this shot of a factory worker, I went with Tri-X developed
in Kodak Microdol-S developer. I handheld a Hasselblad
since my flashes weren't allowed. The prints look
really smooth, surprising since Tri-X usually has pronounced
grain. Thanks to a fine grain developer like Microdol
I could get away with this film and make my client happy.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
One of the truly liberating
aspects of shooting black and white film is the relatively low cost
of setting up and maintaining your own darkroom. When moving to a new
studio recently, I was forced to break down my existing darkroom and
consider whether to build a new one. While the majority of my work for
clients is shot on color transparency film, I do a bit of black and
white. In addition, I shoot almost all of my personal work on black
and white film. My local pro lab does a fine job with black and white,
and for the couple dozen rolls a year that I shoot, why bother building
a new darkroom?
To figure out whether I could live without a new darkroom or not, I
looked through my files and tried to determine if my local lab could
take care of business for me. After a thorough search, I called the
plumber and booked him for the new darkroom sink install. Let's
face it--black and white is one area of conventional photography where
the photographer can still get his hand in there and sculpt the image.
Although I have usually thought of dodging and burning as the limit
of my creative input in the darkroom, I realized that by picking unique
combinations of film and developer over the years, I have been creating
a different black and white look for each assignment.
While I can get good results from a garden variety roll of black and
white film and standard D:76 development, I have stumbled upon a few
film developer combinations that produce markedly different images.
Here is a brief list of my favorite combinations.
Black And White "Film Noir" Look. For the
inky black shadows, moderate grain, and ethereal highlights of the classic
"film noir" look, there is nothing like Kodak Tri-X developed
in Microdol. While Kodak's old reliable has been surpassed by
modern emulsions with finer grain, longer tonal range, and better latitude,
Tri-X has a look that is hard to match.
While I have developed thousands of rolls in D:76, I have recently become
a convert to Microdol, which has the potential to deliver a smoother
negative with a wider tonal range. I like to expose the film for a push
of about 1/2 of a stop for an effective EI of 600, then develop in Microdol
at 75° rather than 68°. This produces a slightly thick negative
with impenetrable shadows, but a gorgeous movie film type highlight
quality. If you can deal with a rather difficult negative to print,
the results are worth it. When my digital endeavors leave me cold, this
is the combination that I come back to.
scanned these negatives without making prints on a Minolta
Dimâge Multi film scanner. In order to get a reasonable
amount of shadow detail and sparkling highlights, I went
with Ilford Delta 100 in Edwal FG-7 one-shot developer.
The Provia film strip was added in Photoshop later.
When I'm looking to create a really stunning black and white portrait,
I always turn to very slow film like Agfapan 25 or Ilford Pan-F. I prefer
the Agfa stock, which sometimes is hard to get, because it has an amazingly
smooth even contrast range that really suits headshots. The Ilford has
a bit less shadow detail, but may appear a bit sharper. Either way, both
films respond extraordinarily well to Agfa Rodinal. I like to mix the
Rodinal at 1:25, develop at 68°, and go for extended development times
with aggressive agitation. Developed in a good general purpose developer
like Sprint Standard at 1:9 or D-76 at 1:1, they don't display any
of the magic that Rodinal can give them. Be aware that lower dilutions
like those recommended on the Rodinal bottle will produce impossibly flat
negatives on slow film like this.
Be careful when using a heavily diluted developer like Rodinal. A very
small mistake in mixing or a hotter temperature in the developer stage
and you'll be faced with a negative with severely blocked highlights
and rough pebble texture grain. Mixed and developed correctly, I've
taken properly exposed headshots with Ilford Pan-F in a 35mm camera and
made stunning 30x40' prints that looked as sharp as prints made
from a 4x5" view camera. When shooting faster film, I use Rodinal
diluted at 1:100, which produces a fine-grained image. However, this is
not Rodinal's strong suit.
this shot of BB King shot in the mid 1980s, I went with
Ilford XP2 pushed to 800. Even pushed, the 8x10 prints looked
very sharp and exhibited pretty fine grain.
Printing For Reproduction.
When you're faced with shooting for reproduction, you've got
to produce images that are of near-perfect contrast. Deliver-ing an overly
harsh or terribly flat print to a service bureau or printer will invariably
result in a printed piece that looks awful. Hard contrast is very difficult
since it is nearly impossible to take a scan of a contrasty print and
pump in any more shadow detail. On the other hand, a really flat print
can be jazzed up in Photoshop, but the resulting noise in the image makes
it look lousy. A print made expressly for exhibition will usually scan
poorly since the deep shadows and solid blacks will block up.
For magazine and advertising reproduction I have standardized my studio
and darkroom on Ilford Delta 100 developed in Sprint Standard developer.
I like the Sprint developer. Because it is a liquid, you only need to
mix what you need for that run of film and it lasts a long time in a half
empty bottle. In addition, it is a nice combo with the Delta film, which
can look a little blotchy in a really active developer like Rodinal. In
a very even full-range developer like Sprint, the Delta becomes extremely
even and smooth, with average grain and a good solid black. While not
my first choice for really sparkling scenes, for studio product shots,
corporate headshots, and general exteriors it just can't be beat.
I'll expose the film a bit hot, develop normally, and make 8x10"
prints on Kodak RC paper. Medium format negatives print very, very sharp
with great blacks, tons of detail, and even, well-contained highlights.
Working In Low Light. While I have heard a lot of photographers
complain about the C-41 processed black and white films like Ilford's
XP2, I like it. Oddly enough, I like to underexpose it a bit and print
with one extra stop of contrast dialed in on my enlarger head. While this
tends to emphasize the grain a bit, it eliminates the number one problem
of the C-41 films--inky blacks. While I don't do my own C-41, there
are about 15 or 20 one-hour labs within a mile of my studio, so it is
If you want to use this stuff, you can simply have the lab make prints
in their machine and you'll get black and white prints that look
like a tinted D.W. Griffith film--a little green or maybe a little magenta.
I prefer to have the one-hour labs soup only and give me back the film
uncut. This way I can cut the film up into strips of five to fit into
a slide page, rather than the strips of four the labs prefer.
For really good shadow detail in low light, nothing can touch a fine modern
emulsion like Kodak T-Max in T-Max developer. Even in relatively flat
light you can get a robust, punchy negative that will print on normal
contrast paper with well-contained grain. I shoot this film mostly in
medium format cameras and have my local lab soup it for me, since they
do regular runs of T-Max chemicals. I have found the processing to be
absolutely consistent, which makes it real easy to head into the darkroom
and bang out perfect prints in a flash.
Perfect Scan Every Time. I have preached the joys of
printing for digital scanning for some time, but now I usually prefer
to scan the negative directly. While you can theoretically pull a lot
more detail by skipping a generation--scanning the negative itself rather
than a second generation print--in practice low-end to medium-end scanners
do much better with reflective media prints. Since I have recently been
using a Minolta Dimâge Scan Multi for medium format film scanning,
I thought it might be interesting to see what kind of quality I could
get if I scanned black and white 35mm negatives.
I had an assignment coming up for a major East Coast communications company,
so I grabbed a few rolls of film and shot some tests. The assignment was
to shoot a technician installing a fiber optic communications network
and create a "filmstrip" effect by combining a series of black
and white images within the frame work of a piece of film. Once I shot
some tests and developed the negatives, I made contact prints by laying
the negative pages flat on the glass of my Umax flat-bed scanner and made
prints. I picked a few shots from each roll and loaded them in to the
Minolta's filmstrip holder. To my great surprise, I got much better
results from the film/developer combinations that didn't produce
the least amount of grain. I got the best results from the negative that
had the thinnest negative base. While the contrast and density of the
images seemed the same, Ilford Delta 100 developed in Edwal film developer
produced negatives with extremely clear film stock, which translated into
a much sharper, clearer scan.
Once I shot the job on Delta 100, I developed all the rolls in Edwal FG-7
diluted at 1:3. To compensate for the inevitable contrast build-up of
the Minolta scanner, I underdeveloped the film just a bit. The slight
underdevelopment and thorough fixing also helped to create the very clear
film base, which led to clear and crisp film scans.
If black and white has become humdrum for you as it had been for me, then
maybe it's time to experiment a bit with your choice in film and
chemicals. I'm not a big fan of gimmicky darkroom effects or instantly
dated "look of the month" images, but a really persuasive
black and white image always gets me going.
A good way to experiment is to stop by a well-equipped camera store and
pick up a couple of rolls of every kind of black and white film that they
normally stock. Nothing is better than a good excuse for a photo shoot,
so try and take lots of pictures on different rolls of film under similar
lighting circumstances. Once it's time to develop, try two or three
different types of developers. Fine grain developers like Microdol and
Ilfosol should offer a visible difference from active developers like
D:76. The only way to see the difference is to make some decent prints
on 11x14 or larger paper, since the higher magnification should really
accentuate the differences in the grain structure, base fogging, and overall
density level. While changing your film and developer regimen won't
make a drastic difference in the quality of your images, it should get
you excited about black and white again. In a world where color images
are everywhere, I always need something to remind me how great a black
and white print can be, and how a well-crafted black and white print can
still be compelling.