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Monday, September 18


Gunnera* is the big, architectural plant that looks like large, wild rhubarb. I'd been on a walk when I came across a large patch of the stuff. Taking a shot like this from near ground level would have been easy if I'd been carrying a Rolleiflex TLR but it was my old Nikon F with 24mm, 35mm and 105mm lenses I had with me that day.

The film was HP5+ and there was a bit of sunshine around so I was able to stop the 24mm lens down to around f11, crouch down, hold the camera vertically beneath the big leaves and just guess the composition as I couldn't see through the viewfinder. I took three shots and all came out well - just luck I suppose as this sort of thing is more or less a hit or a miss.

The exposure was good as well and the negs, developed in Spur's HRX-3 and rated at 250 ISO, have plenty of shadow detail in them. I can print the negs dark and heavy, light and airy of anywhere in between. They can also be printed softish in terms of contrast or more punchy. The version on this page is about in the middle, a fairly literal interpretation of the scene on that particular day.

It's a fairly straight print on Ilford Multigrade IV FB - 14s at f11 on grade 1. I dodged a couple of shadowed areas for two or three seconds each and burned in a few bright bits of foliage where the sun was shining through and almost wiping them out. The reason I printed it was to be able to assess HP5+ alongside the Tmax 400 I've been using a lot lately. I don't need nor want in my normal shooting totally grain-free prints but I do need a film fast enough for comfortable hand-holding throughout the day.

Tmax developed in Rollei RHS DC is nice and sharp with small but well-defined grain. The prints it produces are very pleasing having a good balance of qualities that are, to me, satisfying on 10x8 inch paper. It can stand a bit more enlarging without compromising that look too much so it's just the job really. Having said that, I'm not finding the developing to be as straightforward as I'd hoped. I first started using the Rollei dev with TMY when it was being sold by Firstcall Photographic under their own label. At that point, the standard dilution was 1+7 at 6 mins although I used it 1+9 for 7 mins.

Now, however, the developer is "double concentrated" - a bit like your Robertson's barley water can be found these days - so it's supposed to get the same 6 mins but now at 1+15. That's sounds easy enough except my negs are coming out under done. I don't know what the reason is as I'm doing everything just the same. I'm up to 6:30 now on the dev time and they're still needing a bit more so the next film will probably get 7 mins. It doesn't seem to me, therefore, that the developer is exactly - or nearly so - double strength but slightly weaker than that. Who knows.

Glitches like these in the photographic process get me thinking about times past when I was producing some nice negatives using HP5+ developed in Perceptol 1+2, as recommended by Barry Thornton. That combination isn't as fine-grained as Tmax/Rollei RHS DC but it's not far off. Grain isn't a problem at all in the gunnera shot on this page. Results, due to the more forgiving nature of the Ilford film, the compensating effect of dilute Perceptol and the lengthy dev time all meaning the outcome is less affected by minor errors in time or temperature, can also be very consistent.

I believe it was just that combination - HP5 and Perceptol - that tickled James Ravilious's aesthetic funny bone. Like, James, though, I'd have to rate the film at about 200-250 ISO as you lose a bit of speed with Perceptol albeit not as much at 1+2 as with the stock solution. That speed is fine throughout the summer months but it's pushing things a little up here in Scotland in the winter unless I exercise some discipline and use the tripod.

For those occasions where I really do want as little grain as possible and maximum sharpness and detail, I could also shoot some Pan F in Perceptol, another really good combination. So there's much to be said for sticking with "old technology" - well, older than Tmax - and reaping the rewards of consistency and easy to print negatives. It just so happens that I'm out of Tmax 400 so perhaps a few rolls of HP5+ and a bag of Perceptol are in order.

* I noticed whilst writing this that I'd posted this image a while back but referred to the plant then, for some reason, as burdock. Still, they share a "u" and an "r" so I wasn't that far off.

Wednesday, September 13

Pattern Recognition?

Forter Castle, Glenisla

There's a school of thought that says the best way to improve your photography is to spend ages looking at the type of photographs you like and try to figure out why that is. That was the way I progressed, mainly looking at books by some of my favourite photographers.

My own belief is that the process hard wires the brain to recognise patterns that appeal to us. We don't so much as go out to copy what we've seen but, rather, we recognise compositions or elements that we instinctively know will produce the kind of image we're looking for.

It's looking for that Aha! moment when something clicks. That something is the ringing of a bell that says "you've got what you need in front of you right now". I suppose it works a bit like face recognition software.

The print scan above is of Forter Castle in Glenisla. It was only when I was looking at it the day after I printed it that it set that little bell ringing. It didn't take much thinking to bring to mind Fay Godwin's shot of Corgarff Castle, near Tomintoul. Her picture below, scanned from the book Land, wasn't in my thoughts consciously when I photographed Forter Castle - but unconsciously? Who knows.

There is a similarity, though, to the two images. It's not just the placement and scale of the castles that do it. Although the buildings are clearly the subjects of the photographs, they both occupy no more than a tiny fraction of the prints' real estate. For me, it's the feeling of remoteness and the sense of depth in the composition.

The print itself didn't present any difficulties. I'd initially thought it might need grade 2.5 as the photograph was taken on a pretty dull day. But the first test strip showed that this was a bit harsh. Sort of Technical Pan over-agitated in Rodinal. So I dropped down to grade 1.5. You can see the difference between the test strips below with the softer contrast giving a much better impression of what the day was like.

Below are two small test prints I made at approximately the right exposure through grades 1.5 (left) and 2.5. With the harder grade there are very few tones between black and white. The softer filter also increases the aerial perspective by recording the castle in a lighter tone.

This was the first negative I'd printed from the Zeiss Super Ikonta IV's Tessar lens and very nice it turned out to be. The film was Tmax 400 developed in D76 1+1 and the print got a 15 second exposure at f8 on the Philips enlarger (80mm Minolta CE Rokkor lens) with an extra 15 seconds for the sky and a little edge burning around the bottom and lower right edges.

Six years and counting

I quite like the distressed look of this scanned
negative - suits the subject well. I scanned it in
flatbed rather than transparency mode through
the plastic negative sleeve just to see what it
would look like. I must have too much time
on my hands...

I've just realised, whilst looking through the list of old posts for something I'd written in the past, that The Online Darkroom is six years old today. I've often asked myself why I write a blog but have never really been able to come up with a good reason.

One thing I'm regularly reminded of, though, is the blog's usefulness as a diary. I can look back through more than 600 posts and find out what I was doing photographically-speaking at most periods since 2011.

It's interesting watching cameras come and go, favourite films give way to newcomers only for the old guard to restake their claim when the novelty wears off and the way I flit from one subject to another with little rhyme or reason! Still, I can think of worse ways to spend my spare time and the blog does a good job of providing some much-needed motivation now and again. It helps that I enjoy writing as well.

A while back I was writing three posts a weeks but that's tough going when you're a film photographer as the process is just so much more time-consuming than digital imaging. I'll keep plugging away as long as I can but I can't see me posting as regularly as thrice-weekly in the future. If I can keep to a consistent once or twice a week I'll be happy.

It's very gratifying to know that I've managed to hold on to many readers who were with me from my opening post and who seemed to have followed me here from earlier digital-related blogs I'd written. Whether you were with me from the start or jumped on board at some point over the past half-dozen years, many thanks for staying the course.

Monday, September 4

Open Door, Newtyle Quarry

I was quite excited when lining up this shot: it felt like it had something a little extra going on. It was taken in a derelict transport office with my Contax 137 MA bolted to a tripod. The film was Tmax 100, the developer D76 1+1 and the lens the famously sharp 50mm f1.4 Planar.

It has a nice abstract quality to it but is still recognisable if you look hard enough. I've found the dividing line between a pure abstract, which I'm not so keen on, and those pictures that are abstract enough to be interesting to be a fine one. The thing that caught my eye was the light beneath the left-hand door. Black and white is all about the interplay between light and shade and this scene had it in spades.

The light was coming from a south-facing window that had some rambling weeds climbing over it - you can just see the odd shadow line here and there from the vegetation. The aim was to have good, strong shadows with just a hint of detail. I wanted the dark parts to be more or less abstract shapes. They would provide the "structure" on which to hang the mid tones and highlights.

I wondered if the composition might appear a little unbalanced with large, distinct shadow areas in just three corners of the frame but I convinced myself that the "open door" idea would benefit from an "open corner". Whatever was flowing into the space from the other side of the door had a path to carry on out the bottom right-hand corner.

In truth, I probably under-exposed the neg by about a stop - I didn't allow enough for reciprocity failure. There's detail in the shadows but it requires careful printing to bring it out. This is a work print so don't judge me too harshly. It's a decent effort I think but this neg (turn away now Phil Rogers) might well benefit from split-grading.

As it was, I was on the Valoy II again which is difficult to use for split grading as it presently stands for reasons I mentioned a couple of posts ago. So this print got 7 seconds at grade 2.5 with the shadows dodged for a couple of seconds each. The bottom right-hand corner got an extra 3 seconds to darken it down a little and the bottom edge was burned for another 2 seconds.

With split-grading, the shadows would benefit from a grade 5 exposure which would help separation whilst the highlights would hopefully retain their delicacy through a grade 0 filter. The bottom right half of the print would also benefit from a boost in contrast. So I reckon this print is only half done. It'll get the split-grade treatment next time. Sorry, Phil.

Saturday, September 2

Atomal - nice, but...

I got through a pack of Adox Atomal developer a few years ago and loved the look of the negs it produced. They had a lovely tonality to them which suited certain subjects very well. I posted one or two images here but I remember saying that I'd reserve judgement until I could print them in the darkroom.

Well, having now done that - at least having printed one negative - the developer's Achilles heel was quite apparent to me. The problem is that Atomal is a fine grain solvent developer and the result is an erosion of sharpness. Yes, that nice tonality is there and the print looks smooth with minimal grain from the Adox CHS 100 II film but there's just no bite.

I'd imagine this developer might be a way of getting that 1940s Leitz Elmar look: there's detail there it's just not going to bite your hand off. For some people that might be an advantage. Portrait photographers might well love it and Atomal does seem to have quite a loyal following.

The photograph here was taken at a disused water company pumping station. I'd climbed in through a window with tripod in hand - no mean feat, I can tell you - and lined up the Contax 137 MA with the 28mm Distagon well stopped down for depth of field. CHS 100 II is a nice film and there should have been no reason to expect anything less than a good sharp result.

Having spent some hours in the darkroom over the past week printing from sharp 35mm negatives I noticed a difference this time round. Atomal, then, wouldn't make a great standard developer for me. But don't let me put you off. The tonality is great and, although this was a contrasty scene, there's detail in the deepest shadows and printable detail in the window highlights.

My darkroom notes (I've at last taken Phil's advice and starting writing down everything I'm up to) show that I used grade 1/2 for the print. The basic exposure on the Valoy II was 8 seconds plus 3 seconds for the side of the room lit by window light. The bottom right corner where the brightest tiles were got an additional 3 seconds and each window an extra 4s.

My initial test strip (above) was at grade 1 1/2 but the shadows dived off a cliff very quickly. At the grade 1/2 I went for, the contrast is quite soft but the print retains the feeling of light there was in the room largely as a result of the light-coloured tiles. If I print this one again I'll burn in the bottom left hand corner a little as I feel the rusty metalwork down there needs beefed up a little.

Now, having written the above, it's worth noting that sharpness isn't the only desirable quality in a print. Is there not a saying that you have to sniff sharpness but tonality screams at you from across the room? There's no denying there's a smooth, refined look to the Atomal-developed film. I'd say the print has a "cultured" appearance, if that makes any sense. Adox CHS 100 II has to take a lot of the credit for that, too. It's certainly not the first time I've found myself remarking on the lovely negs that the film produces in various developers.

What might the combination be like in medium format? That's an interesting question, isn't it? The tonality clearly isn't going to be hurt by a larger negative and there might be a little more apparent sharpness available as well. Adox CHS 100 II and Atomal could be a match made in heaven for a Rolleiflex.

Wednesday, August 30

A print or two

Well, I'm finally back in the darkroom and enjoying once more the smell of fixer in the morning. Actually, I don't mind the pong but I think the family might if I let it get out of hand so some odourless fixer is on the shopping list.

I can't say it's been too easy if I'm being honest. Phil Rogers says it's like riding a bike but, for me, it's more like trying to dredge from the recesses of my memory those Latin passages I once knew verbatim when I was 16 and which I could regurgitate under exam conditions.

Not that printing is like an exam - more of a test, I reckon. It's not the actual process so much that has to be re-learned but more the "workflow" that encompasses the whole experience. Having everything to hand and knowing where it all is, such as pencil, grain focuser, dodging/burning tools, multigrade filters and scissors, for example. Until I'd had a couple of darkroom sessions, I had to stop and think where all this stuff was and that interrupts the workflow.

The other thing I'll need to attend to and pretty quickly is the electrics. If you cast your mind back to the darkroom I have you'll maybe remember it was once one big, long room I split in two courtesy of a partition wall. Well, I haven't yet got round to splitting the electrics in two so if someone enters the half of the room that isn't the darkroom and switches on the main light, it switches on the ceiling light in the darkroom as well. This could be fatal, obviously. Not for me but for any packets of paper that might be lying open. I'll need to find a way of disconnecting my ceiling light and rewiring it so the only on-off switch is in the darkroom.

Here's another gripe: too many enlargers. How can one have too many enlargers I hear you ask. It's the darkroom equivalent of having too many cameras/formats. One of the things I've found through having too much gear is that the regular chopping and changing stops me becoming really familiar with the workings of a particular outfit. Just as I'm getting to know it and everything is becoming instinctive, I feel the urge to switch formats. Maybe if I had just two outfits this wouldn't be so much of a problem but it's not that easy achieving a high degree of familiarity with lots of different bits of equipment. At least not for me.

I've been experiencing the same thing in the darkroom although it's clearly early days. I've got four enlargers in there and although you might not think there's all that much difference between enlargers, there is for me. My first session was spent with the Philips PCS 150, an enlarger with a dichro colour head that makes changing paper grades a doddle and which requires no exposure compensation when switching from one grade to another. It achieves this by adding neutral density light, for want of a better description, to the light path to balance out the differences between grades.

This is all well and good but I found it made for very long exposure times. I used one of these enlargers in my early 20s and I can' t remember this being an issue before. Then it occurred to me that I probably had the condenser light source rather than the colour one back then. With a 75w or 100w bulb exposure times would have been much the same as any other similar enlarger.

And how long were these lengthy exposure times? Ridiculously long I'd say. How about 80 seconds at grade 0 wide open at f4.5 on the 50mm Focotar? For a 6x9 inch print. Well, that was the first exposure for that particular print. I was split-grading so it was followed by another 13.5 second exposure at grade 5. I found it hard to believe as well. So, I think, did Phil who said the "nuclear flash" from his Devere would have blitzed the paper in a few seconds.

The first negative for this first session was my Leica shot of the bins that proved popular with readers. It looked a nice, straightforward neg. No sky, no awkward burning in. Just find the right exposure and paper grade and away we go. It's a Tmax 400 neg developed in Rollei RHS/ Firstcall/AM 74 developer. OK, it might look a tiny bit dense in the highlights but it wasn't something that was too noticeable to me when I looked at it on a lightbox. It was when I tried to print it, though.

My first grade 2 test strip, a wide-ranging 10-40 seconds at f8, told me absolutely nothing beyond the fact that it was hopelessly under-exposed. Another followed at f4.5 and it appeared as if an exposure of around 25 seconds would be needed. I'd decided to give the Ilford split grading method a go which basically involves dividing the grade 2 time in two and giving two exposures at grade 0 and grade 5. The idea then is that you carefully examine the highlights and shadows. If the highlights are too light then you increase the grade 0 exposure or decrease it if they're too dark. Weak shadows are sorted by an increase in the grade 5 exposure and vice-versa. A test print showed that the left hand side of the print would need a lot more exposure than the 12 or 13 seconds used for the split grade and I eventually ended up with the 80s grade 0 exposure talked of earlier. The resultant work print isn't bad but the right-hand, shadowed side of the wall could do with a little dodging.

Next up was an OM2 shot of a bit of stonework in a Fife country cemetery. This was made using the 50mm f2 Zuiko and Adox Silvermax developed in Spur's HRX. There were no real problems with this neg other than another lengthy exposure time. 70s at grade 0 and 30s at grade 5. It's a nice print and has the graphic look I was after.

So that was the first darkroom session out of the way. Next up was the Valoy II with the same 50mm Focotar. Speak about chalk and cheese. From 80s at f4.5 to 5s at f 11! There's nothing to identify the Valoy's lamp but I think it must be a 150w judging by the brightness. It's too bright in fact as I'd rather be using f5.6 or f8 for optimum quality.

The road sign shot, which I somewhat pretentiously call Delta Sky, has featured on the blog before as have the others. There's not a lot I can do about that until I get round to developing the five or six films waiting patiently for attention. It was taken on the OM2 with a 24mm Zuiko. The film was Adox Silvermax and the developer Spur's HRX.

There's no split grading this time not because there's anything wrong with it but because I haven't yet fashioned a holder for below the lens multigrade filters and have to pop them on top of the condenser. Lifting the lid off the lamp housing to swap filters is likely to cause a shift in focus or nudge the negative slightly out of position - or maybe not as I haven't bothered to test it.

This was a nice, easy print with a 7s basic exposure at f11, an extra 7s to the top right to balance up the sky and then a 20s burn in of the sky. After being a bit like a fish out of water during the first session, I'm now starting to feel comfortable again in the darkroom and I'm determined to print regularly to keep my hand in.

Finally, there's Auchmithie Steps. I used a Contax 137MA and 28mm Distagon for this shot, exposing some Silvermax and developing the film in Spur's Acurol-N. The print got just 5s at grade 2 and wasn't too bad as far as footering goes. The sky got an additional 3s, the bright sky to the left of the small tree an extra 7s and the edges just a second or so all round.

As I said earlier, these are work prints and all apart from the Fife cemetery shot could do with some improvement. The bins would benefit from a lightening of the shadowed area above them and getting rid of the small bright triangle of light on the bottom right corner. Auchmithie Steps was deliberately printed quite dark as I wanted the steps to be lighter than the surrounding ground to make them stand out. I think I overdid it a little and would probably print it a bit lighter. The bright sky next to the bush/tree also needs further darkening as it's draws the eye away from the houses at the top of the hill. Delta Sky is almost there but I'd like to print the sky darker to see if I can add some extra drama to the scene.

These thoughts might change over the next week or so as I study the prints from time to time. But it's good to be back following through the entire film process from clicking the shutter to flattening the prints under a pile of books.

Saturday, August 19

Don't adjust your TV sets, etc

Semi-decorative iPhone pic

Normal service has been missing on the blog for more than a month but I'm hoping to get back on track again next week. I won't bore you with all the details but, as usual, living got in the way of blogging although whether or not I'd include DIY, decorating, etc, in the "living" category is debatable.

By normal service next week, I mean proper normal service. The kind that actually has some prints to show rather than scans. Yes, I've finally got a functioning darkroom. It's taken forever but I'm there. This is really the second darkroom I've built since moving here about 20 months ago but I never managed to print anything in the first as our plans for the new house changed a couple of times and Darkroom 1 became a walk-in wardrobe.

Darkroom 2, which began life as our daughter's bedroom, is a little under half of the old floor space, about 10x10.5 feet. I'm sure when we divided the bedroom that Cath had something frilly in mind for the part that wasn't going to be a bedroom but it's hard to keep an alpha male down and I'm pleased to say that it's now - or, at least, is becoming - a man cave. With Cath's blessing, of course.

I've got my books out of storage and filling the shelves of a few bookcases we picked up at Ikea. I'll get my hi-fi gear set up in due course, there's a treadmill in one corner and a comfy reclining chair complete with over-the-shoulder light for reading in another. I've even picked up a few more books in recent weeks - the latest being Don McCullin's Open Skies - in anticipation of some quiet time with my feet up, a cup of coffee and some great photographs to study close-up.

And I'm writing this on a desktop PC on a big desk in yet another corner, the first proper computer I've had since giving my iMac to Freya a few years ago. It took quite a bit of fiddling to get everything working smoothly but it's now zipping along very nicely indeed.

And now to the darkroom. I've written a little about it in some previous posts but for those of you who can't remember or didn't see them, then it's got four enlargers in it at present - the Durst L1200 for everything up to 5x4, a Paterson PCS150 for medium format and the Leitz 1c and Valoy II for 35mm and just because they're lovely to behold. For the first time, I've also got a darkroom sink and, it transpired once I'd unloaded all the boxes from the garage, a surfeit of darkroom gear so some of that will have to go.

My favourite bit of kit, though, is undoubtedly the old Leitz 10x8 enlarging easel. It's got a wooden base, a white painted surface that has aged to an off-white and big round knobs for locking and unlocking the two arms. It also has an attachment that locks it to the baseboard of the 1c to stop it being accidentally moved. I really have grown ridiculously attached to it. When I got it a while back I took great delight in taking it all apart, cleaning it thoroughly and polishing the wood with beeswax. Well, why not look after it? There really aren't many things in life that are both beautiful and efficient. As a more hip William Wallace might have put it, "You can take my freedom but you'll never take my Leitz easel!"

I'm pretty sure I have an unopened bottle of print developer in the garage so I'm good to go. There are also five or six films awaiting development and a bottle of Rollei RHS DC in the darkroom so I've no excuses for not churning out a print or several next week. Mind you, I can't promise they'll be any good but you can't always have everything.

Saturday, July 8

Another look at BT two-bath

My last experience with Barry's two-bath has put me off using it for normal contrast scenes but, having just mixed a litre of the stuff, I felt it was still worthwhile trying it again on higher contrast shots.

This time, I extended the time in each bath from 4 mins plus drainage time to 5 mins plus drainage. Although the two-bath process is supposed to be largely independent (within reason) of development time, plenty of photographers have found that extra time in bath A, in particular, does have an effect on negative density. I stuck with the same agitation technique of 20 secs continuous and two inversions each minute in bath A and the same with one inversion per minute in bath B.

The film was once again Tmax 400 and the scene was a local wood with quite a dense canopy of leaves but with daylight filtering between branches and foliage. I had the Nikon F90x with me along with the 35mm and 85mm Nikkor AF-D lenses.

The idea was just to use up a roll of film so that I could try the longer development without risking anything valuable and the wood seemed a reasonable place to start. The subjects of these pics are just trees that had interesting shapes. They're "toned" differently from each other simply because I accidentally scanned them as colour negs which imparted a tint to them.

When I compared the mostly desaturated results in Lightroom (the pics posted here) with full-on black and white conversions, I preferred the first approach so stuck with it. The photographs seemed "smoother". When I was getting into digital years ago, scanning black and white negs as colour files was recommended as a way achieving higher quality but I don't know if that's still the case.

The negs in question.

I started off by spot-metering the tree trunks and then closing down one-and-a-half stops as I wanted the trees to register quite darkly against the brighter background. I had my Induro tripod with me but had absent-mindedly left the quick release plate on another camera! So it was a case of just using the tripod as a makeshift support - sort of like a mobile gate post.

This was fine for most of the shots as shutter speeds weren't too long. However, I found that spot-metering and locking in the AF and then having to do it again with compositional changes was a nuisance so I switched to matrix metering and taking an extra shot at plus one stop. As it turned out, both of those approaches were valid although the latter was obviously more wasteful.

And the results with the extended development? Much better. The negatives still look a little soft but in a good way. There's information in the tones at both ends of the scale. The tree trunk shadows are where they should be. The highlights beyond the trees are very well controlled. It seems that the BT two-bath is fine for these scenes.

There used to be a theory that the best prints come from slightly soft negs printed on grade 3 paper and these look as if they might fall into that category. I have a couple of rolls of 120 that I've been sitting on because I didn't want to use the two-bath and mess them up but I think I'll risk it. One is mostly night shots taken in the rain and a light mist and it might benefit from the softer treatment.

Wednesday, June 28

35mm filed as single negs?

This was something I read on a forum. At first it seemed a bit daft but the more I thought about it...

So I thought I'd turn to the hive mind of my loyal readers to see if anyone is doing it. By the way, I managed to clock up 300 followers at some point recently so I now think of those of you who actually follow the blog as The Spartans.

But back to this single neg business. Anyone who prints from 35mm - or scans as well most likely - will be familiar with the drawbacks of having a strip of negatives to work with. They can be difficult to sit square in the negative carrier, they can curl a bit or a lot depending on the film, they pick up fine scratches being slipped in and out of negative files and they have to be searched through when you're looking for a particular one - but that might just be my chaotic filing system to blame.

I can't remember the forum I was on but a chap suggested that one should cut one's best negatives from the strips and sandwich them in 645 slide mounts complete with anti-Newton's rings glass. He went on to explain some of the benefits which include ease of filing and locating, no more scratches going in and out of the plastic or paper filing sleeves and the ability to print full frame with a nice, black border.

The number of surfaces to be cleaned or dusted prior to printing is the same as in a glassless negative carrier and half the number of a carrier with top and bottom glasses but you get the benefits of the latter in terms of film flatness.

I'm sure there may be some photographers out there with literally hundreds of top class negatives that they print from regularly but I'm not one of them. I'd imagine most people would be like me and have strips and strips of negs with a good one here and there rather than row after row of winners. On that basis, it would seem to make some sort of sense to separate the winners and put the rest in a drawer. Chances are you'll never want to print from them anyway and if you did they're near at hand in the same format they would have been in had you not gone down the single neg route in the first place.

A big benefit of this approach is that all your winners can sit together in a slide box neatly labelled and easily found. I think this would be a powerful incentive. Imagine the feeling when you decide that a few negatives from your latest roll merit inclusion in the hall of fame. And the striving in future to add to this collection. You might not have enough negs to fill the first slide box but work hard and keep your standards high and gradually the number of empty slots will dwindle. Then you'll be on to your second slide box!

Want to work on a project or theme? Get yourself a big lightbox, scatter your winners upon it and you'll be able go see at a glance those negs that fit together. And what about those negatives that are borderline on your strips? They're quite good but you decide not to print them just now because you have some better ones demanding your attention? If you're like me, you might never return to them. But under the single neg scheme, you'd have to decide if they've made the "cut" for inclusion in your box of winners.

The more I write about this, the more I think I'm talking myself into it. But what about the practicalities? How much are 645 slide mounts? How easy would it be to sandwich the 35mm neg in one? How would it work under the enlarger? Are there any drawbacks I haven't identified? Well, I haven't tried it so I can't answer most of those questions but it seems Gepe mounts will set you back about £1.50 each which isn't exactly cheap. But think of the benefits. Perfectly flat negs to print from, no dust or scratches, no environmental/pollution concerns, ease of storage and access, nice borders to your prints and the motivation from your box of winners.

So, is anyone out there using this system or was my first reaction - it's a bit daft - correct?

Sunday, June 25

What's gone wrong with Barry Thornton's two-bath?

The answer, of course, is that nothing has gone wrong with it but something seems to have gone wrong with me. I was a big proponent of Barry's tweaked two-bath years ago and produced negatives that seemed to fulfil the promise of well-controlled highlights, sharpness and fine grain.

Then, something must have changed as I stopped using it. We're talking probably 16-17 years ago so I can't quite remember what it was exactly that caused BT2 to fall out of favour but it seemed to have something to do with somewhat flat negatives. However, having used up the last of my D76 and with a few films to develop, I thought just the other week that I should use up my dwindling stock of photo chemicals and mix up some BT2 again.

With the lack of contrast thing nagging away at the back of my head, I exchanged a few emails with Phil Rogers, who also used to use it, and decided to go with his suggestion of upping the sodium metaborate in Bath B for some extra snap. Barry himself recommended this course of action. Bath A contains the developing agent metol and an anti-oxidant in the shape of sodium sulphite whilst Bath B provides the alkaline environment necessary for the developer to start working. The more alkaline the second bath then the more vigorous the development process.

Here was may recipe:

Bath A
Metol 6.5g
Sodium Sulphite 85g

Bath B
Sodium Metaborate 20g

That's the theory anyway but it didn't really work out for me in practise. You can see that I used 20g of sodium metaborate - a third more than the standard BT2 recipe calls for - but the negs still emerged looking on the flat side. Barry recommended 7g, 15g and 20g respectively for high, medium and low contrast scenes. I said to Phil that the negatives - a roll each of Tmax 400 and Tmax 100 -  just lacked "oomph" and he agreed that it was this lack of brilliance that persuaded him to stop using the dev as well and go to HC110 instead.

The raw chemicals I used were 20 years old but they're in powder form and looked exactly as they did when new. I'm not aware that raw metol is supposed to lose its potency over time or that any of the other ingredients would have been susceptible to ageing. So now I'm left wondering what's changed over the years with my photography. If BT2 was once OK but isn't any longer then it's maybe just a sign that I now have a tendency to photograph less contrasty scenes. That would fit in with my love of misty, dreich weather conditions. Perhaps a couple of decades ago I wasn't so fond of the old melancholy Celtic soul thing.

The negatives scanned quite well - as lower contrast ones usually do - and it was easy in Lightroom to set the black and white points and then fiddle with the contrast a little to oomphify them. I've posted some of them here - and, yes, they are all lowish contrast, quiet country scenes. It won't be quite so easy in the darkroom, however. They'll need grade 4 at least to get a decent print out of them.

I think it's fair to say now that I won't be mucking around with any more developer combinations if I can help it. There are differences to be seen between various types of dev but none are as great as the differences between different films. If you want fine grain just use a fine grain film and any standard fine grain dev such as D76 rather than trying to reduce the grain on, say HP5+, to something more to your liking.

With the BT2 unlikely to be used for anything other than night photography scenes (I'll do a wee test to see how that goes) I'm now back in my usual place of having no developer left. It's familiar territory for me as I never "stock up" on developer simply because it has a limited shelf life - at least in liquid form.

I've written about this before but the best negs I've produced over the years (from a tonal point of view) have been HP5+ in Perceptual 1+3, Adox CHS 100 II in Spur's HRX3 and Tmax 400 in Rollei RHS/Firstcall Superfine. Since I'm entirely happy with Tmax 400 (and Tmax 100 if I need it) and have a wee stash of the stuff then it looks like I'll be spending some cash with Firstcall Photographic.