Back over the summer of 2018, my beloved Bronica SQ-A became gravely ill, and I sent it off to the camera spa for some TLC. I was in a place, photographically speaking, where a handful of one-off shots had the promise of a project. This particular project involved still life of leaf skeletons, set on a light table, and I had already worked out satisfactory exposure times for my favorite films.

Too restless to wait until my Bronnie came home, I figured that I’d give my fledgeling project a try with my 4×5 large format field camera. Mind you, this particular wooden beast had been relegated to the bottom of a drawer for 10 or so years – a hiatus born of frustration with a different still life project. So there I was, giving it another go.

After the first few hours of cursing and fiddling, something fell into place. And I had a negative that I loved, along with a way to use camera movements that gave me images that were perfect for what I was trying to do.

In a matter of weeks, I finished off a box of ILFORD Delta 100 Professional that had been in my stash long past its expiration date and decided to keep using the large format film and camera once the Bronnie came back home.

In need of more film…

Just as I was finishing off the Delta, I acquired a stash of Atomic-X – a negative film made by the New 55 company and now sold by Famous format. A photographer friend had passed this on to me because he thought that it would suit my project and he wasn’t needing it.

…and a methodology

Now, anyone who knows me knows that while I am quite methodical while printing, I’m a bit flexible with how I treat negatives.

Yes, I do a little previsualization of tones when shooting. Yes, I grasp the basics of the Zone system. But no, I never take multiple zone meter readings of a scene. My roll film goes to a lab, and while I do develop my sheet film, I haven’t done a proper exposure/development test in years. Probably since I first acquired the view camera.

I knew from hard experience that light table backlit still life is a tricky thing to expose and print, so I decided to suck it up and do things properly…in a fashion. I got a solid weekend to myself, pulled out Using the View Camera by Steve Simmons, got my support system of Zone System gurus – Craig and Erik – on board and set to it.

Expose, develop, print, repeat?

My plan was to expose, develop, and print round one on the first day, and use the second day to refine as necessary. Getting one round completely finished in a day let me speed up the process so that I had prints to evaluate before starting round two.

Round one involved finding the starting place for exposing the negative. I was after a fairly graphic image, so I wanted snappy blacks and gentle mid tones that would feel fleeting and floaty. In the end, I needed the light table to be near white – which is oddly difficult to accomplish without putting some thought into it.

I made a “baseline” negative with my last Delta 100 sheet using an exposure time that had worked for me in the past. Following that were three negatives with the Atomic-X; at the baseline exposure and +/- one stop.

I developed the Delta as normal in Kodak HC-110. For the Atomic-X, I used a suggested dilution and time for Ilford films, mainly because I couldn’t find an HC-110 dev table for the Atomic-X.


First (and second) contact

Once the negatives were dry, I made my first contact sheet.

As expected, the Delta 100 had come out how I wanted it and the development of the Atomic -X clearly needed fine tuning. The light table background in my baseline exposure was too dark. The dark tones in the +1 stop negative were not snappy enough. And the -1 stop negative was garbage.

What I mean by that is, while I will be able to get a perfectly acceptable print from one of these by using split filtering, the idea here was to get the negative as close to right as possible, so that I don’t have to fiddle as much in the printing phase.

The next day, I was ready to work on phase two – refinement of my exposure and developing. After consulting my expert team, I decided to expose the next set at the baseline time, but extend the development time 20-35%. In principle, this ought to set the blacks where I wanted them and expand the light tones so that the light table would be near white.

I more or less followed the procedure in Mr Simmon’s book for finding N+1 development (I made a minor, accidental deviation which didn’t really impact my outcome):

  • Baseline exposure, developed +20%.
  • Baseline exposure, developed at +30%.
  • Baseline exposure -1/3 stop, developed at +25%.
  • Baseline exposure -1/3 stop, developed at +35%.

The second contact sheet showed (above)promise, so I went on to full-sized test prints of the third case (I liked the tonalities best), using a grade 2 and a grade 3 filter.

Negative 3, printed with a grade 3 filter (the 4th image in the gallery below) is a winner for me, and I’ll be using this combination for the next set of images with Atomic-X.

It’s about vision

I’m not a “shoot for the print” type person but I’m trying to avoid a situation like where I was with printing pinholes taken with JCH Streetpan. For what it’s worth, I’m very particular about my materials, and the only reason I gave the Atomic-X a go was because it was given to me by someone that I trust took the time to understand my photography.

I went through this exercise because, even though there is a lot that I can do while printing, I have been burned several times when new-to-me film stocks didn’t behave – tonally speaking. Time to shoot, time to print – both are very precious. Getting the negative closer to “right” means not spending hours and hours on a print that should have been a little more straightforward. And those hours and hours could be spent better on making many prints, not just one.

This project is deeply personal to me, in a way that I don’t expect anyone else to understand. I have a strong vision for the final prints – I want them to allude to both fragility and strength. Because the subject is so simple, my primary tools for making the image work are composition and tone. And honestly, the tones in this setup can be difficult to manage. By creating a negative that is easier to work with at the printing stage, I can use my printing time to refine each image, instead of getting it into a place where it’s merely passable.

~ Monika

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