Saturday, November 28, 2015

Tales From The River Bank

Sadly not a FB devoted to the children's programme that probably no one remembers . . . ah where are you Hammy Hamster when the world needs your brand of innocence!




 . . . but a FB devoted entirely to photographing a tidal estuary shore! 
Oh yes, pure excitement here at FB towers!
Well, I suppose it was exciting actually - 7am on an Autumn morning with a guarantee of low tide and nothing but a tripod, a Hasselblad 500C/M with 60mm Distagon and a pair of wellies.

It's alright, don't panic . . . the oxygen tent will be here in a minute!

I've timed myself on these sort of expeditions before and they take me approximately 2 hours. Now this is sort of strange - that is per roll of 120 - so either my body has found a natural rhythm to making photographs with MF or else I am thinking far too much into it - whatever, 2 hours it took and actually, very pleasant it was given that I was downstream from Newport's sewerage outlet!
The pipe is a wonderful, seaweed covered, ceramic job and wends its way far out into the Tay. You can see it in Frame 11 (middle frame, far right) on the contact sheet below. Fortunately I was not troubled by the usual sewerage effluent that can beset many tidal shores downstream of such things, and actually, very clean is how I would describe it. Not that I'd want to eat my tea off of it, but it was smell and debris free and the massed banks of bladderwrack were very fresh looking and rather healthy.
So, you're asking why Sheephouse?
WHY?
Why did I want to do it?
Well, I've been there before at high tide and the place was intriguing - it's a small area of intensely wooded, shallow cliff, heading eastward from the Fife end of the bridge, and I dunno, it just made me itch in a photographic way, so much so that I awoke from a pleasant Wiessbier/Woods Rum induced slumber and hauled my weary bones out into the pre-dawn light.
Oh yes, you've got to up and at 'em when the feeling calls!
I have been deeply aware all Summer, that I have barely used my newly acquired 500C/M and I felt ashamed of that - it is a first class tool and should be used all the time - that thought was a goad in my side.
I was also aware that I have a Scottish Photographers meeting coming up in December and I needed some material for that . . . and also, I wanted to make some pictures!
So, wellies on, everything readied, off I went!
Just a quick check though . . . are you wearing yours too? Those deck shoes are going to get awful messy if you aren't light-footed . . .

Onwards.
Obviously you have to be careful in such places - I had no wish of just being a Hasselblad raised high on a quickly sinking tripod above the incoming tide with me being sucked down first by soft mud, so it was easy-does-it and careful treading and testing some areas that looked dodgy just to be sure.

Exploring small areas like this in this way can be rewarding - I can't have walked more than about 300 yards beyond the point where I climbed down - and seeing as there was plenty to see, time seemed to stop and all there was, was me and my camera and the river . . . oh, and The Bridge as well - it is enormous from this side of the river, towering over you on massive concrete pillars but despite the early morning noise from cars and more cars, it was relatively quiet where I was.

I don't know if you find photographing therapeutic, but I do. Away from the demands and noisome mess of modern life and in such unlikely places as I try to find, you can just take your time and concentrate on the task at hand  - it's a form of meditation to me.
If you find it the same I'd love to hear what you have to say!

I used the Hasselblad mounted on my ancient Gitzo the whole time - I also used my small Giottos ballhead, which was tbh barely adequate and I had a few massive camera flops, which isn't the sort of thing you want to happen. I was also lucky it was quite still, as I fear the camera would have vibrated on the Giottos like a pair of flimsies on a washing line. To maximise me chances of sharpness on such a precarious set-up, I used mirror lock up and a small wait of time and then a cable release for each exposure - it would have been foolish not to. This being said, I still don't think I have extracted the maximum detail from the lens, but then I should have used a sturdier head (more on this in an upcoming FB - "Kenny Jazz And The Ballheads").
But the deed is done now, so scroll down a bit and have a gander.

Now I realise that when you look at the contact below you're going to say
"Hmmm - he could have exposed those better"
Well granted I probably could, but I've done years of trying to get the 'perfect' negative and to be honest, I am not sure there is such a thing - these days, my processing regime is very very simple - using the Rodinal replacement R09, I process to the times detailed on the side of the bottle! There, that was easy wasn't it! My old Agfa Rodinal leaflet ties in almost exactly with the bottle times and seeing as I have had some nice looking negatives from said times, I see little reason to change.
My only caveat to this is that I will down-rate every film.
In this case it was FP4 and I exposed it at EI 80.
Why?
Well I always felt that when I used box speed, my negatives were OK in a sort of dull, 'OK' way, but they had no oomph or guts, down-rating just gives that extra edge of over-exposure, and unless you are really really careless or shooting in vastly contrasting conditions on the same roll, the film's latitude (it's ability to deal with differing light) is generally able to take care of things (in other words your shortcomings as a photographer!).
So whilst the contact below has washed out skies, in reality, the information is there, it just needs slightly more careful handling in the printing stage.
Remember a contact is just really a visual check to give you an idea of what you have - it also has to balance any differences in the negatives and actually for such a seemingly simple thing, making a good contact is surprisingly hard to do - in fact I don't think I have ever made a perfect one.
The general concensus seems to be 'minimum time for maximum black' and I'll say I try and adhere to that.
There's a very good article on contacts and the 'un-zone' system on the late, great Barry Thornton's site - you can read it here
Anyway, if you can be bothered looking at the contact, you'll see the start (bottom left) and the end (top right) of my little adventure.
OK, it's a bit squinty/wonky but we're friends here - what's a little wonkiness between friends eh?



Contact Sheet 


Right, so now we've got some pictures!
As I said before the processing regime was simple (more of that in a minute) but so was the exposure regime.
You know that saying 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'?
Well yes, and no, it is and it isn't.
I've studied and applied the Zone system to my LF work and everything else too, and after years of following Bruce Barnbaum's "Ansel was wrong, expose shadows on Zone IV" methodology, you know what . . . I now expose shadows on Zone III.
WTF Sheepy?
OK,

a brief excursion into simple metering.

Your meter. Yes, yours.
It is your friend, but it is still going to average out that scene for you!
Multi-matrix, centre-weighted, spot, whatever you're still getting an average reading that will give you an average exposure that works really well with colour materials.
It is designed to ensure that you (stupid human) at least come home with something and that something is a Zone V exposure.
Average.
Balanced Colour.
In Black and White terms - Mid-Grey. 18%.
An average rendering of the scene, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But in monochrome (our concern here - these are B&W photographs after all and FB is primarily monochrome-based) we don't necessarily want an average grey picture.
Strange as it seems, but this is a common mistake with people taking B&W photographs. Yes, even in a world filled with helpful photographers and more articles on the subject online than you could comfortably read in a lifetime, this mistake is perpetuated.
Just about every online gallery I have seen is filled with mid-grey exposures.
But wait a minute - This is monochrome.
It is an infinitely expressive medium.
We want to jazz it up a bit.
You need to play with the light, adjust it to suit your vision of what you see in front of you. You can make a photograph where everything is visible and rendered clearly; where ever single nuance of light is captured in grey, but what you want is a bit of drama, some light, some shade and some total black, or pure paper white.
Hence the Zone III shadow.
It's simple to understand - if you're using a hand-held meter move it around the darker area of the scene you want to photograph; if it is an in camera meter, sway that camera around like a hypnotised cobra . . there, that's better. Got the lowest reading you can get?
Good.
Now if you were to photograph that dark bit at the exposure your meter is suggesting, you'll end up with grey, not lovely, all-encompassing, luscious darkness, nope, just grey . . . mud. Folks that is Zone V.
Mid.
Average.
Mud.
OK, in Roman numerals V=5, so III = (er)3!
So to achieve a Zone III exposure, you're going to underexpose your scene by 2 Zones (1 Zone = 1 Stop as per standard shutter speed/f-stop marking).
So if say your meter reading was 1/30th of a second at f16 (and you want to keep the depth of field that f16 brings) then your exposure is going to be 1/125th at f16 - you've lost two stops of light and the lovely black shadowy-bit is rendered more akin to how it looks and not an 'orrible muddy grey.
And that is an incredibly simplified bit of Zone-systeming that works for me.
If you now process at your chosen film developer's recommended timings, you should get some negatives that are pretty alright.
Obviously I've not gone into the Zoney/Wonderful World of Expansion and Contraction of negatives by development, because I don't feel it is applicable to this .  . so there.
So your negatives are pretty alright, and of course, sometimes, things will go wrong (and you'll end up with all sorts of 'orrible images) but mostly they won't. You would be amazed at how much a film's latitude can deal with things - I've exposed rolls and rolls at guessed exposures in all sorts of conditions and on the whole they've worked out fine.  
The only cardinal sin is underexposure, hence it is always a good idea to downrate the speed of your film - it just gives that little leeway
It's like a Lazarus moment though, is guessing exposure - your crutch is cast aside and you can walk!
You see it can be very easy to get sucked into the drive for perfection, metering everything so carefully, so much so that you miss the whole point (which is to make images which are enjoyable to look at) and not to mention missing the light and the moment too!
Remember the greatest landscape photograph ever made (just about) Ansel Adam's Moonlight Over Hernandez was a guessed exposure by a master who knew exactly what he was looking at and the luminence values of everything.
Anyway, all this is besides the point, so onwards.

Ooops - OK - I did mention processing, so here goes:
For this roll of FP4 rated at EI 80, I used 1+50 Rodinal (R09) at 20 C. I gave one minute of constant agitation and then one inversion every 30 seconds . . for 18 minutes!!!
Yep - it has imparted an edge of contrast to things, but to my advantage I think - especially the picture of the bladderwrack - the slight over-development coupled with a slight error in exposure (oh alright then, under-exposure) has imparted a 'vintage' air to it which I find very pleasing . . . and the detail is extraordinary . .
But anyway, where were we - oh yeah - Agitation - again a seemingly simple thing that can go horribly wrong.
Most people think it is OK to chuck the developer in and slosh it around like they're mixing cocktails.


The Young Photographer's Guide To Home Developing - Page 34

NOPE!
STOP!!
ABSOLUTELY NOT
Agitation is a gentle, lovingly tender operation. It has to be done calmly AND GENTLY.
Did I mention GENTLY?
To get all metaphysical, in making good wine you don't chuck it all in a cement mixer, slosh it around, ferment it in a fervour and expect it to come out feeling nice and fresh and treated with respect do you? 
No, it takes time and care, and it is the same with film. 
Treat it with respect, like you would your loved one.
Really - you think I am exaggerating, but I am not - certainly with a developer like Rodinal (and its derivatives) and even the various dilutions of good old HC 110 and D76, it really pays to agitate as gently as possible. And I can't emphasise that enough - if you chuck in the developer and slosh you'll end-up with negatives that are so hard they could penetrate Batfink's wings. So one gentle (and slow) tilt (tank upside down and back to normal) per recommended inversion. You'll thank me for it.

OK, so after I got the negatives, what did I want to do? Yep . . . I wanted to print them too!
I love printing - it is one entire half of the photographic process, and is so sorely neglected these days . . . well, don't get me going. It is not easy setting up a darkroom though and I understand people don't have space etc etc, but you kind of owe it to yourself as a photographer to try and do something, even if it is just contact prints off a 6x6cm negative with the paper being exposed by a baffled torch.
Anyway, Paper.
It was 10 year old Agfa Multi-Contrast Classic - yep, ancient and as such it all has to be printed at the equivalent of Grade 4 - anything less than that old 100 units of Magenta just doesn't cut through the inherent base-fog of a paper that age. And you will get base-fog on something very old and especially Multigrade. For some reason, Graded paper seems to hang on much better . . . so look, I've saved you time and effort already - got old MG paper? Expose it on the highest Grade it can deal with and take it from there.






















OK, session over. It took me about 2 hours to produce 6 prints, of which the best are above. With my current developing/paper/chemicals/printing regime (and at the same height on the enlarger for 10x8 paper) I seem to have hit a magical exposure time of 16 seconds at f22, using my 100mm Vivitar lens. What you see above are pretty much straight prints. 
No split grade or any form of trickery. 
Just neat (ish).
Oh alright then . . . I will admit to having cheated a tad on these with just the merest tickle of PotFerry bleaching too, just to up the ante - and it worked. 
I immerse the print in a weak solution till it looks about right, take it out and wash under running water then store in a clean tray of water till I am ready for the next step - Selenium Toning. Again the same procedure and then it is a quick blast in rapid fixer and then another quick blast with Kodak Hypoclear and into the wash tank for a couple of hours. 
The prints are then air-dried (suspended by plastic clothes pegs [not wooden - they adhere to the surface]) and filed away in archival sheets in an archival box for doomsday until they meet the great skip at the end of the line . . .
Such is life.
I love these prints though and the last is my favourite - I think it has that old-skool tonality I love in the work of Adams and Bullock and to aspire to the work of those masters isn't a bad thing methinks..

So there y'go folks, from field to plate, an analysis of what this particular photographer does to while away the time on some weekends.
Hope you enjoyed it.
TTFN.

 




9 comments:

  1. Privately, I think the Zone System's greatest unsung benefit is to iron out all our personal quirks – over- or under-agitation, ineptitude with the meter, slow or fast shutters, enlarger choice, indecisiveness about the final print and so on, all in one easy adjustment.
    Even so, most people seem to end up with about half the box speed (for extra shadow detail) and about twenty percent less development (to keep the highlights easy to print). I suspect that the box speed is a teeny bit biased towards the tonal rendering of North American faces, but I have no evidence for this at all.
    Ansel thought that Moonrise was a good half-stop under-exposed. He eventually intensified the foreground, as you will know. The difference between a contact and the final print is astonishing.
    And a final word: Gitzo tripod: Gitzo head. Only twitchers need ball heads. The Manfrotto 410 is good for precision, but heavy, slower and more expensive.
    I hope you'll be going back to the same place.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks David - yeah I'll get back there - waiting for some hard frost to see what it is like.

    The ZS is a great thing and is easily applicable to everyone's photography.

    As for the ballhead . . . went mad - bought a nearly new Arca B1 . . . it is astonishingly easy and stable - more in a future FB!

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  3. I see from one of your illustrations that even in the darkroom, progress has been made. No longer do we need four different people to develop a film.
    And yes, the Zone System is easy to apply, if you keep clear of the people with densitometers and graph-plotting software. Once the densitometer replaces the camera. all is lost, it seems to me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've actually seen some of those moves applied at college and was once guilty of same myself.

    Yes, I agree, when facts and figures replace emotional response, all is lost.

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  5. You seem to have the same work method as I do fella, love that rodinal, I have always developed in that manner. I also love the coast although woods and forest trails are not that far behind. The images are lovely and I'm with you on the last print although I love No 4, I was fortunate enough to meet the late and great BT what a legend and an absolute lovely man, he passed way too soon.

    When I venture out with my 501 it's my escape from the rat race and all that entails, I hate to sound a little new age but it really is a complete contrast to my everyday life. On occasion I get interrupted by inquisitive folk who wonder what I'm doing but hey in the main it's a great way to spend a few hours. I don't have a darkroom anymore (long story) so have to scan work in via epson V750 I print out on my canon pro 100s and I have to say it's a bloody awesome printer.

    Cant wait to see your next instalment sheepy

    ReplyDelete
  6. Morning Shooter - many thanks for the kind comments, and yes I agree about woods too - sadly (and strangely considering this is Scotland) there are very few woods nearby where you can get any peace! Getting into that zone and just concretrating is a wonderful experience - not sure whether you've ever read John Blakemore's book "Black and White Photography Workshop" but it is wonderful about detailing that intensity and applying it to your own work. I actually regard it as 'up there' with the Adams books (and Barry T's books too) as a manual that anyone interested in monochrome should read.

    Sorry to hear you don't have a darkroom, but at least you ARE printing stuff!

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  7. As you're using Hasselblad you might be interested in this:

    http://petapixel.com/2011/03/19/nasa-astronauts-photography-manual/

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Phil,

    I wanted to let you know I enjoyed it. Both its photographic- and its linguistic aspects make it a interesting read! (as usual)

    Gert-Jan

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Gert-Jan - thank you!
    It is always a pleasure to get nice comments - makes it all the easier to write more stuff.
    All the best for the season!
    Phil

    ReplyDelete

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