Lack of good contrast? Need a desitometer?

The seed of a blog post, lack of good contrast!

Recently I uploaded a video about Barry Thornton’s two-bath developer, a rather good developer that helps to make well balanced negatives quite simply. It generated some questions and one in particular seeded the idea for this blog post.

Seven Mile Beach, Roseisle, Scotland

It was a rather good question (so many are!). Had I ever measured the zone densities of my negatives with the Thornton two-bath because they weren’t getting enough highlight punch? This was an intriguing question for me because, frankly, I don’t have a densitometer and never have had. I know some people do and do good work with them so why hadn’t I?

Firstly, why have I never used one?

The answer to that question is buried way back in my distant past. You see, when I learned photography and darkroom work you couldn’t buy a densitometer for love nor money, at least not the love or money people could afford (BTW they’re still crazy expensive!). So, back then, we had to do without and work with our photographs by eye. It was simple enough. If there wasn’t enough contrast in the print we used a higher grade paper. If we were consistently using a high grade of paper we weren’t developing our negatives long enough.

The silver rule is: more development, lower grade paper required, it was that easy.

There was a good rule of thumb that a 35mm negative should print (with a full range of tones) on grade 3 and a 120 negative should print on grade 2. I suspect a large format should print on grade 2 as well but have never been able to afford one to test that theory. Note: Open to donations!

So, long story short, if my highlights didn’t have the punch I wanted I used a higher grade of paper or developed the negatives longer. It also meant we had more than one development time for a film – unheard of these days. Take D23, an old favourite of mine, especially the replenished variety. Six minutes is good for a sunny, contrasty day. Eight and a half minutes for a duller flatter kinds of day. Somewhere in between for those average Scottish days or perhaps Roundhay Park during the rains of a Yorkshire summer. These multiple development times were normal. It’s simply what we did then without thinking, it’s what I do now. Densitometry changed all that! As soon as someone started measuring the zones of a step wedge it got less of an art and more of a technology proof of concept. No, not for me, it’s still an art to me, I use grades, my eyes, my gut, all three.

“Learn you developer well and write down those three developing times”

The final message …

So, what’s the final message in all this? It’s learn your developer well and write down those three developing times. Dull day time, medium day time, sunny day time. As a start use the 30% rule. For dull days increase your development time by 30% (which for the densitomatrist is about a grade in old school).

Finally, how do I do that with Barry Thornton’s two-bath, a developer that treats all negatives individually? Well you can by two methods. First you could use time again. I’d develop in bath A for 20%-30% longer before using B (no need to change B). This is because bath A is an actual developer and is developing the film throughout its few minutes. By increasing the time in A you push the values up in the negative before B finishes them off. The second way is to increase the alkalinity of bath B. Use 20g per litre of metaborate instead of the 12g/litre. I’ve tried this and it does work, increasing the contrast of the negatives by about 1/2 to 1 grade.

Ok, that’s enough of this old school nonsense. How do you adjust the contrast of your negatives?

Take care my friends,

The Power of the Sublime

Beautiful photographs of Skye by the photographer and blogger Dave Whenham. I love the quote by Michael Freeman.

Dave's Place

It was the Romantic artists and poets of the late 18th century who were inspired by the forces of nature to create an art of the sublime. Michael Freeman recently described it as ‘how to enjoy a perfect storm’ and that was very apt stood on the beach at Elgol in November as the rain lashed down and the wind whipped with such fury that I genuinely feared that even someone of my size might just be blown away by the force.

© Dave Whenham Backlighting is an oft-used device when photographing the Sublime

© Dave Whenham The same scene in colour is slightly less threatening

I truly experienced the sense of fascinated delight he described and for the first time I think I truly understood what emotions are evoked by the power of the sublime. Freeman goes on to quote Joseph Addison who, in 1712 wrote about scenes that were “… at the same time…

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Fixing Film and Paper: when long is too long

I’ve been reading a couple of threads recently that have covered aspects of fixing. It seems to be a rather difficult part of the process because of those widely spread internet myths. For instance, it was stated to fix for ten minutes to remove the anti-halation dye! Another statement said that a minimum of 5 minutes was needed to fix a modern films properly. Unfortunately, this advice will damage your film.

Fixing has been well researched for decades and so I dug out a couple of books to check on this.

I have the Ilford manual of Photography 1951 and in it it says about fixing with Hypo (Sodium Thiosulphate):

“Hypo itself has a weak solvent action on the silver image and while this action is negligible during the time required for fixation, prolonged immersion in the fixing bath results in considerable reduction in density, and the effect will be very marked where fine grain negative emulsions and printing papers are concerned”. Here it refers specifically to slow to medium speed films and chloro-bromide paper, both of which are fine grained.

Also, from the Gevaert Manual of Photography, 1962

Talking about rapid fixers containing the now common fixing agent Ammonium Thiosulphate:

“Prolonged immersion in a rapid fixing bath will reduce the silver image, paper emulsions may also change colour, and fine grained emulsions are particularly susceptible to their reducing action. If, for convenience, one of these rapid fixers is used the instructions should be followed carefully.”

The instructions are the same for both fixers. Fix for twice the clearing time. A good rule of thumb is that if it takes a rapid fixer more than two minutes to completely fix the film (one minute to clear the film of milkiness plus one minute) it’s time to change your fixer for fresh. This is because the fixer is carrying to much of the dissolved silver by-products and has reduced capacity.

Finally, the most modern tabular grain films may well be affected even more. These films have fine, flat silver halide crystals that present even more surface area to the dissolving powers of thiosulphate.

Battle of the Giants continues, Black and White developers, which is the best?

Last week we saw the first of the battles in this new series, Crawley’s FX-55 developer facing off against 510-Pyro.

Tomorrow I’m recording the second episode in this series. In part 2 we see FX55 , after its surprising win last week, go up against Pyrocat-HD. Who will be the best?

Subscribe to my YouTube channel to find out. Remember, winner takes all and moves forward to the next round against an old favourite, PMK!

Practical Zone System

Loch Duich is one of Scotlands most magnificent sea lochs. With mountains towering above the inlet and the most photographed (real) castle in the world, Eilean Donan, on its shores this lake is a photographer’s paradise.

I found myself there a couple of years ago and enjoyed loads of great photography with my Nikon FM2N. In this post I wanted to talk about this particular beautiful scene.

Cottage- Loch Duich, Scotland

We’d walked along the far shore of the loch, opposite the famous Eilean Donan castle for a few miles. It felt as though we had the whole loch to ourselves. As we rounded a small headland, I saw this house and jetty complete with sailing boat moored in the background. The peaceful scene called out to my camera, but the lighting challenged any automatic meter.

My exposure technique has always been Ansel Adams “Zone System”. I first heard of Adams when very young. My father talked of Adams’ “Zone System”. He’d complain at how complicated it was. At that young age I never understood the complex theory of zones and exposure but I’d gaze upon those Ansel Adams landscapes in awe. But, as I later found, the technique is not at all complicated! Ansel Adams left us a gift. He left us a method of exposing, developing and printing that all but guarantees good results. Through the years I’ve learned the beauty and simplicity of this system. It has provided me with the easiest negatives to print and an awareness of how we can fit so much light into so small a negative “space”.

The Zone System, at its simplest, describes two photographic essentials. First, that your negatives and paper have very limited dynamic range and cannot reproduce the range of light we observe. Second, that we can expose and develop in a way that ‘fits’ what we see onto our imperfect negative and paper media. From Adams we learned that by taking care of the shadows we will print details in those darker parts of the scene and by using careful development for the highlights we will tame them bringing them down into a printable range.

The Zone System doesn’t ensure that all the shadows will show detail or all the highlights will be nuanced, in fact, that would make for a rather flat and unpleasing print and I always print to have some true black and some paper white to provide a nice contrast.

Exposing for the shadows

My experience has always confirmed the teachings of Adams, that a negative with five stops between the shadows and the highlights will maintain enough important detail and be easiest to print. With that in mind, we first examine our scene and decide which is the darkest part that needs detail and which is the lightest. With black and white film you start with the darkest part, the shadows, these are the focus for your exposure. I looked at the scene above and decided the prominent shadows in front of the cottage needed detail. This meant they didn’t become featureless black. With my camera’s meter I measured the near shadows (I simply walked up to them to fill the frame for the reading). This gave me 1/320 @ F2.8. Now, this reading would render the shadows near medium grey, which is exactly two stops too bright for detailed shadow so I closed down the lens two stops from that reading to 1/320 @ F5.6. Now I knew the shadow detail would be exposed correctly and print well.

That’s how to take your exposure, measure the shadows and close down two stops with either your aperture, your shutter speed or a combination of both.

Then I looked at the scene and examined the highlights. I realised the highlight problem would be detail in the roof of the house. The sun was bouncing off that roof and it could easily become burned out in my print. A featureless white roof would look awful. I therefore metered the roof and found it measured 1/1280 @ F16, six stops brighter than the shadow (1/320 @ F5.6 to 1/1280 @ F16 = six stops). I wrote this down in my notebook. The scene was presenting a six stop range which was too much for printing (remember the maximum is five stops) so I’d deal with that problem later, in the development of the film.

Develop for the highlights

At home I studied my notes from the day’s shoot. This scene of Loch Duich was my focus for the film. In order to create a good print from this six stop scene I needed to bring the negative down to the 5 stop printable range. Put another way, I needed to reduce highlight development time by one stop. To achieve that I would use my D-23 stock and develop for 30% less than my normal development time. This contracts the six stops I captured in the five stops I needed. It would bring down the highlights only, without affecting the shadows, and help me achieve a good print. My book covers this in more detail and explains why and how this works. It also explains how to expand the contrast range of the film for flat days.


Ansel Adams taught us that before taking a photograph we need to visualise the scene and understand the light. By understanding the range of light, from shadows to highlights and deciding where we want printable details to be, we can expose and develop effectively making our printing easier. By slowing down our photography at the point of capture we speed up results we get in the darkroom.

I invite you to comment below on your experiences with the Zone System, ask questions, or give feedback on my technique.

Beutler’s High Acutance Divided Developer

Corner Shop – Miami, Florida

One of my favourite developers is D-23. It’s soft working nature is perfect for my more contrasty photographs, as well as the occasional portrait. Used replenished, its properties are enhanced and this is my preference. But sometimes I need more compensation that D-23 gives and more sharpness. For that I turn to a two bath like Thornton’s metol 2-bath (based on D-23, Stoekler and Ansco 17) or, for ultimate sharpness, a developer like Thornton’s pyrocatechin or Beutler’s divided developers.

Beutler’s, the topic of this post, is another metol based developer, like D-23, but uses a quite different strategy to develop the film. It’s a high acutance surface developer, similar to Crawley’s FX-1, using very low levels of Metol and the high alkalinity of sodium carbonate. This produces well compensated, very sharp negatives, especially when used in its divided mode. Willi Beutler formulated this developer in the 1930s for the then new 35mm films. It’s not particularly fine grained, compared to say 510-Pyro or D-23 and maybe a little larger than D-76 1+1 but, due to the high resolution, the apparent grain is minimised.

This is one of the only true divided developers. Let me explain. Divided development, that is true divided development, is where the developer has been split between two baths. The first bath contains the developing agent and some preservative and the second bath the accelerator that kicks the developing agent into action. Don’t confuse this with two-bath development! Two-bath is where you use a “normal” developer in bath A and a further accelerator in bath B – there’s the subtle difference. You see, in a two-bath the negatives are actually developing in bath A and, in fact, will develop to completion if left long enough. Bath B is being used for contrast control only, to bring down excessive highlights into a more printable range.

So, in divided development we have no development in Bath A (the alkalinity is too low). Bath A is only used to swell the gelatine emulsion and soak up the developing agent. When this is complete we pour out the first solution and pour in the accelerator. This starts the development reaction with the shadows slowly developing and the highlights quickly developing. The developing agent quickly runs out in the highlights but not in the shadows. What does this mean? Well, the shadows continue developing to completion but the highlights have stopped in a controlled manner.

Concentrate A
Water 400ml
Metol 5g
Sodium Sulfite 25g
Water to make 500ml

  • To make working solution A mix 1+2. For example 200ml of Concentrate A with 400ml water to make 600ml total. Discard after use.

Concentrate B
Water 400ml
Sodium Carbonate (anhyd)* 25g
Water to make 500ml

  • To make working solution B mix 1+10. For example 60ml Concentrate B with 600ml water. Discard after use.

To use Beutler 105 as a divided developer:

  • Pour in working solution A
  • Soak the film for 8 minutes with initial agitation of 30 seconds and then 10 seconds per minute
  • Empty the tank
  • Do not rinse the film
  • Do not stop the film
  • Pour in the working solution B
  • Agitate for 10 seconds and then each minute for 4 minutes
  • Empty the tank, stop with two fresh water baths of 30 seconds and fix the film as normal
  • All at 20C

Beutler divided development gives full film speed and produces thinner than normal negatives (the top negatives in the picture below) which are very sharp and should print at grade 3. It’s one of my most compensating developers.

Beutler negatives (top) have a thinner look

Using Beutler 105 as a single developer 

You can also use this developer as a single bath. The formula remains the same and to make up your working solution mix it 1+1+8. For example 50ml A with 50ml B to 400ml water making a total working solution of 500ml. Agitation should be no more than 10 seconds each minute. Negatives will be thin but print at grade 2-3 nicely. If you find your negatives to be too contrasty (if you use a condenser enlarger for instance) then you can increase the dilution to 1+1+10.

Development times are around:

  • ISO 25-50 5-10 minutes
  • ISO 64-125 7-10 minutes
  • ISO 400 9-12 minutes

This is a compensating acutance developer with a nice tonal response and excellent sharpness. For ultimate pictorial qualities in a divided developer and equal sharpness look at Thornton’s pyrocatechin divided developer in my book. When I first used that developer my mind was blown!

More on:

The Best Negatives are Surprisingly Easy!

The Best Negatives are Surprisingly Easy!

Snowy ChairsSnowy Chairs

If you want a guaranteed method of making great negatives just reach for Barry Thornton’s two bath metol developer. The man was a master of simple formulations providing this and his pyrocatechin 2-bath for our pleasure. This metol 2-bath is like an updated Stoekler, sharper, and with great contrast. His pyrocatechin 2-bath is maybe the sharpest pictoral developer I’ve ever used – bar none. Just look at the photograph above. The detail in the snow is beautiful, something many developers cannot easily attain and this developer did it automatically.

Bath A
Metol 6.5g
Sodium sulphite 80g
Water to 1 liter

Bath B
Sodium metaborate 12g
Water to 1 liter
(To make the metaborate use 8.4g borax and 1.8g sodium hydroxide)

Develop FP4+ for 4.5 mins in A agitating for the first 30 seconds then 5 seconds each 30 seconds. Pour back and pour in bath B and agitate for the first 5 seconds, then 10 seconds every minute for 4.5 minutes.

Stop and fix.
Gorgeous negatives every time!

  • HP5+ needs 5 minutes A and the same for B
  • PAN F+ needs 4 minutes.
  • Unknown film? Give it 4.5 mins A and B.
  • Don’t rinse between A and B.
  • Don’t pre-wet
  • Don’t throw away the developer but pour back A into its bottle for reuse, same for B.
  • Develops 15 films

Casework Findhorn

Casework: Sailors Warning

Sailor’s warning. Pyrocat-HD 1:1:100 12 minutes @ 20c Film: Ilford FP4+
Sailor’s warning. Pyrocat-HD 1:1:100 12 minutes @ 20c Film: Ilford FP4+

Findhorn Bay and the surrounding beaches are some of finest in Scotland. Miles and miles of beautiful sands run along the coast of the Moray Firth. Occasionally, as on many beaches in the UK, the beach is interrupted by old weather-worn World War II tank traps and bunkers that present a fascinating insight into the past.

As I walked down the beach I spotted this warning sign. A warning to sailors of a hidden danger near the shore. It stood stark against the sand, the contrast of the sun etching it from reality and pasting it back again, almost as an afterthought.

Setting up the shot

I walked around the scene looking for the best point of view and set up my tripod and camera, fitting the almost obligatory yellow filter to darken the blue sky. I needed the white clouds to give that huge Scottish sky some interest and the yellow filter would set them off against the blue well.

Personal film speed

Running a personal film speed tests had given me very accurate exposure control and adding the compensation for each colour filter is easy, yellow being two thirds of a stop. To compensate I use the exposure meter which can be adjusted in third stop increments.

My personal film speed with Pyrocat-HD is 125 ISO for Ilford FP4+ film and of course that’s what I had on my meter. To adjust for the yellow filter which ‘steals’ 2/3 of a stop of light, I set the meter to 80 ISO, 2/3 less that 125 ISO. In effect, this is telling the meter that my film needs two thirds of a stop more light than normal. If the filter takes one stop of light I would have set 64ISO on the meter, and so on.

Exposing the scene

Exposing, for a scene like this is potentially difficult. I could see that the sky was bright, the sand was bright, pretty much everything is bright in this shot. Any regular meter reading would be too dark and under expose the film. As I’ve explained before, with black and white film, we need to expose for the shadows and control the highlights through development. “Exposing for the shadows” means placing the shadows correctly in the zone system. My usual way of getting exposure is to look for shadows that I want to have detail in and take a meter reading of them. I then close down two stops. In this scene I saw that the left side of the warning is in shadow and so I took a spot meter reading of those shadows, set it onto the camera, and closed the camera down two stops.That places the shadows in just right place! Let your development do the rest.


I think the photograph works. It’s stark, just as the warning should be to he who ignores it. Yes, one of my better shots I think.

This is a blog post from a few years ago that I’m reposting.

FP4 Party

This year’s FP4 Party

I’ve never entered the FP4Party before thinking it was something I did all the time anyway. I always use FP4+ for most of my work. But some friends on Twitter seem to be having fun with it and so this year I’m going to follow suit and see what happens. Maybe someone might comment and let me know the “rules”, if there are any and what I should be doing.

If not I’ll just see what happens 😀

This weeks #FP4Party cameraThis week’s #FP4Party camera


3 tips to ‘make’ a photograph and not ‘take’ a photograph.


I think these are great tips that help slow down your photography and make great photographs.

When you see something you want to photograph:

1. Stop and think. Is this the best position? Moving just a short distance can sometimes make a much better picture.

2. Is this the best light? Following on from 1, is the light showing off your subject? Can you wait for a cloud to pass or move to capture shadows differently?

3. Is this the best time of day? People, traffic, even sun’s position might be improved by coming back at another time.

Think of these three things, when you next bring your camera to your eye, and you’ll ‘make’ great photographs.

Best, John!
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