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Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1) - Eddie Ephraums shares his black & white printing secrets

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Category : Darkroom Printing
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Here's the first in a short series of advanced darkroom printing techniques where we look at ways to improve your black & white photographs.
Words & Pictures Eddie Ephraums

There can often be just a minimal difference in time between what is judged to be the right, or wrong, moment of camera exposure. Literally a few seconds earlier, the highlighted cloud was sitting too far to the left, a few moments later it was obscured by the tree. More often than not, such decisions have to be made too quickly, perhaps whilst the light is also fading fast.

Compare this often hurried process of decision making with that of fine-print making. For me, there is no better way of making an exhibition quality print than to build up to it slowly, by making a series of test-strips and afterwards to line these up along a wall, out of the darkroom, and to view them whilst sitting in a comfortable chair! In this way, all the prints can be carefully studied in a relaxed, unhurried manner, to assess their contrast, density and balance. It is a great way of being able to focus all one's thoughts and energies into a photograph, without the natural elements taking any sort of control.

So, whilst I envy colour transparency photographers for the relative speed, and mechanisation, of their process, I don't envy them for what they miss by not having to spend time over their images in the darkroom. With rapid processes, like E6, it is possible to be thinking of making the next completed image before the previous one is dry, let alone processed.

Time spent in the darkroom, working on black and white prints, isn't time wasted. It is one of the best ways of seeing mistakes, and successes, in camerawork gradually unfold in front of one's eyes. Rannoch Moor looked good in camera, and as a straight print, and even better with the sky and foreground burned in. However, time spent looking at various other exposure permutations, especially viewing them upside down, revealed that the image needed further print exposure work to achieve a harmonious sense of balance.

In particular, the hill to the left merited some attention. I hadn't noticed it at the moment of camera exposure, but altering its density dramatically improves the print. Too heavy, and it pulls the image of balance, too light and its detail becomes unnecessarily obvious.

And of the time spent working on this particular photograph in the darkroom? It has contributed towards a feeling of greater affinity between my camera and darkroom work. The upshot is that on location I am finding it progressively easier to deal with rapidly changing scenes, such as this, which require carefully timed exposures.

Subject
A single isolated tree at Rannoch Moor. The wonderful quality of evening light, and the obvious presence of the cloud, helped to determine the nature and composition of this photograph. I opted to keep the main light fairly central to the print and was concerned with letting the natural elements have their say. All that I wanted to contribute to the photograph was carefully judged print exposure and toning work, so that the print would look as natural as possible. More often than not, this simple approach actually involves rather a lot of work.

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Original shot on Kodak T-Max ISO400 film

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Camerawork
35mm Nikon FM2, with a 20mm lens set at f/11. With little time for bracketing, I opted for an orange filter, believing that yellow would be too subtle and red too harsh. Besides, the contrast increasing effects of the latter would almost certainly draw unwanted attention to the foreground grass.

Film processing
With several other scenes of different subject brightness range all on this one roll, it was not possible to alter the development time. So, I used Rodinal for its compensating quality, although now, for similar backlit subjects, I would probably opt for a two-bath developer.

Print exposure
Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)My first toned print of this negative proved simple to expose - It would. I used too low a paper contrast setting. Dissatisfied with the result, I opted for a harder grade setting for the basic exposure and for much of the burning-in of the foreground, then an even harder grade setting for burning in the very top of the print and for the cloud. Thiocarbamide split-toning my first effort reduced print contrast in that area, so that just the sky became a subtle yellow/brown tone - hence the harder grade setting.

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)Trying to cater for such changes in print contrast can be difficult. The final, untoned black and white print of this scene looked top-heavy until it was toned. Deciding what toner is going to be used should therefore be a decision that is made prior to print exposure. (Although the contrast-altering effects of some toners can be usefully employed to salvage certain poorly balanced prints.)

Print processing
Normal development to completion, coupled to my standard use of a 2% acetic acid stop bath and two-bath Hypam fixer, ensured a predictable outcome to thiocarbamide toning. Making the print on the bromo-chloride, neutral tone Multigrade also gave a predictably subtler, less vibrant, yellow tone than that of a warmer-tone chlorobromide paper, arguably better suited to this image.

Printing details

The basic print exposure and some burning-in) was made at grade 3. The extra exposure for the sky was carefully graded-in, to stop the top left of the left-hand hill going too dark.

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1) Burning in the bottom-right corner of the print plays down some unwanted detail.

The bright middle-distance area, around the tree was burned in at a softer, grade setting. This maintained the lower contrast impression of haze and directs the eye towards the main cloud, which is the intended highlight.

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Finally I changed the setting to grade 4 and burned in the main cloud to enhance its role in the print. It also ensures against possible loss of contrast with the yellow thiocarbamide tone.

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

 


The final print was made on Multigrade FB matt, with an old diffuser enlarger and under-the-lens VC filters. Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)

About the author
Eddie Ephraums started his photographic career as a specialist black & white printer before working solely on his own projects. He has regularly lectured and given workshops at various colleges and professional institutions including the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 1)
He has written extensively for British magazines on creative black & white work, toning techniques, archival processing and platinum printing.

This article is a short extract that can be found in the excellent book Creative Elements - Landscape Photography - Darkroom Techniques published by Fountain Press.

NB the pictures displayed here are low resolution scans from the book. The book has fantastic quality reproduction.

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