Darkroom daze

With my darkroom up and running it’s time to make some prints.

In my last blog post I described the conversion of a spare room into my new darkroom setup. Now’s the time to try out the layout and for the first time, find out how well the Intrepid Enlarger accessory kit works with the Intrepid 4×5 Camera.

Coincidentally, Harman Technology recently announced the introduction of Ilford MGRC paper and its rollout to replace MGIV RC paper which has been the staple of many photo printers for over twenty years. I’d had a box on order, Pearl finish, and it’s arrival was well timed to kick-start printing some of the many 5×4 negatives I made over the summer months. To see how this new paper performs it’s been an opportunity to run some tests, make comparisons with other papers I use and to revisit how I go about split-grade printing.

The first test I ran was to take a well exposed and developed negative with a full range of tones and make 5 second interval test strips through each of my multigrade filters. There are twelve filters in the box, ranging from grade 00 to grade 5. The exercise is useful to show the effect of each filter on highlights and shadows and also serves to indicate the typical exposure time required to achieve desired results from different areas of tonality. I also ran the same tests using an unexposed developed negative to determine the exposure time required to achieve maximum black with each filter.

  • It’s worth stating at this point the importance of using ‘a well exposed and developed negative with a full range of tones’. The results of these tests can be filed for reference and used as a starting point in future printing sessions, saving paper, chemicals and time.
  • The subject of the negative I chose for my tests had been metered using a 1ยบ spot meter on the darkest shadow detail that I wanted to show in the eventual final print. Photographic light meters are calibrated to give a reading for ‘middle grey’ or Zone V in Zone System parlance and this needs to be adjusted to place the shadow detail on Zone III. This is simply done by increasing the meter reading by two stops, e.g. if the meter reads 1/15th sec at f/8, the exposure given would be 1/60th sec at f/8 or a suitable matching combination.
  • Development of the exposed negative should be consistent with the time and temperature required for a ‘normal’ process. A common fault is to start the timer once developer is in the tank and stop it before emptying the tank. In fact once in contact with the emulsion the developer remains active until it is stopped, hence the use of a stop bath. Failure to account for the time between emptying the tank of developer and refilling with stop bath often adds as much as 25% to the actual development time and results in over developed negatives that will never show the shadow detail that was intended to be seen!
  • Finally, a full range of tones in the subject from shadow to highlight is needed for proper assessment of the filter tests.

I am not showing the results of my tests here. They are specific to my workflow and my subjective reading of my negative. However I would suggest to anyone interested in following up on this blog that there is value in carrying out these tests for themselves with their own negatives and darkroom conditions. The investment in paper is not great (I had sufficient spread of tonal range in my test negative that I was able to use a 5×4 test print printer so only needed three sheets of 10×8, cut into 5×4 pieces, for the job), and requires only a few hours in the darkroom.

Armed with the results of my tests I set about making some prints. My plan was to use the split-grade method. (I say ‘the‘ split-grade method, but the more I look into it, the more I realise that there are many variations in use and not all that are to be found on the internet are reliable). My starting point was a tutorial by Dave Butcher that can be found on the Ilford website (https://www.ilfordphoto.com/split-grade-printing/). I’ve experimented with his process and realise that once fully understood it has great potential. If anyone is reading this in the hope of a quick fix, you won’t find it here. Do your own experimentation and make your own discoveries and you won’t regret it.

All that said, what follows is the process I followed in making one final (for now!) print from a negative made during the summer on a walk by a burn halfway up a hillside in north west Scotland. My exposure for this negative was based on a spot meter reading of the darkest shadow detail (some of the lichen on the top of the rock in the foreground) of 1 second at f/22. I adjusted this to 1/4 second at f/22 to place the shadow detail on Zone III. The combination of shutter speed and aperture was chosen to show texture in the motion of the water as it pushed through the rocks.

The negative.
1/4 sec @ f/22, Ilford FP4+, Rodenstock 150mm lens with yellow Y2K filter, Intrepid 4×5 Camera.

My first test strip was made with a Grade 00 filter at 4 second intervals. What I was looking for here was the first appearance of texture in the highlights. I’ve circled what I chose, an exposure of 20 seconds.

Grade 00 test strip

Now I had a choice to make: I could make a composite test strip by exposing the whole of the next test strip for 20 seconds at Grade 00 and then change the filter to Grade 5 and expose that at intervals over the Grade 00 exposure, or I could make a separate ‘intermediate’ test strip with just a Grade 5 filter exposed at 3 second intervals. (I determined what intervals to choose, based on my earlier filter tests and my reading of the negative). What I was looking for here was the exposure required to just produce almost black shadow detail. I think it has to be a matter of individual taste as to which method to choose. Personally I found it easier to find the detail I was looking for by making separate G00 and G5 test strips and it is a simple matter to make a third combined test strip that would confirm my choice.

G5 test strip
Combined test strip: G00 for 20 sec then G5 at 3 sec intervals

For my first work print, I decided to increase the Grade 00 exposure to 24 seconds and from my reading of the negative, to burn in the top and right edges at Grade 5 for and additional 5 seconds.

Work Print. G00 24sec + G5 9sec + G5 5sec burn along top and right edges

I was still unhappy with the top and right edges. There is a slight light leak (consequence of using ‘pre-loved’ film holders bought on eBay!) and I wanted a darker edge to frame in the scene. My solution was to crop slightly but to retain the burn around the edges.

Final Print. Top and right edges cropped. G00 24sec + G5 9sec + G5 5sec burn along top and right edges

It is never a good idea to rush through the preparatory stages and in hindsight I really should have re-done my Grade 00 test strip to show a range of times from 12 to 28 seconds. This would have placed my chosen 20 second exposure centrally and shown that better highlight texture would be achieved with a slightly longer exposure. As it was I realised my error prior to making my first work print and made a guesstimated adjustment to 24 seconds.

All in all I spent most of four days enjoying the red glow of the safelight and filling my nostrils with the aroma of fixer! I made several prints on the new Ilford MGRC and for what my opinion is worth I think it is a big improvement over MGIV RC. The blacks are deeper and the jump in contrast between grades 3 1/2 and 4 is much less pronounced.

Alongside my MGRC prints I also repeated my filter tests and made prints on Ilford MG ART 300 cotton rag paper, one of my favourites. The response is quite different and underlines what I said above about making your own tests of the papers and chemistry you use, with your own negatives and in your own darkroom.

Darkroom dreams

Overcoming inertia to repurpose the spare room as a darkroom in which to use the Intrepid Enlarger.

When I retired some fifteen or so months ago, one of my intended projects was to repurpose the spare room as a useable darkroom in place of the rather cramped facility that also had to function in its primary purpose, as shower room.

The spare room had last been used to accommodate my twin grand children while they, their parents and dog ‘lodged’ with us between house moves. They all moved out a few years ago leaving the room complete with Thomas the Tank Engine and Peppa Pig wallpaper and the two cots that they had outgrown. The room wasn’t sorted out straight away and inevitably it gradually filled with ‘stuff’ to became somewhat of a store room.

Meanwhile, large format negatives made with my Intrepid 4×5 camera were piling up. I could scan them but then they were just digital files to be adjusted on a computer, or I could contact print them using my 35mm enlarger. Neither was particularly satisfactory but I’d subscribed to The Intrepid Camera Company’s Kickstarter project to develop and produce an enlarger attachment. In June the kit arrived complete with film holder and electronic timer. Its arrival was the stimulus I needed to get on with the darkroom project.

Once the room was cleared of stuff the cots were taken apart and reused to make a workbench, a close-fitting blackout blind with blackout curtain for good measure ensured no light leaks, an LED strip provided a safelight and the installation of a hanging system facilitated the display of prints. There is no water to the room so I set up a print washer fed from a large plastic tub reservoir by a fish pond pump. I acquired a solid, square-topped table to support my enlarger and reckoned I was good to go.

To use the Intrepid camera as an enlarger is simply a matter of replacing the camera’s ground glass and film back with the custom fit Intrepid Enlarger attachment. The camera has to be mounted on a stand but although a regular tripod can be used, I found it a hassle to set up and the tripod restricted adjustment, rendering it frustrating to use. I set the enlarger aside until I could find an affordable good quality copy stand on which to mount the camera instead. I was in no hurry. After all it was summer and I was more interested in getting out with the camera and adding to the pile of negatives!

Just a few weeks ago I spotted a professional-quality Kaiser copy stand for sale, described as having ‘minor cosmetic damage’ and at well below half the going rate for a new one. I took a chance and was very pleasantly surprised to receive a badly bashed box and packaging containing a brand spanking new stand that I had to examine very carefully to find the cosmetic damage – a tiny ‘bruise’ on one corner of the baseboard. Bargain!

Intrepid Camera with Enlarger Attachment all mounted on a Kaiser RS1/RA1 Copy Stand

So with the exception of a few unnecessary but nice-to-have bits and pieces that I’d like to have in time, my darkroom was ready for use just as the winter days became shorter, colder, wetter and gloomier. What better way to escape the gloom but to shut the darkroom door behind me, turn on the warm, red glow of the safelight and get printing?

Ready for action

With a box of the newly announced Ilford MGRC Pearl paper to hand I had a lot of printing to look forward to. All of that’s to come in my next blog post.

Red Pepper Day

What? … A camera made from a red pepper? … OK, why not?

A red pepper. Not a green one or a yellow one, a red one and the redder the better. Why? Because the colour of the skin will act as a filter and if the pepper can be loaded with media that can be handled in a darkroom with a red safelight, such as photo paper, the pepper should provide safelight darkroom conditions.

I had to give it a go! This is how I made my first red pepper pincam:

With the pincam made, all I needed was enough light to try it out. The projection distance is about 60mm and the pinhole diameter about 0.4mm so my effective aperture is f/150 or thereabouts. The weather has been wet, windy and dull. Very, very dull. I waited a day but the weather remained very, very dull so on my workbench I set up a pile of empty photo paper boxes and the second red pepper as a still life, lit it with a powerful LED worklight and made an exposure.

Still life set up for trial exposure

Five minutes later I had a paper negative in the developer …

Red pepper pincam paper negative

and here it is scanned, inverted, flipped with some levels tweaking:

I’d been concerned firstly that moisture from the pepper would contaminate the image but although there was some slight staining, the paper came out remarkably clean.

Secondly, there was a risk that the electrical tape would not seal sufficiently and allow light leaks but it adhered well. After 24 hours it held together and there is little evidence of light leaks.

Thirdly, would the red skin of the pepper do the business as a safelight? It did! There are interesting markings on the negative that coincide with natural markings on the surface of the pepper that I think are quite cool but the pepper did the job!

I kept a second pepper until the results from this one were known. I’ll be waiting for beter weather and a more exciting choice of subject matter to set it up.

Spelling it out

Pinhole playtime inspired by a wooden plank.

A recent spell of miserably dull weather where every colour was less exciting than a palette of nothing other than 18% grey had me rooting around the garage to find something to keep me out of mischief.

I found an offcut from a wooden plank, carefully put aside for one of those ‘just-in-case’ moments. It was 100mm wide and 28mm thick. Now for those whose brains are so wired, 100mm is also the width of 4″x5″ sheet film and 28mm is a fine pinhole projection distance. My brain must be so wired – I immediately saw a pinhole project to occupy my time!

Pinhole ploy inspired by a plank of wood!

Initially , my plan was to cut the plank into 125mm lengths and drill through it as large a hole as I could find a hole saw to do the job. I had some spare foam core from which to make a tray into which I could place a sheet of film or paper. The block of wood would be secured over it to form the camera body. The drilled out hole would have a pinhole secured in place and use a piece of electrical tape for a simple shutter.

As can be seen from the photograph above, I had sufficient wood and foamcore to make four cameras, each with its own film tray. However as I was cutting the wood my idea developed: I would prepare a template to stick onto some mat board and drill through to create pinhole-related words with pinhole dots. A second copy of the template would position the large hole and be pinned or nailed to the front of the wooden block to support the pinhole and shutter.

I would then make two exposures: First, the word-drilled template held against the film or paper would be exposed under the light of my enlarger. Then the template would be replaced with the wooden camera block and a regular pinhole exposure made, although I would have to wait for an improvement in the weather for that second stage!

I’ve had the enlarger attachment for my Intrepid camera for a few months but haven’t used it, finding setting it up on my tripod just too much hassle. I’ve been looking for a decent copy stand to use and struck lucky a couple of weeks ago, finding a Kaiser stand on Amazon described as having cosmetic damage and being offered for substantially less than half the going rate for a new one. I took a chance and was rewarded with a packaging-damaged, as-new copy stand. I took me quite a while to find the cosmetic damage: a slight ‘bruise’ on the corner of the base-board. It was a good buy and now I am able to use my Intrepid Enlarger for the first time to make the first exposures for my new pinhole cameras.

Kaiser RS1 Copy Stand and Intrepid with enlarger attachment set up and ready to go.

Bad weather never lasts and this weekend I got out in crisp, bright conditions to try out my new pinhole cameras. I’m running out of both film and printing paper and an order placed earlier in the week has been delayed. I found at the bottom of a box, a couple of sheets of MGIV RC satin paper that I cut to size for paper negatives and in another box was half a dozen sheets of Kentmere Select VC lustre that I could use for printing. I had to make do with just a couple of sheets cut up for test strips and had only one shot at making a final print from each negative! With that in mind, I’m pretty pleased with the results below and the knowledge that refinement can be made in future.