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Wednesday, August 20

Large Format: Tenement Stairwells

Here's an embarrassing confession to kick this post off: I exposed these sheets of 5x4 on January 2 and just developed them on Monday. In fact, I wrote about the process of taking these photographs in this post here on January 3. They've been sitting in their dark slides wrapped in a black plastic print bag all that time. What can I say? Not a lot really. Sometimes I have so much inertia that I can give the immovable object a run for its money.

You might remember (the post above explains the problem) that the scene inside these tenement closes was so dark and gloomy that I couldn't see much of anything through the ground glass of the Speed Graphic so had to resort to using my iPhone as a sort of remote viewing screen, holding it ahead of the lens and photographing what was in front. Some readers contributed possible solutions to this problem at the end of the earlier post - thanks for that - and I might have to look at them again if I want to do more of this sort of thing.

They're Tmax 100 negatives exposed at 50 ISO and developed in Spur HRX. I had my first go with a new sheet film developing process which involved the use of a 10x8 developing tray divided equally in four by rawl plugs glued to the bottom. Two other, unmolested 10x8 trays contained the stop bath and fixer. The chemicals were all poured in at the start with the lights on and the film was placed in each of the four wells in quick succession before the timer was started.

The plan had been to use a turkey baster - bought specially for the role at a cost of 99p -  to tickle the surface of the negatives for agitation. I've used a soft-haired artist's brush successfully in the past when developing one sheet at a time in a small tray. I thought the baster, with it's rubbery "bristles" would be easier to clean and, therefore, less likely to retain dust or grit.

Not exactly the most macho statement, is it?

Unfortunately, brush agitation is not half as easy or straightforward when you're trying to do four negs one after the other in the dark so, after a minute or so of "basting", I ditched that idea and just rocked the trays as normal. The idea of brush agitation is to avoid the uneven development that can occur in a tray when it's rocked - the edges of the negatives sometimes emerging slightly denser because of the increased agitation effect of the solution bouncing off the sides of the tray. My tray-rocked negs were perfectly even. Whatever.

I also started the process wearing latex gloves as I sometimes get a skin reaction from the developer and 5x4 needs a more hands on approach than smaller formats. Well, after several abortive attempts to lift the first sheet from the developer, the gloves went the way of the baster and bare digits were thrust beneath the surface instead.

So, all-in-all, it was a right bloody palaver and I wish I'd listened to Phil Rogers who has told me often enough in the past to just use trays as normal. He did very well to resist a "told you so" although he'd have been quite justified. He's too well-mannered, is Phil.

My 5x4 output is not exactly prolific. In all, I've shot a total of about ten sheets since I got the Speed Graphic just over a year ago. So I've been content to process them a sheet at a time in a 5x7 ceramic tray. If I were to start using more film then I'd be reluctant to spend so much time in the dark processing one sheet after another like that. I'd hoped that the four-sheets-in-a-tray approach might be the answer but I'd have to say after the first attempt that it isn't.

The Mk27 - no less - version of the Mod 54.
What's likely to replace it then? Until now, I've been reluctant to spend almost £45 on a Mod 54 which can hold six sheets in a three-reel (I think) Paterson tank but I think that would be the answer if the Speed Graphic were to get more regular outings. It seems a reliable method and can be done with the lights on. Importantly, it also makes it easy to efficiently wash six sheets at a time when trying to do the same thing in a tray with a water hose can lead to difficulties with sheets tending to come together.

Reader and correspondent David M has some very good things to say on the subject of large format processing and I'm hoping he'll provide some advice (he's already contributed an article here and I've got another one or two to add) in the comments. Nasir Hamid speaks highly of the Mod 54 and might want to chip in.

Anyway, back to the photographs. Black and white photography, as far as I'm concerned, is all about light and shade and flowing lines and these elements come together in these old stairwells. The pics won't be everyone's cup of Darjeeling but I like them. The Tmax turned out very nicely in HRX with the highlights well controlled.

Here are the negs, propped against a light box and snapped using the D700. It's difficult getting the jpegs to perfectly match the negatives but these are quite close. I reversed the upper neg in the positive image at the t
op of this post just because I preferred it that way. They're a little on the thin side but there's just about enough detail in all but the darkest shadows and you've got to expect some empty negative space when the only light is from above and there's not much of it at all. The clear film areas look a bit fogged but it's just the way the camera has captured them.

To be honest, I'm really surprised I got anything usable at all, so dark were the stairwells. That's probably the reason I wasn't in any rush to develop the negatives: I'd subconsciously written them off already. Depth of field is lacking in a couple but that's down to the fact that the exposures, including an allowance for reciprocity failure, were hellishly long and stopping down another stop would have meant hanging around for another five minutes or longer on each shot. I'll try to use camera movements next time to overcome this problem.

Composition isn't too bad either bearing in mind that I could see bugger all really. My home town of Dundee has lots of tenements like these and there are plenty of opportunities for a lot of shots on a similar theme. If I could get half a dozen arty pictures I'd maybe try pitching them to a local art shop as they might be popular with my fellow Dundonians. The first and last photographs at the top of the post have potential and I reckon they'd look nice if printed quite large, matted and framed.

Having written recently about the big Kodak Specialist II - I've got it sitting on a tripod just now in our living room while I think about what to do with it - I'm really curious to see what 5x7 contact prints of the stairwells would be like - and, for that matter, nice, big prints. However, the Kodak's ground glass doesn't look much brighter - if at all - than the Speed Graphic's. Maybe the answer, ultimately, is a large format camera that isn't sixty years old.

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zeitguy said...

I developed dozens of 4x5 and 8x10 negs in tray over the last two years. I had to have powerful air exhaust and couldn't do it without the latex and an industrial mask. What I learned was to grow my index nail on my right hand about 1cm. And find best quality gloves. Then I learned to push the bottom of the film with my thumb and snag the top edge with my nail enough to break the surface tension and allow me to grip the edge of the fim. Sounds sketchy but just takes practice. Never lost a glove to this method either. No other method works as well as tray for me. For agitation I just moved my fingertips in unison in a wave pattern over emulsion side without touching 10-15 secs per minute. I think I used a very active developer that kept times under 6 min at 70'.

I have a D2 enlarger which works well up to 20x24. I develop the paper in a tube in daylight and wash in a tray.

Nasir Hamid said...

I swear by my MOD54. I've got the previous version and it works great. You'll need the Paterson tank that holds 2 x 120 spirals. I believe this new MOD54 design doesn't need the inner spindle as my version does.

It takes 1litre of chemistry to fill the tank but I often use that same litre to dev roll film as well so I get double duty. It's nice shooting in batches of 6 sheets because 3 film holders are an easy amount to carry around and processing 6 sheets at a time is a good time saver too. When loading it can be easy to get two sheet edges in the same 'fin' but that only happened to me in the early days. I've had plenty of practice since then.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Told you So Bruce!
they're nice though and especially the first one. You've got a lovely tonality with the TMX, so well done.

With regard to reciprocity, I've moved over to the tables in Steve Simmon's 'Using The View Camera' book - they are much more realistic for a view camera than the officially published ones - I've got them detailed somewhere so I'll send them over.

Oh, and I never use gloves, but I now have some weird cuticles on my right hand!

steve said...

£45 !! for a piece of plastic that would cost a few p to injection mold!!

There's a kickstarter waiting to happen. Another excuse to buy a 3d printer.

I currently us a daylight paper tank, it takes sheets from 4x5 up to 8x10 and only uses 250ml of developer.

Bruce Robbins said...

That was exactly my reaction, Steve. I can only guess that the initial set up costs at the factory that makes them are high so the guy has to ask a high price to recover his costs. Of course, once he's done that, the profit margin on each Mod 54 will likely be massive.

I'd be interested in seeing what your daylight paper tank looks like, btw. Is that the one where you glue a couple of rods to the sides of a 10x8 drum?

Regular Rod said...

This is how I process sheet film but I use 500ml to let me use semi-stand agitation regime.


David M said...

I thought I'd already sent something about this, but perhaps I forgot to fill in the anti-robot form.
It's good to know that the latent image will be sitting there in its little nest of the DDS, just waiting to welcome you and say "Thank you for making me into a picture."
I'm afraid I haven't used the Mod45 thingy, although I did handle one of the earlier, laser-cut ones. Someone suggested to me that it was possible to dislodge the film by enthusiastic agitation, but the new ones seem to have deeper notches and slots and suchlike. It might be worth a trial run with some dud film.
[A note on cost: the mould for these things is carved out of great big blocks of hardened polished steel. It's very expensive and skilled work. Production might be only a few hundred a year and each one has to bear its share.]
If you're worried about shadow detail in such situations, where the darker parts are fighting with reciprocity failure, you might try the technique called flashing.
What this means is topping up the parts of the neg which are starved of photons with a few extra ones, so that the image is helped over the threshold, which allows it to be developed into a masterpiece. Or at least blacken the negative a bit.
What you do is expose the whole negative to Zone One. This adds an extra stop to the darkest parts but only increases the lighter parts by about one two-hundred-and-fifty-fourth part, which is negligible.
First compose and focus your scene, so that you can decide if help is needed.
Take a white card and meter it, so as to place it on Zone One. Hold it in front of the lens, but not overshadowed by it, so that it fills the whole field of view and is thoroughly out of focus.
Remove the dark slide, set everything for Zone One, cock the shutter and give your Zone One exposure. Now re-cock the shutter and if you re-set aperture and speed and then give your "proper" exposure, without the card. Put the dark slide back (Easy to forget after all this mental effort). Very dark scenes can be surprisingly contrasty so you might have to use your development controls, too. Contrast isn't simply excess brightness, it's the difference between the lightest and the darkest, however dim the scene may seem to your eye. If you can find a diffusing lens cap, and measure its opacity, you might use that instead of the white card. (But it's easier to forget that this lens cap is in place, because you're not gripping it in the hand that holds the cable.)
There's a similar flashing technique used in printing, to help the parts of the paper which are starved of photons which is useful to control the runaway highlights that you might have controlled by reduced development. Not always possible, I know.

Bruce Robbins said...

What's your own experience of pre-exposure, David? It certainly works when flashing paper negs before exposure in the camera and I've always felt it's had some effect on actual film although I have to confess that I haven't done any comparative testing. Barry Thornton was a proponent of pre-exposure.

However, Bruce Barnbaum, in his book The Art of Photography had this to say about it, "Some well-intensioned practitioners advocate the use of this technique. In large part they are wrong. Pre-exposure works for positive transparencies; it has no beneficial effect for negatives, either black and white or colour. Even Ansel Adams touted the procedure in one of his early basic photo books. Unfortunately, he was just as wrong as everyone else in his advocacy of pre-exposure for negatives."

His argument is that it adds density but not separation of tones which is of no benefit in the final print. I find it hard to believe that the likes of Ansel Adams used and advocated pre-exposure without proving its efficacy to himself.

David M said...

I've only used flashing occasionally, and not recently. It seemed to help when I was making pictures of road works at night, but I've never made pairs of test negs to prove this. (My main problem in that case was watching out for car headlights, and trying to burn in the street lights).
We can certainly see the effect when we make before-and-after prints in the darkroom and silver is silver, after all. In prints, despite its great aesthetic benefits, it's physically and objectively, a very small effect. It will be a "small effect" on film, too.
It's not going to give rich shadows with full detail, but just help the detail that was on the threshold of being recorded by bringing it up to printable (or scannable) density. Usually in very dark scenes, there will be even darker, even more shadowed parts that will go unrecorded anyway. (Zones zero and minus One or Two, if we can say that.)
Ultimately, the enemy is reciprocity failure, so for the purist, long exposures and appropriate development are the answer.
I've not read Mr Barnbaum on the subject, but if it works on the silver halides in one box, why should it not work on another? "As wrong as everybody else..." seems a bit revealing. That nice Mr Adams seems to have managed a few decent snaps despite being so mistaken.
I have heard of flashing being used on transparencies to give a colour cast to the shadows – either corrective, where the blue sky is giving them a too-blue cast, or creative, where you might want some special effect. You use a flashing card of the appropriate colour but it sounds like something best handled in Photoshop.
So, in summary, it's probably worth a try as an emergency measure. An extra Zone in the thin bits of the neg will do little harm and is very much more convenient that the hundreds of seconds that reciprocity tables specify for quite moderate original metered values. It certainly won't save genuine under-exposure.
I might have to do a bit of testing myself. Recently I've been running to six-minute reciprocity-corrected exposures with Fomapan 100. Reciprocity is its major drawback. (But it's back in stock at the beginning of September.) Still worth using it, as getting Fuji Acros in sheet sizes from Japan would mean selling all the racehorses and the second-best yacht.
Have you tried Acros? Rather like FP4 but very much better for long exposures. Slightly snappier mid-tones, perhaps.

Bruce Robbins said...

I agree with you, David (pity you weren't called Nick). Barnbaum does acknowledge the role flashing plays in the darkroom - it works differently on the shoulder from the toe. But without making side-by-side exposures it's touchy-feely rather than empirical.

I've not used a lot of Acros 100. Technically, it's superb but it leaves me feeling a bit cold. I tend to think it looks more like a BW conversion from a digital file than most other films.

David M alias Nick (but why?) said...

I think you're right about shoulders and toes. It suggests that different films (and different developers) which have different shape to the toe might respond differently. some better, some worse.
Another point is that a small difference in density is easy to spot in the highlights but much less visible in shadows. It's just a matter of the number of photons striking your retina. I suppose this makes the effect appear smaller even if it's physically equal. I find that I like to see some small variation in the darkest shadows, as it seems to me to be more like the way a scene appears to our eyes. We see darkness and gaze at it, then subtle and mysterious details begin to emerge, even if we cannot quite decipher them.
I suggested Acros for its wonderful resistance to reciprocity. Not sure if I agree about the "conversion" look, but it's certainly not like Tri-X. Depends on subject matter, I suppose.

Bruce Robbins said...

"I agree with Nick". The most memorable sentence from the last party leaders' TV debate (shows what the rest of the debate was like). Cameron and Milliband's attempt to ingratiate themselves with supporters of the "say whatever you want to hear" slimy snake otherwise known as Nick Clegg. I hate politicians in case you haven't got that by now. :)

One of us - I nominate you - is going to have to do the comparative pre-exposure test and write it up. Acros is so good when it comes to reciprocity that it's faster than the likes of Tri X for exposures beyond a few seconds.

David M said...

The Today Programme has just broadcast interviews with more Useless Politicians, some wrapped in tartan and some in the Union Jack. I think I understand that Nick reference – all too easy to confine him to the back of the mind.
I used Acros when I was making pinholes, where the "punchy" (as members of the RPS like to say) midtones were corrected by the general softness of the pinhole.

David M said...

I've discovered something about your Turing Test.
If you fill in the anti-robot numbers, even correctly, and then return to the main text for a bit of proof reading and semi-colon fiddling, the numbers will change and all your scribbling will be lost.
The lesson is that you should do all that "..up with which I will not put" stuff and them, in one mad rush, read the numbers (not always easy) fill in the name and get it off before the hyper-intelligence that rules this blog changes its mind.
And when you vote in a few weeks, remember that Hadrian's Wall is ours.

Bruce Robbins said...

It's a failing of mine that I like the English, Welsh and Northern Irish whilst finding some Scottish Nationalists, eh, overbearing. That'll give you a clue as to how I'll be voting. But, in the event of a divorce, you can keep Hadrian's Wall as long as we get Cuddy's Crag.

David M said...

Cuddy's Crag is where we are planning to build the MacBrandenburg Gate and install a defensive array of trebuchets and ballistas.
It's hard to distinguish any arguments in the simultaneous choruses of "Och aye, the noo." and "I say, old chap, what, what."
Things might seem clearer for people standing a bit closer.