Essay 4 - How Simple is Simple Enough? Comparing Large Format Negative Options

As I continue to explore my creative options, I have a primary goal of keeping my process as simple as I can without sacrificing my ability to communicate my intended story.  It turns out there are many options and variables within the concept of simplicity.  In this essay, I will share some of my personal thoughts about the various processes and opportunities that I have been considering for my negative medium.  

There are four main building blocks to consider when creating my final prints which include lenses, negative medium, printing paper, and chemical choices (i.e., developers, toners, etc.). 

I have a good collection of lenses for my large format cameras ranging from historic soft focus types to ultra-sharp modern lenses in many different focal lengths.  Keeping all the other variables the same, having the ability to use a broad spectrum of lenses affords me the capacity to create different moods within my images.  

Choice of darkroom paper can significantly impact the final print, especially when combined with developer choice, toning, and historical process options.  My decision for a negative medium will also affect my printing paper choice.  

Each medium has a lot of creative options for developers, so my final decision for a developer will depend on my choice of negative medium.  

In the section below, I will discuss my thoughts on negative mediums and how this choice is connected to my other drivers (e.g., eco-friendly, cost, aesthetic, handling, processing, etc.).  I should mention that I don't want to create straightforward renderings of my subjects and scenes.  I lean towards choices that lead me to an ethereal, mysterious, and evocative type of rendering.  

Negative Medium 

Paper negatives are an excellent option for a variety of reasons.  RC Glossy darkroom paper is readily available in every size that I want (i.e., 8x10 and 11x14) making it a good long-term option. The cost per exposure as compared to film is much less making it a very affordable option.  I like the classic ortho-type look that I get from paper negatives because it is not sensitive to red light, which also makes it safe to work with under safelight conditions during every step of the process.  Becuase darkroom paper is orthochromatic, the reds will be rendered very dark or even black, yellows will be dark, and blues will be very light or even white.  I have to consider this choice and its aesthetic concerning my ability to create evocative and peaceful images.  

I have a lot of experience with this medium, so there is no learning curve for me.  Although it is possible for me to make enlargements from paper negatives, I prefer to make contact prints with a simple light source and Ilford multigrade filters via the split-grade method.  From here, I could tone the prints with selenium, sepia, copper, or gold toners, or I could pursue more dramatic options such as Lith or Bromoil methods.

I can develop paper negatives in my van on location, making this a very practical approach.  I develop paper negatives by inspection in trays.  My custom made dark box in my van allows me to develop films and also make large format contact prints because I have a light source and a variable contrast filter holder on top of the unit.  

I develop the paper negatives with the same chemicals as I do with the final prints, just at a different dilution, so this minimizes the chemicals required.  The working ISO rating is between 3 and 6 making this a potential factor in some scenarios. Since I am working off-the-grid, using eco-friendly chemicals are crucial to me and eases the burden of waste management.   

The LegacyPro line of black and white chemicals are designed for the lowest toxicity and offers the following advantages:

  • FREE of known carcinogens and mutagens
  • FREE of Metol, hydroquinone, borates and phosphates
  • FREE of non-biodegradable organic compounds: EDTA and DTPA
  • FREE of acetic acid, perfume and dye
  • Designed to shorten processing time and minimize water usage
  • Designed to minimize chemical wastage
  • Designed for highest archival standard
  • Allows creative controls such as image tone and toner response
  • Allows extended tray and shelf life

In summary, paper negatives are well-suited to my style of photography, and I can't think of any particular disadvantages other than the effective ISO in some select scenarios.   

Ortho-Litho film offers a unique look that looks a lot like wet plate collodion to me.  I like this orthochromatic look, so I find that to be a benefit.  Ortho-litho film is fragile and flimsy making it a challenge to handle during processing and printmaking. The cost is very reasonable, and inventory has proven to be stable for many years.  Traditional black and white developers are used, so an eco-friendly developer is a viable option.  I worry about the long-term storage and repeated handling of this film, but it is very tempting because of the unique look that I can achieve.  I develop this film in my Jobo, so I would have to factor this into my consideration for this medium if I wanted to process it in the field.  

Kodak X-Ray B/RA film is a single coated, tabular grain, orthochromatic medical x-ray film.  It is coated on a blue, 7-mil blue-tinted polyester support with a dyed pelloid backing which affords anti-halation protection.  This specific x-ray film removes all of the typical problems associated with other X-ray film stock. The film is readily available and has a good likelihood of being available in the future because it is unlikely that x-rays will be going away anytime soon.  The cost is very reasonable, and I develop it in my Jobo using Rodinal at this time.  I do have the option of using a traditional black and white developer that is eco-friendly where I can develop via the Jobo or in trays by inspection. I have found that this specific film is very similar to T-Max 100 in regards to reciprocity failure, and they are both tabular grain films.  I have stock in both 8x10 and 11x14 formats.  

Sheet Film is an excellent option for many reasons.  It is panchromatic and has a wide dynamic range making it different than the above mediums.  It will render images that are true to color in regards to the tones within the subject or scene. Traditional black and white filters (i.e., red, orange, yellow, and green) can be used to impact the mood of the final print.  Becuase I work with three different formats (i.e., 4x5, 8x10, and 11x14), I would want to use the same film across all three formats.  The obvious choice is Ilford HP5+.  I have fully tested HP5+ for use with the Zone System, so I have total control of my creative options regarding tonal renderings and relationships.  The cost per exposure is significantly higher than the orthochromatic mediums discussed above.  I can use traditional black and white eco-friendly chemicals to process this film making it a good choice for me.  

Summary   

There are other options, but I have narrowed it down to the four mediums above.  All of the orthochromatic choices discussed above produce a very similar type of print.  Sheet film is panchromatic and creates a much different and more realistic rendering of tones.  The negative medium is only one variable in the larger printmaking process, but a vital one.  My ability to shape and modify the final print doesn't end with the initial darkroom print.  I have the option of toning any of these prints or continuing forward with options such as Lith or Bromoil.  

Even if I used a single camera, with one lens, and picked one negative medium, I still have a lot of options and choices making simplicity an elusive notion with many faces.  I love all of the above negative mediums for different reasons.  I will most likely simplify by narrowing down my equipment and then focusing on one medium for a given project. I will also be doing more contact printing, therefore lessening equipment requirements.

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-Tim Layton

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