There are a few strategies that I employ when using smaller formats (i.e. 35mm, 120) as opposed to large format. I will discuss the main points that I utilize in small format to hopefully help you in your photography. Keep in mind this is a topic that entire books could be written about so I had to choose wisely on the items I wanted to include in this brief article.
I will start by saying that too much analysis can be prohibitive to your creative process. Don’t misunderstand the requirement for technical proficiency, however testing for the sake of testing vs. testing to achieve a specific visual affect should be remembered. The best thing you can do is test your films of choice in your own environment and make your own decisions based on your specific results. As a general statement keep your variables to a minimum and only change one at a time. After reading the article I always welcome your comments and insights into your own processes.
Small Format Films
When using smaller formats such as 35mm and 120 medium format we have different challenges and also different opportunities. When I think of the finest detail and sharpest possible print, I think large format. When I think of a gritty or gutsy print I think of smaller formats. When I think of street photography I think of small format. When I think landscapes I think large format. The camera, film and your processes in making the negative are just that… a process that get you to your creative end.
I would not use a two pound sledge hammer when the job needed a soft mallet. My point is that our equipment are necessary tools that should be a part of our creative vision and after we can successfully manage the technical aspects of our trade we must stay focused on the artistic and creative side of things to make real progress. This is one of the reasons photography captured my spirit. The technical competency required to be a fine art photographer is assumed and the creative aspect is left up to the individual and their own mind.
I am writing today about one dimension of the technical aspects of fine art photography but I urge you to never lose sight of the real goal of your work no matter where you are on the continuum of technical proficiency. When you view the most famous fine art prints what are your thoughts? Are you captivated by the subject or brilliance of the print or are you trying to figure out which lens the photographer used. If you fall into the category of the latter then I strongly urge you to let go of those notions and focus more on the creative aspects. I will now cover some of the technical details that I believe can impact your fine art photography when using small format camera systems.
With small formats it is necessary to give the least possible exposure that will still capture adequate shadow detail. This means the negative needs to be as thin as possible. Thin negatives are more clear than dense negatives therefore allowing more light through. The more light (exposure) you give the film the thicker and denser the negative will be.
In large format I aim for thick negatives because I don’t have to worry about grain and sharpness. Just remember this little saying “for small format I want to underexpose and for large format overexpose—assuming I error”.
Film & Developer Selection
To select a film without considering a developer would be short sited and leave too many variables on the table. When selecting a film based on your specific needs (speed, grain type, etc) it would be foolish not to consider the developer for its characteristics (e.g. fine grain, sharpness, etc).
One of the key reasons you want a thinner negative in small formats is because of grain issues for enlargements. The thicker the negative the more grain and less sharpness when you enlarge. For 35mm I aim to expose the least possible amount producing the thinnest negative I can and then develop with a fine grain developer (e.g. XTOL 1:1) to further support this notion. However, the penalty for minimum exposure is slightly poorer shadow gradation in the negative. There is always a price to pay when juggling all of these variables. However, if you keep these points in mind and have worked through them in your own style of photography then you know what to lean towards or away from during the photography part of your process.
With small and medium formats, the principal goal is to make a negative that will print with good sharpness first, fine grain second, and good tonal gradation third. With large format I am most concerned about tonal gradation because as mentioned above sharpness and grain are not much of a concern. I selected my large format developer based on my ability to control contrast.
With smaller formats you must decide whether you want the revealing clarity of a sharp developer like Kodak HC110 or the more flattering smoothness of a solvent developer like D-76 and XTOL. The illustration and information below is a good example of what I am talking about.
In these 100% crops the only difference is the developer. I used D-76 1+1 on the image on the left and XTOL 1+1 on the image on the right. Clearly the XTOL developed negative is much sharper than the D-76 negative. Also look at the mid-tones and tonal gradation as well. It would be an easy choice to go with the XTOL developed negative in this specific case. Keep in mind that in no way does this one single example advocate a sweeping suggestion to develop all of your small format films in XTOL. My approach is that I use XTOL 1+1 on all my small format films unless I have a roll with very high contrast scenes and then I use D-76 1+1. It also depends on the subject matter and my artistic vision. For example if I were a portrait photographer and wanted to provide the ultimate detail on an old man’s face, I would probably choose XTOL with T-Max. If I were photographing a woman and wanted to show the softness of her then I would probably use D-76 and Tri-X.
In small format I am typically shooting for the least amount of grain for enlargement purposes and the sharpest negative possible with the best tonal gradation. I have found with my standard films (Tri-X and T-Max) that XTOL performs best as noted in the example above. If I want a gritty look then I will push Tri-X two or more stops and develop in D-76. The important thing to note is that I arrived at these decisions based on experience and not at the direction of anyone else. I strongly urge you to test and document your own findings as a way to gain control of your creative process.
As a general rule I slightly underexpose for small format and error on the side of over exposure for large format. As I mentioned above with small formats (i.e., 35mm, 120 medium format), it is probably best to give the least possible exposure that will still record adequate shadow detail. I will walk you through a typical example of exposure considerations that you will likely have on a routine basis.
Using a spot meter I metered my scene in aperture priority. The shadow detail metered f/22 at 1/2 second – ISO 100. Keep in mind this is with no compensation so I have effectively put my shadows on Zone V (neutral gray). This is not ideal and not what I have intended to do. If you are unfamiliar with the Zone System then I highly recommend reading the classic Ansel Adams book “The Negative”.
status: f/22 1/2 at ISO 100 0 exposure compensation
In order to get the shadows on Zone III where they belong I must dial in -2 stops of exposure compensation on my meter (Zone III is two stops lower than Zone V). This is the darkest area in your scene where you have detail. The new reading is f/22 at 1/8 shutter with all of the other variables remaining the same.
status: f/22 1/8 at ISO 100 -2 stops exposure comp. (2 stops faster from 1/2 second)
What if the true ISO rating of my film was 64 as opposed to the published box speed of 100? The majority of the time our true EI rating is never box speed of the film. If we go with the ISO of 64 vs. 100 then our scene would be f/22 at 1/4th vs. 1/2 for our shadow detail. This is one stop difference and in many cases can lead to the source of the problem when you are over or under exposing for your shadow details.
status: f/22 1/4 at ISO 64 -2 stops exposure comp. (1 stop faster from 1/2 second)
So far we started out with our meter with no corrections at f/22 with a 1/2 second shutter speed at ISO 100. With the proper corrections we ended up at f/22 with 1/4 shutter speed at ISO 64. Between correcting for neutral gray and the ISO we ended up 1 stop faster than our original reading.
So far everything seems in order. The flaw in this process is that it is largely aimed at large format photography where you have individual sheets of film and can control the exposure and development process to ultimately shape the contrast of each negative. With small formats we have a roll of film with several negatives that likely have many different types of contrast on a single roll. We also have the challenge of smaller films when enlarged perform more poorly than large format. This is where testing with your specific films and developer combinations is critical. You have to be able to trust your tools and know what to expect from them. No one can do that for you. In this case I would probably suggest to bracket in 1/3 increments another full stop and review your shadow detail to confirm the proper amount of exposure compensation for future exposures.
I should first mention that I thoroughly tested my large format films and know their proper exposure index for my processes and I also have performed all of the development tests so I can control the contrast of each individual negative. As noted above this is not possible with roll film so we have to take a new approach.
An Approach for Small Format
At a high level the very first thing we want to do is to slightly underexpose our small format films to help control grain and shadow detail. We want a thinner negative as opposed to those thick and dense large format negatives. In large format we don’t have the concern about sharpness and grain as we do in small format. By underexposing and producing a thinner negative we will have less grain. If you want more grain then between your film selection and metering process in addition to your development procedures you could produce that effect as well. Shooting Tri-X pushed two or three stops and developed in a solvent developer should do the trick!
In our example above we metered at f/22 1/2 second and with the corrections ended up at f/22 1/4 second with a 1 stop increase in exposure. Using the logic of underexposing small format we could very easily use the results of our metering process as outlined above because it will in fact underexposed by 1 stop. Whether or not one stop is acceptable can only be judged in the real world. This is only one example for illustration purposes and it very well may not work out that neatly in the real world.
You might be asking yourself, what is the point to all of this? I wanted to walk you through this process so it made you think about your own metering approach and how it can impact the density of your small format negatives. I always spot meter for shadow areas by default unless the dominant subject needs to be placed on a specific zone and then I just let the other areas fall where they may.
For example, if I had a white flower as my main subject as illustrated in the photograph below then I would probably place it somewhere between Zone VI to Zone VII depending on the specific circumstances. If I remember correctly I placed the top right portion of the white petals on Zone VI 1/2. For the sake of discussing metering it does not matter, but I used an 8×10 large format camera for this photograph. This means I would dial in anywhere between +1 or maybe +2 stops of exposure compensation in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments based on my spot meter reading and my artistic preferences.
If we go back to our original example of f/22 at 1/2 shutter at ISO 100 and compare it to the logic of cutting your box speed in half (ISO 50) then our adjusted reading comes out at f/22 1/4 shutter as well because our tested EI rating of 64 is only 1/3 stop difference from half the box speed of 50. Why am I telling you this? My recommendation is to cut the box speed in half for your small format films if you have not properly tested with a densitometer and cut the published development times by maybe 10% to 15% and you will be very close to the results that you would have gotten with the scientific testing. If you do have access to a densitometer then you should aim for about .9 above film base + fog for Zone I (this is where your film starts responding to light).
My suggestion would be to take your next roll of film and using spot metering on your camera or meter to measure for shadow detail in your scene unless the dominant subject is something like I discussed above. Dial in the ISO rating at half the box speed of your film as well and process the roll as your normally have in the past. Do you have better shadow detail? How is your grain compared to your previous work? If the grain is too much then review your agitation procedures and cut them in half. Repeat the test and review the results. If you grain is good but your contrast is too low then increase your agitation again by some logical amount, maybe one-half between your current cycle and duration as compared to your original procedure. Also consider extending your development time for more contrast as well.
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