Getting a good negative

Darkroom printing doesn't have to be difficult and with sound and logical working practices can be picked up fairly quickly. The important thing to remember is that it can be a real pleasure with a good negative and a right pain in the neck with a dodgy one. You don't have to be a magician to produce a nice print from a well-exposed and developed negative but you need the powers of Harry Potter (or more likely Valdemort as it's an evil business) when these qualities are lacking. When you're thinking about darkroom work therefore, the negative is the most important thing.

What I'm going to suggest is a method of working that will leave you with, if not exactly a perfect negative, then at least something very close. It's based on the premise that what you know isn't as important as how well you can do something. No, it's not the zone system but you have to learn to walk before you can run. Before we get started, I'd urge you to pick just one film and one developer and stick with them until you have some experience behind you. Whatever you choose, just be assured that they will produce perfectly good negatives if you know how to use them properly. Most people don't have enough knowledge to properly test films and chemicals and a lot of time can be wasted flitting from one material to the next. One of the quickest ways to success is exploiting the knowledge gained working in one simple manner. Leave the experimentation until later.

So with Tri-X, FP4 Plus, T-Max 100 of whatever in your camera, I'm going to ask you to take three exposures of each scene, bracketed two stops each side of the meter's recommended exposure. (Please note that I'm saying two stops here and not one: there's so much latitude in black and white film that there's little to be gained from a one-stop bracket). That way, you'll have an exposure that is ideal or no more than a stop or two away (unless you have a complete brain fart) and consequently a negative that shouldn't give you too many problems under the enlarger. (If you're not sure how to bracket exposures, please refer to your camera's handbook).

For instance, if you make an exposure at 1/250th @ f8 and it is the correct one, all well and good. If it's two stops over or under exposed then you still have a perfect negative and if it's just one stop either side of correct then you're only a stop out. If you over expose by four stops from your 1/250th @ f8 then you've still got a negative that's no more than two stops over and whilst that's going to be a little dense it should print OK. The only problem is the four or more stops under exposed negative which will have some empty shadows - but, paraphrasing Scotty, you can't change the laws of chemistry and sometimes you just have to suffer for your art.

The other benefit of bracketing like this is that should there be a problem in development - say the temperature drops a couple of degrees and you don't notice or you get the dilution of the chemicals slightly wrong - then you should still get something that's pretty good from the roll. Likewise, equipment failure at the taking stage - your meter goes on the blink and you don't know it or you set the wrong film speed in an older camera that doesn't read the sensitivity automatically - wouldn't necessarily ruin your chances of having something printable.

Two-bath developer
Having exposed your film, half of the job is in the bag and now you've got to get the development right. I'm going to cover this in some depth in another article but for now you need to know that with most developers you work out, according to the instructions, the developer to water ratio, immerse the film in the brew for a set time, to a particular "agitation" agenda (a gentle shaking of the developing tank at regular intervals to ensure even coverage of the film in the liquid) and at a specific temperature. This can be a quite demanding series of instructions to carry out when you're first starting so I'd suggest you use what's called a two-bath developer.

I mix my own (the formula, by the late Barry Thornton, is at the bottom of this page) but there are one or two available commercially such as the excellent Diafine and Tenetal Emofin. Mixing your own from three powdered chemicals is only slightly more involving than mixing the likes of Ilford's Ilfosol when it comes in its powdered form. With an accurate set of scales (drug dealers have a definite advantage here) it's very quick and straight forward.

Two-baths - so-called because the film goes into a first developer bath before being drained and then going straight into a second before the usual rinsing and fixing - do a good job of preventing the highlights from becoming too dense and difficult to print - definitely a major plus when you're starting out and certainly worth the extra effort. However, these developers are also much less picky when it comes to their operating temperature and the duration of development. With my formula and Diafine, different types and speeds of films can be given the same treatment together in the same tank which can be a big saving in time and convenience if you like to use, say, a slow film in one camera and a fast one in another. (Remember, though, you're sticking with just one film to start with!)

Watch the sun
My final piece of advice for a good negative would be to choose your subject matter carefully. I know there are so many scenes that look great when you're staring into the light but this "contre jourluminances shooting into the sun can be big enough to swamp the negative and leave you either with blocked, unprintable highlights or empty shadows. You really are better sticking to frontal lighting -a 45 degree angle to the subject is fine - if you want to get a negative that won't pose too much of a challenge.

Stick with one film, one developer, bracketed exposures and avoid contre jour lighting and you'll be in the best possible position to move into the darkroom with justifiable expectation that a cracking print is going to be the inevitable result of your labours. We'll take a look at how to do that in the next article.

Barry Thornton high definition, two-bath developer.
Mix the metol in about 700mls of water at 38 degrees C and once it has been fully dissolved, mix in the sodium sulphite and top up to 1000mls with cold water. Do the same with the sodium metaborate. Give 35mm and roll film about 4 mins in each bath at 21 degrees C.

Bath A
Bath B
Sodium Metaborate
Sodium Sulphite
Water to 1 litre
Water to 1 litre

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