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.