Category Archives: Darkroom

Burn it! Burn it with LIGHT!

In which the artist attempts some local manipulation of tonal range for the first time…

Inside cabin, Booker T Washington National Monument

Inside cabin, Booker T Washington National Monument

I made a first work print of this a couple of weeks ago, in large part to test my newly acquired Schneider Componon-S 80/4 lens (a cheap find on Ebay, optically great but with a minor mechanical issue – the aperture click stops don’t work). The Kodak Tri-X negative was exposed at EI200 in my Yashica A. I think I used the B+W 029 deep red filter to try to darken the sunlit greenery outside while lightening the reds-and-browns interior, also the three stops of extra exposure took me out of the Yashica’s shutter speed “dead zone” (that irritating gap between the fastest time I can reliably open the shutter for in bulb mode and the slowest timed speed of 1/25th that the old Copal in the “A” offers; I seem to land in that range rather too often for comfort). The work prints were made on Ilford MGIV resin-coated glossy paper.

For such a contrasty subject, the grade 2 contact sheet looked quite close to what I wanted to see in the final print. Looking at it, I knew my area of highlight interest was the window. I wanted it to show just enough detail to suggest what was out there. But how to do that? The “traditional” test strip across the image would be mostly shadow or mid-tone area in this case. Not at all what I needed.

For focusing and composition, I’ve taken to throwing a sheet of plain old copy paper into the easel (which I painted flat matte black so as to be very sure it never screws with my contrast or exposure, ever). The nice thing about that is I can mark the copy paper up with a soft pencil, so I sketched in the window area I wanted to test, marked the exposure sections along it and extended the guide lines out far enough to go beyond the test strip I’d use. I cut a suitably sized piece from an 8×10 sheet of MGIV and held it in place over the target area with a small magnet, then exposed it in sections using the marked up guide lines just like any other test strip. Because I only had a little area to work from, I exposed in whole stop steps, then ran a second test strip at smaller increments around where the first strip looked best.

The remainder of the 8×10 sheet was cut into generously wide strips exposed at grades 1, 2 and 3, taking in both the window and the darkest shadow areas. Again, I marked up the general area I wanted the strips to cross, so I would be able to position them somewhat accurately. It looked like grade 2 was a little hard, but a fourth strip at 1.5 wasn’t contrasty enough. So grade 2 it was, then.

Straight work print

Straight (no manipulations) work print. Note how bright the floor area to bottom left is.

A first work print looked great, but after living with it on my office wall for a day, I realized the brightly lit floor area was distracting. This meant…gulp…I’d have to do what I’d kind of been avoiding so far and try some manipulation; in this case, a slight burning in of the floor area to darken it.

A brief aside: dodging and burning are darkroom techniques in which selective areas of the print are exposed for longer or shorter times to darken or lighten their tone relative to the rest of the print. Their namesakes in the Photoshop tool palette do the exact same thing. On the face of it, the technique is simple enough, but it requires some degree of coordination, good timing and a steady-ish hand.

Having not tried this before, I loaded the negative back into the carrier, framed and focused on the easel as before, then practiced the move I wanted to make. I’d decided about 2 extra seconds would be a good first try, switching to grade 1 for the burn in to minimize the effect on mid and shadow tones. Once I was as ready as I felt I could be, I loaded a sheet of MGIV and made my exposures; my previous base exposure at grade 2 and the burn in at grade 1.

I felt terribly clumsy doing it and expected it to look awful, but it didn’t. The darkening is subtle, but helps reduce the distraction of the floor a little without being unnatural. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though I think it might benefit from a slight increase in burn in time.

In this session I also did a bit of pre-planning for larger prints. I have trays and paper on the way for 11×14 printing, and had chosen my 11×14 easel knowing I would want to print larger than 8×10. I’m looking at square format 10×10 as a typical size for my final prints, which doesn’t sound very large but it is substantially larger than the 7×7 work prints I’ve been doing (double the surface area, in fact). Anyway, I raised the enlarger head and refocused until I had the image framed nicely in a 10×10 square. For exposure, I recalled reading that each step up in standard sizes (or doubling of area covered) is a one stop change in exposure. So, 8×10 to 11×14 needs one stop more exposure time, or opening the lens one stop. In my case the increase from 7×7 to 10×10 is about the same in theory. Throwing caution to the wind I opened up the lens from f/11 to f/8 and exposed a whole sheet of 8×10 at the same base time as my 7×7 at f/11.

Result! It is pretty much where I wanted it to be, visually just about indistinguishable from the 7×7 version.

Needless to say I’m all kinds of excited about my 11×14 upgrade (try doing that with your cheap A4/Letter inkjet printer) and will be making a nice 10×10 print of this image just as soon as I can. Of course I can’t actually scan a print that size, but the work print #2 above is the reference print for any subsequent prints I make and so is representative of the final product.

More printing updates: Bike Rack, Winter

It’s been a little while since I last updated on printing progress. I’ve made good work/proof prints from 3 negatives so far, have been refining my process and continuing to gather necessary materials and equipment.

Bike Rack, Winter

Bike Rack, Winter

Square format images just do it for me. I can’t for sure say why, but they do. Let’s chalk it up to the corrupting influence of the twin lens reflex! “Bike Rack” is a 35mm negative shot in full auto on the Yashica T4 Zoom. No contrast filters were used for the exposure on Kodak Tri-X at box speed. The roll was developed in D76 1:1. Standard fare throughout. This is a straight print, cropped to a square and printed on Adorama’s resin-coated variable contrast glossy paper at grade 1. The negative isn’t overly contrasty, but the subject sure is, calling for the soft grade to capture the tonal range I wanted. My aim was to get just enough detail in the snow to show texture, yet retain detail in all but the darkest shadow areas which I would allow to go to maximum black.

One of my process refinements is applying the understanding of how exposure and contrast affect the result; exposure sets the highlights, contrast sets the shadows. I’ve found that increasing contrast does also lighten the highlights, but it may just be that my correction factors for the old Kodak Polycontrast filters are a bit off and I’m underexposing a tad at some grades; I’ll fine tune that as I go along, no doubt. Anyway, this means my first test strip will always be built around finding the right exposure for highlights at the softest grade I have available, as per St Ansel of Carmel’s recommendation in The Print. For this image, I ran a strip along the bottom of the frame and made a roughly half-stops series, centered around a reasonable starting point (the exposure time I used for my previous print on the same paper). This got me pretty much on the money first time. Yay!

My next move was to run a contrast test. For this print, I used the tree on the left as my area of interest. I did a sort of “contrast step wedge” which turned out to be a messy and error-prone approach, one which I quickly abandoned. But it got me where I needed to be again.

This is the first (and to date, only) work print from this negative. It seems that it does well as a straight print, but of course I’m also just happy that I managed to get the result I wanted with only a small number of tests, after my first printing attempts which took several full-size prints to finally get to where I wanted it.

As a result of this darkroom session, I’ve changed how I do initial tests. First, my contact sheets are going to be grade 2, with the negatives removed from the PrintFile sleeves they normally reside in. I just wasn’t happy with how they contact printed while in the sleeves and it’s not as if I’ll be having to make contact sheets more than once per roll anyway, so unsleeving them is no biggie.

Secondly, instead of just pre-cutting a bunch of standard size strips, I’ll start with a sheet of 8×10 of the same type my final print will be made on and figure the entire sheet will be used for testing the one negative. My first strip is purely aimed at highlights and each photograph is different, so a one-size fits all approach is not the way forward. A second strip may be needed to fine-tune, based around the same part of the image.

With basic exposure established, I can decide contrast. It’ll be clear from the contact sheet whether a soft or harder grade is called for. Several generous strips will be exposed in the same region of the image, bracketing around what I think will be the correct grade of filter to use.

Together, those will set the parameters for a straight 7×7 print on 8×10 paper. I’ll pin that up somewhere and see how I feel about it. Maybe, like “Bike Rack”, I’ll get lucky and be happy with that first print. Maybe it’ll need more work.

I’m also starting to think about tools needed for manipulating exposure. More to follow on that.

First Prints!

A few nights ago I finally made my first printing attempts. By all accounts it went well for a first try.

I chose one of my favorite negatives, a shot of some thistles made on 35mm Ilford Pan-F Plus and developed in Rodinal 1+50. It looked like it should print straight without needing dodging or burning and is a good sharp negative on fine grain film with interesting fine detail.

My first step was to make a test strip. Since I had absolutely no clue what would be a good starting point, I went with exposures of 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16 seconds at grade 2.5 and f/8 on the lens. This got me in the ballpark, but with an incredibly short exposure, under 3 seconds. I want to stick around f/5.6-f/11 with this lens whenever it’s practical to do so. Beyond f/11 I can see the grain become visibly less sharp due to diffraction!

Now, 3 seconds is OK if I just want a straight print. But it would be difficult to effectively dodge or burn if necessary, so I wanted to see how I would fare with an ND filter under the lens.

Turns out it works well. My regular 52mm 3-stop ND sits nicely below the contrast filters in the Beseler’s under-lens holder. A new test strip in whole stops, then another in half stops, suggested a time. I exposed and developed the full frame, only to find that it was rather underexposed. So I gave it another stop of exposure on the second try. Much better, but too high contrast. My shadows were about right but highlight detail was missing.

First and second attempts.

Now, I know enough to be aware that, to gain highlight detail, I need more exposure. But then I have to reduce contrast so as to avoid blocking up the shadows.

The next night, I returned to my darkroom, this time with a plan to use the softest grade available to me (grade 1 on my old Kodak Polycontrast filter set) and give a little extra exposure time (minus the 3 stop ND, which I decided to not bother with since I’d not be attempting any manipulations during printing). I figured an extra stop exposure, and ran a test strip which showed me I wasn’t far off. About an extra half stop, in reality.

At the last moment I hedged my bet and went halfway between what the test strip told me and what I had originally guessed. 3.5 seconds, f/8, grade 1.


This is a straight scan from the print, with the black point adjusted to match visually what the print looks like (the white point was fine straight out of Vuescan). Screen and print are quite close in this rendition. I should have gone with what the test strip tried to tell me though, I think this is just a tad too dark overall. Still very happy with it and the highlight area at the head of the main thistle which was flat white in my first attempts has really livened up with the lower contrast and extra exposure revealing detail. Some of the brightly lit leaves and thorns still lack detail, but in looking at the older scan from the negative, I don’t think there’s any detail in the negative to begin with. Turns out it’s a lot higher contrast than I thought…it may even want a small amount of burning in the bright area of the thistle’s head.

So what have I learned from these first print sessions?

  • I second guessed my test strips and came up wrong. Part of the problem is that I rough cut some test strips and made them too narrow, so it’s hard to properly interpret the result. My full size print test strips moving forward will be 4 from a sheet of 8×10, 2.5×8 inches each. Plenty to cover a good sample of an image destined for 8×10, but still reasonably economical. For test stripping my contact sheets I’ll use 1″ wide strips since I’m mostly interested in getting the film rebate to maximum black.
  • Also part of the problem was I jumped straight to the print without bothering to make a contact sheet first (since I already had my digitally scanned contact “sheet” as a basis). A proper contact sheet is a must; scanning and enlarging a negative give quite different results. From now on, any negative I enlarge I’ll first make a contact sheet of that roll if I don’t already have one.
  • My solutions to negative pop and focus shift seem to work well. I’ll detail them in another post.
  • My second night’s print session I brought in a pail of fresh water. This gave me somewhere to rinse chemicals off my fingers (even though I’m using rubber gloves right now), and a convenient supply of water to clean up drips and small splashes while working and give a quick first rinse to my trays immediately after returning the chemicals to their respective bottles.
  • Disposable rubber gloves are a pain.
  • My handy home made test strip guide with exposure guidelines written on it was a great idea. It’s a rough-guide-math-in-my-head approach to cumulative exposure in whole and approximate half f-stops. I think it warrants a post of its own also.
  • I can convert to darkroom use, set up, run test strips, make a work print, clean up and revert to office use in just about an hour. If I don’t have a good hour to work with, I need to leave printing until another time.
  • Washing in a tray in the bath is kind of a pain. I’m looking at building a DIY vertical washer using a plastic file container.
  • A foot pedal for my timer wouldn’t hurt.
  • The metronome approach to process timing works well.
  • Darkroom work is potentially addictive! The satisfaction gained from making a print I’m pleased by is orders of magnitude greater than that gained from making a perfectly post-processed digital file from a film scan.

Speaking of that, here’s a side-by-side of my print scan and the previous film scan I’d done.

A little piece of Scotland beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway    00127-32-g1f8t3p5s

Film scan on the left, print scan on the right.

Timing Development

One thing which didn’t quite occur to me was that I need some reasonable means of keeping track of timing for development, stop and fix steps. My enlarger timer doesn’t do that. I don’t need anything complex here, just a means of tracking time elapsed.

For film developing I use my Nexus 7 tablet and the Darkroom TImer app. This is a useful multi-step programmable timer. It even has a darkroom mode in which everything is colored red. But even at lowest brightness the “black” parts of the display are anything but, putting out a lot of light which is a lot closer to white than red. I may test it just to satisfy my curiosity, but honestly, I don’t expect it to be remotely safe.

Metronome SettingsThen I had the cunning plan to look for a metronome app. Sure enough, there are lots of them. I settled on Mobile Metronome, a free ad supported app. I set it to run at 60 beats per minute, with 10 beat measures and emphasis on the first beat of each measure, giving me accurate time in seconds and a higher pitched “tick” every 10 seconds. With the tablet protector folded over, it runs in the background with the screen off. I start it running before I make any exposures and leave the tablet over on a shelf by the wet side of the darkroom. I used this to time my safelight exposure and in-total-darkness develop, stop and fix steps for the safelight test and it worked a treat.

Darkroom setup part 4: safe light

A few weeks ago I ordered an 18 LED red lamp from DealExtreme, to use as a safelight. At under $5 with free shipping, it was a screamin’ deal and significantly cheaper than the various dedicated safelights which routinely come up on Ebay. It screws into a regular light socket so no special stuff needed to make it work. Had a bit of a wait for it to arrive, but since there were lots of other odds and ends I also needed, this wasn’t an issue. And hey, free shipping from China? I can’t even get free shipping from NYC or LA on most photographic items, especially not ones for under a fiver.

18 LEDs of raw POWERIt arrived intact despite some frankly shonky packaging, and lit up as expected. It works with the enlarging timer I picked up, so it can switch off automatically when the enlarger is on. It doesn’t put out a huge amount of light, but it’s enough to work by without having to feel around in the darkness.

The big question, of course, was: is it safe? LED lighting offers the promise of a very narrow band of frequency present in the light, with no light emitted which the paper is sensitive to. However, not all LEDs are pure and some impure “red” units can emit down into the green and even blue, enough to cause fogging. I’d read on APUG that this particular unit is quite safe, but it’s always prudent to make sure.

Red LightLuckily, both Kodak and Ilford publish methods for testing safelights. I went with a modification of the Ilford method for my testing.

The first step, without any safelighting on, was to identify an exposure time and enlarger settings which would cause a very light gray to be developed out on the paper. I ran a simple test strip with 0.2 second intervals and found 1.2 seconds was about right.

Having found a time for light gray, I then exposed about 1/3 of the paper for this time. The corner was torn off to give me a point of reference for later, when a second exposure would be made on a different part of the paper.

Next, the paper was placed directly under the safelight, which is in a floor-standing lamp bounced into the ceiling. This is a worse-than-worst-case position in my darkroom, closer to the safelight than I would normally be working. The entire page received a minute of exposure to red LED light, with 1 inch covered up every minute thereafter; the final inch of paper received a full 8 minutes under the light! Far longer than it normally would spend, and at a higher intensity too.

Finally, back in full darkness, another third of the paper was given 1.2 seconds under the enlarger, and then a normal develop-stop-fix-wash took place.

The test as performed does three things. Firstly, it tests for fogging on entirely unexposed areas. If bands of increasing gray show up across the page, the safelight wasn’t safe for that exposure time. Secondly, it tests the effect of safelight exposure before the image itself is exposed. Finally, it tests the effect of safelight exposure on an exposed latent image, which will show darkening under unsafe light before the unexposed paper has received enough light to itself start fogging.

The result?

Is it safe? IS IT SAFE?!

Yes, it is safe. All the way to 8 minutes, no fogging of the base or darkening of exposed areas whatsoever. I can also see that there’s a little light falloff toward the corners (the gray area is not quite uniformly gray, it lightens a little toward what was the top left corner during the enlarger exposure. However, I doubt that will show up in normal use, as it isn’t a major difference. The paper itself is much whiter and uniform than the scan makes it appear, in fact it’s pure unexposed white in the unexposed areas; clearly I need to work on my scanning technique for prints!

The important thing to note is that no vertical banding shows up as you move from left to right, either in the unexposed parts or in the two sections exposed to light gray.

I’m now tempted to add a second one of these lights nearer the enlarger, and maybe move the current light to be closer to the developer tray. If I add a second light I’ll re-do the test, but I’m sure it’ll remain 100% safe.

The next step in my darkroom odyssey will be my first actual print! Watch this space…