Standardizing the Photographic Process ? Or Ramblings of a Photo Nut.

In my pursuit of the photographic arts, I have met many inspiring photographers and seen many great prints. Over the succeeding years, I have accumulated a vast collection of trivial knowledge, almost to the degree of overcoming my normal sense of oddness, as others would put it. Partly, due to this pursuit of knowledge, I have discovered little things I that works well for me. Hopefully, this will be of use to others. Enjoy.

In The Pursuit of the Perfect Negative

I will approach the pursuit of the perfect negative from the 35mm perspective. This calibration of mine can be applied to almost any format you care to do. It?s up to you to decide what you need to calibrate to get your perfect vision working.

At times, I have a pressing need to try a new film. So now that I have decided on this path of discovering the next best film, I will need to figure the ideal film speed and development for me. I usually will use one or two rolls of film to perform my calibrations with. I like the idea of spending some time early in sweat equity, in order to get the negatives I want for my future ultimate picture. Using a new film or developer is an adventure that can make or break the either the spirit (?Dang thing doesn?t look right yet ? I give up?) or break the wallet (?I know that new lens will give me the perfect picture?). Like bungee jumping, developing and printing isn?t for the faint of heart. A determined attitude, AKA pigheadedness according to my friends, is needed and a spirit of adventure. Acceptance of temporary failures and willingness to start all over again is needed.

In all my testing over the years, what I discovered that helps is a little organization in collecting photo data. Since my mind can be all over the place, remembering what or how I developed a particular brand of film can be a rather interesting exercise. I find it easier just to collect all my thoughts on film development in a notebook I keep in my darkroom. A great little invention. Well, enough of my philosophy on life in the slow lane (anyone who shoots large format knows what I am referring to), and onto some hopefully helpful hints on how I managed to survive my obsessive hobby and the pursuit of the perfect negative.

A perfectly exposed and developed negative is the start of a beautiful relation or the beginning of a life in pursuit of it. I kind of like my pictures to take less than a lifetime to attain. Perfection after all, is a frame of mind. Close enough to some is an abomination of an ideal. I like taking picture more so than obsess on how many tests I can do to give a perfect negative from the deepest black to the most detailed whites imaginable. Not going to happen with me. My mind is cluttered enough without filling it with all the extra stuff on densitometry and the nice curves it produces. When testing, I take what I know to work for me and use it as a base for my tests. This is where your own world comes to the foreground. You need to adapt things to suite you, so keeping this in mind here we go.

In testing a new film, I try to reduce as many variables as I can so that I can see what is actually happening during my testing. In this respect, I use the developer I am most comfortable with along with my usual methods of developing whether be my hand or by a roller base. My best advice it to try not to test too many things at the same time, unless, you like going in circles trying to figure out why your prints looks like they came off a photocopier (though, they could be called high art today J ).

My start usually involves changing the film speed rating. Most films I find over rated in terms of film speeds, by about a stop. This gives me rather weak looking negatives. Being a black and white photography person, (?Color is a passing fad?), I will start with of the published film speed to help establish a personal film speed. Personal film speeds will vary quite a bit due to the personal factors of equipment (not all cameras are 100% perfect consistency of shutter speeds, aperture lag, and of course your light meter). Add into this your developers (whether you use distilled water or plain old tap water) and how you even agitate your film in the nice mystical chemical concoctions.

Knowing all this, let?s use a typical film testing session for me. Lets say we have a New 400 ASA film with extended sensitivity range to ASA 1600. Groovy baby!

1. Grab a roll of film.
2. Place into favorite camera. Set ASA to manufacturer?s recommendation.
3. Advance to first frame and then go hunting for a subject. I usually try to enlist a related biological unit so that I have a reference I recognize what the tonal range should look like. Have them wear something that have some blacks and whites and all the other tones in between.
4. Find a nice backdrop of a brick wall or anything else you can find. Since I do my tests outside, I find a nice overcast day if possible. If not I try to shoot in some shade.
5. Fire off the first frame using the meter reading at the manufacturers rated speed. Advance and fire off a blank frame. Just my habit over the years, so that I know I have a starting point. Try to use an exposure in the middle of the aperture scale or shutter speed. For me, I try to use 1/250 at F8.
6. Now for the testing. Assume that my meter says to use 1/250 @ F8 as the starting point, I underexpose by 2 stops and over expose by two stops. So, my first few frames are as follows.

1/250 @ F8
Blank frame
1/250 @ F22
1/250 @ F16
1/250 @ F8
1/250 @ F5.6
1/250 @ F4
Blank frame

For the rest of the roll, you can continue shooting at will with your subject.

7. Now go back to the darkroom and develop your film. Dry, cut, and place the negatives into a negative sleeve, ready for contact printing.


The above procedure can be modified and fine tuned as much as you want. For example, if your camera have stop increments on the lens, you can still use the +/- 2 stop range, but with stop increments to hopefully get the ideal exposure for your camera, film and developer combinations. I have used the stop increments with color slide films and it works well. It is a matter of tastes for slide color saturation (less exposure, the deeper the colors appears to be).

The Contact Sheet

This part I wait with bated breath just trying to get some time to print a contact sheet. The contact sheet nowadays seems to be largely ignored due to the one-hour color processing centers all over the place. For me, it is hard to beat a contact sheet for seeing all the great images and exposures (or not so great exposures ? composition optional) all at once, in its unadulterated sequential form. The contact sheet allows me to quickly see if my overall exposure and development was a success. If not, I can then make some, hopefully, informed decisions on what to do on the next roll.

To get a useful contact sheet, I have a recipe I follow also. I also try to keep things fairly consistent here initially by using a paper and paper developer I am used to.

One piece of equipment I find really useful is the old Ilford exposure meter. This is a simple little device that allows me to meter an area within a negative, so I can attain some resemblance of consistency before heading off on a tangent in my printing sessions. I calibrate it for either flesh tome density or for film base blackness. The flesh tone is obvious. Too dark and the person have a good tan (or being photographed at midnight ? that?s another article J ). Too light, they get a scary unhealthy bleached Halloween look.

The film base (or as I call it, the ?edge exposure?), lets me set the minimum exposure needed to get a good dark black on a print. Once I set the meter, I can assure myself I will get good blacks in my print. As a consequence, I can then just look to the picture content itself. If the negative was over exposed, the blacks will still be there but over the print well be too light. From this I can see if my exposure was off or development was skewed. You can usual purchase one used for around $20, as I did many years ago. I don?t know if they are made anymore but I would imagine, there will be other equivalent units available.

Without further adieu, here?s my work routine:

1. Take out my contact printer and place on the enlarger base. Adjust the head so that I have good coverage of the contact printer.
2. Take out the first film strip and place on top of the exposure with the blank frame on top of the tiny hole they call the sensor spot. Turn on the enlarger and adjust the enlarging lens aperture until the exposure meter has both LEDs lit (the Ilford meter has two LEDs to indicate over and under exposure. If both are lit, perfect light intensity).
3. Replace the negative strip back into the neg page. Place in the contact printer with a sheet of photographic paper.
4. Expose for the time needed. My time is set for 10 seconds.
5. Develop and dry the contact sheet.
6. Analyze your contact sheet.

The analysis of the contact will reveal how well your testing went. What you need to do is to examine each frame for a good shadow and high light details. The biological unit in the picture will help in this respect, as a good exposure can be determined fairly quickly. After I decide which frame looks the best, I then start to think about what my personal EI (personal exposure index) should be. Lets say for example, I have determined it to be 1/250 @ F4.

Since the frame is a picture is of a person, the flesh tones will be 1 stop higher than what the meter reads. I had originally started off metering at 400ASA. Since the base exposure was set at F8, but my best exposure was at F4, I should then set my personal EI to 100ASA. At this film speed, I can be reasonably assured a negative with good density for portraits. If I wanted just to take some general outdoor pictures, I would rate the EI @ 200ASA. Rationale for this is that the light meter is calibrated to look at the world as 18% gray. As an example, taking a picture of snow without thinking about this little metering property, would result in all your pictures of the Great White North, attaining a nice uniform 18% gray. Using the test results, the equivalent EI for each can be seen:

1/250 @ F8 EI = 400
1/250 @ F22 EI = 1600
1/250 @ F16 EI = 800
1/250 @ F8 EI = 400
1/250 @ F5.6 EI = 200
1/250 @ F4 EI = 100

With a portrait, I usually meter on the subject?s face and then open up 1 stop for additional exposure. For the Zone Heads among us, this places the flesh tones into Zone VI. So using this, my good looking shot @ F4 for the portrait now comes down to F5.6 for general photography.

Since my original meter reading was @ F8, I would have to always have to remember to open 1 stop to get the exposure I want. Too much of a bother. It is easier just to adjust the camera?s ASA setting to from 400ASA to 200ASA. This will give the same results as opening up a stop all the time.

Lots of information coming down at you, but as you can see, your mileage will vary, as your equipment will be different from mine and how you perceive your world will be different also. I use this procedure just to establish a taking off point. I like breaking rules, but to break them, you need to know what they are, thus my baseline work.

The more adventurous will want to fine tune things even more by determine a development time for the negatives. Increasing the development time will increase the contrast of the negatives (how close the dark and light values are. Low contrast = lots of intermediate grays and high contrast = very little in terms of grays).


As an ending point, all that I have above, is nothing new that someone has already tried before. I just adapted things that I found over the years to work for me to different situations. Now, go and take a few great shots!

Elvis Chow