The darkroom lives! New fiber-base papers from Ilford Photo.

If there’s one company I have no doubt at all stands behind film photography, it’s Ilford Photo. The UK-based outfit is far and away the leader in traditional black and white photography, with a full product lineup of film, paper and chemistry which puts everyone else to shame. Not bad form at all considering that just about a decade ago their future seemed very much in doubt.

These days they’re in rude health, described as “robustly profitable”, launching new products like the “Titan” large format pinhole camera and operating black and white pro lab services in both the UK/Europe and USA/Canada markets. Today’s announcement, however, is of major significance to people like me who still operate their own darkroom; an update to one fiber-based paper product and a whole new FB paper line!

The Ilford Multigrade FB lineup - classic, warmtone and new cooltone.The existing MGIV fiber base product is being replaced by a new, improved version called Multigrade FB Classic with shorter exposure times and better responsiveness to toning compared to the MGIV FB papers it replaces. An all new cool tone paper, Multigrade FB Cooltone, is being added to the lineup. Meanwhile, the existing Multigrade FB Warmtone will remain unchanged. Ilford Photo now have a complete fiber-base paper lineup which affords a great deal of control over the final image through choice of paper and toning options. Fantastic!

Now, granted, I have not yet dipped my toe into printing on fiber base paper. I have a sample pack of Adorama’s matte and glossy FB papers I bought when I first opened up my darkroom, but concerns over the hardening fixer I was using being difficult to wash out and not having a proper print washer or hypo eliminator had caused me to hold off. Plus I really wanted to make sure I had the basics down on cheaper RC materials before jumping in at the deep end of proper fine art papers and the extra processing diligence they call for. Since I’ve switched to a non-hardening rapid fix again, specifically Formulary TF-5 which is said to make washing FB paper much easier even without the use of hypo eliminator, I intend to work through that sample pack soon to get a feel for working with fiber base materials.

Anyway this is great news for those of us who love the dark(room) arts and want to see the craft of traditional printing live on. Clearly, Ilford Photo believes it’s worth the R&D effort to make whole new products for us.

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On Eagles’ Wings

On Eagles Wings


My most recent result from the darkroom. I made this 8×10 print for a church group Christmas “Dirty Santa” that Kelli and I were at yesterday. The light was somewhat flat (right after sunset) and so I ended up using grade 3 to make the print a little more punchy. I’m quite pleased with how I reached that decision based on a grade 2 contact sheet which looked like it could do with some more contrast.

This was also my first time using the Photographers Formulary TF-5 fixer in place of the old Kodak hardening fix I’d been using. The result is a print which took my dilute india ink spotting technique quite well despite being on glossy resin coated paper.

It looks very nice framed up in a simple black wooden frame, matted with a slight float. I’m gravitating toward having a 1/2 inch border on each side with about half covered by the overmat. It’s a quite elegant look, I think.

Framed 8x10 print

Why color print film rocks (sometimes)

I don’t do a whole lot of color shooting, in fact most of what I do in that regard is strictly of the family snapshot variety and occasionally grabbing a shot of something which just suits color better.

In truth, this is the sort of shooting which would be ideally suited to digital but right now I generally use the family SLR (a Minolta Maxxum 5000AF) for it. It’s a lightweight, auto focus, auto exposure, motor driven camera. With a 35-70, 100-200 and a “nifty fifty”, plus both the small flash unit (1800AF) and the recent addition of the big gun of the lineup (4000AF) offering TTL flash exposure it has the bases well covered for that type of shooting.

This lets me keep the Canon F-1 loaded with black and white film, without having to swap around rolls.

The last roll of color film I shot was Fuji Superia Xtra 400, available in all kinds of places. It looks great scanned and should print to huge sizes without much problem.

The thing I like most of all about this film, though (and color neg in general), is the exposure latitude. That last roll had a great many bounce flash shots which were underexposed by 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 stops (Sunpak auto-thyristor flash on Canon F-1 for this roll, not the TTL-equipped Minolta rig). Any number of things could have caused this, but the point is that I was able to get good images even then.

My scanning is standardized for color work. I have preset Vuescan configurations with film base color, exposure etc. locked in so that a well-exposed negative of a sunlit (or electronic flash-lit) scene will render well-exposed and properly color balanced. I scan as 16-bit TIFF to allow plenty of wiggle room for exposure and white balance adjustments.

And wiggle, I can! Take a look at this example, as scanned. Hah, fooled you, auto thyristor flash!

Bennett 1 week old

About a stop and a half underdone, as demonstrated by pushing the ACR exposure slider on the TIFF by about that much, leading to this:

Bennett 1 week old

Yeah, that’ll work. Colors remain where I want them, grain is good too (even on 100% zoom on the original scan). But how far can I push it, how much detail is there hidden away in those dark corners? Let’s goose the exposure all the way over, turn the contrast curve up to 11 and see what emerges out of the shadows!

Bennett 1 week old

Wow, tonal detail in that dark area in bottom left. And green speckly scanner noise. I don’t recommend this. But there is some tonal information hiding in there if you want it.

But wait, there’s more! What if I tackle this specific frame with scanning settings tailored toward an underexposed negative?


Honestly? I don’t see much difference in any way that matters. Either way, I get a very usable result! Yes, cranking the exposure up reveals less scanner noise in the dark areas, but it’s not like I was going digging for detail in those anyway.

Spotting Prints Using Diluted India Ink

In a previous installment of “Paul vs The Negative”, our protagonist emerged victorious from the darkroom, clutching 3 decent-quality final prints made from a badly exposed Kodak BW400CN negative.

There is a problem with those prints, a problem which I’ve been fortunate to have avoided so far, despite my darkroom also doing duty as kitty toilet (yay, fine clay dust and cat hairs everywhere all the time!) The prints have a lot of very obvious places which need spotting. To complicate matters, this print is on resin coated pearl finish paper, fixed in a hardening fixer. Apparently, I really like a challenge…

Ink and clean waterFor this first go at spotting, I opted to attempt cleanup on the first work print I’d made using existing supplies: bottled black India ink and a cheap 10/0 spotting brush. This is not an approach I’ve been able to find much information about online, just about any reference to print spotting with India ink was about how to use the dry India/China ink sticks plus gum arabic, just like Weston used to.

Straight India ink from the bottle wouldn’t work; I’d played around with that already and found that it forms a very obvious raised matte patch. Tonal control is also next to impossible.

So instead I made a whole series of different dilutions to get a range of grays, which after some experimentation turned out not to be entirely necessary, at least this first try.

BrushesWhat I settled on as I worked the test print, and which I used for my first final print, was having a 1:30-ish dilution of ink into distilled water. This proved to offer a good degree of tonal control. Pick up a brushful of the dilute ink and it’s very dark, but blot it out on paper and the tone lightens up quickly. By careful blotting, I can fine tune very quickly to get a tone which will work for the spot I want to hide.

I also found I could, with some care, undo a botched spot by using a clean brush with plain water to re-soak the spot, then very carefully picking up the water with a dry brush, taking the ink with it. Best of all, the India ink is acid-free, archival and light fast, so it’s going to stick around and not cause any problems. Using distilled water should help too.

Holding and protecting the print during spotting.

At normal viewing distance and angle, I can’t tell the light and midtone areas have been spotted at all, and I know where the bodies are buried. Only the darkest spots are relatively easy to find, and again that’s not something which I anticipate will cause problems under normal conditions.

I may adjust this as I go along. I can see maybe having a range of dilutions for different tonal areas. 1:30 seemed a good overall compromise, but I found it necessary to make several passes over the really dark spots with this dilution and the really light areas proved tricky because the brush was just about dry by the time I’d blotted it out to the right tone. As I refine this I’ll play around some with making differing tones to see if that works better.

Before spotting  After spotting

Before and after: these were the worst of the white spots on the print. I’m reasonably happy with how this turned out for having no experience of spotting a print before. If you look at the full-size versions you’ll see the spotting is by no means perfect. Fortunately it doesn’t have to be; it only has to stand up to scrutiny under normal viewing, not magnified to where the full print would be almost 4 feet across, which is roughly what the full-size scan of this section amounts to. Those thumbnails, by contrast, aren’t far from actual size on my display.

I think I’ve found my print spotting technique and best of all it uses materials I bought locally (not so easy in a mid-size second-tier market)! It’s not any cheaper than purpose-made spotting dyes, but I can’t buy those locally at half a dozen different places. I’ll have to try it on some glossy-finish prints next, those are said to be notoriously difficult to spot.

An unintentional longevity test

I didn’t really set out to test for print longevity under less than ideal processing conditions. But when I was working on the BW400CN final prints, I tested a minor tweak in the exposure by running a test print using a partial sheet of 8×10. I did this because I wanted to see the impact of the exposure change across the most important area of the entire print, and because once I was done making the prints I wanted to make, the partial sheet would have been the only piece of Adorama VC RC Pearl paper I had left. So I figured I might as well use it since I don’t have any plans to buy more of it in the pearl finish.

I should point out that I quite like the Adorama paper, but I think my preference is for glossy finish rather than pearl, and after handling a print made on Ilford fiber-base glossy paper, I’m sold on using that type of paper for my good prints (just need to build a simple print washer so I can properly process the stuff without having to supervise a tray siphon rig for nearly an hour). On the other hand, their glossy RC paper is great for contact prints, and incredibly good value.

Anyway…the test print I made is a nice little print in its own right. My work print is filed away and notated for future use, so I went ahead and spotted, trimmed and mounted the test print to hang in my office at work. It ended up being about a 7×7 inch print, hinge mounted on a not-quite 10×10 inch off-cut of mat board I had lying around. I didn’t frame it, just hung it as-is, with the overmat fastened to the mount board using loops of tape.

Now, this print did not receive a normal processing cycle, because it was never really planned to use it for anything. It had about a minute in the (non-rapid, hardening) fixer, and sat in the soak tray for a minute or two, tops. Even though it’s RC paper, that’s nowhere near close to being properly washed, and may or may not be properly fixed either. This bad boy is possibly harboring some undeveloped silver halides and almost certainly lousy with retained hypo.

I’ll be curious to see how it fares. And when it does deteriorate, I can always make a proper print of it. I actually rather like the square crop that the test print ended up being trimmed into, and may run with that for any future prints I make from this negative.