View Full Version : Processing film to completion: my personal drama

Marco Gilardetti
23-May-2005, 04:09
Gentlemen, I'm in doubt. I've spent all of my life in being very picky on temperature and time of process and I've applied the Zone System every time I could. However, I recently switched to a diffuser enlarger, with which I noticed that I needed a raise of contrast of at least one full grade higher than usual. I then started to increase my film developing time accordingly, but that made me realize that the higher the contrast, the easier it was to work with the diffuser head. Scratches and spots were less evident, exposure time was easier to handle, Newton rings didn't even have a chance to appear...

But now I reached a point in which I think I'm developing my films almost to completion. The fact that I completely changed my habit of being extremely precise on developement worries me. What am I missing, after all these years of extremely precise work? It seems that, since I (almost) always use multigrade paper, the tonal range of the negative has little or no matter since every drift can be fixed with a little turn of a filter's knob and maybe some dodging.

So, now what? Do I have to assume that all the pain in developement control was worth only in the days in which papers were available in few grades, and even less were on the shop's stands, so one wanted to have a film which would always print fine on grade "2"? Now that one can get from "00" to "5" with a single pack of fresh paper, the pain is not worth anymore? What am I missing? Please, your thoughts!

23-May-2005, 06:12
You have grown up. Not everyone does -- consider yourself fortunate

Donald Qualls
23-May-2005, 07:21
Some level of control at the negative stage -- getting the exposure somewhere close to correct, having some ability to stretch or compress contrast -- is helpful for dealing with lighting conditions at the time of exposure. Got a flat subject to begin with, and an overcast day (and can't wait for the sun to come out)? With your development, that might not be a big deal. What about a portrait on a sunny day in the mountains, when you might want to soften things a bit to avoid glaring, blocked highlights and completely detail-free shadows in the same face? You might find your 00 filter none too soft, and the ability to intentionally dial back your developing and know in advance what the effect will be (how much exposure to add for the loss of speed from reduced development, exactly how much to reduce development to get the contrast you want and so forth) is very helpful.

No, not everyone wants or needs this capability, on which the Zone System is based. If you like the images you're getting and never or seldom have a "problem" negative with so much contrast you can't control it with your filters and multigrade paper, then there isn't a problem -- what you need depends on what you have and what you want.

For me, at least for now, much of what I'm trying to learn in photography is putting an image on the negative that doesn't require a bunch of manipulation of contrast, dodging and burning, etc. to produce a good final image, and that seems certain to require, pretty soon, reasonably precise control of exposure and contrast, of the sorts that the Zone System exists to quantify. FWIW, I've never printed on graded paper -- Polycontrast was the only thing in the darkroom when I made my first "on my own" prints -- but I was still often dissatisfied with what I could get, because my negatives weren't right. Soon I'll have my darkroom setup (for the first time in almost 25 years). I don't think I'll find *I* can abandon contrast control in my negatives...

Conrad Hoffman
23-May-2005, 07:53
Yup, modern materials are really great. Except when they aren't. One caution. Some VC papers suffer from what's known as "curve splitting" at the lower contrast settings. You get a flat area in the curve, and no tonal separation. You might want to get a step tablet and check your particular paper/filter combination to see how low you can go. It's easy- just look for any two steps blending together or having reduced contrast. Typically happens at grade 0 or 00. Other than that, make reasonable negs and take advantage of what the paper can do.

John Kasaian
23-May-2005, 07:55

Sounds like its time for an 8x10 and contact prints on AZO!

Marco Gilardetti
23-May-2005, 08:23
Oh, hi there Donald, I recall you being on photo.net and APUG. I don't think you got the point exactly: I'm not saying that I expose randomly and push develop to death. That would of course lead to poor results. I always expose accurately, and now develop to completion. Think about it: an overexposure would "block highlights", but a correct exposure followed by a complete developement should only spread the tonal range over a broader contrast, as far as I see. That would be all coal and chalk on paper 2, but all the tonal range would still be on the negative and could be eventually "compressed back" if printed on soft paper.

@ Conrad: I see your point, but things are such that with a diffuser head, I don't remember ever going lower than a grade "2" filter setting with this technique.

@ John: give time to time, I just started experimenting with POP paper and my 2x3'' gear...

Brian Ellis
23-May-2005, 08:57
Variable contrast paper isn't a substitute for a good negative. When you change paper contrast you change everything, the shadows, the midtones, and the highlights. By moving from say a #2 filter to a #4 filter you might get the highlights you want but then you might also lose the shadow detail and midtone range you wanted. Or you might get the deep blacks you wanted but lose the highlight detail. When you alter a negative by development you change only the highlights, the midtones and shadows remain the same (well not exactly the same but very close). It's sometimes possible to make a decent print from a bad negative by alterning the paper contrast and by extensive dodging, burning, etc. but it sure isn't as enjoyable or as effective as it is to start with a good negative from which you can easily make a decent straight print, then use those same techniques to make an excellent print instead of just a decent one.

Paul Fitzgerald
23-May-2005, 09:01

" I always expose accurately, and now develop to completion. Think about it: an overexposure would "block highlights", but a correct exposure followed by a complete developement should only spread the tonal range over a broader contrast, as far as I see."

You just quoted William Mortensen, the anti-christ of the zone system. LOL. The only problem I have seen is that the new films can reach a density level that takes forever to print. The extra film speed isn't a bother either.

Have fun with it.

Michael Kadillak
23-May-2005, 11:00
John stated my thoughts exactly earlier. When you think that you have things "dialed" in with your darkroom work, comtemplate working with a fixed grade paper that has the dramatically long tonal scale that Azo is famous for. You will appreciate your regimented approach toward your photography as any deficiency in one's work (with Azo) will be terribly frustrating in the process. No variable contrast filters to trump you out of a mistake and the like. But the rewards are glorious.


John Cook
23-May-2005, 12:52
Marco, you asked what you are missing. My answer would be efficiency.

As I have said here in the past, when I was a student in art school I could print every bit as well as Ansel Adams. All it took for a perfect 8x10 print was a day or two of experimentation, endless burning and dodging, a full 250-sheet box of paper, the entire set of variable contrast printing filters including half-steps, a jug of hot, undiluted Dektol to cotton-swab onto stubborn areas of the print, and a small penlight to flash low density paper spots.

Then I graduated and found a job at a commercial studio which sold large quantities of 8x10 glossies for 25 cents apiece. Needless to say, my employer rather forcefully “encouraged” me to pick up the pace, by learning to make negatives which did not require this kind of intensive care to save them.

To this day, I continue to be absolutely dumbfounded by the self-proclaimed artsy-fartsy types who advocate split-filter printing and all manner of time and money-wasting techniques which would have been completely unnecessary, had they brought along a simple fill card, cheap portable flashgun or waited an hour for the sun to move before making the exposure.

As a pro, I was often forced by the client to shoot things against my will, when the lighting was just awful. The Secretary of Defense is not about to wait around to dedicate a new submarine until the photographer decides that the light is sufficiently sensitive and poetic to proceed. My art school printing techniques were sometimes needed to save these negatives.

But now retired, I have stubbornly just ordered a large load of grade two paper.


An old friend in California used to make jokes about a fine art photographer he knew who was incredibly laid-back. The story was that every morning he would hang an exposure meter out the window from his bed under the sill. If it didn’t read at least f/11 he would just roll over and go back to sleep.

Now in my golden years, I intend to wait for perfect light conditions and carefully process negatives that even a machine (my wife) can print. ;0)

Jim Galli
23-May-2005, 14:40
So John, which paper did you end up with? The curious want to know.

John Cook
23-May-2005, 19:29
Hi Jim,

For richer or for poorer, I have decided to give Kentmere from England, by way of Freestyle an extended go. My wife, a Canadian, is disappointed they have no royal warrant from the Queen, like Gordon's gin.

I had always kept my distance from Freestyle. Their ads (and name alone) sounded to me like some shlock army/navy store in Manhatten, loaded with fake watches. Don't know how I first got that impression. But discount, no-name merchandise never appealed to me.

But what a shock to talk with their customer service people on the phone. Real friendly, helpful and in absolutely no hurry. And wow, can they ever pack a carton carefully. Peanuts galore. Sealed fully around six sides with heavy gummed tape. And the cardboard is triple thicknesss. Bullet-proof. Freestyle's shipping department is as anal as I am.

Kentmere, unlike Ilford, seems to be still held by the original family and is carrying no debt load at all. At least according to their website writeup:


The Art Classic I chose has the extra heavy ivory base of Bergger, without the paper problems recently reported in the various forums (or should it be forae?).

Its warm tone, rough surface texture and matte finish I hope will lend it to Marshall's oils which my bride has been insisting I try. Poor man's Velvia. Can't you just see me sitting out on the patio with an extra large G&T doing my impression of Sir Winston in a directors chair and French elmwood Julian Plein easel?

In this day of disappearing photo materials, it was such an enormous treat to find something so nice in abundant supply, I'm afraid I lost my head. Well, perhaps with this large order I am now forced to take my own advice and work with one material ad nauseum until I master it.

By the way, as a drying technique I have decided to take the advice of Lloyd Erlick:


and Ilford (page 3, under Ilfotol):


The technique will be to dunk the prints in Ilfotol, dry them with squeegie and towel, then hang by plastic spring clamps. The mini clamps I have ordered from Lee Valley (woodworking tools, gardening and hardware) at:


I'll let you know how it all works out. Sorry to be so windy, but it's late (for me) and this is stream of conciousness...

24-May-2005, 06:31
Are you really developing to completion, or just developing to the maximum time recommended by a credible source, possibly the manufacturer? To find out, develop in a manufacturer's recommended dilution, time and temperature, then again the same for 55 minutes. The former would be a rational development, but not 'completion'. The later should produce abysmal results in a relatively contrasty lighting situation such as a typical clear, sunny day.

I read of stand processing (no agitation) in the sixties and tried it out with the only developer I could get at the time (rural France, 1965) - Rodinal and tried it at 1:200 for an arbitrarily long time - an hour and got negatives I had to print on Agfa Brovira number 4. To me, that is a step above normal. Another attempt was to leave it in the developer overnight. Same result but with a little more base fog. Apparently the 5x4 film exhausted the developer That is what I would call completion development.

Normally I do not delve into technique like this, but my lifelong pursuit of contrast in the toe+ led me to strange and uninformed experiments and to this day I have not managed a contrast mask properly.

Whatever you are doing pleases you and that is good. Do not stop because it works!

24-May-2005, 06:37
Marco, paper grades from zero to six were available decades ago. Zero was so soft that it was useless to me and six was almost like using an ortho copy film. Quite possibly you are recalling when Agfa Brovira graded paper was not available which is more recent. No?

Oh for profoundly different graded papers.... and the money to buy all one needed. The later is the greatest woe.

Glenn Thoreson
1-Jun-2005, 12:57
If what you are doing works, I say great! Go for it. Unfortunately, I have spells where I seem to develop my film to extinction. Not great! It doesn't work, either. Ahhhh...senior moments.