“Mister Contrast”

This is an example of a potential consequence of sloppy darkroom work. This roll of film was wound incorrectly onto a stainless steel reel, which caused it to stick to another section of the film, blocking the developer and fixer from getting to it. Fortunately, this only happened to me a couple of times over a long career with film, but I knew photographers who struggled with it for years.
This is an example of a potential consequence of sloppy darkroom work. This roll of film was wound incorrectly onto a stainless steel reel, which caused it to stick to another section of the film, blocking the developer and fixer from getting to it. Fortunately, this only happened to me a couple of times over a long career with film, but I knew photographers who struggled with it for years.

I made a lot of photographer friends in college. I expect that was because we all hung out in the shared darkroom at the University of Oklahoma’s Copeland Hall, waiting to get in to use one of the two film-processing rooms, or, with a little luck, the one good enlarger among six others that were mostly junk in the printing room.

I was a meticulous darkroom technologist, and became it’s de facto manager. That meant, among other things, cleaning a lot.

Between my immaculate gear, darkroom cleaning habits, and reading tons of literature including Ansel Adams’ The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, I was able to product nice, contrasty prints that had good depth and shadow detail. At one point, one of my classmates nicknamed me “Mister Contrast.”

I’m sure they gave me less-flattering nicknames when I was out of the room, since I wasn’t as patient as I probably could have been about them messing up “my” darkroom.

With a current resurgent interest in photographic film by millenials (mostly), I thought I’d throw out a couple of tips about how to get good contrast.

  • The times and temperatures listed in the film literature aren’t just loose suggestions. If you are going to process your film right, you need to adhere to them very precisely.
  • Chemicals aren’t water, and when you use them, you use them up. The more used-up developer is, for example, the less effective it is at converting exposed film into an image, and therefore the picture won’t have as much contrast.
  • Contrast is wrecked by trying to under-develop or over-develop a print that has been exposed in the enlarger incorrectly. Some photographers used test strips, a series of different exposures on the same sheet of photographic paper, but I had a trial by fire in newspaper, so I got pretty good at guessing exposures pretty closely. Even so, I threw away about every other sheet of paper rather than try to salvage a bad exposure.
  • Contrast is also wrecked by fog, which can comes about because of light leaks in cameras, white light pollution in the darkroom (which needs to be actually dark), and through the use of expired photographic materials. This is a more complicated issue today since there are about a jillion rolls of expired, unexposed film in the world, and fresh film is very expensive.

I basked in the glow of being “Mister Contrast,” because despite it’s slightly-jealous connotations, it meant I had mastered at least one skill in my then-burgeoning photographic career.

This is a scan of one of the first images I ever made with my first Nikon, the FM, with my first Nikon lens, the 50mm f/1.8, in 1982.
This is a scan of one of the first images I ever made with my first Nikon, the FM, with my first Nikon lens, the 50mm f/1.8, in 1982.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.