Here’s something different. I had my FujiFilm X-T1 set up to record monochrome with a digitally applied red filter to alter the tonality. Working with a Zeiss 12mm lens, I made this view at Arlington, Massachusetts of two MBTA buses passing on Massachusetts Avenue.
On a trip to the Pittsburgh area, I made these black & white photos on Tri-X in February 1987 at New Castle, Pennsylvania.
While, I like the effects of back lighting on this westward Chessie System train, I was thwarted in my efforts at producing satisfactory prints.
Complicating my printing problems were edge effects that had resulted in un-even processing that affected the sky highlights more dramatically than shadow areas.
After about a half dozen attempts using Kodak double-weight paper I’d given up.
The other day this roll of 120 Tri-X finally worked its way to the top of the scanning pile, and after scanning at high-resolution, I thought maybe I’d try to work with the back-lit photos using Lightroom to see if I could improve upon my printing efforts from 1987.
Instead of dodging and burning on the aisle, working digitally I’ve applied digital graduated filters to control highlights and shadows, contrast, and the overall exposure.
Brian Solomon’s Tracking the Light posts new railway photography every day.
Working with the Leica IIIa fitted with a 21mm Super Angulon and loaded with Kodak Tri-X, I exposed this vertical grab shot of Pan Am Southern’s eastward loaded autorack train 28N at Wisdom Way in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
I often work with two or more cameras, typically one is a film body and the other digital.
On this June 2017 afternoon, fellow photographer Mike Gardner and I arrived a few minutes earlier, and my primary image from the Wisdom Way bridge was a color view with my FujiFilm X-T1 fitted with a 90mm lens.
The 21mm Super Angulon is a very unusual lens, but one I’ve been working with since the 1970s. Looking back over my early work, I often achieved more satisfying results with this lens than my other tools.
For this view I wanted a dynamic angle that was more than simple documentation so I chose to skew the horizon. I also slightly panned the moving locomotive, which has the affect of softening the background while keeping the numbers on the locomotive cab sharp.
Norfolk Southern 6991 is fitted with the ‘Crescent cab,’ a design unique to Norfolk Southern, thus making it comparatively unusual in New England.
The other day, I loaded my old Nikon F3T with Rollei 35mm black & white Infrared film. A few weeks earlier I tested a roll of this emulsion and processed it to determine the ideal chemistry, times and temperature.
These photos are from the second roll, which benefited from refined processing technique.
All photos were exposed as recommended by the manufacturer using a 25A (red) filter. To obtain more extreme infrared effects I’d need to use a 72R (deep red) filter. Since I’m not in possession of one of these, we’ll have to wait for that experiment.
By design, infrared film yields high contrast images with brilliant highlights and inky dark shadows. (Blue light is rendered darker than with pictorial pan chromatic emulsions, so blue sky and shadows appear unnaturally dark.)
I made these photographs along Dublin’s LUAS Red Line on Abbey Street. Late low sun made for especially dramatic lighting.
Five alternative views of Ireland’s Bord na Mona railway.
Here I’m trying something different: Working with an old Leica IIIa fitted with an ancient screw-mount Nikkor 35mm lens, I exposed some Fomapan 100 black & white film.
Instead of my normal process, I opted to soup the film in Ilford Perceptol. I mixed the stock solution from powder. Recommended development time was 8 minutes, but I cut this to 6 minutes, then after complete processing (stop, fix, hypo-clear and wash) I toned the negatives with a 1-9 Selenium solution to boost highlights (and then rewashed).
It was my first time working with Perceptol; overall I was pleased with the results, which yielded fine grain, broad tonality and a somewhat softer over-all image than what I’d been getting using ID-11.
This camera-lens-film-developer combination seems to have worked well with the rustic Bord na Mona narrow gauge industrial railway. I’ve opted to display a handful of the dozen or so monochrome images I exposed that day.
Tracking the Light takes a different approach today.
Some readers might wonder why I persist with traditional black & white photography, when modern digital imaging is easier and doesn’t involve all that messing about with chemistry.
The reasons are simple:
I like tradition. I’ve always made black & white photos and processed my own film. While there have been gaps in my black & white work (usually owing to a lack of adequate facilities), I like the continuity by occasionally working with a consistent medium.
My black & white efforts can achieve desired results that may not be equivalent to images made digitally.
Because traditional black & white photography is more difficult, I feel it hones my image making skills.
I process my negatives in an archival fashion and I scan them digitally. This leaves me with greater chances that the images will survive for generations than images strictly stored on ephemeral digital media.
Some years ago, someone asked me if I had adjusted to the switch to digital photography. I said, “I still haven’t adjusted to the switch to color!”
However, just because I continue with the time-honored tradition of black & white photography, doesn’t prevent me from also working digitally.
As regular viewers know, I routinely expose, present (and occasionally publish) modern digital images. In fact I find that two types of photography complement each other nicely.
Here’s another contemporary black & white view on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
In the window of Ulster Bank is a view from 1916 showing the ruins of Dublin’s General Post Office, destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising. Old trams grind along near the old terminus at Nelson’s Pillar.
A child looks at us across the void of time.
Modern pedestrians are a focused on their phones or the ATM at the side of the bank.
Today, tracks are being re-built on O’Connell Street, and after a long absence tram service is expected to resume in 2017.
It was Spring 1984 when I made this black & white photo of Conrail’s SEBO-B climbing east through Warren, Massachusetts.
Until a couple of day’s ago, this negative was lost and unprinted, part of a group of Conrail negatives on the Boston & Albany.
When I first relocated these images after 32 years, I was puzzled.
What had happened and Why?
Then I remember the situation: I’d messed up the processing of the negatives at the time and I was disgusted with the results. And, so I’d put the negatives away in a general file, where they were mostly mixed in with similar outtakes from my High School yearbook collection (I was a sort of unofficial class photographer.)
In 1984, I’d typically use Kodak Microdol-X as my black & white developer, aiming to work with this solution at 68 degrees F.
To mix the solution from powdered form, I’d have to bring the temperature up to about 120 degrees F, then let it cool (often in glass bottles soaking in ice water).
I must have been in a hurry, and in this instance, I’d failed to allow the developer to cool properly. When I processed the negatives the solution was still over 80 degrees F. Worse, the rest of my chemistry was still at 68 degrees.
The result was that my photos were grossly over processed, but since the developer was highly active, it affected highlights and shadow areas differently. This provided much greater shadow detail to highlight detail than I’d normally expect.
Also, the shock to the emulsion when I dropped the hot film into relatively cool stop bath solution caused it to reticulate.
Reticulated emulsion results in grain clumping that lowers the sharpness, produces a ‘halo-effect’, and creates a speckled and uneven grain pattern that is most noticeable in even areas such as the sky.
Since the negatives received much greater development than usual, they are very dense, and back in my day printing photos in the family kitchen, were effectively unprintable.
With modern digital scanning and post processing techniques, I was able to overcome difficulties with the density and contrast.
I find the end result pictorial. Perhaps, it’s not an accurate rendition of the scene, but pleasing to the eye none-the-less.
I’m just happy I didn’t throw these negatives away. After all, Conrail SD40-2s were common, and I had plenty of opportunities to photograph freights on the B&A.
Let’s gaze back in time; 30 plus years ago I was a young enthusiastic photographer with a 35mm Leica rangefinder. I was fascinated by the Boston & Maine, operated by Guilford Transportation Industries (as Pan Am Railways was then known).
B&M’s quaint operations, traditional signals, and antique General Motors diesels had a real appeal. Back then I focused on catching the EMD GP7s, GP9s, and GP18s, plus EMD switchers and run-through Delaware & Hudson Alco C-420s and C-424s.
I made hundreds of images trackside in those days.
On June 4, 2016, I picked up my old Leica, as I do from time to time, and loaded it with Ilford HP5 (often my choice film back in the day) and headed for Pan Am Railway’s East Deerfield yard before dawn, (as I have since I learned to drive 33 years ago).
Antiques still run the rails on Pan Am.
My lens of choice has a long history.
In the 1970s and very early 1980s, I’d often photograph with a Nikon 35mm wide angle made with a Leica screw-mount.
This lens had gone missing for decades and only recently re-emerged. In the interval it had seized up (as old equipment does when the lubrication dries out). My dad sent it for servicing and its now back in our arsenal of working photographic equipment.
Good lenses are relatively common these days. Most off the shelf digital cameras have pretty good optics compared with many consumer-grade film cameras of yesteryear.
But, truly great lenses remain hard to find.
This Nikon 35mm is a great lens. Not only is it sharp, lightweight and compact, but it has a distinctive optical quality that is rarely found with modern lenses. In short it has ‘that look.’ (look at the photos).
After exposing my film, I processed it with the aid of a Jobo film processor to my own custom formula.
Basically, I used a twin bath developer of Kodak HC110 with constant agitation at 71 degrees F for 4 minutes, 15 seconds. Stopbath for 30 seconds; twin bath fixer; rinse; permawash; and final wash. Negs were scanned as TIF files using an Epson V600 flatbed scanner at 3200 dpi . Nominal contrast adjustment was necessary with Lightroom.
Undoubtedly, someone will ask, ‘but isn’t that a lot of work?’
Yes, it is.
And, ‘Couldn’t you just convert your digital files to black & white?’
Here are a few views I made with my Rolleiflex Model T of Mass-Central’s former Boston & Albany branch on July 10, 2014.
Why black & white? Why film? Why in 2014?
There’s no question, digital photography is easier. If I desire a square black & white image, all I have to do is set my Lumix LX7 to a 1:1 aspect ratio using a switch on the camera, and set the ‘photo style’ to ‘monochrome’ using the function button.
This set up procedure takes just a few seconds, and I can switch back to color quickly and easily whenever I choose.
Working with the Rolleiflex is more cumbersome; the camera is klutzy to load, it only makes 12 frames per roll of film, and the film takes about an hour to process in the darkroom (dry to dry). Then I need to cut and sleeve the negatives and then scan them for presentation here.
Yet, I still do this. Not for every photograph, not on every outing, but I still go through the motions of using black & white film.
Why? I have five reasons:
1) I like it.
2) It gives me a subtle ‘retro’ quality that I can’t really get from digital.
3) It allows me visual continuity: I’ve been making black & white railroad photos since the 1970s. Why stop now?
4) I can still do it: I have the cameras, the film, the darkroom and the skills to get great results.
5) The B&W film medium is known to be archival. I process my film using a two bath fixer, permawash and rinse for 15 minutes in clean running water. They are stored in archival sleeves. Barring the unforeseen, the negatives I processed should still be in good condition for viewing in 50 to 100 years, maybe longer. They will need no extra attention regarding ‘back up’, except to store them in a safe dry place.
This last point is not true with digital photos. I make three backup copies of every digital image and store them in separate locations, but digital remains an ephemeral media. Hard drives, DVDs and all other existing means of commercially-available digital storage will, in time, go bad. Hard drives can fail, suddenly, completely and without warning. The information will be lost. The photos will vanish. Like the tide coming in on a child’s sandcastle, the images in their digital form will be washed away, forever.
I was interested to find this collection of Maine Central locomotives at Boston & Maine’s East Deerfield Yard in September 1984. At the time, Guilford’s gray and orange livery was still a novelty.
Using my father’s 21mm Super Angulon on my Leica 3A, I composed this somewhat unconventional view of the ready tracks. This lens was a favorite of mine at the time. I still use it occasionally.
The composition works despite being foreground heavy and exposed on the ‘dark side’ of the locomotives. The image nicely integrates the infrastructure around the locomotives while offering a period look.
At the time I was studying photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and made regular visits to photograph the Boston & Maine.
I made this photo when I was a senior in high school. Paul Goewey and I’d planned to meet some friends at Springfield Station, and then drive north to photograph Boston & Maine at Deerfield.
While we waited for the others to arrive, I exposed a series of images of Conrail on the former Boston & Albany mainline. At the time, Conrail regularly stored locomotives between runs on track 2A in the station (at right). On the left is a set of light engines led by Conrail 6608, one of ten C30-7s.
More interesting is the locomotive trailing 6608, a relative-rare former Erie-Lackawanna SDP45.
The trip to the B&M was very successful and I exposed two rolls of 35mm Kodak Panatomic-X ASA 32 (Kodak Safety Film 5060) with my Leica 3A, and a couple of rolls of 120 B&W with my dad’s Rolleiflex. I processed all the film in the kitchen sink, using a crude formula of Microdol-X. I sleeved the negs and made 3×5 size proof prints.
The 120 negatives have been in my files for three decades, but the 35mm negatives had vanished. I have a photo album from 1985, with many of these images, but for years was vexed by the loss of the 35mm negatives. As a rule, I don’t throw photographs away.
The other day, I found a carton with school papers and photographs. There, at the bottom was an unlabeled crumpled manila envelope. What’s this? Ah ha!
It was chock full of negatives from 1984-1985. All missing for decades, many of them unprinted.
I scanned these negative strip on my Epson V600 scanner. Using Photoshop I cleaned up a few minor defect and made necessary contrast adjustments, then exported a reduced file size for display here. A photo lost for nearly three decades can now be enjoyed in through a medium I couldn’t have foreseen when I exposed it.
In early summer 1986, Conrail was weeks away from converting the Boston & Albany route from a traditional directional double track mainline to a single-track line under the control of CTC-style signals with cab-signal. The first section to be cut-over to the new control system was between Palmer to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Among the results of this change was the abandonment and eventual lifting of the old westward main train west of Palmer.
I was well aware of this pending change and had been documenting Conrail’s work in the area over the preceding months.
On the evening of June 17, 1986, I focused on the westward main track at the Quaboag River bridge just west of the Palmer diamond as Conrail’s eastward SEBO-B dropped down the short grade toward the Palmer yard.
While the train adds interest to the scene; my main focus was the track in the foreground that would soon be gone. I made a variety of images in this area on the weeks up to Conrail’s cut-over day.
Photographing directly into the clear summer sun produced a painterly abstraction. I’ve allowed some flare to hit the camera’s lens which obscures shadow detail and makes for a dream-like quality.
Years after I exposed this frame, I moved to California where I met photographers that had perfected this photographic technique. Interestingly, railroad photographers had been using backlighting to good advantage for a long time. In searching through archives I’ve come across fine examples of Fred Jukes’ and Otto Perry’s works with similar backlighting effects.
About four miles east of the center of Palmer (Depot Village) CSX’s former Boston & Albany mainline passes a bucolic setting at the bottom of a broad sweeping field as it heads up the Quaboag River Valley. This is best viewed from Route 67, not far east of the split with Route 20.
One summer’s evening more than 30 years ago, my father and I stood out in the field to make a photo of Amtrak’s westward Lake Shore Limited (train 449). Since that time I’ve returned many times to photograph trains.
I’ve paired two sets of images here. The black & white photograph was made on March 15, 1986 (‘Beware the Ides of March!’). The color images I exposed a week ago Sunday (July 14, 2013).
Among the changes to the scene over the years has been an increase in undergrowth. A more dramatic change was the recent installation of a voltaic farm (solar panels) on the northside of the field. This alteration has greatly changed the character of the place.
According to an article in a recent Palmer Journal Register, perimeter fencing may soon encircle the voltaic farm. Undoubtedly this progress will further improve the photographs made here beyond all previous measures of aethetic virtue.
I made this image during my senior year of high school. I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but on that day I’d followed Central Vermont Railway’s southward freight from Palmer to Stafford. I made photos of it south of downtown Monson off Route 32, and at the Massachusetts-Connecticut State Line.
This view in downtown Stafford Springs has always intrigued me. The railroad runs tight to a row of buildings along the main street in town. Today, the brick building featured in the photograph hosts a trendy coffee shop where I sometimes meet my friend Roger Ingraham to wait for trains to pass and discuss photography.
In 2013, New England Central operates the railroad, but the scene hasn’t changed all that much. I still make photos here from time to time.
I exposed this image with my old Leica 3A and 50mm Summitar lens, and used a Weston Master 3 light meter to assist in exposure calculation. I processed the film myself in Microdol-X. Typically, I used a weak formula to save money. By doing so, I inadvertently avoided over developing my negatives (which was a flawed inclination of mine at the time).
I made a few minor contrast modifications in post processing and cleaned up a few small spots and scratches on this nearly 30 year-old 35mm negative.
Here’s an image from my early archives. I was wandering around Boston on a snowy day in January 1982. Among the other photos I made were views along the Green Line on Huntington Avenue. This one caught my eye the other day when I was reviewing my early work. It require a nominal crop. Many of my early photos tend to be off-level. This problem is easily fixed today.
South Station was the main passenger terminal for Boston & Albany and New Haven Railroads, and in the early years of the twentieth century was the busiest passenger station in the world (as measured in the number of daily train movements).
Between 1973 and 1985, my paternal grandparents lived at Co-op City in The Bronx, New York City. They had a great view of Amtrak’s former New Haven Railroad line from New Rochelle to the Hell Gate Bridge, which carried all of Amtrak’s Boston-New York trains. Until about 1980, this route also hosted infrequent freights.
When I was younger, I’d keenly watch for trains from my grandparents 19th floor terrace, all the while hoping to see Amtrak’s aged former Pennsylvania GG1 electrics. By 1982, all of Amtrak’s GG1s had been retired.
I made this morning view of a Penn-Station bound Amtrak train approaching the bascule drawbridge over the Hutchinson River led by an AEM7 electric. The scene itself wasn’t remarkable at the time, but I’m glad I made the effort to put it on film. It fascinates me now and brings me back to another time. Although details, such as how to effectively work with backlighting eluded me, I managed to get my exposure pretty close anyway.
I was 16 at the time. I used my Leica 3A with f2.0 50mm Summitar—the camera I carried with me everywhere. A couple of years ago, I located some of my long-lost early negatives and made a project of scanning them. The miracle of modern scanning technology coupled with post-processing allowed me to finally make something of photos I’d made before I was technically competent to make decent prints.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post; “the view from grandma’s terrace.”
About 10 months ago (July 2012), I started Tracking the Light. In the short time span since then I’ve had about 19,000 hits. While small numbers compared with Gangnam Style’s viral You-Tube dance video (with more than 1.7 billion hits), it’s a gratifying start. (BTW, there are some train scenes in Gangnam Style, so it isn’t a completely random reference).
In my introductory post, I offered a bit of my background with a taste of my philosophy on the subject of railway photography; ‘There is no ‘correct way’ to make photographs, although there are techniques that, once mastered, tend to yield pleasing results. I hope to expand upon those themes in these Internet essays by telling the stories behind the pictures, as well as sharing the pictures themselves.’
What began as an infrequent opportunity to share work via the Internet has evolved into a nearly daily exercise. In the interval, I’ve learned a bit what makes for an interesting post, while working with a variety of themes to keep the topic interesting.
Regular viewers may have observed common threads and topics. While I’ve made a concerted effort to vary the subject matter considered ‘railway photography,’ I regularly return to my favorite subjects and often I’ll post sequences with a common theme.
Occasionally I get questions. Someone innocently asked was I worried about running out of material! Unlikely, if not completely improbable; Not only do I have an archive of more than 270,000 images plus tens of thousands of my father’s photos, but I try to make new photos everyday. My conservative rate of posting is rapidly outpaced by my prolific camera efforts.
Someone else wondered if all my photos were ‘good’. I can’t answer that properly. I don’t judge photography as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly, some of my images have earned degrees of success, while others have failed to live up to my expectations (It helps to take the lens cap ‘off’). Tracking the Light is less about my success rate and more about my process of making images.
I’m always trying new techniques, exploring new angles, while playing with different (if not new) equipment.
The most common questions regarding my photography are; ‘What kind of camera do you use?’ and ‘Have you switched to digital?’ I can supply neither the expected nor straight-forward responses. But, in short, I work with a variety of equipment and recording media. I aim to capture what I see and preserve it for the future. I try to have a nice time and I hope to entertain my friends.
As I mentioned in Polish Steam Working Disused Track (Published on March 6, 2013), eleven years ago I rode a enthusiast’s excursion from Wolsztyn to Zagan in south eastern Poland led by PKP (Polish National Railways) 2-10-0 Ty3-2. This trip covered a variety of disused lines southwest of the Wolsztyn steam depot.
On that day, the train stopped more than 25 times for photography. This image was made near the end of the run. We were at a remote spot, not far from Zagan. The track was fairly derelict. After we got off, the train pulled ahead making for some nice effluence from the engine. Spring was in bloom and I framed the World War II-era 2-10-0 in the blossoming branches of a hedge.
One my favorite images from the April 2002 Polish adventure is this timeless scene of three middle-age men on a horse-drawn wagon crossing the line at Nowa Weis. I caught this on film shortly before sunset with my Rollei. It was on PKP’s (Polish National Railways) secondary line that runs southeast from Wolzstyn to Leszno across through unspoiled pastoral countryside. The largely steam operated and under-maintained railway, added to a rural charm that harked back to another generation. For me it was like stepping back a half century, or more.
In August 1984, I made a ten-day adventure of riding Amtrak. I visited Montreal via the Montrealer, then to Washington D.C., where I boarded the Cardinal for Chicago. It was my first visit to America’s ‘Railroad Capital’; I spent three days wandering around, riding trains and transit, exposing every frame of film I brought with me. At that time, my standard camera was a 1937-built Leica IIIA that my father gave me for my 10th birthday. In addition to this Leica, for this trip, my dad gave me loan of its clone, which he’d bought years before complete with wind-up mechanical drive. Since the drive was weighty, I left it at home. Fitted to this camera was an obsolete collapsible Leitz 50mm Elmar with non-standard f-stops (f3.5, f4.5, f6.3, f9 & etc). While a remarkably sharp piece of glass, this lens suffered from antique coatings that made it inadequate for my color photography and made it susceptible to excessive flare. As a result, I relegated this lens to my B&W work, while using my 50mm f2.0 Summitar for color slides. Among the B&W photos I made was this image of Chicago Regional Transportation Authority F40PH 161 at Chicago & North Western Station.
What I remember best from this solo trip was arriving in Evanston, Illinois, where I had a pre-booked and pre-paid hotel room waiting for me, only to be told in a sneering manner by the woman at the desk that I, ‘wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel, because I was a minor’. She then began to admonish me for traveling alone! I was 17. I was incensed! “Lady, I’ve been traveling for weeks by myself, and you’re the first to cause me a problem because of my age! So! You’d rather have me on the street than in your hotel?” I walked out. Not one to waste time, I resorted to staying in the Evanston YMCA, which was primitive, but adequate, cheap, and didn’t interfere with my travel because of age.
In 2003, Irish Rail operated its sugar beet trains via Kildare because the normal routing between Waterford and Limerick Junction was closed as result of a bridge collapse at Cahir, County Tipperary. On December 6, 2003, I was in place at Cherryville Junction (where the Waterford Road joins the Cork Road—a few miles west of Kildare Station) to catch a laden sugar beet train on its way from Wellingtonbridge, County Wexford to Mallow, County Cork. (Since there is no direct chord at Cherryville to allow a movement from the Waterford Road onto the Cork Road in the down direction, this sugar beet train would continue up to Kildare where the locomotive would run around, thus allowing the train to reverse direction for its onward journey to Mallow.)
It was a characteristically dull day. I was working with a Rollei Model T (120 size roll film fitted with a f3.5 Zeiss Tessar) and Fuji Neopan™ 400 film. Key to obtaining the desired tonality was my process. For developer I used Agfa Rodinal Special™ 1:32 with water for 7 minutes, then after dual fixing baths, Perma Wash™ for 3 minutes, and 10 minutes in running water, I toned the negatives in selenium solution (mixed 1:9 with water) for 9 minutes, then re-washed for 20 minutes in running water. (Warning: selenium is poisonous and should be handled with extreme care in a well-ventilated room). See: Installment 6: Black & White revisited; Old Tech for a New Era part 2—Secrets Revealed!.
I often make interesting images when I’m just playing around. Between 2001 and 2007 I regularly worked with a Contax G2 rangefinder and I typically used it to expose either Fuji color slide film or black & white negatives. One day, in autumn 2001 I loaded the camera with Agfa Scala, a distinctive black & white reversal film that when processed offered high-contrast monochrome slides. Among my subjects was New England Central which runs right through Monson, Massachusetts. This day, the southward freight required a helper out of Palmer Yard to assist its ascent of State Line Hill. While not unheard of, New England Central doesn’t use helpers every day. I caught the train several times with my G2, then waited an eternity for the slides to come back. No fault of the lab: after I sent them in, I’d returned to Dublin, and so it was about three months from the time I exposed the photos to when I finally examined them. Interesting! That was eleven years ago now.
I made my first trip to Poland in May 2000; while part of my quest was to experience steam in revenue service, among the most compelling images I made were of derelict engines such as this one in Silesia. I worked with both 35mm slide film and 120 black & white, the latter exposed with my Rolleiflex Model T.
On this warm May evening in 1986, I exposed a trailing view of Amtrak’s westward Lake Shore Limited as it hits the Central Vermont diamond at Palmer. The train radiates the glint of the setting sun. Between eastward and westward main-tracks, Conrail has installed the dispatcher controlled switch that in July 1986 became ‘CP83’ and resulted in the removal of the old westward main track on the Boston & Albany route between Palmer and Springfield (CP92). [The numbers of the control points signify the approximate distance from Boston’s South Station.] At the left is the canopy on Palmer’s Union Station which Conrail removed in November of 1986. Today the old station has been restored inside and serves as the popular Steaming Tender railroad-themed restaurant.
Technique: Customizing process for optimal tonality with minimal post-process adjustment
I promised to reveal secrets! While I won’t tell you which American railroad CEO is a serious railfan, nor will I divulge which North American railway company is on the verge of centrifugal destruction, I will spell out the details of my proven black & white process!
In Installment 5 Black & White revisited Part 1, I elaborated on my philosophies and theories behind my traditional black & white photography. I’m not going to rehash that any more than necessary, instead I’ll detail the formulas and specifics of my process so that other photographers may take advantage of my experimentation, and perhaps further refine the process. I go into great detail, so hopefully the specifics will be easily understood.
Back in the late 1980s, I’d refined my B&W photography using Kodak Tri-X and other period films. Typically, I’d overexpose by a stop (basically by rating ‘400 ISO Tri-X’ at 200 ISO—a one stop difference, although in actual practice my system of exposure was more complex). Then, using a diluted mix of Kodak D76 or Ilford ID11 (1:1 developer to water), I’d under-process the film by about 20-25 percent from recommended time. My intent was to produce negatives that while appearing on ‘thin’ side in fact offered adequate detail to produce beautifully rich prints with deep blacks, and a full range of grays with minimum visible grain (in an 8×10 inch print). At that time I preferred prints with relatively low contrast and lots of gray, yet which retained clean, white highlights.
Today my process is different. First of all, I now expose film with the intent of scanning the negatives and not for making chemical prints. Secondly, I’ve altered the process to produce a higher contrast image, one that I feel is better suited for digital display. Instead of Tri-X I’ve been largely working with Fuji Neopan 100 Acros (ISO 100). While initial experiments required a bit of post processing manipulation in Photoshop to adjust the gamma curve of the film image, ultimately I aimed to produced negatives that don’t require this time-consuming post processing adjustment, and more to the point, look great on a computer screen; the intended output is Apple’s iPad.
As I mentioned in Installment 5, Black & White revisited; Old Tech for a New Era part 1, I experimented using my antique Leica IIIa with a 21mm Super-Angulon; with these tests I exposed Acros at its recommended 100 ISO, while using a hand-held Minolta Mark IV light meter in reflective mode to calculate exposure (and fine tuning the exposure aided by more than 25 years of my experience working with that unforgiving medium called ‘color slides’). With my exposure calculations my goal was not just to get a satisfactory exposure for each individual frame, but to maintain consistency through-out the entire roll of film, as I would with color slides. (Just for reference my typical daylight exposure with 100 ISO film in ‘full’ New England sun would be f5.6 at 1/500th of a second.)
I then processed the film in Kodak HC110, using the as-recommended ‘dilution B’. (HC110 is a syrupy developer with a variety of different recommended dilutions; dilution B, as I mixed it, is one part HC110 syrup with 31 parts water. Since I require 32 ounces of developer, this makes for a relative straight forward mix. )
[Note: While a metric equivalent needs only to maintain the ratio; for reference: 1 ounce = 29.6 ml; 32 ounces = 946.2 ml]
From start to finish, my black & white process goes like this:
1) Load film on plastic reels into plastic tanks (in total darkness); cover tank and turn on darkroom lights.
2) Bring all chemistry to ideal developer temperature (in this case 68ºF/20ºC).
3) Pour 32 ounces of water into tank as a pre-bath, soak for 1-2 minutes (with very gentle agitation every 30 seconds; three slow inversions, then a firm tap with the tank at a 45-degree angle to dislodge any air-bubbles, sometimes giving a second tap if bubbles appear).
4) Drain pre-wash, and add developer, agitating to start for about 15 seconds (constantly, but very gently), then returning to the 30 second agitation interval as noted. My total process time at 68ºF was 4 minutes 45 seconds.
5) Drain developer, and quickly add stop-bath, agitating for 30 seconds total time.
6) Drain stop-bath, and add First Fix for 2-3 minutes. (My First Fix is typically already been used, and is ideally Ilford Rapid Fix mixed 1:4 with water). Agitate in same manner as developer.
7) Drain First-Fix, add Second-Fix (same mix as first fix, but freshly mixed) for 2-3 minutes.
8) Drain Second-Fix.
9) Rinse in running water for 3 minutes.
10) Inspect negatives.
11) Add Perma Wash/Hypo Clearing agent for 3 minutes.
12) Rinse in running water for 10 minutes.
13) Add Kodak Selenium toner solution (mixed 1:9 water), agitate very gently once every 30 seconds; total time for toning not more than 9 minutes. (Caution: Selenium toner is unhealthy; extreme care is required to avoid contact with the solution and toning should be done in a well ventilated place, typically outside. Wear gloves.)
14) Rinse in running water for 10-15 minutes.
15) Final rinse in clean de-ionized water with a few drops of Kodak Photo-Flo 200 (wetting agent).
16) Remove from reels and hang dry.
I’ve scanned the negatives at 3200 dpi using an Epson V600 flatbed scanner. After making hi-res TIFFs for my archive, I scaled selected images into the JPEG format for Web display. (While my initial application is computer/iPad display, I want a hi-res image for future use.)
Using this process, I obtained satisfactory results for the iPad, but the negatives required too much post processing to adjust the gamma curve for desirable contrast. Specifically I needed to improve highlight and shadow areas. Also, I found that the peculiarities of the 21mm lens were complicating matters. This lens has almost a polarized contrast/color-palate which made for some challenging black & white images. Some of the photos are pleasing, but my success ratio was less than hoped for.
I found two more pleasing alternatives: One was my Nikon F3 with traditional lenses (topic for another post), the other was working with my Dad’s Leica M4 and a 35mm f1.4 Summilux lens. Using this latter camera/lens combination, I then further refined my processing. Specifically, I increased development time by 30 seconds to 5 minutes 15 seconds, then ultimately to 5 minutes 30 seconds while making two other small changes:
First, I added a very small amount of developer to my pre-bath. This is a technique I use for other B&W processes that seems to have helped here as well. In theory, a very small quantity of developer in the pre-wash should get the development process underway which allows for slight better shadow detail without a dramatic increase of overall negative density.
Second, I cut my Selenium Toning from 9 minutes to 5 minutes, then further to 4 minutes 30 seconds, in order to reduce the effect of the toner on the highlights.
Using these final process modifications, I found that most of the resulting negatives made with the M4/Sumilux required virtually no post-processing and some were ready for display directly from the scanner. All of the photos displayed in this post were exposed and processed as described using the Leica M4 with 35mm Summilux lens with Fuji Across 100, and processed using the basic formula as illustrated. As always, I’ll probably continue to make adjustments to this formula as needed.
I’ve described myself as a ‘progressive obsoletist,’—an unfamiliar term that I may have invented. Invariably, someone will try to pigeon-hole me, demanding, “what is that?!”—as if the term wasn’t completely self-explanatory. Without a long-winded, half-cynical satirical diatribe, I doubt I could convey my definition of this obscure set of beliefs, however, in photographic terms I’ll offer a contemporary corollary based on recent experiments.
I’ve been dabbling with black & white photography for decades. I nearly perfected my technique when I was in college, only to virtually abandon black & white professionally in favor of color media. However, from time to time, I return to black & white, and with each visit try to further hone my process.
What does that mean? Well, first off, I always process my own film. Secondly, I’m very conscious of the processing method and formulas I hope to use while I’m making photographs. Thirdly, I’m always making small adjustments in my process in efforts to making more pleasing images.
The caveats to this process adjustment are that: 1) I’m never really satisfied with my results; 2) I never will be; and, 3) despite constant tinkering with formulas, my actual process is based on empirical analysis, rather than a strict, calculated scientific approach. I’m sure photo-chemists, when analyzing what I do, would decide that about half my process is unnecessary, and while on the whole it’s too complicated and could be better achieved in some alternative manner. But for me that’s not really the point. Making and developing the images are all part of the process, and this process involves converting what I see in three dimensions and full living color into a static, two dimensional, mono-chromatic set of images.
In January, 1998, TRAINS Magazine, I had a portfolio of photos published, and in that series, I described the spread with three monochromatic images as ‘One Thousand Shades of Gray’. Well, in light of some recent popular literature (not involving monochromatic images, so I am told), a similar title with fewer numbers of shades has stolen my thunder. Fair enough, but not really my point. With One Thousand Shades of Gray I was only trying to be clever, since proper black & white photography is more than just black and white but more about all the gray in between. And that’s largely what I’m after in my process refinement and adjustment — tonality and contrast. The machinery and landscape of the railroad are subjects ideally suited to this medium, while slight adjustments can make the difference between a fairly interesting railroad image and a truly memorable one.
Why not just convert modern digitally produced color files into monochromatic images? Good question. First of all, I’ve done that, both with my Lumix LX3 and my Canon 7D, and I’ve been happy with my results. Secondly, I don’t have any qualms about producing monochromatic images digitally. There are different tools for different type of images. There are times when a digital monochromatic image feels like the best choice, and there are times when color works better. (Generally, however, if I’m going to make a monochromatic image, I work with that medium on-site, rather than produce after the fact.)
So, why use film? The short answer is pretty selfish; because I want to! I like B&W photography, I like film, I’ve always worked with film, and continuing to work with film (at least part of the time) lends a certain continuity to my photography.
I have other reasons as well. I’ve found that using film, processed in accordance with my customized formula, and then scanned with a flatbed scanner, produces an image file that looks really pleasing to my eye. The combination of tonality (technically, “dynamic range”), acutance, and granularity when viewed on an iPad or computer screen looks great. This is the visual embodiment of progressive obsoletism!
Another reason is archival quality. And here I’ll dare tread on some sensitive toes. From my experience and understanding of the digital mediums, there are no sure-fire means of insuring long term digital storage without regular intervals of human intervention. In other words, if you don’t make multiple copies of your digital images, and continue to copy them, basic flaws in digital storage will probably result in the complete loss of your images within years or decades. My father, Richard J. Solomon, has illustrated this in the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual Talks on Photography held at Lake Forest, Illinois, and in various articles. Simply, the very nature of the digital age tends toward the ephemeral use of data. While in the near term you can preserve your digital photos; long term, if a conscious effort isn’t made at continuing your storage, in all likelihood your images will completely vanish. (As anyone who has ever dropped a hard disk will sympathize.)
By contrast, my black & white process uses techniques that are known to produce negatives that should last for hundreds or thousands of years without regular intervention. So, barring disaster, long after all the hard drives have been wiped clean, the DVDs have faded into uselessness, and the software used to decipher today’s data has become more arcane than odd-dialects of ancient Sumerian, my black & white negatives should still be identifiable and usable as photographs.
Whether or not anyone cares in a hundred-plus years is another story. In my research for books and other photographic endeavors, I’ve often thought it ironic that 19th century glass plates will likely outlive virtually all the images being made today. I hope that I’m wrong. And, since I won’t be around in 100+ years, I’ll never know, but just in case I keep at black & white film photography, at least some of the time. And since I scan my negatives at high resolution, I’ll have most of the benefits of digital storage as well as that offered by traditional film. At least there’ll be some images of modern trains alongside the plates of Baldwin 2-8-0s.
Putting Theory into Practice
In the last few months, I plunged into our collection of antique cameras and gone back to my roots. In my youth, I was always seen carrying a prewar Leica IIIa. With that I exposed countless railway photos, from Central Vermont GP9s and RS-11s crossing the diamond at Palmer, Massachusetts, to GG1s grinding into South Amboy, New Jersey, as well as views from Amtrak’s Coast Starlight negotiating SP’s Cuesta grade near San Luis Obispo, California. Remarkably, I still have this camera, or its near cousin (in truth, I think we had three different IIIa bodies in our house plus a postwar IIIc, and several later model Leica M’s). In my recent IIIa efforts, I employed my father’s Leica-screw-mount 21mm Super-Angulon (actually a Schneider lens design), and wandered around my old territory in New England exposing a few rolls of Fuji Acros 100. (I also recorded thousands of digital images as well)
Having earlier this year made modifications to my process (for a future post), I then souped the film, scanned it, and analyzed my results.
Pulling the film out of the tanks, I was immediately disappointed, but then, after scanning, I gradually came to accept and finally embraced my results. I’ve displayed a few here. Choice of subject matter was key to my choice of equipment and media. I largely photographed former Boston & Albany, Central Vermont, and Boston & Maine lines; the same railway lines I photographed as a kid—thus keeping with my theme of continuity. Earlier this year, I’d embarked on a similar project, photographing in Dublin, but using a different set of retro-equipment (another the topic for a future post).
Not only do these images offer an element of consistency working with photos from my archive, but I feel they also work well as stand-alone photographs. I have plenty of color digital images to satisfy commercial illustration requirements and my personal needs for instant image analysis (did I catch it? Was the light right? Did that cloud get in my way? Are my exposures tight?). But, I also have these satisfying monochromes, that may, so it seems, last for a virtual eternity. Coming soon, I’ll post the details of my exposures, technique, and chemical process. Stay tuned!