The one-third digital darkroom



During this Covid19 period I’ve been pondering still life macros on 8 x 10 black and white film.   The challenge I’ve been facing has been to strive to get beyond the Edward Weston / Ansel Adams cliché.  A pleasurable morning spent reading John Blakemore’s Black-and-white Photography Workshop has set off some light bulbs in my head for new creative  explorations.  Beyond his technical mastery of black-white developing and printing what is also so striking and suggestive about his book is his conceptual open-mindedness and free-spirited sense of  exploration. What I found particularly fascinating this morning was reading the still lives section about the making of his thistle photographs, where he explores the different effects of exposure time in developing technique using the zone system; and also, even more impactfully, his ‘fictions’ series.


This seems to be a particularly useful point of departure from the ‘1000% percent authenticity’ approach of Weston / Adams.  What Blakemore did with this series was to make double-exposures of the still life scene, the first exposure to include both ground and subject and the second exposure to just include the ground.  This produced a wonderfully mysterious tonal effect where highlights in the subject were unchanged but midtones and especially shadows slowly melded with the ground exposure.  This seems great to me because the whole point is to challenge the viewer to think carefully about what they’re perceiving, which is what all photography should be about; but still life is so often, especially in large format circles, totally dominated by the quest for authentic photographic reproduction; and this tends to cliché very readily.


There is also a very pleasing sense of craft in everything Blakemore does and this is all for the good in the enrichment of the sense of enjoyment that to me is the whole point of using a large format camera in the first place.  To me this will also be an interesting experiment: it will be intriguing to see the extent to which a double-exposure technique can be made to work to make alternative process argyrotype prints.


Beyond these conceptual nuances it’s also been useful to read John’s discussion of the photographic toning of black-and-white prints.  This is a book that is completely devoted to silver gelatin and darkroom work, but that doesn’t mean that photographers who use digital cameras, or photographers who use a blended workflow, don’t have much to learn from John if they’re interested to make the most of black and white imagery.


This book can teach you all you need to know about toning I think! – not simply as a technical exercise but fundamentally as to do with the aesthetics of the final print or image.


I’ve been reminded of the benefits of split-toning for warmth and contrast and tonal depth / richness.  So I thought I’d try to replicate this quite straightforwardly for the digital part of my workflow in Photoshop.  The natural place to go to do this is the gradient map tool.  Paring back the aesthetics of toning, selenium produces depth and warm to the shadows whereas gold toning producers a cooling in the highlights; combining these two can add texture, depth, and richness.


To achieve this effect in photoshop is quite straightforward. You just need two gradient map layers at very low opacity e.g. 5% or less, and use the colour picker to select a dark red tone for the shadows in one layer and a light blue tone to the highlights for another layer.  You can also add a darkening and contrast curve to add a bit more richness to the image as well.


Here’s one I made earlier!


I’ve also added a new little section on my 8×10 film-holder tapes, where I can annotate very succinctly but clearly the precise zonal metering decisions I took.  This is very much overkill for work intended for scanning, but will be useful for the techniques discussed above, and will also help me to further hone my technique for the traditional alternative prints I make.  Here’s a mockup of a new-style film-holder tape.


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