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Thursday, March 21

Fine negs produce fine prints...

It was the late Barry Thornton who always used to bang on about the importance of getting a fine negative if you want to make a fine print. By that he meant a negative with good sharpness, subtle tonality and fine grain. So what's the opposite of what Barry had in mind? They're here in this post.

I don't take any pleasure in posting these photographs but I promised myself when I started The Online Darkroom that I'd show my failures as well as my successes. And the negs from which I produced these images are as poor as any I've produced in the past. So much for experience!

That I've managed to get some decent results from them is more down to the magic of Photoshop and Silver Efex Pro than anything else. They'd be a nightmare to print in the darkroom. The problem, I think, stemmed from exhausted or just plain knackered Rodinal. I've had one of the tiny bottles of the stuff for a year or so which is no great age at all where this developer is concerned. As Phil (of Herman Sheephouse fame) was quick to remind me, they dug a bottle of the stuff out of a WW2 German ruin and it was still OK decades later.

However, I've had 15mls of Rodinal sitting in this small plastic bottle for ages and it was starting to crystallise. It was like shaking a bottle with broken glass in the bottom as I was preparing to mix it up prior to developing a couple of rolls of TMax 100 which I'd shot on the Rollei SL66E. I had an unopened packet of D76 in the darkroom and dry chemicals that I could have used to mix up a fresh batch of Barry Thornton's two-bath brew. But laziness got the better of me. Rodinal? Well it's got to be OK, hasn't it? Doesn't matter how old it is! I won't make that mistake again...

I was distracted during the development process by family members coming and going in the kitchen and wanting to strike up a conversation but that's not an excuse. I don't think I did anything wrong and yet the negatives are as flat as a really, really low contrast thing. It's as if they've suffered extreme compensation: there's plenty of shadow detail but the highlights are about where zone five would normally be. There's little texture to be found within the highlights as well which is a great pity as most of the photographs have a lot of snow in them.

It was my first outing for quite a few weeks and it was the snow I wanted to capture so my failure is doubly annoying. I really like the photograph at the top of this post which was taken with the 250mm Sonnar. The lighting was dull and flat and there was a lot of fine snow blowing in a stiff breeze. I stood on the sill of the car to get a bit of height and rested the camera on the door frame.

I was shooting just about wide open with a lowish shutter speed - probably around 1/60th. Yesterday I decided I would go back and reshoot it but when I got there all the snow had melted! Bugger. So instead of getting a good shot with the prospect of developing the film properly, I quickly found myself in McDonald's car park drowning my sorrows in a large coffee having taken not a single shot.

The rest of the negatives are pretty hopeless as well. They emerge from the scanner really grainy although TMax 100 is normally as fine-grained as anything, even in Rodinal. Despite that, I also quite like the shot above, warts and all. It has the look of a paper negative with quite a lot of contrast and texture, courtesy of Silver Efex Pro. The stripey foreground is the corrugated roof of a dilapidated shed. I had to frame this one carefully with the 40mm Distagon on the camera to get the trunk of the tree "emerging" from the cut-away section of roof.

The bottom two shots were already on the film I had in the camera when I set off on my outing. They were taken towards the end of the year. The lighting conditions were more contrasty than in the snow shots so they haven't suffered quite as badly from the botched processing.

So there you have it. You let your guard drop for a minute in this game, regardless of  how long you've been taking pictures, and you run risk of a cock-up of sizeable proportions. Let that be a warning to you all!


Paul Glover said...

It catches up with us all eventually. I, too, thought I was doing well, maybe 50 rolls in on developing B&W at home with no significant problems (I'll ignore the uneven development I had with some of my tries at stand development, I knew the risks associated with that).

I had bought into the accepted wisdom that Rodinal concentrate is effectively immortal and had also reached near the bottom of a bottle of the stuff. Lots of crystals forming, and all that.

In my case, the roll of FP4+ I developed came out very thin, to the point where it took a moment for me to realize there was anything at all on it. There was nothing usable on that roll. I knew I hadn't mixed up steps and fixed before developing, because there *was* something there. I knew it was a development problem and not exposure trouble because the film edge markings were also very faint. I'm careful about measuring out the chemicals, I'm careful about measuring the temperature, I time development properly and I wasn't distracted at all, so I can't see any way in which I could have underdeveloped so severely in error.

Which leaves developer failure or film failure. Since it's Ilford film and all the other rolls of FP4+ I bought at the same time were stored the same way and worked just fine, I can reasonably rule out the film as the problem.

So I guess even Rodinal, if exposed to enough air in the bottle for long enough, will go bad.

At least you were able to get some nice images out of the negatives! My failed roll of film is now being used as bookmarks!


Hi Paul,

I think the fact that we had both almost finished the bottle is significant. In my case, it was one of the 125ml plastic bottles. The 15ml remaining just about covered the bottom of the bottle. If you look at the surface area exposed to air compared with the volume of liquid remaining, that was a very large percentage of developer at risk of oxidising, or whatever happened to it. It definitely wouldn't stop me using Rodinal. Bad storage is hardly the developer's fault!

Herman Sheephouse said...

Lads - my bottle is over roughly 10 years old, and has been half-full for about 6 . . and not stored in any special conditions, just cool and dark . . it still developed ok . . .
Very strange indeed.


Paraphasing George Galloway, we, who suffer from P.R.E. (premature Rodinal exhaustion) salute your Rodinal's indefatigability!

Paul Glover said...

In my case it's the last dregs of it in the bottom of a 500ml bottle, sounds like that's similar to Bruce's situation. I didn't see the crystallization start until I had the bottle mostly empty. That might be the important detail perhaps?