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Thread: Over/Under process for paper negatives

  1. #1
    500+ Posts Ned.Lewis's Avatar
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    Jul 2012
    Sonoma County, California

    Over/Under process for paper negatives

    I call this the “over/under” process for paper negatives: they are intentionally overexposed and then “underdeveloped” by inspection and not to completion.

    This project started with a happy mistake. Here's the story.

    Here in Sonoma County, California, we have fog and we often have clear blue skies, but we do not enjoy dramatic clouds very often. One day last April it rained in the morning and then began to break up in the afternoon. Dramatic skies with windows of sunshine and little cloudbursts of rain were moving across the landscape, and miraculously it happened on a weekend instead of when I'm indoors working! I grabbed my Kodak 3A loaded with a paper negative, and hiked with my dog Mango up to a favorite view. The tripod was set up, the scene framed, and I had just taken meter readings when a horse and rider came along the narrow path we were standing beside. We didn't hear them coming and Mango was startled and almost knocked over the tripod. I got distracted and when I set the shutter and aperture I miscalculated the exposure. Then we waited for about half an hour and when the light was just right I made the exposure. It wasn't until we were driving home that I realized the negative was overexposed by about 1-2/3 stops. And that is simply too much to recover from with a paper negative.

    At home in the darkroom there was some dark yellow well-used dektol that had been sitting in a jar for a week or two. I decided to use it instead of mixing a fresh batch. Then I diluted with ice water to about 1:8. The idea was to slow development so much that it might be possible to snatch the negative out before it turned black. After 2 minutes, there was no image visible and it looked like development was not going to happen at all. But then a faint image formed and visible density was building ever so slowly. At 5 and 6 minutes the density was still increasing. After about 7 minutes, it looked almost as dark as a normal negative, but it also looked odd somehow under the safelight. I didn't have much hope at that point and figured it would probably be a lighter version of the “overall fog and low contrast” that happens when a paper negative is overexposed all over.

    Turning on the light I was surprised to see very warm tones on the negative. Not blacks and not neutral grays, but a range of warm brown and slightly olive brown tones. The paper was Adorama VC RC and it is usually neutral or cool in dektol. But the biggest shock of all was that there were clouds visible. Clouds on an overexposed paper negative! And there was plenty of separation and detail in the foreground.

    I often make paper negative pictures of skies by deliberately underexposing and treating the foreground like a silhouette in a sunset photo, but I'd never seen a sky like this on a normally exposed paper negative, much less an overexposed one. Usually the best I hope for is that you can see there are clouds, but with reduced highlight details. Figuring out how to make paper negative pictures with skies in them has been an ongoing challenge, and here was a new way right in my hand! By a complete fluke and accident. I'm still excited about it today and this all happened 7 months ago.

    The colors on the negative were reminiscent of the colors on a solargraph, so I was not surprised by the colors when the negative was scanned and inverted. Not surprised but still pleased.

    So that began a set of experiments to see if I could replicate this accident, and explore its limits. Since then I've made a series of photographs all overexposed by different amounts. And the happy result is that this “accident” can be repeated intentionally and it is not difficult to control or any more finicky than paper negatives usually are. The results are logical and similar to a compensating development of film.

    I keep a bottle of old yellow used dektol topped off with leftovers from from darkroom printing. Each negative was developed by inspection with this dektol diluted to 1:8 with ice water. All the exposures are on preflashed Adorama VC RC paper. I always pre-soak paper negatives for 2 minutes to reduce uneven development, and that is even more important than usual with this process ( you really need to have it hit the water all at once, and then the same with developer). All were made in my Kodak 3A with a yellow filter. I normally rate this paper at ISO 3 with the yellow filter and ISO 12 without-- but all these example used the filter.

    I think Joe and some others here routinely use dilute slightly used developer, and when they rate paper, it would be relative to their development process. Mine is relative to 2 minutes in dektol 1:4. I also prefer it to be slightly used, but I certainly think of my normal process as development to completion. If you routinely develop by inspection, and have some “headroom” ( it can be overdeveloped if you wait too long ) then you are already doing this “over/under” process to some degree. Much like exposing and developing film really.

    Development ranged from about 8 minutes for the least exposure to 3 minutes for the most extreme overexposure. All the negatives were developed to roughly the same density. The tones on the negatives ranged from just slightly warm for the least exposure to a light toffee color for the longest exposure. The variation between all these negatives is regular and smooth and there were no surprises. The tonal range goes from nearly normal in the lowest exposure to very compressed in the highest. I believe it might be possible to use the highest overexposure if the scene being photographed has huge contrast and a brightness range of 6 or 7 stops. I'm still hoping to try that.

    Here is a set of example photographs made this way, with increasing amounts of overexposure.

    First 1/2 stop overexposed, almost normal:

    The next two are 1 stop overexposed:


    This is 1-1/2 stops over, the original Happy Mistake Picture:

    This one is 2 stops overexposed, but no sky or clouds. I think sunlight and the colors in the scene are important. A bluish tone, but not as much variation.

    And this one is 3 stops over. My meter showed only a 1 stop range in this between grass and sky, so it may not be a fair test.

    I was happy to find out this accident was repeatable, and look forward to making many more! I like it best when the exposure is 1-1/2 to 2 stops over, but I think it is possible to pick and choose how much to overexpose depending on the contrast of the scene.

    A note about the colors: these are all scanned, inverted, and then overall level adjustment only. None of the colors are altered from the straight inversion of what is on the negative. You can read some rambling almost stream of consciousness thoughts about the significance of that in an earlier post! I think it is neat that these colors are the "natural inversion" of the paper negatives. Oh, and in the "Happy Mistake" picture, it looks just like Sonoma County in the Summer, but that grass was truly bright light green. Still nice though!
    Last edited by Ned.Lewis; 11-12-2013 at 10:44 PM.
    Some photos: Ipernity
    ( pinholes and solargraphs mixed in among the rest)

  2. #2
    500+ Posts colray's Avatar
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    Mar 2011
    Albany WA
    Fantastic tonal range

  3. #3
    Great work, and I like the idea of discovery by serendipity. It's fun to think that we still have some new things to learn with the humble paper negative. Thanks for sharing, I'm going to have to try my hand at this, to see if I can eke out any more dynamic range in high contrast light.

    "There was just that moment and now there's this moment and in between there is nothing. Photography, in a way, is the negation of chronology."-Geoff Dyer, "The Ongoing Moment"
    My Writing Blog: Joe Van Cleave's Blog
    My Pinhole Blog: Obscure Camera
    Visit my F295 Gallery

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