5 Frames… Of a foggy forest on an English TLR and Kodak Tri-X 400 (120 Format / EI 400 / MPP Microcord MKII + 77.5mm f/3.5 Ross Xpres) – by Leo Nikishin
In summer 2020, I was lucky to spend 6 weeks wandering around the Sintra region in Portugal. It is a marvelous place and one of its defining features is the fog: it comes from the coast and ‘gets stuck’ atop the Sintra mountain ridge, wrapping around the forest-covered slopes. During a particularly foggy morning, I found myself with my MPP Microcord Mk II TLR, it’s 77.5mm f/3.5 Ross Xpres lens and a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 at the very top, the trees barely visible around me – it was a photographic paradise and I was just praying that the film gods have mercy and everything from camera to my scanner works as it should.
Fast forward two months, I am editing the scans. And here’s what popped into my head:
In the world of wine, there is an opinion (but certainly not a rule) that red wines are the easiest to comprehend and appreciate, with white wines being somewhat more sophisticated/nuanced and, finally, the top-notch bubbly being the most intricate kind, requiring the most sensitive and discerning palate. Whether or not that’s true (personally, I’m not sure it is), I saw a parallel of sorts with black-and-white photography.
The easiest to embrace and appreciate is black. Darkroom printing 101 is to keep the print in the developer until pure black (if present) develops fully. Scanning workflow often involves scanning ‘flat’ and then adjusting the black point – as is often advised, to the point where the darkest point in the image is just starting to ‘clip’ into pure black.
Next up is pure white. This one requires a bit more deliberate approach: pure white draws attention to itself and can look really ugly if it appears next to gradual grey tones. But when done well, pure white is a powerful tool that gives stark contrast and clarity to the whole frame. Think of classic high-contrast black-and-white portraits on white seamless background. Embracing the white is not that hard.
It’s worth noting that those who got started on digital cameras (as I did) may have a slight phobia of pure white since it is often described as the worst enemy of a digital shooter (although more so in colour): once that pixel turns to pure white, there is nothing to be done – no detail or information can be recovered. Negative film does not really work that way and especially if you scan with a high-end scanner or a digital camera, a lot of information can be extracted even from ‘bulletproof’ highlights.
When I started to dive deep into film photography, I was told (or maybe read somewhere?) pretty early on that most black-and-white shots work best if there is a pure white and a pure black somewhere in the shot – and that’s how I edited my shots for the longest time. Another thing worth mentioning is that social media (Fb, Instagram, even Flickr, 500px and so on) tends to favour high-contrast images – my guess is that they are easier to appreciate on a smaller screen (as the shot doesn’t rely on fine detail and subtle tones as much). Watch almost any photo editing tutorial on YouTube and it will involve bumping up the contrast at some point – often to the point of having pure black on one end and pure white on the other.
But maybe it is grey that takes the place of champagne from my wine analogy. It is much more subtle. It is also much more subjective, being a wide range of tones rather than something quite specific. Editing these foggy shots, I first went the usual way and added a good dollop of contrast to them but that just destroyed the intimate beauty of a fog-covered forest – which is all in the greys, in the mid-tones. So I had to reset my eyeballs and edit everything again, with much more attention to the grey tones and the contrast between them. Thankfully, mildly expired Kodak Tri-X 400 provides enough mid-tone contrast as a starting point, so it ended up being a rather straightforward edit.
So here’s to embracing the grey area (pun certainly intended)!
You can find me at my Instagram and I am also an active member of Negative Positives Film Photo Podcast Facebook group. Oh and then there is also my own cozy little podcast: 10 Rolls of Film! Available on Anchor and all the usual podcast platforms. On top of that, I have an Etsy store for selling zines.
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This series is produced in conjunction with Hamish Gill's excellent 35mmc.com. Head on over to read the other half of these stories there.
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