Pyro + Black and White Film = Great Highlights

I posted a CrappyWorkPrint™ of my normal StupidCrap™ test subjects a while ago and went on to explain some of the virtues of using a pyro developer. It seems that there was at least a tiny bit of interest in what the heck I was talking about. Probably more curiosity than practicality. Anyway I received a couple questions about what is what on that post and decide to synthesize the answers in to a few clarifications and a post.

Even if you are not interested in ever using a pyro film developer there might be a few things to think about here regarding the use of film (negative - not slide film) as well as a general method of operating when deciding what to do with some of your work - even digital.

First off here is a CrappyScan™ of the CrappyWorkPrint™ of my StupidCrap™

I shot this when testing one of the 9 or 10 year out of date Ilford Delta 100 in a box I unearthed from a long ago move. I knew it would make pictures but needed to understand it's particular characteristics acquired after my very carefully uncontrolled aging process. Here is what I did.

  • Set my meter to ISO 50 as it had probably lost some speed. Just need to gauge how much.
  • Shot random images of StupidCrap™ that were all over the map in terms of contrast and brightness ranges.
  • Happend to be semi-interested in this particular eagle flying among the clouds. So I shot a couple of frames after doing some ill-concieved calculations that lead to me metering the sky and adding two stops of overexposure (Zone VII for you B+W guys).
  • Now that is all fine and dandy if I were to develop the film somewhere close to normal contrast here tis the "but" - I finished the roll quickly and decided that the only images I cared about were kinda low contrast - like that sky in the image. It was kinda gray and flat visually. Hence I made the decision to develop the living crap out of it - somewhere around N+2 contrast (think two to three stop push in over development). Yea but I exposed it a stop over in the first place. Usually if you develop for higher contrast you want to under expose the film by a bit - like a stop or a little more for N+2. The sky will now go through the roof in terms of density.
  • Let's see what happened.

Well the negative is very very very thick and there was a bit of fog from the age of the film that was exacerbated by the overdevelopment.  But guess what - the Pyro held detail in the sky, the overdevelopment boosted the contrast to a level where I could see detail that I didn't even see with my eyes when shooting the image. Mind you that Pyro is in no way a fine grained developer - it's more like Rodinal, very very sharp. The over development, the overall overexposure, and the fog contributed even more in the grain department but I will tell you from experience with a lot of materials that the amount of detail that is rendered and retained in those blasted out highlights (the entire SKY) is pretty amazing. That is what people mean when they talk about increased highlight detail - black and white film + pyro is amazing at doing this. It does not mean anything about where you decide to print these values - if you jamb them all up in the white of the paper you cannot see them. I decided I wanted to render the sky in the upper midtones so I could see what was going on. Hence I printed it very dark.

This is just a strait print so I can see what is going on in the image - when I print or am working on a project I usually take some of my favorite images and print them. Typically "strait" without a whole lot of special treatment. If I am unsure of two massively different variations I print them both - still really simple prints. I then live with them a little bit, like a week and make decisions about how I really want to treat them in terms of paper type - size - local adjustments - etc. Then I will make those and live with them for a while, in many cases I decide that I do not want to go any farther and those prints get filed away. The true gems are the prints that I can live with and find interesting over the course of time. Those are the ones that make it to a final printing stage for me.

I do the same thing when working on personal projects even if the end result is a book. I find that living with your images on paper - somewhere that you spend a lot of time consistently makes for a better edit of what's in, what's out, and what to do with a particular image that trying to do that in one shot or one session on the computer. I am very often surprised by what makes it to my final images. It's way different than what I would have guessed at the beginning of the  process. One of the big things I do is I do not cut personal project image on the basis of technical crap - the only criteria is if I like it or I don't.


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