Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

My Photo
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Street Photog: A Photographic Survival Manual

From time to time someone at work approaches me and mentions being interested (or having a son or daughter interested) in photography. Invariably someone has a point-and-shoot film or digital camera and wants to explore getting a bit more serious. When I ask “Which genre?” or “Black and white?” or “Film or digital?” the response is usually something like "You tell me." I could suggest that they go to Barnes and Noble, pick up an introductory photography book, and read it. But that's overkill that could turn them off instead of on. There seems to be a cottage industry in introductory photography books, and there is a lot about photography that isn’t covered in those books. It would be cheaper and more useful to go to Barnes and Noble, buy me a few cups of coffee, and we can talk about photography for a few hours. Not about aperture, not about field depth, and not about stop bath. About what separates a snapshot from an interesting photograph, about why he/she should use film instead of digital, and about how to go about choosing your genre of photography. Better yet, they could buy Peter Nebergall’s Street Photog: a Photographic Survival Manual (2005). This can be thought of as a written substitute for about 30 brief, topical conversations with a professional photographer. I think that they reflect very much the kinds of questions the fledgling or self-taught photographer would be likely to ask. The title is a bit of a misnomer as it covers many issues germane to photography in general, not just street photography. When reading it, I thought of it more as Introductory Photography: the Missing Manual. Nebergall keeps his chapters short and to the point. In an age when it is difficult to keep someone’s attention span focused for more than 5 minutes, the terseness of his writing is welcomed. Anyone who wonders about getting into the sometimes expensive hobby /career of photography should plunk down their money on this little book first. It could either save them a fortune or guide them into a hobby that can easily become an obsession. And the book costs about as much as two cups of coffee at Barnes and Noble.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bergger 200 in Prescysol

One has to have a compelling need to use Bergger 200 as it is one of the most expensive silver halide black and white films around. The last time I checked B&H in New York, Bergger 200 was $5.50 a roll. For some reason, if you buy it in the 10-pack, it costs just under $5.70 a roll. That's pretty expensive cellophane holding the film boxes together.
I have heard good things about Bergger 200. Someone told me that it had more silver than most modern emulsions. I heard that it was similar to Kodak Super XX, a very popular black and white film dating back to before I was born. I also heard some not so good things, namely that it was simply rebranded eastern European film that can be purchased for half the asking price of Bergger, and that it was very grainy. So I bought a 10-pack (I wanted to see that cellophane wrapper). I shot a roll in and developed it in my newly-discovered wonder developer, Prescysol. And the results are grainy, but it's kind of a good grainy if you want your images to be richly gritty. If you're looking for a good developer to use with Bergger for that look, Prescysol is a winner here.
This is a thick layer of old mud from a Katrina-ravaged house in the lower 9th ward. The subject is gritty and depressing, and so is the film. Like Agfa APX 400 in PMK Pyro, if I were going to film a day in the life of a coal miner, this might be my film. I'll probably shoot the rest of the film in Holt Cemetery.
Am I going to buy more of it? Not unless someone pays me for the finished images. Nearly six bucks a roll for this much grit and only 200 ISO doesn't make much sense.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fuji Neopan Acros in Prescysol

I shot a test roll of Acros yesterday, not to be testing how it fares with Prescysol. I was testing an old 50/1.4 Nikkor LTM lens I bought off ebay. In a word, the lens' performance is magnificent, better than my pristine 50/1.5 Leica Summarit and better than my recently recoated 50/1.5 Sonnar from the mid-20th century. So the test was for the lens and this blog piece is about the film and developer. There is no need to rave about Fuji's Neopan Acros. In my opinion, it is faster and better than all of the other slow films past and present (Agfa 25, Panatomic X, Pan F, and Rollei 25). Tom Abrahamson likes to develop Acros in a home-mixed Beutler developer. Before resorting to making my own developer, I have been trying some commercial developers. Prescysol appears to be a good mate for Acros.
To test the Nikkor 50/1.4, I shot at the nominal ISO of 100 and used an f-stop of 2.8. I had no tripod and wanted to eliminate all camera shake. The negatives looked fine coming out of the tank. Looking at the scanned TIFF files left me a bit stunned. Very sharp, very fine grain. When dealing with slow films, those two parameters are generally mutually exclusive. Rodinal produces very sharp negatives with very noticeable grain. Microdol-X produces very mushy negatives with negligible grain. The image of the freight car looks unspectacular at normal viewing size. An enlargement of the detail at the top of the white portion of the middle car shows the fine detail that this film/developer combination can yield. Neither of the images is altered in Photoshop other than resizing to 750 pixels and exported to jpg. I have some Acros in 120 that I'm going to load into a Rolleiflex tomorrow. The results just might bring me to my knees.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


In my previous entry, I bemoaned a debris problem on my film developed in Prescysol. After looking at the cost and grief associated with installing a filter in my home's water supply, I went back to the negatives for a close look. Enlarged greatly in Photoshop, the spots appeared less like dirt/debris and more like tiny areas of emulsion with no silver. This made no sense as TRI-X has always been consistently smooth and even for me. It occurred to me that the development of Prescysol involves long (3 min) periods of no agitation. Perhaps the white spots were areas of undeveloped emulsion adjacent to air bubbles.
I ran two more test rolls of film (Bergger 200 and TRI-X, simultaneously) through the same partial stand Prescysol development routine, but this time I really pounded the tank against the stainless steel sink to dislodge any air bubbles. While my zeal resulted in a piece of my Paterson tank breaking off, the resulting negatives were pristine...no areas that even suggested dirt or debris.
So, today I order some stainless steel developing tanks. I'll also get a piece of rubber so I don't damage my wife's sink. By the way, I'm really liking this Prescysol. Development looked fine on both rolls of film despite using the exact same 10.5 minute development time in the same tank. The acid test will be how APX 100 and APX 400 look using this developer.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 07, 2007

At a Crossroads with Black and White Film

When chromogenic (C-41 process) black and white films were released some years back, I thought that my fretting over which film to use was over. These films were fast (ISO 400) and extremely fine grained. They had very smooth, rich grays. They had excellent latitude. They scanned beautifully and allowed me to use digital ICEtm (software that removes dust and small scratches). And I could get them processed at a thousand different places in town in just 1-2 hours. Why use anything else? The only real drawback of these films is that, like color negative films, they are not as stable as silver halide films. But what the hell, my work is not going to be carried on to the 22nd century. And once I’ve bitten the dust, my wife will put all of my negatives out by the curbside.

Things have changed in just a few years. Digital has overwhelmed the photographic community right down to the occasional snap shooter. Less film is being processed at the corner drugstore, so their C-41 chemicals might be a week old. The technicians now have machines that are better at eliminating dirt and scratches, so they treat the film like crap. Even the worst abuse won't show up on 3x5 snapshots. No problem, I’ll take the film to a camera store and get it processed there. That worked for a few years, but with the preponderance of digital, some labs closed (including a very nice one about 8 blocks from my house). Hurricane Katrina flooded the rest. Now those lab owners had to decide whether they wanted to reinvest in 20th century machinery when digital was the sine qua non of photography today. Today, getting a roll of Ilford XP2 processed at a reputable lab in New Orleans takes 5-7 days. Or I can drive out to the suburbs. I don’t have that much patience.

So I decided at the end of 2005 that I would go back to developing my own B&W negatives. I bought a bunch of reels, about 5 tanks, and then set out to find a really good developer/film combination that would scan well and print well on an inkjet printer. I found two that I liked. PMK Pyro and Ilford FP4+ are a great combination in the 125 ISO domain. Panthermic 777 and TRI-X are a great combination in the 400 ISO domain. I could have left well enough alone at that, but there is a bit of alchemist in me. Being restricted to just two films is too confining. I love PMK Pyro, but it works poorly on films that don’t stain well. I have about 700 rolls of black and white film in the house that don’t work well with PMK Pyro or 777. I decided to snoop around at some other staining/tanning developers.

I bought some Prescysoltm a few years ago and never used it. It makes some pretty impressive claims, such as “unsurpassed in its ability to provide superb negatives with extremely fine grain, remarkably high sharpness, smoothly gradated tones and delicate and translucent highlights” [from Photographers’ Formulary, Inc.]. I had some TRI-X in a point-and-shoot, so I went out and shot a fast roll.

The procedure is similar to PMK Pyro but without most of the fussiness. Not only do you not have to invert the tank every 15 seconds, you actually leave the tank sitting motionless for 3 minutes at a time. You also don’t have to dump the used developer back into the tank after fixing. Everything seems to require about the same developing time (10.5 minutes at 75F) so different films can be developed together. I do prefer to inverting the tank 3 times instead of 40. And Prescysol uses the same quick-fixing archival alkaline fixer that rinses out in just minutes and doesn’t require hypo clearing agent.

The instructions caution you to use filtered water. I now know why. The negatives were the dirtiest I have ever had. Perhaps this developer makes the film attractive to junk in the water. I’ll filter the rinse water next time. After an hour of spotting the negative in Photoshop CS2, I have to say that I like this developer. I can’t say that Prescysol is “unsurpassed in its ability to provide superb negatives with extremely fine grain, remarkably high sharpness, smoothly gradated tones and delicate and translucent highlights”, but the negatives looked pretty good, and the results were pleasant. The subjects were my two favorite therapy dogs at work, the lighting was vintage state office building fluorescent, and the lens was a 40mm Summarit wide open. Grain is well controlled, sharpness is good considering the lens was wide open, and the grays are sort of “smoothly gradated”.

I’m sort of excited by this developer, and have about 20 different kinds of film to try with it. If it works well with many of them, I may have found a panacea. I especially hope that it works well with APX 100 and APX 400. I have 600 rolls of them.

Prescysol is available at Photographers' Formulary Inc. and, in the UK, at Monochrome Photography.com. My impression is that it originated in England and was later picked up here in the states. I would be interested in hearing from others who may have used this developer.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Car as Camera Bag

New Orleans is known for its debauchery, although we use nicer terms than that. Drinking is almost a social requirement. Having been raised in California, I was not accustomed to having a drink handed to me every place I went. The first place I taught in New Orleans, St. Mary’s Dominican College, had beer in the snack bar. I’m already getting off the subject. The point is that, in New Orleans, there are a lot of happy, tipsy people and a lot of pedestrians. Do the math:

(tipsy people) x (pedestrians) = (tipsy pedestrians)

We have another rule in New Orleans. Red lights are for cars. Pedestrians can ignore them. “Don’t Walk” signs? Those are just suggestions. Add to this cell phones, distractions that cause cars to drive through stop signs and red lights, and make some drive the wrong way down one-way streets.
After losing a Nikon SLR and Canon rangefinder in separate slamming-brake-related incidents, I learned that leaving camera gear on the car seat was not a good idea, not in this city. I slam on the brakes at least twice a week when someone walks out in front of me, a car runs a stop sign, or a bicyclist going the wrong way down a one-way street rides right in front of me. Putting the camera in a gadget bag was no solution. It just meant that all cameras and lenses flew onto the floor simultaneously. I tried hanging a Timbuk2® courier bag from the back of the passenger seat, but then it was too difficult to access from the front seat. Then I found Duluth Trading, a web-based store for the working man and woman. They make rugged, comfortable work clothes (and a lot of other things) out of the same kind of canvas used to make fire hoses. What I found most importantly was The Mobile Desk. Not a desk at all, it is more like a reinforced square canvas box with pockets, adjustable partitions, and a lid to keep your stuff out of sight.
Closed, it looks like something that would be housing the tape measure, box cutter, and work orders of a contractor. There is a Velcro® flap in the back that allows you to secure the box to the clasped front seat belt. Inside, with partitions strategically placed, there is enough room for two rangefinders or SLRs, twenty rolls of film, three more lenses, lens tissue and fluid, a light meter, and a handful of music CDs. On the outside, there is a clipboard-style clasp for a pad of graph paper and some pockets for chewed up carpenter’s pencils and an old ballpoint pen. All of that is camouflage. We want this thing to look like something important only to a glazier or furnace repairman. There are also convenient outside pouches for a cell phone and my Sirius® remote.

Duluth Trading also makes an organizer to hang in front of (or in back of) the passenger seat. Called the Cab Commander, it can hold a lot of non-photographic stuff that you routinely need while driving (maps, a Thermos® bottle, a collapsible umbrella, etc.). I find that I can put a lot of stuff within an arm’s reach while traveling without running off the side of the freeway.

Duluth Trading also makes clothes, and I have a lot of them. They like to put pockets in and on jackets, so you can get a decent looking comfortable jacket with plenty of roomy pockets for film, a P&S digital, a light meter, etc. And for the photographer who is a plumber by trade, they actually make a shirt with an extra-long back tail to cover plumber’s cleavage. I highly recommend looking at their whole site. Lots of items you didn’t know you needed until you saw them.