Black vs. Gray -
The detail and expressiveness of great black and white prints amazes me, making a few for myself has become a passion.
Being relatively new to film, over the last year and a half, I have asked the normal “what’s the best film?” questions and agonized over which film was going to be my magic bullet.
HP5 and Delta 400 floated to the top; I bought a hundred feet of each and started rolling my own.
One vexing problem I have had though is that most B&W negatives I see are too gray for my taste; artistically, lots of nice but very little special. HP5 was kicking my tail here.
I know people make great shots with HP5, I’ve seen them, and I have had only occasional standouts of my own which fueled my hopes but I was really having hell creating reliable results.
In fact, I was so frustrated that I decided to give up on HP5 and just burn through the last 50 feet as practice before moving on to Delta.
“Time to learn how to test film” I thought.
Well, about 10 feet into my practice, I had a big Ah-ha moment that I’d like to share.
Let me set the stage a bit.
When I started developing my own films, I was struggling just to get the film on the reel and I was truly amazed (and relieved) to see any image when the film came out of the tank, “If” they were usable, so much the better.
As a newbie, I needed a bulletproof process and that is exactly what the manufacturer’s data gave me. What I didn’t understand then was that there is plenty of room in the process for a bumbling newbie to mess up and still get a picture.
This doesn’t mean that my results were generally good or that there were no failures.
Photography is complicated, there is a lot to learn. We have to think about many things at once and there are certain routine things that photographers package together to simplify the common problems we all face.
From a newbie’s (my) perspective, this packaged info was great because it helped me solve my biggest problem, which was getting a workable result, and it minimized my information overload. With practice, I even got consistent at processing to the manufacturers numbers.
The problem is that packaged info can get fused together permanently as one idea.
Pushing and Pulling are prime examples; they are packaged so well that they have become common words in our photographic vernacular.
For somebody like me that likes to take pictures of people in natural light, keeping the shutter speed in a workable range is imperative as the sun starts down or they move inside. It is natural to want to work any film at 1600 or 3200 because 1600 @ 2.0 & 1/30 is what the meter tells me regularly.
Push is “packaged” specifically to solve this problem; adjusting the EI to 1600 is simply “sold with” a very specific change in development time. The info is there on Kodak’s and Ilford’s and Fuji’s data sheets. Use these numbers and you’ll get reasonable results.
Everybody uses push or pull too. Even the purists who try to eek every last bit of detail out of a film and eschew pushing at every turn will pull (rate their HP5 at 200 and under develop), or jiggle the tank less, or stand on their heads for 82.5 minutes to get 17 f-stops of detail into one frame.
These purists are actually on the right track in a metaphysical sense! They are controlling the process to get the result they want. Their process may or may not be what you want though.
The mantra all these sources spout is standardize, standardize, standardize. This mantra ingrains a certain sense of immutability into the packages we are being sold and we fall in line and standardize.
To be fair, the smarter sources also say test, test, test, and test some more.
When you are new though, as I was until a few days ago, you just want it to work and testing requires making decisions that you may not feel comfortable making or using up film you are not willing to “waste”.
I do really want to make great photos so I bought “The Negative” by Adams. I was reading it, plus skimming info about Xtol and HP5 on Unblinking eye, and doing my first true film testing and looking over my older stuff and surfing Flickr looking for clues.
Ansel talks about Expansion and Contraction in the book. These concepts don’t carry the same status as Push and Pull but chemically, expansion and pushing are impossible to distinguish, same with contraction and pulling.
The difference is that Ansel used expansion and contraction with film that has been shot at a nearly normal EI. The purpose is to modify the film’s curve to match the brightness range in a particular scene; this makes printing easier and provides better quality.
Well, I got to looking at my better HP5 shots and realized that most were expanded (pushed). Same with my Delta, same with my TMY...
Ansel’s lesson hit me like a ton of bricks; the brightness range of the scene is what should define the development process for any given shot, not the shutter.
HP5 was not the problem; those gray lackluster negatives were simply a mismatch between the scene and the development process. Turns out, I have been shooting mostly low contrast subject matter where the important range of brightness just won’t fill HP5’s “normal” curve.
For these lower contrast scenes, I need higher contrast development.
So, you ask, what’s happening here and can I still push?
Bear with me; this is where developing starts becoming an art rather than a science.
Sure, you can get the same result as a push when you work at it from an “expansion and contraction” point of view. Albeit, that may stretch the thought farther than Ansel suggests, but that’s okay, it is after all art.
Consider night and evening scenes, they are very low in contrast, once you exclude point light sources and the unimportant shadows, what is left of night scenes may only be 3 or 4 stops wide, which suggests that you use very high contrast development.
To get rich black tones in your subject, development may need to be N+4 (normal plus 4), that’s roughly the chemical equivalent of a 4 stop push (think HP5 @ 6400). The mood you want to show though might suggest a grayer shot to give the scene a smoky feel so you might only want to go N+2.
Again, the choice is yours because this is art, you are expressing your vision.
The exposure settings are a completely different decision. For any given process, exposure determines where the shadows, highlights, and mid-tones fall on the development curve you choose.
You can use adjust the EI setting any way you want but testing your film in each development process is the only reliable way to figure out how to set your meter.
You are defining where the white point, black point, and middle tones are in each process.
Now for a practical example of how expansion works.
I shot a few frames at the National Quick Draw competition here in Durango Colorado with my FE2 and a 50mm F1.8 lens on a monopod. The whole draw and shoot thing for the really fast shooters is done in just over ╝ second.
I wanted a really fast shutter speed and good DOF.
It was a low contrast scene; everything was well lit with black featureless leather vests in full sun being the darkest significant part of the exposure, white shirts in full sun were the lightest and little or no sky was visible in any of the shots. I decided on N+2 expansion developing to make sure I had nice rich blacks and clean whites. If I remember right, I added a dark yellow filter too. I need to start taking notes.
I decided to set my meter at EI 800 to underexpose a bit from my tested film speed of 400 in order protect the highlights (white shirts) a bit, to keep my shutter speed up (~1/3200), and the f-stop fairly small (5.6).
Afterwards I shot a few shots in the D&SNG RR yard of the “Galloping Goose”. Shooting the sunny side, I left the EI at 800, shooting the shady side I reset the meter to EI 400. Same roll, same N+2 process, more shadow detail.
You’ll have to trust me on this, because I don’t scan, but the negatives are gorgeous.
Does this mean I know it all and I’ll make perfect negatives for the rest of my life? No, not even close.
What it does mean though is that I’m at a whole new level in what I can produce reliably and that’s a great feeling.
Also, and this is huge, I no longer view specific films as magic bullets; I am confident I can get the blacks and whites I want from any film now. A little testing with each film and I’m off to the races.
So, the question becomes “is expansion and contraction workable for you?” I don’t know.
Dig up a copy of “The Negative” by Ansel Adams; read it and then “waste” some film doing some testing.
If you do, in one weekend you can understand more about film and exposure than most people will ever learn.
Hope this helps,