I started to take photos roughly nine-to-ten years ago, in the midst of the age of digital photography. I had been exposed (terrible film-pun - not intended) to film when I was growing up as a child, and teenager, but once I started to hold a camera, film was long gone (or so I thought). My first experience with a film camera was with my father's Pentax ME SLR (35mm), with an external flash, two standard lenses, in a beautiful silver case. It was flawless, very clean, and hardly saw any rolls of film. My experience with this camera was short-lived and meaningless, but nonetheless, planted the film-seed in my brain. Once my foray into digital equipment evolved, so did my interest in film. I finally made the leap, and purchased a Pentax K1000 SLR, with a standard 50mm lens. It was heavy, fully manual, with a broken built-in light meter. It was perfect. I shot a few rolls, was semi-satisfied with the results, but put it aside to my forever involvement with digital cameras.
Things changed when I laid by eyes on large-format photography. My first experience with LF was when I used a Linhof 4x5 view-camera. It was beautiful, heavy, and (incredibly) fully manual. I really loved having to take three to five minutes to take a photograph. It slowed down the process entirely. It made you appreciate the art-form, and made you concentrate on skills needed to become an adequate photographer; focusing, framing, and executing. All done with time, care, consistency, and precision. I fell in love.
A few years later, I purchased my own 4x5 camera. I purchased a 4x5 Speed Graflex camera, from the 1940s. I will have more on the history of this particular camera in a later post.
Taking photographs with this type of camera requires precision and patience, from learning how to appropriately load film holders, focusing with a bellows, adjusting the speed and aperture on the lens, and loading the film into the camera. All of these concepts were new to me, so I had to learn them effectively. But I felt that something was missing. Here, in Newfoundland, film processing is rare, which forces film photographers to ship their film to the mainland in order for it to be processed, or doing it on your own. I've decided to tackle the latter.
This blog post is about my first step into learning how to build a darkroom, acquiring the correct items for tray development, and establishing practices from a true master, Ansel Adams. Once I begin developing, and have results, I will share them on this blog in the coming months. I have focused on three sources, Ansel Adams' book "The Negative", and photographers Tim Layton & Tom Johnston, through their tutorials and writings about darkroom tray development on their websites.
Before I write about the practices that I will attempt in the darkroom, we need to establish the person that I acquired this knowledge from. I decided to go straight to the photographer's Bible, Ansel Adams' three books that cover the Camera, the Negative, and the Print. In terms of darkroom development, his 'Negative' book is what I needed to read. Whenever I decide to take up darkroom printing, I'll need to consult the third book, about the Print. Ansel Adams is looked at as a master, but we should also pay close attention to his attention to detail, and technical proficiency.
Who is Ansel Adams?
"He's an American photographer born on February 20th, 1902, in San Francisco, California. He rose to prominence as a photographer of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park, using his work to promote conservation of wilderness areas. His iconic black-and-white images helped to establish photography among the fine arts. He died in Monterey, California, on April 22nd, 1984." (Biography.com Source)
"The concept of the "perfect negative" is both intriguing and exasperating to the student and photographer. If exposure and processing are both "normal," using recommended average techniques, it may seem that the negative should be "correct" even when it fails to yield the anticipated print. Such a negative may contain considerable information yet not be adequate for interpretation in terms of an expressive image."
Ansel's book "The Negative" covers a lot of content. It's over 200-pages of relevant information about visualization & image values, light & film, exposure, The Zone System, filters & pre-exposure, natural light photography, artificial light photography, darkroom processes, darkroom equipment & procedures, and value control in processing. I was particularly interested in learning about The Zone System, and the chapters devoted to darkroom concepts, practices, and processes.
This book may require a few readings largely because of its intensity, its writing style, and its technical/scientific proficiency. Many photographers today, who started by using digital cameras, were not exposed to the precision art that photography truly is. It requires understanding in both mathematical formulas, and scientific evaluations, tests, and experimentations (especially in the darkroom). Thankfully for the reader, and to the photographer who wants to jump into darkroom processing, Ansel already went through numerous tests, and wrote them down thoroughly in this book. We have an incredible advantage.
"It is impossible for a photographic print to duplicate the range of brightnesses (luminance) of most subjects, and thus photographs are to some degree interpretations of the original subject values. Much of the creativity of photography lies in the infinite range of choices open to the photographer between attempting a nearly literal representation of the subject and freely interpreting it in highly subjective "departures from reality."
I really admire that this book starts off with visualization. Before we even contemplate an exposure, before we even meter a scene, before we even press on the shutter, we must appreciate that what we are about to photograph must be visualized, pondered, and analyzed.
This analyzation must be taken into consideration because we should be asking ourselves an important question: "should we photograph this scene?" We must be prepared to answer that question before we attempt to take the photograph.
The Zone System
What truly made me excited about this venture, was one, to step into a darkroom and process my first negative, and most importantly, learning about The Zone System. A great means of achieving a perfect exposure for the negative, and ultimately, the print.
"The Zone System allows us to relate various luminances of a subject with the grey values from black to white that we visualize to represent each one in the final image. This is the basis for the visualization procedure, whether the representation is literal or a departure from reality as projected in our "mind's eye." After the creative visualization of the image, photography is a continuous chain of controls involving adjustment of camera position and other image management considerations, evaluation of the luminances of the subject and placement of these luminances on the exposure scale of the negative, appropriate development of the negative, and the making of the print."
We must also consider the dynamic range that is capable of being recorded on a negative, and the textural range that is capable of being printed.
"There are three important scales within the total range of exposures that can be printed. The full range from black to white is represented by Zones 0 to 10. Within this lies the dynamic range, representing the first useful values above Zone 0 and below Zone 10, or Zones 1 to 9. The range of zones which convey definite qualities of texture and the recognition of substance is the textural range, from Zones 2 to 8."
The Zone System is the most important chapter in this book. If you carefully read it, and understand the terminology, you will be able to produce superb negatives, that will have the flexibility needed once you arrive to printing. Before we get there though, you must grasp the practices and procedures of darkroom development.
Personally, I want to start with 4x5 sheet film tray development for black-and-white negatives. I could also venture into the categories of 35mm and 120 roll films, or tank development, but those might be other adventures, which may be explored in future posts.
Darkroom Tray Development
I learned a lot from Ansel's book on tray development, and procedures to take into consideration when I step into the darkroom, but I found that Tim Layton's website (and tutorials) to be very helpful in these areas of film photography. If you're at all interested in darkroom development, his website is a great place to start!
From all of the material that I've read, and gathered, so far, is that all chemicals (especially the developer) must be at 68F (20C) temperature at all times, and that at first, all you need is three trays: (1) developer, (2) stop bath, and (3) fixer.
You may also need other trays for other steps. You should consider a pre-soak tray, for nearly ONE minute in most cases, then rinse the film (after fixer) for roughly 2 minutes, then another one for Hypo Clearing Agent (for roughly 4 minutes), another final wash (10 or more minutes), and finally, Photoflo (within distilled water) for 3 minutes. Then you should be ready to hang-to-dry, and your negatives are processed.
*Trays should also be placed within larger trays, also called "water jackets", to maintain a consistent temperature throughout your processing.*
The most important part of the process is when your film is within the developer. The amount you dilute it, the amount of agitation that you prescribe, and the amount of time, will determine the result of your negative. If you wish to expand, or contract (your contrast), you must consider these changes in your regime.
At first, tray darkroom development is not costly. You will need at least three trays, a timer, an accurate thermometer, graduates, containers, chemicals, and access to a sink.
My methods will change overtime, I'll want different results from time to time, and I'll want to explore other films. I'm making a prediction that darkroom development is going to be exciting, simply because you have a lot of flexibility, and once you're comfortable with standard (normal) development, you'll start to deviate and change as you go. It may not work out, but you've at least tried it out, and make a note in your darkroom material.
I feel confident by starting out with tray development because Ansel believes it's the most practical and simplest method.
"I believe tray development to be the simplest method, although care must be exercised at all stages in handling the films. i rarely have a scratched negative, and i find that development is uniform and consistent. agitation is more complex than with tank development, and careful attention must be paid to the frequency and timing."
This blog post is intended to only showcase what I've learned about darkroom development from a few sources. It doesn't demonstrate every key element required to successfully process film in the darkroom.