Want to try 5×4 but put off by the high cost of film? Tim Daly shows you how to use home-made paper negatives in a hybrid analogue/digital workflow.
Forget lens de focusing gadgets and software blurring trickery, the only way to really mess about with planes of sharpness is to use a 5×4 camera.
The field camera is the simplest kind of 5×4, designed for use on location rather than the more delicate studio monorail type, and can be frequently found on internet auctions sites for less than you’d pay for a Lensbaby.
Folding out of a clever box housing, a good field camera has everything you need to make really eye-catching images, whether it’s ultra high-resolution or sumptuous depth of field effects that you are after.
For this project I’m going to show you how to use a 5×4 together with home-made paper negatives — a low cost way of using photographic paper rather than film. We’re going to shoot analogue then integrate our paper negative into a simple digital workflow to combine the best of both worlds.
SECTION 1 MAKING PAPER NEGATIVES
PAPER AND DOUBLE DARK Slides
You’ll need a pack of resin coated black & white photographic paper for this project, glossy or lustre finish. You’ll also need a 5×4 double dark slide, as shown, to load your paper into. The more dark slides you can afford, the more you can shoot on location without the need to reload.
STEP 2 cutting paper under a red safe light
Under a red safe light (or with a red safe light bulb swapped for your domestic light bulb), use a paper trimmer and cut a sheet of paper down to fit the dark slide. There’s no harm cutting the paper slightly smaller than 5x4in as this will help in the next step.
STEP 3 loading paper sheets
Hold the dark slide and pull out one of the sliders, then flip open the hinged base. With your other hand, hold the paper by the sides and slide it into the holder emulsion side up but, most importantly, underneath the two side runners, as shown.
Once located under the runners, push it into the holder as far as it will go. If it’s feeling too big, or buckling in the centre, pull it out and shave a couple of millimetres off a long side with the paper trimmer. Try to avoid touching the paper surface with your fingers at this stage, or you’ll get ruinous fingerprints appearing later down the line.
STEP 4 checking the double dark slide
Once you’ve loaded the paper, fold back the hinged base and push the slide back inwards, as shown. Make sure the slide locates into the hinged base, or the holder won’t be light tight. If the slider won’t go back in, your paper has lifted out of a runner. Load the paper again and try again. Flip the double dark slide over and repeat the process to load a second sheet of paper. Once loaded, keep your dark slide away from bright light sources to minimise the risk of fogging.
SECTION 2 SHOOTING THE IMAGE
SET UP YOUR CAMERA
For this project, I’m using an MPP Micro Technical Camera which has a very nice 150mm lens. It’s also got a very practical fold-out focusing hood at the rear, so you can check focus without needing a giant blanket over your head. Frame and focus your image and lock everything down tight before loading the dark slide.
WORKING OUT EXPOSURE
Now, most photographic paper has an ISO between 3 and 10, so it’s important to test your chosen paper first before embarking on a long shoot. To simplify matters, I’m using my DSLR camera meter to take an initial light reading of my subject which turns out to be 1/125sec at f/11, at ISO 100, circled in red. Now, my first test exposure is estimating the paper speed at ISO 6 which can be achieved by overexposing my DSLR meter reading by 4 stops (100>50>25>12>6) by shooting at 1/8sec. For your second and third tests, keep doubling the duration of the shutter speed i.e. to 14sec, then %sec.
LOADING THE FILM HOLDER
Next, close your focusing hood and rotate the camera back until it’s either horizontal or vertical. Pull back the lip of the back and slide in the double dark slider, as shown. Make sure the holder fits all the way down into the camera and feels snug.
MAKING THE exposure
Now, set your chosen aperture and shutter speed value on your lens and don’t forget to shut the diaphragm! Open for focusing, it must be closed for shooting, or you’ll keep fogging your paper. Cock the shutter and do a test firing to check that everything is working. Cock the shutter again, then you can pull out the slide nearest the lens, as shown. Pull it out fully then just tip it slightly back in. Make your exposure, then push the slide back down to protect your paper. Pull the holder out, flip it around and make another test exposure on your second sheet, doubling the shutter speed.
SECTION 3 PROCESSING AND SCANNING
STEP 1 developing the paper
Under red safe lighting, develop your paper negatives exactly the same way as developing prints. I’ve used Ilford Multigrade paper developer diluted 1-9, developing the paper for 90 seconds, followed by 1 minute in stop bath, then 2 minutes in Ilford Hypam fixer, diluted 1-4. Wash your paper under running water for 5 further minutes, then judge them in the light, as shown. Here are my two exposure tests side by side after washing. On the left is my first guess at 6 ISO or +4 stops; on the right is 3 ISO or +5 stops. I’m not going to choose either at this stage, but will scan both to give me plenty of options.
Once your negatives have washed, dry them with a hairdryer or use a paper dryer as shown here. It’s very important to keep the negatives flat and dust free before scanning.
Laying out ON THE SCANNER
Because you’ve got large-scale negatives, even the humblest flatbed scanner will be able to pull a high-resolution file out of them. I’m using a simple flatbed scanner for this project in reflective mode. Lay your negatives face down on the scanner side by side, as shown.
For this project I’ve chosen to scan in 16-bit grayscale at 1200ppi, creating 60Mb Tiff files, which is more than enough for a nice A3 print. Once you’ve got a preview visible, you’ll be aware that paper negatives are extremely contrasty animals! At this stage you could mitigate high contrast by opting to clip both shadows and highlights, taking around 40 off each end, as shown. Or you could manipulate this in Lightroom or Photoshop later down the line.
STAGE 4 EDITING THE FILE
INVERTING IN PHOTOSHOP
The most exciting step is when you flip from negative to positive and get a glimpse of what you’ve got to work with.
In Photoshop, open your file and do Image>Adjustments>Invert, as shown, then Save.
TWEAKING CONTRAST IN LIGHTROOM
The necessary contrast adjustment could easily be done in Photoshop, but I prefer to use Lightroom’s tools instead. I’m starting with three images and I’ve made virtual copies of each to give me the chance to work on different treatments simultaneously. To rescue the high contrast of the paper negative I’ve used the sliders in the tone curve dialog box to push and pull the image around, creating more detail in both highlights and shadows, as shown.
TONING IN LIGHTROOM
Next, I’ve introduced a faint split tone to warm up the image, using Lightroom’s split toning dialog box. Adding yellow to the highlights and red to the shadows creates a more three dimensional appearance onscreen. Keep split toning subtle by making it just visible.
ENHANCING STRUCTURE IN LIGHTROOM
For my final editing, I’ve used Lightroom’s adjustment brush to create masks around specific areas — the bright flower and the underside of the table. Here I’ve lowered the contrast and brightened up respectively, to make the image balance out better. My final edit used the Clarity and sharpening tools to try to pull a bit of texture out of the surface of the table — not too much but just enough to enhance the rustiness.