Pre-flashing or pre-exposing a negative to improve shadow detail in contrasty scenes was a technique advocated by the late Barry Thornton in his book, Elements. I've used this approach with paper negatives in a bid to tame the high contrast they tend to produce.
However, I've never actually done any testing to see what effect it has and, since I've used it in conjunction with a yellow filter on the camera (again, it helps to reduce contrast with paper negs ) and weak developer (ditto), I can't say how effective it's been. I ended up with manageable paper negs but how much each of the lower contrast measures I used contributed to the end result is, to me, unknown.
Film has a slight inertia to light in that little density is recorded when the first photons hit the emulsion. It takes a certain amount of light to cross a threshold at which point tones start to be recorded. Sometimes with dark shadows this threshold is never reached so no densities are recorded in these areas. The idea with pre-flashing is that the film is exposed to just enough non-image forming light before the actual exposure takes place in order that this threshold is reached. Thereafter, dark shadow tones should show up on the film after development.
Waste of TimeLooking through some photography books in my darkroom on Tuesday, I opened Bruce Barnbaum's The Art of Photography at a chapter where he describes pre-flashing as a waste of time for negative material. He says photographers who advocate pre-flashing are just plain wrong - and he includes Ansel Adams in that group.
Now, I've always thought of Barry Thornton as a very good technician and find that he has a lot of interesting and useful things to say on the subjects of film and darkroom work. I know a good deal less about Bruce Barnbaum although, just on the evidence of their respective books, I'd have to say that he appears to be a "better" photographer than Barry. The production quality of Bruce's book is pretty poor, though, resulting in washed-out looking photographs on thin paper that shows the text on the other side of the page and a soft cover that is so lacking in structural integrity that the book flops around like a soggy pizza.
Bruce's explanation for his forthright opinion on pre-exposure makes sense and yet it hardly seems likely that the likes of Barry Thornton and Ansel Adams would have used and advised this technique without carefully testing the process to death. So who to believe?
First of all, here's what Barry has to say in Elements:
The principle is simple and I use it a great deal. A facility to double expose is necessary if the ﬂash is done in camera, and it gets difficult if you don't. A pre-exposure of ‘plain’ non-focused image light is given to the film at the level, usually, of zone I; then the actual image is exposed on the same piece of film.
In practice, a piece of opal glass or plastic is needed - I use the filter-screwed end of a slide copier attachment. I place it over the meter and take a reading in the same direction as the camera's lens is pointing. This gives a zone V reading. By reducing this by four stops we arrive at a zone I exposure. I then place the opal filter over the camera lens and give the film this exposure through the filter which prevents any sharp image on the film. I then double expose the real picture on to the same film taking spot readings and setting zone system exposures as normal.
Each zone of exposure receives one stop more, or double the amount, of light than the one before. So if we say that zone I receives one ’unit’ of light, then zone II receives 2, zone III 4 and so on in the progression 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 etc. If we pre-flash at zone I, we add another ’unit’ to each of these and the progression becomes 2 at zone I, 3 at zone II, 5 at zone III, then so on through 9, 17, 33, 65, 129, etc. So at higher zones the addition is imperceptible, but zone I becomes the density of zone II, and zone II achieves a 50% increase in density.
It really does work and shadow detail and contrast is (sic) much improved. The ﬂash does not need to be as high as zone I for some effect. Alternatively a ﬂash as high as Zone II can be given to really drop contrast. The film speed does alter because we are pushing the film up to or beyond its exposure inertia point, and tests are crucial for pre-visualised results.
And Bruce's comments in The Art of Photography:
Pre-exposure of ﬁlm is the procedure of putting a small amount of blank exposure on the ﬁlm, either before or after the actual exposure, to yield greater density in the shadow areas of the final print. Some well-intentioned 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 color. To understand why it fails for negatives, look at the Exposure / Density Curve again (diagram 9.5 below). If you add a few units of blank light to a negative via a pre-exposure, you raise the density of the lower zones by that number of units. (Of course, you raise the density of all the zones by that same amount, but the effect is progressively less noticeable as you move up the density scale. Since each successive zone doubles the light of the previous zone, initial pre-exposure makes less and less of a difference as you go up the scale.)
|Diagram 9.5: The exposure/density curve.|
But while you have raised the density of the negative, you have not increased the separations, i.e., the angle of the toe of the curve. In other words, all you're doing is pushing the toe of the curve a little higher on the density scale. Creating greater density without creating greater separations is of no value in the ﬁnal print.
The problem on the toe of the curve is not lack of density; the real problem is lack of separations, which translates to a lack of tonal separations in the ﬁnal print. Pre-exposure works effectively for positive transparencies only, and the technique can be put to use in a very interesting way. In transparencies, the toe of the curve is already dead black (remember, three stops below Zone 5 is below Zone 2). So if you use pre-exposure to bring those extremely dark or black areas into visibility, they are already on the straight-line portion of the curve.
Pre-exposing a transparency brings some dark areas into visibility with reasonable separations. In addition, since transparency ﬁlms are balanced for sunlight, shadows tend toward a blue cast. Pre-exposure to a warm color (red, orange, magenta, etc.) can neutralize the blue cast in shadow areas without materially altering the exposure or color balance in the mid-tones or highlights.
Those who promote the beneﬁts of pre-exposure often demonstrate the effects by using Polaroid ﬁlm to instantly show the difference. But Polaroid prints are positive transparencies on paper! Therefore, the technique appears to be beneficial. 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.
And, just for the record, since Bruce dragged his name into this, here's what Ansel has to say about the subject in The Negative:
Pre-exposure involves giving the negative a first exposure to a uniform illumination placed on a low zone after which the normal exposure of the subject can be given.
The pre-exposure serves to bring the entire negative up to the threshold, or moderately above, so that it is sensitized to very small additional levels of exposure. It will then retain detail in deep shadow values that would otherwise fall on or below the threshold and therefore not record.I know I have some very knowledgeable and experienced readers and was wondering if anyone has an opinion they'd care to share. Is anyone using pre-exposure and have you done any testing that supports the theory? Or have you tried it and found it makes no real difference?
I'm inclined to side with Barry (and Ansel) on this one. Is it really possible that these guys advocated a procedure that they never adequately tested and used for years to little or no effect? There's a clever saying that in theory there should be no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is. So does theory or practice hold sway here?