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Monday, July 1

The Unsharp Photo

Here's an antidote for all those in search of ultimate sharpness. I don't think there's anything sharp in the entire pic. It could have been taken on a pre-war Elmar with fungus from another planet.

I took it a few months ago during one of my allotment forays (enter "allotment" in the search bar at the top of the page if you're a masochist) but this was an allotment near The Law (an extinct volcano upon which Dundee sits) and not my usual haunt.

I was on the prowl with my Rollei TLR and saw the sunlight shining through an old hut. The window was a perspex affair and everything was flaring madly. The material outwith the shed is out of focus and the perspex has killed fine detail within. It's worthwhile clicking on the pic and viewing it bigger as the inside of the hut is quite interesting. It was one of those scenes that is difficult to meter: I was outside the hut, shooting through it with light streaming in from the other side. I think I pointed the Rollei at it and opened up two stops.

A quick iPhone shot of the neg with the screen of my Mac
computer used as a light box.

The negative isn't too bad but it wasn't the easiest to print. I haven't got round yet to making up dodging and burning in gadgets and there wasn't any stiff card to hand so I split graded it. I did a test strip across the highlights at grade 0 to get a basic exposure. Then I exposed a strip of paper at that basic exposure and did another test strip over the top of it at grade 5.

The grade 0 test strip to work out a basic exposure
for the window highlights.

This shows the grade 5 test strip over the basic grade 0 exposure.

The idea is that the low contrast exposure puts some tone in the highlights and the grade 5 gives some substance to the blacks. When it came to the actual print, I reduced the grade 0 exposure slightly and increased the grade 5 as I felt the shadows inside the shed still looked a bit muddy. It was made on Ilford Multigrade IV fibre and developed in Spur's Straight Black developer. The result isn't bad but I think it would have been better to have made the print at grade 3 and burned in the highlights. That way some of the tones inside the hut might have shown better separation.

Unfortunately, this was one of those darkroom sessions where little went right. I made a few basic errors such as forgetting to stop the lens down after focusing, forgetting to dial in the contrast filters and hitting the focus button on the timer (which switches the enlarger on indefinitely) instead of hitting the actual timer button to make the exposure. But I'm getting there - slowly...


Nick Jardine said...


This is exactly the kind of image that I usually give up on and manipulate in Photoshop - it's a real dilema but realistically I don't have the time (nor the skill !) for the fiddly handling required under the enlarger.

I find it much easier on the computer, but in no way is it anywhere near as satisfying. The real problem is that if I'm working on a series of shots, often any computer manipulated images tend to stand out.

I know for instance in your image that I would want to manipulate the workbench, the clock, the rosettes in the window and for me, that means on the computer. Just don't have the skill at present to do that under the enlarger.

Mind you, my printing is improving and feeling much more adventurous, mainly thanks to the fine posts here. Keep it up, it's much appreciated.


Hi Nick,

I agree entirely about Photoshop. I can usually get more striking images in Photoshop than under the enlarger as well. So what to do about it? Well, I realised that, even though they might not be as eyecatching, the darkroom images are more honest. Take the clock and workbench. It would be possible in Photoshop to bring out more detail and contrast and possibly make the image more interesting as a result. But that would be introducing detail that wasn't apparent to me when I stood looking at the scene. It would be an artificial enhancement if you like.

You could work on your darkroom skills so that you can produce a print closer to your original vision or you might think about taking a type of photograph that isn't so reliant on darkroom skills for its appeal, i.e. it's more of a straight print.

There comes a time when your're into film and darkroom when you just have to let go of the micro-control that digital gives you. We'll never achieve that degree of manipulation in the darkroom. I'm at the stage where I'm comfortable with the sort of print I'm producing. It might not be quite as striking as a Photoshop image but it's honest and it exists in three dimensions on fibre-based darkroom paper. And that's good enough for me.

Nick Jardine said...

Couldn't agree more with your summary Bruce, I've always tended to stick to the old adage 'less is more' - (probably difficult to believe by my last post).

What I try to appreciate now is the whole journey (you talked about this in a previous post) - taking my time, picking a location, waiting for light etc and most importantly, not releasing the shutter if it's not working.

That gives me less negs, less stress to get so many prints and more time to work on the variances I can achieve with one image. So I'm into the micro-control in the darkroom just now because it's useful to my learning.

I find it easier to say 'No' with film because for me, it's a much more precious medium than digital.

Like many I suppose, my most treasured prints are those I made decades ago when I first started printing - much more so than the digital prints chucked out by my Epson, even though they may not be 'better' images those darkroom prints represent so much more than a final image.

Stephane Rocher said...

Hi Bruce
Very interesting response to Nick's post. The comparison between a striking image created in PS and a honest picture created in the darkroom. I hear often that with using PS one can produce great images much easier and quicker - actually I agree. However, is that what darkroom workers are really looking for - a quick and striking image? The problem with that is that very often elements are added (or even cloned out) which may alter the original mood, feeling or statement. Because picture manipulation in the darkroom is more difficult I think one stays closer to the original feeling of the scene.
Working as a professional photographer I use digital (and LR) on a daily basis and yes, I can alter any aspect of the image easily. But when I'm working in my darkroom this is of no interest to me. Trying to replicate my initial thoughts and feelings onto a piece of FB paper is the aim - I simply don't care if there is a bit here and there out of focus, blocked up in the blacks or hidden in the highlights. To be honest I probably didn't see it in the first place.
Best wishes

PS: Your picture is great as it is - honest.

Paul Glover said...

The thing which has been bothering me about "scan and Photoshop" is the feeling that I'm not engaging in a craft, making handmade things. It's more like making a master copy for mass production. Except I hardly print anything, ever.

So I'm finally taking the plunge into wet printing. It might take a month or two before I'm ready to expose and develop any paper, but plans are well in motion.

Paul Glover said...

The thing which has been bothering me about "scan and Photoshop" is the feeling that I'm not engaging in a craft, making handmade things. It's more like making a master copy for mass production. Except I hardly print anything, ever.

So I'm finally taking the plunge into wet printing. It might take a month or two before I'm ready to expose and develop any paper, but plans are well in motion.

morris1800 said...

Hi guys ,I spend time in the darkroom because I enjoy the wet process and the satisfaction that I have made all the choices in producing that image from loading film into my camera to printing. But what do you want to do with the prints. I am not selling or exhibiting just filing them away . My prints rarely go on my wall unless they are of the grandchildren. So I just end up scanning them and posting on flicker to share my work which I am often disappointed with the resulting scan especially with lith prints and matte papers. So I tend to focus my darkroom work on what can,t be done in photoshop (a real analog look) rather than compete with photoshop on what it does well.

marty said...

Hello, Bruce.
I have to say I like the mood of this photograph, really. It has got something, kind of a vintage look that touches me in some way. I think that ultimate sharpness is not always important, if the picture has a "soul" and this is the case. I find split printing a very useful technique with "difficult" negatives and not only those... If it of some help I too experience sometimes those darkroom sessions in which so little goes right, I thought I was alone to make those hateful silly errors :-)