The old axiom for creating high-quality negatives is “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” When it comes to printing negatives in the darkroom, this recommendation appropriately changes to “expose for the highlights and control the shadows with contrast.” That is good advice, but as experienced printers know, there often is a small difference between a good and a mediocre print. So, when it comes to fine-tuning exposure and contrast, how concerned do we really need to be about the optimal settings? How much deviation is acceptable and how little is recognizable? What are the smallest increments we need to work with? How do we advance from casual work to fine-tuned images without going completely overboard? Exploring a sample print of the Castle Acre Priory provides some answers.
Castle Acre Priory is located five miles north of Swaffham in Norfolk, England. Its ruins span seven centuries and include an elaborately decorated 12th- century church, a 15th-century gate house and the prior’s former living quarters, which are still fit to live in.
The picture on this page was taken inside of the prior’s chapel in July 1999. I used my Toyo 45AX with a Nikkor-W 135 mm, ƒ/5.6 on a tripod. This metal field camera travels well, and is fast and easy to set up, considering the large 4×5-inch format. The 135mm lens was required because the room is very small and I was not able to step back any farther. I measured the scene with my Pentax Digital Spotmeter and placed the dark interior wall on Zone III in order to keep the option of some detail. The bright vertical wall of the window fell on Zone VII, but due to the bright sunlight, the window sill was clearly on Zone XI. To pull the sill back onto Zone VIII, N-3 development was needed. I changed the EI to 25, which is necessary when dealing with a rather broad subject-brightness range such as this, in order to sufficiently expose Kodak’s TMax-100. This maintains shadow detail when development time is shortened. At ƒ/32, the calculated exposure time was eight seconds, but I extended it to 12 seconds to compensate for this film’s reciprocity behavior.
When printing the image in the darkroom, it became obvious that the N-3 development had pushed the subject Zone III closer to a print Zone II. Actually, the image looks better this way, but I was glad that I had given enough exposure time to get at least good tonality from the shadows, even though most of the detail was lost. With this treatment, the image printed well on grade-2 paper and only required minor burning down of the upper corners. I consider this print to have a full tonal scale from Zone II to VIII, which makes it a prime candidate to discuss optimized print exposure and contrast.