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Film speed test Ilford FP4 no densitometer

Film speed test Ilford FP4

Film speed test - use just 2 sheets of film - no densitometers

Film speed test using Ilford FP4 to establish your personal film exposure index and normal development time - no need for densitometers with this visual check using a graphic arts step-wedge tablet.

What I am going to explain below is a quick overview for one method of film speed development test and how to obtain your normal development time. It is particularly handy for 4x5 users as it minimises the amount of film used down to potentially two sheets to give you the necessary information.

A more in depth reference to this film speed test and where to obtain graphic arts step tablets are listed at the bottom of this page.

Step 1 Load step tablet and unexposed 4x5 sheet into a film holder

This film speed test uses a Stouffer step wedge as your calibration tool. Modify your step tablet by placing an opaque paper dot sticker above step 21 on the tablet. This will prevent any light being received by the film under the dot, giving you a clear film base reference point later.

The 21 step tablet or step wedge is a calibration device traditionally used in graphic arts applications. It has been carefully processed under laboratory conditions to give 21 steps of grey in 0.5 stop densities. Using a step tablet is one way to avoid the need for densitometers.

In a darkroom or film changing bag load an unexposed sheet of film overlayed with the Stouffer step tablet. The two are sandwiched together and carefully pushed into place within the sheet film holder. Due to the combined thickness of two sheets this can be a little difficult but can be achieved with patience and care. Treat the test tablet with the same care as film.

Step 2 Expose the film with step tablet with a Zone 10 exposure

Film speed test Zone 10 film exposure test
Exposing film with step tablet

A Zone 10 exposure is 5 stops more exposure than what your meter is indicating. Observe the following points:

  • Use a white card as your exposure subject and fill the viewfinder completely. If you use a darker object the exposure time required will be longer, hence use white.
  • Choose a normal focal length lens - wide lenses suffer from light fall off at the frame edges and can affect the test
  • Have your lens focused at infinity. The test object will not be in focus and focus is not desirable for this test.
  • Choose a day with consistent light, cloudless, south facing is best if in the southern hemisphere.

Step 3 Develop your test film in the developer of your choice

My current developer is Ilford LC-29. You should choose for your test the developer that you prefer or want to use with your film. Prepare it as you would normally would and be consistent with your film processing procedure so you can repeat the results.

For my processing set up, Ilford HP5 takes about 11 minutes to develop normally. Looking at the Iford tables for FP4 suggests that it develops in slightly less time that HP5. So I cut my time from 11minutes down to 10 minutes. Why? 10 is an easy number to work with. If I need to reduce or increase my development times further I will usually adjust by about 10% increments (1 minute) or 15% (90 seconds) or 20% (2 minutes).

Film speed test stouffer negative jobo film reel FP4
My developed film test at 10 minutes

Step 4 Analyse your results to get your personal film speed index

Film speed test stouffer negative


The first piece of information in a film speed test is at what ISO speed should I be exposing brand X film with my camera gear and development procedure.

This is where placing the opaque sticky dot near the 21st step is so helpful, circled in red. It gives you a clear film base reference where no exposure has been received. Step 21 on the wedge is also Zone 0. If it is the same density as the red circled clear film base then the film is not overexposed. If step 21 is equal to the circled area and there is consistent tonal separation between steps 20 to 11, then your exposure index is within the ball park. I exposed this test film at 64ISO and I am pretty happy with the tonal placement.

If steps 21, 20, 19 had been clear with no tonal separation between them, then I know the film was underexposed. I would need to reduce my ISO number by about half a stop and try the test again.

Conversely, if steps 21, 20 and 19 had definite grey tones I would need to decrease my exposure by increasing my ISO rating for the film.


Step 5 Proper proof time

From the previous step I am confident that an ISO of 64 is close enough for my camera and developer combination. Now I need to find out what is the normal development time.

proper proof time

A second sheet of FP4 which remained unexposed was also developed at the same time as the step wedge test for 10 minutes.

For all contact printing I have a standard enlarger head height I use in combination with one lens, f stop and neg carrier. My enlarger filtration is set for grade 2 normal contrast paper. I focus the light onto my enlarger base and then make tests strips from the contact print of the developed but unexposed film.

What I am looking for is the first almost black tone which shows very little discernible tonal difference to the next strip after it. This is in the region of the minimum print exposure required to print through the unexposed film to yield a black print value.

In my case above, I could see clear differences between the dark greys at exposures of 8.6 and 10.4 seconds. At 12.4 seconds I could see no appreciable change in blacks between 12.4 and 15.0 seconds. So I choose the 12.4 seconds as the minimum time to achieve close to maximum black.

A note of caution, this is a visual test and it is easy to be overly enthusiastic about achieving maximum black thereby overexposing when establishing your minimum time for close to maximum black.

Here we are working at an extreme end of the paper sensitivity where small changes in exposure can give large changes in density, so take care not to overdo it.

Remember that you want the exposure time just before there is no real appreciable difference in the black with next exposure time which follows.

Step 6 Establishing normal development - printing the step wedge.

This is the final stage, establishing what is a normal development time for your film, camera and developer combination. We need to make a contact print of the actual Zone 10 film exposed with the image of test tablet. Using the exposure determined above for the minimum time for maximum black (in my case 12.4 seconds) I  contact print the negative onto the photographic paper. The result is seen below.

contact print step wedge

In the image above I have shown in red letters the various print value zones and their respective step tablet numbers. Remember each step is 0.5 of a stop. Step 1 on the tablet is equivalent to a Zone 10 print value, Step 2 is half a stop lower at Zone 9.5 and Step 3 is Zone 9.0 respectively.

I like to have a good separation of tones from Zone 2 print value (Step 17) through to about Zone 8 print value (Step 5). After Step 5 - Zone print values 8.5 to 10, the scale remains paper base white. This is a normal contrast range. If the light grey scale ended earlier at say Step 7, this would indicate the film has been developed with higher contrast than normal of about one stop. This is referred to N+1 development. If the grey tones extended all the way down to Step 3, or Zone 9 print value, then this would indicate the film contrast is softer than normal. This is represented as N-1 development.

In this case above 10 minutes development has produced results which show normal negative contrast.

Film speed test Ilford FP4 in LC-29 developer conclusion

Using just 2 sheets of Ilford FP4 film I was able to determine that my personal exposure index is 64 ISO. Normal development is achieved (for me) at 10 minutes using my usual dilution and agitation methods consistent with my film processing procedures.

I have only used my results here as an example of the process. Your results may vary significantly and that's to be expected.

Having conducted my film speed test for my personal exposure index and normal development I can now go about photographing with my new stock of Ilford FP4. This gives me a genuine basis to compare results of my images with other films I have used and to observe characteristics particular to this film and developer combination.

Conclusion:  Film speed tests are necessary to understand how to best manipulate your creative materials - your photographic film and paper.

References Calibration and Transmission Step Wedges

Film Speed Test References.

Paul Wainwright has written a nice little pdf which you can download which goes into greater detail the technical details behind this visual test. Go to this page, scroll  to the bottom third of the page “Use Your Eyes, Zone System Testing Without a Densitometer” and download the pdf off the link.

Visit Stouffer Graphic Arts for details regarding transmission step wedges and photographic scales, the tools I rely on to avoid the need for using laboratory equipment like densitometers, often referred to in the Zone System film exposure and development method. Keep your references clean, handle with care (like negatives) and store carefully, these will last you for years and well worth having.

Film speed test Ilford FP4 4x5 sheet film

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Western Australian Postcards Stormlight Publishing

postcards western australia Alex Bond Stormlight Publishing 2017

Western Australian Postcards of National Parks

Western Australian Postcards 25 years of southwest postcards Australia
25 years of southwest postcards

Leeuwin Naturaliste - Southern Forests - South Coast Postcard Series

I finally got around to completing Stormlight Publishing 25 years of South West Postcards.

For those of you familiar with my work you would know that I have been publishing and distributing images of Western Australian national parks since 1989 under my imprint Stormlight Publishing. Many of these images have been as postcards, as well as greeting cards, posters, calendars and books.

When I started publishing my postcards series in 1989 I had no idea where or how far it would go. Postcards series specific to national parks did not exist in WA at that time. Some retailers were sceptical about selling images that were not of something. They wanted identifiable subjects such as a recognisable memorial or a building. It was said to me that they were just pretty images of nothing. Others asked me where these places were as they could not be local places.

Starting out with a 35mm film camera and one lens I set about creating a postcard series that endured for a quarter of a century. 1.5 million postcards later, I reflect on the processes behind creating this award winning national park postcard series in a time prior to the prevalence of digital technology and the social phenomenon of mobile phone “selfies”.

Luckily for me I found plenty of south west retailers willing to give the postcards a go. Even more lucky for me is that they sold. This allowed me to eventually produce images covering regions along the south west and southern coastline of Western Australia. These included Esperance, Albany, Denmark, Walpole, Pemberton, Northcliffe, Augusta, Margaret River, Yallingup, Dunsborough, the Stirling and Porongurup Ranges.

If you are interested in landscape photography or just appreciate the unique beauty of the national parks in south west Western Australia then you will enjoy this collection of 70 postcard images. I have a limited number of copies on hand which I can post within Australia, otherwise copies are available directly from Blurb.


Hard cover | dust jacket | 82 pages | 70 images full colour | 10 x 8 inches landscape

West Australian Postcards 25 years of south west postcards
Stormlight Publishing 25 years of south west postcards ISBN 978-0-9874791-1-2
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Protecting your camera backpacking Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Camera protection backpacking

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Protecting camera gear backpacking is essential if it is to remain usable when traversing rugged environments. As you can see from the image below of the Third Arrow, the Ridge Walk terrain is challenging with a heavy pack. You should have a modern backpack with shoulder and hip harness. My advice is that all your gear should be stowed within your backpack.

I would avoid attaching bags or items on the outside of a backpack. In rougher terrain you may occasionally slide a pack down a slope in front of you or need to move down a slope with rocks jutting outwards into your pathway. Either way you do not want anything to snag on your pack or break. Worse still is unexpectantly falling because you to become unbalanced when turning your back.

Attaching gear to the outside of your pack moves the pack's centre of gravity further away from the body. This can result in addition strain on your back or again could cause you to lose balance. A simple rule of thumb, if you can't pack it in your backpack then you can't take it.

Stirling Range The Arrows
Stirling Range Third Arrow 4x5 field camera Velvia 50.
Protecting your camera backpacking
Protect your camera gear when backpacking

8 tips to protecting camera gear backpacking

Some of the techniques I find useful when backpacking with camera gear are:

  1. minimise weight: plan the photographs you are most likely to make and reduce your camera gear to the bare minimum
  2. do not attach bags or other items to the outside of your pack, keep centre of gravity close to body
  3. hand carry a light weight tripod - use it a hiking pole when necessary
  4. use colour coded waterproof inner bags to keep like items together in your backpack
  5. place camera gear at the top of backpack to minimise damage and give faster access
  6. use padded wraps with velcro access around lenses and camera body
  7. take lens cleaning tissue
  8. try to take items which can serve more than one purpose eg you might use your rain shell to double as a focus cloth, reducing weight and volume.

What would I change all these years later?

There have been massive changes in technology since my earlier ridge walks. There are mobile phones -although I am not suggesting you rely on them in the Stirling Range, there is GPS navigation, personal EPIRBS and of course there are digital cameras. Given the new professional quality digital cameras and software available there are more choices available for such arduous journeys.

If I was not making images for the calendar, the obvious choice to me would be one of the new mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses and a tripod. The later would benefit from being carbon fibre and therefore light weight. This would be far lighter than a current 35mm dSLR. If you are not concerned about the combination of electronics, cold, rain, grit and jarring, then by all means get out your scales and weigh up the options with a medium format digital such as Phase One.

If I wanted to use film in preference to digital it would be hard to go past the 4x5 sheet film format. Its camera system is simple and robust, able to withstand wet weather and dirt. Best of all it does not require batteries. Medium format film is also an option. The other alternative  35mm film camera. A tripod is still, in my opinion, essential for quality work. Galen Rowell made wonderful mountaineering photographs with 35mm Nikon and Kodachrome 64 (and then later Velvia 50).


Stirling Range Coyanarup Peak Western Australia
Grass trees below Coyanarup Peak Stirling Range

Navigation aids for Stirling Range maps compass

Navigation and Safety

Regardless of mobile phone and GPS I would still carry my maps and compass. With a map and compass you read the landscape that you are moving through rather than rely on a digital signal confirming where you have been. Given the affordability and compactness of new technology you should really have a mobile, GPS, maps, compass and these days a personal EPIRB with you, as well as a letting someone responsible know of your plans and when you should get back.

My final word on safety is that if you are planning to hike the Stirling Range Ridge Walk, do some research of the route first. You may want to look at the publications by AT Morphet. Use minimal impact bushwalking techniques which includes not lighting fires and disposing of your human waste properly. Go with a walking colleague of equal or greater experience than you.

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Stirling Range Ridge Walk Western Australia

Stirling Range Ellen Peak Pyungoorup The Arrows Australia

Stirling Range Ridge Walk with a field camera

Stirling Range Ridge Walk Bluff Knoll from eastern peaks

Horizon Calendar

In 1997 I was publishing my large format Horizon Calendar of West Australian landscapes. I had been photographing and hiking in the Stirling Range since the early 1980s with a 35mm film camera. But the Horizon Calendar images were all made from my 4x5 camera field camera using Velvia 50 iso sheet film. The calendar was printed on A1 paper stock here in Perth. The colour reproductions were superior to pro lab prints and the detail exceptional. Placing 35mm images along side 4x5 images in a calendar would harm its production value. I needed  to make 4x5 images on my hikes in the Stirlings. This was the dilemma confronting me on my in the pre-planning stage for a Stirling Range ridge walk in 1996.

Horizon Calendar Stormlight Publishing Alex Bond
Stirling Range images published in the Horizon Calendar

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

The Stirling Range Ridge Walk is a challenging walk even for experienced bushwalkers. It is an unmarked route through mountainous terrain with very limited water supplies. Weather conditions can change rapidly and visibility reduced to less than a metre if clouded in. There are many mobile phone black spots due to terrain and remoteness. Before undertaking the ridge walk you should have highly developed navigation skills, have a high degree of self sufficiency and be using appropriate outdoor gear. Research the Stirling Range ridge walk before attempting it. Be a competent maps and compass reader. Obviously a GPS now days would be a good idea and you should carry some first aid.

Preparations food water shelter

Hiking the Stirling Range ridge walk  requires some serious forethought in your pre-planning stage. Some hikers use caves for overnight shelter. My preference is a light weight alpine tent. This gives me further reach onto the ridge than where the caves are. Planning includes three days of food and fluids. I hope to find additional water en-route. Water cannot be guaranteed and if no water can be procured then it probably means abandoning the  walk at the first Arrow. You can also climb down to a spring and then climb back up with water.... if the spring is running.

Add a 4x5 field camera and a tripod into the above mix of prerequisites and your problems multiply. A heavy backpack can slow you down, is less manageable in rough terrain and tires you more quickly.

Working with a field camera presents its own unique set of challenges of volume and weight. The obvious concern is about camera weight. This is certainly a consideration, but you may be surprised to learn how heavy modern dSLRs and their lenses have become. A Canon EF 70-200mm digital zoom weighs 1.54kg. My 4x5 field camera weighs just 40 grams more! By comparison a 300mm Nikkor lens for 4x5 weighs about 390 grams, nearly the same as a Canon EF 50mm f1.4.

I restricted my food to 500 grams dry weight per day. To supplement the water I would need to find en-route I carried another 7 litres. Water was without doubt the single heaviest item I carried.

large format camera Stirling Range
1996 Author at Bluff Knoll on completion of ridge walk.

Camera basics

When using the 4x5 in this environment I cut down the camera gear to its bare minimum. I  study maps, estimate times of day and my position and think about the photographs I hope to make. What lens is needed? What is absolutely necessary and what can I leave at home?

My 4x5 kit consists of two lenses and two film backs. That is a maximum of 12 exposures on 4x5 inch film. So you are not going to blast those off in the first hour of hiking. I take a  light meter and focus cloth. Plus of course a tripod. It's rather pointless to make all this effort to walk the ridge if you can’t make the most of the photographic opportunities it presents. Up until the mid 2000s  I was using an aluminium Manfrotto 190. These days the price of light weight carbon fibre tripods has come down which I would certainly use in preference now.

In the next post I will give 8 tips to protecting camera gear when backpacking on extended camping trips.

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Smiths Beach Yallingup Cape Naturaliste sunset

Smiths Beach Yallingup Cape Naturaliste Western Australia
Wista field camera Rodenstock Grandagon 90mm lens 4×5 velvia 50 ISO f16 1 second.

I was reviewing some of my data files from film scans and came across this image of Smiths Beach Yallingup. It was made at sunset with my wooden field camera back in about 2002. The composition I envisaged was of the panoramic proportions above, although the actual film was a full sheet of 4×5 velvia. My initial plan was to publish the image in my Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park postcard series. Although I don’t normally crop my 4x5s this was the only camera I was using on that day, so I made a decision to “waste” half my potential film and make a panoramic from the final image.

I recall that the biggest concern at the time of making this photograph was trying to minimise the lens flare from the setting sun. The acute angle of the sun hitting the lens front element set up internal lens reflections taking on the form of the lense aperture blades. Under a focus cloth I carefully positioned the camera lens at the smallest angle to the sun that would just allow me to avoid the flare.

Checking my focus, I then stopped the lens down, closed and cocked its shutter. I placed a Grafmatic film holder in the camera back containing my 6 sheets of 4×5 velvia. Carefully pulling the double dark up from the Grafmatic back and then returning it. This moved an unexposed sheet of film to the front of the pack, ready for exposure. I waited momentarily by my tripod watch the surf and waiting for what I guessed would be the right sequence of waves.

Pressing the cable the shutter clicked and whirred for its one second duration. The exposure over, I pressed the lock catch on the Grafmatic insert, raising and lowering the internal film compartment. This action effectively shuffles the exposed sheet of film to the back of the film pack, leaving a fresh film on top for the next exposure.

What I had’t accounted for was that at such an acute angle to the horizon the sun’s position moves significantly in a relatively short period. 60 or 120 seconds later from checking my focus and positioning on the ground glass was sufficient time for the sun to move and cause lens flare.

I guess that is one of the difficulties in using a camera where you can’t continuously view the image through the viewfinder or in this case, ground glass (by virtue of the fact the film back has to be in position to make the exposure thereby obstructing and possible view). A possible fix is to use photoshop to edit the sun flare out, although this makes it a little too perfect for me. Although not initially intended I can live with the lens flare. It’s an authentic lens artefact from photographing into the sun and forms part of the quality of light that attracted me to make this image of Smiths Beach Yallingup in the first place.

For one reason or another the image was never used in my south west postcard range, although I have made custom prints of it.

Smiths Beach Yallingup: Wista field camera Rodenstock Grandagon 90mm lens 4×5 velvia 50 ISO f16 1 second.

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Surf Rabbit Hill Yallingup Leeuwin Naturaliste Series Postcards

Yallingup Surf Rabbit Hill Leeuwin Naturaliste Postcards

When I commenced publishing the Leeuwin Naturaliste Series of postcards back in 1989 I started with just 11 cards. By the following year I was needing more new images.  In particular, I needed images made in the 35mm film format I had designed my postcards around. As I explained in “25 years of south west postcards” cropping images from other camera formats that did not fit the 2:3 ratio posed a bit of a problem. I had been using 645 medium format and 4×5 inch large format well before 1989. Both have a similar aspect ratio and when I composed an image for that format it did not necessarily crop well into a 2:3 image for postcards.

So in 1990 I set about hiking about the south west with the only 35mm camera I had and a 28mm wide angle. The majority of the postcards I made over 25 years were produced with this single combination. Although I did own a 100mm short telephoto for my 35mm Pentax LX, I can’t recall taking it on a hiking trip with me. This may sound contradictory it was just a little too short for landscapes.

I arrived at Yallingup to a cool crisp winter morning, well before sunrise. There was a faint yellow glow in the east and a deep violet earth shadow descending across the western horizon. A light offshore breeze felt cold on my back as I set my camera up on a tripod and pointed it towards the west. In the distance far offshore the breaking surf was lit up by the first of the sun’s rays.

Early morning light Yallingup 1990 Leeuwin Naturaliste Postcard
Early morning light Yallingup 1990 Pentax LX tripod 28mm lens Fujichrome 50 Professional RFP

In the foreground slanting rocks facing the sun stretched out in small parallel lines into the ocean, drawing the eyes towards the breaking surf. The sun was slightly diffused through some cloud as it first lit the scene. I managed a few frames with the distant break working, before the sunlight broke through the cloud completely and the contrast became too high turning the shadow details to black.

Placing my camera inside my backpack and shouldering my tripod I continued my coastal walk to see what else might be around the corner. The light at this stage was fast losing its morning warmth and the movement of cloud predicted an overcast day was soon to follow. As I walked below Rabbit Hill at Yallingup beach the steeply angled light hit the plumes of spray blown off the tops of the waves.

I attached a zoom lens which I had borrowed from a friend. It was an odd 3rd party lens -I can’t remember its make- of around 140mm maximum focal length. At its maximum I managed to compose a small section of water below the cliffs in which the waves were breaking. Timing is everything in photographing breaking waves. The shutter speed has to be fast enough to “freeze” the image while the success of the composition is totally dependent on the placing of the waveform. Each sequence of waves offers a different image potential, no two sequences are the same. So I made a series of exposures from the same tripod position until the sun faded under the clouds and the lighting effect lost.

Both images were made on the same morning within an hour, yet show vastly different views. The Surf Rabbit Hill Yallingup, postcard was published in 1992, two years after I had published Yallingup Sunrise. Although it was made with a short telephoto lens it still required some cropping in the final drum scan. It became a hugely successful postcard card. Both images were made on Fujichrome 50 Professional RFP  35mm ISO 50, which I used up until the introduction of Velvia 50 ISO film not long after 1990.

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Loading Sheet Film Double Darks 4×5

Loading Sheet Film Double Darks 4x5

Loading Sheet Film

Loading Sheet Film Double Darks 4×5. This is a very rough and basic video of showing the steps involved in loading 4×5 sheet film into a double dark film holder. Obviously these steps need to be made in total darkness, regardless of whether you are using black and white or colour film.

Loading Sheet Film Double Darks 4×5 • Alex Bond from Alex Bond on Vimeo.

Dust on sheet film

Dust is without doubt the biggest problem when handling and loading sheet films. Cleanliness is the key, along with some measures to reduce static electricity which attracts airborne dust to the film surface.

My personal preference is to load film in a darkroom where there is plenty of space and the film surface is unlikely to make contact with another surface (such as a change bag). If you don’t have a darkroom, use some cardboard and black out a small room’s window (eg toilet) and use it to load film at night when everyone has gone to sleep!

Film changing bags can be useful, look for the ones that have internal frames  that support the bag lining into the shape of a half dome. This helps stop the bag material from touching the film surface by creating a film “tent”.

Cleaning film holders with an air blower

Before attempting to load film, clean your film holders inside and out. Use an air blower or similar to blow dust particles off your film holders. Stack the cleaned film holders carefully on a clean flat surface ready for loading. You may want to use an anti-static gun to reduce static  on your holders before cleaning and loading.

Handle sheet film at its edges

Always handle your film from the edges. Finger tips deposit oils which will become obvious on developed film. Unless you want them over your images it is best to avoid touching the emulsion side.

Load emulsion facing you

Load your film holders with the film emulsion facing towards you. Make sure the film notches are in the top right hand corner as you look at the film in a portrait orientation.


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Contos spring Contos Beach Margaret River region

Contos spring contos beach

Contos Spring flows when the local limestone caves have received enough underground water. The spring seeps up out of the beach sand at the southern end of Contos Beach. Overhanging limestone cliffs dominate the beach and create a colourful and dramatic back drop especially towards evening.

On this particular evening there were several parties spread out on the beach enjoying the late sun and solitude. You can just make out a small dot on the far beach of one individual.

The foot prints in the foreground are testament to the beach’s popularity that day. Nearby is the Contos Beach camping ground and the Cape to Cape trail.

During this visit I made this image on 4×5 velvia film at 50iso using my wooden field camera. No filters required, image is as it appears on the transparency.

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Back beach south coast Western Australia

coral vine beach Denmark Western Australia


Nearly every coastal town has a back beach, the one that is less popular with the visitors, but well known to the locals. It is usually accessed via a dirt track off the bitumen leading somewhere over the dunes.

Unlike the local surfers and fishers, I don’t use a 4WD, so I hike along the coast with my camera and tripod in my backpack. It takes a bit longer to get to my destination (OK, sometimes several hours longer), but in that time I get to see and appreciate a lot of things on the way.

Like the subtle changes in the landscape, the way the foliage and bush changes as I slowly advance towards the coast. Or perhaps which wild flowers are out and what bushes, trees and shrubs are flowering. The direction of the wind, the sun on you skin, the quality of the light, the softness of the sand beneath your boots, and the general quietening of your mind. These are all factors in influencing your mood, your perception for photography.

As you walk, you build up to a moment where a photograph presents itself to you, like a bubble that has risen to the surface. On a beautifully calm morning, how could I resist the intense red of the sprawling coral vine, with distant surfers riding the waves? Back beach Denmark region, south coast WA.

wooden folding wista  field camera 4×5, with 6x9cm roll film back, velvia 50ISO.

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Early morning photography Pemberton Western Australia

Lefroy Brook Pemberton

Early 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.


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.