Week 25

Against the grain

Though I haven’t been in my darkroom for a little while, when I took this photo I was thinking of a blog post on grain. Since then it’s been too hot, there has been too much bright sunlight or there has simply been too much going on for a decent darkroom session.

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When people think about black and white film photography, they’ll often reminisce about old grainy photographs. And that’s part of it, part of what makes those old photographs so great. But it’s nostalgia to a large extent – modern films are fine-grained to the point of being impossible to focus on in the darkroom. Great to work with in the camera because you know you’ll capture all the detail you’ll ever need and more but you’ll pay for it later when you come to print.

Under the enlarger, you don’t look at the overall sharpness of the print or try to work out which bits were in focus and which out, instead you check whether you’ve got the focus right by using a focus finder – a mirrored device that allows you to adjust the focus on the enlarger until you can see the grain. On 35mm I find it works quite well – for 120 film it can be tricky. If you use a slow film like Ilford Pan F 50 it can be the devil’s work to find any grain at all.

The good thing is once you’ve got it right you can just keep feeding the negatives through and make print after print as long as you don’t want to enlarge the photo (that involves moving the enlarger head and doing the devil’s work to relocate your grain).

If you’re making a contact sheet you don’t have to worry about it at all – just make sure the light covers the whole sheet, determine your exposure time and you’re good to go.

Which gives you all the more time to give a new lease of life to a table you found in a thrift shop, peeling away the layers of old varnish until you find a bit of grain you can focus on.

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