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Monday, December 17

Best fim/dev combo for contrasty low-light?


I've come up with an idea for a new project that might be quite interesting. In a previous post, I published a pic of a tenement close in Dundee - a communal entrance to a late 19th century or early 20th century block of flats. Last weekend, I went walkabout in the West End of the city and had a look at some of these closes and found that many of them would be great for black and white photography.

Monochrome is all about light and shade and that's what characterises these common entrances. They follow a similar pattern: there's a corridor stretching from the front of the building to the rear with stairs heading off towards the back. Often, there's a door leading to the back garden which is usually left unlocked from what I've seen. There's also a window on each stairwell landing looking out over the rear garden.

The walls of the close are normally painted with gloss paint and the actual steps of the stairwells are worn in the middle from decades of use. The end result is a lot of dark, atmospheric shadows, soft bright lighting from the doors and windows and reflections bouncing off the glossy walls. The photographs on this post will give you an idea of the sort of images I'd be looking to get although these were taken a year or two ago on my D700. I quite liked these pics when I took them but it's only now I've thought about expanding them into a project.

On my weekend walkabout I had Agfa APX 100 in the XG2 and hadn't intended shooting indoors. That speed of film was totally inadequate for these dark spaces. I took a few shots just to see how they would look but I was handholding at speeds as low as 1/8th. For one pic, I was pointing the camera vertically upwards using my forehead as a "tripod head", if you can imagine that! I haven't finished the film yet so I don't have anything from it to post.

When I start tackling this subject in a serious fashion I might well use the Rollei SL66E and there will definitely be a tripod on hand. The technical problem will be retaining detail in both shadows and highlights without turning the mid-tones all muddy. Compressed mid-tones are often an unwelcome by-product of the type of compensating development that might normally be used to control the wide contrast ranges involved.


There are several options available, some well-known and two that are a bit esoteric. The common solutions include two-bath development and the use of a compensating developer. I've discussed two-bath on this website before. If you type the words into the search box at the top of the right hand column you'll find several posts relating to it.

Briefly, though, it works like this: Two solutions are made up called A and B. A contains the developing chemicals only along with a preservative and sometimes a restrainer and B the chemicals that, for want of a better description, "start" the development process. The film is placed in Bath A for around three minutes with agitation every minute or so during which time hardly any development actually takes place. With the emulsion soaked with developer, the film is transferred without a stop bath or washing straight into Bath B for the same time. Agitation here should be minimal - just enough to avoid streaking which might mean one or two gentle inversions during the three minutes.

When development gets underway in Bath B the development chemicals soaking the emulsion are exhausted more quickly in the densest parts of the negatives, i.e. the highlights. With minimal agitation, the developer in the dense areas is not refreshed so highlights develop only until the developer is exhausted, automatically limiting their density.

In the shadows, however, where there is less silver to be reduced, the developer isn't exhausted nearly as quickly so development continues for longer to bring out all of the shadow detail. By this combined effect on the shadows and highlights, the contrast of the negative is controlled very well. Time and temperature are fairly unimportant within reasonable limits - a minute here or there or a few degrees one side or the other won't make much difference.

Compensating developers work in a similar fashion. Suitable developers for this technique include Rodinal, ID11, HC110 and Perceptol. They are diluted more than usual to weaken the strength of the developer. The weaker developer exhausts first of all in the densest parts of the negative while development continues in the shadows. It's important not to over-agitate, limiting it to perhaps a couple of gentle inversions each minute.


Both of these methods would work in controlling contrast in the stairwells I'm thinking about. Compensation would probably compress the middle tones more than two-bath and I want to avoid that as prints can otherwise look quite muddy and lacking in sparkle. Some photographers might use a tanning developer such as pyro to control contrast but I've never used them before and I'd rather stick with conventional developers for the time being.

But there is another interesting technique involving ordinary developers which I might try if I can pluck up the courage. This requires exposing for the shadows as usual but before the film is developed it is bleached in highly-dilute potassium ferricyanide. What happens is that the densest highlight areas in the latent image are slightly "cut", effectively reducing their density before development gets underway.

The bleach can be made up of 10 grams of potassium ferricyanide and 3 grams of potassium bromide. This is diluted to make a litre. The film is soaked in bleach at the same temperature as the developer for about three minutes and then the bleach is poured out. After a thorough rinse, the film is developed in the usual way. Two-bath or compensating developers can be used to further control contrast.

It seems a bit drastic but in reality its not as bad as it sounds since its quite tolerant of time and dilutions.  The only problem is that if you screw up then you've lost your negatives. I'm not too worried about that as the stairwells can easily be re-shot and the outdoor light isn't really important.

There is another - possibly even more esoteric - technique that can also be used. Monobath developers are fast-acting developers with a fixer incorporated into them. The idea is that the developer works so quickly that negative density builds up before the fixer can get to work. They were once used where speed was of the essence, such as press work, or where facilities for developing were limited, such as photographers working abroad and needing to wire pics back to their office.

Everything about this technique is good apart from shadow density which can be lacking. However, it can be used with success on films that have already been developed at any time in the past. A bleach is used on the developed negative to completely remove the image and the neg is then thoroughly washed. It's then re-developed in a weak, high-definition developer in ordinary room lighting until you can see that the shadows have built up but before the mid tones have started to develop properly. This stage overcomes the main drawback of monobath developer - the lack of shadow detail. Rinse the negative in water and then put it in the monobath, again in ordinary room lighting, and develop by inspection until the highlights are the way you want them. If you get it wrong, you can re-bleach the negative and start all over again.

At the moment, I want to keep it as simple as possible and am thinking about Fomapan 100 in dilute Perceptol or the two-bath. I used dilute Perceptol with HP5 Plus years ago and loved it. I'll give Fomapan a try, see what the results are like and take it from there.

I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments section below if you have any opinions on controlling contrast in similar lighting conditions to the stairwells, particularly if you've tried either of the more unusual techniques.

10 comments :

David c.h. Brown said...

Very nice tones and composition in these images Bruce. Your postings have kept me interested while I have been completing home renovations. I set up my Bessler 23 Cll enlarger on the weekend, and expect to get out for a ramble and get reacquainted with my Maxxum 9, Minolta XE7, and Mamiya RB67 again soon. Thanks for helping me keep the juices flowing, and Seasons Greetings to you and yours. Dave

Jan Moren said...

ID-11 is basically D-76, right, just pre-diluted? So you're saying we can use D-76 as a stand developer? I'll have to try that!

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Jan,

ID11 is basically the same as D76 and comes in powder form, too. If you dilute either at 1+3 you get a small degree of compensation. Stand development is something else: an extreme form of compensating development. Stand relies on developing agents becoming completely exhausted over a period of 30mins, an hour or more where there is no agitation. D76/ID11 has metol-hydroquinone as the developing agents and these are difficult to exhaust because of their high activity so you do not get the same compensating effect with stand that Rodinal, for example, will give you. I wouldn't use D76/ID11 for stand but don't let me put you off if you want to give it a go. Just remember to let us know how you get on.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Careful Bruce - you're on my doorstep there ';0)
I have found 2 very effective developers for this style of light - Barry Thornton's 2 bath, which is a good all-rounder with most films, and HC110 Dilution G, which is a 'stronger' developer, but can be tweaked quite nicely with agitation and temperature. I've actually used Dil G for a huge range of things now and rather like it. I've recently especially come across what I regard as near Medium Format nirvana - Ilford Pan F at EI 40 in Dil G. Plenty of exposure. Yes the negs will be contrasty, but I actually feel that you get better silvery mids from a more contrasty neg. It is a very fine combination indeed, in fact I would say the nicest I have ever had using my Rollei.
Take care
Phil

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Tell you what, Phil. We'll split Dundee up. You can have the East End. ;-)

I've never tried HC110 but I've noticed from your blog that you really like it. I agree with you about a bit more contrast helping the mid tones. This is the biggest danger with compensating developers. I don't think the prints of the tenement closes would look very good if I captured the extremes and had a load of mush in the middle.

I might just use my DSLR and do some HDR...

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - no thanks . . I'll leave the East End to you, but can I have the City Centre too?
The Pan F/ Dilution G combo is quite incredible. Some of the exposures I was making with it were at twilight on an overcast day, so down to 1 or 2 minutes at times, and I am very chuffed with the results. I am starting to think you seem to get a greater luminosity of greys from a denser negative.
Phil

Doug Howk said...

I've been using divided D23 of late. Ed Buffaloe at UnblinkingEye.com has an article on its usage. At the bottom of the article is a graph of films and times in #A and #B with the variance enabling low to high-contrast results.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I've used it too . . however I feel that for th esort of extreme low contrast light we get over here in Scotland, something with a bit more zip is required!
Phil

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Divided D23 sounds interesting - thanks for that, Doug.

Phil,
How much of the extra zip you're getting from your HC110 dilution G and Pan F is a result of the long exposure times? Is the contrast the same at normal exposure times? As you'll no doubt know, contrast ramps up a bit with long exposures almost regardless of the film/developer combination.

I do a lot of shooting in dreich conditions and my negs can sometimes do with a bit more pop. HC110 and Pan F sounds good, if a bit pricey?

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - Dilution G is Ansel Adam's compensation recommendation. My exposure times for Pan F were based upon guesswork and experience, which actually tied in pretty well with Ilford's own reciprocity tables. Yes the negatives are contrasty, but not overly so, considering the conditions. Acutance and grain are marvellous too.
The thing I like about HC110 is that I can use different dilutions for different films and situations, I just seem to have hit on Dilution G as my panacea!
It works really well as Dilution B (the standard one) with FP4, especially in sheet film, however you have to be consistent and careful.
As for cost, well, yes a litre bottle is expensive, but that £18 I spent 3 years ago is still developing films! I divided it into smaller bottles and as I say, I can notice no difference to when it was new.
P