Here's the third in a short series of advanced darkroom printing techniques
where we look at ways to improve your black & white photographs.
Words & Pictures Eddie Ephraums
This photograph of Glen Coe contains a small, isolated building in a large,
open landscape and has been printed to create an individual, distinctive sense
of place. It's almost totally devoid of all information about the landscape.
All that is visible is the building, the stream and the break in the clouds.
Its content is minimal and the approach quite abstract. My intention was to
make an image that spoke of a presumably precarious balance between man and
the natural elements.
With this in mind, a cold, thiocarbamide tone seemed most appropriate for Glen
Coe. I didn't want a colour, which would inappropriately liven up the view.
The sun seems about to be shrouded in low-lying mist - and it was.
I made various prints of differing balance and tone. It was remarkable how much
these altered the atmosphere of the photograph. For example, I experimented
by printing the sky a heavier tone. It produced a rather unsatisfactory, solid,
and static weight of cloud, that bore down too heavily and overdramatically
on the print. Keeping the cloud a little lighter in tone, as in the final print,
but darkening its edges, has given it a greater sense of volume and dimension.
Looking at the final print, I like to think the cloud is actually moving forward,
towards the viewer, whilst in contrast the line of the stream is taking the
eye in the opposite direction, towards the light. In between sits the building,
not just as the focal point of the photograph, but as a fulcrum around which
this activity is taking place.
When I print certain negatives, such as this, I like to visualise a point within
the final print upon which I could balance the image.If I look at a finished
print and find it hard to identify such a place, then, more often than not,
I know my printing is at fault.
photography is not a passive process. Although some subjects immediately catch
the eye, and are easily recorded on film with little if any creative input,
others may remain lost from sight, unless we are prepared to look for them and
to work at them. Just as we can learn to visualise scenes in black & white,
we can also develop the ability to see the potential of a location, even if
the weather conditions, or the angle of view from which we first view the scene,
are not in our favour. And so it was here. My first view of the scene left me
unimpressed, until I tried to visualise what the location could look like, given
the right weather conditions and an alternative viewpoint. Previous visits to
Scotland gave me an idea of the type of misty conditions I could expect, and
told me that first light would be the most likely time of day to capture this
effect. It paid off.
35mm Nikon FM2 camera, with a 50mm lens set at f/8. In my haste to expose the
film, in between brief periods of good visibility, I suspect I forgot to check
the camera focus, having composed the scene with the lens set at infinity. Fortunately,
for a scene like this, where there is very little near foreground included in
the frame, and what there is of it is printed dark, there was little likelihood
of the print looking unsharp, except through camera shake or poor printing.
The Rodinal processed negative was fine, with good tonal separation and
very crisp grain clearly visible even in the 10x8in proof prints.
Original shot on Ilford XP2 ISO400 film
Even a good negative, with a full tonal range, plenty of shadow detail and easily
printable highlights, won't necessarily be simple to print. View it on a light-table
and, yes, it is easy to identify those areas that may benefit from burning-in
or dodging, but enlarge the same negative, up to, say, 20 x16in in size, and
it can be very difficult to identify the same areas under the dimmer light of
the enlarger. In this case, the border between the ground and the sky (which
I wanted to burn in) is quite well defined in the negative, but virtually impossible
to detect during print exposure. So, I stuck some white masking tape to the
black blades of the easel, to act as a clearly visible burning-in markers. When
it came to burning in the sky, I simply aligned the burning-in card with these,
markers and then slightly moved it up and down this invisible line for the appropriate
period of time. The print has been made on Multigrade FB matt.
After very much standard processing, I briefly rinsed the print, and then, with
the darkroom viewing light on, I locally bleached the line of the stream with
Farmer's reducer, using a medium point brush for the more delicate detail. I
also applied a little bleach to the house, but not so much as to reduce the
density of the building back to paper white. In my estimation that would look
too overstated and very contrived.
I had a few seconds to expose this scene before it was again shrouded in mist.
The composition of the proof shows how slow I was to react.
I used a 1/2in diameter black card dodger to lighten the stream, and
then one of 1 1//2in diameter for the house and surrounding area. A fifteen-second
basic exposure gave enough time for both jobs.
A very rough black & white proof. The burning-in is too heavy-handed,
to the point where the image lacks any kind of subtlety.
The print was made at grade 4, with the exception of a small bright area
of cloud. It was burned in at a softer, grade 2 setting, to avoid a dark
The colour of this toned version seems inappropriate. The balance of the
print is similarly undecided, taking the image neither one way of the other.
Bleaching these dodged areas with a medium point artist's brush has lightened
their highlights but left their blacks intact. Dodging alone could not
achieve this effect.
I made innumerable versions of this print, some with more detail in the
foreground, others with less. The building simply can't compete with the
The unretouched house blends into the background all too easily, so I
knifed the ridge-line of the roof.
A close-up of the final, toned and retouched print. Retouching took almost
as long as printing, but it was worth the effort. Even viewed from a distance,
this print works.
||The final print was a thiocarbamide-toned print.
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.
This article is a short extract that can be found in the excellent book Creative
Elements - Landscape Photography - Darkroom Techniques published by Fountain
Press. Click on the link to buy the book for 24.95.
NB the pictures displayed here are low resolution scans from the book.
The book has fantastic quality reproduction.