Transforming Bland into Mysterious

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


Several years ago, Kodak opened a new emulsion coating plant for some of its films, including Tri-X,which is one of its oldest, most-honored films. It’s also one that I’ve used as my primary 4×5 film for more than 30 years. It has been a great, reliable film, with wonderful leeway for both increasing and decreasing inherent contrast of a scene, so it has served my purposes well.

Kodak asked if I would be willing to test the new film in comparison with the film they had been coating at the older facility for years. I agreed to help. So they sent me two boxes of film—both unlabeled—so that I would blindly try to note the difference between the two films. They also gave me detailed instructions on how to test the films.

The funny part was that the instructions Kodak gave me would have negated the means of determining the difference between the films, for they suggested developing one of the boxes in one fashion, and the other box in a different manner. That would have introduced a second variable into the testing, making it unclear if any difference between the two boxes of film was the result of the films being different or the development being different.

So I discarded their recommendations. Instead I loaded two film holders—one with film from Box A and the other with film from Box B. I also loaded a third holder with the Tri-X film I had recently purchased, with the idea of triple-shooting any scene I wanted to shoot, developing all three exposures together, and seeing which unlabeled film matched the film I was using, and which didn’t. (Of course the box I had purchased was still from the older, existing coating factory.) By doing it this way, I could clearly tell which box was produced at the old plant and which was produced at the new one. (The differences, by the way, were minor, but apparent, and it appeared to me that I could have continued using the film without even compensating for any changes.)

All that is prelude to what I shot. Not one to shoot gray cards or step wedges, but real scenes, I chose to find something reasonable near my own home that I would want to photograph even if no test were taking place. Driving up to the top of the mountain ridge directly north of my home the next day to take my dogs for their morning walk, I had perfect conditions for the test: it was cloudy and foggy, so lighting conditions were very unvarying from one exposure to the next. (This would have not been the case, for instance, on a breezy, partly cloudy day, where the light could change every few seconds.)

Walking along the edge of the road while my dogs frolicked happily, I looked into the forest for potential images. The most interesting subjects were not deep in the forest, but right along the edge of the road. A carpet of Maianthemum (May lilies) lined the road, and the fog had covered them with tiny dewdrops. They were beautiful. I decide that this would be my test. (Of course I photographed several other scenes, as well, over the next week, to compare the films under different contrast developments, thus giving me a more complete test, but that’s immaterial to our purposes here.)

The straight print shows the tonally bland composition that I photographed. But the array of May lily leaves and their budding flowers, together with the small cluster of salmonberry leaves and the single blade of grass created a general rhythm of shapes and tones, and a few focal points to keep the image from being little more than a pattern.

The final print

I developed the negatives for somewhat increased contrast over that of the original scene (the straight print shown here is, effectively, the scene as it would have looked if no contrast increase had been built into the negative development.) I then increase the contrast a bit more in making the final print, dialing in 30 units of magenta filtration to raise contrast just a bit. I also give more exposure under the enlarger to darken the final print compared to the straight print.

Then I burn around all edges and corners using an oval-shaped card to further darken the image from the central areas to the edges.

The final print takes on a very moody, mysterious, pewter-like feel that keeps the viewer’s eye moving from place to place, but repeatedly coming back to the central area (specifically, just above—and to the left of—the exact center), and to the salmonberry leaves and grass blade. It has a richness that I felt was obtainable when I made the image.

The best test is always a comparison test. In this case it gave me far more information than I would have achieved if I had followed Kodak’s testing regimen. Also, I recommend shooting “real” things—things that you’d want to photograph—rather than gray cards, step wedges, or garage doors, when you want to test films. (The same suggestion applies to comparing papers by making comparison prints of “real” images, rather than making sets of step wedge tests to find characteristic differences between papers.) When it’s all over, not only will you have better information, but you may actually have something you’d want to look at.

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.