View Full Version : First negatives, some questions

16-Apr-2011, 07:52
I have developed my first negatives this week. I processed them one by one in trays.

Ilford FP4 PLUS, 4x5'', in Xtol, for 7:15 minutes with constant agitation (lifting the tray gently, and putting it down again, on three different sides).

Looking at the negatives, they appear to be evenly developed, and extremely sharp under a loupe, so I am happy with that.

* But how do I know if a negative has been properly exposed? Will I have to print it to know for sure?

I don't have a negative scanner, and I couldn't use the LF enlarger yet, so I was only able to do some contact prints onto some old Ilfospeed RC IS 3.1M that was there.

The prints didn't turn out to be very nice, there was a lot of dust on that glass used to press the negative onto the paper (maybe 3-4mm thick), and they are also not very sharp.

* Is it possible to (approximately) calculate height/aperture/exposure for contact prints/enlargements, or do I have to make test strips for every negative?

* What settings should I use to make sharp(er) contact prints? Large/small aperture, low/high height of the light source? Is it OK to use that glass plate or is there a better way?

Thank you for your help!

16-Apr-2011, 08:15
Well, the first thought that comes to mind is: clean the darn glass! It will take care of most of the dust and a lot of fuzziness.

Ditto for film holders, inside of the camera and the lenses.

IOW, you simply have to keep your entire optical path absolutely clear. It is a basic requirement and it is easy to do.

The next step is to make sure you maintain consistency in your process - same film, same lightmeter, same developer, same dilution, same temperature and same agitation.

Then you run two series of tests, one to determine your personal EI (which takes care of the shadows) and the other to determine the normal dev times for your developer-temp-agitation combo for a given film. Once you have that, you find out N+/- times.

THEN you start printing. Same story there - same paper, same dev, same light source - run tests to determine everything as above, only for paper.

It's not all that hard, photography is definitely not rocket science - this should all take about a couple of weekends or so and you'll be set for a long time of real experimentation.

You can also start by googling all the questions you posed here and reading up some... That is also not too hard and can be a lot of fun, at least if you don't mind reading.

Brian Ellis
16-Apr-2011, 08:44
"Properly exposed" film generally means detail or texture in the darkest shadow areas in which you wanted detail. If those areas are overexposed they'll be denser (darker) than you wanted so they won't print as dark as you wanted without some extra work when printing. If they're underexposed they'll be clear or almost clear film.

If you have problems with your negatives, i.e. they're too thin ("light") or too dense ("dark") to make good prints it isn't always easy to know whether the problem was improper exposure or improper development or both. In theory if the problem is in the shadows (areas in which the subject was dark) the problem was exposure, if the highlights (brightest areas in the subject) are too dense or not dense enough the problem is in the development time or method. If there's a problem in both the shadows and the highlights then they were incorrectly exposed and developed.

That sounds easy in theory, unfortunately it isn't always easy in practice. But with a little experience, especially experience in making negatives that are difficult or impossible to print, you'll get the hang of it. However, your problem is compounded by the fact that it sounds like you're using printing paper that's out of date so it's unlikely that you'd get a good print no matter what you do. Buy some current paper before doing anything else.

You should make test strips at first. After making prints for a while and if you follow good darkroom procedures you'll be able to make a good educated guess about the initial exposure time for your first proof. With a "normal" negative the times don't vary that much.

With most enlarger lenses one or two stops from wide open is the sharpest aperture. I suggest just leaving the lens set at one of those two apertures all the time so that your only variable is exposure time, especially at first. Height of the enlarger head is determined by the size of the print and whether it's printed full-frame or is being cropped. There is a standard height for a full frame print from each negative size. You'll have to see where that is for your lens and enlarger and once you see where it is make a mark somewhere on the enlarger if it doesn't have a ruler built in. But height obviously will vary if you do any cropping.

I assume you're using the enlarger's light source for contact prints since you ask about height and aperture for contact prints. The lens serves no purpose when contact printing so it can just be removed from the enlarger. The height of the enlarger head should be a height that gives you an exposure time of roughly 30 seconds to a minute or so for a normal negative. The exposure time for a contact print should be long enough to allow you to do what dodging and burning you need to do (usually not much with contact prints, much less than when enlarging) but that isn't unnecessarily long so that you're wasting time.

If you're having problems with sharpness in contact prints there's nothing you can do about the "settings" because the only "setting" is the height of the light source (apparently your enlarger head) and that height only affects exposure time, not the "sharpness" of the print. So if your contact prints aren't sharp it's either because the negatives aren't sharp or the glass isn't being held in perfect contact with the paper (there conceivably could be some other oddball reason like you bumped the glass during the exposure but that seems unlikely). While it's possible to get away with using just a sheet of glass to contact print, I much preferred using a good contact printing frame. They'll have clamps on the back that ensure perfect contact between paper and negative all the way around.

I'd strongly suggest that you go to the local library or on line and spend a fair amount of time reading about exposing film in a camera and processing and printing it in a darkroom. Without meaning any disrespect (nobody is born knowing all this stuff) you should have known the answers to most of these questions before you ever stepped into a darkroom.

E. von Hoegh
16-Apr-2011, 08:49
Make sure you are putting the emulsion side of the negative on the paper, i.e. the ID notches should be in the upper left or lower right hand corner - opposite of loading filmholders. Flipped negs will degrade sharpness.

16-Apr-2011, 14:04
Thanks Marco and Brian, that is very helpful, I appreciate it.

It might be what E. von Hoegh said, I did place the negatives the wrong way it appears. The notches in the lower left hand corner. I used a contact printing frame, one side is glass and then other stiff foam, with clamps. The negatives look extremely sharp under a loupe, so I was surprised that didn't transfer onto the print. I'll try with some pressure applied, too.

I'll read up on the personal exposure index and N +/- times, thanks for that.

So you are saying that if I can see detail and texture in the darkest shadow areas that I wanted detail and texture in, then my negative is fine, and I can produce a good print? That sounds good, because I can indeed say that about the negatives I have so far. There are no areas that are all black/white, except for those that actually were white/black (like some parts of a building).

I'll get some new paper and clean that glass, you are right about that. I was just a little too excited after seeing the first negatives... :-)

Brian Ellis
16-Apr-2011, 19:09
. . . So you are saying that if I can see detail and texture in the darkest shadow areas that I wanted detail and texture in, then my negative is fine, and I can produce a good print? . . .

Yes, assuming also that the brightest important highlights in which you wanted texture or detail have them, i.e. that the brightest important highlight areas of image aren't so dense (i.e. black) that it's almost impossible to get any light through them and onto the paper when you print.

In my previous message and this one I don't mean to imply that you throw away any negative that doesn't look perfect. You can often make a passable print from a bad negative but it takes a lot more work and usually won't produce a result as good as if you had a better negative to start with.

Before posting this I re-read my previous message and in re-reading it I think that the last line comes cross more harshly than I intended, for which I apologize. I was just trying to make the point that it's a good idea to acquire a good working knowledge of exposure, processing, and printing before you actually start doing it, which I think is a valid point but I should have made it more tactfully.

Don M
18-Apr-2011, 12:06
You might try, as well, finding a copy of the book, Zone VI Workshop, and reading about how to expose your photographic paper for the "proper proof" time. That is one of the 3 key steps in obtaining control over your results.

1st step: you've nailed your personal film speed, by doing a film speed test. This gives you the threshold exposure to obtain Zone I (first step above complete black in the print; but without texture; a very, very dark grey, but perceptibly not complete black).

2nd step: you've figured out your film development time, to get close to the Zone VIII value on the high end. This step can go hand in hand with step 3 if you're not working with a densitometer (as most of us aren't).

3rd step: you expose the photographic paper for the "proper proof" time: the minimum exposure needed to obtain absolute black in the paper (through an unexposed but processed negative)

Your contact prints, exposed for the "proper proof" time, will give you absolute black in the clear film edges, and will show you the range of tones in the print.

Having grey film edges, means that exposure and/or development time is still off (from the ideal; one learns to deal with mistakes), so the contact print will provide useful information about your other procedures and materials.

Weston contact printed his 8x10 works, so contact prints can represent one's final output.

22-Apr-2011, 13:31
If you have a normal scanner you can still scan the neg and use the "invert" option on photoshop.