Taming Contrast With Black and White Film

I’ve repeated this over and over. One of the things I love about being a photographer in the Pacific Northwest is the weather. More specifically, the fact that it is overcast about 85% of the year makes working with black and white film a breeze and a delight. It’s like I have a giant soft box at my disposal provided by the gracious hand of mother nature. Capturing details and avoiding unflattering and harsh lighting is not something I need to worry about a good chunk of the time.

Every so often though the sun does decide to rear its ugly head in this part of the world. Though the model I happen to be working with on those particular days are more than likely jumping for joy at the warmth, I am left struggling with the challenge of making an image that isn’t so full of contrast and washed out highlights or deep dark blacks that I want to rip the negative in two and toss it in the trash.

I’m going to use this image as a perfect example. I really loved this location. The jagged rocks created an epic landscape that just begged to be photographed on black and white film. Shapes and textures abound. However, describing the lighting as harsh is an understatement. Blazing sun was poking through the ridges of the mountainside and simply waiting around for a later time of day when the light was more subdued was not an option. Once the sun fell below the mountains it would have been too dark. I either had lots of light, or none at all. I wanted to keep some of the heavy contrast in the final image, but I didn’t want it to be as extreme as the real life scene actually was. I wanted to keep as much texture in the rocks as possible and I didn’t want either side of the frame to fall completely to black or blown out completely white.

This is where a few techniques with black and white film can come in handy.

Develop your film cold

The temperature of your chemistry during the development has a direction correlation to the final contrast level in your negatives. Develop your film cold and contrast is decreased. Develop your film warm and contrast increases. A typical starting point for a “normal” negative is twenty degrees celsius. So if you know the scene you photographed is going to be heavy on the contrast, it can’t hurt to develop your film in a chemistry bath a few degrees cooler. Keep in mind however, temperature also affects development time. The colder you go, the more time you will need to keep your film in the development process. Typically I will add an extra thirty seconds for every degree I go down. On the reverse end, I will subject an extra thirty seconds for every degree I go up (for those cases I want more contrast). This is a great method to use when you just want a slight tweak from a very contrasty scene.

Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights

This is a concept that any film photographer should learn regardless of environmental conditions. This may be a bit technical but here it is in a nutshell; longer exposures allow time for the shadow details to register on the film – and development time determines the density of the highlights – shorter development times prevent highlights from losing their details. So basically, you are allowing detail to be recorded in the shadows and preventing over development in the highlights, which results in a negative that is easier to print and which has good detail in both the shadows and the highlights.

In practice this can take some experimentation. If I were using this method in a scene like the above photograph, I would have metered on the left side of the frame where the rocks are most heavily in shadow. When taking the film into the darkroom, I would cut my development time down to compensate for the over exposure. How much you cut it down depends on how heavy the shadow area was that I metered. I always consider a good starting point to be about 30%. So if I were developing a roll for 11 minutes normally (i.e. in a situation where I didn’t meter the shadows), I could shorten my development time down to about eight or nine minutes when I deliberately exposed for the shadow areas.

Downgrade the ISO of your film

In essence, working with your film at a downgraded ISO rating is the same thing as exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights. It’s just a very easy and no fuss way of doing so. For example, if you are working with a film rated at 400 ISO, trying metering your exposure at 200 ISO instead and cutting down your development time by about 30%. This overexposes your negative and works on the same principle in a generic type fashion. The result will be a negative with more detail in the shadow areas and less risk of blowing out your highlights. On really bright sunny days I will typically work with ISO 100 speed film and expose it at ISO 50, metering off the focal point of my image. In fact, with the image I’m using as an example for this article that is exactly what I did. The scene still has heavy contrast, but details in the rocks are still clearly visible with the exception of the one flat surface facing directly upward toward the sun. For me that is good enough and even works in this case to draw the eye toward the tiny model in the center of the frame.

If all else fails, use Photoshop…

When it comes to film photography, Photoshop is the not the devil everyone makes it out to be. Every film image I make goes through some kind of Photoshop editing to one degree or another. Usually it is just a simple re-size and spotting the image for dust, but I have no moral or ethical problem with making other edits as well. Typically I have a rule I follow – if I can make the edit in a traditional wet darkroom during the printing process, I’m totally ok with making the same edit digitally. One of the most basic creative choices all darkroom printers make is the level of contrast in the final image. This is done through the use of red colored gels of various density inserted in the enlarger or through the use of pre-graded photographic paper. Using this level of control in Photoshop is no different. In fact, I would call it essential in tailoring your own images to your liking if you plan on displaying them via the internet.