Entropy, Fotospeed and the meaning of warmth

Entropy: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder

Entropy is a fascinating thing. Basically, in the sense I'm meaning it here, there is only one orderly state and entropy is the movement away from that state towards a near infinitude of others. That always means a move towards less order. It's a way of explaining to teenagers why they have to put in regular effort to make sure their bedroom remains reasonably tidy. It also explains why your house needs maintenance from time-to-time.

I've just started printing again after quite a lay-off and I'm finding that entropy, of a sort, seems to be playing a role in what I'm producing. In my view, there is a kind of printing entropy. There is only one perfect print but a near infinitude of ways of producing a less than perfect print. Rather than just zeroing in on the perfect print and getting on with the rest of my life, I seem drawn to exploring all the ways I can produce the flawed versions. It's doing my head in somewhat.

It's a common enough position for me to find myself in after a break from printing. Years back, I considered myself to be a pretty decent printer but now it takes me a few sessions to get my eye in. I'm not there yet after a darkroom hiatus lasting about six months. I've had quite a few annoying disasters in recent days. So near and yet so far with some prints, too. There have been a few 12x16 prints that I thought were spot on only for something to reveal itself once I'd taken them out of the fixer for viewing. Frustrating isn't the word, especially when one of those "not quite" prints is the last one of a particular printing session. 

To be honest, the print shown here wasn't too bad from that point of view. It's my shot of Allonby that appeared a couple of weeks ago. The earlier version was a scan from the 120 negative. It was easy to make a few clicks in Photoshop and get it looking pretty much the way I wanted. It's a lot harder in the darkroom.

The first test strip (above) was to get a basic exposure for the house that's the main point of interest in the image. That was easy enough but you'll notice that there's hardly any detail in the sky or foreground when the exposure for the house is about right.That means some burning in and the house breaking through the horizon means this is likely to be a tricky operation.

The artful dodger. Not exactly Silver Efex Pro, is it?

I decided a mask was necessary to shield the house when I was giving the extra burn in time. Some people go to great lengths to produce a very accurate mask - effectively an exact outline of the house and the area to be held back - but my experience is that this can be a very time-consuming and pernickety affair. One way of doing this is to put two piles of books either side of the easel, rest a piece of card over them and trace the outline of the house, in this case, onto it. This is accurately cut out and carefully positioned the same way when it comes to making the print.

Have you heard of the Scottish reputation for precision engineering?

I don't have the patience for that so I did a rough and ready mask, holding the card in place with my left hand and scribbling the outline of the house onto it with my right. This was hacked out with a pair of scissors. No precision job this: just something to ritualistically wave about. As long as the card is kept on the move this is normally a reliable way of burning in a sky without making it too obvious.

The second test strip (above) gave me an exposure for the sky and foreground and I set to the print with mask in hand. That's the result below.

You'll see that the right hand side of the sky is quite a bit lighter - that's where the sun was - so that necessitated another test strip (below) on the right hand side to see if I could get a time to balance up the sky.

That's the final print, which worked out not too badly, at the top of the post. The two sides of the sky are fine and the mask has done a reasonable job. There's a little bit of sky overspill onto the roof of the house but not as much as you might think. If you have a look at the house exposure test strip you can see that the front roof line is in reality quite a bit darker than the slates further down which gives the impression that it's been darkened more in the burning in than is actually the case.

On the technical side, this was a Delta 100 negative from the Rollei SL66E, developed in Fotospeed FD10. The print was made on Fotospeed's RCVC glossy paper and developed in their WT10 warm tone developer. The print - it's about 11x11 inches - is too big for my flatbed scanner so it had to be scanned in two halves and stitched together in Photoshop so if you see a couple of pixels somewhere that don't line up exactly you'll know why.

The Fotospeed paper is OK and pretty much like other RC paper I've used. Which means that it just doesn't feel, handle or look like fibre-based and I don't think I'll be going down the resin coated route again. I wanted to try the combination of the paper and WT10 to see how warm the print would be having read good things about it. Print tones are nearly always very subtle but I scanned the print in colour to give you an idea of the warmth that can be achieved.

It would be possible to produce a slightly warmer print than this by diluting the developer more and warming it up a little beyond the usual 20c. Fotospeed say it can be diluted at 1+9, 1+19 and 1+29 with the weaker solutions resulting in more warmth but, obviously, capable of producing fewer prints before exhaustion. I started off at 1+19 but didn't feel I was getting a good black despite sticking to Fotospeed's time and temperature suggestions. I switched to 1+9 and things improved.

The Fotospeed paper is one of the few RC papers that will tone readily in selenium and this might be an easier way of warming up the image. I haven't used selenium for a long time, though, and never much liked it's toxic nature. It's OK if used sensibly but the fumes at stronger dilutions are such that, not having an air extraction system above my wet bench, I'd only be comfortable using it outdoors.

I'd rather go down the Bill Schwab/Michael Kenna route to achieve greater warmth. They lightly bleach the highlights and bathe them in a weak sepia toner which just warms them up without any of the over-the-top effects associated with sepia. They also tone them in selenium afterwards but what do they know. For an idea of how subtle the various print tones are with the Fotospeed paper, the first print below is the colour scan and the one beneath it a greyscale scan

Overall, then, not a bad effort as far as the Allonby print is concerned. But you should have seen some of the subsequent prints from that session. Or, rather, it's better that you don't. Talk about print entropy...


  1. Good to see you back in the darkroom, Bruce. And what a negative to get back into the saddle with!

    By way of contrast, Ray’s print looks positively straightforward.

  2. Morning Bruce -I think the colour scan looks better than the greyscale, but then that's scanning for you.

    I think you maybe overcomplicated your printing process though, at least from my point of view.
    I'd have eyeballed the negative, run a decent sized test-strip across the portion that ran from lightest to darkest, got a decent exposure for the main details, and used my hands as dodgers - amazing what you can do with some knuckles (apart from punching me in the face that is) - for the building; burned in the sky and then sectioned off that whole side of the print to burn-in the really light sky.
    You'd have had a reasonably ok print, but the house would probably have been too dark. So get some potassium ferricyanide, get the water running in your sink and use a small Japanese style calligraphy brush (why this style, well having used a lot of brushes in my life doing art stuff, it'll hold a lot of liquid, but can also be as fine as it's tip) to selectively bleach the house, just working away gently, repeatedly washing away the bleach (but you have to watch out for the 'runnings from the bleach running down the print, so often popping it into a tray of running water does the trick.
    When you're done, re-fix, wash a bit (not long with RC) and pop it in some selenium which should emphasise the darker parts.
    Bruce Barnbaum was heavily into bleaching at one point and though I can't find his article, Ed Buffaloe has partly summarised it here:

    This being said, I've just read this and it is probably as much a faff as hacking an outline out with scissors . . . but the advantage you have is a darkroom sink IN YOUR DARKROOM . . . mine is the bath in the room next to the darkroom - I have to carry everything there for running water . . .

    Anyway, just my twopenneth . . .at the end of the day you're back and stomping - good news all round.

  3. I used to bleach prints in the early ‘90s when I entered them in camera club competitions but haven’t really done much for a few years now. I always had to fight the tendency to go too far, a bit like over-working an image in Photoshop. Anyway, having read your comment I agree with you that bleaching this particular print would have been more of a faff than spending a couple of minutes cutting out a mask. You’ll need to try masking and save yourself some time. Haha.

    Mind you, I made a print yesterday that I’m going to bleach as I didn’t have enough hands to dodge the various areas that needed that. The print is OK but it was a dull day (surprise, surprise) and there are a few highlights that could do with a wee tickle.

  4. You can bleach with subtlety - it's another technique for the arsenal - I tink I would have found cutting out harder tbh ';0) No pointy scissors in my darkroom, oh no . . .

    What grade were you printing on yesterday?
    If you're using any sort of MG I'd consider a mandatory Grade 3 equivalent for starters, though that might take the Fotospeed over the edge . .

  5. I can understand why Mrs Sheephouse doesn't let you have pointy scissors in your darkroom. However, cutting bits of cardboard is pretty easy: think I learned most of it in primary one. :)

    The technique of bleaching is easy enough: it's more to do with the mindset of bleaching and when to stop that causes me problems. It's a bit like those "proper" artists who don't know when to stop working on a painting. They keep seeing wee bits they think they can improve. Funnily enough, Ray Moore was like that with his paintings before he turned to photography.

    Just looked up my printing notes there. The print was at grade 2.5 and f11. The main exposure was 15s. The sky and foreground, i.e. the bits not masked, got an extra 27.6s (f-stop timers come up with weird times). The right hand sky got an additional 21.6s and the bottom right hand corner another 6s.

  6. yeah I'm dangerous with pointy stuff!

    Forget the timer, use elephants and count in your head or out loud, and START at Grade 3 ';0)

    Stopping bleaching is easy - wash it, and leave it for a bit then come back to it - if it needs more go for it. If not, you're done.

  7. What if you have a neg that needs grade one?

  8. Treat it appropriately ';0)

    But in most cases, I've found a little zing really helps things along.

  9. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing.

  10. Exactly - always feel a bit of Grade 3 adds some sparkle in an indefinable way.

    Oh and does the lack of people chiming in mean that most readers of The Online DArkroom, don't have darkrooms?

  11. Or do they just think I'm a gobshite?

  12. Is that not a necessary qualification to comment on photography? Haha.

  13. What about split grade, Bruce? Being it the other usual suspect for complicated prints.

  14. A good idea to have a warts-and-all account of making a print.
    If I may comment a little. The burning-in times are exceeding the basic exposure. This suggests two things. Firstly, the negs might be a teeny bit (an advanced Zone System expression) overdeveloped, although it doesn't look like a high contrast scene. Secondly, that it might be worth thinking about a longer basic exposure and with a bit of dodging. We all have our preferences when it comes to work-flow.
    I just scooted (advanced expression in web browsing) up the page and that reflection, at first glance, has the air of a Moorish dog, doesn't it?
    And it might be my screen, but even in the high-res version (thank you, Bruce) the highlights, such as the porch, look a little bit subdued.

    I am guessing that some people, who are lucky enough to own a decent digital camera, will be amazed at all this. Just bash off the snap with anti-vibration on. Take it into EfexPro and click the Raymond Moore button. Bish, in fact. And bash, bosh – there we are. I exaggerate. I simplify. I expose my own prejudices. I apologise.
    I'm further guessing that half of them are wondering why anyone would inflict all this faff on themselves and the other half are thinking "I'd like a bit of that."

  15. Great prints! Very impressed, wish my bumbling about in the darkroom would/could produce something that nice!

  16. Thanks Bruce. I find myself bleaching quite often, but a purist would say that I’ve not properly tackled the dynamic range.

  17. Hi Bruce,
    Like Manuel said, why not split grade? It makes darkroom life a lot easier.
    Burn the sky with grade 0 and you don’t have worry about cutting masks ever again.
    Grade 0 will not or hardly influence the darker parts in the print.
    Beside that split grade is the easy way to get a good print, because you don’t have to worry about gradation anymore, it’s just time.
    Time to reach maximum black and time to get details in the high lights.
    Traditional printing is like an equation with two unknowns. You can only solve it by trial and error. Split grade brings it back to one unknown, time.

  18. I’m a big fan of split grading, Frank. I could have done it in this print as it was made in the Durst L1200. Unfortunately, my 35mm enlarger, a Leitz Valoy II, isn’t keen on split grading and I’ve lost the habit as a result. At the moment, I’m sitting the multigrade filters on top of the Valoy’s condenser since there’s no filter drawer. That’s OK with one grade but is a pain with more as I have to lift the top half of the lamphouse off to change filters and there’s a chance the negative will move as a result. It’ll be easier when I buy a below-the-lens filter kit. I’ll maybe start split grading again after that.

  19. I think you have nailed it, I go up Scotland every year and your photo captures the dour grey weather very well. The houses that have that dull grey rendered finish do emphasise the gloom. The puddle adds to the scene as do the wonderful clouds.It's grim up north, but not always 😊

  20. Your description of how you go about making a dodge tool made me laugh. Exactly the way I do it, rough and ready, keep it moving. Tim Rudmand book on 'Master printing' gives a good account of how to avoid some of the pitfalls of overspill onto parts of the neg you want to hold back. Basically he uses a few different methods, so maybe a very accurate mask, a not so accurate mask, holding back the print in general first, then burning it the whole thing etc. etc. The theory being that any hard edges or overspill are easier to hide when you use a variety of dodging/burning techniques compared to just one. Like you I have limited patience, so I'd go for one method first, and if this doesn't work out, maybe look to an additional one. Nice print by the way. I'd not have noticed any darkening of the roof unless you had pointed it out, so a job well done I reckon.

  21. Is this the longest you've gone without posting, Bruce? Hope you're okay.

  22. Thanks for asking Dave. I’m fine. Moved house six weeks ago, became a grandfather on the same day and my 88-year-old mum has developed Alzheimer’s so it’s been a hectic time. Hardly taken a pic for months but I’ll get back to it shortly I hope.

  23. Good to see you back online, even briefly. You seem to have enough on your plate already. Looking forward to your next photographic post.
    Congratulations on your new status.