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Creative Elements darkroom techniques (part 2) - Eddie Ephraums shares his black & white printing secrets
Words & Pictures Eddie Ephraums
I liked the black & white proof of this image so much that I was quite hesitant to tone the final print. That said, the end result - quite subtle in tone - more than offset any initial hesitation that I experienced. In fact, once toned, using formula 51, the light-blue colour looked more than appropriate and far removed from the vivid, garish blue results of some toners that are currently on the market.
It's often quite hard trying to decide whether to use a toner, or not, especially in this case when the colour of the trees was so powerful an influence at the time of camera exposure. Their almost dazzling light-green tone might have suggested the use of something chemically similar for the print, but for me that would have simply said "woodland" rather than the implied, slightly mystical effect I was after. I was influenced by all the literature I had read about the location; it spoke of ancient history rather than of natural colour.
This is one photograph where perseverance at camerawork really paid off. After my first visit I thought I had a good photograph of the scene, until I realised that the image I had in my mind's eye was not the image that was recorded on film. Since I had no means to process the film, to check where I had gone wrong, I decided to return to the location a few days later and start again. Only, this time, I wanted to be there early in the morning before there was any chance of the cloud cover breaking. I needn't have worried, it was pouring with rain, in fact so heavily that I almost - but not quite - gave up on the idea of the return visit.
When I arrived at the scene I immediately recognised what I was looking for - a tilted horizon. In my opinion, changing the camera angle has made all the difference to the final print. What's more, if you view the image in reverse with a mirror, you'll see it works equally well. More often than not this a healthy sign, that image composition and print balance are in harmony with each other.
Unfortunately, I had little time to make any other exposures of alternative views of the wood. However, the slight sense of loss one feels at having found a good location and under-utilised its potential was more than offset by having an image that I knew I was happy with - even before I looked at the contact prints. This satisfaction was almost a little premature. Other photographs I made of Dartmoor were damaged, not by rainwater getting into the camera, but by the continuous, extremely high level of humidity that caused one roll to stick together in camera.
Wistman's Wood is a small, ancient oakwood, set in the heart of Dartmoor. Local literature speaks of its contorted trees, sculptured by the wind, and stunted by the cold, harsh, local conditions. A promising location I thought, until I visited the place. Initially it turned out to be very hard to photograph. Although some of the trees were wonderfully contorted, their close proximity to each other made them ill-defined. Studying them, I thought how good the location would look in colour! The lightgreen branches, covered in moss and lichen and set against a drab, monotone, Dartmoor sky, would have made a wonderful abstract colour study of nature. It was one time I was - almost - tempted into using transparency film.
Original shot on Ilford XP2 ISO400 film
35mm Nikon F2 camera, with a 20mm lens set at f/11 and at 1/30 second. I opted for my less valuable back-up f/2 camera because of the extremely heavy rain, visible against the dark shadow of the rock in print 2. I made a number of exposures with different filters, finally settling upon a negative made with a yellowgreen, that both lightened the foliage and darkened the sky slightly. Composing the image wasn't easy. Bending down to ground level, and holding an umbrella at the same time, is not a camera technique I have read of in any other book - so far!.
What can I say? The XP2 film was C41 processed at Boots the chemist. Apart from the negatives coming back in short strips of four their quality was excellent, even if the one frame I used did have an air bell mark.
I shall certainly be using more XP2 in the future: it is so much easier printing backlit subjects with a film that has good exposure latitude. The print has been made fullframe, without any cropping - the F2 camera giving an almost complete view of the framed image. The print was made on Ilford Multigrade FB matt, using their Multigrade head on a De Vere 504, but with a medium format lightbox fitted. The 35mm box makes exposure times unbelievably fast, in fact too fast for me. My original 10x 8inch proof was made at grade 11/2, but at 20x16inch the final print needed grade 3. This harder setting, with its more limited exposure latitude, required some modification of dodging and burning-in.
Print processing: Multigrade developer, diluted 1+9, produced a good neutral tone print, which I developed to completion for absolute evenness of tone, failings in which would have been exacerbated by the contrastincreasing blue toner. The image was stopped in 2% acetic acid and two-bath fixed in Hypam at 1+9. After a five minute rinse, I lightly bleached the main tree trunk with a dilute solution of Farmer's reducer, applied with a swab of cotton wool. I was careful not to overdo this, in view of previous experiences, e.g. the Walkham Valley locally bleached and toned prints. The print was briefly blue toned with formula 51, diluted with 1 part water for a more controllable effect.
I made five prints off this negative, only one of which was good! The others I overwashed, after toning, losing detail in their highlights.
A grade 3 print had this image been exposed onto a conventional film, and developed in a standard developer, I know the printing diagrams here would look more complicated than they are.
A straight proof print of the negative. The image is clearly out of balance, at least requiring some burning-in, or flashing of the sky.
Fogging the sky compressed the highlight tones, giving them a lovely mystiucal quality. It also covered up a film processing air bell in the upper-left of the sky.
I decided to fog the sky, rather than burn or flash it in. A fogging test-strip enabled me to calculate, rather than guess, the right fogging exposure time.
I confined the bleaching work to the tree trunk. I wanted this to stand out clearly, but not too obtrusive, against the darker fogged-in sky.
|The final print was made on Multigrade FB matt, with an old diffuser enlarger and under-the-lens VC filters.|
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.
He has written extensively for British magazines on creative black & white work, toning techniques, archival processing and platinum printing.
NB the pictures displayed here are low resolution scans from the book. The book has fantastic quality reproduction.