The Online Darkroom Store

Wednesday, February 26

Analogue Archives: Kevin MacDonnell, film, darkroom, silver gelatin, analogue, analog photography, 35mm, tri x, delta 100, d76, spur, acurol-n, hrx
Keeping it simple: Nikon F and 35mm lens from the '60s, HP5+ and Spur HRX developer.

There's a tendency amongst photographers who were active during the analogue era to assume that anyone coming to film and darkroom work will be able to get a good understanding of the whole process and the materials used through some diligent reading. But is that necessarily so?

As if often the case, it was a comment left by reader, Aaron, on my previous post about Kodak Technical Pan that got me thinking (that's why comments are so important!). Aaron raised quite a few issues that I didn't want to address in a follow-up comment so I'll do so here.

In case you didn't see it, here's what Aaron had to say:

"Very much appreciate you drawing attention to one of the older special emulsions. I can't help but feel a sense of awe at how good film is/was and the rich variation that was on offer not that long ago. It is a shame that our choices have since been reduced-but thankfully not gone entirely!

"You are obviously fluent in the ways of the darkroom and have put your time in playing and trying different variations of time, temperature, developers etc. when it comes to film. How did you learn what was working and then iterate and fine tune? Especially in light of how many millions of variables there are to control for: the type of film, how it was rated, how it was exposed, the developer used, the time/temp/agitation of the development process...and on and on.

"Reading the comments about the method of developing used by Hugh Milsom, I'm always fascinated when I discover an utterly unique method like that. How would he have known that Rodinal, that dilute used for that short a time would work?! It seems so far from generally suggested principles. Does it only work with that film, rated that particular way? Could you do something similar with another film? Any film? Am I missing something?

"Is there a book that captures all the options? Is there just an accumulated wisdom that allows you to know such things and I have to assume is slowly passing away with the years as fewer and fewer people will be truly expert in the area. Sure some of us (myself) dabble but to have the insight and authority over the many of those folks are left?"

First of all, whilst I am "fluent in the darkroom" I'm far from being an expert. There will be readers of this blog who know a lot more than me. So how did we get to know whatever knowledge we've accumulated? During the hey-day of film, there was no internet so information basically came from two sources: books and photography club/members. That knowledge was built up over many years. For anyone new to film and darkroom, all that information and much more is available online so it is indeed possible to gain a considerable depth of knowledge if you're prepared to read and read and read.

With regard to materials and knowing what works with what, that's largely down to trial and error. There's no substitute for trying different films and developers yourself, possibly building on reviews done by other photographers, to gain some empirical knowledge. Keeping copious notes is a must otherwise you'll end up going in circles. It really pays to be methodical and alter just one variable at a time.

Aaron asked about Hugh Milsom's use of dilute Rodinal to tame the contrast of Tech Pan. I'm pretty sure Hugh will have figured this out just by shooting some film and trying different dilutions, fine tuning by altering the dev time in 30 second or even smaller bites. Unless he knew someone who had actually tried it first. Hugh was the first I heard of who was using dilute Rodinal for Tech Pan but I'd be surprised if he was a pioneer. Rodinal can certainly be used at similar dilutions for other films and for stand development of just about anything where there is little to no agitation during the development process. If you do a search on film forums such as FADU, APUG and you'll find lots of stuff.

There are some good books out there that provide a lot of good info if you want to get heavily into different processing technique and materials. I like Eddie Ephraums' Creative Elements. It's a brilliant book for learning about how a photographer chooses his viewpoint, film and developer and brings everything together in the darkroom. Barry Thornton's Elements and Edge of Darkness are also excellent if more conversational.

But here's the thing. Will gaining loads of information actually make you a better photographer? If I had to advise anyone today on the 35mm format I'd ask if they liked shooting handheld or on a tripod. If no tripod, it would be Kodak Tri X. Tripod-based, my choice would be Ilford Delta 100. To start with I'd use Kodak D76 or Ilford ID11 (basically the same formula). Use nothing else for a couple of years until you know the materials inside out and know exactly what to expect. That will teach you more than chopping and changing between films and developers. Once you have this background, then by all means try some others such as Spur's Acurol-N or HRX, HC110 or Rodinal and maybe Tmax and Delta 400. If you lose your way or get fed up then you've got something to fall back on.

And now, at long last, to the title of this post. I was aware that people relatively new to film and darkroom might struggle to get up to speed on the history, culture and materials and wrote about it here. I thought that one good way of showing people what photography used to be like would be to scan favourite articles and columns from 1970s and '80s magazines which are no longer published. So here's another one from my favourite columnist Kevin MacDonnell.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Good stuff again Bruce. I'll agree on the Barry Thornton books - they are marvellous reading.
I can also recommend the Ansel Adams trilogy and the two 'Darkroom' books that were published by Lustrum Press too.
Actually, there's loads of good reading/learning material out there.
Thanks again for a great article.

Paul Glover said...

One problem with the vast array of information available now (without ever getting up off the sofa!) is that it's possible to get stuck in "analysis" and never actually get out and do something.

And sometimes, there's just no substitute for that approach.

I've been playing around recently with developing film in highly dilute Ansco 130 (my *print* developer of choice). I'd seen a handful of posts on APUG related to it, so knew it was possible. But there was little consensus on how, or why, or anything at all. Just a few vague ideas that might serve as starting points. I could have driven myself crazy trying to find out more about the idea, but it was a lot quicker and more satisfying to fill a roll with exposed images (repeats of low and high contrast scenes, over and over), chop the roll up in the darkroom and develop each piece differently.

The result? I now have another process I know I can use, and it only cost me a roll of film, a few ml of developer, an 8x10 for a contact sheet and some time to run the tests.

Also I can continue to fine tune the process as I go along, by adjusting one variable a little at a time.

Neal said...

It also pays to be wary about everything you read!

I held off on doing my own C41 processing at home because the internet forums were rife with people suggesting that it's so hard, because the temps are critical and the chemicals don't' last long, and they are so toxic etc etc.

I eventually jumped into it and found that it couldn't be easier, the temps aren't as critical as people suggest, +or- 1 deg c either way doesn't seem to make too much difference and toxicity isn't so bad as long as you take the proper precautions etc.

I can attribute most of what I've learnt by hearing or reading about things and then going and trying for myself. Or you read how a split development method might work really well for a particular type of film so you decide to test it on another type of film for "fun".

It's this fun that teaches you that it's either more universal than originally thought, or a giant fail. either way you learn and adjust for next time.

Thats what makes photograpy and darkroom so damn fun. the endless array of possibilities.

Aaron said...


Thank-you for featuring my comment in a blog post of it's own although obviously Kevin is the headliner. :)

I might suggest that the internet and the low price of film equipment are to blame and related.

Nothing makes me feel like I'm winning in life like picking up (as I think we all have that enjoy your blog) stunning, cutting edge gear that was out of reach to someone like myself in 1983. I have become a dilettante, rotating bodies and lens at will for pennies. If some variety is good, more is most certainly better and the last 5 years have been bouncing around from film stock to film stock-not wanting to miss anything, perhaps having my lust inflamed by something read online or seeing someone's results using Ultrapan this or Adox Ubersilver that. The thrill of trying something new a-l-l t-h-e t-i-m-e is a high not easily overcome!

This is where the blessing and the curse of the internet comes to roost. I have too much information. I am bombarded with compelling images and articles all day, every day. So much signal, so much noise. Much of the information is certainly well meaning but credible? Possibly. To a novice, easily swayed...well I think we've all been there.

I take to heart your suggestion of one film, one developer for one year. One year!
Who does anything for one year anymore?! :)
I'm sure if I could could scrounge the resolve and make it one camera and one lens I'd arrive at the B&W photographer's Valhalla.

Despite your enviable/unenviable position of being in limbo employment wise (I suggest you present it to others as being rich in time) I'm on the opposite end of a full time job and family of 3 under 6. An avid shooter, I choose Rodinal and HC-110 for their shelf would be a tall order to put in the time to really be self taught with depth in the nuances of black and white film. Not impossible but you can see the attraction of jumping past years of intense, disciplined experimentation to read yours or Barry's insights, and gain access to the magic bullet. There is such a thing isn't there? I think it's the use of Spur Acurol-N (which I cannot find in Canada by the way!)...both you and Erwin Puts say kind things.

Know that I am inspired by your platform here; your words and your images are always a delight and new post to read at lunch a bright light on an overcast Vancouver day. Please keep it rolling. If I can help by buying some Spur product in your new venture I shall certainly try. I look forward to what is to come.

John Carter said...

I enjoyed Kevin's piece about bounce flash, thanks. Keep his out of sourcing stuff coming.