I’ve been doing some experiments exposing Ilford HP5 Plus at 3200 for the grain. Here’s a trio for your perusal. You can see they are of flowers, shot on 35mm and close-up using an extension tube. The tendency towards abstraction, and areas of simple tone, emphasises the grain I think.
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.
Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Thank you to all who have followed my blog and images this inaugural year of my website. The support and encouragement I have received has been huge and touching.
Here's looking forward to new photography adventures in 2017.
In this instalment of Pebble Project I present four examples of FP4+ in different developers. In a sense, the results here speak for themselves and the reader is invited to draw his / her own conclusions. That said, I’d like share a little commentary of my own as guidance, especially for the reader who is less experienced in film use. This is a job of interpretation, and as such carries the usual caveat that your impressions may differ.
You will see immediately that different developers have differing effects on similarly exposed film shots (which these are). This phenomenon is a big part of the joy film, its flexibility and potential to be shaped as the user wishes. There are different areas which we could focus on in interpreting the results. I made a list, and then printed the images so I could do a little table-top assessment. I decided to make things interesting by hiding the developers from myself (easy enough, given the degree of similarity of the shots), therefore doing a roughly ‘blind’ test.
First I asked myself about sharpness. I went backwards and forwards, and then backwards and forwards. I didn’t feel confident that I had reached a clear conclusion on this. On the one hand, this points to just how close some these developers come, on the other it might point to unaccounted for variables (like focus variation). I had, as it turns out, settled on the Perceptol sample as the ‘sharpest’, followed by LC29 and Ilfosol S together, with DDX last. I had firmly expected Ilfosol S to be the sharpest, given my experience of using this developer with Delta 100. Ilford don’t list Perceptol as being noted for sharpness. I don’t think DDX is generally known for sharpness, so it is perhaps not a surprise that I rate this last.
Next I tackled fine grain. I regarded DDX as the best (i.e. least grainy), followed by Ilfosol and Perceptol together, and LC29 last or ‘most grainy’. We’re not dealing with grain like golf balls here, far from it, but this is also not Delta 100 grain, which I consider to be finer. I think this conclusion is in keeping with what Ilford would say.
My next category was longest tonal range. I accept that this might be skewed by exposure issues (see notes below). My impression was that the longest march from deep tones to still palpable light ones went to Perceptol and LC29 together. Ilfosol I placed after, with DDX last, insomuch as it has a mid to light tonal range in which the extremities of tone don’t feature. Put differently, we could say DDX has a very open tonality. Ilford say that DDX provides the best overall image quality for liquid developers with FP4+. Perhaps this open tonality figures for them.
I then thought about the most open shadows, having in mind landscapes and other such images where blocked up shadows are a problem. I have hinted at my impression, namely that DDX has the most open shadows, followed by Ilfosol, Perceptol and LC29 in that order. Ilfosol sits in my mental map as something of a contrasty developer, and so I was a little surprised by this, and might have expected Perceptol to figure more highly. DDX gives a speed increase, so this again may account for the more generously exposed darker tones.
The quickest to lose the highlights I saw as clearly Ilfosol, although I am not sure I can usefully distinguish between the others. This is more in keeping with my own impression of Ilfosol as a sharpness enhancing developer that be difficult to print if the shots were made in high contrast light (I am referring to 35mm, somewhat loosely metered and metered from experience, rather than a careful zone system style placement and development regime). FP4+ has a ‘shoulder’ on its contrast curve, and so should deliver very manageable highlights. My results do nothing to contradict this.
Lastly, I thought about mid tone contrast. I went with LC29 and Perceptol together first (i.e. most mid tone contrast), followed by Ilfosol and then DDX. I have used LC29 a lot with HP5 plus and am used to seeing good negatives with plenty of contrast. I have always thought of Perceptol as rather smooth, but my experience is mainly with HP5 plus.
What does this mean so far?
Well, if there is any objectivity here (I hope there is some), then I have seen that some very well established ideas about FP4+ and its developers have been confirmed. I have also had some of my assumptions challenged, and, for me, this would now have an impact on my shooting and developing choices. I haven’t shot very much FP4+ in the grand scheme of things and am already beginning to cook up some uses. I must acknowledge that looking at studio test shots is not the same as looking at a contact print of ‘real’ images. The alchemy of film aside, these results do provide me some food for thought, and I hope this instalment offers you something useful too.
Where to now?
There are more developers to try with FP4+. These I will add to the start made above. I think it is right to compare other similar speed films, and Delta 100 is the obvious candidate, which I shall move on to next. Another legitimate option is to compare different speed films in the same developer. I may do this relatively quickly too, because it might prove more accessible to those who have not shot too much film. A beginner might quite rightly ask, if I buy one bottle of developer, which films might I explore for different conditions? I have started with a relatively arcane scenario by taking one film and comparing it to itself differently developed. Watch this space.
Technical points to note
I was looking at gloss inkjet prints, made on an Epson P600 machine, using Epson’s Advanced Black and White print driver. The print medium and driver play their part in the results. I was conscious of some differences between print and screen, as I would expect. Were darkroom prints to be made from the original negatives (here scanned on a Nikon Coolscan machine), the paper and development choices would be an influencing factor too. There is no ‘actual’ negative, other than, well, the actual negative! When we print, with combine parts that work on one another.
Where I am citing Ilford I am referring to relevant datasheets. These are excellent and provide lots of useful information that anyone interested in these matters should consult.
My development times are ‘standard’ (and convenient) ones given by Ilford. I have not used any ‘exotic’ variations, for example greater dilution and stand development. I reason that the Ilford times and dilutions make a great baseline should other recipes be explored. There are many such recipes in the film using community, and often these are cherished and highly personal.
I gave the Perceptol sample twice the exposure, given that it is a speed reducing developer. DDX is known as a speed-enhancing developer, and thus the sample is consistent with the idea that it should be a little ‘faster’, seen here as lighter tones. I did not alter the exposure for the DDX sample.
The view up close
One of the joys of looking carefully at the medium of photography is seeing things you didn’t expect. Working on setting up my Pebble Project (see previous post), I was all geared up to compare film and developer combinations, when I noticed this.
Before making my film shots of my pebble studio still life, I made some digital ones to conveniently test the light, composition and exposure. I duly imported the raw file into Lightroom, along with the film scans that are the focus of the exercise. I made a quick print of the FP4+ in LC29 exposure, as a reference shot for the ones that would follow.
Accept that I hadn’t. It was actually a print of the raw file (with ‘auto’ applied in the develop module). So I went back to atone for my error, and printed the FP4+ frame. Wow, what a difference!
The phrase that springs to mind is ‘descriptive power’. This is what the film frame has over the digital one. There is a depth and presence that is simply absent from the digital capture. The grain is clearly present, but adds a striking sense of detail and sharpness (this I should expect of course).
Now, this isn’t quite a fair comparison, because a raw digital capture needs to be nurtured and carefully processed. I am not in the business of claiming that film is ‘better’ than digital (or vice versa, for that matter). They are different media, with different strengths. Yet there is no escaping the special quality that film imparts. Nothing wrong with noticing - and celebrating - that.
Film rocks. (Pebbles - I know. The pun was unintended!)
I begin to today with a comparison of two film shots.
Both shots are on Ilford’s FP4+ film. The first is developed in Ilfotec LC29; the second Perceptol, a developer that begins life as a powder. The studio setups were identical in each, at least as far as I could make them. The stones are stuck to a sheet of perspex, making the exercise potentially repeatable.
I have some observations, although these alone aren’t the purpose of this post, as I shall elaborate in a moment. Frankly, I expected the tones of Perceptol to be more different from LC29 than they are. Personally (and subjectively), I see this as ‘win’ for LC29, as Perceptol is a personal favourite and in my mental map of film tonally very distinct. (I should really say, for completeness, that this notion is actually built on my use of HP5+ film.) I can see that the grain is pushed back in the Perceptol version. Grain is still there, but it is very smooth. The highlights are a tiny bit ‘longer’ in the Perceptol version, at least to my eye. Naturally, as I provide images, the reader is invited to make his or her own conclusions.
Now, notwithstanding the special alchemy that happens when different photographers put the same films (and developer) to use in differing circumstances, thus leading to unfathomably different results (and this is a huge factor), I think the idea of trialling different film and developer combinations in a (sort of) standardised setup* has intriguing potential, and, furthermore, may be of genuine use to a film-using community. Maybe this is the geek and obsessive in me rather than the artist, but my mind races with what I might learn as I compare films in this way. How might Delta 100 compare to FP4+ in LC29 (some of you could make a good guess, I’m sure)? In Perceptol, to itself in LC29 and FP4+? What about HP5+? Or DD-X?
You will see where I am going with this. As I’m keen to reiterate, you won’t necessarily get the same results as me; yet with my standardised pebble shot, some legitimate practical comparisons can still be made. I think this could be good knowledge to take into the field. I could spend a long time shooting different films and subjects without being able to make such sound comparisons.
So I end with a modest plan. I will run this as a series of occasional blog postings reporting on different films and developers. If the results build up as I anticipate they will, I should get to a position where I can share an additional summary post (or even article). I envisage maybe four weeks between postings, to give me time to produce the results and write short instalments, although due to my other commitments this may vary somewhat. Feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts (see the ‘contact’ link above), or you can contact me through Twitter (@richard_pickup).
*A brief note on the method behind the samples, and a caveat.
The studio setup is identical in each shot (position of light, light power setting, reflector placement, tripod position). The same camera and lens have been used, along with the same exposure settings. The chosen focus point on the pebbles is the same. Due to the time between the shots (and the necessary time between any shots I may make for the series in future), the framing of the pebbles varied slightly. After processing the film to the times and temperatures stated, both negatives were scanned on a dedicated Nikon film scanner and imported into Lightroom. I made no adjustments to exposure, nor did I sharpen the images. Images were cropped for neatness.
I think it’s worth making this declaration, because with such tests anomalies creep in, and one has to be aware of possible variables. For instance, focussing is prone to small differences and may impact on perceptions of sharpness. Who is to say that the camera was not subject to small vibrations in one of the shots. (Naturally, I’ve been very careful, but we should not entirely rule such things out.) Any conclusions drawn should therefore be taken with a small pinch of salt. As I say above, they should have useful validity but they shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I’ve done these tests in my spare time, out of curiosity and in the spirit of exploration.
Thanks must go to Jevon Tooth for the idea using a collection of stones in a test shot of film tonality.