|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 process...how 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 photo.net 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.