The Online Darkroom Store

Sunday, June 23


This is an old holiday snap of the picturesque North Yorkshire town I took on the Rolleiflex 2.8F about 15 years ago which I've never printed until now. I've been looking through old negs and I liked the composition of this one and the crispness of the image details. It looked a bit tricky to print, though, with quite dark buildings set against a bright sky. But I fancied a wee challenge so popped it in the Durst's neg carrier to have a look.

The first thing that struck me was the sharpness. Of all the cameras I've had, it's always the Rollei's Planar lens that has proved the sharpest. It's a combination of the quality of the Zeiss optics, the lack of a mirror and the way the TLR is held - pulling down on a taut neck strap with the camera solidly set against the chest. It's almost like having a tripod to hand.

The film was Tri X but I can't recall the exposure details, probably something like 1/250th at f11 judging by the depth of field. On the easel, I could see that I'd need a wavy-shaped card for burning in the sky and probably a card with a small hole in it for burning in a bright patch of sky to the left of the light-coloured (mid-grey on the neg) house in the centre just above the main boat. That small bright spot would be missed when the sky was being burned in.

Although the negative looks quite contrasty I knew that I'd need a relatively hard paper grade otherwise the buildings on the left in shadow would appear muddy in the print. A contrasty grade helps to separate tones that would otherwise tend to mush together. Of course, the hard grade would also make it harder to burn in the sky without leaving a tell-tale halo just above the skyline. The sky was also a little uneven with the left half quite bright and the right half quite a bit darker. That would need to be balanced up. The water at the bottom right looked OK, though, as it was mainly reflecting the dark cloud.

I've yet to get round to making some "proper" burning and dodging tools so I had a hunt around the house for something and thought about a bit of cardboard, which proved ideal. The corrugations meant it was easy to form it into any wavy shape I needed and this could be subtly fitted to the burning requirements by changing the angle at which it was held during the process. In the pic immediately above, the card is just held in my left hand - the right was holding my Nikon D700 - and it was a better fit to the skyline when both hands were manipulating it.

By the way, I think I now get what digital cameras are all about. They were invented to take pictures of darkrooms for posts like this one. The D700 was set at 6,400 ISO which gave me a hand-holdable speed with an f2 lens. Try doing that with colour print film!

My first stab at a test strip was made on Ilford Multigrade FB at grade 3. It was too dark to be useful (apart from giving me a clue as to how much burning in would be required on the sky) so I used the lightest strip as the basis for the second test strip. From that, I picked the 3rd strip from the right, exposed a piece of paper for that time and then did a test strip over the top of that using grade 00 to get a time for the sky. When it comes to burning in, the softer grades, affecting mainly the higher tones, leave less of a halo and are less likely to darken the tops of whatever juts into the sky.

Too dark!

Third strip from the right.

That gave me exposure times for the foreground at grade 3 and the sky at grade 00. The resultant print is below. You'll notice I forgot to balance the two halves of the sky so I did another, burning in the left hand side and dodging the right hand, darker patch of sky for part of the exposure.

Technically, the print was OK with a good black, a couple of white highlights and tones everywhere but aesthetically it didn't do much for me. The problem was that if I printed the shadowed buildings light enough to show some extra detail there wasn't a great black there and if I printed them to get a good black then their overall tone was too dark. That could only mean one thing - I needed a harder grade to further separate the tones in the shadowed parts of the print. Rather than go up the grades a half step at a time, I dialled in grade 5 to see what sort of result I'd get. It was a big improvement but was just too contrasty so grade 4.5 it was.

Grade 5 test strip.
Grade 00 test strip over grade 4.5 exposure

The idea was to do a little split grade with grade 4.5 giving some robust tones in the shadows and 00 providing a little substance to the highlights. The process was similar to the start: a test strip at grade 4.5 to get a basic exposure and a print exposed for that time with a grade 00 test strip over the top. The result of that routine is in the small print below. There's a little more bite in the shadows and the lighter tones are just that bit brighter than in the grade 3 print. Finally, I popped another sheet of paper in the easel and exposed the last print, burning in the sky and the bright patch in between the buildings on the skyline.

The penultimate print.

Final print. 1940s brown tone courtesy of Lightroom.

I like the end result although it's not a picture to set the world on fire. My early photography education was gained from reading old books from the 1930s-1950s - long before I was born, I might add - and my pic is typical of the images that used to appear in those volumes. In fact, many of the illustrations in the books could be broken down into street/village scenes taken on a TLR or Alpine snow scenes shot with a Leica. I've always had a fondness for what, I suppose, are quite corny views, and this is my contribution to that canon.


Kyle S. said...

Fantastic! I love the richness in the sky that you where able to extract.

Mike said...

Thanks for the step by step instruction,Bruce, it's been quite some time since I was in a darkroom so this brought it all back. Nice photograph too!

morris1800 said...

That's a great print Bruce and the composition sits so well in the square format. I am a bit obsessed with sepia finish at the moment , that scene would look great given a strong sepia tone for the Victorian look.....

Stephane Rocher said...

Thanks Bruce for your fantastic photography blog - in a matter of minutes I've become a big fan of your blog.

I love what you have managed to get out of your negative. I too often give up on a negative if I can't get a good result. This is not so much to do with the negative but with my lack of patience. Following your precise steps shows that with a bit of thought and patience one can work towards a great looking print (even if the subject isn't worthy for an art gallery - having said that I think your photo is great).

One question, did you use a soft grade to burn in the sky in your final print?

Please keep your blog going.
All the best


Thank you Stephane. Printing is a craft and benefits from perseverance. It's sometimes a good idea to get a negative you like and stick with it until you've got exactly the print you want regardless of how many sheets of paper you use. You can often learn more from that exercise than switching from one neg to another.

The sky on this particular photograph was burned in at grade oo.