Destination: Santa Barbara – Mission: Large Format Photography

SB Mission Church(Click image for a larger version)

This past week, I took my first seriously considered shots with my newly acquired Tachihara 4×5 field camera. I recently purchased it from a good friend who does marvelous landscapes, but says that she is “too old” for film and 4×5 now. Mine is a neutral wood color with chrome fittings. The bellows are a little crumpled at the lens end, but light tight. I have two lenses. The 180mm is considered a normal lens, somewhat equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. The 90mm is a wide-angle, equivalent to a 30mm. I updated the ground glass, which is what is used to focus the image, with a hand made borosilicate glass from Steve Hopf.

My first destination was the Santa Barbara Mission. The Santa Barbara Mission is actually quite small, and not much of an opportunity, outside of the church itself. Unfortunately, the front is under some restoration and was covered with scaffolding and surrounded with ugly green fences. My sights were set on the church interior. I carefully setup and initially pulled out the wide angle, but soon realized that the normal would do. This image is the kind of image that is made for large format photography. I took two more in the courtyard, but they really just can’t compare.

I must admit that I felt a little self-conscious under the dark cloth, a little like an impostor. I recognize this feeling from when I first started doing street photography. It is a kind of I’m not good enough self-editing that will go away with a few more clicks under my belt. It was also fun to see people stop, as if they were going to wait for me to take the picture, even before I had the lens on the camera. I politely waved them through.

SB Pier(Click image for a larger version)

My second destination was the Santa Barbara Pier. It was a little later than I had anticipated and a bit of a race with the sun. With more experience I might have felt the adrenaline of Ansel Adams rushing to get his one shot of Moonrise Over Hernandez, but I just kept muttering “not the way for a novice to try large format photography”. None-the-less, I lined up a nice shot of the pier. I waited a while to avoid some people, but then the kids came into the scene. As the sun was setting, I had no real choice but to work them in, which of course makes the picture.

I’m using Ilford FP4+, rated at 125 ISO, but I’ll be honest, I just metered as if it was 100 ISO to keep things simple. I used the modern equivalent of a Polariod back to check my exposures, my Olympus OMD. It is really no larger or heavier than a spot meter and far more flexible. My developing was with Clayton F76+ using his published times and agitation method as described in a sheet he sent to me. 7 1/2 min @68 degrees; agitation for the first 10 seconds followed by 1 turn every 30 seconds. I scanned with VueScan with no adjustments. Post-processed with a little dodge and burn in LightRoom. The thing to note is that there was no overall tone curve or levels adjustments, the tonalities of the film was just right-on. The image of the pier was cropped vertically to a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Mysterious Forest – Learning from the Negative

Hasselblad 500 C/M, Ilford Delta 100, D76 1+3, Post processed in LightRoomHasselblad 500 C/M, Ilford Delta 100, D76 1+3, Post processed in LightRoom

This image represents the next steps in my learning about development, scanning, and post-processing. They all go together and even though there was a good amount of additional contrast added to this image (as well as some dodging and burning), the feel of medium format and film are still very present with an expansive feel and lovely tones.

The first thing about this image is that, straight off the scanner, it was amazingly flat. I can’t even tell you have flat it was. It was so flat that I thought I’d completely messed up the processing. However, after some help from my friend on Facebook community “Film Shooters Collective” I was able to reverse engineer what was going on.

1) The image was somewhat under-exposed.

This was one of Southern California’s typical “June Gloom” days (even though we are now in August!) with high overcast and flat lighting. It was precisely this lighting that encouraged me to go out shooting. Shooting in a strong sunny day is nearly impossible to manage the highlights and shadows. However, still having shot way more digital than film (in an intentional way) I was too concerned about the highlights and I let the shadows go too dark. The upshot was that most of the image was underexposed.

2) The scanner software, left to its own devices, wants to make a neutral gray image

Much like the metering in our cameras, the scanner software, by default, wants to find an image that averages out to neutral gray. In the case of my first scan, this produced a really gray image, and I thought it was the negative itself. It wasn’t, it was the scan. After I figured out what was really going on with the negative by using the densitometer in the SilverFast software, I was able to tweak my scanning parameters to get an image that was easier to modify in post. I still added quite a bit of contrast and then the normal dodge and burn but there is a beauty in the gray tones of this image that reflects the film itself.

3) My film holder was not positioned properly for a sharp scan

Flatbed scanners have a specific place where they focus – as some distance above the glass. It turns out that this is variable from scanner to scanner and there are little feet on the film-holders that can be adjusted. However you need to figure out how to adjust them and then run the experiments to find just the right height. In my case, I have the Epson film-holders set to the + position and added one-ply of post-it note paper in addition. I’m now really happy with the sharpness of the scan.

4) You will need multiple scanning software

Just like post-processing software and camera bags, one-size does not fit all. I ended up using SilverFast to judge the quality of the negative (it has a densitometer), once I figured out what was going on with the density itself, I was able to get nearly identical scans with either SilverFast or VueScan. VueScan is still easier if you know where you need to go with the negative itself.

El Matador Beach – The need for contrast

El Matador BeachEl Matador Beach, Malibu CaliforniaIlford Delta 100, Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm T*, D76 1+1

As I work in Medium Format (2-1/4 x 2-1/4 film), I’m looking for simple shapes and compositions. There were some very lovely simple compositions at El Matador this weekend, but they weren’t very effective in B&W. I’ve been thinking about B&W and intellectually understood the need for contrasts, but it wasn’t until I evaluated this image in with my other, simpler, images, that I understood just a little bit better.

Beautiful Poison – Lessons in developing my first roll of B&W

Beautiful Poison
Beautiful Poison
Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm T*, f/4, Ilford Delta 100, D76 1:1

In a previous post, Lessons in Digital and Film,  I described some of the lessons I’ve learned from the process of using both digital and film. One of my lessons is not to underestimate the advantage of controlling every aspect of the process – from exposure to print. This revelation came as I was struggling to scan some negatives which, I believe, were not developed with the best of care (Ok, I think they were over developed bringing out more grain and contrast than the film should have shown). Then and there, I made up my mind to start developing my own negatives and begin to mature my own flavor of an analogue/digital hybrid process that I would control from start to finish.

This morning I developing my first roll of B&W film in 34 years. In my senior year in college I signed up for was Photography 101. The only requirement of the class was to end up at the end of the semester with a stack of hand printed and mounted B&W prints. We learned development, printing, and mounting. I don’t really remember any specific lectures or teaching sessions but I have a copy of “Upton and Upton” around here somewhere. I do remember always having my camera, shooting all around San Francisco, and the quiet slow mornings printing in the darkroom.

Oddly enough, I remember almost nothing about the developing process except those spiral steel reels. So I set off on some research to learn about developers and stop and fix and ordered up a bunch of stuff which arrived Friday. Yesterday headed out shooting and developed my first roll this morning.

Here is what I learned:

1) Find one development formula that seems reasonable and stop.

Everyone says its easy, and after this morning I’ll agree – it is. However, with today’s democracy of information, the ease with which anyone can publish information on almost any subject, what the newbe finds is an every wandering conversation of subtleties, nuances, variations, and opinions. It would be easier if there a dirth of information and the uninitiated was led into thinking that there is just one “MASTER RECIPE” per film that is found on the film manufacturer product sheet. I was a nerve rattling journey of fear, uncertainty, and doubt until I just stopped looking and locked down on my approach to chemicals and methods.

2) Just say yes to presoak.

I decided to do a presoak for one simple reason – seeing one video showing the dumping of inky-black presoak water into the sink. Mine was inky-black too. Just seemed like a clearer way to start.

3) The meaning of the phrase “clean negatives”.

Many sources of information suggested to open the tank and look at your film at the end of the fixing process to inspect that the film “was clear, not milking” and ensure that the fix was complete. One source even opened the tank before fixing (really!, I didn’t try that). Not one source, however prepared me to for the magenta tinged film base I would see. I also noticed that as I dumped some initial tankfuls of rinse water into the sink, that the water itself was was magenta, so clearly something good was happening and I was actually rinsing off the last of any remaining dye on the base emulsion. And lo, at then end of my 10 minute rinse under slow running tap water a clear base negative emerged. Ah that’s what they meant by “clean negatives”.

4) “I just want to say one word to you, just one word… Plastics” (from The Graduate)

When looking at tanks and reels, just go with the Samigon Universal Plastic Developing Tank and Reels. They are easy to load, the tank didn’t leak, and the recommendations of chemical volume on the bottom of the tank covered the reel perfectly and still left room for good agitation. Using plastic reels was way easier than what I remember of spiraling 36 exposures on to stainless steel reels. Also when you live in a warm climate (like me) I figure that plastic won’t conduct the warmer room and hand temperature like stainless steel.

5) Remove the film backing before starting to load the film onto the reels (applicable for 120 film only).

I practiced loading the reels several times with a sacrificial roll of film and I found the hardest part was not when starting, but when finishing the loading. I found it really difficult to get the film untapped from the backing paper and if I accidentally loaded the film onto the reel past tape it was really hard to recover. Then I saw a video where the guy just removed the film from the paper first, re-rolling the film into a reversed roll while he was doing this. Another trick was that when he got to the tape, he removed the tape from the backing paper first then from the film. This was much easier and I was left with a simple coil of film only ready for loading onto the reel. (Of course, all this happens in the changing bag!)

Here is my final recipe:

  • Presoak: 3–4 minutes in tap water at or near your development temperature. Fill tank, soak (3–4 min), dump, fill tank again and dump immediately.
  • Developer: Kodak D–76 @ 1+1 dilution, 68ºF/20ºC. Agitate first 60 sec, then 10sec per minute for remaining time (as per Massive Dev iPhone app @ 68F/20C)
  • Stop: Tap water. Fill, agitate, dump – 2-times
  • Fix: The Phtographers Formulary TF–4 Rapid Fix – 5 minutes
  • Rinse: open tank with running water – 10 minutes followed by a 30 sec soak with LFN