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The power of negative thinking


A well produced negative is, or should be, the primary aim of any photographer. If done well, it should be easier to create a final print with the desired look without too much wrangling in the darkroom – physical or digital. A good negative allows you to play ‘tunes’ and create a range of prints that can convey different tonalities and emotions.

The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, as well as being an accomplished landscape photographer, was also a very accomplished, classically-trained concert pianist and so his comparison above was very well made; astute and well informed.

Of course the real primary aim of any photographer is to actually produce a negative in the first place i.e something with an image actually on it. And that is not always as simple as it sounds, especially when you’re using a large format camera where nothing is automatic, and doubly so when you’re a little out of practice.

Prior to shooting the portraits for this project it took me some time to get up and running; having not used the camera or processing lab for a few years, I needed to re-acquaint myself with it all. Consequently, there were a few minor mishaps and the negatives weren’t always quite what I’d hoped for – some by a fair margin.

After a number of trials I was able to produce something that qualified as a negative; then I could progress onto improving the tones in the negative to create something I was happier with.

Now, after an initial flurry of real live portrait sessions I had exposed all of my loaded film and it was time to start developing them.

This is a moment of high expectation and some anxiety. Film development is a multi-step process and there are still many ways to get this wrong and mess up.

Each development run allows me to process 4 sheets of film at once and takes about an hour to the point where they are ready to dry. It has taken me 2 days to work through the 20 or so sheets of exposed film I had at this point.

One batch of developed negatives hanging and drying.

On the face of it, the negatives are looking good – a range of tones and in focus. It is a relief that these are ‘in the bag’. Next up will be the job of scanning each sheet, making sure everything is as sharp as it should be and then tweaking for draft and final printing.

Until then, I’ve many more portraits to shoot and a great deal more negatives to develop. It’s good to know that the ‘muscle memory’ is coming back and I’d forgotten what a thrill it is to see the negatives emerge from the processing drum.

It is a very ‘positive’ feeling given the effort it has taken to reach this point.

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