The zone system is a method of controlling tone in black and white film photography. It enables the user / photographer to have confidence that tones visualised when the shutter is pressed will be the tones seen in a final print. It involves undertaking careful film exposure and development testing (linked to an individual’s equipment and working habits) and removes the doubts of ‘hope it will come out’ photography.Read More
I have been looking forward to printing this negative for some time. The print is on warmtone fibre based paper (hence the gentle curl at the edges).
I began with my usual procedure of making test strips at grade 2.5, but soon went down the grades as I felt that the negative demanded an open and gentle tonality. The grade I used in the end was 1.4. There is a very extensive tonal range, and the print does not lack contrast, even at this low grade. I think I achieved the kind of open tonality I was after.
The print size is a little larger than I would normally print at for 35mm. It was made using my Zeiss C Sonnar 50mm lens, and the bright, strongly backlit scene allowed for a favourable aperture and shutter speed combination (favourable, that is, to securing the necessary sharpness for a good enlargement).
I've been working with students in the darkroom all through this week. One of the things we've been trying out is prints 10x8 inches or larger (we normally work with a smaller size, especially for beginners).
I always enjoy demonstrating printing; I think it's really important for students to see an instructor engaged with the process, leading by practical example.
The print above is on fibre based paper. It's a work print, ready for a little contemplation before a final dodge and burn plan is made (I think it will be mainly burning-in with this image). There's always a sense of anticipation as the print dances and the water flows. Don't forget 'dry down' though: tones become a little darker when dry, which can often steal a little of the perceived sparkle of the lighter tones.
This image is from a roll of HP5+ that I originally intended to develop in Perceptol. I had metered the roll at 320, as is my usual practice with Perceptol, but found that I had run out of that developer when it came to processing time. I turned to Ilfotec HC as a replacement; after giving some consideration to possibly curtailing development a little, I plumped for 6.5 minutes, which Ilford say is good for HP5+ exposed at 400.
I had used HC mainly with 5x4 negs up until this point, and it strikes me as a flexible developer, with a good mix of qualities. The negs are good, with a nice open tonality, and they will make a flexible starting point for darkroom printing. My initial impression is that they are not quite as sharp as Perceptol negs. Perceptol needs a little more work because it has to be mixed from a powder (HC is a liquid, ready to be diluted), and development times are quite long when film speed is down-rated.
Still, it is pleasing to have the quality of Perceptol confirmed by comparison, and I shall look on HC as a sound stand-in for similar circumstances. I'm happy to embrace such a detour because there is always something to learn.
Roy Bijster asks a great question on Twitter: 'I am a bit confused by "a longer development time for downrated film". Downrating = overexposing, so why the longer dev time?' I think I could have been more clear; I suppose this post was in note form, really. The answer is that Perceptol is a speed reducing developer, i.e. one loses speed by using it. A sort of 'penalty', in exchange for great image quality. With HP5+ rated at 320, the time using Perceptol stock+1 is 18 minutes. That's the figure I have in mind when I'm comparing to the much shorter 6.5 minutes of HC, for the same film rated at 400.
Normal practice, which Roy alludes to, is to reduce development when 'overexposure' is used. That's why I wondered if I shouldn't cut the stated 6.5 minutes for HC because I had exposed at 320.
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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Games to play
Welcome to the final post of my Tone: A Primer series.
Today I’m going to look at some exercises you can do in order to sharpen your command of tone in black and white. They are suggestions and starting points and can be modified to suit your own practice and equipment. I have endeavoured to ensure that there is material for both film and digital users, although the final exercise is a film one. They are given broadly in order of difficulty.
1. Play with exposure
If you are relatively new to photography, it is well worth beginning with a simple exposure exercise. Try reproducing the modest exercise I explain in post two (under the heading ‘A sliding scale of grey’). Easy to do, but insightful if you are starting out. You are in control of the tones in your images.
2. Shoot black and white things
I have Jevon Tooth to thank for this exercise. When Jevon showed me some of his great black and white prints, it was obvious that he had deliberately targeted black and white objects in order to hone his vision in the medium (e.g. some very lightly toned grasses against a painted black fence). The thought had never occurred to me! A simple but very effective to way get a sense of how black and white tonality can work in crafting images.
3. Strive for tonal variation
For this exercise, I’d like you to prepare and print an image that contains different areas of clearly distinguished tone. Whether you are working with digital or darkroom, the task is to use dodging and burning (or equivalent tools) to help separate distinct zones within the image, and to use this to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject.
Traditionally, this involves keeping the subject (especially if a person) fairly light tonally (this catches the eye) and to darken surrounding areas, particularly edges, so as to create a frame. Darkened edges are known as a vignette.
Yet further than this, it is important to make decisions about how to create a sense of contrast between the image zones. Perhaps a very light area of window light needs to burnt-in just a tad, so as to lend a little more solidity to it. Maybe an area at the end of a road in a landscape needs lightening to distinguish it from surrounding trees and to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. Perhaps a little collection of objects near the bottom of the frame is too light and competes with the subject that is more central. Knock it back with a gentle burn-in.
4. Shoot the zones
This exercise was devised by John Blakemore. It assumes some familiarity with the zone system, or, at least with the tones that are demarcated by it. Summaries of the zones and their corresponding descriptions abound on the internet, so one of these is a good place to start.
You begin by choosing a zone and attempt to make a photograph that encapsulates its mood. So, I might choose zone four, say, looking carefully at the tone given in the charts and mulling over the description I have found of ‘average dark foliage, dark stone, landscape shadow’.
The challenge with this exercise - and a challenge it indeed is - is that you are trying to make an image that still holds a range of tones, but that somehow summarises the feeling of the zone in question. You may of course use any development or printing controls you have at your disposal to make the print that you think is appropriate. There is no right or wrong to this, it’s simply a very good exercise for understanding the tonal range available to black and white photographers.
5. Make a ring-around
For this exercise I’m going to assume that you are using a film (and developer) with some regularity, and that you have a pretty well-established development regime.
You will need to shoot three rolls of film. Firstly, shoot your typical subjects at ‘box speed’ (i.e. the ISO as stated on the film box). For example, if you are shooting HP5+, you would go with 400. It does help to have one or two test subjects (e.g. a given room with consistent lighting) that will provide a reference point across the films.
Next, you shoot more of your typical subjects (re-do that test subject too) but this time at a stop under and a stop over that box speed. You might simply want to change the ISO on your camera, so that you can simply get on with shooting. Therefore, in my 400 speed example, I would shoot some frames at 800 and some at 200. It takes some discipline, but it’s really worth making note of all your exposures as you do this exercise.
When the films are finished you then develop them in the following way. For the first you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for the developer in question. Opening up my box of HP5+ I find a handy chart which will tell me the time with the developer I'm using. For the next film you add 20 percent to the development time, so as to ‘over-develop’ the film. You may have guessed that for the remaining film you are going to reduce the original manufacturer’s time by 20 percent. This will give you ‘under-development’.
When you are done developing you make a contact print of the results, in your usual manner. In the following image you can see just such a contact print, here showing the ‘normal’ development, and what is labelled +1 and -1, meaning our +20 and -20 percent. I have asked you to do a lot of hard work so far, but already you have a lot of really interesting information. Do you prefer the manufacturer’s development time, or the over- or under-developed version?
Next you can look for frames that you overexposed. What do you think of overexposure and underdevelopment? Or of overexposure and overdevelopment? Which tonality do you prefer? Here is my contact print showing overexposure. The development sequence is the same as the image above, so left under, middle normal and right over.
The underexposed frames then complete the picture. Again, which is the best tonality, for you and your typical subjects? What does the test scene suggest?
There is some more work to do, because this exercise can be brought to a brilliant conclusion. The last step is to print a selection of the images (logically you’d do nine, as suggested by the contact prints above) aiming for the best possible print in each case. In other words, you don’t print them all to some standardised time and grade, but make the best possible print using all the usual controls that are available to you.
You now have a huge amount of information about your shooting and developing regime and with luck some interesting new exposure and development settings to trial over a longer period. You are not stuck with whole stops or indeed 20 percent, but can make further refinements as you progress. Not a quick or easy exercise but potentially a very fruitful one.
I own a print by an established photographer that is framed and displayed in my home. I enjoy this print every day, and it has many virtues. Shot with a large format camera on black and white film, it has a rich tonal range, is pin sharp, beautifully mounted, and is of an uplifting natural scene. The tones are undulating and varied without being brash or overly contrasty. The scene is peaceful and there is a quiet drama to the print that chimes with this.
As a printer however, there is one detail that really excites me. To the top left of the image is a space where foliage gives way to a glimpse of distant mountains. I have never seen the negative, so I can only speculate about what it is actually like, but I imagine that particular area to be pretty dense. I surmise that a straight print would result in a too light patch that would draw the eye undesirably to the edge of the frame (and thus from the image area and its subject matter). I further surmise that a little burning-in is necessary to bring a sense of solidity to the rocks and to shift the tones from empty white or near white to light grey. A light grey that is solid but still light. A grey delicately balanced and finely tuned.
How satisfying that light yet solid grey is! To my eye, with my printer’s speculation (admittedly a projection, but likely, I think), it is a small but hugely important detail that makes all the difference. It encapsulates for me the joy of the printer’s work; the ability to tune parts of an image such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The work of greys, of patches and pockets of grey, decided upon by the artist. Not arrived at accidentally, but tuned with intention, decided upon, meant.
A most delectable patch of grey, and a reminder of what a great monochrome medium we have at our disposal, film or digital.
Two big* negatives in the drying cabinet can only mean that my new large format adventure has begun. An exciting sight this week, and, perhaps, the start of a whole new aspect to my photographic work.
I somewhat improvised the development procedure - time was certainly against me - but the negatives are basically sound (maybe a tad underexposed).
Onto the contact prints!
*I can't resist pointing out that 'big' is a relative word in photography. There's always somebody with a bigger camera! Relative to 35mm 5x4 is a big negative. But to 10x8? And so on....
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.
What follows is a little report on some work I have been doing with digital negatives. It is relatively specialised ground, especially as it entails access to a good inkjet printer, editing software, and a darkroom, but I think it will be of interest to anyone intrigued by the thought of a marriage of digital and darkroom.
The story starts with an excellent product by Permajet called Digital Negative Transfer Film. This is the material on which the technique rests and its ready availability and quality is of crucial importance. This is not a technique you will wish to spend time on if it turns out you can no longer get the essential media, or indeed if that media fails you. A wise master printer once said that it is your time, not materials, that are your biggest outlay. I personally am not prepared to invest time in a process that I am unlikely to be able to repeat, unless I can value the occasion as a one-off simply so to be enjoyed.
In this sense, what I offer is a little review, too, of Permajet’s film. I am happy to say that it passes muster, and I am confident that I can use the process much more, and to fuller effect.
Ever since I heard about high quality digital film, I have wondered whether I could make a negative from a digital file that I could print on darkroom paper. Readers familiar with platinum / palladium printing (and indeed other alternative processes involving a digital negative) will be aware that a tradition of using such materials has existed for some time. Processes like cyanotype or platinum entail the creation of the photographic medium (paper) prior to exposure, whereas printing with conventional darkroom papers offers a little more speed and convenience.
The motivation for making a digital negative to print in the darkroom is that one can have the detail, sharpness and control of a digital file combined with the unique tones of a silver print. I have long thought that what makes darkroom prints so special is that we are looking upon a physical manifestation of silver in a print. The process is based on a contact print method of printing, not unlike that used by large format photographers who print directly from, say, 10x8 inch negatives. There is no enlarger lens mediating the light and so all the glorious detail of the original negative is preserved (you may have seen this in 35mm when enlarging your negatives, the contact print creating an unobtainable, crisp rendition of the original negative).
I have written before that I consider the controls offered by darkroom to be more than adequate on their own (as supported by the many fabulous prints made throughout darkroom’s history). However, it is inescapably true that when you can work on a digital negative first, you have all the controls of the digital darkroom at your disposal in addition to those under the safelights. This inevitably brings its complications (and as you will see adds to steps to be taken) but the precision and creative possibilities open to the printer are mind boggling.
The first step is to establish a minimum exposure time for your paper that will yield a black tone. You can do this with a simple test strip, as you would when testing for negative exposure times. My paper of choice was Ilford’s fine Multigrade Warmtone Glossy. My rationale was that, as well as the fact that I enjoy its tonality, I could process, wash and dry it without the restrictions of fibre based paper.
You next print a step wedge showing a range of tones onto the digital film. These can be found for download on the internet, and are simply a range of different densities of tone running from ‘0’ (white) to ‘100’ (black). I printed mine using Epson's Advanced Black and White driver, through Lightroom.
The step wedge is taken into the darkroom and contact-printed at the minimum exposure time for black established in step one. When I exposed the step wedge, I made sure I covered a small section of the paper with opaque card. This creates a reference point representing unexposed paper, or paper white. The resulting print is then dried properly (this must be done to allow for ‘dry down’ of your print tones) and scanned at 300 ppi. I next opened this file in Photoshop, converted it to greyscale, and opened the levels adjustment. I sampled the black and white points to shift the curve so that ‘pure’ black and white are represented. This step is necessary, because we are now creating a model of the darkroom print in, as it were, a virtual space. The white reading is taken from the area of the print that was covered during darkroom exposure, the black from the 100% black section.
Now comes what is most difficult part. A curve must be constructed to ‘correct’ a processed digital file so that it will print correctly on darkroom paper. You could of course simply invert one such file, print it onto the film and contact print it. I’d almost encourage you to do that, because you will see the distance between digital film and a film negative. It should look pretty horrible tonally, with a whole raft of tones missing.
So what we do is read the tones from the scanned step wedge at intervals of ten to ascertain how our correction will go. This is done using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop. My numbers went 0-4, 5-4, 10-7. 20-14, 30-24, 40-37 and so on. I then built a correction curve by reversing the inputs and outputs and doing a little judging by eye. I looked at numerous accounts of how to do this online and they all yielded slightly different results. I don’t think you can get away from guesswork here. This is alchemy, and labour. You then print your curve-corrected step wedge in the hope that the tones more closely match a healthy, well spaced, sequence of tones. I printed a sample image at the same time because the tonal ‘rightness’ of images is much easier to judge. Again, however, hard work was involved because that meant applying the speculative curve to the image as well as the step wedge! You have to enjoy repetitive processes and the splendid isolation of the darkroom for this work.
You will now appreciate why I experimented with the process over a period of several weeks. I had a lot of disappointments along the way, and had to look upon a lot of truly nasty looking renditions of my test image. Then, suddenly, I had it. D054 was the unglamorous name of the negative, and it printed pleasantly enough at grade 2.5. I increased the grade slightly and felt I had reached my goal: a file processed with care and accuracy digitally, with fine sharpness and ‘bite’, that I could print with confidence and precision onto beautiful darkroom paper. D054 was 6x5 or so inches, yet I knew I could go back and make a 10x8 negative if I so wished. A 10x8 negative that would require no dodging and burning (because that was done to the original file) and could be re-made at the touch of a button if it got damaged. Phew!
In subsequent work I made a fibre-based warmtone print using the sibling paper from Ilford. I made a small adjustment to the grade, and to my eye the print took on that ‘something extra’ that fibre paper so often bestows. This is the stage that I am at now. I intend to do some more printing using the same curve I developed for this first image, but it is my understanding that subsequent images may require bespoke curves (which in turn may require some iterative testing). I also intend to explore larger negatives and therefore prints. Permajet offers the film in A3 (as well as larger sizes in rolls), which will accommodate this. The possibilities are therefore very exciting, if the work time consuming and demanding, as I have emphasised.
Others have observed that one consequence of digital technology is that we live in an unprecedented era of available technology. For those who are willing to look, not only has darkroom not gone away, but it now sits alongside developing media, opening up opportunities for those who can and do seek them. Exciting times indeed.