My Exploration of Black and White, part III

Joy and I getting fingerprints all over our prints

I started out like most folks who came of age before the digital camera era. I purchased Kodak color print film from the drugstore and then dropped it off after slowly shooting the roll and I'd get back prints generally between 3x5 and 4x6 in size.

Eventually, I started shooting slide film and then black and white film, with a weird break where I wanted a full-frame digital SLR. And soon enough I discovered that I needed to get a scanner so that I could have a decently fast workflow. Then, to get more image quality, I decided to get a medium format camera and then decided that if I wanted to be able to get a lot of use out of my medium format camera, I needed to develop my own black and white film.

Now, the nice part about a hybrid workflow is that I can do it largely in my apartment. I can develop B&W film in my bathroom, dry them out, run them through the scanner, and then edit them, without needing to involve others or use large pieces of developing hardware. And this is good because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area so I really don't have room in my apartment for a proper darkroom. But the big problem is that, while there's plenty of places to take a color print to get a nice 11x14 or 16x20 made, the RA4 machines are not built for classic B&W prints. So I mostly print color images. And I've wanted to screw around with black and white printing... especially things like lith printing and split-toning and interesting papers.

So the other day, one of my co-workers who is also a photographer found a B&W rental darkroom with ultra-reasonable rates... so we decided to pay them a visit and try it out. Now, I've never ever worked in a darkroom, but I've read about the process before (Which, if you think about it, is about as useful as checking out a book on a few martial arts and trying to take on a black belt) but at least Joy has experience in a darkroom.

So I collected up a few rolls of promising negatives from my archives. One roll of medium format Efke IR820c, one roll of 35mm HIE, and one roll of medium format Fomapan 400. I figured I'd be OK if they didn't have the right negative holders (they were able to dig up a 6x7 holder just fine) and I'd have a variety in case digital manipulations in Photoshop had made me lazy. Joy brought some of his film and two boxes of paper that he was storing in his bedroom for years but never using. We had a blast. Joy lead me through doing prints before I started screwing around with things myself. We realized that our ability to judge tones in the darkroom wasn't as good as we'd like it to be, so many of the prints came out a little underexposed and didn't fully realize that until we'd left. I did print a great 11x14 of the California Bay Tree in infrared, however.

I've got a skill in coaxing digital shooters who still have a soft spot for film into shooting digital, so I showed Joy what a 6x7 medium format negative looks like when you print it out big. It seems to have worked.

There's a unique visceral feel to working in a real darkroom, much like there's a unique feel to working with film in general. You work with a negative image and don't really see the finished final product until it's pretty much too late to do anything about it as the image develops in the developer. You can't even yank it out of the developer to rescue it from disaster, you've just gotta get another sheet of paper out of the box and try it again. But it's more physical than usual.

I mostly stuck to 11x14 prints, because 8x10 images just don't do it for me. See, I jokingly credit this to me being brash and loud and obnoxious at times and desiring that there be a little bit of me in my prints. And I've found, after seeing what happens when you blow up an image, that I really love how pictures look when you can view them nice and large. If you take a 19" CRT monitor (I happened to have one handy when this thought occurred to me) and put an 11x14 print, you discover that it more or less covers the image area of the monitor.

But, pretty much, most of the reading turned out to be right on the mark, adjusted for modern techniques. So I quickly started burning in at different contrast grades and running contrast test strips because it was possible and helped me make my images have the same sort of tonality that I can get in Photoshop. I've got a look there that I'm rather fond of and that I feel that once I get the adjustment for how dark a print needs to be under room light after drying, I should be able to replicate that.

Posted by reese :
Aha... Man, if I'd known you wanted to print B&W yourself, I would have told you about DeBug ages ago!

So how did those fibre prints turn out? I have never been able to get into fibre, simply because I don''t like waiting so long for them to dry before seeing how they really turned out. I do like the texture of them though.
Posted by Wirehead Arts :
See, I wasn't necessarily surprised at the presence of DeBug, just that they were so reasonably priced compared to some of the other rental darkrooms. I always want to try new weird things in photography, it was just a realization that I could do it and have friends to do it with so it wasn't just me humming dirty tunes to myself and bumping into people.

I'm fairly content to let 'em dry. Only problem, of course, is the dry-down adjustment where it seems darker than it really is while wet. More so than my usual adjustment for how dark a print needs to be under room light.

But, for somebody with ADHD, I am fairly good at not needing instant gratification. Dono how that works.

I am, of course, just starting the exploration. All I've used is Ilford Multigrade IV RC. I haven't tried any other papers or toning or anything like that, but I will soon enough. Instead of paying by the hour, I just picked up a membership card so that I can come in more frequently.

The nice part, of course, is that I haven't been motivated to go shooting the last few weeks on account of being busy and frustrated with the hard drive troubles.... but after printing the shots... it's all coming back again. Thankfully, the new drive seems to be working just fine.

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