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Thursday, December 18

Ripped Off?

Naughty Adox. Naughty, naughty Adox. For the first time ever for me, a 35mm film wound fully out of the cassette and onto the take-up spool ruining everything on it. How many potential masterpieces were on that roll? Well, there couldn't have been more than 36 or 37 so that's something I suppose.

The film was my last roll of CHS 100 II, a really fine film and one of my favourites. It had been in the OM2 for a month or so and I thought it was about time I finished it. This was one of those films where you can't remember at all what might be on it - just as well, as it turned out.

It was sitting at about 30 on the exposure counter so I packed it in a bag and went off to shoot a few photographs of the frost and sunlight on what was a cold winter's day. Everything went as normal and I reached the end of the roll. I had a winder on the OM2 but that's never been a problem in the past and it didn't seem to be this time.

However, when I went to rewind the film, it felt like there was no resistance at all. Absolutely none. I was certain there was a film in there so I continued rewinding with a growing sense of unease. Sure enough, when I opened the back there was the cassette sitting on one side - and the rolled up, exposed film on the other. Sticking to the Sherlock Holmes code of detection, I resisted the urge to speculate in the absence of evidence although I was casting some dirty looks at the winder by now. Did it rip the film off?

Cathartic swearing ensued, concentrated around the F-word - and it wasn't "film" or "frost". How could that have happened, I asked myself when drawing breath in between expletives. I did briefly consider slamming the back shut and seeing if I could salvage something in the darkroom but I didn't think the chances were good and I wanted to keep shooting. So I loaded up with TMax 400 and carried on snapping away. 

The problem was revealed later on when I got home. Adox had forgotten to attach the film to the spool in the cassette with tape! Can you believe that? It must have just been pushed through the slot in the middle of the spindle. When it reached the end of the roll the winder must just have tugged it enough to free it up and pull it out of the cassette. 

But then I looked at the plastic spindle and saw it had some raised "teeth", for want of a better word, within the slot that seemed designed to hold the film in place. So was the retaining tape missing or was that just the way the spool was designed? I tried to think back to the other rolls of CHS 100 II I'd used but couldn't say for sure if there was or wasn't tape on them. Did anyone use tape now? Am I hallucinating? Maybe all film manufacturers just slot the end of the film onto some plastic teeth. I couldn't really remember. Not being willing to ruin a film just to check, I still don't know the answer. Maybe someone can chime in here.

In the dark, when loading film into a developing tank, I leave it in the cassette and wind it on to the reel until it's almost at the end and then just snip the film across the mouth of the cassette so it's been ages since I was last inside a cassette. The last one I opened up was probably a roll of Firstcall 400S and that definitely uses tape but I think that's because these are basically bulk-loaded cassettes. But if the Adox film wasn't designed to be held in place with tape then there must be a problem with that design because the roll clearly wasn't ripped from the cassette. The end attached to the plastic spindle was completely undamaged. So, however film and spindle parted company, it seems to have been Adox's fault and not the winder's.

Having said that, I pushed the end of the film back into the slot and haven't been able to get it out again so tenacious is the grip of the plastic teeth! The most likely explanation is that the film just wasn't pushed properly into the slot at the manufacturing stage.

Remarkably - and probably because I couldn't remember what was on the roll - I managed to come to terms with my photographic loss quite quickly. There may have been a few keepers on the film but there may not have. Everyone makes mistakes and Adox are no different and I'm sure it's something that Ilford and Kodak have done at some point in the past. Or maybe not? Who's to know?

It doesn't alter my opinion of CHS 100 II in the slightest. It's a great film and I hope it's around for a long time. I look upon it as my summer film when the weather is bright enough for reasonable, hand-holdable shutter speeds. Sadly, however, I've nothing from this roll to back up that opinion.

Tuesday, December 16

An old-fashioned look - but how?

The vintage look, which I've written about before here, can be quite elusive. Sometimes even the classic lenses with a traditional film, a yellow filter and appropriate processing still deliver an image that looks distinctly modern.

Then you get a shot like this taken with TMax 400 and a 35mm f2 AF-D lens on the Nikon F100 - all "modern" equipment/materials - and end up with something that I think has the olde world air about it. Strange.

I took it to finish the roll when I was on my way home the other day. I'm a sucker for wet fields, reflections and heavy skies. The wrapped bales looked a bit sad amongst the gloom - and the cows didn't look much happier, to be honest. Not quite as miserable as in the shot below I took about 20 years ago, mind you.

But back to the new pic. I think it shows that subject matter and lighting have probably the greatest say in the particular look of a photograph, whether it has the vintage vibe or not.

If you like that look then that's both good and bad. Good in that you can get it with any equipment but bad in so far as you have to wait for the right subject matter and weather and that's much harder than splashing the cash on an old Sonnar or whatever takes your fancy.

Thursday, December 11

Leica System Brochure 1953 - Printable

I might just be suffering from old-fartism but don't you think the design of this 1953 brochure is much more interesting than the 1960s and 1970s literature? This is probably my favourite brochure of my wee collection. I also prefer the look and feel of the screw mount Leicas featured here to the later Ms although they're nowhere as nice - or maybe "convenient" is the right word - to use.

There's a nice picture of the Focomat 1C enlarger as well towards the end of the brochure. That's the same model but an earlier version of the one I picked up in a local auction in September. Of all the mechanical things I have I think I like the 1C the most. It's just a wonderful bit of engineering and design.

In more fanciful moments, I imagine how great it would be to sell all my camera gear and keep just the 1C and my Rollei TLRs and add a couple of Leica M bodies and three lenses - say, a 25mm Voigtlander, 35mm Summicron and 90mm Summicron. And maybe add a Focomat II for the 6x6 negs. That would be the perfect set-up.

So why don't I do it? Good question.

Wednesday, December 10

Misspent Youth

This crumbling den of inequity was where my brother and I often gravitated on Saturdays just a few years before the snooker boom really took off in the UK. Snooker halls were a strong attraction for teenagers throughout most of the 20th century and we were as vulnerable as any others.

My late father had a similarly misspent youth in Dundee snooker halls and we grew up with his tales of the characters who used to frequent these establishments, some of whom sounded a bit dangerous to us at the time, and which halls to avoid - mainly those with wooden floors. A concrete floor was necessary for a level table, you see, so only ground floor establishments were to be trusted - and only after we'd confirmed the floor was solid.

My dad was a good snooker player and passed on his knowledge to us so that we developed a reasonable level of skill at the game as well. For sports mad brothers, snooker was great during the winter when bad weather stopped us playing as much football, rugby or golf as we would have liked.

The problem was that there were just a few snooker halls in the city by this time and these were usually packed throughout most of the day. The Maryfield Snooker Hall in Mains Loan, run by a guy called Bill Brown, was one of the larger ones with around a dozen tables. Still, by the time we'd got up on Saturday morning and taken the 15 minute bus ride to the hall, the tables were usually all occupied.

It wasn't uncommon for us to wait 45 mins to an hour just to play an hour's snooker. I could count on one hand the number of times we turned up and found an empty table. It felt like Christmas. But we didn't have computers in those days so what else were we to do on a winter's day at the weekend? Many of the characters in the Maryfield were jack-the-lad-types and it wouldn't have been a good idea to cross some of them. My brother and I kept ourselves pretty much to ourselves as we were only there for the snooker.

On one occasion, when I was there with a friend, we got a table after the usual wait. Just as we were setting up, two threatening-looking lads, presumably fed-up waiting, came over and one offered to play me for the table. If he won, he'd get our table and if I won he'd pay for our snooker. It didn't seem like a good idea to refuse so I played him and beat him handily. True to his word, he coughed up the cash and my pal and I enjoyed some free snooker that day!

The hall, I remember, was a low-ceilinged, dark establishment and had a constant and regularly replenished fug hanging over the tables, courtesy of the chain smokers who were probably the rule in those days rather then exception. It all made for a very atmospheric experience and one I'm glad I had. As far as misspent youths go, it was much better than today's usual fare of chasing a bunch of pixels around a screen and firing other collections of pixels in their direction.

Sadly, the hall closed about 15 years ago and is now on the Buildings at Risk Register, a sure sign that it's on its way out unless someone steps in to rescue it. Planning permission was granted a few years ago to knock it down and build a couple of houses but nothing has come of it. Here's a picture on the register taken in 2010 which shows how much the building has weathered in just a few years:

I'd wanted to photograph the building for a while but, as you can see from the colour pic, there are usually cars parked outside it and I hadn't passed it on a day when the street was clear. However, last week I happened to drive past when I had the F100 and a roll of TMax 400 in the car and, lo and behold, the facade was car free.

The light on the hall was just perfect and I loved the strong tree shadow being cast on the gable end of an adjacent house and echoing the peeling paint - but how best to capture it? I'd parked opposite the hall and was leaning against the side of my car with a 35mm lens on the camera but a straight-on photograph looked a bit dull in the viewfinder. Then I caught sight of a little bit of reflection on the car's roof and reached for a 24mm lens to make the most of it.

Cath sometimes moans that I don't clean the car often enough but it looks pretty shiny to me in this photograph even thought it hadn't seen a bucket and sponge for a month or two! I think I'll be making some inquiries this week to see if it would be possible to get inside to photograph the hall. Obviously, the tables will all be gone and the windows appear to be boarded up so unless there are some windows in the roof it will be difficult to do very much but I'd still like to record what's there for posterity.

I had a look on the internet to see if there was much about Maryfield Snooker Hall but it seems that no-one has given it a second thought, a strange situation for a recreational facility that was frequented by so many people over so many years.

Still, this post ensures that there is at least some record of the business and I'll add to if I manage to get inside the hall. And the next time Cath chides me about the condition of the car I can always point her to this post and say, "How clean does it need to be?"

Tuesday, December 9

To crop or not to crop?

It's not unusual for me to see crops in pictures taken by other photographers but it seems I need to develop the knack of looking at my own a bit more critically. I'm not fetishistic about it but I do like to fit the composition to the 35mm frame at the taking stage rather than mucking about afterwards looking for a better crop.

So my attention is strongly focused on achieving the "best" composition I can when looking through the viewfinder. Not surprisingly, the actual negative tends to look fine to my eyes or else I probably wouldn't have taken the shot in the first place. However, twice recently the mysterious David M., henceforth to be known as the CropMeister, has pointed out a couple of alternative framings which improved the photograph on both occasions.

Thank you, David! This shows two things: David has a good eye and I need to look more closely at the negative or print to see if I can see a tighter crop that strengthens the composition. Where the first pic is concerned, I agree with the CropMeister that it's stronger as a square. That means losing the right hand side and the shadow that drops off the frame right in the corner, something that I took care at the shooting stage to achieve. David noticed that the square reduces the scene to pairs of objects: chimneys, lamp-posts and ventilation boxes. That does indeed improve it, in our shared opinion.

The second, earlier, pic he cropped was a shot of my stairwell at home. David's version keeps the light and dark shapes but, by removing most of the window, lends it an air of mystery. It's still recognisable but you have to look a little longer at it. I don't think the crop in this case is a huge improvement but, overall, I prefer it and will probably print it closer to the square format.

The key with these light and shade photographs is to concentrate on the graphic side of things and remove the representativeness from the frame - but not to the extent that it just becomes an indecipherable pattern shot. Unless you want a pattern shot, of course.

So, I'll continue in Cartier-Bresson fashion to stick as far as possible to the 3:2 format when composing with 35mm but now I'll pay a bit more attention once I have the negative under the enlarger or in the scanner to see if there's a better crop lurking there.

After writing the foregoing and before I told the CropMeister that he'd be featuring in a post, he sent me an email about cropping that I thought would be instructional. So I've appended his words below. My original photograph comes first and David's suggested crop second. He started by quoting my words from Friday's post when I was dismissive of a few photographs of my own. If you haven't read Friday's post, it would probably be good to do so first.

...not the graphic ones I'd hoped for but it's early days.
And old habits die hard..

Aha, I thought. I think you’re wrong. And you’re right. I think you’re seeing them graphically, but then, as you yourself note, photographing them with “old habits.” I’ve taken a great liberty and cropped some of your shots. it’s a very wicked thing to do. I really don’t want to suggest that my crops are actually better, but only that they’re done with a second pair of eyes – eyes three and four, if you like.

I do have a small advantage, perhaps, in that I have no memory of the original scene. This is meant to encourage you, but if you don’t approve or don’t feel encouraged, I must apologise. A word from you and I shall stop. So, grovelling as much as is consistent with reaching the keyboard, here goes…

Very elegant I thought, but on the left is a bright stripe that competes in both brightness and size with the white pipe. It make the eye scoot left-right-left-right, slithering over the two interesting smaller pipes and their interesting cast shadows. I don’t suggest that this is the best crop, only that it reveals your inner Gibson. I think this is the ‘image' that your mind saw, but as you say, old habits took a more literal “picture”. Maybe, but only maybe, a sliver off top and bottom to conform to 35mm shape.


A nice little rhyme between the sloping lamp-post shadow and the sloping cast shadow on the left, punctuated by the round thingy. I thought that there was far too much information about bricks at the bottom. I also thought that an extra sliver on the right would help to show the other end of that bracket thing. 


The mysteriously phallic landscape. You were actually more interested in the bird, so I’ve given it a bit more emphasis, by cropping. As the symmetry was already broken by the road signs, it seemed that the repeat of the road on the left wasn’t earning its keep in the picture space. Now, I suggest, the important and attention-grabbing bird is balanced by the odd-looking silhouettes of assorted posts and poles.

Perhaps in this version, the right hand cloud is a teeny bit emphatic, or possibly the bright horizon on the left a little reticent. The irregular curve of the road, leading to nowhere seems more interesting like this, too. This “nowhere” holds the attention a little longer, perhaps.


Another image where your pictorial kindness has left too much information in the frame. Again, I can’t suggest that this is the best possible crop but there is interaction between the hard shadow at the bottom and the wispy one a the top. Then it becomes an image about different kinds of verticals. Somehow, I haven’t got it quite right. Either the top or the bottom need a tiny trim and I can’t decide.


I can well understand David's reticence when it comes to cropping other people's photographs as there are some right touchy buggers out there! Lucky for David, I'm not one of them. Haha! I find this sort of exercise makes me think more about my own photography and that can never be a bad thing. As I said to him, the moment we think we know it all, it's time to pack it in.

Friday, December 5

Phallocentric Composition

Sorry for the post title but what else could I call it? These three pics were off the third roll of TMax 400 I shot on the Nikon F100 and I posted them together here because they obviously have a similar look and feel to them. It was only when I saw them one above the other that I immediately thought of Tom Hanks in The DaVinci Code - that part where he illustrates the male phallus by tenting his hands to make a triangular shape.

The composition in these three pics follows that exact phallus symbol quite strikingly. Thinking back, a lot of photographs I take do. The last photograph on this page makes the point most emphatically. So what does that mean? Am I trying to assert my male dominance or am I just a bit of dick? Answers on a postcard. Haha. Seriously, though, photography is a bit like a dream in that it seems to provide a release for sub-conscious feelings and thoughts that find expression in every day life more difficult. How else do we explain how different photographers see subjects differently?

There must be some underlying impression, sensitivity or perception that rises to the surface when we're trying to make sense of a jumbled-up world and rearrange it into a cohesive orderliness within the confines of a camera's viewfinder. Unless, of course, you're using a Leica and can justifiably expect the world to rearrange itself for you.

Enough of this psycho-babble, I hear you cry. And I agree. Let's get on with the usual, down-to-earth stuff. The first pic was another where a kind seagull helped the composition. I find that if I concentrate really hard and focus my brain's alpha waves on a fixed point in space, a bird will inevitably fly onto that spot. Works for me. Of course, you could also use the other approach which involves standing around for so long that a bird is just bound to occupy that area of sky. Whatever gets the job done, I say.

When I was a digital abuser, I would have just taken the shot and copied and pasted a bird onto that spot from my folder of flying critters and you'd have been none the wiser. And they say there's no difference between the merits of digital and film photography (what do you mean I could scan the film in Photoshop and do the same thing? Have you no sense of decency?).


The pic above came after about a 25 minute wait in the car.  I was driving past this stairway on the esplanade in Arbroath and spotted how the tarmac shape at the bottom was like a reflection of the top of the stairs and the handrail. Or a phallus and chalice, as Robert Langdon might have said. The weather was typically drizzly for this time of year and there were very few people out and about but I reckoned that someone would have to put in an appearance at some point.

I sat in the car for ages with the window half open and the F100 resting on it as I waited for a figure or two to walk into shot and provide a bit of scale. What I really wanted was someone with a Big Black Umbrella to walk across the top of the scene rather than coming down the stairs but, on this occasion, my alpha waves failed me. Eventually, just as I was getting fed up, a couple appeared out of nowhere to make the wait sort of worthwhile.

The next rainy day when we have some free time, I'm going to re-shoot this pic and Cath (she doesn't know it yet) will be taking a Big Black Umbrella with her...


The final pic is a little hut next to a pitch and putt course at the waterfront where, in the summer, an attendant doles out golf clubs and balls. I've often thought that it looked quite cute and had a nice symmetry about it but I've never been moved to photograph it. The reflections on the wet tarmac changed things. As with the other shots, it was taken using the 85mm f1.8 AF-D Nikkor which necessitated me standing at the entrance to a car park and keeping a constant watch on the traffic.

As you can probably tell from the pic, the rain was still on and I was getting wetter and wetter - I was waiting for birds again, you see. As I'd driven past, a swarm of small birds had flitted across the sky at the back of the scene and I thought it would be great to capture them in that formation again.

My alpha wave beam intensifier had, by this time, been short-circuited by the damp so I was forced to resort - like an ordinary person - to the waiting game. That didn't last long, though, as there's a big difference between waiting in a warm car and standing in the middle of the road without a coat on. Anyway, it appeared the birds had been scunnered by the weather and rushed back to their nests or perhaps the nearby McDonalds leaving me to cut a somewhat sad, solitary and soggy figure. Not to mention one in danger of being run over by an SUV.

The first couple of shots I took of the hut excluded the kerb at the bottom of the pic as its inclusion spoiled the simple symmetry. But then I thought what's wrong with breaking up the symmetry just a little? And, anyway, I liked the curve of the kerb at the left-hand side.


I had imagined that this roll of TMax might have yielded some of the more graphic shots I'm on the look-out for just now but those that were on it were, I have to confess, failures. They were OK technically but completely lacking in other departments - mainly the ones that matter. Here are a few to give you a flavour:

Nothing there to get excited about. A case of so far, yet so far. However, there was one pic on the roll with subject matter that must rank as the most interesting and compelling I've seen in a long while. Et voila:

So that's the tale of my third roll of TMax 400. The successful shots were the type I usually take and not the graphic ones I'd hoped for but it's early days. And old habits die hard...

Wednesday, December 3

Why I gave up street photography

A Muslim in Paris

A few weeks ago I got an email from a reader wondering why I never did any street photography so I thought I'd write a post explaining my thoughts on the matter. You might not realise it from reading this blog but I was once pretty keen on street photography. You'll see virtually no sign of it on The Online Darkroom because I fell away from it completely around the conjunction of giving up digital, giving up work and giving up holidays. The first two were intentional, the last the unfortunate result of the second.

I've always felt there were two sub-divisions of street photography: the mug-them-with-a-camera-and-flashgun approach and the Cartier-Bresson-et-al version. You might get some insight into my opinion about their relative values from the preceding sentence…


I don't get, don't like and don't see much value in the mugging-style of street photography. Flickr and other such sites are awash with this genre. It basically involves shoving your camera in front of strangers and firing off a few frames. Sometimes you'll catch an odd look of surprise or anger but mostly it's just pics of random strangers doing not a lot in an uninspiring location.

I like to think I fell into the Cartier-Bresson camp - wouldn't we all! - but you're free to disagree with me based on some of the photographs I've posted along with this article, all of which are digital shots (excuse their technical quality: they're small jpegs hauled off various websites).

From what I've seen of current street photographers, the more subtle approach seems to have fallen out of favour, leaving millions of pictures of stunned strangers to represent street photography. That's one of the reasons I find it less interesting now than before but not a reason for me giving it up.

Early morning in the Latin Quarter

In roughly equal measure, I packed it in because of the cost of film, the cost of holidays and legal/societal issues. Despite its long film-based history, I think street photography is possibly better done digitally, at least from a financial viewpoint. Anyone who has tried it knows that the "hit rate" can be disappointingly low. You might shoot off three or four films and have virtually nothing to show for it.

This is something I can no longer afford. Spending a lot of time, effort and £20 on an afternoon's film-based street photography with little return would leave me even more impoverished and still with nothing to write about on the blog!

Trocadero Shadows

Digital cameras, on the other hand, can be quieter than even a Leica and allow you to experiment virtually as much as you like. You could take hundreds and hundreds of pics that same afternoon for free. I'm not suggesting that this is the right approach for street photography but I'd say you're more likely to get some keepers this way than with film.

Holidays were important to me when doing street photography as I always found it easier to snap away in public places as a tourist in a foreign land rather than a day-tripper in Edinburgh or Glasgow. I got most of my best street pics in Paris where no one bats an eyelid at an overweight, bald Scotsman shooting away at anything he fancies.

Now that holidays are off the agenda for financial reasons - at least for a while - I no longer have the same opportunity to practise street photography in a more comfortable environment.

Tribal tattoos

Finally, there's the present society in which I and other photographers unfortunately have to operate where suspicion is everywhere whether it's justified or not and some harassment from the "boys in blue" or their private security equivalents is never far away. Ten years ago I would have been able to nod sweetly at the police, mutter some apologetic words and leave. Nowadays, I'd be telling them to go and bother some real criminals and probably get locked up.

I'm becoming hypersensitive to this sort of authoritarian intrusion into the lives of private citizens going about their business in a perfectly legal fashion. I even had a run-in a while back with a nosey farmer's wife in the country and it didn't even have anything to do with street photography. I'd stopped to take a few landscape pics, standing on a roadside verge, when she appeared behind me and asked if she could "help me". I said "no thanks, I'm fine" at which juncture she just got to the point and asked me in a hostile fashion what I was doing. I raised my camera-totting hand and said "here's a clue".


Well, things sadly went from bad to worse and I ended up telling her to mind her own bloody business. It wasn't one of my finer moments but this tendency today to question things that we've been doing for decades perfectly legitimately really gets me down. If I'm standing in a public place pointing my camera at whatever catches my eye and you want to know what I'm doing then you can just bugger right off.

Anyway, a big brawny farmer's wife is one thing (she'd probably have killed me in a fight) but saying that to a police officer is something else entirely and I don't trust myself now to keep my own counsel even where the state-sanctioned storm troopers are concerned. And this is from someone who had always been a big supporter of the police - the old-style cops. Sorry, but there it is.

I've got your six

So for those reasons, that's why you'll wait a long time before you see anything approaching street photography on this blog, apart from the pics accompanying this post. I wish it were otherwise.

Monday, December 1

Nikon F100 gives me the finger!

Security fence shadow

Here I was hoping to have some graphic-looking shots to share with you when the camera gremlins struck. The Nikon F100 that I picked up in a local auction a few weeks back - and which worked perfectly with the first roll I ran through it - gave me the finger on the second roll.

It was the first roll of TMax 400 that I've used in a long time, something forced upon me by the gloominess of the weather up here in Scotland at this time of year. With the 50 ISO film I'd been using, there were very few shots that were hand-holdable without risking some camera shake. So I went for something faster.

I had thought about doing the whole "Ralph Gibson thang"and getting some Tri-X (Silverprint must have been reading my thoughts because they got my order wrong and sent me Tri-X instead of TMax 400! They very quickly remedied it after I pointed it out so full marks to them) but I don't like too much grain and the TMax was a little cheaper as well which never does anyone any harm. Armed with the latter, I ventured forth with the F100 and a few primes to see if I could spot some nice. contrasty scenes.

Factory roof

The Gibson-style of photography is quite a challenge. Everyone knows what a bonny landscape looks like and, providing the light is fine, your granny could probably make a decent fist of that type of scene with a disposal camera. But those quirky, compositional things? They're both harder to spot and to pull off successfully. They certainly keep me on my toes and I find myself really looking at what's in front of me instead of giving it a casual scan.

The first sign that something was wrong must have come around the sixth frame I'd exposed when I glanced at the frame counter and saw that it had only registered two exposures. Hmmm. I shot off another two and the counter moved up to three. I knew I'd loaded the film properly so was the frame counter just broken or was the film not winding on properly? The problem with the more modern SLRs is that many of them lack the film rewind knob which provides confirmation that the film is winding on.

Anyway, ignoring the whole situation, I went about the business of exposing some more film on Arbroath's esplanade. After about another six or eight shots, the counter had only got up to six. Bugger.  When I got home I went into the darkroom and opened up the back of the camera. Sure enough, the film had been loaded correctly and I could feel in the dark that some of it had indeed been winding on. What to do? I got a pair of scissors, cut off the exposed piece of film, unwound it from the take-up spool and popped it into a developing tank.

The F100 has the usual single shot, continuous, self timer and multiple exposure modes around the dial on the left of the top plate. Sometimes, possibly through lack of use, the contacts that are triggered when you jump between these settings can become a bit dirty and inoperative. Sure enough, the only setting which appeared to be be working was single shot. So I twirled the dial back and forth for a few minutes to see if a little friction would clear up the contacts. When I tried firing the camera again, it seemed to be working fine so I loaded the unexposed part of the TMax roll and went out again for another go.

Thankfully, my twiddling seemed to have done the trick and the remaining frames were fired off without any apparent problems. But the proof of the pudding would be in the scoffing so I got out my bottle of Firstcall film developer that the company sent me to test and developed the roll.

It turned out that all of the shots from the first half of the film were double exposures spread over six frames. This was galling to say the least. One of those photographs involved a lengthy wait for a seagull to fly into just the right position and I was chuffed when an obliging creature eventually conformed to my little compositional plan. Seagulls get a bad press: I love them. Sad to say, there's no sign of my new pal on a negative that must have at least four double exposures on it. Here it is:

The tall, dark shapes are two stone piers and I'd waited until the seagull flew right between them at the right height. All to no avail. The others on the six double-exposed frames were much the same. Occasionally, an unintentional double exposure can produce an interesting pic but not this time. Here are a few of the others:

The second half of the roll was OK, confirming that the camera is working fine again - at least for the time being. My two favourites are at the top of this post, both taken with the 85mm f1.8 AF-D Nikkor lens. It's a fine piece of glass and very sharp from f2.8 onwards.

I'll write about the Firstcall dev in future once I've had a chance to use it a bit more. It must be about the cheapest on the market but early impressions suggest it's very good. It seems to be a compensating developer judging from the way it controlled the highlights on the multiple exposure frames. They've been held well in check despite the accumulated exposure and, after scanning, the highlights were all easily recoverable.

I've since shot another roll of TMax 400 in the F100 and that one appeared to be handled perfectly by the camera so fingers crossed. I'll get it developed in a day or two and might, hopefully, have some of those quirky, graphic shots to show you.

Saturday, November 29

Negative Thinking - Part Two

Read Part One here if you missed it.

By David M.

Part Two (…or “II” in Zone System language.)

We did previously mention that variable contrast paper (or even, cover your sensitive ears: Photoshop) gives us much more control of the print than when the Zone System was devised. Nevertheless, there might be times when we want or need to change the contrast of our negatives. We might be photographing a dim interior with a bright sunlit scene outside, or making images in a fog, or perhaps recording some faint markings or text that we wish to decode. In the bad old days, recording nuclear bomb tests on film presented extreme difficulties with contrast. This is where expansion and contraction prove useful.

After we’ve established an ordinary development time for ordinary pictures we can also establish times to increase or decrease the contrast of a negative. We mean pictures with ordinary contrast, nor boring pictures, of course. We call ordinary development for ordinary contrast N-0, normal, neither plus nor minus.

Extra development increases contrast and, as you might expect, less development reduces it. Changing agitation would do the same thing, as would a change in temperature or dilution, but it seems like good practice to establish a constant and predictable system and alter one variable at a time. There seems to be no absolute reason not to keep a constant time and vary the others, at least for black and white film. Stand development is an example of adjusted agitation. For extreme minus development I’ve used half-strength developer, but that was to keep the overall time longer than five minutes.

There is a small complication in changing development times. Although the darkest parts of the negative are mostly influenced by changes in development, the thinner parts are slightly affected, too. It can look rather like a small change in film speed. I’ve found that for a one-stop adjustment, I can ignore this, but I may have exceptionally low standards. I also tend to give “a bit more for luck” by rounding my exposures down – a bad habit. Other photographers are more rigorous and compensate by adding a half stop exposure (or whatever they prefer) when they know they will use N-1 reduced development – and so on. All this makes good sense, but for the moment we shall ignore it.

If you’ve read anything about zones, you may remember that Zone Nine is not-quite-paper-white – a very pale grey with no detail but visibly different from the whiteness of the paper; Zone Eight is pale grey with a little bit of visible detail and Zone Seven is light grey with proper details visible in the print. An example often given for Zone Seven is snow with side lighting.

Expansion means moving a particular zone up the scale to the next brightest zone. Some people suggest using Zone Eight as the “pivot point” and some suggest Seven, but as you are calibrating your own system and methods, to make your own prints, I don’t think it’s heresy to suggest that you can choose whatever pivot point suits your own preferences. Let’s take Zone Seven as an example.

In essence, this is a repeat of the way we established our own Normal developing time. In the case of expansion, we expose our test film to Zone Six, which is one stop above the meter reading and find what length of development produces a Zone Seven (two stops over) in a test print. We shall have to use some judgement here, as a textured Zone Seven isn’t quite as easy to identify as Just-not-Black and Not-quite-White.

To make this easier, as you already know both your personal exposure index and your normal developing time, you can expose your standard shed or wall to the meter-reading-plus-two-stops – Zone Seven – and then make a print normally under the standard conditions, to establish what Zone Seven actually looks like in a print made on your enlarger. Then you can use this for reference if you care to take the trouble.

For contraction, we expose the film to Zone Eight, three stops more than the meter’s Zone Five and find how much less development is needed to reduce it to Zone Seven.

I think it’s becoming evident that we are beginning to approach the Densitometer Barrier, where fanatical aliens and ravening beasties lurk, so your trusty guide must leave you. You may prefer to consult trustier guides and better photographers.

But just in case you’ve had enough of peering at test strips, here is a crumb of comfort. Most people find that about twenty percent less development gives minus one contraction (N-1) and about forty percent extra time will give plus one expansion (N+1). Never forget that all this palaver is intended to make your life easier. You probably have better things to do.

You may care to read:
Ansel Adams. The Negative.
John Blakemore. John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop.
Fred Picker. The Zone VI Workshop.

Googling the "Zone System" will give you about twenty-four million results.

Thursday, November 27

Negative Thinking - Part One

The quest for a good, repeatable negative and a consequently easier-to-make print continues in the caring hands of contributor David M. This time it's about arriving at an appropriate development time given your own film speed rating and exposure technique. It's quite a complex process but David's lightness of touch makes it eminently readable. Part Two will be published on Saturday.

By David M.

The first thing to mention here is that none of what follows is essential to the making of good photographs. It might help you to make better-looking prints, but a good photograph depends on more than that. Defining “good” is beyond me: there are so many ways for an image to lodge itself in our consciousness and not all of them involve print quality. I suspect that it’s a task beyond any mortal mind. None of this will convert you into an Ansel Adams clone, even if that’s what you want.

Establishing a more suitable film speed number to set on our meter, which we call a Personal Exposure Index (PEI), or learning how to make a Proper Proof, has already given us a simple tool for making tests. In both cases, we established the shortest time it takes to print a black that doesn’t get any blacker, using our own enlarger, in our own darkroom, with our own quirks and foibles.

We have used the enlarger for this because we already have one. We are testing by making prints because our aim is to make the kind of prints we want to see, not to construct liturgically perfect negatives. Perfect negatives will be a great help, of course. If you feel like being more exact, you can acquire a densitometer and follow the One True Path of the Perfect Negative. A few web searches will show that you are not alone – negative testing seems to be a delightful and fulfilling lifetime hobby.

After you’ve established your PEI, you will have lovely shadow detail, but you still might not be entirely happy with your prints. As a result of the extra exposure, your negs will be a little bit denser. There’s another adjustment that we can make.

Aiming higher

The instructions that the developer-maker puts on the box are excellent for most photographers, but you are no longer a “most” photographer: you are now a fastidious one. You might like to adjust the instructions to suit your own way of working.

The most pragmatic and sensible thing to do is to carry on with your normal photographic life and change the development time a bit each time you have some suitable but non-vital film ready to process. If, as happens to many people, your PEI is about one stop slower than the box speed, you might try developing for ten percent less time, and seeing how the highlights come out, then trying twenty percent less, or whatever seems reasonable, until you’re happy. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do, but we can go a bit further. Unless you shoot unusual subjects like birthday cakes in a coalmine or lumps of coal on sunlit ice, this simple, gradual, pragmatic method will work for almost everyone. We can stop here or we can carry on.

You will remember that it’s the darkest part of the negative that produces the highlights and these are the parts most influenced by development. It would be useful to pin down our highlights. These days, many photographers seem to find that using a compensating developer or prolonged development in a very dilute solution gives them an “all-purpose” negative and that they can subsequently control the print by using multigrade paper, and split-grade printing, as well as the usual dodging and burning. These days, multigrade paper makes dodging and burning a very flexible tool. Rigid adherence to Zone System dogma is no longer required, but some familiarity might help. I suggest that the closer we can get to producing a negative that yields a straight print, the better. Creative printing controls are best used for creative ends, rather than adjusting the negative. (Whisper it: some people may even develop their negs for scanning…).

Our method will be similar to establishing our own PEI or making a Proper Proof. As before, it depends on establishing the basic datum point of a minimum exposure that will produce solid black in a print.

Ordinary is good

In this case, it will be a little more woolly and irksome, as you may have to use some aesthetic judgement, but it can be done. The first thing is to establish an ordinary developing time, which will be our Normal time for a normal subject of normal, ordinary contrast. Like all other testing, it will be a little bit tedious.

You will need a suitable subject with some visible and recognisable texture. The side of a shed or a brick wall, perhaps. Set up the camera and focus on the wall.

When we established our PEI – our very own number to set on our very own meter – we looked for the exposure that produced Just-not-Black for a Zone One exposure and you may have guessed by now that we shall be looking at the other end of the scale, for Not-quite-White. It will be a bit more tricky this time, but not impossible. It’s really another kind of bracketing.

We shall need a set of negatives; all exposed the same, using our new film speed setting, to produce Zone Nine – Not-quite-White – in a test print that we shall make under our Just-not-Black print conditions, which we wrote down at the time. (Didn’t we?) We are going to develop all these frames together, but pull parts of the film out at different stages of development. Tricky, but not impossible. Sheet film users will find it easier but more expensive, as always. I should tell you that I’ve only done this with sheet film and never with roll film, so practical hints, tips and warnings will be thin on the ground.

Let’s take a moment to look at what we mean by Zone Nine. It’s a light grey, just a bit down from paper white and it’s where we place the brightest whites in the scene. We save paper white for specular highlights – points of light bright enough to make us squint a bit. These might be direct reflections of the sun on water or polished metal for instance.

While embroiled in the muck and bullets of printing, it’s easy to forget that increasing contrast, to give a little more punch and liveliness to a print doesn’t, and can’t, make the paper base any whiter. Changing contrast simply shares out the available tones of grey in different ways. When we push contrast too far, what happens is that patches of mute, inglorious paper-white spread over more of the picture space. There is no magic dial going all the way up to Number Eleven in the darkroom. Zone Nine is the last outpost of creative control.

Wet and naked

Meter the wall for the exposure that your meter thinks will give a middling grey in the print, using your newly established PEI setting. This would come out as Zone Five in a print. Don’t take a picture, but adjust the camera to give four more stops exposure – which should print as Zone Nine. If you’re using 35mm film, bang off a dozen or so exposures. If it’s 120 film, bang off the whole roll. 35mm users will have to arrange their shooting so that these Zone Nine frames will be the last ones on their reel when they load it. I must leave the details up to you. The fortunate few using sheet film should expose five or six sheets. 10x8 users may prefer to cut up a sheet and tape the bits to the inside of their holders. The bad news is that you really do need a darkroom. That means totally black, not even a safelight. The inside of a changing bag is not really suitable for manipulating liquids. We are going to have wet, naked film waving about in the air. I should have mentioned this earlier.

Set up your normal developing scheme, but with one difference. You will need an open tray of fixer, deep enough to immerse the scraps of film that you will be producing. Sheet film users, the few, can use their normal set-up of successive trays, unless they develop in a tank. If you normally use a stop bath, you might think you need a tray of stop, but fishing scraps of negative in and out of it in the dark seems needlessly tricky and messy. Fixer will stop development very effectively. The carry-over from this small amount of film will not harm your fix. A measuring cylinder full of fix will work just as well, but will be harder to locate in the dark. As you’re messing about with wet things in darkness, you might like to wear an apron. You will need some sharp scissors.

Load the film into your spirals in the usual way, with only one film in the tank for this test. What we shall be doing is opening the tank, lifting out the spiral, pulling out a bit of film and snipping it off, dunking it in our tray or cylinder of fix, then bunging the spiral back in the tank, without our fingers touching the fixer – without touching it at all. We don’t want to contaminate the developer with fix. All this will happen in the dark.

Then we carry on with developing the rest of the film and when the next time comes up, we open, lift, snip, dunk and bung again. This will need some rehearsal and you should practise in the light. Keep your eyes open and look at the ceiling while you rehearse. Closed eyes can look very much like lights out. You may speculate on how I discovered this.

Do you remember when we pointed out that you could simply fiddle with the development of your normal output, bit by bit, until it looks right and is easy to print? You can still turn back.

Otherwise, carry on. Take the time for your film from the instructions on the pack of developer and write it down. Work out the times for ten percent and twenty percent less and ten percent and twenty percent more. If your PEI was rather more than a stop lower than the box speed of the film, work out thirty percent less, too. None of these times should be less than five minutes, as five minutes is generally considered too short to be sure of even development. You might have to think about changing the dilution.

Reading in the dark

You will need a clock that you can read in the dark – another thing that I ought to have mentioned earlier. Most darkrooms have a luminous clock somewhere. A small problem is that you will have to remember all these times in the dark. Some people record a timed track, which is now much easier to do, giving instructions to direct you as you go along. If you use your iPhone for this, you’ll have to shield the lighted screen somehow. If you’re happily married, a spouse can conveniently stand outside the door with a stopwatch and call out directions as you go along. You should rehearse this too, so that the words mean the same thing on both sides of the door, particularly if the spouse is not a photographer. You might like to plan a nice dinner afterwards, while the film is drying.

Set everything up – tank, spiral, fresh developer and the tray or cylinder of fixer in a place that you can locate easily in the dark. Scissors should be placed somewhere convenient where they won’t drip. You will need somewhere to put the lid of the tank and the tank itself while you’re fiddling with the reel. Everything should be at the right temperature. Load the film, remembering that 35mm film must have these special exposures on the outside of the reel.

Put your hands on everything, with the light on, but don’t touch the fix. Perhaps you should wash your hands to be sure. Pour in the developer and start up the clock, recording or spouse. Put the light out. No safelights. This must be in total darkness even though the film is in a tank. Develop with your normal agitation pattern.

When the first, shortest time is coming up, take off the lid, take out the spiral, and snip off (did I mention scissors?) the length of about two frames. Drop the cut-off bits into the fix at the instant when the appropriate time comes up, put the reel back and the lid on and continue until the next time, when you do it all again. You will end up with a bit of film for each percentage, including the time from the box. I think you can probably count one episode of opening and snipping as an inversion. When all is finished, you’ll have to fish out all the cut-off bits from the fix and wash them. Finish developing the rest of the film in your usual way, if there’s anything on it. This part of the film will certainly be overdeveloped, so don’t have anything vital on it. Ideally, there should be something there, to mimic normal conditions.

Downhill all the way

That’s the tricky bit over. I think sheet film users will be able to see how to do all this with sheet film, and how much easier it is for them to take one sheet at a time and transfer it to the next tray, pretty much following their normal ritual. Wash and dry the bits. You will have a set with different densities. Put them in order from least to most development. Keep notes if you are a normally fallible human being.

On another convenient occasion, set up the minimum-exposure-maximum-black configuration on your enlarger, using a normal contrast grade as before. We were previously comparing our test print exposure to a maximum black, but this time we are comparing it to a maximum white. Maximum white is much easier to establish as it’s simply unexposed paper and we know how to do that without any sort of testing. Cut up some test strips. I suggest nice biggish ones of about a quarter of ten-by-eight. We don’t want to be squinting at postage stamps.

Put the first negative in your enlarger. Write on the back of the paper which film strip this is and then cover half the strip securely with the cover touching the paper surface to give a nice clean edge. Give your pre-determined maximum-black exposure to the uncovered part. Put it in a lightproof box. Replace the negative with the next one. Write the details on the back of the next piece of paper and cover it as before. Give it the same exposure and put it in the lightproof box. Carry on until you have a test print for each of your negative strips, all with notes on the back. Because you cut off the bits of film randomly in the dark, you will find the gaps between the frames are visible and print as black, but you can ignore them.

Develop all your strips together in nice fresh developer at the right temperature for at least the recommended time and with constant agitation so that no strip overlaps and masks any other. Fix, wash and dry them. Next day, in decent light, examine them all and decide which one gives you a not-quite-white but very pale grey, distinct from paper white. There may be several candidates and you will have to make a judgement. Turn it over to reveal your own best time for normally developing your film under normal circumstances. In Zone notation, this will be N-0 development. A reasonable person might choose to round off their time to the nearest quarter minute.

All this adding and subtracting Zones and stops while out in the field can be confusing. It’s not made any easier by the fact that the numbers on your meter are intuitively the wrong way round: smaller apertures have bigger numbers and so on. Life will be easier if you can buy, download or make a Zone scale to fix to your meter, preferably with little patches of the appropriate grey next to the numbers. Commercial versions will have the zones marked in Roman numerals. If you’re going read any more about the Zone System, you’ll have to get used to it.

Continued in Part Two on Saturday.