Monday, January 14, 2013

Sometimes You Eat The Bear (Anatomy Of A Printing Session)

Har Har me Hearties - what a week it has been.
Mog's new-found talking ability has proved itself rather amusing, particularly now that some of the lads have been teachin' him to swear. Not only that, but he's become a gifted impersonator; and I would say now aboard the Good Shippe FB, you cannot reliably rely on anything you hear, especially when you can't see the person that is talking.
We also had a rather amusing time with Mr.Sheephouse.
I don't know where he got them from, but my second mate got a haul of very small bear costumes. I presume these were intended for some sort of children's activity in the Russias (as that is where they were bound before he purloined them), anyway, a bit of snipping and sewing and before you know it we had a cat-sized bear outfit.
It was très amusing to see Mog wandering around like a small cub pretending to be tough.
It was even more amusing when we locked him down below with Sheephouse in his room of dark arcanery. Oh yes, much was the swearing that came out o' that room with us all gathered outside the door sniggering away.
To be truthful, it was almost impossible to tell who's voice was who's.
I think Mog learned more swear words that day than he would in a whole month o' bein' below decks.
That cat, he's got Sheephouse down to a T.


I love printing photographs - I've said it before and I'll say it again - it is entirely half of my photographic life and one which these days seems to be largely ignored by the majority of photographers . . .but that's another soapbox.
It was Sunday and it was sleety/rainy. I had been wanting to take my Wista out, but the thought of those lovely silk-lined bellows in the rain isn't very appealing . .neither is the thick dew of condensation on a groundglass on days like this .  . so printing it was. I started at 11AM and finished at 3.30PM with a 20 minute break for lunch.
Negatives were all made with my nice old 50mm Elmar, however there were a couple of variables. Firstly the camera. My initial bunch were made on the IIIf which I sent back. The second lot were made on an M2 which I haven't sent back (though it does have a 1/15th sneeze). What I haven't seen written before is that the film gates of both cameras are different! The IIIf is exactly 37mm x 24mm; the M2 is the standard 36mm x 24mm . . . strange but true. This caused some confusion halfway through the session, but it was sorted quickly. The other variables were film (Ilford Delta 400 and Kodak TMX 400) and dilutions of Kodak HC 110 developer (Dilutions G and B). The final variable if you can call it that was a Leitz FISON lens hood I bought to protect the Elmar (more about this in a later blog).
Anyway, as the title of this blog implies . . sometimes things go right, and sometimes they don't. Today I had a number of bad things happen, but managed to make some prints I am more than happy with. I count it a good session if I can make 6 to 8 prints, and if say 3 of those are useable as proper archive prints then all the better.

The Maw Of Hell

Could Have Done With A Tidy-Up

The DeVere just fits

Wet Area (and sensibly placed 'Dry' cabinet)

Emergency Supplies.
The trays are on the floor to catch drips from the current printing session's drying prints - normally they aren't there.

Prints Drying.

As you can see, my darkroom is extremely primitive. It is an old butler's cupboard under a stair - it does have quite a high ceiling at one side, and does have the advantage of a stone flagged floor, which is fine for spillages of chemicals and also keeps beer at near perfect pub temperature! 
My enlarger is a DeVere 504 Dichromat - you can see it mounted on an old kitchen cabinet which is on its side - I have to print on my knees - I call it supplication to the Gods Of Printing.
All my wet processing is done in trays on newspapers on those shelves to the right - they are 9 inches deep - just enough for a tray.
The old hifi cabinet underneath is my dry area - all paper is stored in there, and there is an old Restem paper safe on a shelf too.
Yes that is a wine rack! The green towel is my door jamb for when I am processing LF film - basically it is a towel rolled up, with cable ties holding it in a roll and goes up against a large gap under the cupboard door.
There's no running water, so prints get popped into my Paterson washer until the end.
The prints are hanging from an old indoors washing line that came with the house!
They say that necessity is the mother of invention - in my case it has been poverty - I scrimped this lot together over years and would love to have a 'proper' darkroom with all mod cons.
For all its primitiveness, I can print to exhibition standards, and I am not bumming myself up there. I care about my prints.
They are carefully made and of a high quality. The only thing I lack is a dry mounting press ( and seriously if you have one you don't want, let me know!)
Actually, I am sure that any of us making prints the old-fashioned way these days, and willing to invest the time and money into learning printing, are good enough at what we do to make them to exhibition standard.
The lens was a nice old (Pentax made) 50mm f2.8 Durst Neonon, which I kept at f5.6 for the entire session. Chemicals were Kodak Polymax developer, Kodak stop bath, and home-made plain fix, which I used as a double bath. I have run out of selenium or else I would have toned them. They were washed for a couple of hours in my creaky old Paterson Archival Washer. Seeing as the plain fix is essentially an alkali fix, washing is a lot shorter than for acid fixers, and also I don't need to use hypo-clear.
Oh and I don't split grade print - I never found it of use to my practice, but again that's just me.
I was going to use my old favourite of Ilford Galerie, however because half the negatives were developed in HC 110 Dilution G and are (because of the fact that the Elmar is ancient and uncoated) very low in contrast, I chose to use some Adox Vario Classic fibre-based which I had kicking around. It is a very nice paper - the only things I don't like about it are its gloss, which isn't as rich as it could be, and the fact it will cockle around the edges when air-dried.
To be honest I am not a fan of resin-coated paper - I don't know, there's just something about the image quality, which, to be honest doesn't quite have the sharpness of a good fibre print. Anyway, that's just me. Fibre takes longer to print and is more fussy of correct fixing, but I feel the effort to be worth it.
Anyway, time to strap your helmet on and join me in the cavalcade of laughter, triumph and tears!
First up is an image I rather like - it is hard to tell what is going on, but you know the place is 'Open'.
Being none too familiar with the Adox paper I felt it best to sacrifice a sheet to the God Of Test Strips. I don't always make them, but sometimes, and especially when you are using a new camera/film/developer combo, they are handy as they help to get your eye use to the paper's properties and how your negative will look printed . . often never how you imagine it to be! I can usually get about 12 smaller strips out of one sheet of 8x10" paper - I know the general idea is to make a large strip, but to be honest, I would rather preserve the paper, so small strips it is.
The long lamented greatest paper ever was Forte, and they actually provided you with some test strips pre-cut, which I thought was very nice. But alas nobody thinks like that anymore, so you have to waste a sheet . .
Bear in mind that a box of 100 sheets of fibre-based  8x10" paper is approximately £70+ these days and you have 70p down the swanny just like that . . .
I set up my easel, got the image placement right, focused, stopped down and made a test. This was developed, and I came to my decision of exposure time. I then checked the focus again, and made the exposure. (By the way, if you made the test strip in say four second segments, you need to expose your print in four second segments, not for the whole exposure all at once. This is because the intermittency effect will come in and effectively give you a greater exposure and hence a darker print.)
Oh and I am assuming from this that you might have made some prints, and therefore don't need the very basics going over . . .
Also I will pre-empt everything by saying ignore the ripple effect on the scans! This is because the prints have dried cockled (anyone got a dry mounting press they don't want???) and I have scanned them warts and all. Secondly, I wanted to include little thumbnails of test strips, but Blogger software is hopeless when it comes to aligning pictures, so I gave up.
Anyway, warts and all, here it is.

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4.
Print 1 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.

I like the print I made here - it works and is a bit mysterious and dreamy . . though, judging it afterward, there were two white speck marks, so I obviously didn't clean the negative as well as I should have. Also, notice the presence of the bear in the way that the margin on the right hand side is smaller than the left . . yep, forgot to check that one!
Selenium would bring up the blacks beautifully, so I should get some more . . nearly £25 a bottle though . . . but at least if you do decide you want to tone a print, you can go back, soak the print and follow a correct toning sequence . . very handy.
Anyway, onwards, I corrected the margin, gave the bear a kick and continued.
Whilst I had the same sheet of negatives out, I thought I would print the following. I made a test, and judged the exposure.

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 2 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.

And as you can see, the result is shite. The first of the day's mistakes. Contrast is poor,  exposure is poor, and here's the kicker, I must have not focused properly on the easel, because the image appears to be out of focus too. Och well, another 70p down the drain . . . .

A brief aside into focus finders:
I have 3! A Scoponet, a basic Peak and a Magnasight.
The Peak is my favourite, however it had fungus when I bought it, so I had to dismantle it, which necessitated a fair bit of plastic gouging . . and of course you can't reassemble from there, so it works of a fashion. Because I can't set it permanently, I have to constantly re-adjust, and the bear loves a good twiddle . . .
The Scoponet isn't a patch on the optical clarity of the Peak, but does in an emergency (I used it for years).
The Magnasight I bought new from the States and have used it about twice, because I just couldn't get on with it .  . anyone want to buy it??

Back to the Session . . .

I was annoyed, and that isn't a good frame of mind to be in for printing, so I prepped my next negative. By the way, blowers? Anti-static guns? Nope, I run a 35mm negative through the fleshy parts of thumb and where it buts up against the index finger, or sometimes I'll run it between my index and middle finger.
It works.
I use a cobbled glass carrier in the DeVere (using Meopta 6x9 glass carriers taped to the DeVere's lower glass carrier), and any dust that falls on there gets swiped off with the back of my hand. I used to use an anti-static brush, but I find this method a whole lot more less problematical.
I made a test strip and decided to up the contrast a bit and judged the exposure roughly based on that. The Adox paper offers remarkably similar exposure times for different grades, which is a nice quality.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't see that the bear was getting ready to lend a helping hand again.

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Disaster Strikes!
Print 3 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.

Nice print, nice contrast, but look - it is squint! My excuse (another one) - my ancient and battered Beard easel has little alumininium strips which act as stops for the paper you are about to expose. Unfortunately, the design is such that paper can slip underneath them all too easily, which is what happened here. Moral of the story, check and double check everything . . even something as basic as fitting a piece of paper into an easel.
Being annoyed by the presence of the bear, I looked at the print again and decided that my contrast wasn't enough, so I went the whole hog and dialled in a mighty 200 units of Magenta (effectively a Grade 4+) and made another print.

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4+
Print 4 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4+ (200 Magenta)
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.

Ah, that's better.
I asked the bear to leave quietly and he did.
Calm returned and I could get on with my worship.
My next negative showed me the importance of ignoring what a scanned negative looks like. Scanning negatives is a nasty habit I have got into in recent years, and you know what - it is a hopeless way of judging what you have made. In my scan, the verticals are converging (slightly, but enough to make me think I shouldn't bother printing the negative - "Wot's that Doctor? Ee's got Convergin Verticals? Wot's 'at mean then? My poor son!"). However, I liked the image and thought I could correct the verticals by using tilt on the DeVere's focus stage, so I got a surprise when I looked at it on the baseboard and realised the verticals are correct and straight . . just the way I composed it!

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 5 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Leica M2, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, FISON Hood, Kodak TMY 400, HC110 Dilution B.

The picture is of a hoarding outside a newsagents and is, how shall I say, a little 'Welcome to Dundee' for the V&A.
Yes that grey stuff is I don't know what, but it's pretty ghastly!
It is very typical of this lovely city of mine - on one hand you have knowledge and study and the arts, and on the other you have sublime ignorance and stupidity. Pretty much like any city really.
David' Bailey's picture of Twiggy is a great one, made all the merrier by a smear of 'stuff'.
The print turned out well I felt. The negative brought in the two extra variuables of the FISON hood and Dilution B.
Had I had more time, I would have done some selective bleaching of the white stuff with Ferricyanide, but I didn't . . maybe later.
I was feeling pretty good now - printing is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, but I fully understand how people can become frustrated and disillusioned.
Like anything good, effort is required, along with care and checking at every stage.
Feeling semi-triumphant and conscious of the clock, I thought I would round everything off with a strange image.
It was strange when I took it - I gambled on the camera exposure but got it right and the negative is dense enough for me to print at pretty much any tonality, which is great!

Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 6 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica M2, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, FISON Hood, Kodak TMY 400, HC110 Dilution B. 

I printed this at Grade 3 just to boost the lower contrast of the Elmar, and I feel with the print I misjudged it and gave it a tad too much exposure. I would prefer a lighter tonality . . maybe next time.
It isn't a fine print, but it is a starting point.
And that's pretty much it actually. I would say it was a semi-successful session. Very enjoyable all the same.
The prints were washed for a couple of hours and then pegged back to back for an overnight air dry. I then flatten them between some heavy books and file away the ones I like best.
One thing . . on my last print, despite my feeling of triumph, the bear must have accompanied me whilst I was out photographing, as there is a small black mark at the top - obviously a bit of material like a fibre. This must be in the camera (it was . . I found it!), as it is black on the print and thus in permanence on the negative. Fortunately I have a Swann and Morton Number 15 scalpel blade and managed to gently 'knife' it out whilst the print was still wet. Yes it leaves a mark in the gloss finish, but you can sometimes touch that up carefully with spotting dye. At the end of the day, I have a few prints I am happy with and have filed away.
Sometimes you eat him. Sometimes, he eats you.
Printing is a dying craft (unfortunately) - I will continue to enjoy it until they no longer manufacture paper . . and I don't know what I'll do then . .
As usual, thanks for reading and God bless.


If you are interested, some of my personal recommendations for self-teaching materials:

I have read rather a lot of printing books over the years, and whilst I have enjoyed the likes of the more modern favourites like Rudman's 'Master Printing Course', and Ephraum's 'Creative Elements', I am going to come out and say the flat-out best printing book around is Ansel Adam's 'The Print'. It repays repeated reading. It is a masterwork, and it will teach you more than you really need to know. I will follow this with the late-lamented Barry Thornton's two books, 'Edge Of Darkness' and 'Elements'. 'Elements' has been out of print for a number of years but is now available as an e-book.
John Blakemore's 'Black and White Photography Workshop' is a masterclass in all aspects of monochrome photography with particular attention applied to the aesthetic aspects of print-making you don't find anywhere else.
My final recommendations were published by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press. They are called 'Darkroom', and 'Darkroom 2'. Both essential reading for the sheer breadth of practice by the contributing printers.
Ground yourself in these and you will be producing prints you are proud of in no time at all.
I would also be remiss not to mention Joseph McKenzie and his redoubtable technician Sandy, who taught me photography and printing at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the 1980's . . . you can't put a price on such a great grounding.


  1. I share your pain from the bear bites, Phil. I've been struggling with my printing since going back into the darkroom and can't quite figure out where I'm going wrong. It could be the RH Designs Analyser Pro computer gadgety thing I've been trying to use. I think I'll just go back to making test strips.

    Keep this one quiet though but I think it might also be something to do with the culture shock of moving from Photoshop and Silver Efex Pro to darkroom printing. I've come to realise that, increasingly over the last ten years, my photographs have become quite heavily dependent on "post processing" (how do you write the sound of spitting?).

    When I print one in the darkroom it can lack the drama of the screen image and I'm not just talking about the transparency effect of the backlit screen image. Basically, I can't do as much in the darkroom to get the print the way I want it. Although I much prefer the look of a darkroom print I've found myself staring with disappointment at what has emerged from the fixer in comparison with the same image done up in Photoshop/Efex Pro. Maybe I just need more practise to bring the old skills back.

    Personally, I think your darkroom skills deserve a bigger space in which to operate. Time to get the plasterboard out and annexe part of the living room...

  2. Thanks Bruce - an altogether too common problem!
    I think it boils down to the fact that you come to expect a 'hyped-up' image, rather than just an ordinary one. There is a way round this I believe. The first is to take control. Go straight to Ralph Gibson's website and check out his essay 'The Somnambulist'. This is what can be done with 35mm, because he took control of his image making and went for them rather than them coming to him. He urges people to fill the frame! Also, a big thing is greater density in the negative - it has taken me ages to realise that you get a more luminous negative/print from a dense negative. Everyone seems to want grainless images, and I am not sure where that comes from. Steve Mulligan, the American photographer said that the first time he saw Minro White's photographs, he realised that he needed density, and you have to say that White's images have that luminosity that is so satisfying. It is worth a pop.
    We'll have you off the electronic stuff in no time!
    I've just chucked the teenager out into the snow, and have decided to use his room as a new uber-darkroom!

  3. Phil, yesterday morning, cup of coffee in hand, I set to read this post, and what a good read it was. I found your worshipping the God Of Printing and the God Of Test Strips particularly hilarious!

    Talking about the size of darkrooms. Once I was backpacking in Vietnam and whilst idling around in Hanoi I came across this photo gallery. The door was closed and I was peeping through the window and saw that the interior walls were full with absolutely stunning BW prints. I rang the bell and had almost lost hope when a man in his late 50s appeared and opened the door. It was the master himself ; we had a nice chat, looked through his portfolio books...superb work really. Anyway, I don't remember how it came about, but I must have asked to see his darkroom. He led me to a tiny tiny cupboard under a staircase; there was just enough space for a Durst enlarger and one person to sit...can't remember where he must have put his trays. It was a good lesson that there is zero correlation between the size of the darkroom and the quality of the prints. I know you don't need someone telling you this as you already know it :)

    Still, IMO the essentials in a darkroom should be of good quality: the enlarger, the lens, the easel, the timer, the grain focuser. I hate fighting poor quality material when I should be concentrating on printing. And I see other darkroom printers who, because they have skimped on an easel, spend half an hour arranging the paper for each print.

    Anyway, thanks for the nice write up.

  4. Hi Omar - thanks for the nice comments, and thanks for reading too!
    yes, a darkrom can be made anywhere can't it. I used to load my film in an ordinary cupboard, standing up (woops . . now where did that roll of FP4 go?!) - my current set-up is positively luxurious. I will change it maybe one day, but I am actually unwilling to remove the shelves simply because they are a part of the house (which was built in 1888) and I would feel bad about it . . .
    With regard to equipment - yes I agree with you, though I did all my college work printing with the paper taped to the baseboard! I got there though. I do actually have another enlarger boxed away - a Meopta Magnifax - it would be total luxury to configure my room to fit both in, but I don't think it is possible. The Meopta is far nicer to use for 35mm.
    Oh and finally timing . . I don't use one. I do have a metronome which I use for counting when I am processing LF film, but other than that I rely on mentally counting:
    3-fix etc
    You can get as near as dammit to a perfect second this way!
    Thanks again and I hope I can continue to write things that people find interesting.

  5. Omar: "It was a good lesson that there is zero correlation between the size of the darkroom and the quality of the prints."

    For confirmation of that fact, check out my darkroom: nice and spacious and I'm printing like Forrest Gump with a migraine. Mind you, it is completely full of crap including two bicycles and bike parts so I actually can't print in there at all just now.

    You wouldn't fancy taking my Leitz V35 on semi-permanent loan, would you? I was thinking of selling it but shipping would be a real hassle because of the weight and bulk. I could put it under the stairs but I thought you might like using it for your 35mm. It's working fine with the exception of the 40mm lens that is missing a ball bearing so no click stops. It has illuminated stops so that's not really a problem. I actually know where the bearing is - it's hiding somewhere in my kitchen after it took off while I was cleaning the lens elements. Haha! If I took the V35 out of my darkroom, it would free up some space next to the Durst which would make like much easier for me.

    Thanks for the advice re printing. I'll check out Ralph Gibson's website tonight.