Not so mellow yellow

A tale of photographic disappointment, discovery and unexpected pleasure!


My weekend was one of discovery. That’s my word for the disappointment of something not working as expected but for which the reason is found and a lesson for the future is learned.

The meetup

I’d met up with a group of friends who were on a quest to make cyanotype photograms on the beach, developing the prints in the salt water of the sea. Much as I was interested in their endeavours, I am still focussed on mastering my new Intrepid camera and exposing my glass dry plates. So while they did their thing, I did mine.

The day was bright enough with the light dissipated by high grey cloud in which there was shape and texture to be captured. The low contrast light was fine for SE1 emulsion which doesn’t have the exposure range of film emulsions, so I was looking forward to making a few images without intrusive harsh contrast.

I have two lenses for the Intrepid: a 150mm and a 240mm and a yellow filter which fits the filter thread on the 150mm. It occured to me that the filter might be useful to bring out the shape and texture of the clouds. That’s what I would do if making photographs on regular film and so I mounted the filter on the 150mm lens.

As it happens I made six exposures, three with each lens. The less than ideal light for cyanotypes meant that my chums were taking a while to make their photograms and so I was unhurried as I picked my subjects, able to carefully choose my viewpoints and take my time to ensure the exposures were accurately made. What could go wrong?

And so to the darkroom

It had been a good day and I was excited to get the plates developed so I set up the darkroom as soon as I got home. Developing the plates doesn’t take long but they need to be very well rinsed and then left for some days to dry completely.

There were two mistakes made that day. The first had already been made although I had yet to find out what it was. The second was the dilution I used for the Ilford Multigrade in which to develop the plates. Regular dilution is 10% (1+9) and only a week ago I had discovered that SE1 emulsion develops far too quickly in this. Better to use a 5% (1+19) dilution which gives time to watch the image as it appears in the tray of developer. For some daft reason I made up a 10% regular dilution. Not a huge mistake but it would mean I was unable to develop by inspection.

Incidentally, the reason for SE1 emulsion developing so much faster than regular manufactured photo paper is that the emulsion in manufactured paper is further coated to provide protection but that coating also slows the uptake of developer. SE1 is primarily a print emulsion but with no ‘supercoat’ and usually being more thickly and less uniformly coated, it rapidly absorbs developer with a response to match!

Plates 1, 2 and 4 had been exposed with the 150mm lens fitted with the Y(K2) yellow filter, and plates 3, 5 and 6 with the 240mm lens. I developed the plates one at a time, finishing the process of develop, stop and fix for one before beginning the next. Fixing takes quite some time and varies with the thickness of the emulsion.

Plate 1:

The world’s smallest operating lighthouse on the pier at North Queensferry, carefully composed and given an exposure of 1s @ f/32.

I slid the plate into the developer and waited. And waited. Nothing happened. I left it in the tray for eight minutes. Nothing happened. Stop bath then into the fixer where it cleared to just a light fog – probably due to the length of time I’d left it in the developer. There was no image. Nothing.

Undaunted, but a little puzzled as to what had gone wrong, I moved on to Plate 2.

Plate 2:

An old wooden raft, rotten and anchored by old railway bogeys lying alonside the pier, framed with the pierside derrick and the piers of the Forth Road Bridge in the background. An exposure of 10s @ f/32 and some use of front tilt to deepen the plane of focus.

Just as with the first plate, I slid the plate into the tray of developer and waited and watched for something to appear. But once again, nothing happened! I began to feel a sense of panic. My mind raced through the memory of setting up, focussing, setting aperture and shutter, cocking the shutter, removing the darkslide and making the exposure. I was sure, absolutely certain I had followed through every step in the proper sequence.

At this point I realised my mistake with the developer, but that would have sped up, not slowed down development. The developer was fresh so nothing likely to be wrong with it. I was totally stumped. Never mind. The next plate was exposed with the 240mm lens. If it developed OK I could look to the 150mm lens and it’s shutter, or the plate holder in which Plates 1 and 2 were loaded for an answer.

Plate 3:

A close up of a photogram being exposed on the beach. Paper coated with cyanotype solution, found objects from the beach laid on top and all held down under a sheet of glass. Exposed for 4s @ f/22

cyanotype on the beach by SE1 on glass
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 4 sec @ f/22

I knew now that the strong developer dilution would render an image very quickly, if one was there at all, and this time I was not disappointed. It was all I could do to drain it of developer and place it in the stop bath before it went near totally black! But I didn’t care, this was now a problem solving task and I had an image from the 240mm lens.

Plate 4:

This would confirm whether the problem lay with the 150mm lens. Plates 1 and 2 were in the same holder so perhaps the holder was the problem. If this plate has no image on it I could reasonably narrow down the fault to the 150mm lens assembly.

North Queensferry harbour, low tide, boats grounded in the foreground with leading lines to the backdrop of the magnificent Forth Bridge. I really, really wanted this image to have been recorded. In my mind it is the exposure of the day but sadly that is where it remains.

Nothing happened. No image.

By this stage I was past caring. I knew I had a problem with the 150mm lens and although the last two plates were exposed with the 240mm lens, they were going to develop uncontrollably fast in the over-strong developer. I went ahead anyway, if only to prove to myself that the 240mm lens was performing OK.

Plate 5:

The mud-covered ribs and backbone of an old boat uncovered at low tide. The tonal range of the scene was barely three stops. With the low contrast light I had little expectation of an interesting image but I’d liked the shapes and made the exposure of 8s @ f/16 anyway.

The image turned out much as expected but with the addition of these weird light leaks that I actually really like!

old ribs
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 8 sec @ f/16

Plate 6:

From the same plate holder as Plate 5. This was another image I really looked forward to seeing and again what I envisaged is spoilt by light leak and fogging, yet when I look at it with these imperfections they add something serendipitous that I quite like! 40s @ f\45 but I really need to take a close look at the state of this plate holder.

bracing structures
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, G-Claron 240/9 lens in Compur 1 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 40 sec @ f/45

 Agony and Analysis

With the darkroom restored to its original sanitary function, I left the plates rinsing and went off to check out the 150mm lens.

I sat down with the lens and checked every aperture setting and every shutter speed, with and without cable release attached and couldn’t find any fault. There have been no problems with the lens at any other time. I had just one more thing to check out – that Hoya Y(K2) Yellow filter.

The reason was already hanging around in the dark recesses of my brain and it was now apparent that I needed to take two photographs, one with and one without the filter to prove it.

Regular film is panchromatic, i.e. it is sensitive to all wavelengths of the visible spectrum which is why it can only be handled in total darkness. SE1 is a print emulsion and orthochromatic, i.e. it only responds to wavelengths towards the blue end of the visible spectrum which is the reason it can be handled under a red or orange safelight. Was it possible that the yellow filter was actually acting as a safelight? Time for the Shed Test.

The Shed Test

The following evening on my return home from work I set up the camera in the garden and made the two-exposure Shed Test. The light was a bit different, blue skies replaced the grey clouds of yesterday and it was later in the day.

First, with no filter and 15s @ f/22, then the second with the yellow filter and the exposure compensated by one stop to 30s @ f/22. Then back to the darkroom to find out if my theory was correct.

I developed the unfiltered plate first and was very relieved to see an image appear. The second plate, filtered, was almost blank. Indeed the very faint image that appeared is likely due to there being more blue light today than when the failed exposures were made yesterday.

The filtered plate on the left and the unfiltered on the right and the yellow filter that made the difference!



The Shed Test - yellow filter
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, Sironar-N 150/5.6 lens in Copal 0 shutter with Yellow Y(K2) filter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 30 sec @ f/22
The Shed Test - no filter
The Intrepid 5×4 camera, Sironar-N 150/5.6 lens in Copal 0 shutter, hand poured SE-1 emulsion on glass. 15 sec @ f/22


I’m still a bit surprised that a yellow filter which has only a mild contrast enhancing effect on panchromatic material should have such a dramatic effect on orthochromatic material, but there it is. Lesson learned!

I now have some plates that I actually quite like just for their serendipitous imperfections. An unexpected pleasure and a pleasant surprise!

I also have several plates that I’d like to recycle if possible. With no hardener added to either the developer or the fixer my thinking is that it should be possible to wash the plates in hot water and scrape off the emulsion. Once cleaned up it should be possible to re-coat the glass with fresh emulsion.

Let’s just call it a win-win!

Author: Donald Tainsh

A lifelong explorer of photography

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