Dealing with a Low-Contrast Negative

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to

In 2001, I made a extensive tour of some of my favorite areas of the Southwest, from the slit canyons of northern Arizona, to Bryce and Zion National Parks in southern Utah, then to Death Valley and the Owens Valley (i.e., along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) in California. I previously had been to each of the places numerous times, but the trip was a vivid reminder of the unmatched splendor of the scenery in that concentrated portion of our magical planet.

The real purpose of the trip was to show an exchange student from the Republic of Georgia, who had been living at our home for nearly a year and was about to return to his homeland, some of the most spectacular landscapes in the United States. It gave him a good idea of the scenery that he had seen through my photographs, but now could see through his own eyes.

But I wasn’t just a tour guide for him. I did a lot of photography along the way. Normally I shoot with my 4×5 camera, but because we were jumping from place to place fairly quickly to see as much as possible in the few days we had for the trip (though we did hike around a few places to get a more intimate connection with them), I chose to use my medium-format Mamiya 645 camera most of the time. It allowed me to set up more quickly and reel off several exposures when I wanted to do so.

STRAIGHT PRINT: The impressive array of pinnacles crowding one atop another like people in a pre-renaissance painting by Giotto was an awesome sight, but there was astoundingly low contrast to deal with.

At Bryce Canyon we stopped at several of the rim overlooks of this geological wonder. Each one is breathtaking. Generally a short walk away from the main overlook yields the best view. This was the case at the location shown here, though I simply can’t remember which one of the overlooks I was at when I made this image.

It was late afternoon, and a thick bank of clouds had moved over the area. Sometimes that’s enough to render any serious attempt at landscape photography useless. But here, the situation was different. The soft light allowed every crevice and hollow to be visible, while preventing any prominent point from being blown out with too much light from direct sunlight. The problem was that the overall contrast was quite low.

Had I made the photograph (or a reasonably similar one) with my 4×5 camera, I could have developed that negative to greatly increased contrast. With my medium-format camera, I have three backs devoted to three different levels of contrast, with a different film used for each. For extremely high-contrast scenes (where I want to lower the contrast) I use Ilford HP5 film. For normal contrast I use Ilford FP4 film. For extremely low-contrast scenes (where I want to expand the contrast greatly) I use Kodak Technical Pan film (no longer made, but I still have some in cold storage). The question was whether to use the FP4 or the Tech Pan. Knowing that Tech Pan is able to raise contrast to astonishing levels—too much, I felt, for the scene at hand—I chose the FP4, figuring I could attain the necessary contrast in printing with high-contrast filtration on my dichroic enlarger.

The image was made using a 210mm lens. The finished negative is still very low in contrast, as can be seen in the straight print, which emulates the look of a gray card. In fact, the contrast was lower than I had guessed it would be. So when I tried to print the negative, even dialing the filtration up to the maximum (170 units of magenta filtration on my LPL enlarger), I still fell short of the contrast needed to make the image sing. What I wanted to convey is the repetitive, almost rhythmic patterns of the rows of pinnacles, topped by the set of three massive pinnacles toward the upper right corner of the image. To me it had the look of an optical illusion, one that starts to jiggle your vision when you stare at it for more than a few seconds.

Unable to achieve the necessary level of contrast, I had to resort to one of the tricks I learned long ago: selenium tone the negative to achieve higher contrast.

For that purpose I have a quart bottle of 1:1 selenium with water, or approximately a pint of water mixed with a pint of rapid selenium toner.I use this solution whenever I need to kick up the contrast level of a negative. It’s a rare occurrence, but does happen. So I poured the solution into an 8×10- inch tray, and dipped the strip of five negatives into the solution. (The other four negatives on the strip, made from the same location, were views to the left and right of this set of pinnacles. They all appeared to be of similar contrast, therefore subject to improvement by the selenium treatment. Had the others not needed the contrast increase, I would have cut this negative out of the strip, and toned it alone.) I leave the negative (or in this case, the strip of negatives)in the solution for 20 minutes or more, periodically agitating the tray, and making sure that the full strip is beneath the surface of the solution at all times in order to assure uniformity in the contrast increase from the selenium immersion. This, of course, is a far more concentrated solution than I would ever use for selenium toning a print. After toning, the negatives are washed and hung to dry, as if they had just been developed. The toning solution is poured back into the quart bottle to be used again in the future.

The selenium treatment boosts the negative’s contrast significantly, perhaps more than a contrast grade of paper or the rough equivalent of plus one development of the negative… perhaps even more than that.

FINAL PRINT: By selenium toning the negative, printing it at the highest contrast level available to get the darkest grays and blacks where they needed to be, then doing some selective bleaching to further brighten up the highlights, I was able to achieve the excitement needed for a final print.

With the enhanced negative, I was able to achieve the look I wanted in the final image, still dialing the contrast level up to 170 units of magenta for printing. It’s nearly a straight print, with minor amounts of dodging along the lighter tops of the pinnacles, and then a few quick brushstrokes of potassium ferricyanide (bleach) to open up a dark area or two, or to slightly brighten a few of the lighter areas to bring out a little more glow. The final print, enlarged to about 16×20 inches, attains the feeling I wanted of bringing out the rhythmic patterns of the rows of pinnacles beneath and beyond the set of three in the upper right.

This also proves that it’s foolish to put your camera away if it’s not just after sunrise or just before sunset. Photographic possibilities exist at all times. Even our exchange student, who was not a photographer, could see that.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.