Printing Overdeveloped Negatives – Part 1

Overdeveloped negatives, we all have them, but how do you print from them?

Overdeveloped negatives, we all have them hidden away somewhere. You know, one of those bulletproof negatives that we look at despairingly. You know it is going to be difficult to print. And this is one of mine, which I have been putting off printing for several decades.

You only have to see it on the lightbox above, overdeveloped highlights that look almost solid black. Its only redeeming feature is reasonable shadow details. However, many years later, I can now resolve difficult issues of overdeveloped negatives with advanced printing techniques.

In the three articles I will be revisiting an image made under difficult light, assessing its contact sheet proofs and using split grade printing to make an 11×14 fibre based print.

Shannon National Park – Wista 4×5 field camera – Karri forest 

Step back to the summer of 1986/87. I had received my new Wista 4×5 wooden field camera from Zone VI Studios in the US several months earlier and was itching to get out and make some photographs with it. Armed with one wideangle lens and 12 sheets of black and white film and a tripod, I headed south to the forests. For five or six days I camped within the Shannon National Park, in the heart of the karri forest, one of Australia’s tallest hardwoods. The Shannon once had a small townsite and timber mill, which eventually closed around 1968. During the early 1980s, the area was a flashpoint between the State Government’s Forestry Department and conservationists, who were campaigning for the end to old-growth logging. Referred to as the Shannon River Basin, it was eventually gazetted as Shannon National Park in 1988.

High contrast photography – forest scenes 

Each summer day during my stay at Shannon brought clear blue skies and the forest was flooded with hard, bright light with corresponding deep, hard-edged shadows. Great weather for tourists but a photographer’s nightmare. To make it worse I found my subject is most interesting when I photograph into the sun, transforming the backlit leaves into translucent pearls of light. The light was bright and it was hard and I wanted to retain some of that feeling in my photographs. The contrast of the forest scene was very high, and my preferred vision bordered on photographic failure.  To make a successful image I would be treading a very fine line. High contrast scenes sit on the edge of the dynamic range of film and papers. Errors in development time and exposure become readily apparent.

Tray processing 4×5 sheet film and film reticulation

When I returned home I eagerly processed the negatives in open trays in a friend’s darkroom, in Fremantle. As the summer heatwave cranked on, the water coming from the old building’s cold water pipes was at 30ºC, so I cooled the developer to 20ºC with an ice block water bath. But there was no extra ice for the other solutions or for film washing. So the film had at least a 10ºC temperature shock going from the developer to the other solutions. It wasn’t until the film was hung up to dry that I noticed a reticulation pattern in the emulsion throughout all twelve films. My initial reaction was that this may have ruined my work. At the time I had no 4×5 enlarger, so no way to assess the effect of the reticulation pattern on the final print.

Next post, I will compare a contact proof made in 1987 against a new proof made a quarter of a century later. Let’s see how my overdeveloped negatives compare with time and technique. I will discuss the importance of establishing a proper proof time and its role in determining your film exposure and development times.

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Since 1989, Alex Bond has published cards, calendars, books, and posters under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images showcase the West Australian environment. Bond's handcrafted, silver-gelatin, fibre-based prints are personally made by the author in his darkroom.

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