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Saturday, May 18

Digital Hangover

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that Photoshop, Lightroom and their ilk have a tendency to spoil photographers in so far as their near infinite "post processing" potential can be difficult to replicate in a darkroom print. I was concerned that, unless I got back into darkroom printing in a big way, I might be unable to, ahem, "achieve my creative vision" without Photoshop input.

It prompted a comment (which I thought would be better explored in this post than added to my earlier one) from my local cyber pal, Phil Rogers, to the effect that I was worrying too much and should just enjoy the darkroom printing experience.

That got me thinking (this is going to be a long post so if I were you I'd get the coffee on now!). Before my digital distraction, which lasted for about seven years - the seven year itch? - I'd become a good darkroom printer producing a few prints that were accepted in international exhibitions, whatever that counts for (I also had an inkjet print from an early HP desktop printer accepted and I can literally count the dots in the highlights with the naked eye). In those days my negatives didn't need an awful lot of work, the aim being to produce a print that was a fairly literal translation of the subject matter. I used to produce prints like the two below, both of which were copied quickly for this post using the 28-105mm Nikkor on the D700.

All was fine until I bought Creative Elements by Eddie Ephraums, a book that showed how much moodiness and emotional impact can be added to a scene by better visualisation and enhanced darkroom techniques. I loved the stuff that Eddie produced - even more so when he said that he didn't necessarily wait for the perfect light but relied on his printing skills to deliver the effect he was after. This was right up my street as a young family didn't leave a lot of time for  hanging around in a landscape or getting up early to catch the dawn light.

My prints were then more creative but still relatively straightforward with manipulation usually confined to burning in skies, edge burning, split grading and occasional selenium toning. Below are three that are typical of the kind of subjects I was tackling and the way I was printing. Again, these are D700 copies of the original prints.

Then along came digital to shake up every photographer's world. Almost everything Eddie had spent years perfecting in the darkroom was suddenly available to me. I'm a good self-teacher and became quite proficient in the use of Photoshop being able to do just about anything I could visualise. My photography changed pretty dramatically with the initial raw file normally bearing very little relation to the completed photograph. The best way to illustrate this is with a few examples I have to hand:

Amongst other things I blurred the background, darkened the sky and lightened the ground behind the gate to make it stand out more. 

The biggest change here isn't the most obvious: I chopped a bit out of the frame to bring the tree closer to the ruin to achieve more of a connection between the two with the left hand branch reaching over to touch the gable wall.

As in the shot above, there's a bit of the Seine excised between the prow of the boat and the bridge to reinforce the feeling of sailing right into the Ile de La Cite. The boat was also stretched laterally so that it emerged from the bottom corners of the frame.

To be honest, straightforward, literal, black and white conversions of these raw files would have been dull. The creativity is in the post-processing but you have to be able to see the potential in the shot at the taking stage and know how to get there. Eddie Ephraums (it's a very interesting website - please visit) was able to do much of this in the darkroom. I'd struggle to achieve that. Below are a couple of Eddie's shots showing his ability to transform the mood of a scene (apologies for the quality of these reproductions: they're copied from Creative Elements and the surface has a sheen that kept picking up the light when I was photographing them. The before and after negatives aren't identical but very similar):

Possibly my favourite photographer today is Bill Schwab who, like Eddie, has quite a dramatic style that really gets to the heart of a scene in the way a straight print could seldom do. He's a film user/darkroom printer, too, and produces photographs I can only aspire to. Here are a few:

My favourite Bill Schwab photo.

So there's a little bit of background about how I finally arrived at the type of photograph I like to take - moody, atmospheric vignettes rather than sweeping vistas, portraits or people shots. Photographs that almost demand a lot of manipulation whether it's in Photoshop or the darkroom. And that's the problem: digital has enabled me to pursue visualisations that I might not be able to achieve at the enlarger. Since returning to the darkroom on the few occasions I've managed to do some printing I've found that it's a damn sight harder to do what I'd like to do.

That's where Phil came in. He saw my brief mention of this potential problem in the earlier post and said, "I think you might be worrying a little too much about darkroom work. At the end of the day a silver print is something YOU have spent time and effort on. It isn't a result of some programmer's parameters, it isn't generic, it is yours with all its faults and hopefully good bits.

"Yes printing by hand is a very big learning process and one is always learning, but at least you now have a darkroom to practise in - all you have to lose is the money you spend on paper. And remember at the end of the day, you'll have a (hopefully) gorgeous, tone-full print, that (when you pop your clogs) someone can look at, go, "gosh wasn't he good at that" . . and then chuck it in the skip!"

Phil likes the photographs I produce in Photoshop from scans but finds it easier to make a silver print but that's probably down to the fact that he is able to take photographs that don't require a lot of manipulation.

A Different Type of Hybrid
By my reckoning, I have three solutions to my dilemma. The first is to get back into the darkroom in a serious way and, by dint of hard graft, learn to produce the look I like. That would be my first choice. It's the purest form of photography for me and would give me the greatest satisfaction. It's also the most difficult option.

Or I could change my style to suit the darkroom process by taking photographs that don't need as much mucking about to reach the end product. I do take some pics that are like that but they tend to come from walkabouts or when shooting indoors with a fast film. When I get out the heavy gear and tripod and drive into the countryside, I'm normally looking for the moody, hard-to-print stuff.

Finally, I could cheat whilst still remaining true, in a slightly different, hybrid way, to film and the darkroom. This would involve the use of a filmwriter, a machine that displays digital images on a screen within a light-tight box but which has a camera or film back looking down on it by which means the screen display is captured on film.

Now, as luck would have it, I actually have one of these things. It cost £37,000 in 1995 and is a very high quality bit of kit. You'll be relieved to know that I paid a tiny fraction of that price - really tiny - for it a few years back but never really got to grips with it. It's not the most user-friendly device and the learning curve is steep. I've had some decent results from it in the past but haven't persevered long enough to fine tune the set-up.

A quick iPhone shot of the filmwriter - the
clown is a leftover from Freya's bedroom
when she moved into my old darkroom.
It adds a nice, surreal touch.
In essence, a big digital file is uploaded to the machine's built-in computer via an ethernet cable and the image is then displayed on a small but incredibly high resolution flat CRT screen. My machine can take negatives from 35mm through 6x7 to 5x4 and 10x8. For the two larger sizes you need REALLY big files to make it worthwhile: either high resolution scans from large format negs or a composite of half-a-dozen digital files.

Once the camera or film back has captured the image on the screen, the film is developed in the normal way and should, at least in theory, produce a negative that prints straight in the darkroom with a result that looks just like it did on your monitor. Well, in theory there should be no difference between theory and practice but in practise there often is. My biggest problem was a slight softness in the negs which, it turned out after much head-scratching, was the result of a heavy layer of dust sitting atop the dichroic filters necessary when producing colour negs or slides. Since I was doing black and white, I just removed them.

That improved the sharpness no end but I find I'm still losing some shadow detail. If I can crack that nut then I might be tempted to go down the filmwriter road, photographing either on film or digitally, transferring the image to a negative via the filmwriter, developing the film and then printing in the darkroom. Of course, not every negative would need this treatment. For a lot of simpler subjects, it would be easy enough just to do a print directly from the original negative.

That really is the best of all worlds in some respects for a photographer like me. You have the ability to use Photoshop to get the scan or raw file looking exactly as you'd like it and, with all that difficult manipulation out of the way, produce a print on what I still consider to be the best medium - a fibre-based, silver gelatin darkroom print. I've often thought that the more common hybrid route of shooting film, scanning it and printing digitally gets things the wrong way round and doesn't make best use of the strengths of the materials and processes.

But I'm probably getting slightly ahead of myself, as I usually do. The darkroom is finished and will shortly be in fully usable condition. Once I've got back into the swing of things and feel comfortable again I'll see if I'm able to produce the kind of prints I like and take it from there. In the meantime, though, I'm going to give some attention to the filmwriter to see if I can get it to fulfil its promise. I'd imagine that, if it results in the ability to do a high quality, straight darkroom print of a very complicated scene, it would be well worth the effort. I'll keep you posted.


Jeff Damron said...

An excellent essay. You mention some of my favorites here with Eddie Ephraums and Bill Schwab. Though I'm still shooting digital and the enlarger is presently sitting in my son's bedroom floor, I will forever remain more impressed, at the end of the day, with a darkroom print than a digital one.

Vincent Brady said...

Thank you for your essay which I find myself in agreement with, especially as regards scanning negatives and then trying to match the result in the darkroom. With little or no skills in Paintshop Pro I found that I could get terrific results just by scanning my negatives. The problem arose when I tried to repeat those results in my darkroom. The darkroom demanded much more work on my part even to come close to the scanned result.
I have come to the conclusion that digital and analogue are really very distant cousins to each other and that scans of negatives are no true reflection of a person's skill in the darkroom. For this reason I am inclined to post only scans of prints in various sites nowadays.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce - you don't need any of that stuff - your darkroom prints are great!
One thing I can really recommend (if you don't have it already) is a good read through John Blakemore's Black And White Photography Workshop book. I would say that anyone who wants to improve their printing skills should read it.
Honest - he gets your brain moving in lots of ways all at once, but especially in the exploration of tonality.
It isn't a 'do this, do that' sort of book, it is more of a 'well, maybe you should try walking along this path' book if you know what I mean.
Just get back in to your darkroom, take a negative you like and spend a nice afternoon printing it in different ways.
It is heaven.
Remember Walter Hagen's quote:
"Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way."
Good luck friend - printing is like riding a bike - you never forget how to do it.

twelvesmallsquares said...

quite coincidentally i picked up creative elements in a used bookstore a few weeks ago. hadnt know about ephraums until i read it. what a read!!! ive already shot a roll of film and im hoping to try out some moody shots.



It's not my past prints I'm worried about: it's those yet to come! Thanks for the info about Blakemore's book. Maybe it's something like that I need right enough.

morris1800 said...

Its your hobby Bruce go for whatever gives you the maximum amount of pleasure. My second hobby is cooking I still enjoy a meal in a restaurant or a good quality takeaway but get most pleasure from cooking a meal from scratch where I chose the recipe, select the source of ingredients and cook it all myself. ... My dilemma at the moment is my 5x4 negs. My enlarger only covers medium format . I make contact prints ( lith or straight) and some I would like to enlarge and wall mount. Should I wait until I find a cheap local 5x4 enlarger for sale or have the scanned image of the print enlarged commercially ..something I am uncomfortable with but should I be!


Get a 5x4 enlarger! I was just looking at one of my two 5x4 negs under the enlarger and the detail is amazing. Enlargers come up now and again on FADU - worth keeping an eye out or maybe advertising under the wanted forum.

Alan Jarvis said...

In your article on getting a good negative you mention mixing your own developer. Can you recommend where in the UK you can get the chemicals you list.


Hi Alan,

Here's the place where I get mine and lots of other materials as welll:

Herman Sheephouse said...

Yep - Bruce beat me to it - Silverprint!


It's not often I beat anyone to anything.

Alan Jarvis said...

Thanks guys! However Bruce's recipe lists 'Sodium Metaborate' but Silverprint don't stock that, Sodium Tetaborate is the closest they seem to have. Is that the same or does it have another name?

Herman Sheephouse said...

Sodium Tetraborate is Borax, so not exactly the same.
You can make a solution by adding Sodium Hydroxide to Borax:

I wonder why they aren't stocking it any more . . .why not give them a ring.