This weekend, fellow student Kate Aston and I slogged off to Bristol for a workshop on analogue printing at the Bristol Folk House. The six person group was led by Chris Waller, whose 30+ years of experience made the two days interesting and fun. Chris has made his career in teaching darkroom processes, and has a series of excellent videos on YouTube at St Pauls Photography, beginning with this one on cyanotypes.
We were asked to bring along a reel of 36 exposures on Ilford HP5 black and white film to develop. I made mine with my mother’s old Olympus Superzoom 100, which has not been used for probably 20 years. Prior to loading the film, I gave it a bit of a clean, but otherwise it seemed in good condition.
For those who know how to develop and print film, this will be old hat, but I have never done so, and the process of putting the film into the developing canister in the pitch dark, and then washing it with Dev, Stop, Fixer and finally to produce a useable set of negatives was fascinating. By the end of Day 1, we had made a set of contact prints, which we were asked to take home and to consider, ready for the full printing process the following day.
On Sunday, we learned the basics of making a 10×8 print in the morning, and my first attempt produced this, of which I am inordinately proud.
In the afternoon, we looked at altering contrast and dodging and burning and had a go at making a couple of other prints under supervision. My final product was this.
and for the sake of completeness, here is another from the same negative, but processed in Lightroom via a mini film scanner (one of my recent purchases). To me, the analogue version has a depth of tone which is missing from the quickly processed digital version, but which could probably be recovered with a bit of work.
Comments about the process and how it compares to digital photography
As I had never used an SLR before, making the initial images was a shot in the dark for me. The viewfinder on the camera is much smaller than I am used to, and the autofocus does not appear to be as accurate. I worried about wasting film, and taking pictures of rubbish subjects, but on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised at the subject quality and focussing on the contact sheets. There is of course an obvious disconnect between taking the image and knowing how it looks which benefits people who already know a little about lighting and composition. I was also fortunate that none of my negs were ruined during filming or the developing process, unlike some of the other participants, but that was more luck than judgement. The focus was not prefect on my images, but that might have been because of the light or even camera shake, as I have no idea of the EXIF infor each image would have produced.
The initial production of the negatives is largely scientific – X amount Dev for X minutes, followed by Y of Stop, etc. and the only point where there is scope for individual judgements is deciding from the text strip how long to expose the contact sheet. The arty bit comes in the printing section, with personal decisions to be made about the length and depth of exposure to achieve the desired effect, and any processing alterations such as dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) various areas of the print. Also one needs to be very precise with focusing during the enlargement stage. There are also considerations about paper type to be made, resin-coated or fibre-based, and contrast grade.
The whole process is completely different from digital processing and printing, taking much longer and requiring a good degree of patience. However, there is something magical about turning a little reel of film into prints the old-fashioned way, and watching the final image appearing in the Dev bath, which is missing from our quickfire digital processing. Analogue photography seems to require thought and consideration at all points of the process, which makes it slower but the end result is consequently all the more satisfying.
Kate and I are now looking at potential ways of enabling us to use this newfound knowledge in our coursework, and whether it might be possible to either set up a small home darkroom, or to access one locally when we need it. I have several other reels of different film to develop now that I know how it is done.