Ilford XP2 -An under appreciated film

Having recently worked intensively with the whole range of Ilford 35mm films, I thought that I would write a few articles on the special qualities or quirks of some of them.

In this post I’d like to discuss a film which I think is under appreciated; Ilford XP2. This film is a little out of the ordinary, both in the look which it gives and the way it is processed. It is a Chromogenic film, this means that the silver grains are converted to dyes during processing, giving it a unique quality. There is a smoothness to the tones in the mid tones, going up through to the highlights. It looks virtually grainless in these areas, especially on medium format negatives.

With conventional films, when you have a grainy neg from overexposure and over development, the grain of the film is not what you see on the print. Light passes between the grains to expose the paper, so what you are seeing is the gaps between the grains.

With XP2, overexposure is an advantage. The image is formed in the same way as with normally developed negatives, but during processing the film grain is replaced by overlapping, semi dense ‘platelets’ of dye. Because they overlap in the heavily exposed areas, there is no actual gap between the grains, and hence, no impression of grain on the print.
In areas of shadow, less of the platelets are created, allowing more light through the larger gaps. This gives a grainy look.
So the shadow areas look grainy and the lighter tones look smooth and grain free. This is an exaggerated reversal of the grain problem found with normal films. Burning a sky in from a 35mm negative on a conventional 400 ISO film can result in heavier grain which some find unpleasant. A burned in sky from an XP2 negative is smooth and creamy. This quality is also apparent in other images where light tones are important, such as a wedding dress, or a portrait. Snow scenes also have a lovely smoothness.

It needs to be processed through C41 Colour chemicals, this means it can be processed by any lab. I have used XP2 since it’s very first release (as XP1) in the early eighties. I’ve always loved it for certain types of image when it gave me great negs and great prints, but that wasn’t always so. It took me a while to understand how to use it properly as it needs to be used with its own special properties and quirks in mind.

With conventional films, quality suffers with overexposure if development is not reduced and this shows as harsh grain. the opposite is true of this film. White hair, white dresses, skies etc, all have a beautiful, smooth tonality, which will come as a pleasant surprise if you are used to seeing the bleached out highlights of a digital image. Portraits on XP2 also have a different look, the lighter tones of  the image: the skin etc, display a very smooth tonality. The shadow areas, such as dark clothing will show the grain (with 35mm film), but this is not too much of a problem, in most prints you would have to look closely to see it. From a medium format negative it really wouldn’t be a problem.

So if over exposure produces better results, then XP2 is best over exposed. For instance; rated at 200 ISO. The important thing is to not alter the processing, let the lab treat the film as normal. Your negs will be a bit denser than usual, but this is an advantage. If you wish to check this for yourself, just shoot two frames of the same subject, one rated 400 and the next frame overexposed by one stop (i.e. rated 200). Make a print from each frame and compare, you will see an improvement in the one rated at 200.

I believe XP2 to be an exceptional film when used for many applications and always have some in my film bag for the times when I want that look.

Oh, and I almost forgot, -it is amazingly sharp.

Posted in 35mm, Chromogenic film, Darkroom, Exposure, Film developing, Medium Format, Portrait, Printing, neg quality, processing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Ilford films, -the results.

So I finished the task, (see previous post) -though I did need to ask for a weeks extension. All of the images were shot over five weeks and I spent another week working late into the night producing over 100 10×8 proof prints. The final selection has not been made, but I present my favourites below. I would be interested to hear your responses,…

Although I was very lucky with some days regarding the changeable British weather, I also had odd days which were a bit of a disaster, with shutter problems on one camera, meter inaccuracies on another and a misaligned focusing screen on a new camera I purchased on ebay, which meant I lost a number of shots. I also discovered a couple of inaccuracies in the processing information for one of Ilford’s film developers and worked out a new ’stand’ process for a couple of the films and this has proved to work very well. All of this will give me enough material for a number of future blog posts.

Posted in 35mm, Chromogenic film, Darkroom, Exposure, Film developing, General, Portrait, cameras, landscape, neg quality, processing, seeing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Ilford films.

Ilford / Harman have asked me to shoot images to promote all ten of the films they produce. I have to create something eye-catching and inspiring for each of the ten films. Each image has to show what that particular film is capable of, or what it might be used for. The project is very exciting, but I’ve only got a month to complete it! I worked out that I will have to shoot for two days, process and contact for one day, then shoot for two days, process/contact for one day and repeat the cycle for thirty days. I have to come up with a strong shot every two days.

I’ll be shooting on a range of emulsions, from Pan-F at 50 ISO/ASA right through the mid speed range; FP4, Delta 100 and Kentmere 100, then the faster ones; HP5, Delta 400, XP2 and the fastest; Delta 3200. There is one other film in the range and that is the semi infra red film SFX. I’ll be leaving this one til last, not because it’s the least interesting, but because it needs full foliage on the trees to get the best out of it. Bare branches in weak spring sunlight will not produce a striking effect. Hopefully, by the end of the month we should have more greenery around.

When the final images have been chosen I will be required to produce fifty prints of each of the ten negatives. Quite a task, but one I’m looking forward to.

Posted in 35mm, Chromogenic film, Darkroom, Exposure, Film developing, cameras, neg quality, processing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Vivian Maier

I was approached recently by Phil Boulton from Lip International (publishers) to do some 16×12 prints off a set of vintage negatives. He had purchased them online a few years ago and was keen to see what could be revealed in the prints. The images are street scenes in Chicago and New York and look to be from the fifties. Phil sent me one negative to begin with and as soon as I saw it I had a hunch that these were by Maier. After I had begun the prints, Phil revealed that they were indeed original Vivian Maier negatives!

There are some really great images in the set and I’ve loved printing them. A few were very underexposed, and even printing on the maximum grade 5 I couldn’t get a decent print from them. For these, I scanned the negatives, boosted the contrast and retouched some horrendous marks out, before making a copynegative and then printing properly in the darkroom. The final print looked just as though it had been made from a normal negative. The image below is the one I am referring to.

If you are not aware of who she was, then follow these links;
http://www.vivianmaier.com/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqajTVkjnjQ

Her work has been attracting a lot of attention and I think she will be seen as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

Posted in Darkroom, General, Medium Format, Printing, Street photography, Uncategorized, neg quality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Making use of old paper.

Over many years I have bought, swopped and had given a wide range of darkroom papers. Some are rather old and not really much good for making quality prints, but they still have their uses. I don’t throw out old papers, I’ve found that they can be used for Photograms, Paper Negatives, or just for creative experimentation. I have one box of very old Ilford single weight paper which has a base colour like it has been soaked in tea. If you choose the right kind of negative for it, the paper is gorgeous, but it is no good for certain other types of shot. If you want a punchy image with clean whites, -forget it, but for a still life or a portrait I think it brings a nice quality.

Some of my favourite papers are lacking in contrast, that is to say, they have a lower grade now than the number on the box would suggest, this is because papers lose contrast with age. Not all though, -some last a long time, and I have examples from the sixties which are still ok. But some other papers are losing contrast at a much quicker rate, for instance, after only seven years. I have up to date papers which I use if I want a full range of tones, but the older ones are used if I want something different.  The flat, low contrast can impart a mood to the image, especially if the print is toned, in fact, I would say that this is essential. An untoned print of low contrast can look to be just a lot of greys, but a slightly sepia toned, or Selenium toned print is a different matter.

Recently I have been using some Ilfobrom Grade 4  for paper negatives in the 10×8 camera. I think it dates from the early seventies and has a contrast now of about grade 1, which is perfect for paper negatives. Here are three from yesterday morning in the mist.

So don’t throw those old papers away, try them as photograms or paper negatives. Try overprinting them and bleaching the highlights back (perhaps I’ll do this for the next post). Whatever you do, don’t just waste paper, if you really don’t think you can use it, send it to me -I’ll find a use for it.

Posted in Alternative processes, Darkroom, Experimental, General, Large format, Large negatives, Paper negatives, landscape, paper negative | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Anyone out there?

I have been writing this blog for a number of years and the number of comments has, on the whole, been rather low. It could be that my blog posts are singularly dull and uninteresting to anyone who happens to read them, or it could be that it is not very easy to see how to comment. I don’t have a ‘follow’ button because this is an old version of wordpress, and as it is privately hosted (by my web designer), I have been informed that it can’t easily be updated. I might go to the trouble of moving it all over to Blogger, but I need to know if I actually have a readership which would make that worthwhile.

So I would be very grateful if anyone reading this could take the time to let me know if is actually being read. At the bottom of each post, hidden in the small print, is a bit asking if you would like to comment. Please give it a go and let me know if anyone is out there,…

Posted in Uncategorized | 31 Comments

Back to Gum Printing.

I’ve been promising myself for a while that I would get back to doing some gum printing. For one reason or another it hasn’t happened, though I have written articles on the subject on a number of occasions, -but for those I have used existing prints, done quite a bit ago.

In October, I was in conversation with a friend; Maxwell Doig, who is a very good painter. I was at his house and he had an old gum print of mine framed on the wall in his studio. It was so old I had totally forgotten doing it, but it was nice to see it from the viewpoint of a newcomer. We got into conversation about the process and Max encouraged me to do more with it. I had intended to get right onto it, but only got as far as pre shrinking the paper until yesterday when I made gum prints all day. It was a real treat to get back into it again and having so much uninterrupted time meant that I could fully concentrate on it. Gum printing is quite a slow, labour intensive process, but it is very rewarding. It requires the image to be printed more than once to give depth to the tones, and the images shown here have all had four separate coatings and exposures.

The greatest difficulty in the process is devising some way of getting your negative back in registration with the image for the second, third, or fourth exposure. Even though I had pre shrunk the paper by soaking it in alternate hot and cold trays of water, it still altered size enough to ruin a number of prints.

If you fancy having a go at it, there are many videos on Youtube, but they don’t give you much information about the finer points. I will put a PDF copy of a recent article in Dropbox here, for those who wish to read more on it.

Posted in Alt Processes, Alternative processes, Darkroom, Large format, Large negatives, Uncategorized, gum printing, landscape | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ilford / Harman print sales.

Ilford (Harman Technology) have recently launched a new venture called The House Of Ilford. This is a service aimed at the public, enabling them to buy photographs by established photographers for display in their home. Prints are made on real photographic paper and can be ordered in a range of sizes. Ilford are also offering a framing service.

I was invited to be a part of this exciting new venture last year when the idea was first discussed. The site has now gone live and they have done a really good job with it. Take a look here: http://www.houseofilfordphoto.com/home.php

I have twenty three images offered on the site, with more planned. The other photographers include my friend Mark Voce, Leon Taylor and Dave Butcher alongside a number of others.

Posted in General, Uncategorized, processing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

View Camera Magazine

I was recently contacted by a writer / photographer in the USA asking if I would like to be included in an article in View Camera Magazine. The article is on photographers using unusual film types, such as duplicating film and X-Ray. I have been shooting on X-Ray film since 1988 and have written a number of articles on the subject, but was surprised and flattered to be asked.

The article is called Alternative Films, Extraordinary results. and is in the July/August 2013 issue.

It is also mentioned on the esc4p.org blog, -resources page

Posted in Alternative processes, Experimental, Film developing, Large format, Large negatives, Uncategorized, X-ray film, cameras, processing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spürsinn two bath developer

I was recently asked to give my professional opinion of one of a range of developers made by a company called Spürsinn. These are well known in Germany where they are produced, but I had not heard of them. Looking at the accompanying literature for the two bath developer I had been sent, known as HCD-S and HCD-2, I could see that they had done extensive testing. There were development times and detailed dilutions for 38 films and some of those had a long list of possible ratings and dilutions, -for instance there were 22 for Efke 50 alone.

They claim good results rating many of the films at a wide range of ISO settings. HP5 for instance can be rated between 25 and 25600 ISO. They also claim that these developers have excellent edge sharpness, good tonality and low chemical fog at all ratings. AND they have excellent keeping properties.  My first thoughts were that these were amazing and possibly exaggerated claims, so I began my tests hoping to be astounded, -but at the same time prepared for a disappointed thump of reality. These developers couldn’t be as good as they claim, could they? I needed to find out for myself.

I began my tests with the best film in the Ilford stable for sharpness and fine grain: Delta 100 and I shot 35mm because I wanted to use maximum enlargement to evaluate the quality. The first couple of films were very dense and I thought I had done something wrong. I checked my times and dilutions, shot another couple of test films, and after processing found exactly the same results. I contacted Spürsinn and they were extremely helpful, they looked into it and let me know pretty quickly that I had been working to a misprint (which apparently, 500 previous customers had not noticed!), and they supplied me with corrected time/dilutions, which worked better. The test prints from some of these negatives looked very crisp and the mid tones were punchy –what some refer to as micro-contrast and I found that the crisp detail that this developer produced showed one of my lenses to be not as sharp as I had previously thought!

I set about processing a few other films that I had in my darkroom. Next was FP4, this too turned out with punchy tonality, -ideal for low contrast subjects, but perhaps a bit too punchy for scenes of high contrast, or overexposed frames. This punchy quality is great for showing texture in low contrast subjects, like the mid to dark areas of a scene where you have similar shades, for instance: in weathered wood , like this old block.

Having processed a few films with the HCD-S / HCD-2 combination, I can see that these developers do produce clean shadow areas and enhanced sharpness, but with the enhanced grain that this micro contrast brings. Personally, I think this is a nice quality in 35mm photographs and one of the reasons why I shoot 35mm. In medium format negatives the grain would be much less noticeable and with even greater sharpness, so that is probably where this developer would really come into its own. I don’t know if you can see from this crop of the 35mm image above, but the detail is very good.

Density and contrast.

I am of the belief that what is considered correct tonality in a monochrome print is not absolute, but varies from region to region. In Eastern Europe for example, there seems to be a preference for higher contrast in their images. I think that this developer is designed for that kind of approach, but for the British photographer who, I think prefers a longer, smoother tonal range, it might be a little harsh. If you are getting negatives which are of a higher contrast than you are used to, the normal technique is to reduce the development time by 20%. If your negatives are still of a higher contrast than you would prefer, try a reduction of 25%. The instructions for the two bath process here, should, if it were a conventional two bath, need adjusting only in the second bath, but the instructions say to alter both. What they recommend is that you alter your dilution (both baths) but keep the time the same. So calculating 20% off a 1-24 dilution gives roughly 1-30.

Reducing the time should bring the density in the highlights down, with very little effect on shadow detail and would produce a negative with the same sharpness, but with a longer tonal range. I put my theory to the ever helpful Michael Weyl at Spursinn and he was interested in the idea, suggesting that he is going to start work on finding different dilutions for ‘British’ tastes soon.

When I printed from the Delta 100, Delta 400 and FP4 negatives I had processed for this test and review, I found the contrast was requiring pre flash and split grade printing to get a full range out of the negative. The FP4 being the most dense. I then calculated a new dilution with a reduction of 18%, keeping all other factors unaltered. The results were much better, but they were still more dense than the sort of negatives I am used to. The next test will be with a greater reduction.

It is important to note that this developer, and the others that Spurrsin make, are quite sensitive to dilution and agitation, so once you have established the correct time and dilution for your tastes, good processing technique is important. Working with a quality developer like this requires accuracy in exposure readings, focus and careful control of measurement/dilution/temperature and agitation in processing. Variations in local water hardness can have an effect on outcome, but methods to get around this are explained clearly in the extensive instructions. To reduce the possibility of this happening I would suggest using de-ionised water to make up your developers.

I have not had time to test a lot of films in this developer, but I shall continue to experiment with it. With the huge range of ISO ratings for so many films, there are possibilities for some quite interesting styles of photography. From (I would expect, but I’ve not tested yet) Ilford Pan F rated at 320 ISO for high contrast effects, through to Ilford HP5 rated at 25 ISO for a long, smooth tonal range. I am also interested to see if Ilford Delta 3200 rated at ISO 12800 will produce an exaggerated grain effect. I will be testing these ideas soon and will post my findings here when I have my results.

A friend of mine, Bruce Robbins writes a blog on film based photography which is very informative and has tested the Acurol-N developer from Spur. He can be found at: http://www.theonlinedarkroom.com

Currently, The Spursinn developers can be bought from:

Keyphoto -  http://www.keyphoto.com/latest-news.html?article=109

MacoDirect – http://www.macodirect.de/spur-acurol-250ml-p-2510.html?language=en&osCsid=782e362bc991eab30a270f24c72cd642 ,

Photoimpex – http://www.fotoimpex.de/shopen/chemistry/spur-acurol-n-250ml.html

and Spurrsin themselves in Europe – http://www.spuersinn-shop.de/index.php?page=product&info=681

Posted in 35mm, Darkroom, Exposure, Film developing, Medium Format, neg quality, processing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments