 1-24 dilution gives roughly 1-30.

Reducing the time should bring the density in the highlights down, with very little effect on shadow detail and would produce a negative with the same sharpness, but with a longer tonal range. I put my theory to the ever helpful Michael Weyl at Spursinn and he was interested in the idea, suggesting that he is going to start work on finding different dilutions for ‘British’ tastes soon.

When I printed from the Delta 100, Delta 400 and FP4 negatives I had processed for this test and review, I found the contrast was requiring pre flash and split grade printing to get a full range out of the negative. The FP4 being the most dense. I then calculated a new dilution with a reduction of 18%, keeping all other factors unaltered. The results were much better, but they were still more dense than the sort of negatives I am used to. The next test will be with a greater reduction.

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It is important to note that this developer, and the others that Spurrsin make, are quite sensitive to dilution and agitation, so once you have established the correct time and dilution for your tastes, good processing technique is important. Working with a quality developer like this requires accuracy in exposure readings, focus and careful control of measurement/dilution/temperature and agitation in processing. Variations in local water hardness can have an effect on outcome, but methods to get around this are explained clearly in the extensive instructions. To reduce the possibility of this happening I would suggest using de-ionised water to make up your developers.

I have not had time to test a lot of films in this developer, but I shall continue to experiment with it. With the huge range of ISO ratings for so many films, there are possibilities for some quite interesting styles of photography. From (I would expect, but I’ve not tested yet) Ilford Pan F rated at 320 ISO for high contrast effects, through to Ilford HP5 rated at 25 ISO for a long, smooth tonal range. I am also interested to see if Ilford Delta 3200 rated at ISO 12800 will produce an exaggerated grain effect. I will be testing these ideas soon and will post my findings here when I have my results.

A friend of mine, Bruce Robbins writes a blog on film based photography which is very informative and has tested the Acurol-N developer from Spur. He can be found at: http://www.theonlinedarkroom.com

Currently, The Spursinn developers can be bought from:

Keyphoto –  http://www.keyphoto.com/latest-news.html?article=109

MacoDirect – http://www.macodirect.de/spur-acurol-250ml-p-2510.html?language=en&osCsid=782e362bc991eab30a270f24c72cd642 ,

Photoimpex – http://www.fotoimpex.de/shopen/chemistry/spur-acurol-n-250ml.html

and Spurrsin themselves in Europe – http://www.spuersinn-shop.de/index.php?page=product&info=681


  1. Andrea Ingram

Posted 05/07/2013 at 2:53 pm

Looks like something worth trying I must say

  1. Thomas Binsfeld

Posted 05/03/2014 at 2:42 pm

In the past I have tested several negative developers and always returned to ID-11 which I use since 35 years and know best. (Which is in opinion the most important thing in using negative developers.)

2. Andrew Sanderson

Posted 06/03/2014 at 11:36 pm

Dear Thomas, I think I am beginning to come to the same conclusion. I was trying out some other developers last week (Pyrocat, Microphen, Ilfotec DD-X) and my results were not consistent.

Reciprocity failure

Recently I have been doing a lot of pinhole photography, and due to that I have had to explain to a number of people (unfamiliar with the more technical parts of photography) what reciprocity failure is.

Reciprocity is the relationship between shutter speeds and apertures, which means that as you reduce exposure with a change in, lets say the shutter speed by one stop, then increase the exposure by one stop with the aperture, you will have exactly the same exposure. Each one-stop adjustment of the shutter speed, is equivalent to a one-stop adjustment of the aperture. This holds true throughout the normal use of the camera in most lighting situations.

This linked relationship begins to slip away with exposures longer than one second, and the longer the indicated exposure, the more of a difference there is between the indicated exposure and what is actually needed. Many years ago I included in my book on night photography, a chart for working out the amount of exposure correction you might need in situations where exposures were between 1 second and 17 minutes. I have been referring to this chart for my extended pinhole exposures, and I include a link to a word document here which shows the full chart: