I have always been a huge fan of images (usually abstract) made in such a way where there are either large areas of black with fine lines of white and the opposite- large areas of white with nice deep black "lowlights". The really successful ones stil have nice bits of midtones in them. These seem to usually be images of subjects that are generally very low contrast- if you were to meter them, you'd get a spread of maybe a stop. e.g. a pile of stones, light reflecting on cracked ice or wet mud, peeling paint, burned wood, pretty much all of Brett Weston's Abstract Portfolios 1 and 2.....
I have been struggling with trying to replicate this look but am not having great success. I'm not after a lith look, where all you have is black and white, with nothing in between. I think of the glow of Ansel's "Ferns" shot made in Hawaii Volcanoes Natl Park (in the "400 Photographs" book) and am amazed at how he can make a low contrast scene, and physically dark ferns glow with light. Obviously Ansel's and Brett's mastery over both exposure and development are a huge part of their success, but there must be a starting point because I see many samples of this kind of photo "out there". I'm just not sure how to meter/expose to keep the deep blacks yet getting some highs to work with, or how to develop to get some highs, but not bump my blacks way up. I've found that super long dev times just seem to increase fog across the tonal range, and bring up density in highs and lows equally (after a certain point). Is the answer in simply printing with a grade 5 paper? I see these images online too- so it can't just be the paper....
I'm not after a magic recipe, just an approach that people use- it seems to be a pretty common type of image. I know these types of images can be made with any film or developer. Or digital cameras.... I'm after what kind of lighting I should be searching for in nature or making myself. And what tones I should be exposing for and what kind of + development. Is high grade paper also helpful?
A lot of the photos are backlit closeups of everyday materials; layers of paper, lettuce leaves, dried asphalt, weathered signage, road ice, frost, etc.
The images I saw have nothing to do with technology, you could recreate some of those with a digital point-and-shoot, a 4x5, or a Holga ... if you know ahead of time what you're trying to do.
How do you do a backlit photo of ashphalt/wood/stones/ice on a lake or puddle, etc though? Backlighting may work for transparent/semitransparent objects, but it doesn't explain these other instances. How does one expose (and develop and print if non-digital) for these situations? I know a simple digital P&S can do this, but what are the circumstances that allow this type of photo to be taken? What do I do to recreate these circumstances? How do I use film and paper? I go out all the time with what I want to achieve in mind, but I still don't know how to do it.
There are three places where we can influence contrast (in this case increase it):
2. Exposure and Development
In the Zone System, we measure the luminance of details of the scene, and then decide what values we want those details to have in the final print. Let's start by establishing the range of tones from black to white as Zone 0 to Zone X, with each being about a stop of exposure apart with standard film and development.
If a scene detail measures EV 7 and I want it to be quite bright, then I place EV 7 on Zone VIII, which means giving it about three stops more exposure than if I wanted it to be middle gray (which is what the meter wants it to be). If a detail measures EV 5 and I want it very dark, say at Zone III, then my exposure to place the highlight on Zone VIII will leave that dark spot on Zone VI--too bright. If I expose EV 5 for Zone III, about two stops less exposure than if I wanted it to be middle gray, then my highlight would fall on Zone V--too dark. That defines the problem.
If the dark spot is one color and the light spot is another color, using a filter of the color of the light spot will make it brighter with respect to the dark spot. With the filter, my Zone VIII detail might measure to EV 6 and my desired Zone III detail might measure at at EV 3. Exposing EV 6 to achieve Zone VIII would leave the dark detail at Zone V--an improvement.
Then, I might develop the negative longer to expand the scale. This usually means that I set the exposure for the shadow to where I want it, and then increase development so that the highlight becomes denser on the negative. I might spread the scale by a whole zone, which in the Zone System would be N+1 development. Knowing how far to go requires testing--I recommend Ansel Adams's book The Negative for further discussion. Even N+2 is possible depending on the film. If you could get N+2, you might keep your highlight at Zone VIII where you want it, but now the darker detail might be between Zone III and IV, which is almost where you want it. We've used filtration and development to get us most of the way there.
Finally, I can print the result on Grade 4 paper, and spread the tonal scale out by maybe another zone. That would give me the result I want.
An alternative is to expose the film in the middle of the range to provide as much tonal separation as possible (where the film's characteristic curve is steepest), which would require putting the highlight at Zone VI and the shadow at Zone IV. That means choosing an exposure that splits the difference in luminosity between those two. Then, I can scan the image and add the contrast in Photoshop. The trick there is keeping the image from losing tonal smoothness, and that's why I expose the parts I want to stretch where the characteristic curve is steep. That will record as much separation as possible between those close values.
Film has an S-shaped response to light. There is more tonal separation in the middle of the range than at the extremes, so that's where we put the tones we want to further separate. A grossly over or underexposed image will put those values at the ends, where there isn't much difference in density, and when we try to separate them they just look mottled or become posterized (i.e., blocked up).
People spend far more time than I ever did looking for developer combinations that allow finer (or wider ranges of) control over contrast, so what I have written is just the barest outline. But it seems to me that one has to be able to control a general-purpose film like FP4 with a regular developer like HC-110 or D76 before launching into compensating developers and so on.
Rick "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights" Denney
There are somewhat different ways to do this, since films and papers change from time
to time. Some of the things which might apply include backlighting, film with good edge
effect and a relatively long straight line, which can be developed to a relatively high
gamma, rich printing paper and toning technique. Of course, choice of subject matter
is important too. Although I personally print in a number of different styles, I have found it relatively easy to replicate the "Brett Weston" look. I would shoot TM400
slightly underexposed (to dump the deepest shadows) then plus develop it to get those wonderful silvery midtones and sparkling highlights, and print with some classic
amidol tweak on silver-rich paper (formerly Seagull G or orignal Brilliant bromide, now
on Kentmere Fineprint toned in seleium then gold). Got some magnificent prints this
way just a week ago. Dawn shots of drifwood in the outlet of a high-country lake.
With medium format I use Efke R25 for its long straight line. BW purportedly used
Agfa 25, but someone might know a little better than me. Of course, composition is
a whole other ingredient. Having BW's developer formula does not make one Brett Weston himself! I always use pyro developer, but must reemphasize the choice of
straight line films. Can't personally get this look with films with a large toe. Another
sheet film which will work, however, is the current Arista (Fomapan) 200.
Thanks so much to you both- it all makes great sense, as I use the zone system myself. Just a question/clarification though for Rick- if I'm filtering and exposing for the dark area on zone 3.... what if I want it pure black? This is where I have previously had problems. I was exposing on zone 0 or 1 then trying to develop the crap out of the neg, and just couldn't seem to get it contrasty enough. Would I still place it on zone 3, and rely on the higher grade of paper? Is this what you're getting at when you say split the difference and place on zones 4 and 6? Also I hadn't taken film curve into great account, as I've always used FP4- I think it sounds like this should work if I do things right. HP5 has an even more linear curve so should work even better. i mention it, becasue they are the 2 films I mainly use, with Pyrocat HD for FP4 and some HP5 and HC-110 for HP5.
Thanks so much to you both- it all makes great sense, as I use the zone system myself. Just a question/clarification though for Rick- if I'm filtering and exposing for the dark area on zone 3.... what if I want it pure black? This is where I have previously had problems. I was exposing on zone 0 or 1 then trying to develop the crap out of the neg, and just couldn't seem to get it contrasty enough.
If you exposed it for Zone 0 or I, then you have put your exposure down into the toe of the film, where the response curve is flat. When you try to stretch highlights that ended up at Zone III, all that stuff down in the mud just looks like mud. I would expose for Zone III and still develop the crap out of it to pull the highlights as high as possible, and do the rest with the choice and handling of the paper. But I have little experience with these sorts of subjects--much more often I was faced with controlling too much contrast.
That's why Drew recommends a film with a more linear response. It will give you more separation in the shadows and highlights, and a little less separation in the middle values. You have more to work with if you attempt extreme moves in development and printing. I never really made it that far--life carried me away from large-format work just as I had achieved some control over conventional materials. I'm coming back to it from a digital perspective now, and finding that I can control those tones with much greater power in the computer.
Rick "thinking one can't do much with a piece of clear plastic" Denney