Last weekend I made the best of good winter light and time to spare for clambering up and down the rather slippery bank of the River Avon.
My cameras were almost ancillary to the restful experience that comes from the concentrated effort to find viewpoints and to set up for an exposure yet it is they and the images that ensue that give purpose to the solitary expedition. Here are a couple of memories from my day:
Having been inspired to and informed about salt printing by workshops at Stills, it seemed fitting that one of my salt prints should be auctioned to raise funds for Stills.
Over the spring and summer, one of my projects was to prepare a set of salt prints to be displayed as part of an Edinburgh LoFi group exhibition that was scheduled to take place during September. Unfortunately, at the last moment the exhibition was cancelled due to emergency building works necessitating closure of the venue.
News of the exhibition being cancelled coincided with an appeal from Stills for print donations to a fundraising auction in aid of the work they do to support photography in Scotland. Established in 1977, Stills was the first dedicated photography centre in Scotland and remains the only space dedicated to photography in Edinburgh. The gallery, darkrooms, editing suites and workshops have played some part in my own photographic journey and so it seemed appropriate to submit one of my exhibition prints to the auction.
But there was a snag. The auction I would be submitting to was to be an anonymous online one requiring that prints should be 10×8, unmounted and unsigned. My exhibition prints were 10×8 but were signed, mounted and framed. As such, they were ineligible!
After some thought, I realised I had a set of work prints from my penultimate printing session. Some of these were not what I was aiming for but there were a couple which I had considered using as final prints. I picked the best one, signed it on the back below my pencilled process notes and handed it in to Stills.
In due course I received an email accepting the print. The auction, for a total of eighty four anonymously donated prints would go live at the beginning of October, culminating in an exhibition of the prints in Stills Gallery from 18th until the afternoon of 20th October when the online auction would close.
In the evening of 20th October a live auction was held of prints donated by named artists well known in Scotland and beyond, many of whom have had exhibitions within Stills. Some of the reserve prices in the catalogue were eyewatering! I went along after work to experience the live auction, have a look at the exhibition of online auction prints and to find out if mine had sold.
I never scanned or photographed the print that was auctioned but I do have photographs of the set of mounted exhibition prints. Here they are. The print submitted to the auction was the work print for ‘Sinuous Attachment’, second in the set.
Of the eighty four anonymously donated prints, ten were unsold, most sold for prices between £20 and £100 and just two sold for more. The top price was £160. I was astounded to learn that my salt print raised the second top price of £120. I know and respect many of my fellow anonymous print donors. Although this was in no way a competition, to be judged by public auction has been a surprising, humbling, and ultimately encouraging experience.
Between them, the online and live auctions have raised much needed thousands of pounds for Stills at a time when arts funding is tight. I’m pleased to have made a small contribution. Stills introduced me to salt printing through one workshop and gave me the knowledge to develop my own process though another so it seems fitting that the print I donated was the product of that involvement.
My Intrepid 5×4 Field Camera is one of the original Kickstarter models. It came with a lensboard fitted with an 0.5mm pinhole, the optimum diameter for a pinhole camera with the pinhole set 140mm from the image plane, giving an aperture of f/280. (I refuse to refer to this distance as the ‘focal’ distance, there being no lens to focus, and instead refer to it as the pinhole ‘projection distance’ or ‘PD’ for short.)
I have used the camera with its lensboard pinhole on a few occasions, always setting the front standard at 140mm or so. However the camera’s bellows adjustment gives the flexibility to alter the PD to cover a range from about 60mm all the way out to almost 300mm. With a little spare time on my hands I decided to investigate the field of view obtainable at different PDs and to see whether any image degradation occurred due to using the fixed 0.5mm diameter pinhole at ‘non-optimum’ PDs.
I set up The Intrepid on a tripod with a selection of my grandchildren’s old toys, an old rabbit hut and an even older garden shed as subject matter. My plan was to make exposures on Ilford MGIV RC Satin paper rated at ISO 6, setting the bellows for 60mm, 100mm, 140mm, 180mm, 220mm and 260mm PDs and using the Pinhole Assist iPhone App for calculation of exposure times. In the event, I ran out of sufficient daylight to complete the series and made do with four exposures.
Here they are:
The developed paper negatives have been scanned, inverted, flipped and been adjusted for black and white points in Affinity Photo.
Pinhole exposures will never be sharp due to diffraction but I am unable to detect any noticeable image degradation over this range of PDs although only the third image is exposed at the ‘optimum’ PD. This points to the accuracy and cleanliness of the pinhole supplied with the Intrepid. Exposure times are all satisfactorily consistent, given that changing light conditions during longer exposures have an uncontrollable effect on the outcome, so my long-standing faith in Pinhole Assist as a great tool for pinholers is well justified.
There have been times when pinholing that I’ve wished I could narrow the field of view. I think I’ve found a solution!
Assessing exposure factors and effect on black & white film for a cheap set of colour filters.
For a few years I’ve had amongst my camera gear, a set of coloured filters bought on eBay for a mere £7.50 delivered. From time to time I’ve used the yellow one but I’ve never actually assessed their effect on black & white film or measured the exposure adjustment each would require. With a bit of time to spare last weekend, I decided it was time to get experimenting.
The day looked set for good even light from a bright sky. My plan was to load six sheets of FP4+ in holders for my Intrepid camera to make exposures of the same subject set up under even lighting, each with a different filter: unfiltered, yellow, orange, red, green and blue. Before doing that however, I would assess the exposure adjustment that each filter would require. My Sekonic L-758 meter set up on a tripod would be used for that.
The L-758 can measure Exposure Values (EV) in tenths of a stop and can be set for spot metering, 3D incident metering with the lumisphere extended or directional incident metering with the lumisphere retracted. I used it with the lumisphere retracted and compared the difference in EV when uncovered against the EV when the filter was held in front of it. I took three readings for each filter, averaging the results for each.
Yellow … -0.7 EV Orange … -2.1 EV Red … -3.1 EV Green … -2.1 EV Blue … -1.7 EV
It took a little time to carry out and record my exposure measurements. By the time I had finished and then prepared a ‘set’ to make exposures with each filter, the sky had clouded over and lost any brightness. It meant longer exposures than I would have liked and less contrast in what light there was but having started I pressed on.
To aid identification, I printed a ‘label’ for each filter. Unfortunately I forgot to use them for the yellow and red filters so edited the developed film sheets with marker pen! Also in the setup frame was a colour chart and the L-758. I would sit on a lime green camping chair wearing a bright blue polo shirt with bright yellow piping around the collar.
The lens I used allowed for thirds of a stop settings so I was able to apply my exposure adjustments with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Here are the results:
The results are better than I expected. The filters appear to work just as they should which makes them exceptionally good value at just £1.50 each and they came in a handy protective pouch too! And it’s good to have at last, what seem to be accurate exposure adjustment factors. The effect each colour filter has on subject colour is quite obvious for my shirt but can also be seen across the spectrum on the colour chart stuck to the wall of the shed (click on the images to see full size).
It’s not often that I rejoice at a weekend weather forecast of heavy rain. However with the attractions of the outdoors in fine summer weather my salt printing project has stalled somewhat. Now I could anticipate spending time in the darkroom without the feeling I was missing out!
A month or so ago I had made some alterations to the salt print process shown to me at a workshop and I have been keen to make further refinements. The process, for me, is time and space consuming and I need to be able to set aside at least a full day devoted to the task. My regular darkroom is a temporary adaptation of a shower room, too small for my salt print needs. Instead, I adapt a spare room where we still have the cots that our grandchildren used when they came to stay over. The cots have been outgrown and with a bit of plywood they convert into a useful, if low, work surface!
Once cut to size and salted, the paper is sensitised with silver nitrate and then exposed under UV light before processing. I use an adapted face tanning machice as my UV light source. Processing the exposed print involves five separate chemistry baths and five water washes – that’s a lot of trays and containers to find room for!
During processing, a salt print changes colour and density quite dramatically and to make a reasonable assessment of exposure times a test strip or print needs to be fully processed through to at least a reasonably dry print. With a shortened final wash and the assistance of a hairdryer to dry it off, processing my test print took a couple of hours but I was rewarded with an exposure assessment of between three and five minutes depending on the density of the negative. Last time round I had been overexposing by a stop or more, leading to lost shadow detail.
By early afternoon I was ready to start printing in earnest. I prepared a project plan which would enable me to process prints at ten-minute intervals and keep a check on which print should be in which bath or wash. My first batch would be for six prints and then after a wee break, a final batch of four prints would take me well into the evening before finishing.
process timing plan
Each time I process one of these prints I discover something new or something changes, apparently inexplicably. The process is serendipitous and I actually quite like that. Reprinting the same set of negatives gives the opportunity for comparison, for re-examination of each stage in the process and for appreciation of the beauty in whatever is the outcome. Perhaps next time I’ll rescan the original film sheets and/or remake the digital negatives with tweaks to the colour screening.
Meanwhile, the task of cleaning up, putting away, and restoring the room to its original purpose awaits!
To date I’ve made a couple of attempts at salt printing: at a workshop back in April which I followed up last month with my first attempt at home. Feedback from a group of friends convinced me that I was on the right track and with a group exhibition planned for later this year, that I had a project worth pursuing.
My quest for exhibition quality salt prints took a step futher at the weekend with a marathon two-day darkroom session and a reworked process involving carefully selected art paper, gold toner and the usual large measure of luck.
Paper preparation and exposure
Image: Digital negatives prepared from Ilford FP4+ 4×5 sheet film.
Paper: Daler Rowney, The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP.
Salt solution: 2% sodium chloride applied by foam applicator.
Sensitiser solution: 1ml of 12% silver nitrate applied by pipette and hake brush.
Exposure: UV face tanner, time determined by test strip.
Pre wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
Salt bath: 1% sodium chloride, 30 seconds with agitation.
Wash: tap water, 10 minutes with frequent agitation.
2-bath Fix: 15% hypo with 0.25% sodium carbonate, 5 minutes each bath with agitation.
Wash: tap water, 5 minutes with agitation.
Hypo clear bath: 1% sodium sulphite, 5 minutes with agitation.
Final wash: tap water, 60 minutes.
The above process was adapted from that detailed in the book The Salt Print Manual by Ellie Young. Limitations to space, resources and availability of materials necessitated some compromises:
For each wash I used single 40-litre plastic storage boxes rather than a two-tray set up with running water,
I used a ready made product, Tetenal Goldtoner, which I diluted to strength, rather than preparing toner with gold chloride solution which I simply couldn’t source in the UK,
My local craft supplies store does not stock any of the tested art papers recommended in the book but did stock The Langton Prestige 300gsm HP paper which met the specifications for being 100% cotton, acid free, gelatin sized and of sufficient weight to withstand all the washing.
I wanted to have a defined coated area which the negatives would overlap slightly, thus avoiding the sharp, straight edges of the negatives showing on the print. To achieve this I formed three masks from mountboard, one for the salt solution, one for the sensitiser and one to position the negative. By using separate masks I avoided contamination between the coatings. Once sensitised, the paper has to be exposed within two hours so I split my workflow into two batches, preparing four sheets at a time.
The first print was not much success, showing staining where the drops of silver nitrate from the pipette had fallen on the paper and then been poorly spread with very obvious brush marks. The second print was better and from the third print onwards results were very acceptable although by the final three, shadows were blocking up and the prints were becoming quite dark, a sign of too much silver.
I concluded that I had not sufficiently wetted the hake brush before starting and so for the first sheet it had absorbed rather than spread the silver nitrate sensitiser. As the session progressed the brush was carrying over a combination of salt and sensitiser from one sheet to the next leading to too great a concentration on the later sheets. I also noticed that the bristles on the hake brush became clumped together and because the brush strokes were constrained to the image area by the mask, this led to a grid-like pattern of sensitiser application, most noticeably around the edges and corners of the prints.
There was just enough silver nitrate solution left over to make a second print from the first negative. This time I spread it with a well wetted clean foam applicator. Unfortunately the paper was rather hurredly coated and each coat was not properly dried before exposing the paper which led to some dark banding in the finished print. However it did show me the difference that using slightly less sensitiser and a different applicator could make.
A couple of days later I had the opportunity to show the set of dried prints to my group of friends. It was interesting to observe their reactions and useful to hear their feedback. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find that prints I would have discarded are aesthetically pleasing to others!
I am greatly encouraged that my marathon darkroom session was not in vain. I’ll need to plan soon for the next one!
My eyes were closed as I savoured the moment with the object of my desires, gently feeling my way around in the darkness, the rythmic sound of the darkroom clock in the background as the sweet aroma of fixer filled my nostrils, knowing that at the tip of my fingers things were developing …
My preferred method of developing sheet film is six at a time in a Paterson tank with a MOD54 adapter. However if I have only one or two sheets that I want to assess, I resort to tray developing.
Tray developing is done in the darkroom, in the dark: no comforting warm glow from a red safelight, knowing where everything is laid out, relying on touch to gently work from tray to tray, listening keenly to the tick of the darkroom clock, shutting out all distractions to count down the seconds. It’s an intense spellbound time alone with just a piece of film for company. Strangely I often find myself closing my eyes as if to shut out the dark in the darkness.
I’ve been experimenting with a zoom pinhole technique in an attempt to create a ‘look’ for a wee project I’m thinking about. It’s quite a simple idea: To use the ratchet focussing mechanism of my Intrepid field camera to adjust the pinhole projection distance during a long exposure with a lensboard mounted pinhole.
So today with good, bright conditions forecast I exposed two sheets of Harman Direct Positive paper and then two sheets of Ilford FP4+. With a five stop ISO difference between the two media it would be interesting to see the different results each would produce.
Direct Positive Paper
For the Direct Positive paper, exposures given were about three minutes – I feel four would have been better but I got what I wanted from the prints. The zoom range was from 190mm to 100mm with a 0.5mm pinhole. It felt difficult to match the zoom action to the time available and the second exposure was much the better for the experience of the first!
The first ran out of zoom and was zoomed a second time before the exposure was completed. It was also a poor choice of subject with a big slab of shadow on the right (left in the print!) that’s pretty much underexposed. The second is a bit underexposed but is close to the effect I think I’m looking for and my favourite from the day.
The FP4+ exposures were over the same zoom range but with exposure times much reduced to around four seconds. I had expected that zooming over a shorter exposure time would be easier but actually found it rather rushed and very difficult to control.
The first is a bit jerky as I struggled to cover the zoom range within the exposure time. I was ready for it for the second exposure and though I like the result, the day was too bright to fully achieve the effect I wanted. The exposures were just too short – an unusual comment for a pinhole!
It’s been an enjoyable day: out and about with a camera, trying something different, taking food for thought from the results and of course, that sensual time in the darkroom!
It is almost a month since I reported on my participation in a contemporary salt print workshop. Keen to put what I discovered into practice I’ve been gathering together the bits and pieces I would need that I don’t already have and also gathering images that I imagine would look good when printed on salted paper.
The weather over the past couple of weekends has been favourable so I’ve been out and about with my Intrepid field camera and have a good selection of 5×4 negatives to print from. The ‘contemporary’ process takes a scan of the original negative and with some editing in Photoshop produces what should be an optimised digital negative from which to make the final print. The digital element of the process has the added advantage of producing a digital negative of a size larger or smaller than the original and also means that the source image can be from a digital camera.
A few months ago I had been gifted a quarter-plate contact printing frame and saw my salt print experiments as an ideal opportunty to use it, so I would need to reduce my 5″x4″ negatives to 4¼”x3¼”. However, I don’t use Photoshop so first I had to rewrite the workshop instructions for what I do use, Serif Labs Affinity Photo – Basic digital negative preparation in Affinity Photo. The exposure time would be determined by a test strip to identify the exposure required to achieve maximum black. For maximum control of the highlights, in Photoshop / Affinity Photo and curve to create a denser negative together with a colour screen are applied. The instructions refer to a generic colour screen, which I used for this exercise, but in the workshop we created custom values by exposing a colour spectrum, processing the result, then finding the colour that equated to the brightest highlights.
I can’t say I fully understand the colour screen step and so I started off by picking an image from which I created four digital negatives, one as unscreened greyscale, and the other three screened with varying RGB values: 255:50:0, 50:255:0 and 25:50:0. These are shown below together with the print made (spot the schoolboy error – I overlaid captions on each negative but forgot to flip them!). The four were exposed and printed as one so the only variable affecting the print is the colour screen applied to each digital negative.
My darkroom space is rather limited (its primary function is a shower room) and has to be set up according to the needs of the process being undertaken. For salt printing, the preparatory function of cutting paper to size and coating it with a 2% sodium chloride solution could be performed elsewhere. However sensitizing the paper with 12% silver nitrate solution and processing the exposed paper have to be carried out under safelight conditions. Exposing the paper can be carried out either under the controlled conditions of a UV light source such as my adapted face tanning unit, or under sunlight ideally with a UV index of at least 4. Here in Scotland that amounts to a couple of hours either side of mid-day during the summer months … if we’re lucky! However it is to be exposed, the sensitized paper has to be kept in the dark until ready for exposure.
For my screening-test negatives I had my UV unit set up in the darkroom alongside my processing trays with just a small working area left to sensitize the salted paper with silver nitrate. This gave me a number of problems: the small working area, the wait in the darkroom for the sensitized paper to dry and once the UV unit was on I realised that the inevitable light leaks from it would potentially fog any other sensitized paper whether awaiting exposure or in the process of development. For the test, I was working with only one piece of paper but I would need to rethink my setup for making a series of prints.
I knew that to make any reasonable assessment of my test I would need to allow the print to dry down overnight so I stored my processing solutions (3% sodium chloride and 10% hypo fixer) in light- and air-tight bottles, restored the shower room and went off to sleep on a solution to the darkroom layout.
From my test I decided to stick with RGB values of 255:50:0 and set about creating fifteen digital negatives. I laid them out five to a sheet of Permajet inkjet transfer film with the layout such that I could easily cut out the individual negatives.
I decided that this time I would set up my darkroom for safelight operations only and have the UV light box just outside in subdued light. I reckoned that a little exposure was inevitable but probably of negligible effect (and with hindsight I was right!). When I explored making dry glass plates about a year ago I had aquired a small shallow-drawer unit for drying the emulsion-coated plates and decided to use it as storage for the sensitised paper as I waited for it to dry. This way I could sensitize paper for the session then clear my work area of silver nitrate solution, pipette and brushes.
For the screening test I had run a test strip to determine an exposure time of 5½ minutes and decided to use that as a starting point. The only difference would be that the screen test was done in a 10″x8″ ‘modern’ contact printer while this session I would be using a vintage quarter-plate printing frame with much thinner glass that sat about 1cm further below the UV light tubes. I was also a little uncertain as to how my hypo solution would have fared from being stored overnight as it does not have much ‘shelf-life’.
Processing one image at a time (I have only one contact printing frame!) the first few prints came out of the UV light looking very dark and overexposed. That was to some extent to be expected and they would lighten up as they were processed through the salt bath and hypo fixer before rinsing. However they did not lighten up as much as I would have expected or wanted and so I reduced the exposure time as I worked through the negatives, down to five minutes, then four and a half and the final images just four minutes.
The colour of the prints changes as the process progresses and ultimately as the prints dry down they take on the typical sepia tone that I would expect. There’s a bit of bronzing to some of the prints which is likely due to the age of the fixer and inconsistencies in fully covering the paper when coating are apparent. I consider these all marks of individuality and a part of the image!
What I’m not too happy with is the loss of shadow detail in my prints. I suspect this is due to the curve I have applied when creating the digital negative rather than to the UV exposure given. When creating the digital negatives I adjusted the curve as I would for a ‘normal’ image whereas a negative for salt printing needs good shadow exposure and detail, does not need to be high contrast and needs sufficient density to allow silver chloride to change into metallic silver during exposure. If I have failed in creating the prints I had expected I suspect that this is the area in which I can make the most improvement. That said, for a first attempt under my own steam, the fifteen prints I made do have a ‘look’ and a ‘feel’ that I like.
I coated and sensitized three more pieces of paper than I used. These lay in the drawer shaded from light ready to be forgotten about. However as I type up my exploits a day later, the sun is shining and according to the BBC the UV index should be about 3. Surely worth a try to see what an exposure to sunlight might do. I selected three of my favourite images, made up some fresh salt bath and hypo and exposed them one at a time for fifteen minutes each. Here’s how they look now that they’ve dried down a bit.
Since my Intrepid Camera arrived just a tad over eight months ago I’ve practiced with and shot regular photo paper, direct positive paper, glass plates and the cheapest Fomapan sheet film I could find. I reckon I’ve got the hang of it now so perhaps it’s time to splash out on the good stuff.
With the sun shining at the weekend I broke open for the first time, a fresh box of Ilford FP4+, set my meter for ISO 125 with a +1 exposure compensation for the Yellow Y(2K) filter I planned to use and headed to Gosford in East Lothian to photograph some trees.
I’m attracted to the form and shape of tree trunks and the texture of the bark in the sunlight. Perhaps there’s a series to be explored.
Here’s how I got on:
The Techy Stuff
The Intrepid Camera (Mk 1), Rodenstock Sironar-N 150mm f/5.6 lens with Y(2K) filter, Ilford FP4+ 5×4 sheet film.
The sheets were developed with a MOD54 insert in a Paterson tank in Ilfosol 3 1+9 dilution at 20ºC for 4 min 15sec. Agitation by gentle rotation of the twirl stick, continuous for the first minute then 15 secs at 1 min 30 secs, 2 min 30 secs and 3 min 30 secs.
Scanning was with an Epson 4990, black and white points being set in the standard Epson Scan software.
I took a Trip to Falkirk for an Intrepid photo-outing. But not all went to plan …
The idea was to take The Intrepid and a half a dozen sheets of Harman Direct Positive paper for a walk around The Falkirk Wheel, a unique boat lift between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal in central Scotland, and then on for a visit to the nearby site of the Antonine Wall and Rough Castle Roman Fort. For a few snapshots along the way I took my Olympus Trip loaded with Kentmere 100 film.
Two cameras, one to be set up on a tripod after careful consideration of the viewpoint then focused, loaded, light measured for calculation of shutter speed and aperture before the exposure could be made. The other in a pocket to be taken out, pointed at the subject and the shutter pressed to take the shot without delay.
Nobody takes a blind bit of notice to the Olympus Trip whereas The Intrepid attracts all manner of attention. People stop to look. They ask questions. They tell of their forebears using cameras like these. Their children have to see what’s going on below the dark cloth and their dogs are attracted to the legs of the tripod!
All of that attention when trying to concentrate on the process of taking a photograph with The Intrepid can lead to confusion for the old codger that I am! I made a complete mess of exposure meter readings and camera settings. Of my six sheets of paper only one came out as I had intended, one of two barges passing each other on the Union Canal above the Wheel.
The remaining five were all either very under- or very over- exposed. However, one of these, of the entrance to Rough Castle Tunnel, although about three stops overexposed has been growing on me so I count it amongst the ‘keepers’.
So there it is. Memories of a day out, exposures made, lessons learned and the sense of satisfaction from crafting the images back in the darkroom.