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Friday, December 13

5x4? It's an addiction...

nhc, contrast, speed graphic, 127mm, ektar, 5x4, 4x5, large format, ilford, multigrade, spur, straight black, analog, analogue, photography, darkroom, print, enlarging, enlarger
Multigrade IV RC developed in Spur's Straight Black paper developer.
Warm tone courtesy of Lightroom.

I'm having a ball with the Speed Graphic. There are so many good things about 5x4 it's difficult to know where to start. I've not really done any "serious" photography with it yet (whatever that might be) as I'm still at the learning stage but just mucking about with it is great fun.

Having read quite a lot on some large format forums about the LF process, I was expecting it to be a steep learning curve. The idea of composing a photograph upside down (the image, not me) seemed daunting. I know I've only shot half a dozen sheets but composition hasn't been a problem at all. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that my personal view of the world has been turned upside down through research I've been doing into, well, the way the world really works as opposed to the way it's presented in the Daily Mail or The Guardian.

Whatever, I can see scenes upside down and framing the photograph seems to come naturally to me. That's a big bonus as I'd imagine that might be a stumbling block for some people. Then there's the actual qualities of the 5x4 negative in terms of sharpness, grain and tonality. All three are just outstanding and that's using a quite badly scratched Ektar from the 1950s. Its biggest problem is a tendency to flare but that aside, the results are brilliant.

Take the photo above. I took it last weekend at the allotments I sometimes frequent. The plan had been to shoot the 1950s (I think. If so, they're from the same decade as the camera) cigarette signs head on but the 127mm Ektar, roughly the same as a 40mm lens on the 35mm format, wasn't wide enough. My back was up against a gate leading to one of the allotment plots. Had it been open, I'd have nipped in and set the tripod up there but it was locked and I thought I'd look a bit suspicious climbing over a fence with a big camera on a tripod.

So the camera was set up to one side with the only consideration how far back to go. The light and texture in the adjacent greenhouse was lovely and I wanted some of that in the shot. I could have moved in and excluded the gate on the left but the sign on it says Plot 55 and it provides a bit of context so it stayed in. I've taken a pic of the signs before on 35mm but couldn't get enough snap in them when making a print. The Woodbine sign is actually yellow and it came out a shade too dark on my 35mm negs. It would have been a good idea to have taken a yellow filter with me to lighten it but I forgot. Well, that's not entirely true. I had a yellow filter in my bag as it turned out but didn't realise it at the time! Instead, I took a meter reading from it and placed it on zone 7 with the intention of giving the negative an N+1 development to raise it to zone 8.

Thinking about it now, I'm not too sure why I chose to do that. I didn't need a strong sky as I quite fancied leaving it almost blank white so overexposing it was not a problem. I could have placed the sign on zone 8 and developed normally instead of approaching it the way I did. Anyway, whatever my reasoning was at the time, that's what it got. The lettering on the signs made it easy to focus and the exposure on Tmax 100 was 1/2s at f22.

Another great thing about 4x5 is that I take far fewer photographs. On this day, I had one DDS with two sheets of film and only used one. I can't imagine ever going out with a 35mm camera with only two exposures left on the roll unless I had at least another roll in my pocket. Would you? I looked at a few other possible pics with the Speed Graphic but having just two exposures available really concentrates the mind. There was nothing that I felt I would want to print so I didn't bother. This really makes filing easy. :)

Anyway, it was time to develop the sheet in a tray using brush agitation. I had in mind that I'd use D76 1+1 but I'd none left made up. There are two packets of D76 in a cupboard in my darkroom and it would have been easy enough to mix some but there were a couple of other options in Spur's Acurol and the contrast-increasing NHC. If you read my previous post about Firstcall 400S, you'll see that I'm going to try developing it in NHC (it stands for "negative high contrast") but here was a chance to see how 5x4 Tmax 100 would emerge. I ruled out Acurol as it needed a development time of 31 minutes at 1+100 for Tmax 100 and I didn't fancy spending that length of time standing around in the dark.

Spur's NHC information for Tmax 100 gives times of 8, 10 and 12 minutes for EIs of 80, 100 and 125 ISO which would result in N+1, N+2 and N+2.5 development (at 1+15) respectively. I'd rated the film at 100 ISO but didn't fancy N+2 so went with 8 minutes. Brush agitation again gave perfectly even development. The sky emerged quite blocked up but the rest of the negative was fine. If I hold the negative up to a light, I can see some texture in the sky but it's very dense. Making the print above was straight forward enough with the sky needing an extra two stops under the enlarger. I was going to print the sky much lighter but had a change of heart. NHC could be the answer to my dull day photography problems as it certainly packs a wallop but doesn't seem to increase grain by much. I won't know for sure, though, until I try it with 35mm.

The scan above is a big one so please click on it to get an idea of the sharpness, grain and tonality. All LF photographers know this but there are some 5x4 pics that just work so much better than if they'd been shot in 35mm (the converse is obviously true as well). Sometimes an abundance of detail and great tonality are enough for an interesting photograph. I used to think a photograph was a photograph but now I realise there are LF photographs and there are 35mm/120 photographs. Not necessarily better, but definitely different.


Jan Moren said...

Actually, this is one point where 120 fits really well for me: I am perfectly comfortable with bringing a single 10-shot roll of 120 on a whole-day outing, and two rolls in total on a week-long trip.

And I've noticed that I consistently end up with about the same number of pictures I'm happy with, as I do with the digital camera filled with well over a hundred shots from the same journey.


Like you, Jan, I think we all take too many pics, especially digital photographers. I'd be happy if I could make two cracking prints each month. A couple of dozen a year is plenty. Of course, I'd need to take more than that to get two crackers but at least shooting at that rate is manageable.

morris1800 said...

Hi Bruce glad to see you are enjoying the 5x4 experience . I use a toyo monorail and while I was ok with composing an upside down image I hated using a dark cloth especially if there was any sort of breeze. I opted for a viewing hood which eliminated stray light and gave some magnification of the whole screen and I was a happy bunny. The most useful item I carry when venturing out with the 5x4 is my leica auxiliary multi-finder which is guide to possible composition without having to unpack my monorail from my backpack.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Great image Bruce and you are spot on. Some pictures suit 5x4 and others don't. It is a thorny problem for me and I still don't think I have got to the bottom of it. . .
Really pleased to see the TMX is being put to good use!