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Darkroom Printing – a typical session

photographic darkroom printing

I thought I would describe a typical darkroom printing session. When I go into the darkroom to make a silver gelatin print I usually like to start pretty much first thing in the morning, so I can take my time. I don’t like to be in a rush when I’m printing, it’s a mental state that is counterproductive in my experience to being creative and receptive to the materials you work with. In my case I print exclusively on baryta base (otherwise known as fibre based) papers. When I step into the darkroom I will have one, or at most, two negatives I wish to make exhibition prints from. I am usually armed with a contact print of the negatives in question, or an earlier print that I have tried to make but has failed to meet my expectations. These proofs or ‘failures’I use as departure points or guides as to where I might like to take the image and materials. When I am assessing a photograph or negative before creating an exhibition print I look for what I find visually exciting about the image and see how I can improve on it. By going to the area that most interests me I can quickly determine through test strips how far I can take the image before I destroy the very qualities or nuances in the print I am seeking. This process gives me a foundation on which to assess the remaining areas of the image in relation to the first. Printing in black and white is especially about how tones within the finished image relate to one another. This process of assessment may not suite everyone, others may prefer to look at highlights and low values of a print overall to begin their process, but apart from gross overexposure or underexposure I find this process difficult for me. I like to go straight to the feeling of the image.

Lefroy Brook Wattie tree karri forest Pemberton Australia

Typically on a 16×20 inch print like the Lefroy Brook one above, I will spend several hours making test strips. I will be searching for the highlights that make the print sing and the low values that anchor the tones to a deep baritone base, revealing the beauty and tonal depth of a silver gelatin print. In the process I will often find a few printing problems that will call on my darkroom craftsmanship to solve. Sometimes they remain unsolvable but instead present an opportunity to learn about fine tuning your craft and technique.

By midday I will start making the first full size images based upon a proper exposure to the highlights. Then I will begin the first series of refinements using various test strip information. This may include some addition exposure (burning in) of print areas or shielding of areas (dodging) from the base exposure.  This is an important stage because up to now  only test strips have been made and this is the first opportunity to see the print in its entirety and observe the overall relationship of tones. Further refinements of dodging and burning may be required to balance the print tones and maximise details in the soft creamy whites of the prints.

Printing notes Lefroy Brook

To keep track of these adjustments I write them down on the reverse side of the print with a black china marker. Once all the adjustments have been completed to my satisfaction, I then set about making 4 or 5 finished prints based upon the printing recipe I have constructed. Notes on how I made the print are kept for future reference in a notebook, illustrated above.

It is now about mid afternoon and I have made 4 or 5 prints from the one negative. All test strips and work prints are discarded, only the remaining 4 or 5 are washed, treated in hypo clearing agent to clear any residual fixer, then washed for several more hours. The wet print are then dried face down on plastic screen mesh where they air dry  for at least 24 hours at room temp. At a later stage I will selenium tone the prints and rewash and dry.

By the time the print is toned, trimmed and dry mounted onto 100% cotton rag museum board, then window mounted and framed you are looking at several days work, but I get a deep satisfaction when I view the finished images knowing that I have been responsible for every stage in bringing a print from just an idea into existence.

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Velvia 4×5 with Tetenal E-6 developed in Jobo processor

Velvia 4x5 with Tetenal E-6 developed in Jobo processor

Last year I started experimenting with processing my own Velvia 4×5 with Tetenal E-6 rather than send them to a lab as I have done for many years. The truth is that I am currently using much less 4×5 colour than I did in the past and instead find myself using a lot more black and white negative film. I still enjoy making colour images from time to time, although I am so over the hyperventilated colour images that bombard our senses in galleries, in the print media and on the web.

Processing my own Velvia 4×5 with Tetenal E-6 has been a joy. I love pulling the film sheets off the processing reels and seeing what has been developed. But it is not until you take the films out of the dryer that you can really appreciate  films’ wonderful ability to record colour and my faith in colour photography is restored!

CPE2 job processor velvia 4x5 E6

On my last post about E-6 processing I was going to investigate a one shot technique. After 12 months between trials I have decided to  abandoned this approach, mainly because I did not wish to dilute the chemistry to the extent required. Instead I have settled upon using a one litre kit to develop a total of 48  4×5 sheets of film. If you compare the price of a kit to the lab price per sheet of film this is a huge saving in film processing costs even when I factor in my time.

I process 12 sheets of 4×5 at a time in a jobo 2551 multi tank 5 drum, essentially doing 4 processing  batches per 1 litre kit of Tetenal E6. That gives me the maximum capacity from the chemistry and fits within the 600ml chemistry volume limit for my jobo CPE2 processor.

Here are some photos showing today’s E-6 results directly from off the light box (above) and some of my set up below.

 film dryer velvia 4x5 E6

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Sandy Cove Cape Leeuwin Augusta Velvia 4×5 Tetenal

Cape Leeuwin Augusta

Sandy Cove Cape Leeuwin AugustaSandy Cove Cape Leeuwin Augusta developed in Tetenal

I want a one shot process that gives me a maximum film yield of 12 films per 1000ml Tetenal working solution, and I want to process 12 4×5 sheets of film at a time.

After successfully  trialling the Tetenal E6 3 bath kit on Velvia 4×5 50ISO, I intend to make some modifications to the  procedures set down by Tetenal.

  • First, I will be using a one shot technique, rather than the re-use technique, thereby eliminating the need for  adjusted development times from chemical activity depletion.
  • One shot has the potential to minimises the overall process time and it also avoids the risk of cross contamination of chemistry.
  • One shot also avoids the problem of volume depletion of solutions, especially of the first developer,  from the incomplete return of all solution.
  • I intend to use the chemistry to obtain the full yield of films as recommended by Tetenal, ie 12 films per 1Litre of working solution. This is equivalent to 48 sheets of 4×5 (4 sheets of 4×5 = one 120 film =one 35mm 36exp film).
  • For the developing I will be using a Jobo CPE2 processor with a 2550 drum and 2 4×5 reels, holding a maximun of 12 sheets of 4×5.
  • The maximum volume of solution for my Jobo is 600ml. This will ensure all film is in contact with the solutions during agitation.
  • I will be using only 250mls of working solution for each batch of 12 sheets. That’s because according to Tetenal, 1000mls of working solution has sufficient development activity for 48 sheets, therefore, by proportion, 250mls has enough activity for 12 sheets.
  • Each working solution, once made up according to Tetenal’s instructions, will then be further diluted with water to make a total volume of 600mls.
  • This act of dilution may require additional processing times which I will need to test. So far, my development times have been based upon visual inspection of my own film tests with a grey card.

When I get my next batch of chemistry I will test the times using my new proposed dilutions. If it all goes to plan I will post the results.

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Velvia 4×5 tetenal E6 3 bath

Orange Lichen Redgate Beach Margaret river region

Velvia 4×5 tetenal E6 3 bath process, an alternative to sending your chromes to the lab.

This past week I have been trialing Tetenal’s 3 bath E6 process with 4×5 velvia. I must admit I had a little trepidation about undertaking a colour process. The last time I processed colour slide it was as a young teenager using my mother’s cement laundry troughs out on the back verandah. Back then it was the Kodak E4 process, and it required that I refog the film to a 500 watt light source after the initial development. I was processing Pacific 35mm slide film from my high school’s media department. The results were radical to say the least, blue and magenta colour casts and wildly contrasty images. Needless to say I loved it. But it’s not exactly a comforting result if you are processing your professional images that you have spent time, money and effort just traveling to locations to create them.

For years I was sending my chromes to Melbourne for processing, but I decided it was time to rethink how I wanted to process my 4×5 velvia. It was time to press my Jobo processor, which I use for all my black and white negatives,  into doing some colour work for me. I started with a 1L Tetenal kit and put a few 120 velvia film tests through first to confirm my development times. I found a development time of 7.5 min a good starting point for velvia 50 ISO. To my surprise the film processing was remarkably consistent between batches and the information provided by Tetenal is a good starting point, and the process much simplified with the 3 step chemistry.

Overall I have been pleased with the results and I will be continuing with the Tetenal E6 during the year, using a one shot technique, processing 12 4×5 sheets at a time, with 48 sheets processed per litre of stock solution. I still have that 500 watt bayonet photo flood globe I used for E4 all those years ago. If you have a use for it let me know.

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Clematis flower Old Man’s Beard

clematis alex bond

Clematis flower Old Man’s Beard. Yes it’s an odd name, but old man’s beard is a common name to describe the feathery tendril like appearance of the native clematis flower as it matures. This soft, fine structure is so delicate it literally blows away on the breeze. Luckily there was no breeze on the evening I made this photograph, I was tucked away in a sheltered section of thick coastal heath, south of the Margaret River. The sun was almost on the horizon, but undeterred by the fading light.  I pulled out my trusty wooden field camera from my backpack and reached for my 150mm Schneider lens. Comparative to the 4×5 inch size of the transparency, I knew I would want to achieve at least a life size reproduction to fill the frame adequately and I had just enough bellows extension, about 300mm, to do it. With a 2 stop exposure increase for the bellows extension plus an additional adjustment for reciprocity failure – the velvia film was exposed for about 90 seconds. I also made some black and whites negatives. Somewhere in those I have a blurry looking ant as it walked around the flower during the exposure. The local talent can be uncooperative at times.

The 4×5 velvia was processed in Tetenal 3 bath E-6 which I have been trying out recently in my jobo processor, the perfect activity for a 40C degree day!  This is a “straight” scan off the tranny.

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Long exposures film or digital?

Lefroy Brook Pemberton Western Australia

Long exposures film or digital? When film exposure becomes greater than one second, you begin to enter the world of long exposures. Apart from the need to steady your camera, usually with a tripod, images created from long film exposures start to behave differently to shorter “regular” exposures and this requires a modified approach to successfully anticipate their outcome. Take the above example of three images which I made late one evening along the Lefroy Brook near Pemberton. The sun had set and the brook was deep in shadow with the light coming from directly above in a break between the karri forest canopy. I was exploring along the shallow pools of the brook which was now flowing at a pre summer low. The river’s bedrock was exposed in parts, but where the rocks remained wet they were slippery and they trapped the fallen leaves from the forest in a scattered pattern across their dark surfaces.

I set up my tripod and 4×5 wooden field camera. The best composition and most comfortable subject working distance was achieved with my Nikkor 210mm lens. I was using a Horseman 6×12 roll film back loaded with Velvia transparency film, rated at 50 ISO. The 210mm lens is slightly longer than normal focal length for 4×5 (and certainly for 6×12). It’s depth of field is shallow and with a close subject this characteristic becomes magnified. If I focused on the nearby leaves the remaining image was so blurry you lost the pattern of the leaves and their relationship with the moving water. If I focused on the far leaves, the foreground image suffered the same blurring, and again I lost the visual relationship I was after. Stopping the lens aperture all the way down to f64 is one way to increase this depth of field, but at the cost of introducing unwanted softness through diffraction. Even at f64 I could not achieve enough depth of field for the image I had in mind. One of the major advantages with the 4×5 is that I am able to alter the plane of focus so that a greater perception of sharpness is achieved in both the foreground and background. Coupled with a moderate aperture of about f22 this would afford me just sufficient depth of field.

But the rapidly fading light was adding to my problems. Not only was it becoming so dark that seeing any image on the ground glass was becoming seriously difficult (it’s already upside down and back to front), but the exposure was going to be long. According to my spot meter the brightest leaves had an EV of about 6, the darkest about 4, representing a 2 stop difference. The white water was slightly higher at around 7 EV. The base rock was mostly very dark and barely registering on my meter with EVs in the 2 to 3 range. My meter indicated an exposure of about 1 minute would be required at f22 with ISO 50 film. I added another 20 seconds to account for lens bellows extension and then I immediately doubled that to about 2 minutes 40 seconds,  to take into account my experience with the reciprocity effect in long exposures with Velvia film. In addition to reciprocity, I knew that there would be an increase in contrast in the final transparency compared to what I was seeing on the ground glass which I wanted to use to my advantage. By the time I had completed all three images in the fading light my exposures were getting up into the 5 minute range.

Film has to receive a base threshold amount of light energy before it can begin to record an image from very dark regions within an image. The contrast of the film increases in long exposures because, proportionately, less of the light energy received by the film in the shadow or dark regions of the image is available for image making, compared to a greater portion of image making light energy received from the brighter areas within the image.  That is to say that even though the film receives reflected light from both light and dark objects for the same amount of time, the resulting film density is not proportional in both light and dark regions, as the image highlights activate disproportionately more image forming silver halide crystals than the darker, shadow regions. This characteristic forms part of a film’s sensitivity curve:  a curved “toe” at the base, a relatively straight line mid section and a curved “shoulder”. Each film has its own exposure index /curve/ developer combination.  In this low light situation photographing Lefroy Brook,  Velvia’s contrast response to long exposures matched my vision to bring attention to the leaves whilst maintaining a dark background.

Had I used a digital camera to attempt these images the resulting raw files would have been quite different to film, there would have been an almost normal appearance of the brook and leaves as if it was photographed in full daylight. Low light exposures with digital cameras sensors coupled with their particular algorithms can give a greater perception of overall scene brightness, indicating a much more proportional exposure response than film (ie more straight line than toe or shoulder).  From my experience, this is one instance where film, by virtue of its inherent characteristics, behaves quite differently to digital. In this series of prints of Lefroy Brook I was able to achieve, in camera, with transparency film, the desired contrast of a long exposure and the necessary adjustment of the plane of focus afforded by a 4×5 field camera.

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Dunedin New Zealand

Dunedin New Zealand Cafe chair New Zealand

We had just spent a pleasant morning buying some fruit , vegies and cheeses at the weekend markets in Dunedin New Zealand. Across the Railway Station where the markets are held we stopped and had a breakfast coffee at a little cafe. The four of us sat around a small table outside, sipping our coffees and discussing our purchases and the meal we were preparing. As we left the cafe I was suddenly struck by the curved form of the vacated chair and the diagonal shadow. Traveling with a 21/4 square Yashica 124G.

Busker, Dunedin Markets, New Zealand

Street art near Save Mart, Dunedin, New Zealand
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New Zealand on a Yashica 124G Roll Film Camera on Holidays

Matakana, New Zealand

I love the simplicity of my Yashica 124G roll film camera. As a photographer you are often stuck with a difficult choice as to what camera or cameras you should take when traveling overseas on holidays. There is an expectation that you will be taking the latest digital offering with all the usual accoutrements. As I usually work with a 4×5 film camera and tripod there was a temptation to take this with me, after all, New Zealand has stunning landscapes.

However, I resisted. This was a holiday. Nor was this my first visit. The key here is the word holiday. I wasn’t on an assignment, just kicking back and relaxing with family, so why burden myself with photo gear for which I had no clear purpose to use? I wasn’t tramping in the back country and I certainly was not interested in doing too much of the tourist sight seeing thing (I did visit some galleries and art practices, which is always interesting).

I decided I would travel light, no tripod, one camera with a fixed lens. Limited choices. Keep it simple, keep it flexible and above all keep it fun. So I packed my 21/4 square Yashica 124G and 20 rolls of 120 Tmax 400. My subjects were largely urban images and portraits with a couple of landscapes thrown in.

The 21/4 square format  yields a lovely full tonal range in black and white, and the camera wonderfully simple to operate and light enough to take everywhere. And when I came across an image that I really liked I knew I had a quality medium format negative to make a print with. This image was made in Matakana, a popular weekend getaway for Aucklanders. They make some nice wine there too.

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Processing 120 film with excessive curl

Processing 120 film with excessive curl in the film base

When you have just 5 or 6cm of film unrolled from the backing, pinch the very top centre leading edge of the film with finger and thumb of one hand and with the other holding the film reel and film roll, pull the leading edge of film under the entrance lips into the very first reel track. (Do not cut the corners of the leading film edge as this will make loading in this reel more difficult with a curling film).Processing 120 film with excessive curling can cause the film to jam or be damaged when loading into spiral reels for tank development. The following is a description of how I load 120 film with excessive curl into a daylight film tank for processing. Obviously all the steps shown must be completed in total darkness, ie in a darkroom or using a changing bag. I suggest you try this on a practice film before you try loading an important film.

I have been processing 120 films for several decades. In that time I have used stainless steel reels, Paterson reels and my current favourites, the Jobo duo reels shown here. These “newer” Jobo reels are made of white plastic rather than the earlier clear plastic reels. Unlike Paterson, Jobo reels do not have any ball bearings at the film loading mouth to engage the film edges. Unlike other reels, Jobo have two indented reel edges, one on opposite sides of the reel, where my finger is pointing. This is important as it allows the films edge to be contacted by your fingers within that small range of indent.

In a darkroom or change bag collect all the items necessary to start film loading. You will need daylight film tank and top, the white plastic film reel with its black central column and of course the roll of film.

Processing 120 film with excessive curl in the film base

In total darkness, tear the thin paper tab securing the exposed roll and begin to unroll the backing paper away from the film spool.

In total darkness, tear the thin paper tab securing the exposed roll and begin to unroll the backing paper from the film spool.

After about 10 to 15cm of backing paper is unrolled, the loose end of film will begin to curl into a small tight roll. The film is thicker than the paper backing and is firmer, so you will feel the difference between the two. Unless touching the very first of last 2cm of film, always handle the film at its edges.

After about 10 to 15cm of backing paper is unrolled, the loose end of film will begin to curl into a small roll. The film is thicker than the paper backing and is firmer, so you will feel the difference between the two. Unless touching the very first of last 2cm of film, always handle the film at its edges. (Yes what you see below is the pink emulsion of real, undeveloped film)

Notice how the film below is already curling in on itself to form a tight shiny roll. This action can make 120 and thinner 220 films particularly troublesome to load at times without scratching or jamming in the reels. The degree of curl will vary from film to film, brand to brand,  and manufacturers may change the polymer base without notice.

Notice how the film below is already curling in on itself to form a tight shiny roll. This action can make 120 and thinner 220 films particularly troublesome to load at times without scratching. The degree of curl will vary from film to film, brand to brand, and manufacturers may change the polymer base without notice.

When you have just 5 or 6cm of film unrolled from the backing, pinch the very top centre leading edge of the film with the finger and thumb of one hand and with the other holding the film reel and film roll,  pull the leading edge of film under the entrance lips into the very first reel track. (I do not recommend cutting the corners of the leading film edge as this will make loading in this reel more difficult with a curling film).

When you have just 5 or 6cm of film unrolled from the backing, pinch the very top centre leading edge of the film with finger and thumb of one hand and with the other holding the film reel and film roll, pull the leading edge of film under the entrance lips into the very first reel track. (Do not cut the corners of the leading film edge as this will make loading in this reel more difficult with a curling film).

Again using finger and thumb to grab the leading centre edge of film and pull the film into the reel past the indents, whilst holding the main film body and backing in place with the other hand.


Continue pulling the film around as far as you can. You will have to unroll some of the backing paper from time to time to free up the film so it will enter the reel freely.  You can let go of the main film roll once you have a good 10 to 15cm of film in the reel  as this should be sufficient to hold it.

Continue pulling the film around as far as you can. You will have to unroll some of the backing paper from time to time to free up the film so it will enter the reel freely. You can let go of the main film roll once you have a good 10 to 15cm of film in the reel as this should be sufficient to hold it.
Paterson reel users will be familiar with the backwards and forwards ratcheting movement of the reel halves to load film. A similar affect on the Jobo reels can be achieved using index fingers on each side of the reel at the indent points, as you alternatively advance and then hold the film.

Paterson reel users will be familiar with the backwards and forwards ratcheting movement reel halves to load film. A similar affect can be achieved using index fingers on each side of the Jobo reel at the indent points to alternatively advance and then hold the film.

I do not recommend this method with excessively curly 120 film as it is likely to pop the film edge out of the film guide channel, causing the film to jam.

I do not recommend this method with excessively curly 120 film as it is likely top pop the film edge out of the correct chanel in the spiral, causing the film to jam.

Instead, hold the reel perfectly still. With a finger and thumb placed at opposite sides of the film indent, push/feed  the film with light pressure in the circular direction of the film guide channels. You can only push/feed  the film the circular length of the indent at any one time.

With a finger and thumb placed at opposite sides of the film indent, push the film with light pressure in the circular direction of the reel channels.
Keep repeating this pushing /feeding action, it is surprising quick to load a whole film. The even pressure on both side of the indent prevent the film from popping out of the guide channels.

You can only move a small amount of film the length of the indent at any one time, but it is surprising quick to load a whole film. The even pressure on both side of the indent prevent the film from popping out of the guide channels.

From time to time release more backing paper away from the film and reel to make it easier to push / feed the film into the reel. You can feel the film edge traveling deeper into the reel at the indent.

Keep push / feeding the film until you come to the end of the film where it is taped to the backing paper. Carefully tear the backing paper from the film, taking care not to kink the film or dislodge it from the reel.


Leave the sticky tape on the film and fold its sticky edge down onto the under side of the film.

Push/feed the remainder of the film right into the reel so that the taped edge is under the guide lips.

You are just about done. Load the film reel and central column into the daylight tank. Place the lid on top and secure. Turn on the lights or remove the tank from the change bag. You are now ready for processing 120 film in the tank under normal room light.

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Fremantle Bridge Pipes film test exposure index 4×5 sheet film

Film tests Pipes Fremantle

Fremantle Bridge pipes as a film test subject to experiment with film speed and contrast. Film tests can be time consuming and generally bore me to tears, but every now and then they are a necessary evil. So to make it a little more interesting I tried to find some local subject matter that had some visual appeal.This image is quite industrial and not my regular subject matter, but was quite suitable for the test I had in mind, and I found the silvery curve of the pipes created an intriguing juxtaposition against the background of formal straight lines.

The scene is high in contrast, from the deep shadows under the bridge to the brightness of the sunlit wall. To retain the bright detail in the far left wall I cut the development, so that I did not have to perform darkroom gymnastics to obtain detail in the final print.  Normally with such a cut to development I would increase the exposure to compensate for film speed loss, but I didn’t do this in this case. On inspection of the contact proof, the negative still held plenty of printable shadow detail, however in making the print it looked  better when I printed these low values down further.