No Grain, No Pain


I was bored. Standing around in the lab and wanting to try something, I poked and prodded at various materials.

I’ve been experiencing a hankering to experiment with large format alternative processes – cyanotype, ambrotype and so forth. But standing in the lab the other week, I wanted to do something new now, and not have to wait for new materials, trial-and-error learning of entirely new chemical processes and so forth.

It occurred to me that one of the frequently-touted advantages of “hybrid” photography is that it potentially combines the ‘feel’ of analog, including its dynamic response which, Nik’s SilverFX Pro plug-in notwithstanding, is difficult to imitate, with the ease of editing and immediacy of electronic photography.

I don’t want to wax lyrical about or weigh in on the digital vs film debate. But it is indisputable that until there is a 4×5″ digital sensor with a respectable pixel density, 4×5″ monochrome negatives are drop-dead gorgeous. They are detailed, enormous (around 13 times larger than a “full-frame” 35mm sensor), and at low ISOs (25 to 50 is perfectly normal in large format photography) there is no detectable grain. Even scans of 4×5″ negatives using relatively pedestrian flatbed scanners (I use an Epson V700) are hands-down some of the finest digital images one could hope for.

There is another minor point: 35mm camera lenses are optimised for maximum optical performance across a relatively small capture area. Leica’s legendary dual-range Summicron from the late 1950s is able to resolve no less than 400 line-pairs per millimetre. But they also have to cram a great deal of light and detail through a relatively small opening. There are always compromises.

By contrast, large format lenses are positively leisurely in terms of resolution, but they make up for that and more in terms of the relatively hard to pin down rendering; there are all kinds of technical reasons for this, to do with the relatively long focal lengths and correspondingly reduced depth of field, the relatively simple lens construction, large absolute apertures (not relative; f5.6 is considered respectably fast…) and so forth. But it all boils down, especially in a portrait, to gorgeous bokeh. There’s a certain glow that little pictures (film or digital) can’t quite match.

Back to the lab:

I have plenty of 4×5″ film stockpiled, in various speeds. But processing large format film is always a little fiddly, the tank is clumsy, and it takes long. Orthochromatic film is a little easier, as it can be tray-developed under safelight. It’s not much fun for landscapes, since the sky ends up blank and washed-out, but for portraits it’s unbeatable. Hmm.

Nobody has ever prohibited me from trimming photographic paper to size and shoving it into a 4×5″ film holder. I have a pile of old resin-coated photographic paper, grade 2, which I got for free. And a pair of scissors lives in the lab. Bingo. A little guesstimation gave me ISO10 as a starting point for the paper’s sensitivity.

A subject was sat down in the studio, the Toyo View 4×5″ monorail was erected, and a Schneider-Kreuznach Symmar-S 1:5.6/210 lens was mounted. A single Elinchrom 600W flash to camera right, perhaps 40cm from the subject, through a 60x60cm softbox, provided ersatz daylight. A little trial and error gave me an exposure of 1/60th of a second at f5.6, with the flash firing at full-power.

The shots in the can, I scuttled across to the lab with its waiting trays. Processing was painless: just like paper. 90 seconds or so in Adotol, 30 seconds in a stop bath, and then fixing normally. Result!

The use of low-contrast paper was inspired. Even on RC-paper, development time is long, shadow areas emerge quickly, highlights (i.e., the dark portions of the negative) develop very gradually, without losing any detail. Perfect for scanning.

Except that I found out the hard way about Photoshop CS4’s 2GB file-size limit. More on that later.

Future iterations will likely lead me to more ambitious lighting, but for now I’ve stumbled on a way of taking portraits which let me get finely-nuanced depth of field, unbeatable tonality and an unusual look not easily obtained digitally.


Posted on November 3, 2011, in large format, Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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