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The art of film development

A large format camera is quite a different beast from the cameras that most people are used to. Throughout my blog I’ve made references that are unfamiliar to many as they relate to using this type of camera. So, for those that might wish to know more, in a short series of posts I’m going to describe in more detail the steps I go through from setting up the camera for shooting right through to the final printed photograph. You can find Part 1 – the art of using a large format camera here: https://together-in-isolation.net/2020/05/18/the-art-of-using-a-large-format-camera/

Part 2 – developing large format sheet film.

Once the photograph is taken the next step in the process is development. The purpose of this is to create a negative which can then be printed onto paper either using traditional photographic processes (the analogue process) or digitally using an inkjet printer.

Ideally, the negative will have a good tonal range from light to dark with no areas completely blown out due to being underexposed nor totally black if overexposed. Whilst the exposure will determine the overall tonal range, development can modify and influence this quite significantly through choice and concentration of chemicals, time & temperature and also depending on which development process is used.

The end result should be a negative that is easy to print requiring minimal tweaking in the darkroom or on the computer. Minimal in this context can still result in the expenditure of considerable effort but the idea is not to have to ‘fight’ the negative. A successful negative can be quite beautiful to look at – this is especially so with a large format negative.

A little bit of history

The history of negatives and development is the history of photography (we will not concern ourselves with Daguerre here). William Henry Fox Talbot developed the first process using negatives which he revealed publicly in January of 1839. Talbot’s process used paper for both the negative and final print which, unsurprisingly, resulted in a somewhat soft and grainy image.

Print from the worlds oldest negative – Fox Talbot

Prior to Fox Talbot’s process numerous inventors had tried and failed to create a lasting photographic image. Creating an image was one problem, and had been proven decades earlier, but fixing the image so that it did not disappear was a difficult challenge to overcome.

Talbot partially solved this problem using salt solutions but refined it after John Herschel discovered that hyposulfite of soda would fix the image permanently. Herschel also coined the term “fixing” as well as “positive”, “negative” and “photograph” as well as creating the cyanotype process more commonly known as blueprint.

Herschel would also go on to create a negative on glass and this was quickly followed by the invention of the wet plate collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer. This collodion process on glass resulted in a outstandingly clear, crisp image which, technically, was far superior to everything that preceded it (again, we need not worry about Daguerre).

The collodion process was never patented and consequently exploded in popularity resulting in the first step in democratising photography which continues to this day.

Canyon de Chelly – Timothy O’Sullivan 1873. Collodion on glass

From collodion we moved to albumin and then gelatine as a carrier for the silver salts. From the glass support we moved to nitrocellulose-based flexible film, then to cellulose acetate and polyesters. The invention of flexible film by George Eastman was the next great step in the democratisation of photography putting the camera into the hands of amateurs who could now send off the camera and have somebody else develop and print for them at very little cost.

Whilst the materials used for the photographic film and negatives has change and improved enormously, the process for developing black and white film has changed very little. This process consists of a few basic steps: develop, stop, fix, wash and dry. With a very simple set-up, and somewhere dark, it is possible to develop and create negatives of very high quality.

A key part of the history of film development and the negative is down to Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. Together they invented the Zone System which brought together a fine understanding of exposure and photo-chemistry to help give photographers precise detail over the tonal range captured in the negative.

The zone system allows the photographer to know the range of brightness in the scene from dark shadow to bright highlights and which exposure settings to use to capture them. In the darkroom the system determines how to then develop the film to either expand or contract the tonal range which corresponds to the brightness levels and contrast in the negative and final print.

Yes, there is a whole book on how to create a good negative

What’s my film developing process?

My process for developing is a function of the particular chemicals and process equipment that I use. If I were to change either then the time and temperatures would likely change but the overall process would remain essentially the same.

Some details on my choice of chemicals and equipment can be found here: https://together-in-isolation.net/ethos-workflow-equipment/

So, in detail:

  1. In a darkroom, remove film from film holder and push into processing drum – repeat 3 more times; push on drum lid and leave darkroom.
  2. Place processing drum onto processing machine with a water bath at 20 degrees centigrade.
  3. At this point remember that your chemical bottles aren’t filled – fill them and now wait for them to come to temperature.
  4. Add 1 litre of water to film drum for an initial soak and to remove anti-halation coating – wait for 3-5 minutes, then empty water from the drum.
  5. Realise that you haven’t made up the working developer solution so quickly add 10 mls of developer part A and 10mls of developer part B into 1 litre of water, shake and pour developer into drum. Start timer as you start pouring the chemical assuming you’ve remembered to hold the timer and not misplace it.
  6. After 10 mins 30 seconds start pouring out the developer and then add 1 litre of plain water as a stop bath.
  7. After a few minutes, empty the drum again then add in 1 Litre of fixer (when was the last time I refreshed the fixer?) and let this process run for 4 minutes.
  8. Empty fixer back into its bottle so that you can re-use. Don’t drain into waste. I said don’t…..oh never mind – now where’s the bottle of concentrate.
  9. Finally, 3 washes with 1 litre of plain water then hang to dry.
  10. Wait until dry (literally like watching paint dry)
  11. Inspect and admire a nicely exposed and developed negative and keep ready for scanning.

You see, straightforward and very little room for silly errors.

Once the film is dry then I keep each in a clear archival sleeve from Secol which protects them from fingerprints and any potential degradation.

Now we’re at the end, if you did want to know more about Daguerre then take a look on wikipedia – it really is a fabulous form of photography. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daguerreotype

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