Tag: B&W

Miss the darkroom? There’s an app for that!

Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.

Select your camera format or work in the darkroom

Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.

When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.

But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…

Darkr brings it all back again…

Yellow filter selected. Yes, it’s upside-down and backwards – it’s large format, after all!

…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.

4×5 neg, complete with notches in top left.

This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).

In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-

Test strips. Scroll up and down to change time; scroll left and right to change contrast.

strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).

Toning options are available once you have a good-looking “print”.

Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.

Final print – my first darkroom print in over 17 years!

So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.

Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.

From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.

Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format  option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.

The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.

Some of the improvements I would like to see include:

  • Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
  • Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
  • Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
  • Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
  • Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
  • Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
  • Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).

I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.

Lake Superior V: B&W

I love black-and-white. Perhaps it’s because, like every photographer of my age, I “cut my teeth” on black-and-white. Thank goodness digital has not changed that. In fact black-and-white is better now than it ever has been. We are no longer tied to using colour filters – yellow, orange, red – to enhance tones of the same colour over their opposites. Nor are we tied to buying, mixing, storing, using and breathing in the chemicals needed for a darkroom. Then, there’s the water use: hours of washing negs and prints with constantly running water? I can’t even conceive of it anymore.

Figure 1

The conceptual part of making of a black-and-white photograph is perhaps a bit more difficult today. As we live in a colour world and digital cameras produce colour files, I find it more difficult to switch my brain into “black-and-white mode”. As we no longer put a roll or a sheet of B&W film into the camera, and we no longer use the colour filters, there isn’t that physical “trigger” to ignore the colour and concentrate on the tones, the shapes, the textures. Having been schooled in B&W, I find I can make the switch, but it’s definitely more difficult. I imagine those who have never worked in a B&W world may find it considerably more difficult. Often, though, it’s the scene that tells me, “I’m a black and white!”

Figure 2

Without colour, a scene must speak through tones, textures and contrast. It doesn’t need to start off monotone, but the photographer must carefully understand how colours will translate to shades of grey. Two very different colours; the orange and blue in a sunset, for example, will often become a single or two very similar grey tones (Fig 1). Back in the film days, when colour filters were used, a yellow or orange filter would be selected to brighten the yellows and oranges and darken the blues. This is now done in the digital processing stage using an app such as Lightroom (see Fig 2). While virtually any scene can be photographed and processed for black-and-white, as was the case for decades before colour film was commonly available, some scenes “work” better than others.

More so than colour, light plays a key role in black and white. Under soft lighting conditions of an overcast day, it can be difficult to properly separate the middle tones to prevent them from becoming “muddy”. That’s where the “darkroom” work comes in. Previously, we would boost the film by giving it N+1 or N+2 development and, perhaps use a higher contrast paper. In harshly-lit conditions, we would process film at N-1 or N-2 and/or use lower contrast paper. Now, in Lightroom, we adjust a combination of tone curves, contrast, clarity, white and black points, shadows and highlights to recreate our vision from the field. We’re doing the same thing as before, but using tools that allow for finer adjustment.

Some of the black-and-whites below you may recognize from previous posts as colour photos. Try not to compare them to the colour photos as too often, colour “wins” if only due to familiarity. Try to see the B&W photographs as something different. Black-and-white photographs encourage you to look beyond the obvious to see the textures and shapes that create a scene.

After viewing the gallery, please leave a comment, ask a question or offer constructive criticism; and take a moment to share this post with others. Thanks for reading.