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 suppose some might see this as the Achilles' heel of film photography: mistakes can't be erased. Here, I went to open my Leica and realised I hadn't rewound the film. I stopped myself in what seemed like the nick of time. Well, it was for some frames, but not this one here.
How do I feel about this aspect of film photography? I'm philosophical. Sure, I wish this frame had not been fogged, but I see such events as part of the medium. In a sense, the element of danger only adds to the thrill when it all comes together. C'est la vie.
It's not a conscious effort, but I feel I have become something of an advocate of HP5+ film developed in Perceptol. It is a combination that Barry Thornton used to sing the praises of, and I have found myself admiring it time and again.
It's all very well doing studies of film and developer combinations in the abstract (see my Pebble Project galleries, and blog posts for lots on this), but the simple fact is, for a photographer shooting black and white, it is the tones he or she attains in practice that are key.
The properties I enjoy with this combination are sharpness (with a little grain suppression) and a long tonal range. It's the latter I've really got in mind in presenting the above image. The scene was backlit - a classic dramatic landscape type image - and it really benefits from the film's ability to capture a wide brightness range. The undulations in tone follow and amplify the structural curves of the trees.
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 am not new to large format photography strictly speaking, for I have dabbled from time to time before. I am, however, largely a small format photographer, with the particular way of working that entails.
I decided recently to begin some 5x4 work in earnest, a desire which coincided with my discovery of the super light and keenly priced Intrepid camera. The title to this post thus describes a modest new chapter in my photography and an opportunity to share some of my experiences here. I hope there will be some value in this to anyone starting out in large format, or at least wondering what it is all about.
Watch this space for progress reports and a little review of the Intrepid. It is certainly looking rather handsome with its red bellows; I hope it performs as well as it looks.
Today I bring you a little update of my Pebble Project in the form of some darkroom prints. I have printed the first four FP4+ negatives from the project (results shared in the previous Pebble post) on Ilford Multigrade Resin Coated Gloss paper. I will share these in a larger and more accessible form in a future post, but for now they read: LC29 top left, Perceptol top right, Ilfosol S bottom left, DDX bottom right (with development times as per the previous post).
The darkroom prints make the differences more obvious, and, on a cursory look, I felt they were somewhat more in keeping with what I'd initially expected from the different developers. No surprise here, as negatives are obviously designed to be printed in the darkroom and my expectations (and data such as that from Ilford) were shaped there.
I have more technical information to share on this (such as my darkroom printing decisions) and some more observations and corrections. The project is not at all straightforward - and certainly has its limitations - but I am learning a lot which is great.
I am working on a little gallery of results for this site, which will enable the reader access to all the Pebble images in one place and to view larger versions. I'll publish this in the near future and add to it with more film / developer combinations as things progress. Watch this space.
Thanks to smartphones and proliferating app technology, there have never been as many ways to quickly and easily record our thoughts. I'm particularly enjoying Google Keep at the moment, which is wonderfully efficient and especially good when surfing the web.
There are occasions, however, when the electronic method of note taking isn't the best. I enjoy using physical notebooks for their tactility, straightforwardness and easy accessibility. Notebooks foster connections and memories; when I look over old notes I find ideas return for reconsideration and new possibilities emerge.
Film photographers have long had the need to record data from their shooting activities for later reference. The act of so doing fosters good practice and can prompt little revelations about technique. The digital revolution killed the photographer's notebook at a stroke, with the migration of shooting information to the image file and metadata. The thing is, with your digital friend making comprehensive records for you - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure modes, to name but some - you find yourself with less and less need to look. And with less looking comes less awareness and less learning.
Enter a product such as Photomemo by Mike Padua's artisanal Shoot Film Co. The relevance of this little notebook to film photographer's is fairly self-evident, but I want to go further and suggest that it might be a good thing for users of digital cameras too. Mike kindly sent me a couple of Photomemo's so that I could put them through their paces and write a report here. So what do I think of the design?
The form of Photomemo is not at all dissimilar to a number of notebooks already widely available. Indeed, this will be the biggest argument against these books: cheaper competitors that might do the same job. Photomemo is well made and has soft, receptive paper. On this front it gives nothing away to its rivals. (I have a love for Moleskine notebooks, and the quality of the paper is one of the things I value, along with their tough construction and durability.) There is a space for your name and details at the front, should it get lost, which is a nice touch. So at lot really rests on the design of the pages themselves, for it is here that your money appears to have gone.
I believe Mike consulted a number of different photographer's whilst in the design stage, and it has paid dividends. Most of the page is taken up with lined space for your notes, punctuated by some double-lined breaks. This might equate to 32 entries (perhaps not accidental, nearly equating to the 36 roll), but we should bear in mind this design is intended to accommodate, medium, large and other formats, such as instant or pinhole photography. However, it's in the header that the real thought has gone. This appears on every page and so needs to be right.
On the left hand side is space to record the roll number, start and end date, camera, lens, film and ISO. This is spot on for me. The roll number allows you to write a corresponding number on the film canister and, later, the negative bag. Start and end dates are invaluable in working out when exposures were made and whether or not time elapsed will impact on quality (with some films preferring prompt development). I have many shots where I can no longer tell if I used my 35mm or 50mm lens on my Leica rangefinder (lens reviewers take note: we see huge differences when we want to, they may be harder to see when all's said and done). Writing down lens used would help in this regard.
On the right hand side is subject, location, push/pull, and a little set of tick boxes for processed, scanned and archived. I like subject and location here, for me two key ways to remember a shoot. In my workflow, there would be a synergy with my Lightroom practice here, because I tend to organise my images by subject. Many of my film shots go into Lightroom, just as my digital ones do, so such potential for consistency is desirable. I don't tend to think in terms of push/pull (I'm more of the EI school), so I'm not sure I'd use this check. Processed et al I welcome, although I tend to scan individual frames and so would need to give this box some thought.
All in all, Photomemo is a well designed and beautifully printed product. I can really see it paying dividends in my shooting practice, especially if used over time and to build an archive of shooting information. Click on the button below if you'd like more details and to check out Shoot Film Co yourself.
Autumn can be a great time to be a photographer. There's the colourful foliage, the sun is lower in the sky creating long shadows and rich textures, and the light is that bit warmer.
This year I've become conscious that it's also frustrating time for me. I'm an academic and it's precisely the time I get busier indoors. Maybe I've been making more of those furtive glances towards the windows this year, half hoping not to glimpse any scenes of photographic possibility. As you might imagine, I've had to turn away with a sigh on more than one occasion.
So when I'm out shooting I have to hope that the sometimes temperamental light and weather in England is in cooperative mood. I have been shooting a lot of black and white of late, and decided it was time for a little break and some perhaps inevitable autumn colour. To make things interesting, I took a lens I had practically retired, a Nikon 70-300mm with built-in vibration reduction, and began to think about some long shots and flattened perspective.
I had some expired Kodak Ektar film in my fridge, and it was getting high time to put it to use. Ektar is a film that simply loves colour and sunshine. Expose it generously (I tend to go for a half stop more) and it is wonderfully saturated with a very distinctive character; underexpose and things get a lot more pastel and washed out. This was a risky film to choose, because with the British weather in the wrong mood, well, I may as well be back indoors trying not to look out of windows.
The image above is one of my favourites from a couple of outings with this autumn MO. On the whole I was lucky with some interesting light, and the weather held off for just long enough. I spent a fair bit of time chasing patchy sunshine through trees and using what I feared were all-too-slow shutter speeds (bearing in ming Ektar is a 100 ISO film). Nikon vibration reduction, it would seem, is a sound technology, and certainly helped in my endeavours. Now my window-bound glances shouldn't be too longing, and, besides, autumn hasn't really got too long to go.
One of the joys of looking carefully at the medium of photography is seeing things you didn’t expect. Working on setting up my Pebble Project (see previous post), I was all geared up to compare film and developer combinations, when I noticed this.
Before making my film shots of my pebble studio still life, I made some digital ones to conveniently test the light, composition and exposure. I duly imported the raw file into Lightroom, along with the film scans that are the focus of the exercise. I made a quick print of the FP4+ in LC29 exposure, as a reference shot for the ones that would follow.
Accept that I hadn’t. It was actually a print of the raw file (with ‘auto’ applied in the develop module). So I went back to atone for my error, and printed the FP4+ frame. Wow, what a difference!
The phrase that springs to mind is ‘descriptive power’. This is what the film frame has over the digital one. There is a depth and presence that is simply absent from the digital capture. The grain is clearly present, but adds a striking sense of detail and sharpness (this I should expect of course).
Now, this isn’t quite a fair comparison, because a raw digital capture needs to be nurtured and carefully processed. I am not in the business of claiming that film is ‘better’ than digital (or vice versa, for that matter). They are different media, with different strengths. Yet there is no escaping the special quality that film imparts. Nothing wrong with noticing - and celebrating - that.
Film rocks. (Pebbles - I know. The pun was unintended!)
I begin to today with a comparison of two film shots.
Both shots are on Ilford’s FP4+ film. The first is developed in Ilfotec LC29; the second Perceptol, a developer that begins life as a powder. The studio setups were identical in each, at least as far as I could make them. The stones are stuck to a sheet of perspex, making the exercise potentially repeatable.
I have some observations, although these alone aren’t the purpose of this post, as I shall elaborate in a moment. Frankly, I expected the tones of Perceptol to be more different from LC29 than they are. Personally (and subjectively), I see this as ‘win’ for LC29, as Perceptol is a personal favourite and in my mental map of film tonally very distinct. (I should really say, for completeness, that this notion is actually built on my use of HP5+ film.) I can see that the grain is pushed back in the Perceptol version. Grain is still there, but it is very smooth. The highlights are a tiny bit ‘longer’ in the Perceptol version, at least to my eye. Naturally, as I provide images, the reader is invited to make his or her own conclusions.
Now, notwithstanding the special alchemy that happens when different photographers put the same films (and developer) to use in differing circumstances, thus leading to unfathomably different results (and this is a huge factor), I think the idea of trialling different film and developer combinations in a (sort of) standardised setup* has intriguing potential, and, furthermore, may be of genuine use to a film-using community. Maybe this is the geek and obsessive in me rather than the artist, but my mind races with what I might learn as I compare films in this way. How might Delta 100 compare to FP4+ in LC29 (some of you could make a good guess, I’m sure)? In Perceptol, to itself in LC29 and FP4+? What about HP5+? Or DD-X?
You will see where I am going with this. As I’m keen to reiterate, you won’t necessarily get the same results as me; yet with my standardised pebble shot, some legitimate practical comparisons can still be made. I think this could be good knowledge to take into the field. I could spend a long time shooting different films and subjects without being able to make such sound comparisons.
So I end with a modest plan. I will run this as a series of occasional blog postings reporting on different films and developers. If the results build up as I anticipate they will, I should get to a position where I can share an additional summary post (or even article). I envisage maybe four weeks between postings, to give me time to produce the results and write short instalments, although due to my other commitments this may vary somewhat. Feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts (see the ‘contact’ link above), or you can contact me through Twitter (@richard_pickup).
*A brief note on the method behind the samples, and a caveat.
The studio setup is identical in each shot (position of light, light power setting, reflector placement, tripod position). The same camera and lens have been used, along with the same exposure settings. The chosen focus point on the pebbles is the same. Due to the time between the shots (and the necessary time between any shots I may make for the series in future), the framing of the pebbles varied slightly. After processing the film to the times and temperatures stated, both negatives were scanned on a dedicated Nikon film scanner and imported into Lightroom. I made no adjustments to exposure, nor did I sharpen the images. Images were cropped for neatness.
I think it’s worth making this declaration, because with such tests anomalies creep in, and one has to be aware of possible variables. For instance, focussing is prone to small differences and may impact on perceptions of sharpness. Who is to say that the camera was not subject to small vibrations in one of the shots. (Naturally, I’ve been very careful, but we should not entirely rule such things out.) Any conclusions drawn should therefore be taken with a small pinch of salt. As I say above, they should have useful validity but they shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I’ve done these tests in my spare time, out of curiosity and in the spirit of exploration.
Thanks must go to Jevon Tooth for the idea using a collection of stones in a test shot of film tonality.
The other day I came across a photographer wrestling with the task of capturing his daughter on large format film. He declared, with some modesty given the skill he showed in his images, his attempts a failure. I got the sense he would triumph, however, his declaration being at any rate interim in nature.
Large format photographers are not strangers to difficulty (their medium certainly brings its challenges) nor are they afraid to pursue highly individual whims and visions. It would be easy to dismiss this gentleman as a maverick, and to retire with a sigh, saying something like ‘wrong kit friend, try 35mm and continuous focus for better results’.
Yet an essential part of this photographer’s vision, the look he desires, is 5x4 film. It is a very particular look. And film. Something I fully appreciate in the endeavour is the idea of committing a person’s, nay a loved one’s, visage to film.
So in mulling this over, I set myself the task of expressing what exactly it is that makes a film portrait special. The obvious comparison is with digital, so why choose film instead? The answer I have so far come up with may be no more than a kind of illusion, a piece of analogue nostalgia in an increasingly digital time, a fool’s gold of image making.
When I think of my own film portraits, I think of the silver gelatin crystals in the negative that have reacted to the light that emanated from the subject. Physical stuff, now tiny grains, that make up an image. A person, etched in a transparent medium that becomes, through the further action of light, a physical photograph to hold in wonderment. When the negative (or the photograph) is in my hand, I hold a token of a causal connection to the being who was once before the camera. I believe semiologists call this kind of relationship between sign and thing represented ‘indexical’. Like footprints in the snow signalling someone’s presence.
Now, digital is of course no less physical than film, hence my talk of fool’s gold. Yet the physicality of digital is, well, just not very physical. Many others have pointed out that images on memory cards and folders on computers are ephemeral. Negatives and prints, by contrast, support the romance of the imagined connection to a person that a portrait fosters. Like a Proustian smell, they are evocative and sensory, and nurture memories. The negative in my fingers is like a little light trap; a special light that really came, indexically, from the person caught within.
My ruminations don’t address the ‘look’ of film as a factor, but I think this isn’t the best place to look for distinctions, at least not on its own. I use and enjoy film simulation presets on my digital shots. These go a long way to imitating film (although not the whole way, for further technical reasons involving focal lengths and formats, old lenses and so on). It is not (just) the look of film that makes it special. It is that and the gravitas of the physical light trap of which I write. Digital pictures image people; film ones bear their imprint.
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.
Sand and the patterns it creates have a special draw for photographers.
This one is shot on Ilford XP2 Super film and scanned on a Nikon Coolscan film scanner. I processed it in Lightroom, cropping away a fairly substantial area on the right before tweaking the tonal balance. I enjoy how the light catches the sand, creating little sparkling patches, as well as the more obvious and graphic patterns.
The shot was taken at dusk on the beach at Weston-super-Mare. I had taken my son out for a little walk and we played on the soft white sand. The light was very beautiful and we were both quite content in the cool evening, a little moment of peace. Maybe it is the reading I've done about space where sand always seems to crop up in star counting analogies, but I can't help but feel there is something profound about these glassy grains. It puts me in mind of the elemental processes that shaped our planet.
My Leica M6TTL has become central to my photography over the last couple of years. I have recently begun to reflect on what I value about this camera, partly through writing about photography, and partly through my restless experimenting with different cameras and formats. Why, I’ve asked myself, does this camera endure? Proclamations of love for a specific piece of kit or format may be doomed to later contradiction, but it is very tempting to say that if I could only keep and use but one camera it might well be this, 50mm lens attached.
I remember picking up the M6TTL for the first time: it was much heavier than I expected. It is not unusual for people to have this experience when picking up Leicas for the first time - they look small but are surprisingly solid and hefty. Leicas are handmade tools and are built to last. I bought mine second-hand, very lightly used; I believe it dates from the turn of the new millennium. I remember it being cold and resolutely machine-like. Having used a largely plastic DSLR (along with some compact cameras) for some time, this was something of a shock.
I had read a great deal about the famous ergonomics and design of the Leica, but I can’t say it felt luxurious in my hands. I did notice how smooth the wind-on lever was and the shutter press felt ‘silky’, if somewhat recessed. I had used quasi-rangefinder cameras before: I played briefly with a Zorkii to study the design and shooting method, and I had used a diminutive Ricoh GR1s for many years (not a rangefinder of course, but, having a finder unconnected to the lens, unlike an SLR). I found that the design and operation of the Leica is quite distinct. I wouldn’t advise anybody to try out a ‘budget’ rangefinder to see if they may like a Leica. There isn’t enough information there and it can therefore be a false economy.
The pictures I first made with the Leica were impressively sharp. As a result, printing the negatives in the darkroom yielded a clear and much-appreciated lift in the quality of my prints. There are various theories as to why Leica cameras yield this advantage. The most obvious one is the lack of a reflex mirror. Only the cloth shutter is at work when the picture taken and thus the camera subject to fewer vibrations. Another is that the form and heft of the camera, often pressed to one’s face for extra support, allows one to press the shutter with a very gentle squeeze. I soon followed the Leica crowd and installed a soft release in my camera’s shutter button. I do believe this facilitates a more gentle and responsive shutter press. The winder also allows one to install one’s thumb behind it as one presses. This I believe is a reason why people install ‘thumbs-up’ metal supports into the hotshoe of digital Leicas.
The other thing that strikes you straight away is the finder. (I should say for completeness that I write about 50mm framelines on a 0.72 viewfinder magnification. This is significant technically because other focal lengths, finders, and cameras won’t give you the same view). The framelines sit within a wider frame. Photographing, one has the sensation of isolating ‘pictures’ in a bigger continuum of the world. I have written elsewhere about the effect and it’s something I really enjoy. As I look at the frame I can visualise my image as a picture (print) separated out from what is around it, but I still have the information of what is outside the frame. Some people particularly like being able to see things before they enter the frame, but it’s not so much this as the feeling of looking at a picture that I enjoy (and indeed, that I miss terribly on my digital mirrorless camera).
I started using my Leica for candid portraits as soon as I had it. Looking back on these early days, I see some of my favourite people images, and cannot help but think that the Leica raised my game. This may be nothing more than a subconscious owner’s pride, or an attempt to live up to the famous marque. After all, as Roger Hicks has pointed out, you hardly have any excuse for your poor photography when shooting with a Leica. I don’t believe it is this (or just this): I think the process of manually setting aperture and shutter speed, of conscious pre-focussing, of the need to imagine depth of field and indeed the film emulsion (in short, properly to visualise the result), leads to more careful and perhaps more memorable shots. Maybe it is the gap between taking and seeing an image with film that leads me to remember more vividly my film shots, but I think the care that the Leica demands seems to play a part too.
Leicas are not intimidating cameras to point at your subjects. I found that my regular family muses soon started to ignore the little M6TTL and went about their business, just as I like from a photographer’s point of view. Leicas are quiet, to the extent that subjects are hardly aware when a picture is taken. As we all know, this is a blessing because of the ‘acting up’ effect of so many initial encounters with a conspicuous camera and shutter.
So I return in conclusion to my original question about why the M6TTL has endured, for me. It is a well-made, hard wearing, quiet, unassuming camera that demands manual control and close attention to aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and timing. It offers a view peculiar to it (although we could speak of different views imposed by digital cameras and advantages therein) and encourages visualisation. Technical quality, when employed properly, is superb (there is a case for saying second to none with 35mm film, notwithstanding the role of different lenses and other factors). I know that the fact that I shoot film is of importance to me and surely a factor in my regard for the M6TTL.
My preferences are my preferences, they may not be yours. If, however, the factors mentioned above are important to you, or even spark your interest (and you haven’t yet tried this camera or something very like it), then a very interesting journey may well await you. Maybe a Leica M6TTL will turn out to be your ‘one camera choice’ too.
I have a new article on Emulsive.org about the process of visualising when shooting film. It's called 'Visualisation for Film Photographers'.
Emulsive is a rapidly growing site dedicated to exploring film photography in its many guises. It is run with energy, humour and genuine community spirit. There are a lot of interesting photographers to check out, as well as pieces on equipment and processes. They are also looking for contributors, and so offer a great way to get involved with like-minded folk who are passionate about film.
Click the image above for the link.
Somebody asked me the other day 'what film is in your camera right now'. I answered XP2 Super, and called it one of my favourites. Why?
If you are unfamiliar with film, I can begin with a recommendation: try XP2 because it's easy to use. There's an argument along these lines for all 'medium' speed films of course (400 ISO), film having a notorious 'latitude' (meaning that even under- or over-exposed frames will print to some degree of use). XP2 is especially forgiving, it absorbs extreme highlights and reproduces them as kind light greys rather than blocked-up paper whites. Indeed, XP2 thrives on generous exposure; one of its other qualities being that the grain appears most pronounced in the shadows - the reverse of traditional emulsions like HP5 plus.
To ease of use we can add convenience. XP2 is processed using colour chemistry, something that you can still find in many places on the high streets of the UK (though, alas, diminishingly so - kudos to Boots and Frosts chemists in my locale). I am a pretty slow photographer, so my shots build up over time. I really enjoy the fact that I can get a film developed whilst out and about shopping, pick it up a little later, enjoy 6x4inch proof prints, and select which frames to work on in earnest in the darkroom another day. I should add for completeness that I am referring to 35mm, shot in a rangefinder.
Ilford materials are developed to work well together, and I enjoy the look of XP2 printed on Ilford Warmtone Multigrade Fibre Based paper. I want to say that there is a luminosity to XP2 that this paper allows to shine. I strongly suspect that the aforementioned forgiving nature of the film makes for a generally easier ride in the darkroom. Some may read this as a lack of control (developed in colour chemistry, by someone else, remember), but my experience is that even when darkroom controls are limited, they are plentiful.
Scanned XP2, especially when dust reduction or grain suppression software is applied, can look somewhat 'digital', i.e. very clean, almost 'waxy'. The behaviour of the grain mentioned above plays a part here too. If you dig into and lighten those shadows too much unpleasant textures can emerge (of course, all this is subjective, you may want to do that). Economical Leica Monochrom anyone? One could get a second hand Leica M6, a Nikon Coolscan film scanner, a couple of rolls of XP2, and satisfy both digital and darkroom black and white yearnings.
One last thought. Following from my own experience and the wise words of others, begin by rating XP2 Super at 200 for general work (or 400 for low light), but change your camera to 100 when in bright, contrasty light. This allows the shadows to receive adequate exposure, in the face of your camera's light meter which will be compensating for the abundant bright areas. Highlights receive 'too much' exposure using this tactic, but recall that this doesn't matter because XP2 doesn't 'blow out' like digital. This is XP2 Super.