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’ve been doing a lot of film processing with my students of late, and drying the film properly is inevitably a consideration. In my experience, this is one of those elements of analogue photography that is very much a matter of craft. No two photographers seem to have quite the same process; indeed, all possess little rituals and sequences as individual as they are.
A key question is what to dry the film with. Fingers? Microfibre cloth? Chamois leather? A few years ago, I came across Barry Thornton’s advice to use a film squeegee. He was absolutely convinced this was the best way, although he did attach some provisos.
A significant number of films later, I can concur with Thornton’s advice. However, some of my films have the dreaded long, even scratches down their length, so I have learned the hard way to take his provisos on board too.
First, the squeegee should be pre-soaked (with a dash of wetting agent in the water), so as to remove the particles that create the scratches. Depending on where you live, differing amounts of matter is contained in tap water, and you may well look (as I do) to distilled or de-ionised water as a more reliable alternative (I buy the kind of water used for car batteries, which is relatively cheap and available in five litre containers).
Second, the film should be soaked for a little time in the clean (de-ionised, etc.) water with a little wetting agent. The amount of wetting agent itself is subject to a little alchemy, although I follow Ilford’s recommendation for dilution that comes with Ilfotol.
This procedure is reliable and produces consistently clean negatives. It goes without saying that the film squeegee must be in good condition (I simply replace mine regularly to avoid degradation), and while I can’t say that scratches don’t creep in from time to time, it is the best method I personally have used. This is a craft you must learn first hand, so my advice might not be the perfect method for you, but it could be a great starting point.
* I write 'drying' here for simplicity, but it is more accurately the first part of drying I'm referring to, i.e. getting most of the water off the film before it is hung up to dry.
Regular readers will know of my regard for printing and the pleasure it potentially brings. Seeing an image move from screen to fine paper can be nothing short of a revelation. New tones, colour relationships and detail are revealed, and there is a strong sense of a veil being pulled from in front of the picture. It does, however, have a ‘negative’ side too: it has the power to show up the flaws. The print makes you work harder: you have to be more critical of your image and must be willing to solve all the issues before it sits right.
I was reminded of this just the other day when I made a print of my fern picture (see this post here). If you read the post about this image, you will know that I am an apprentice large format photographer, and was wrestling with a one second exposure in windy conditions at f16. All seemed to be well in the end, that is, until I printed it.
The problem is there are some significant - and visually unattractive - shifts in depth of field. The chosen aperture of f16 is simply inadequate to give the kind of generous clarity I had visualised. Thinking about it, it’s hardly any wonder: I was looking down a fairly steep slope and there was no way I was going to bring the film, lens and tree planes into alignment, even given the tilt options of the field camera. Trees aren’t very considerate too, and tend not to grow straight upwards!
There were good reasons for not wanting to go longer than one second at the moment of exposure, so this limited my aperture choice. I didn’t have any faster film with me at the time, although even HP5+ (a sensible alternative) probably wouldn’t have solved the issue. I chalk this up to part of my learning experience with large format: 35mm photographers are blessed with few problems when it comes to securing adequate depth of field. Indeed, it’s something of a historical irony that in these days of ultra-fast lenses and small formats, photographers often strive for less depth of field, when photographers of the past sought more. To move ‘up’ the formats is to encounter these self-same problems. Adequate depth of field is now on my picture-making radar (as an experienced LF photographer would doubtless have counselled me).
The print may be a hard taskmaster, but it’s a teacher too. All the parts of the process are connected. What a wonderful medium this is.
I've been working with students in the darkroom all through this week. One of the things we've been trying out is prints 10x8 inches or larger (we normally work with a smaller size, especially for beginners).
I always enjoy demonstrating printing; I think it's really important for students to see an instructor engaged with the process, leading by practical example.
The print above is on fibre based paper. It's a work print, ready for a little contemplation before a final dodge and burn plan is made (I think it will be mainly burning-in with this image). There's always a sense of anticipation as the print dances and the water flows. Don't forget 'dry down' though: tones become a little darker when dry, which can often steal a little of the perceived sparkle of the lighter tones.
As a young street photographer, I couldn't get Meyerowitz's words out of my head. It seemed such apposite advice for the would-be street shooter: you will find yourself looking on and thinking, but think too long and the moment will be gone.
I'm not entirely sure that it's a motto I've been able to live by as a photographer; I'm not properly convinced it suits my style, nor have I always been brave enough to execute it.
The above recent image is, however, one of those moments where I followed Meyerowitz's mantra exactly. I had been shooting all day long, and had long shrugged off any early self-consciousness or hesitancy (that's usually the way it goes for me: starting gingerly, getting into the flow). I saw the scene from the corner of my eye and immediately raised my camera. There was next to no time to frame, and my press of the shutter was immediate too.
It was one of those images, where I intuited that something had taken place, but wasn't sure it had come together. I'm not even sure I could have had time to perceive the whole thing; it really was a case of intuition and experience leading the exposure.
I enjoy the mystery of the image, and that it is made up of a number of interacting elements.
A fine product from Ilford and a mainstay of many darkrooms in this country is Multigrade IV Resin Coated paper. It’s the paper I use most with my students and it comfortably facilitates a novice’s first steps towards a satisfying print.
Not all darkroom papers are equal however, and if you have begun your darkroom journey with a paper such as this, you may wish to consider trying a warmtone paper too. For me, warmtone is my paper of choice, and you will often come across advice to make the switch to it on grounds of an improvement in quality.
Now, I’m not sure it is objectively ‘better’, nor do I quite agree with the advice I sometimes see that it will give you a ‘better’ tonal range (as if merely making the switch is enough to ensure printing contentment).
What it does give you is a different distribution of tones at different grades, and, with the right negative, this may well result in a more satisfying and expansive tonal range. I know it does for me in the vast majority of cases.
Multigrade IV has a very long reach into the highlights at middle grades, while it is somewhat lacking in local contrast in the midtones. If your negative has a lot of midtones, this can result in a muddy and disappointing rendering. Multigrade IV Warmtone on the other hand, has much more ‘punch’ and tonal separation in the midtones, albeit at the expensive of the highlight scale. It gravitates towards a crisp white in the highlights quicker than its cousin, and this may not be an issue in the case of the midtone dominated scene. As is so often the case in photography, this is a question of compromise, or more accurately, of the right compromise for your particular equipment and visualisation.
It is good darkroom practice to know the tonal characteristics of your paper and to match them to your negative. In reality one paper may very well suffice for the majority of your printing, but if you haven’t tried any alternatives, how do you know? It may be time to try the warmtone option, and to see how it works with your negatives and vision.
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Photography is a medium with a frame implicitly built-in. The edges of the image isolate a section of reality, and the frame exerts a constant, if unseen, force on our interpretations. Not all images are the same shape, and different formats bring different shapes and image edge ratios.
Hold a small print in your hand and it can quickly disappear into its surroundings. This holds especially for the print with little or no border: with no protective visual buffer, the surroundings come rushing in and the print lost to anonymity.
Give the print some room, some visual, protective space and everything changes. Suddenly the image is contained and exerts its own reality. Our eyes are held much more effectively within the images’ borders and the photographic illusion - that we are looking through a window on the world, or more strongly, that we are occupying that world - holds sway.
This is a matter of aesthetics too. The visual attractiveness of a piece can be given a huge boost when it is placed in a mount (and arguably more again in a frame). I order my mounts online and have them cut to exact dimensions to suit the image. I carefully match the mount colour - and remember different whites have very different ‘colours’ - to the paper colour. A good mount is somehow not noticeable in itself, but surely is in its aesthetic impact.
The only way to appreciate this is to try it. Take an unmounted finished print and treat it to a well-cut mount. Observe what happens: put it on a table, step away from it. Take things further and find a discrete, proportionally matching frame. Try it on the wall. Step away. Return to it. It is my wager you’ll love the image more.
Make a start in fine art inkjet printing
There is a beguiling range of inkjet printing papers available on today’s market, many of which have specialist characteristics and applications. If you are new to inkjet printing, or indeed are simply in the mood for a different support, it can be difficult to know which paper to choose.
I have several paper types that I regularly use, each for a different purpose. Among these is a category that I might call the inkjet equivalent of a straight print in the darkroom. Having made a first stab at processing an image, I want to print it out and begin to make decisions on how to proceed. I will return to processing, print again, and repeat as necessary. Towards the end of this procedure I will include the final paper, usually one of the most expensive available. The paper I use first will be an ‘economical’ one (for reasons of economy, naturally), but, crucially, must not be so far removed from the final type as to introduce a jump or glitch in the process. It’s pointless to work on a draft version of a print, only to have to start processing from scratch once the end paper is introduced.
A paper has recently come to my attention that I have considered for this draft / straight print role. It is Hahnemühle Photo Matt Fibre 200 gsm. You have to tread carefully with affordable matt papers because at the lower end of the market you may not achieve the kind of quality you need. In point of fact, I remember thinking for some time that printing on matt supports wasn’t worth the trouble - until I discovered fine art matt media. The problem was that the image was rendered with a noticeable grainy structure (quite unlike film grain, incidentally) that gave the image a rather un-photographic quality. A quality matt paper will not suffer this, rendering your image in a smooth and photographic fashion, with good tonal transitions.
The price point of Photo Matt Fibre suggests that it is an economical but not a budget paper. It is significantly cheaper that Photo Rag Matt (one of my favourite final print papers), at nearly half the price. Hahnemühle themselves advertise it as a good first paper for fine art work. I’d like to second that view here and recommend it myself as a good place to start.
I like two things about this paper. First, it has the aforementioned quality of rendering a photographic-type image that I consider the sine qua non of inkjet printing. Second, it is not a thin paper at 200 gsm, and comes with a slight texture reminiscent of more expensive fine art matt papers. I can therefore get very close to my final print with this media, before using my preferred exhibition paper.
There are two possibilities here then, as I see it. Either you’re starting out and are on safe ground with this paper as a first matt paper choice and a taste of fine art printing; or you’re already printing and might consider it as a replacement to your draft matt. In either scenario Photo Matt is a sound, keenly priced option.
You can buy Photo Matt Fibre via this link from Amazon:
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Games to play
Welcome to the final post of my Tone: A Primer series.
Today I’m going to look at some exercises you can do in order to sharpen your command of tone in black and white. They are suggestions and starting points and can be modified to suit your own practice and equipment. I have endeavoured to ensure that there is material for both film and digital users, although the final exercise is a film one. They are given broadly in order of difficulty.
1. Play with exposure
If you are relatively new to photography, it is well worth beginning with a simple exposure exercise. Try reproducing the modest exercise I explain in post two (under the heading ‘A sliding scale of grey’). Easy to do, but insightful if you are starting out. You are in control of the tones in your images.
2. Shoot black and white things
I have Jevon Tooth to thank for this exercise. When Jevon showed me some of his great black and white prints, it was obvious that he had deliberately targeted black and white objects in order to hone his vision in the medium (e.g. some very lightly toned grasses against a painted black fence). The thought had never occurred to me! A simple but very effective to way get a sense of how black and white tonality can work in crafting images.
3. Strive for tonal variation
For this exercise, I’d like you to prepare and print an image that contains different areas of clearly distinguished tone. Whether you are working with digital or darkroom, the task is to use dodging and burning (or equivalent tools) to help separate distinct zones within the image, and to use this to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject.
Traditionally, this involves keeping the subject (especially if a person) fairly light tonally (this catches the eye) and to darken surrounding areas, particularly edges, so as to create a frame. Darkened edges are known as a vignette.
Yet further than this, it is important to make decisions about how to create a sense of contrast between the image zones. Perhaps a very light area of window light needs to burnt-in just a tad, so as to lend a little more solidity to it. Maybe an area at the end of a road in a landscape needs lightening to distinguish it from surrounding trees and to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. Perhaps a little collection of objects near the bottom of the frame is too light and competes with the subject that is more central. Knock it back with a gentle burn-in.
4. Shoot the zones
This exercise was devised by John Blakemore. It assumes some familiarity with the zone system, or, at least with the tones that are demarcated by it. Summaries of the zones and their corresponding descriptions abound on the internet, so one of these is a good place to start.
You begin by choosing a zone and attempt to make a photograph that encapsulates its mood. So, I might choose zone four, say, looking carefully at the tone given in the charts and mulling over the description I have found of ‘average dark foliage, dark stone, landscape shadow’.
The challenge with this exercise - and a challenge it indeed is - is that you are trying to make an image that still holds a range of tones, but that somehow summarises the feeling of the zone in question. You may of course use any development or printing controls you have at your disposal to make the print that you think is appropriate. There is no right or wrong to this, it’s simply a very good exercise for understanding the tonal range available to black and white photographers.
5. Make a ring-around
For this exercise I’m going to assume that you are using a film (and developer) with some regularity, and that you have a pretty well-established development regime.
You will need to shoot three rolls of film. Firstly, shoot your typical subjects at ‘box speed’ (i.e. the ISO as stated on the film box). For example, if you are shooting HP5+, you would go with 400. It does help to have one or two test subjects (e.g. a given room with consistent lighting) that will provide a reference point across the films.
Next, you shoot more of your typical subjects (re-do that test subject too) but this time at a stop under and a stop over that box speed. You might simply want to change the ISO on your camera, so that you can simply get on with shooting. Therefore, in my 400 speed example, I would shoot some frames at 800 and some at 200. It takes some discipline, but it’s really worth making note of all your exposures as you do this exercise.
When the films are finished you then develop them in the following way. For the first you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for the developer in question. Opening up my box of HP5+ I find a handy chart which will tell me the time with the developer I'm using. For the next film you add 20 percent to the development time, so as to ‘over-develop’ the film. You may have guessed that for the remaining film you are going to reduce the original manufacturer’s time by 20 percent. This will give you ‘under-development’.
When you are done developing you make a contact print of the results, in your usual manner. In the following image you can see just such a contact print, here showing the ‘normal’ development, and what is labelled +1 and -1, meaning our +20 and -20 percent. I have asked you to do a lot of hard work so far, but already you have a lot of really interesting information. Do you prefer the manufacturer’s development time, or the over- or under-developed version?
Next you can look for frames that you overexposed. What do you think of overexposure and underdevelopment? Or of overexposure and overdevelopment? Which tonality do you prefer? Here is my contact print showing overexposure. The development sequence is the same as the image above, so left under, middle normal and right over.
The underexposed frames then complete the picture. Again, which is the best tonality, for you and your typical subjects? What does the test scene suggest?
There is some more work to do, because this exercise can be brought to a brilliant conclusion. The last step is to print a selection of the images (logically you’d do nine, as suggested by the contact prints above) aiming for the best possible print in each case. In other words, you don’t print them all to some standardised time and grade, but make the best possible print using all the usual controls that are available to you.
You now have a huge amount of information about your shooting and developing regime and with luck some interesting new exposure and development settings to trial over a longer period. You are not stuck with whole stops or indeed 20 percent, but can make further refinements as you progress. Not a quick or easy exercise but potentially a very fruitful one.
If you've followed this series this far, I thank you for your patience and hope you'll find something of interest in today's post. I plan to do one final post after this, a collection of practical exercises to help improve your command of tone. If you are tuning-in to this series for the first time, this post will make sense on its own, but I would recommend checking out the preceding ones in order to get the most out of it.
Recipes of tone
I turn my attention now to providing some examples, in order to show what ‘recipes’ of tone are available. The images are taken from my own practice; however I should add that the history of photography is brimming with examples from numerous different schools. We might think of Bill Brandt and the English School, the endless greys of Paul Strand’s Palladium prints, or the rich and varied tones of Group f/64.
Wide tonal range
My first example is of a long tonal range, running from pure black, through a range of differentiated greys, and finally to very light grey, nearly white. This image is representative of what is often the default advice given to photographers, namely to ensure that their images contain multiple areas of distinct tone that can please the eye. The histogram looks like this:
A histogram is a graph showing the distribution of tones. The horizontal axis represents the different tones available, running from pure black on the left to pure white on the right. The vertical axis represents the quantity of pixels in the image it maps, so that the peaks indicate dominant tones. The benefit of a histogram is that it helps you to visualise tonal distribution without being fooled by the image itself. This particular histogram broadly backs up what I said about wide-ranging tone, but you will see that there is more to the story. More accurately, the peak on the left shows the image to be rich in shadow tones; on the right we see a smaller, but also significant, group of light tones. The histogram ‘crashes’ with the left hand side, showing that pure blacks are present, but is still a little way off white on the right. The lightest tones are therefore ‘nearly white’. We might therefore speak of an image that has a goodly tonal range in shadow areas and in the very light greys through the arch.
Pale tone with dark elements
The tonal approach or strategy in this image is to have a largely light image with a smattering of punctuating dark tones. The eye is therefore drawn to the darker areas, which in this case helps to support the inferred narrative.
The gentle light greys of the background provide some substance, but because they fall within a certain portion of the histogram they don’t compete with the main protagonists. They contain subtle modulations of tone (and indeed there are some crisp near white points too) rather than being an undifferentiated mass of a single grey. They don’t interfere, but they are not flat and lifeless. The histogram looks like this:
We can see that the very dark tones are not quite black (although the seem like it to our eye), likewise there are very light greys and only tiny amounts of white. The majority of the tones are over to the right, as we would expect given our description.
A high contrast image is one in which the darks and lights dominate, grey tones are largely or completely absent. This is a digital image, but were this a darkroom print, we would most probably be looking at a 3 or 4 contrast grade. The window structure is a near silhouette, and is black and very dark grey. The sky beyond has gone over to white. There are some more subtle greys from the middle of the scale in the building, but they take a minor role, as reflected in the histogram:
I am not a photographer who favours high contrast images, and I in fact struggled to find good examples from my archive. I gave this image a little extra contrast in order to provide the illustration here. Such an approach is a very graphic style which favours bold shapes and outlines. In film photography, high contrast leads to pronounced grain and is often associated with low light work with fast films, or average speed films that have been ‘pushed’ in development (exposed at a higher ISO than box speed, with compensated development to avoid negatives which are too thin).
As I searched for images I begin to wonder about my own photographic style and why I had made such little use of graphic contrast. Such thinking leads to interesting questions about habits and assumptions and whether we are not missing out on creative possibilities. Naturally, there is no rule that says one must be using all established approaches to tone in one’s work (life would be very dull if we all did). Yet I think there is a job of reflection that we can do given a knowledge of how tone works and what we haven’t tried. To paraphrase a master printer I admire, how do we know we don’t like the alternative if we haven’t tried it?
High contrast scene, exposed for the lights
This recipe entails exposing for patches of light tone in very high contrast situations. It is very fashionable at the time of writing. The photographer typically applies negative exposure compensation and allows the shadow areas to lose definition. It is like the high contrast approach above, inasmuch as it can be very graphical, but the crucial difference is that the favoured areas still potentially contain a wide tonal range. It is used mainly by street photographers and has the clear benefit of helping to establish areas of interest and narrative interaction. The photographer can make frames within the images, sometimes multiple ones, which connect and juxtapose the chance elements of the street.
Long, expansive greys
My final formula is one much exploited in the history of photography, and that is of a fulsome range of greys. The idea here is to have midtones that reach outwards such that a harmonious scale of differentiated tone is apparent. The photographer tries to maximise tonal information, downplaying, but not eschewing, the extremities, whilst maintaining tonal transition and modulation. Black and white aren't entirely absent, but they do not present themselves as much as in the 'wide tonal range' recipe with which we began.
Platinum / Palladium prints are notorious for providing a tonal recipe like this. The don't exactly lack contrast, and certainly not tonal differentiation in a good print, but the scale of grey just seems to go on and on. I don't think it's an accident that the example I've chosen from my own practice comes from a 5x4 negative. Large format has an inherent ability to capture smooth tonal transitions, in no small part due to the sheer size of the negative and the information captured. Tones still need to be managed, of course, through exposure, developer choice and development and dodging and burning, but the photographer is in a strong position to achieve the effect to begin with.
My example was shot on Ilford Delta 100 Professional film and developed in LC29. Delta 100 is extremely fine grained in large format, and LC29 gives wholesome contrast without becoming overpowering. With a negative like this, one can dodge and burn gently to tease out distinct areas of tone, emphasising the range at one's disposal and avoiding 'muddiness'.
Indeed, avoiding a mass of undifferentiated tone is the key challenge in pursuing expansive greys. With such prevalent midtones it is easy to lose a grip of contrast. An image of expansive greys still needs to be tuned with gentle modulations of tone to provide a story and a journey for the eye. Too many similar tones will quickly repel the eye and return a feeling of flatness. The photographer must find subtly and tonal richness without relying on more familiar devices of contrast and distinction. As with so many different photographic media and techniques you can't have it all ways and have to work within the set of compromises you have chosen.
Next instalment: Games to play (the exercises)
So far in this series I have given a general introduction to tone (in black and white photography), and have introduced the idea of using exposure to gain creative control over general tone and mood. It's well worth looking over the previous two posts if you are new to the series.
In this instalment, I turn my attention to the concept of contrast and introduce the idea of local adjustment of tone.
Contrast is nothing more or less than how tone is distributed in a photograph. In high contrast images, it is the extreme ends of the scale that dominate. Low and high zones, or shadows and highlights, are evident at the expense of midtones. Conversely, in low contrast images it is the midtones that dominate, the more extreme zones being largely absent. A more typical scenario is a scene containing a wide range of tones, and therefore more moderate contrast.
Life for photographers isn’t always easy, and when thinking about contrast we have to keep an eye on how our materials effect contrast as well as the contrast from the original scene photographed. My wall example (see post 2) is straightforward in the sense that it is low in contrast. However, as we have already hinted at by looking at some different exposures, it can be rendered in different ways depending on our use of the medium. Indeed it shows a classic problem in black and white, which is that white things will usually be rendered grey unless we do something about it using our technique.
‘Overall’ contrast (or more properly ‘global’ contrast) isn’t the whole story when it comes to manipulating tone, as we shall see, but for many practical reasons it is an appropriate place to start. In addition to exposure, film development, paper choice (including the contrast grades), software processing and even viewing distance affect contrast (try observing how contrast increases the further away you get from a photograph on a wall). Each of these areas is a subject deserving treatment in its own right, but some examples will give us a taste of the choices that need to be made.
Films interact differently with different developers and this affects contrast. How the developing tank is handled (agitated) effects contrast, as does development time (extending development gives more contrast, cutting it less). Papers have different ‘grades’ corresponding to the high, low or average contrast set out above (with ratings going from 00 to 5). Some darkroom workers still use papers with ‘built in’ grades, however the majority now use ‘multigrade’ paper capable of rendering all the grades through the use of filters.
Papers also have intrinsic leanings to different distributions of tone, some have more midtone contrast, others more contrast in the highlights, and even paper developer can be mixed at different strengths to increase or reduce contrast. Different image processing packages put their own stamp on how images are initially processed and the contrast that results. RAW developers offer a staggering amount of precise control over tone, printer drivers can affect contrast, as again does paper, this time in the inkjet world.
Not only are there lots of factors influencing contrast, they also work subtlely in tandem. A given paper can only print a given negative, in which a series of decisions about contrast has already been made. The same is true with digital processing, although thanks to developments in technology, it is increasingly the case that image files can have their contrast adjusted significantly in post-processing (without any penalty for poor or inattentive exposure technique).
This takes us to the question of the original scene again, still a big issue for film photographers. A ‘typical’ scene, let’s say one including sky and land on a bright day, will contain a tonal range that comfortably outstrips film’s ability to record it. This means in practice that a photographer must decide where to place the exposure, and compensate for the problems through development and printing. This forms the basis of the zone system mentioned previously. The photographer exposes to achieve adequate detail in the shadows and then controls the highlights by reducing or extending development times.
Dodging and burning
We have now established two substantial ways that we can take control and determine the tones in our photograph: exposure and materials / technique. Control is the aim, ultimately, for we cannot ‘play’ our tones if we cannot purposefully manipulate them. The remaining method at our disposal is the altering of individual areas in the photo, traditionally known as dodging and burning. A darkroom worker dodges, or shields, areas of paper as a print exposure is made in order to create lighter tones. Burning-in is the opposite, in which tone is added to a distinct region using further exposure and a piece of card with a hole in it (or more simply the printer’s hands, shaped to make a hole for the light).
The language of the wet darkroom was adopted by software, and hence we have dodging and burning tools in digital processing too. The methods for altering individual areas of tone are now numerous: as well as the aforementioned tools themselves, we have masks and levels adjustments, adjustment brushes in RAW processors, layer styles and layer masks, control points, the list goes on. Increasingly, an analogue print from the traditional darkroom feels like a handmade ‘event’, which cannot precisely be repeated, whereas the digital darkroom is all about absolute precision and repeatability. I really enjoy how I can revisit a print in software, making very fine adjustments as I progress the work. I find myself working somewhat differently in the darkroom to the digital realm because of this.
In my experience, a modest amount of dodging and burning is all that is usually needed to turn a ‘good’ image into something much more special. The challenge is to be able to determine what an image needs, and to make adjustments without over-doing them. That said, it is often surprising just how far we can alter the tones of an image before the eye begins to protest and it looks unrealistic. Assuming that halos or other obvious signs of intervention aren’t produced, our minds will accept quite extreme tonal combinations, at least in black and white photography.
Next instalment: recipes of tone
Welcome to post two in my blog series introducing tone in black and white photography. If you haven't already done so, you might want to check out the first instalment. You can navigate to it using the menu on the right or the search box above it.
Here's today's instalment.
A sliding scale of grey
Imagine a continuous line of tone that stretches from black, through every conceivable grey, and arrives at pure white (which is often in practice simply the ‘colour’ of our paper, minus tone). We can make a visual representation of this using software:
Photographs can be made up of predominantly one tone, e.g. very dark grey, or they can contain a staggeringly wide range. There is no a priori rule that says photographs must contain certain tones, where on this scale tones must come from, and in what combination they should be seen. However, we do have a good deal of precedent regarding what works well in a given situation. As ever in art practice, rules of aesthetics can sometimes be broken.
The scale above hints at an infinite scale of grey, at least theoretically. This tells us of the beauty and flexibility of black and white. It is an incredibly subtle medium, which looks deceptively simple. I liken this for my students to the keys on a piano. You can ‘get’ that they produce a series of notes, even if you are not a musician, but making actual music from them - putting them together in a certain order, with the right timing - is something else. In isolation tones are as characterless as a single note, but in combination they are there to be ‘played’ and made to sing.
Now, it is not very practical to refer all the time to an infinite scale of grey, even if that is what an analogue medium can potentially produce. So in photography it is customary to divide the tones into a series of ‘zones’ that are a stand-in for more subtle and complex groupings. The zones help us to specify the areas of tone we mean, and perhaps more importantly can be related to the practical business of exposure. Exposure is essentially how light or dark our image turns out, and is determined by the amount of light we ‘expose’ our film or sensors to.
Let’s do this practically. Were I to point my camera at a white wall and let the meter determine the exposure settings I would get something like this:
Let us say, for the sake of argument, this is 1/250, f11 at ISO 400. (If you don’t know what these numbers mean, now is the time to look them up, or make a mental note that you need to come back to them in a little while.) You will observe that the tone I’ve created in my photograph is in the middle of the range. This is because light meters in cameras are calibrated to produce a ‘middle grey’ (there are some nuances and complexities to this, complicated by contemporary metering systems, but that is for another article).
So let’s say I am unhappy with this result and want my photo to look more like a white wall. I can do this by adding more exposure:
I used the same settings as above, but this time changed my aperture to f5.6. That’s two stops more light entering my camera, and two stops up the scale of zones. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘over exposure’ (i.e. too much exposure), but I hesitate because I’m preaching that there is no absolute right or wrong in this. If you want your wall to look this way, this is the exposure you choose.
Let’s now complete the set and produce a dark version:
This time I changed my aperture to f22. My world has gotten darker, the mood is more ominous.
While the example of the wall shot underlines the direct relationship between tone and exposure, it is an undeniably simple case. It’s not quite true that we are dealing here with single tones that equate to zones, because the images will actually be made up of some quite subtle fluctuations of grey within a zone region. However, you will see that we can use the zones as a useful way to categorise our shots, in which groups of tone do indeed dominate. We can put this is in an even simpler way by using the more common categories of shadows, midtones and highlights. You may have come across these in software (e.g. Adobe camera RAW, or Lightroom), or in general discussions of photography.
Next instalment: contrast & dodging and burning
Tone in black and white photography is an effect created by variations in brightness in the image. Prominent or reflective objects in a scene create bright areas, or tones, whereas recesses create shadows. Think of a simple pencil drawing and the way that an artist creates a three dimensional effect. Darker areas are given more shading and therefore darker tones, whereas lighter areas are left to represent brighter patches. Put together, the effect helps to model the objects and creates a sense of space.
Tone as a concept is useful because it helps us to distinguish this particular effect from other elements of picture-making. Shape, line, composition and texture, are different, albeit related aspects. While tone is not the be-all-and-end-all of black and white photography, it is fundamental, and to a large part influences our response to an image. Tone helps to convey the ‘mood’ of photograph, just as tone in a voice or in music conveys a certain feeling or atmosphere. Photographs can be dark and brooding, light and airy, or dominated by muddy greys. The particular combination of tones selected by the photographer determines how we receive the subject of the picture.
When we speak of tone in photography, we are essentially speaking about a series of different greys (‘pure’ black and white being the exception). It is the photographer’s job to decide how the tones are to be distributed, and hence what mood or atmosphere will be conveyed by the photograph. A photographer learns through technical means to manipulate tone, thus expressing a personal vision. Photographers often refer to the ‘tonality’ of an image. This means how the tones are distributed and, very often, whether an image contains a wide - hence visually satisfying - range of tones.
There are two main things that a black and white photographer must get to grips with. First, how to use the medium (cameras, negatives, paper, software) at hand to create the desired tones; second, an appreciation of what tones will work well in different situations. The first is a technical matter, the second concerns the already existing ‘language’ of photography, and is aesthetic (about how we read and interpret images).
Having the means to manipulate tone is one of the great pleasures of black and white photography. It is what separates the beginner, who is at the mercy of the equipment and its built-in leaning towards mid-greys, and the accomplished photographer, who is able to make the medium ‘talk’.
What follows in the next few posts is a little distilled knowledge from my practice as a black and white photographer. It is my aim to inform you of some key elements that will hopefully set you on a journey towards making better black and white photos. I ask myself simply, if I were starting out in this again, what would I have liked someone to have pointed out to me in the beginning.
I add the usual caveat about a lack of completeness: as you will see, tone is a very big subject that swiftly leads to more very big photography topics. It can’t possibly all be covered in a modest blog series such as this, nor should it. It’s good to think of each element that I raise as something you can investigate much further. If you are experienced in these matters, I hope you will get something from my emphasis and little tips along the way.
Next instalment: a sliding scale of grey
A happy new year to all my readers!
Well, 2017 is here and I'm happy to announce a little series of blog posts I shall be making over the coming weeks on tone in black and white photography.
I shall be writing these posts with a view to offering a primer on tone, something for the beginner, for sure, but hopefully of interest to the more experienced photographer too. As well as making some essential definitions, I shall be considering ways in which tone is of crucial importance in black and white photography, looking at ways it can be manipulated, and examining typical contrast 'recipes'. I will end with a series of exercises, a little tonal work out if you like, aimed at giving anyone who follows them a deeper appreciation of tonal values.
A rough schedule is as follows:
Post 1 (today): Introducing tone
Post 2: A sliding scale of grey
Post 3: Contrast & dodging and burning
Post 4: Recipes of tone
Post 5: Games to play (the exercises)
Please, as ever, your feedback and comments on the posts are welcome. As hinted at above, you'll find the first post immediately following this one.
Train your visual memory
I believe in creativity, but I also believe that we learn a social language ‘through’ which we speak. As it is with words, so it is with photography. Adams puts it economically when he says that ‘you bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen’. Photographers learn photography by learning to speak its language. That language is made up of the work that has gone before us, the grammar, so to write, established by those who find their way into a culture’s visual memory, passed on through books, museums and latterly the web.
Just as a writer might conjure an original feeling or sentiment using the established words, phrases and literary devices of the past, so a photographer aims to carve out a niche in picture-making. Literary minds are nourished by the traditions of literature on which they draw and are immersed. The same goes for photographers. I am not so much of an expressionist as Adams, and maybe the full quote above is unfashionably romantic. However, I think we would not be off the mark to read Adams’ as an educational message to look carefully and widely at good work by others, in order to improve our practice.
So my tip for the day is to consider the wonderful photography of the past as great works that we can read to improve our photographic eye. If you have seen good photos, in other words, you will stand a better chance of drawing on them to make good work. Give time and space in your engagement with photography over to careful looking and contemplation. Galleries and museums are great because we are in the physical company of the work and peruse with minimal distraction. Books are tactile and inhabit our living environments, such that we spend more time digesting a photographer’s oeuvre. Numerous times have I chanced on a photographers monograph from my bookshelf and re-awakened my engagement with the work. Such images stick around, literally and in the mind.
Sure, we might start off being under the spell of great photos, feeling like we’ve made another ‘Adams’, say. Yet given enough time and a generous diet, we might come to put that ‘language’ together, in fresh and contemporary ways. It’s an essential part of learning to be a better photographer.
How to make interesting photographs
My tip today is to photograph what you find interesting, in order to make interesting photographs.
Some of my tips in this series have bordered on stating the obvious, I know, but sometimes there is wisdom in a truism. This tip is no different. There is so much to occupy us in photography, from equipment to light, to compositions and processing, that it is easy to forget that we will love a photograph to the degree in which we love the subject. Sally Mann has said something to the effect that you should photograph what you love in order to make great art.
So in my customary manner I ask you a question: do you love - find interesting - what’s in your photos? Have another looks at your images. Maybe this applies to some and not others. Are you even photographing what you love at all? (When we become enamoured with gear we often forget the simple practicalities of using it. We might, for example, pursue equipment to make landscapes, because we dream of making landscapes; but in actual fact have neither the time nor opportunity to make such work).
I cannot tell you what you love. It might be cars, buildings, people, places, little details in everyday life (or, following from the modernists, the medium itself). Herein lies the subjectivity in this, and the very good reason we make work with an audience in mind. Photography is powerfully and fundamentally tied to the thing in the image.
Take the time to ask whether you still love the thing in front of your lens, and you will go a long way to retaining the spark of your own interest in what you do.
Find the street scene, then wait for actors
In a great deal of the best street photography work there is a special relationship between the setting and the people in it. We often find ourselves marvelling at these shots because not only is the composition elegant and convincing, but there is a person in ‘just the right’ place in the frame. There is a coming together of setting and event, and in the very best this carries the extra weight of a poignant meaning as setting and actor(s) create a frisson. Henri Cartier-Bresson is one such master of this technique.
There is a simple technique you can use to make this happen in your shots (not that I’m promising you’ll immediately become a Cartier-Bresson). You simply find a setting you like, paying attention to composition and the shapes in the frame, and wait for somebody to arrive, in the right place.
In the image above, I was struck by the scene and the view through the opening (the slanting tree caught my eye), long before anybody arrived. I realised I could use this technique and wait for somebody to walk into the frame. It took several attempts to get somebody in the right position, and the right somebody, posture particularly, at that. I enjoy the way the woman’s leaning stride echoes the leaning tree. This elevates the shot from a view that catches the eye to something more.
A great technique if you’re into street photography.
Keep on photographing in your mind
Today’s tip is to practise taking pictures all the time, even when you don’t have a camera with you. You can go through much of the process in your mind, thus sharpening your skills of seeing.
Ask yourself some questions as you go. What is the subject? Where does it start and end? Where are the edges of the frame? Do you need to be closer (or further away)? Do you need to change your perspective by crouching down, or getting higher? Is the image you see black and white or colour?
If the ‘shot’ is particularly memorable, you may want to take things a little further. Can you imagine how it would be processed? How would you make the print? What size should it be? How might it be presented?
Deepen your vision by shooting in black and white
This tip is deceptively simple: shooting in black and white allows you to concentrate on the photographic essentials of shape, texture and tone.
Setting your camera to shoot monochrome jpegs or choosing a black and white film, you dispense with the complexities of colour relationships and enjoy a simplification, an intensification even, of your vision. I say deceptively simple, because although you 'dispense' with one layer, you still have plenty of work to do. It is challenging to translate the colour-based world of ordinary vision into a convincing arrangement in grey. You have to watch light carefully, think about the tones that will be produced and how they will work together, follow shape and line, and observe the play of texture and form.
If you are used to colour work, you may get a sense of liberation in this. It can be a little holiday from colour relationships - which affect your work whether you know it or not - that makes returning to colour work a pleasure again. You discover a world that is utterly photographic in kind, a world unlike our vision, and become acquainted, or reacquainted, with some basic concerns of image building.
Be warned though. Black and white in itself is very addictive. There is no shortage of eloquent advocates who see it as the highest, most lyrical, or purest form of photography. While this tip is a little more modest and practical in aim, you may just become initiated into something much bigger.
You are a better photographer than you think
This tip is a little morale booster designed to banish to the devil who sits on the shoulder of every creative person. You know, the devil that says, ‘in reality, you are no good’.
‘Why do I take so many rubbish photos?’ might be another refrain. The question is, who doesn’t take rubbish photos? How many frames does a ‘professional’ (I use the term loosely) shoot to get ‘the shot’? I can assure you it is not on a frame for a usable frame basis.
There is a kind of common sense to this (thus says your devil-on-the-shoulder), and you might still be full of self doubt. Here is a fact that might help. Robert Frank’s truly iconic book The Americans contains some 83 photographs. How many did Frank shoot to achieve that number? A reliable estimation is 28,000 frames.
Yes, that’s right - sorry devil - 28,000 frames. Needless to say, Frank was selective. Not because he wasn’t a brilliant photographer, but because he knew what all successful photographers know, and that is that a subject and a photo opportunity must be worked. We can’t simply roll up and steal one or two images, however great we may be.
Consider this the next time that devil appears and concentrate on keeping on it. You are better than you think.