There are a lot of terms tossed around in the digital photography scene. One of them is “in post.” It refers to changing or fixing an image in the computer or other device in post-processing using software applications.
My readers know that I teach photography at the Pontotoc Technology Center, and in a recent class, someone asked me, “What was post-processing like in the era before laptops and Photoshop?”
The answers honestly seemed to surprise him, both because it was surprisingly complex, and because I could recall it in such detail.
Films: the post-processing routine is determined first by what film we chose, and how we planned to use it. For most of my film-era newspaper work, I shot black-and-white film, with only the occasional “color project.” There were a dozen or more choices, but by the time I came to Ada, I had settled into Kodak’s T-Max film system, using mostly Kodak T-Max 400 and T-Max P3200 films.
One trick we all used at one time or another was called pushing. It worked by deliberately underexposing film, with the intention of allowing you to shoot at higher-than-normal ISO ratings for low-light situations, then increasing development times to try to force more sensitivity out of the film.
Push-processing, as it was known, was not always pretty, but it let us shoot those football games at small schools with very few lights without having to resort to direct flash.
Developers: There were a lot of film developers for black-and-white film that we all tinkered with over the years. I got pretty good at using the right developer for the job. Names such as Microdol-X, D-76, and Accufine have mostly passed into history, with the main survivor being HC-110, a Kodak product we all liked because you could use it in all kinds of different dilutions and temperatures to customize your development processs. The oddest film developer I used was Diafine, a two-part “compensating” developer that was easy to use and allowed push-processing of films like Kodak Tri-X with little effort: three minutes in Diafine A, three minutes in Diafine B, fix, wash, dry, and you’re done.
Color chemicals didn’t offer much choice because of the way their dyes worked, so it required more complex planning.
Papers: After we processed our films, it was time to print. Most of the time for black-and-white printing, I used papers that used two different emulsions (the light-sensitive substances), which allowed us to use filters to control the amount of contrast in a print. Kodak called these papers “Polycontrast”, and Ilford’s brand name was “Multigrade,” but they both worked the same. Papers with only one emulsion were known as “graded” papers, with a grade 1 paper being very low contrast , and grade 5 being very high contrast.
Enlargers: There were three basic kinds of enlargers I used in my film career: condenser, diffusion, and diffusion with a color head. Condenser enlargers made sharper prints, but emphasized film grain, while diffusion enlargers made smoother, less-sharp prints that help hide the “grain” in a really rough image.
Print development: We could take one more bite from the apple when we made prints, including dodging and burning, both of which are featured in today’s Photoshop and Lightroom software suites, as well as controlling the development of the prints themselves.
For much of my career, as it was for many like me at newspapers across the globe, I used an Ektamatic processor, which used activator and stabilizer, creating a “newsroom ready” print in about eight seconds. Ektamatic SC paper prints were designed to be camera-ready for a day or two, and would then start to yellow. Photographers and editors hated them because they smelled like vinegar, but it beat waiting 10 minutes or more for a finished glossy print.
It’s amazing that photography has progressed so much in just 30 or so years, but also amazing that we got so much good photography done back then.