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Thursday, November 27

Negative Thinking - Part One

The quest for a good, repeatable negative and a consequently easier-to-make print continues in the caring hands of contributor David M. This time it's about arriving at an appropriate development time given your own film speed rating and exposure technique. It's quite a complex process but David's lightness of touch makes it eminently readable. Part Two will be published on Saturday.

By David M.

The first thing to mention here is that none of what follows is essential to the making of good photographs. It might help you to make better-looking prints, but a good photograph depends on more than that. Defining “good” is beyond me: there are so many ways for an image to lodge itself in our consciousness and not all of them involve print quality. I suspect that it’s a task beyond any mortal mind. None of this will convert you into an Ansel Adams clone, even if that’s what you want.

Establishing a more suitable film speed number to set on our meter, which we call a Personal Exposure Index (PEI), or learning how to make a Proper Proof, has already given us a simple tool for making tests. In both cases, we established the shortest time it takes to print a black that doesn’t get any blacker, using our own enlarger, in our own darkroom, with our own quirks and foibles.

We have used the enlarger for this because we already have one. We are testing by making prints because our aim is to make the kind of prints we want to see, not to construct liturgically perfect negatives. Perfect negatives will be a great help, of course. If you feel like being more exact, you can acquire a densitometer and follow the One True Path of the Perfect Negative. A few web searches will show that you are not alone – negative testing seems to be a delightful and fulfilling lifetime hobby.

After you’ve established your PEI, you will have lovely shadow detail, but you still might not be entirely happy with your prints. As a result of the extra exposure, your negs will be a little bit denser. There’s another adjustment that we can make.

Aiming higher

The instructions that the developer-maker puts on the box are excellent for most photographers, but you are no longer a “most” photographer: you are now a fastidious one. You might like to adjust the instructions to suit your own way of working.

The most pragmatic and sensible thing to do is to carry on with your normal photographic life and change the development time a bit each time you have some suitable but non-vital film ready to process. If, as happens to many people, your PEI is about one stop slower than the box speed, you might try developing for ten percent less time, and seeing how the highlights come out, then trying twenty percent less, or whatever seems reasonable, until you’re happy. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do, but we can go a bit further. Unless you shoot unusual subjects like birthday cakes in a coalmine or lumps of coal on sunlit ice, this simple, gradual, pragmatic method will work for almost everyone. We can stop here or we can carry on.

You will remember that it’s the darkest part of the negative that produces the highlights and these are the parts most influenced by development. It would be useful to pin down our highlights. These days, many photographers seem to find that using a compensating developer or prolonged development in a very dilute solution gives them an “all-purpose” negative and that they can subsequently control the print by using multigrade paper, and split-grade printing, as well as the usual dodging and burning. These days, multigrade paper makes dodging and burning a very flexible tool. Rigid adherence to Zone System dogma is no longer required, but some familiarity might help. I suggest that the closer we can get to producing a negative that yields a straight print, the better. Creative printing controls are best used for creative ends, rather than adjusting the negative. (Whisper it: some people may even develop their negs for scanning…).

Our method will be similar to establishing our own PEI or making a Proper Proof. As before, it depends on establishing the basic datum point of a minimum exposure that will produce solid black in a print.

Ordinary is good

In this case, it will be a little more woolly and irksome, as you may have to use some aesthetic judgement, but it can be done. The first thing is to establish an ordinary developing time, which will be our Normal time for a normal subject of normal, ordinary contrast. Like all other testing, it will be a little bit tedious.

You will need a suitable subject with some visible and recognisable texture. The side of a shed or a brick wall, perhaps. Set up the camera and focus on the wall.

When we established our PEI – our very own number to set on our very own meter – we looked for the exposure that produced Just-not-Black for a Zone One exposure and you may have guessed by now that we shall be looking at the other end of the scale, for Not-quite-White. It will be a bit more tricky this time, but not impossible. It’s really another kind of bracketing.

We shall need a set of negatives; all exposed the same, using our new film speed setting, to produce Zone Nine – Not-quite-White – in a test print that we shall make under our Just-not-Black print conditions, which we wrote down at the time. (Didn’t we?) We are going to develop all these frames together, but pull parts of the film out at different stages of development. Tricky, but not impossible. Sheet film users will find it easier but more expensive, as always. I should tell you that I’ve only done this with sheet film and never with roll film, so practical hints, tips and warnings will be thin on the ground.

Let’s take a moment to look at what we mean by Zone Nine. It’s a light grey, just a bit down from paper white and it’s where we place the brightest whites in the scene. We save paper white for specular highlights – points of light bright enough to make us squint a bit. These might be direct reflections of the sun on water or polished metal for instance.

While embroiled in the muck and bullets of printing, it’s easy to forget that increasing contrast, to give a little more punch and liveliness to a print doesn’t, and can’t, make the paper base any whiter. Changing contrast simply shares out the available tones of grey in different ways. When we push contrast too far, what happens is that patches of mute, inglorious paper-white spread over more of the picture space. There is no magic dial going all the way up to Number Eleven in the darkroom. Zone Nine is the last outpost of creative control.

Wet and naked

Meter the wall for the exposure that your meter thinks will give a middling grey in the print, using your newly established PEI setting. This would come out as Zone Five in a print. Don’t take a picture, but adjust the camera to give four more stops exposure – which should print as Zone Nine. If you’re using 35mm film, bang off a dozen or so exposures. If it’s 120 film, bang off the whole roll. 35mm users will have to arrange their shooting so that these Zone Nine frames will be the last ones on their reel when they load it. I must leave the details up to you. The fortunate few using sheet film should expose five or six sheets. 10x8 users may prefer to cut up a sheet and tape the bits to the inside of their holders. The bad news is that you really do need a darkroom. That means totally black, not even a safelight. The inside of a changing bag is not really suitable for manipulating liquids. We are going to have wet, naked film waving about in the air. I should have mentioned this earlier.

Set up your normal developing scheme, but with one difference. You will need an open tray of fixer, deep enough to immerse the scraps of film that you will be producing. Sheet film users, the few, can use their normal set-up of successive trays, unless they develop in a tank. If you normally use a stop bath, you might think you need a tray of stop, but fishing scraps of negative in and out of it in the dark seems needlessly tricky and messy. Fixer will stop development very effectively. The carry-over from this small amount of film will not harm your fix. A measuring cylinder full of fix will work just as well, but will be harder to locate in the dark. As you’re messing about with wet things in darkness, you might like to wear an apron. You will need some sharp scissors.

Load the film into your spirals in the usual way, with only one film in the tank for this test. What we shall be doing is opening the tank, lifting out the spiral, pulling out a bit of film and snipping it off, dunking it in our tray or cylinder of fix, then bunging the spiral back in the tank, without our fingers touching the fixer – without touching it at all. We don’t want to contaminate the developer with fix. All this will happen in the dark.

Then we carry on with developing the rest of the film and when the next time comes up, we open, lift, snip, dunk and bung again. This will need some rehearsal and you should practise in the light. Keep your eyes open and look at the ceiling while you rehearse. Closed eyes can look very much like lights out. You may speculate on how I discovered this.

Do you remember when we pointed out that you could simply fiddle with the development of your normal output, bit by bit, until it looks right and is easy to print? You can still turn back.

Otherwise, carry on. Take the time for your film from the instructions on the pack of developer and write it down. Work out the times for ten percent and twenty percent less and ten percent and twenty percent more. If your PEI was rather more than a stop lower than the box speed of the film, work out thirty percent less, too. None of these times should be less than five minutes, as five minutes is generally considered too short to be sure of even development. You might have to think about changing the dilution.

Reading in the dark

You will need a clock that you can read in the dark – another thing that I ought to have mentioned earlier. Most darkrooms have a luminous clock somewhere. A small problem is that you will have to remember all these times in the dark. Some people record a timed track, which is now much easier to do, giving instructions to direct you as you go along. If you use your iPhone for this, you’ll have to shield the lighted screen somehow. If you’re happily married, a spouse can conveniently stand outside the door with a stopwatch and call out directions as you go along. You should rehearse this too, so that the words mean the same thing on both sides of the door, particularly if the spouse is not a photographer. You might like to plan a nice dinner afterwards, while the film is drying.

Set everything up – tank, spiral, fresh developer and the tray or cylinder of fixer in a place that you can locate easily in the dark. Scissors should be placed somewhere convenient where they won’t drip. You will need somewhere to put the lid of the tank and the tank itself while you’re fiddling with the reel. Everything should be at the right temperature. Load the film, remembering that 35mm film must have these special exposures on the outside of the reel.

Put your hands on everything, with the light on, but don’t touch the fix. Perhaps you should wash your hands to be sure. Pour in the developer and start up the clock, recording or spouse. Put the light out. No safelights. This must be in total darkness even though the film is in a tank. Develop with your normal agitation pattern.

When the first, shortest time is coming up, take off the lid, take out the spiral, and snip off (did I mention scissors?) the length of about two frames. Drop the cut-off bits into the fix at the instant when the appropriate time comes up, put the reel back and the lid on and continue until the next time, when you do it all again. You will end up with a bit of film for each percentage, including the time from the box. I think you can probably count one episode of opening and snipping as an inversion. When all is finished, you’ll have to fish out all the cut-off bits from the fix and wash them. Finish developing the rest of the film in your usual way, if there’s anything on it. This part of the film will certainly be overdeveloped, so don’t have anything vital on it. Ideally, there should be something there, to mimic normal conditions.

Downhill all the way

That’s the tricky bit over. I think sheet film users will be able to see how to do all this with sheet film, and how much easier it is for them to take one sheet at a time and transfer it to the next tray, pretty much following their normal ritual. Wash and dry the bits. You will have a set with different densities. Put them in order from least to most development. Keep notes if you are a normally fallible human being.

On another convenient occasion, set up the minimum-exposure-maximum-black configuration on your enlarger, using a normal contrast grade as before. We were previously comparing our test print exposure to a maximum black, but this time we are comparing it to a maximum white. Maximum white is much easier to establish as it’s simply unexposed paper and we know how to do that without any sort of testing. Cut up some test strips. I suggest nice biggish ones of about a quarter of ten-by-eight. We don’t want to be squinting at postage stamps.

Put the first negative in your enlarger. Write on the back of the paper which film strip this is and then cover half the strip securely with the cover touching the paper surface to give a nice clean edge. Give your pre-determined maximum-black exposure to the uncovered part. Put it in a lightproof box. Replace the negative with the next one. Write the details on the back of the next piece of paper and cover it as before. Give it the same exposure and put it in the lightproof box. Carry on until you have a test print for each of your negative strips, all with notes on the back. Because you cut off the bits of film randomly in the dark, you will find the gaps between the frames are visible and print as black, but you can ignore them.

Develop all your strips together in nice fresh developer at the right temperature for at least the recommended time and with constant agitation so that no strip overlaps and masks any other. Fix, wash and dry them. Next day, in decent light, examine them all and decide which one gives you a not-quite-white but very pale grey, distinct from paper white. There may be several candidates and you will have to make a judgement. Turn it over to reveal your own best time for normally developing your film under normal circumstances. In Zone notation, this will be N-0 development. A reasonable person might choose to round off their time to the nearest quarter minute.

All this adding and subtracting Zones and stops while out in the field can be confusing. It’s not made any easier by the fact that the numbers on your meter are intuitively the wrong way round: smaller apertures have bigger numbers and so on. Life will be easier if you can buy, download or make a Zone scale to fix to your meter, preferably with little patches of the appropriate grey next to the numbers. Commercial versions will have the zones marked in Roman numerals. If you’re going read any more about the Zone System, you’ll have to get used to it.

Continued in Part Two on Saturday.

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