I’d like to propose a counter-term that points us in another direction: image quality. Not, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind’, or even ‘the degree of excellence of something’. No, I mean it in another sense of the same word: ‘a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something.’Read More
Today I'd like to share a video with you.
I have been working on my 10x8 contact prints and am starting to get some sound results. The print in the video is approximately 11 x 14 inches, with the image size just a shade under 10x8 inches (I used a mask to get the paper white edges and this results in a size slightly smaller than the negative).
As always it's difficult to truly share a print online, but I hope the video gives a sense of its physicality and presence. I said in a previous post that making this print has been a bigger challenge than I anticipated (mainly because of the masking), but working with the large negative has been a joy. The adventure continues.
I’ve done enough street photography now that I routinely overcome my nerves, although there are times when that familiar flutter in the stomach returns. I recently heard a comedian say that nerves can be turned into a kind of positive energy. I think I do that these days when I remind myself that I’m doing a ‘job’ - the noble job of photography - and that street is a place where the work has to be done. It’s a little mantra and a form of self-permission and motivation. When I’ve captured some frames, my nerves settle down.
Being in China with the 5x4 Intrepid Field Camera, my nerves were very much present. In point of fact, not since my first forays in public with a camera in hand had my nerves been quite so evident. A discomfiting feeling for sure, but also a life-affirming one. My senses were alive and I was all the time reminding myself about what I’d decided to do. I had come to China. I was going to do 5x4.
My nerves were not helped by the proportional nervous and suspicious looks I received from Chinese security guards, at what felt like every ten or so yards. There are a lot of such workers in Shanghai. It helps you to feel safe, but you are being watched.
Looking back, it may have been something to do with my newly purchased plastic Nikon branded tripod. This I had bought over in China, solely for the purpose of shooting with the Intrepid. The plastic beast came with a convenient black carry-case. You know, a sort of roughly ‘gun’ sized case. A case carried by a conspicuous white man who had turned up in busy areas looking nervously at security guards, walkways, entrances, exits and the crowds. Eventually, I learned to bag the case and carry the tripod with some leg extension - so it looked like a tripod. Everybody relaxed.
I didn’t have long to shoot large format in China. I did a fair amount of scouting for locations whilst shooting 35mm, but probably did no more than the equivalent of a day with the Intrepid. I set the camera up fully on three occasions. Each time was quite magical; the locations, light and people around me each a contributing factor.
On the first occasion I drew some modest attention. One gentleman in particular was quite taken with my red-bellowed companion. He stood for some time watching me work, to the point where I began to give a silent tutorial on the shooting procedure. I know not if he wanted that, but it seemed the polite thing to do. The second time I set up the camera I was decidedly braver in my choice of location - I was in a back alley in the suburbs - but I was much more shocked by the reaction of passers-by. There simply was no reaction! I thought I was bound to be approached by the workers who came out of an adjacent building, but no, they walked around me as if I wasn’t there. I chuckled at my self-consciousness.
The last time, on a car park with derelict buildings, a car drove into my shot at the worst time possible. Just when I began my curses, he suddenly reversed away. I was back in the zone when I was interrupted again. This time a joyous ‘CAMERA!’ was shouted in my direction. It was the driver of the car as he triumphantly skipped by. We exchanged smiles and I thanked him silently for respecting the shot. Well, I like to think it was respect.
So what of my experience of using the Intrepid on this trip? And what have I to now add to my original review? Two important things stand out: one is the relative compactness of the camera; the other is that I really hardly noticed the camera at all.
I was conscious of weight and bulk on my trip, a factor that led me to equivocate over whether or not to take the Intrepid. Having solved the tripod issue, I further reduced my load by forsaking my usual Manfrotto backpack. For this generously padded pack, I substituted my thin branded urban rucksack, inside which I placed a light generic camera bag to protect the 5x4. The film holders and darkcloth sat neatly on top. While the fit was a little tight, it did provide the further benefit of being very inconspicuous. With that rucksack on my back, I was truly in urban mode.
To be able to carry a 5x4 camera in such a manner is a real testimony to the design of the Intrepid. My improvised arrangement for China has made me reconsider my normal backpack: I was left with the strong sense that I had previously been carrying more bag than camera. This was a huge plus for me working in an urban environment, but it is of even bigger benefit for those wanting to work in rural and remote locations. If you are not carrying around a lot of film holders or alternative lens choices, weight is not an issue at all.
Setting the camera up and down was a pleasure. I suppose I have now developed enough muscle memory that such actions are smooth and automatic. There really aren’t a lot of adjustments to contend with. For some large format photographers in some situations this will be a problem, but of course, it very much depends on the work you are doing. As I have written before, if you are starting out in 5x4, the Intrepid makes a forgiving companion. It’s a great ‘learning camera’.
This is what I mean by not noticing the camera. At each location I was fully immersed in making the image, and my control of the camera and exposure really did flow. I’m pleased with the images I made given the time I had. Interestingly, I think I was shooting 5x4 while still somewhat in a street photography mode. I elected more than once to include a passerby, chancing my arm with borderline shutter speeds and using my intuition somewhat for compositional placement (after all, you have gone ‘blind’ once the film holder is inserted). This may be suggestive of further personal work; crucially, for the Intrepid, it shows how it can be used quickly and with ease in public locations.
I have one small caveat. I find that the front standard doesn’t ‘lock down’ as fully as I’d like, and is prone to moving around its central tightening screw. I pondered in my original review whether the wooden bottom of the standard would be hard-wearing in the longer term. It’s not the wear that now strikes me as the issue so much as the movement.
Now, this movement might simply be a feature of my own copy of the camera, but my suspicion is that it isn’t. I have just taken possession of the new 10x8 model, and I’ve noticed an addition that solves the issue entirely. They’ve included some small grip pads on the standard’s bottom (think sandpaper stickers and that describes them well). I don’t know whether this is in response to feedback, or simply Intrepid’s ongoing commitment to design refinement at work. Either way, the change is welcome and points to an easy user modification to the smaller 5x4. The front standard on the 10x8 is very solid when tightened.
I certainly fulfilled a personal ambition by shooting 5x4 in China, and you will gather from the tenor of my report that I continue to recommend the Intrepid for such a task. I’m looking forward now to doing some work with the newly arrived 10x8, a whole different challenge again. It’s funny that I’ve been in the habit of referring to my 5x4 as ‘the big camera’. That mantle has been lifted from it by the newly arrived 10x8, a camera that dwarfs it by comparison. The 5x4 looks tiny now, but it isn’t just the size comparison that has left me with that feeling. Using it in China has made me realise just what a compact large format camera it really is.
In this instalment of my Shanghai Travelogue I’ll be looking at the second approach I took to shooting in China, namely with 35mm black and white film. Here, I was very much on home ground: my Leica M6TTL being my camera of choice and Ilford’s HP5 Plus my film. It’s an approach I am intimately familiar with, and, in the spirit of Adams’ quote above, one I enjoy for its simplicity. Waking up in Shanghai, with somewhat more than a pocket’s worth of film in my possession, was indeed a heady experience.
I chose HP5 Plus because I know it and its development routines intimately. Many people begin to ask themselves what equipment they need when travelling to new locations, almost as if they are starting again with their photography. Instead, I prefer (and indeed recommend) familiar equipment and technique. Why change your way of working, just because you are going to be somewhere different? Increasingly, over the past few months black and white has become my preferred style, and films like HP5 Plus have been a mainstay.
The majority of my shots were exposed at 320 with a view to developing them in Perceptol. This is something like my default black and white mode right now. One loses a little speed (hence 320 not ‘box speed’, 400) and development times are long, but for me there is something of a holy trinity of sharpness, good tonality and well-controlled grain. My manual 35mm rangefinder camera allows for a contemplative approach to shooting, but when one is in the flow it also allows for speed of reaction too. Choose an aperture and shutter speed, part focus the lens, and shooting can take place almost instantaneously. I’d wager I give the best autofocus systems a run for their money with my camera so primed.
On a particularly misty day (which you can see in the shots), I decided to shoot at 1600. This flexibility is another virtue of HP5 Plus. It would mean another developer (this time LC29), but gave me a twofold advantage: speed when shooting on the underground trains, and small-ish apertures for street shots in the mist. The grain is somewhat exaggerated at this speed, but I think it complements the mist and was an effect I had visualised at the time. If my pursuit of 320 and Perceptol came from my earlier days of wanting to suppress grain for a cleaner look, my embracing grain at 1600 represents a more mature self who has made his peace with the medium and its quirks. There is beauty in grain. As ever with film, the key thing is to assess the situation in front of you and try to use your knowledge of printing and development to see a finished print in your mind’s eye.
I’ll be looking at my experience of shooting large format film with my Intrepid Field Camera in the next instalment. I hope you enjoy the shots.
As the aeroplane edged ever closer to its destination in Shanghai, China, I looked across a misty vista of azure blue mountains stacked liked an Appia stage set. In my somewhat dreamy state, I turned over my photography plans and choices for the trip. How was I going to shoot in China? What equipment had I chosen to bring, and were these the right choices?
That I was going to do street photography was in no doubt, and I was resoundingly set on making black and white film shots. My Leica M6TTL rangefinder was a given, and, while I could probably have made the case for other emulsions, I was set on Ilford HP5 plus as a primary 35mm film. In the past I have proclaimed the virtues of travelling with familiar equipment and working methods, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on this principle in China. It is difficult to ignore colour in China, and for this task I planned to turn to my Sony A7II mirrorless camera. A mix of film and digital was an approach that had worked well for me in India, an equally far-away place in my world.
Somewhat less clear cut was my decision to bring my Intrepid 5x4 field camera. Initially I had thought to leave it behind, my substantial Manfrotto tripod being too bulky and heavy to take (the trip wasn’t entirely about photography, and books on so forth needed to be transported). However a certain mischievous Twitter acquaintance* gave me a tempting idea: simply buy a cheap tripod when in China and leave it behind if needs be.
So it was that my Intrepid came to be sitting snugly with my other equipment and film in the overhead locker. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to move stealthily with my Leica on the streets of Shanghai; I was even less sure what it would be like to stand with my red-bellowed wooden friend on Chinese streets meeting head-on the full rigours of 5x4. My thinking started to become a little extreme: a image of a Chinese policeman telling me to pack away my tripod came into my head. I was an obstruction, a danger to Chinese citizens going about their daily business….
I’d like to present, then, a modest three-part series of travelogues recounting my experiences in China. I want to show you my work, give you some insight into my thought processes and shooting choices, and provide what insight I can into doing photography in Shanghai (although, naturally this will be limited in the sense that my trip was but one week long). As the final instalment will be about the Intrepid Field Camera, I see this as an extension to my original detailed review of the camera, a sort of mid-term report, if you will, of the camera’s performance. Early impressions are one thing, but a much more informed (and sometimes different) picture emerges when an item has been used over an extended period. I will be posting some of my images on Twitter throughout this period, so please do look out for them, and I hope you enjoy the coming instalments.
The plan is thus:
Shanghai Travelogue Part 1: Street Photography in China
Shanghai Travelogue Part 2: Enter Ilford HP5+
Shanghai Travelogue Part 3: Using my Intrepid 5x4 Field Camera
*For those of you that know him, I need only say that his true identity is something of a mystery.
I'm honoured to be included in Ilford's final 'Friday Favourites' of 2017. There is a fine selection of images here, so do check them out. There is a lot more to explore on Ilford's newly refurbished website too, included lots of educational content. I especially like the Learning Zone, which is building into quite a collection already.
A fine product from Ilford and a mainstay of many darkrooms in this country is Multigrade IV Resin Coated paper. It’s the paper I use most with my students and it comfortably facilitates a novice’s first steps towards a satisfying print.
Not all darkroom papers are equal however, and if you have begun your darkroom journey with a paper such as this, you may wish to consider trying a warmtone paper too. For me, warmtone is my paper of choice, and you will often come across advice to make the switch to it on grounds of an improvement in quality.
Now, I’m not sure it is objectively ‘better’, nor do I quite agree with the advice I sometimes see that it will give you a ‘better’ tonal range (as if merely making the switch is enough to ensure printing contentment).
What it does give you is a different distribution of tones at different grades, and, with the right negative, this may well result in a more satisfying and expansive tonal range. I know it does for me in the vast majority of cases.
Multigrade IV has a very long reach into the highlights at middle grades, while it is somewhat lacking in local contrast in the midtones. If your negative has a lot of midtones, this can result in a muddy and disappointing rendering. Multigrade IV Warmtone on the other hand, has much more ‘punch’ and tonal separation in the midtones, albeit at the expensive of the highlight scale. It gravitates towards a crisp white in the highlights quicker than its cousin, and this may not be an issue in the case of the midtone dominated scene. As is so often the case in photography, this is a question of compromise, or more accurately, of the right compromise for your particular equipment and visualisation.
It is good darkroom practice to know the tonal characteristics of your paper and to match them to your negative. In reality one paper may very well suffice for the majority of your printing, but if you haven’t tried any alternatives, how do you know? It may be time to try the warmtone option, and to see how it works with your negatives and vision.
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By way of a nod to the festive season, may I present this modest (but significant) print offer.
I am offering for sale a limited edition of just ten darkroom prints of my 35mm photograph Rain Lanterns. The prints are approximately 9x6 inches, on Ilford’s superlative Multigrade Art 300 paper. This is an archival material that will therefore last for many, many years if properly cared for. It has an eggshell, slightly pitted surface and beautiful tonality.
The offer is significant because it is the first time I have made a darkroom print available for sale. Prints will be signed and numbered on the reverse, and will come with a certificate of authenticity. The certificates will bear an Ilford authentic fine art print label. I will not print any more of this edition (designated 2016), although I may choose to make future editions (these will be labelled appropriately, so that the current, and first, edition will be identifiable).
If you are ordering in the UK and do so before the 18th December, I will make every effort to ensure you get your print before Christmas. For orders outside the UK, please make them as soon as possible if you are looking for Christmas delivery. Due the nature of international postage, I can’t guarantee a pre-Christmas delivery, but I will ensure prints go out as soon as possible at my end. Postage is free for the UK, and there is a £10.00 charge per order for all other destinations.
Today I bring you a little update of my Pebble Project in the form of some darkroom prints. I have printed the first four FP4+ negatives from the project (results shared in the previous Pebble post) on Ilford Multigrade Resin Coated Gloss paper. I will share these in a larger and more accessible form in a future post, but for now they read: LC29 top left, Perceptol top right, Ilfosol S bottom left, DDX bottom right (with development times as per the previous post).
The darkroom prints make the differences more obvious, and, on a cursory look, I felt they were somewhat more in keeping with what I'd initially expected from the different developers. No surprise here, as negatives are obviously designed to be printed in the darkroom and my expectations (and data such as that from Ilford) were shaped there.
I have more technical information to share on this (such as my darkroom printing decisions) and some more observations and corrections. The project is not at all straightforward - and certainly has its limitations - but I am learning a lot which is great.
I am working on a little gallery of results for this site, which will enable the reader access to all the Pebble images in one place and to view larger versions. I'll publish this in the near future and add to it with more film / developer combinations as things progress. Watch this space.
I have been busy on lots of fronts of late, but especially with teaching, as it the start of the academic year. My Pebble Project is in full swing, and it too has taken no modest amount of time, demanding my concentration and discipline.
So it is easy for me to forget that some of the best pleasures in doing photography are simple ones. A little time in the darkroom the other day served as a reminder.
Despite some reservations, I went ahead and printed a somewhat underexposed negative taken with my Yashica Mat G medium format camera and Ilford FP4+ film. The image is inescapably dark, so I went along with this, hoping to stay just the right side of 'meh, too dark'. The negative is indeed thin, but is it nevertheless amazing how much detail still resides in even the thinnest of areas.
In a case such as this, one's printing choices are narrowed and fine margins become all-important. My first print was too dark and lacked contrast. Still, I could see that the image struck up a relationship with the paper and its pearly, pitted surface, so I pressed on. I went up by about half a grade, and reduced my exposure. The tonality was now much more open and the image remained suitably dark, but gained much more of a sense of the light beyond. I finished the print with a gentle vignette, maybe heavier than my usual, and dodged the flowers a little to lift the lightest tones and draw the eye to the melancholy memorial.
An hour's printing with this forgiving, flexible and tactile medium that is darkroom.
Purveyors of photographic materials Ilford really need no introduction. Their name already permeates this blog. They are rightly known for the quality and consistency of their products, and many a photographer and darkroom worker relies on them.
In May, Emulsive (a website dedicated to film) invited questions via social media to put to this great company. Ilford have been generous in the time and consideration given to their response, and they answered an impressive number of questions. Click on the button below for the link. It makes good reading for anyone interested in the UK photo industry, and especially the future of film.
Somebody asked me the other day 'what film is in your camera right now'. I answered XP2 Super, and called it one of my favourites. Why?
If you are unfamiliar with film, I can begin with a recommendation: try XP2 because it's easy to use. There's an argument along these lines for all 'medium' speed films of course (400 ISO), film having a notorious 'latitude' (meaning that even under- or over-exposed frames will print to some degree of use). XP2 is especially forgiving, it absorbs extreme highlights and reproduces them as kind light greys rather than blocked-up paper whites. Indeed, XP2 thrives on generous exposure; one of its other qualities being that the grain appears most pronounced in the shadows - the reverse of traditional emulsions like HP5 plus.
To ease of use we can add convenience. XP2 is processed using colour chemistry, something that you can still find in many places on the high streets of the UK (though, alas, diminishingly so - kudos to Boots and Frosts chemists in my locale). I am a pretty slow photographer, so my shots build up over time. I really enjoy the fact that I can get a film developed whilst out and about shopping, pick it up a little later, enjoy 6x4inch proof prints, and select which frames to work on in earnest in the darkroom another day. I should add for completeness that I am referring to 35mm, shot in a rangefinder.
Ilford materials are developed to work well together, and I enjoy the look of XP2 printed on Ilford Warmtone Multigrade Fibre Based paper. I want to say that there is a luminosity to XP2 that this paper allows to shine. I strongly suspect that the aforementioned forgiving nature of the film makes for a generally easier ride in the darkroom. Some may read this as a lack of control (developed in colour chemistry, by someone else, remember), but my experience is that even when darkroom controls are limited, they are plentiful.
Scanned XP2, especially when dust reduction or grain suppression software is applied, can look somewhat 'digital', i.e. very clean, almost 'waxy'. The behaviour of the grain mentioned above plays a part here too. If you dig into and lighten those shadows too much unpleasant textures can emerge (of course, all this is subjective, you may want to do that). Economical Leica Monochrom anyone? One could get a second hand Leica M6, a Nikon Coolscan film scanner, a couple of rolls of XP2, and satisfy both digital and darkroom black and white yearnings.
One last thought. Following from my own experience and the wise words of others, begin by rating XP2 Super at 200 for general work (or 400 for low light), but change your camera to 100 when in bright, contrasty light. This allows the shadows to receive adequate exposure, in the face of your camera's light meter which will be compensating for the abundant bright areas. Highlights receive 'too much' exposure using this tactic, but recall that this doesn't matter because XP2 doesn't 'blow out' like digital. This is XP2 Super.
This print is very much a hybrid of new and old technology. It was shot on Ilford Delta 100 film and scanned and processed digitally before being printed on an Epson R3000 inkjet printer. The film was processed using Ilfosol 3, a developer that works very well with Delta 100, if one wants to emphasise fine detail.
I had made a darkroom print before I went down the digital route. I had envisaged this image as a very crisp and tonally varied one, something that my darkroom print didn’t quite achieve. Admittedly, I hadn’t spent too long on it in the darkroom, and remember filing the work print for further work. I must have been trying out some new ideas in digital processing, because I scanned the negative knowing what was in it and began to work on it in earnest.
One of the joys of modern technology is control. I think the analog darkroom has more than enough control in itself; the digital darkroom multiplies even this much further. The image needed some substantial perspective correction (you can see I am looking up from the camera position) and cropping as a result. I wrestled for a long time with the balance between emphasising the details in the architecture and conveying the grain in a way that I liked. You can’t have it all your own way: enhancing midtone contrast comes at the expense of adding noise to smooth areas. You are forced to protect certain areas (like sky) with carefully made layer masks. I went backwards and forwards for a long time with the tones and detail enhancement. I learnt a great deal about processing along the way.
I hadn’t really considered the print finished until a friend asked me to talk about my work and show some prints. It was at that point that I decided that I had a definitive version, printed on Epson Archival Matte paper. Looking at it on screen and then seeing the print brings a certain surprise. There is a fullness and depth to the print, a ‘rightness’ and balance that you can’t appreciate looking at a screen. It is as if the image can finally breathe. Happily, my first audience greeted the print with a lot of praise. As a photographer you do hope that others will enjoy the aesthetic decisions you make and share and understand a modicum of your vision.