Winter Inspiration: Tulip Collage

In a blast of unwelcome suddenness, it got very cold in England. While I will still go out and take many photos in the winter, the dreary and grey days can sometimes be tough on creative expression. No worries, this is the best season to work on some indoor studio work!

This photograph was one of many large format film images I took this weekend in my home 'studio.' I put quotes around the word studio because I used the furthest thing from a formal studio to get this image. I really like the resulting photograph and hope that seeing how I did this will inspire your own creative outlet and expression this winter.

Before I get into the how of the photograph, lets look at the finished image (negative was scanned on an Epson V700 scanner)...

There is one thing that really makes this image unique and different. Study it closely and see if you can figure it out. 

Need a hint? Look at the lighting.

That's it! Most people would light this subject from the top - meaning they would light the top of the flowers rather than the stems. Instead, I have the light coming from the bottom, so the stems and base of the flower have all the texture and detail.

Now how'd I do this? First step, I bought some tulips. They are a great flower for photographers because they are relatively inexpensive. I paid $7 for 20 at a market in Cambridge. 

Onto the 'studio' - in this case, my studio was actually an outdoor patio table that I setup in the sunlight coming through the big french doors in our house. The background is standard white tissue paper. I used my large format 4x5 film camera and set it up on a tall tripod. It was so tall I actually pulled out a step stool to be tall enough to get the focus correct. I metered for f/22 and selected an exposure of 15 seconds. At that length of time I don't mind being a little inaccurate, so I counted the exposure in my head.

The very unsophisticated setup I used to get this photograph. You can see the natural light coming from the door was all I needed with a long exposure.

Voila! 

Ran the negative through a standard development and scanned it here. 

I love shooting 4x5 for my 'studio' work because of the size of the negative. It's HUGE. Here - this is next to my iPhone 6 plus. Yeah, it's a big phone, but it's the negative that we're looking at here!

The large format negative vs the iPhone 6 plus

Hopefully that helps you find some inspiration to make some artwork this winter. You don't need to use a big film setup - you can use any camera - but don't let the lack of a professional studio stop your creative expression. The sun is a wonderful light!

Film Shootout: Ilford FP-4 Plus

Film Name: 

Ilford FP4 Plus

Type: 

Black and White

ISO: 

125

Grain: 

Fine

Sizes Available: 

35mm, 120, & sheet

Size Tested: 

35mm & 120mm

Development: 

Following MassiveDev chart, using Ilford Ilfosol 3 developer. Seven minutes development time, 1 minute stop bath (Ilford), 5 minutes of fixing (Ilford), 10 minute rinse and Kodak Photo-Flo. 

Developing a roll of 120mm and 35mm Ilford FP-4 Plus. I measure all of the chemistry first and use the MassiveDev app on my iPad as a timer. Film is loaded into a Paterson tank.

Developing a roll of 120mm and 35mm Ilford FP-4 Plus. I measure all of the chemistry first and use the MassiveDev app on my iPad as a timer. Film is loaded into a Paterson tank.

The chemistry used to develop these test rolls. From left to right: Developer (Ilfosol 3), Stop Bath (Ilfostop), Fixer (Rapid Fixer) and Kodak Photo Flo. Again, note the MassiveDev app for iPad.

The chemistry used to develop these test rolls. From left to right: Developer (Ilfosol 3), Stop Bath (Ilfostop), Fixer (Rapid Fixer) and Kodak Photo Flo. Again, note the MassiveDev app for iPad.

Developed film (120mm and 35mm) ready to be hung for drying. 

Developed film (120mm and 35mm) ready to be hung for drying. 

Film drying in the darkroom. My drying rig is expertly crafted from a metal clothes hangar, gaffers tape, film hanging clips and a over-the-door hook. 

Film drying in the darkroom. My drying rig is expertly crafted from a metal clothes hangar, gaffers tape, film hanging clips and a over-the-door hook. 

Fact Sheet (Provided by Manufacturer): 

ILFORD FP4 Plus is an exceptionally fine grain, medium speed, black and white film. It is ideal for high quality indoor and outdoor photography, particularly when giant enlargements are to be made. In addition to general photography, FP4 Plus is also suited to copying and internegative work, and has many applications in scientific, technical and industrial photography.

FP4 Plus is robust and will give usable results even if it is overexposed by as much as six stops, or underexposed by two stops. It is compatible with all major processing systems, including those which give the standard short fixing and washing times.

FP4 Plus 35mm film is coated on 0.125mm/5-mil acetate base and is available in 24 or 36 exposure cassettes, or in bulk lengths of 17 and 30.5 metres (56 and 100ft). FP4 Plus 35mm film is supplied in DX coded cassettes, suitable for all 35mm cameras.

FP4 Plus rollfilm is coated on 0.110mm/4-mil clear acetate base with an anti-halation backing which clears during development. It is available in 120 and 220 lengths and is edge numbered 1 to 19 (120) and 1 to 40 (220).

FP4 Plus sheet film is coated on 0.180mm/7-mil polyester base with an anti-halation backing which clears during development.

Packaging:

Packaging of a 120mm roll (35mm packaging is the same, just different shape). Box is white with black and blue logo lettering. Expiration date is printed on the bottom corner, along with a suggested storage temperature of less than 20*C / 68*F.

Packaging of a 120mm roll (35mm packaging is the same, just different shape). Box is white with black and blue logo lettering. Expiration date is printed on the bottom corner, along with a suggested storage temperature of less than 20*C / 68*F.

The exterior of a 35mm Ilford FP4 Plus canister

The exterior of a 35mm Ilford FP4 Plus canister

The exterior of a 120mm roll that has been exposed. Sticker is left at the end of the roll and can be affixed with a quick lick, like a postage stamp.

The exterior of a 120mm roll that has been exposed. Sticker is left at the end of the roll and can be affixed with a quick lick, like a postage stamp.

Leftover paper backing after the 120mm film has been removed (in a dark film changing bag) and transferred to the developing tank.

Leftover paper backing after the 120mm film has been removed (in a dark film changing bag) and transferred to the developing tank.

Remains of the 35mm canister once film was removed for developing. 

Remains of the 35mm canister once film was removed for developing. 

Scanning:

Both the 120mm and 35mm film was scanned on an Epson V700 scanner using the provided film trays and Silverfast 8 software. I scanned for internet and printing, so the files were not the absolute best the scanner can achieve, but I don't need a million DPI either. I set the scanner to 900dpi using a RGB color profile. In the crops seen below, the scan quality is a bigger limiter to the quality than the film itself.

User Review:

This was the first "high quality" (aka not sold at your local drug store) film that I ran through my 120mm and 35mm camera. As a company, Ilford has a fantastic reputation for making some of the best films on the market.... they also specialize in black and white film, so you sort of expect only the best.

I have found the FP4+ to be a very forgiving film that captures great dynamic range and can therefore make up for an imperfect metering and exposure settings. Negatives consistently have a nice balance between contrasty blacks and light tones. I find the grain to this film also very appealing - too much grain can distract from the image, but the FP4+ fine grain is enough to offer texture and depth to the film without being overpowering.

Development of this film is very easy. You can use any number of developers and get fantastic results.

The more I shoot this film, the more I find myself really liking it! There's not much to complain about, it's a very solid all-around film for a variety of shooting conditions. Portraits, architecture, landscapes, etc all look great; if you are setting out for a day of shooting with no expectations of what you might photograph, Ilford FP-4 plus is a great choice to load up. Where other films are particular good for portraiture, et, the FP-4 plus is a wonderful "do all" film and the 100 speed offers a very fine and pleasing grain. 

A super crop (200%) of a 900dpi scan on an Epson V700. This isn't even remotely close to the best scan quality possible, but the detail and sharpness is very apparent. The grain is very fine and not overbearing.

A super crop (200%) of a 900dpi scan on an Epson V700. This isn't even remotely close to the best scan quality possible, but the detail and sharpness is very apparent. The grain is very fine and not overbearing.

Another super crop, but this one is at 300%. Again, incredible sharpness and detail captured in this negative.

Another super crop, but this one is at 300%. Again, incredible sharpness and detail captured in this negative.

The Power of the Darkroom

Since I've started working with enlarging my film negatives in a darkroom, I keep getting the same series of questions.......

  1. Darkrooms still are a thing?
  2. Isn't it expensive?
  3. Why not just scan and print your negative?

All fair questions. Let's break down the power of the darkroom.....

1. Yes, darkrooms are still a thing, but increasingly rare. Where I live outside Cambridge, the closest public use darkroom is a little more than an hour drive away, but it's worth the drive. While I could (and will eventually) build a darkroom in my house, that will have to wait until I am not living abroad, so a public darkroom is the way to go. There are several websites dedicated to helping you find a darkroom, such as http://www.localdarkroom.com

2. Name something in photography that is not expensive and you win a prize. For me, darkroom printing is no more expensive than my inkjet work. My consumables are the light sensitive papers and chemicals. In my case, I don't pay for chemicals because I have instead opted for a membership at a darkroom (The Photo Parlour), so my chemical cost is really my membership cost. Factoring in the cost of paper and assuming I make around 50 prints a year, my cost per print is around $3 - and that's good and large paper (8x10 or bigger). In digital printing, my costs are ink and again paper. The paper I was using, which is again a high quality paper, cost $2.75/sheet and my ink costs were about $2 per print. In fact, all factors considered, I once calculated that my "startup" cost for inkjet printing was almost $1000! 

Let's assume I make 50 prints at 11x14 per year. My cost per print in the darkroom, including my membership fees, is about $4/print (also assuming some margin for mistakes and re-prints/ test strips, etc). The cost for the same 50 prints done at home on my inkjet printer is $5/print (I probably have less "waste" since a printer is a very.... mechanical..... object!). 

Bottom line - it's always cheaper to mail order print, but that removes the "art" from a lot of the work. I enjoy watching my prints appear before my eyes, so for me, the costs of personally printing are worthwhile. And, in my current situation, the darkroom doesn't cost more than inkjet!

3. I really didn't appreciate the true magic of the darkroom until I began using it. This sounds stupid to say, but I always thought about my prints as having one single proper exposure. I thought there was one version that was the "proper" version (as conceived by the artist, not technically proper) and you print that version. I was blown away when I watched prints that were dramatically different come from the same negative...... slightly longer exposures in the enlarger made some prints darker and moody, while the same negative with less exposure time was light and bright. I was blown away. I can make two different prints with two different moods from the same negative? I know, it sounds stupid, but I never really considered this.

Suddenly a new world was unlocked. I now visualize an image thinking "is this a dark and moody photo, or a light and cheery photo?" ---> I am thinking about the development and enlargement before I take the picture. With digital photography I would think about the end product, sure, but I didn't think in the same tonalities and with the same possibilities that film has stretched me to consider.

The best example of how to get the different tonalities is best seen in a test strip. Check these photos below - the different slices are the same photo, but different lengths of time in the enlarger. Each has a different look and feel and none of them is "more correct" than the other.

Let's revisit a recent negative - one of a boat on the beach of Dungeness. I scanned and posted it several days ago, but let's review the original negative....... looking at it below, it's fairly dark and the image we see is a digital machine's (scanner) literal interpretation of the negative. There isn't much creative interpretation - the scanner is just trying to represent the negative in a series of shades of grey - really simplifying my image into a series of 1's and 0's. How sad.

Obviously, this is a lovely photograph! But it's not the print I imagined when I clicked the shutter. The print in my head was much lighter. MUCH lighter. It was almost white sky and the boat was very light, as though it was drawn in pencil. It was a happy photograph, while this is a little dark and moody. Off to the darkroom!

I did a test print and decided that my first print would be at an exposure of 10 seconds with no dodging or burning - just a straight print. Here's what that looks like:

This is certainly lighter than the scanned "literal interpretation" from the negative, but the sky is still too dark for my liking. I ran another print at  5 seconds, but that was too washed out - needed more contrast. To boost contrast in a black and white print, we add magenta filters, so I went crazy and added 50 magenta to the filtration (for scale, 15 is more "normal"). I ran another test strip and determined I liked the look of the print at 9 seconds. I realize this almost the same exposure as the previous print, but the magenta filtration requires more time to compensate, hence the minor change in image time. Here's the print at 9 seconds with 50 magenta in the filter (I also burned the bottom right part of the rail a little more.

Perfect! This is actually my final print - there are several others that I used to tweak the dodging and burning and show slight differences in the foreground, but this was my final version. 

So why bother with the darkroom - that's why! Look at what an incredibly diverse set of prints I got from a negative that, to the scanner, looked very dark. The darkroom has unlocked my creative potential and has me visualizing my artwork in a whole new way.