Alex Bond Photographer large format view camera Australia

Early morning photography

Lefroy Brook PembertonEarly morning photography

Early morning photography provides the photographer with many opportunities. One such opportunity is this image of Lefroy Brook near Pemberton. It was the pay off for leaving my warm sleeping bag early, hiking along a dark track through karri forest with only my head lamp, until I came to my river location.

Scouting

When I headed out I new exactly where I was heading. My location was predetermined from the previous day’s walking and scouting for images. When I passed by this location the previous day the light came from behind me illuminating the scene. The direct sunlight made the shape and composition look too harsh in contrast.  To retain as many visual elements successfully in this composition I new I needed a quieter light. I was anticipating a sudden drop in the overnight temperature and combined with the body of water was expecting the possibility of mist rising from the river through the forest.

6×12 Roll Film Back

The evening before I selected equipment for the next day’s early hike. In my back pack I carried my 4×5 wooden field camera, two lenses and a 6x12cm Horseman Roll Film back loaded with Velvia 50 ISO. If the conditions were right I was planning on a double page spread image for my book, and the 6x12cm frame was the ideal format for this. This format allowed me to avoid the sky, the reason for which I’ll explain a little later. Other basic photo gear included my light meter, focus cloth, tripod.

The first dull blue-grey hues of morning light were barely perceptible when I arrived at my location. No real mist here, but there was a cool, calm stillness of the forest as it enveloped the steady sound of the brook. It was cold in the valley, and there would be no direct sunlight streaming through the forest canopy for several hours.

Leaning against my tripod surveying the scene before me, I could see some boulders near the river’s edge that could provide a good vantage point. In the dull glow of daybreak I picked my way carefully through undergrowth towards the rocks. Jamming my tripod legs at various angles onto the rocks, I confirmed my composition I had in mind. There would be no mist in this picture. Expectations had not matched what I was being presented with, time to let go of preconceptions and reconsider what is in front of me. I now wanted an image preserving the cool hues of this winter’s early morning photography.

Setting Up

I unfolded my wooden camera from my backpack and attached it to my tripod. The 90mm lens was chosen as it would give me a sufficient angle of view and afford me reasonable depth of field stopped down to f32. In this light with 50 ISO Velvia this was going to be a long exposure. With my head under the focus cloth I tried to focus the barely discernible image that projected upside down and back to front onto the ground glass. Under the focus cloth the ground glass fogged from my breath, obscuring my view.

Satisfied with my set up, I closed the lens shutter and set it to “B”. I read the scene in front of me with my one degree spot meter, allowing for adequate exposure in the low to mid tones. The 6x12cm format allowed me to compose an image avoiding expanses of sky which would have exceeded the film’s exposure latitude. Sometimes the best way to control excessive exposure latitudes is to exclude either the brightest or darkest elements from the composition. In this case I wanted to retain the darker, shadow details.

I don’t recall the exact exposure, but it would have been at least 60 seconds. Velvia, during exposures longer than one second displays a distinct colour shift towards blue-purplish hues. This film characteristic would enhance the coolness of the image.

The Final Spread

The image was published as a double page spread, with good shadow detail whilst retaining its “low light” atmosphere. With very little movement in the foliage and the lens stopped down, focus was maintained from the foreground rushes into the distance. The large film image holds plenty of detail and would work well in a larger image. If you are one who spends your mornings sleeping in you must try some early morning photography once in a while.

Tracks south coast near Pemberton Australia

Tracks south coast Donnelly River Western AustraliaDonnelly River and D’Entrecastreaux National Park.

Tracks south coast. Several days and nights spent on the remote south coast near Pemberton gave me a chance to explore. Marri forests, paperbarks, wetlands and their sedges, limestone cliffs and the beaches.

The almost pure white sand takes on the pink sunset colours reflected off clouds above. The sun’s low rays accentuating the sand’s wind swept pattern cutting diagonally across the animal tracks.

Velvia 120 roll film in a 6x12cm back and my wooden 4×5 field camera.

Bull Creek tree ferns Cradle Mountain Valley

Tree Ferns Cradle Mountain 17_36_003Bull Creek tree ferns is an image I am yet to print. It was made in 1988 on a friend’s property at Bull Creek,  in the Cradle Mountain Valley, Tasmania. We had spent a wet day hiking through myrtle forest and tree ferns on the slopes above Lake Cethana locating the old survey pegs.

In my backpack I had my wooden field camera, one lens (the only one I owned) and 6 sheets of film. The tripod I carried in hand was used more as a walking aid than for any photography. It was covered in dirt, mud and all manner of leaf litter, as I used it to support myself down steep slopes. I still have that tripod and it works fine, although these days I have opted for lighter ones.

During the day I used up my 6 sheets of film at various locations. Several images were made of Bull Creek in a deep valley where it runs through the property. Here the forest canopy was thick and light levels very low. Exposures ran to minutes even though I was using black and white film I had rated at 200 ASA.

Towards the end of our day the sun broke through briefly illuminating the forest and tree ferns with back light. I used my last 2 sheets of film making a vertical and horizontal format image of this scene. The image required additional exposure which it did receive, but did not receive reduced development, which it should. The exposure was several seconds, with a 90mm lens on a tripod. With split grade printing on multigrade (my preferred method), it should print up successfully into a 16×20 inch fibre based print.

At the time I made this image Bull Creek tree ferns, the property was pretty much in the back blocks, but now borders Lemonthyme Lodge.

Funemployed Justin Heazlewood

I recently read Funemployed by Justin Heazlewood, a book written about the realities of earning a living as a fulltime artist in Australia.

Heazlewood, an author/ comedian/musician/ writes a painfully entertaining account of his experience making a full time living in the arts. He shares his successes and his lows. In an age of facebook and blog sites perfection it is easy to present only life’s successes and omit mentioning our failures. But it is the later which provides the greatest insight to the reader as to the challenges faced by artists in Australia.

I think Heazlewood has been very generous in the sharing his thoughts and feelings. He expresses his doubts and conflicting emotions with a rare honesty. Sprinkled through his narrative are insightful anecdotes shared by other artists with similar  experiences. This is a seam of gold.

A full time living in the arts is not an easy gig. Rather than dissuade you, this book should arm you with the knowledge that you are not alone in the difficulties you may face.

If you are considering a full time career in the arts, or setting up an arts practice I recommend that you grab a copy of this book and have a read (and a laugh).

Heazlewood, J 2014, Funemployed  Life as an Artist in Australia, Affirm Press, Melbourne

Canning River Exhibition 2015

Canning River Exhibition “Dissociation” Heathcote 2015 is the progression of an ongoing photographic project that commenced around 2011, creating images of the wetland landscape around the Canning River Regional Park in Perth. Some of those images culminated in the book Lost in Suburbia, published by Stormlight Publishing, 2013, ISBN 9780987479105.

“Dissociation” continues to document the contemporary landscape of one of Perth’s largest metropolitan regional parks and its relationship to one of Perth’s major rivers. The exhibition included an artist’s talk and two film processing demonstration workshops. Below is the accompanying text from the published catalogue.


/dɪˌsəʊ.ʃiˈeɪ.ʃən/

dissociation

I have lived near the Canning River Regional Park for well over a decade, frequenting its trails and woodlands daily, and yet resisted for many years the impulse to make photographs. It was not for lack of visual inspiration. I was struggling to resolve an internal conflict. I could see beauty within the woods and wetlands, yet I could also see evidence of degradation from land use, introduced species and a stagnating river system. How could I portray its beauty on one hand when this environment is in decline? On the contrary, by not photographing the river parkland, would I not be self censoring, denying its inherent beauty and dissociating myself from my surrounds?

So what of the environment in which we have our homes, raise families and work? Whilst not imbued with the status and glamour of national parks, surely it deserves greater consciousness? We all desire to live in healthy surroundings with fresh air and clean water. Yet in this fast paced world we rarely have time to slow down, and consider our surroundings, our place within a landscape.

The Canning River Regional Park is one of Perth’s largest regional parks, just 10km from the CBD. But all is not well for the Canning River, a major tributary to the Swan River. The Department of Water released a report warning of the ongoing decline in the health of the Canning River and surrounds. Desalinated water has been pumped into the river to maintain water levels (Mercer 2013). Within the park a third oxygenation plant to pump oxygen into the anoxic river has just been completed.

I resolved to photograph the river woodlands and wetlands as it presented to me, regardless of weeds and other evidence of degradation. I am more interested in capturing the inherent beauty of my subject revealed under certain light than photographing the merely beautiful. The abstraction of black and white is ideal for drawing attention to textures, shapes and composition.

As is my practice, I used a wooden 4×5 field camera, a process that demands time, patience and consideration, an approach I felt equalled the significance of recording a landscape in rapid transition. I hand process all my black and white films and make my own prints in a traditional wet darkroom, using silver rich fibre based papers of bygone years. The prints are toned and processed to archival standards and mounted on museum boards.

I rarely make a one off image of a subject. There is always so much more to discover on returning to photograph at a different time, season or light. Each visit builds upon my knowledge and with it grows a greater empathy towards my subject. Is beauty so close to our homes and work not worthy of our consciousness and appreciation?

References:
Mercer, D 2013, ‘Canning River awash with toxic problems’ The West Australian, June 11, viewed 9 January 2015, <https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/17548936/canning-river-awash-with-toxic-problems/>
Mercer, D 2013, ‘Drinking water flushes rivers’ The West Australian, June 15, viewed 9 January 2015, <https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/17613138/drinking-water-flushes-rivers/>

Artists Talk:
1pm – 2pm Saturday 14 March 2015 at the Gallery: A discussion of my work methods, including the use of a field camera.
Free Workshop:
1pm – 2.30pm Sunday 15 March and 1pm – 2.30pm Saturday 11 April, 2015 at the Gallery: A demonstration of black and white film processing. Participant numbers are limited, please contact the gallery to book.

Brief Biography:
Alex Bond works predominantly with the landscape in large format. Since 1989 he has published his images under his imprint Stormlight Publishing, receiving State and National awards for excellence in print, and was an Australian finalist in the 2009 Gourmand Book Awards, Paris,  for his book, ‘Pemberton Wine Region Western Australia’.

Links Suppliers Resources Film Based Photography

I started to think about some of the more common technical questions I get asked about film development and printing techniques.

Below is a list of books and web sites on photographic technique which I have found useful. If any web site links become broken please let me know.

Books

(Suit beginner to intermediate)

Ralph Hattersley

Beginners Guide to Darkroom Techniques

If you absolutely need to start at the beginning, I can think of no better book. I came across this book in my teenage years and it created a lasting impression. Hattersley is an educator, able to convey information and theory without overwhelming those who are not technically minded. The book is a complete guide for the amateur photographer on the creative and practical skills of developing, printing, and retouching black and white photographs. Regardless of how little gear you may own or how makeshift your darkroom set up is, Hattersley will guide you through the basic steps, suggesting solutions for the amateur working from home. Above all, Hattersely demonstrates throughout the book that regardless of what stage you are at in photography, you can work cleanly, neatly and take pride in your darkroom work. I love this book, there is not a Zonie in sight! It is out of print but easily available online secondhand for a few dollars.

Hattersley, R 1976, Beginners guide to darkroom techniques, Robert Hale, London.

 Zone 6 VI vi workshop

Zone VI Workshop

This is a good little reference book for the newcomer to film, who, at some stage, will want to learn just how long they should develop their B&W film for and what ISO (exposure index) should they set the light meter to for optimal quality. Fred’s methodology will work well for those who scan their negs or use diffusion or colour head enlarger light sources or contact print. His method may lead to over-development of negatives used in enlargers with condenser light sources and would need to be adjusted accordingly.

This book will cover exposure, the zone system, determination of a personal film speed, development procedures, development time test and the proper proof. The last is possibly the most important concept upon which everything else hinges. I still use this concept today when testing a new film or just making a contact print of my developed negatives. The proper proof is the departure point from which you can make comparisons about film grain, tonal range, development time, exposure index, camera and meter function and so on.

I first came across Zone VI studios and Fred Picker as an undergraduate at Curtin University in the 1980s. I was able to add a little garnish to my science degree with the only photography unit then offered by the Arts Faculty, and my tutor gave me a Zone VI newsletter by Fred Picker to read. About twelve months later I bought my 4×5 wooden field camera from Zone VI, which I am still using nearly 30 years later. Fred was often controversial with his opinions, and I can’t say I would agree with everything he said, but I still have his newsletters which can be highly entertaining at times! That aside, Zone VI Studios also made some innovative darkroom gear. The book is out of print but available second hand online, usually for just a few dollars. Now and then his newsletters also surface for sale.

Picker, F 1974, Zone VI Workshop, The fine print in black and white photography, Amphoto, New York.

(Suit intermediate upwards)

les-McLean photography

Creative Black and White Photography 

McLean’s book is essentially about how to conduct your film test to determine your film exposure index and development time, and how to translate that into a fine black and white print. McLean uses a zone system methodology and a visual basis to conduct and assess his tests, using nothing more than what you would normally have in a darkroom. A greater part of this book provides plenty of good examples of fine prints with accompanying text and explanations, as well as a chapter devoted to case studies in how he set about making some of these prints. This later section would suit intermediate to the more advanced, and illustrates the control and quality one can achieve in darkroom printing. Again, it may be out of print but is easily available second hand online. Also visit his web site for other articles.

McLean, L 2002, Creative black and white photography, David & Charles, Devon.

 steve mulligan photography

Black and White Photography a Practical Guide

In some fundermental aspects, Mulligan’s book is similar to McLean’s above, they are both filled with excellent examples and descriptions, and both use an exposure and development system based upon the zone system. Mulligan and McLean have different personal approaches to the zone sytem, yet both are equally valid, as are the other methods described on this page, demonstrating that there is no single “correct” approach. Where Mulligan’s book departs from McLean’s (other than personal technique) is that he broadens his discussion to include equipment choices, working in the field and ideas about presenting and displaying images. Dispersed through the chapters are images and cameos, providing detailed insight into why he has chosen a subject, the technical decisions he had to make, and the final results. If you have the basics under your belt then this book will help you move up to a new level. Currently available new and second hand online.

Mulligan, S 2006, Black and white photography a practical guide, Photographers’ Institute Press, East Sussex.

(Suit intermediate to advanced)

way-beyond-monochrome

Way Beyond Monochrome

Overall, this is an excellent reference book to have on hand and one I have found most useful in recent times. The authors are not afraid of the science behind photography and go into considerable detail with diagrams and formula, covering a comprehensive range of topics from print presentation through to advanced printing techniques and of course film exposure, development and the zone system, to name but a few.

As far as determining your film speed and development time testing, the authors provide several solutions from simple to more complex, and there are parallels in some aspects to what is described in the Zone VI Workshop.

In excess of 500 pages, with intelligent tips, this is definitely a go to book for when you need pithy, indepth explanations. The book is in print and available online.

Lambrecht, RW & Woodhouse, C 2011, Way beyond monochrome advanced techniques for traditional black and white photography, 2nd edn, Elsevier, Amsterdam.

John Blakemores Photography Worksho

John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop

By far one of the best books to date of the explanation of making a fine print. It’s like being in the darkroom with Blakemore, watching and listening while he makes one of his prints. You see the various stages of the print in its making and read Blakemore’s detailed rationale behind his choices.

The print examples Blakemore uses are some of his best images. This alone makes it is a pleasure to view his print making in various stages. It would seem Blakemore is trying to get you to feel your way into the print first.

But be under no illusion, Blakemore is a master of his materials. Some of his examples appear deceptively simple in their tonal structure yet express great technical command which is grounded in the zone system. This approach, which he covers in mid to late chapters is one of the best and most direct I have read for a long time.

If you don’t have a master printer living near you then this book is highly recommended. I think it is now out of print but second hand copies are available online.

Blakemore, J 2005, John Blakemore’s black and white photography workshop, David & Charles, Devon.


Websites

Determining your Film Speed and Development Times

Paul Wainwright Photography

Another variation on determining your personal film speed and development time. This method is particularly suited to 4×5 sheet film users as it uses a 4×5 step wedge from Stouffer (see below), although its principles can be applied to other film formats as well. Download his pdf at the bottom third of the page “Use Your Eyes, Zone System Testing Without a Densitometer”


Developing 4×5 Film in a Paterson Tank

Review of MOD 54 large format film processor by David Tatnall for Large Format Photography In AustraliaA 4×5 sheet film spiral designed to fit a Paterson Super 6 tank, holding 6 sheets of film.

Darkroom Equipment – Timers

RH Designs

RH Designs was established in 1994 by Dr Richard Ross and has been manufacturing high quality enlarger timers, darkroom exposure meters and other accessories. They manufacture the Analyser Pro meter, a highly-acclaimed enlarging meter-timer combo featuring a patented grey scale print tone indicator which shows you the tonal range of the print, so you can place important tones and preview the look of the print without the need for endless test strips. Since Dr Ross’s retirement , his meters are now being manufactured and sold by Second Hand Darkroom Supplies in the UK.


Print Finishing – Dry Mount Press

Alex Bond Photography

Preparing your work for exhibition – a series of images I placed on my blog showing the step by step process of dry mounting fibre based prints onto museum board.


Loading Jobo 4×5 2509N Developing Reels

Film and Darkroom User Org UK

A short description on loading 4×5 Jobo Reels for daylight processing in Jobo drums.


Photographic Print Types

Below I have listed four photographic print types using silver and chemistry as their basis. These include traditional silver gelatin fibre based prints, Polaroid prints, Type C colour prints and Cibachrome or Ilfochrome prints. There are many others, including a whole range of printing substrates available to digital printing. If you have a favourite printing process please leave a comment.

Traditional silver gelatin fibre based prints

Calgardup Brook Redgate Margaret River Australia
Calgardup Brook 16x20in silver gelatin More Info

Traditional silver gelatin fibre based prints have a baryta base (made from a clay) that accentuates the perception of image depth, tone and luminosity compared to today’s commonly used plastic coated papers. In recognition of this standard, manufacturers of inkjet material are now trying to mimic this richness of tone in silver containing prints by developing “traditional” inkjet substrates.

Fibre based prints have been in existence long enough to have a proven track record of image stability.

You can read more about what is involved in a typical printing session here.

Polaroid prints

Dune Cabbage (Arctotheca populifolia)
Dune Cabbage Polaroid Type 55 PN More Info

Polaroid prints once came in a range of sizes and types, from the small SX-70 style instant colour prints up to a massive 20×24 inches. Polaroid sheet film, like the one pictured here, was exposed and processed in Polaroid’s own film holder. The holder was mounted on the rear of the camera, the film exposed and then the holder and film removed. The exposed film/print sandwich was then pulled through rollers within the film holder, breaking gel pods containing the chemistry to instantly develop the negative and positive. After about 30 to 60 seconds the sandwich was peeled apart, revealing a Polaroid print on one half and the negative on the other. Sx-70 style films were ejected directly from the camera immediately after exposure and developed before your eyes. Polaroid prints could be colour or black and white. Not all Polaroid processes yielded a usable negative, so each print was unique.

The 4x5in print above of Dune Cabbage was made with Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film. With Polaroid Type 55 4×5 film, each exposure yielded a positive 4×5 Polaroid print and a 4×5 negative that could be used in an enlarger for printing.

 

C-Type Digital Prints

Lefroy Brook #02 More Info
Lefroy Brook #02

C-Type prints are regular colour prints made on photographic paper, they make up the majority of photographic prints people have made at the local mini labs or at professional laboratories from colour negatives and digital files.

The “C” stands for chromogenic, the nomenclature that Kodak used back around the 1940s. Today’s C-Types are usually produced by digital printers using laser light, such as Durst Lambda or Lightjet printers. Photographic papers must be handled in total darkness and only exposed to image forming light. The paper is then processed in RA4 photographic colour chemistry. This is very different to inkjet printers which spray inks or pigments directly onto the surface of non light sensitive paper or canvas under daylight conditions.

R-Type and Ilfochrome Cibachrome Prints

Karri forest Shannon National Park
Cibachrome print made in author’s darkroom: karri forest Shannon National Park

Before the advent of digital printing, colour prints made from colour slides, also referred to as reversal or transparencies films, required a different process to colour negatives. Kodak, and others, produced positive to positive photographic papers for creating prints from reversal films. These were referred to as R-Type prints, the “R” for reversal, and used R-3 chemistry.

Ilford Cibachrome paper was another popular way of making colour prints from reversal films, with one of the most stable colour processes. This was a positive to positive process, the colour layers being already present in the paper, rather than in the chemistry process. The image was formed by a dye destruction chromolytic process using a bleaching step in P3 chemistry. Cibachrome became Ilfochrome in the 1990’s. In 2011, Ilford announced it would nolonger continue Ilfochrome production.

 

Split grade printing on fibre based paper

This is the last in a series of three posts exploring a single, high contrast image, with the goal of making a silver gelatin fibre based print. The first post was Overdeveloped negatives – printing from difficult negatives and the second Contact Proof Prints-standard exposure time.

Split grade printing

I prefer to use the method of split grade printing, especially when dealing with difficult negatives. It breaks the printing down into, what are for me at least, more controllable steps compared to using a fixed paper grade approach. Using variable contrast paper you have the option of using either approach that fits you best. And just because you are using variable contrast does not mean you cannot also employ other contrast control measures like masking, flashing and two bath development to fine tune your prints.

Pre-flashing the print highlights

For this print I chose to pre-flash the lower two thirds of the image with non image forming light. The aim of the pre-flash is to boost highlight details in the forest understorey, by heightening the sensitivity of the emulsion to the main print exposure and thereby encourage more highlight detail to become visible in the print. Such a small pre-flash exposure does not affect the darker print tones to the same extent as it does the highlights.

Soft grade exposure first, then add the hard grade

When I split print I start with a soft light exposure to determine the correct exposure for an important area of print highlight. To that base exposure I might dodge (subtract) certain areas of exposure from the print or burn in (add) exposure. I then work with the hard light exposure, again using a base exposure with dodging or burning as required. Les McLean has written a short but excellent introduction to split grade printing in his “Articles” section on his web site. You will find his web site link on my Resources and Supplies page.

The images above shows the notes I write on the back of a print in china pencil before exposure, outlining all the steps I plan to make during the print exposure under the enlarger. The numbers next to the steps refer to exposure times, in this instance I am using an f stop timer, so a burn of 2/3 equates to additional exposure of 2/3 of a stop. A 6/3 burn in the last step during the soft light exposure equates to a 2 stop increase in exposure compared to the main print. Likewise the hard light exposure has its own steps.

In the top image there is fine textural detail visible in the sunlit karri hazel to the left and in the middle of the print, which is not clearly visible on the monitor reproduction. Likewise some of the shadow detail is not as clear on the monitor. I could have scanned the negative then manipulated it in photoshop to approximate the silver print, but I wanted to avoid that and show the unmounted, untoned 11×14 inch silver gelatin print complete with slightly curled edges!  The print will be trimmed and dry mounted, so I don’t print with generous white borders which would be a waste.

Overall I am pleased with the progress made on this difficult negative, given that the contact proofs were so uninspiring. The additional exposure given at the base of the footbridge has worked well in the print. I will view the print for a while, as I feel there are other areas of the print that I may wish to fine tune before I am satisfied I have done my best with it.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Australia

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse is perched at the very tip of a rocky peninsula that pokes out like a little finger off Cape Leeuwin near Augusta. It is the most south-westerly point of the Australian mainland and as such is the first landfall to obstruct the wind, rain and storms generated deep within the southern ocean.

Made with my digital Canon 5D2 in 2012, it was published later that year to replace an earlier lighthouse image of 1997-98. That image had been published in 1998 and was a popular postcard, with tens of thousands being sold. It had also appeared in several publications and a book. However, I felt it was time for a new image. The early photograph had been made on velvia 50 iso film using an Olympus OM4Ti and a 300mm lens. Made in the evening, so I could photograph the lighthouse with its light on, the exposure was over several minutes. By comparison, the more recent image made at sunrise took only a second.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was one of the last in the world to be manually operated until 1982, using a clockwork mechanism and kerosene burner. Its height is 39 metres and elevation 56 metres above sea level.

Both cards have since sold out.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse 1997

 

 

Contact Proof Prints | Standard Exposure Time

In this post I will be looking at establishing a standard exposure time for making your contact prints. This is the second post in a series of three, you can find the first post Overdeveloped negatives – printing from difficult negatives here.

Making a contact proof print

Contact proof prints are simply made by placing the negative onto a piece of photographic paper, placing a clear piece of glass over the top to hold the negative firmly in contact, then exposing with white light.

That first contact print above, was made in 1987 using a normal contrast, grade 2, fibre based paper called Guilbrom. It has been printed way too dark, the negative’s edges indiscernible from the paper’s deep black edge. In my enthusiasm and inexperience, to achieve maximum black at the film’s edge,  I overexposed my 1987 contact print. The result is terrible. The shadows in the forest understorey show very little detail, as do the sunlit areas, resulting in a print of high contrast.

Minimum exposure for  maximum black

Overexposing contact prints can be a trap to using the “minimum exposure time to achieve maximum black” method. A good contact print exposure time is one where the thinnest part of the negative (ie unexposed clear edge) yields close to maximum black on the contact print using a minimum exposure time. You are really wanting to achieve what I term “near black”, rather than maximum black.

Traps to beware

Establishing a minimum exposure time to yield maximum black can be tricky, as it is operating on the curve of the photographic paper’s sensitivity. Small changes in exposure can give disproportionately larger changes to print density (black). So it is easy to over expose the print as I have done here in 1987, resulting in a high contrast proof print which does not show all the possible detail recorded on the negative.

But the contact proof also tells me that the sunlit area adjacent to the foot bridge is blocked and lacking detail, even with this overexposure. The highlights of the negatives are overdeveloped and with hindsight reduced development would have assisted in retaining more detail in these bright areas on a grade 2 paper. Overall, in 1987, I was disappointed with my contact print, they were way too contrasty, lacking important detail in the shadows and highlights.

Less exposure reveals more shadow detail

The second contact print made in 2015 has received twice the amount of light I would normally use as my standard exposure time in creating a contact sheet. That tells me that this negative made over 25 years ago is at least one whole stop denser than my regular negatives I expose today. This contact proof print has been made on the equivalent of a grade two normal contrast paper. Notice that you can just make out the film identification notches in the upper right corner, that the edge is close to, but just off, maximum black.

The shadow detail is much more visible than the first contact print from 1987. You can see within the shadows of the she-oak and karri hazel understorey including leaf detail. There is an overall feeling of enveloping light which I had desired, but the proof still clearly shows that the sunlit areas are too dense and that they require additional print exposure on a grade 2 equivalent paper.

This second contact print is still far from ideal. If I wanted to reveal more shadow and highlight detail on the contact print I could use a softer grade paper like grade 1 or grade 0. But the purpose of showing these two contacts on grade 2 is that, apart from demonstrating the problems with a high contrast scene, care must be exercised when establishing a standard printing time for making contacts.

Importance of establishing a standard exposure

Establishing a standard exposure or proper proofing time can give you valuable information about your film characteristics such as personal film speed, accuracy of your exposure, image contrast, normal development times, expansion and contraction development times and equipment function.

At workshops I am asked: why do I expose 400 iso film at 200 iso and not at the manufacturer’s recommendations? Or how long should I develop brand X film for in brand Y developer? Or how can I determine proper expansion or contraction development times? All the answers can all be found in establishing a standard contact proof print time, and this can be made visually without specialised equipment.

Resources to help and guide you

I won’t reinvent the wheel here, because there are some excellent books out there on how to do this.  John Blakemore’s book Black and White Photography Workshop is an excellent reference for establishing proper proof times. My resources page has Blakemore’s book details as well as other books and websites from authors who offer a great deal of information about proper proofing and darkroom techniques.

I make my contact proofs on fibre based paper because it is the paper used in making a final print. If you are confident of your developing and exposure that you are giving a film, it is sometimes more useful in assessing contact prints made on softer, grade one equivalent paper. This shows more shadow detail on the proof, but gives an overall flatter, foggy feel to the contact print proof images of course. This was a method John Sexton shared in a 1995 lecture that I attended, and something I employ today.

A contact proof need not look like the finished print.

Unlike contact printing whose end purpose is to create a finished print with perhaps dodging and burning, contact proof printing has a different objective. At the end of the day, a contact proof print is not about it looking like your final print, but to give you as much information about your negative as possible so that you can plan your final print.