I do a lot of low contrast abstract work as you are describing. I don't go for the "Brett Weston" look too often but sometimes it can enhance a particular subject quite well.
The three techniques that I use most often for enhancing on film contrast are plus development, "overexposure", and reciprocity. Plus development and reciprocity being the most used tools.
I shoot Delta 100 for the most part and can get a N+3 at Zone VII with straight Xtol and continuous agitation. This alone is usually all I need, but sometimes with a 2-3 stop range in a scene you just need more contrast. If conditions allow (no wind, time, stationary subject, consistent light, etc.) I will shoot through a neutral density filter (up to 10 stops) to push the exposure into reciprocity. This adds contrast in greater and greater amounts as the exposure time increases, depending on your film of choice; with Delta I get about a N+1 increase at 15s-30s metered exposure and N+2 at about 2m metered exposure. This is because exposure builds disproportionately in the shadows and highlights during a long exposure (faster in the highlights).
"Overexposure" is in quotes for a reason. I don't consider exposure under or over. It is all about getting what you want on the negative. I don't care if my negatives are "thin" or like bricks. All that matters is the print.
Since BW film is typically useable to about Zone XV or higher and plus development works faster on the zones higher up the scale, when I really need to expand the tonal scale I will place my darkest shadow detail higher up the scale. What normally would get a Zone III placement might get placed on Zone VIII. The negative will then get appropriate plus development to expand the tonal scale. You have to do some testing to make this work. It also helps to have a high powered light source, because these negatives can be very brick like But you can get some serious contrast with this technique. Grain increase with 4x5 is negligible with Delta 100 and Xtol 1:1 up to 16x20. Grain increase with 8x10 has no impact on prints up 20x30.
Basically, if you want some serious contrast on your negatives...overexpose and overdevelop.
In the case of Brett Weston, he did not use a light meter, and had no use for the Zone System. He believed that by photographing almost every day, he had a good understanding of his materials and the ability to judge light. His process was intuitive, not textbook.
The majority of the work in his Abstraction Portfolios is from medium format negatives. For example, Portfolio One has only four 8x10 negatives, all processed in ABC Pyro. For his medium format negatives he used slow films (Agfa 25) and processed them in Rodinal. He printed with a point source light which added to the luminance and contrast of his prints. Amidol was always his paper developer.
As already noted, the look that he achieved is not difficult. The difficuty is in combining technique with vision; that is where he excelled.
I'm hearing underexposure with overdevelopment and overexposure with overdevelopment. It sounds like it may not matter how the exposure is chosen, as long as the neg is overdeveloped. Is this oversimplifying it?
Merg, I always love reading your posts. It's not only a great way to remind myself to take a look at your website for updates, but your opinions and historical accounts are much appreciated as well. I too appreciate Brett Weston's lack of concern for any type of system, sometimes those types of prescribed methods just get in the way. That said... back to our discussion of prescribed methods.
Tim, to answer your questions...this is why I don't like thinking about it as over or under anything. It just confuses what is actually happening. Contrast is the difference between light and dark. To increase or decrease contrast on film you manipulate development. To increase contrast you extend development time and to decrease it you reduce development time. Areas on the exposed film that have received very little exposure(shadows typically) are affected less by development time. The areas that received more exposure are affected more dramatically. This effect increases in intensity as you move up the zone scale. This is why moving your exposure up the scale and also increasing development can expand your tonal range even further than a negative that was exposed to have the midtones come out at Zone 5. This varies depending on film and developer.
Typically BW film is referred to as having 8 or 9 Zones max. This is not all of the usuable zones. With most BW films you can print negatives that have information all the way up to and beyond Zone 15. This area beyond Zone 8 is very valuable and can be put to good use for increasing contrast. It is very sensitive to increased development. For instance in you had an area that metered Zone 6 and you gave it N+2 development it might move 2 stops higher to Zone 8, but if you exposed that area at Zone 12 it might move to Zone 15-16 with the same development.
Underexposure is not always the best choice. You can't print what is not on your negative. I always try to get my exposure out of the toe of my film. That way I can choose at the printing stage whether or not to keep detail.
Sometimes a brick like negative just make the best print.
Last edited by willwilson; 22-Oct-2009 at 21:15. Reason: PS
Film has a sensitivity that is linear to a point, and then drops off. So you're using that drop-off to your advantage.
[QUOTE=willwilson;520123]Merg, I always love reading your posts. It's not only a great way to remind myself to take a look at your website for updates, but your opinions and historical accounts are much appreciated as well. I too appreciate Brett Weston's lack of concern for any type of system, sometimes those types of prescribed methods just get in the way. That said... back to our discussion of prescribed methods.
Will, thank you, your comments are most appreciated. I hesitated before replying to the OP, realizing that my response was not an answer to the question. However, since Brett Weston was mentioned, I thought that it might be of interest to know how he worked. You have given a good and detailed response.
Your work looks excellent, in particular, several from the "new work" series.
I couldn't open the Jensen link but if you go to Chiarenza's home page and open the Focus magazine interview you'll find a fairly detailed description of how he works.
The photographs are of collages that he creates himself out of foil, paper, and other detritus that he collects. He has a dozen or so studio lights and he plays around with the collages and the lights until he likes what he sees, then photographs it. If he uses any special techniques of exposure or processing like some of the things mentioned in this thread he doesn't say anything about it in this interview. He says that "I pretty much go to the studio and play around until something begins to happen . . . So the image is, in effect, made by a continuous back and forth manipulation of collage and lighting in combination
with my work with light in the darkroom"
If you don't have a studio and a dozen lights you could do the "playing around" in Photoshop and achieve the same effects (assuming, of course, that you had his talent).
Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you do criticize them you'll be
a mile away and you'll have their shoes.
Will- I guess my confusion was in my incorrect notion that once I exposed past zone 5 or so, the highlights would all expand more or less equally with increased development, thus giving equal density across the board. When I have tried "super development", this seemed to be the case. For example, I did an extreme minimal aggitation of HP5 in a tube for 2 hours in HC-110 dilution B at 24deg C. I was expecting a massive contrast range- it was actually quite low (around log 1.1 using my RH Designs meter in densitometer mode) and had huge amounts of base fog. This shook what I had taken as gospel. I have been told though that dvelopment past a certain point will do this, so I am now wondering where the cut-off should be.
Brian- I'll check out that website, but I was just using his images as an example of the "look" I was after. I figured he had to be doing some interesting studio lighting, but I also imagine those images are not straight out of camera. If he uses film, he must be doing something like we're talking about.
I meter the highlights and fill with a reflector to get a 2:1 ratio . . .and bracket.