Category Archives: Photography

Trial and error

The other day I posted some pictures I’d taken in Sherborne Abbey. They were shot on black & white film, scanned and edited digitally. I had envisaged a pale blue tone to emphasise the coolness of the stone building. At the time, I found the blue look I wanted digitally.



With that image in mind, I did some toner tests using Fotospeed BT20 iron blue toner. I found it quite hard to tame at first and I made a lot of small test prints until I got more-or-less the look I wanted after diluting it 1+2.

Test prints

Test prints

  • Test 12 is probably the best, but I’m still not quite happy with the shade. It’s too turquoise.
  • Test 5 has nice shadows but is too blue.
  • Test 3 is an interesting effect and one I might use again.
  • Test 9 is also an interesting effect, which definitely gives the impression of light

More experimentation is definitely needed, but I fear the look I wasn’t isn’t attainable with this blue toner. It has been recommended to me to use gold toner (which comes out blue) but that is quite expensive – about £60 per litre.

Victorian selfie

I had a brainwave about a better way of using my 1890s Lancaster Instantograph. It has no shutter so only very slow films can be used. Until now, I’ve been using paper negatives which are very slow, but can’t be enlarged – only contact-printed.

I remembered I had a box of Kodalith 5×4″ lith film which expired before I was born. Long-expired film loses its sensitivity and contrast, so I wondered if this film was now insensitive enough to be used without a shutter. I did a few brief tests and found that it can be exposed quite nicely at ISO 25 and developers well in paper developer. Lith film usually produces a hard black-and-white (not greyscale) image, but as this Kodalith is so old, it seems less aggressive.

I’ve invented the perfect recipe for a Victorian-style split sepia selfie – just 37 simple steps.

  1. Go into the darkroom. Switch off the light and work under red safelight.
  2. Use scissors to cut 5×4″ lith film down to 4¼×3¼” quarter-plate format
  3. Load cut film into film holder
  4. Emerge from the darkroom.
  5. Using a dark-cloth, position, adjust and focus the camera on its tripod using a large mirror. You won’t be able to hold this camera at arm’s length!
  6. Place the lens cap on the lens (it acts as a shutter on this shutterless camera)
  7. Insert the film holder into the camera
  8. Use a light meter to determine the exposure. I used a selenium meter from the 1950s and came up with an exposure of 60 seconds at f/10 (wide open) using the artificial light in my living room
  9. Withdraw the dark slide (you can see it sticking out of the side of the camera in my picture)
  10. Remove the lens cap and immediately stand as still as possible for the exposure
  11. Replace the lens cap
  12. Replace the dark slide
  13. Return to the darkroom and work under red safelight
  14. Unload the film holder
  15. Place the film in developer for 90 seconds. I used Ilford PQ Universal.
  16. Place the film in the stop bath for 30 seconds
  17. Place the film in the fixer bath for 60 seconds
  18. Switch on the light
  19. Wash the film
  20. Hang it up to dry
  21. When dry, load the film into the enlarger’s negative carrier. I don’t have a quarter-plate negative carrier and my 5×4″ carrier is glassless, so sandwiched by quarter-plate negative between two clear sheets of unexposed but fixed 5×4″ film
  22. Switch off the light and return to red safelight
  23. Scale and focus the projected image for your paper size
  24. Set the enlarger’s filter, aperture and exposure time according to your exposure tests
  25. Expose the print
  26. Place the print in developer for 90 seconds. I used Ilford PQ Universal.
  27. Place the print in the stop bath for 30 seconds
  28. Place the print in the fixer bath for 60 seconds
  29. Switch on the light
  30. Wash the print
  31. Place the print in the bleach bath for 30 seconds to bleach back the highlights
  32. Wash the print
  33. Place the print in the sepia toner for 60 seconds to replace the bleached highlight areas with sepia colour
  34. Wash the print
  35. Place the print in the selenium toner for 60 seconds to blacken the shadow areas
  36. Wash the print
  37. Hang it up to dry
Victorian selfie

Victorian selfie

Most of the flaws in this image are actually from using a a cheap and dirty mirror. It flexes, so the room appears distorted. It has fingerprints and dust on it, which causes the strange halos around the lights.

For anyone who is interested in darkroom processes, I recently published a video on YouTube which shows steps 21-34.

Sherborne Abbey

A few weeks ago, I visited Sherborne Abbey with some friends who were singing with the choir In Ecclesia Exon. While they rehearsed, I photographed the beautiful building and some of its contents. I’ve photographed cathedrals and abbeys many times before but on this occasion I was trying to find something a bit different from my usual.

It was a hot day but the inside of the abbey was cool and refreshing. I decided that a subtle blue tone on these photographs would reflect the coolness of the stone as it felt to me at the time. Not so long ago I wrote about testing photographic toners to see what they do. These images are scanned from black & white negatives and toned digitally, although now I’ve seen that I like the blue tone I will make some blue prints the old fashioned way.

All of these pictures were shot with a Canon T90 on Ilford Delta 3200 film. I tend to like wide lenses when shooting in churches and these photos were taken with a Canon FD 17mm f/4 and a Canon FD 50mm f/1.4. Other photos on the roll were taken with a Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 but they didn’t make the cut.

Somerset Towers update

I’ve been busy this summer so I haven’t spent as much time as I would like taking pictures of the Somerset Towers for my project. Yesterday I went out for the first time in over two months and I photographed four churches. I’ve now got 32 of the 73 churches on my list.

This is my favourite picture of the day – the church of St Peter & St Paul in Charlton Horethorne. The church is nice but I also like the the stormy clouds behind it.

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Charlton Horethorne

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Charlton Horethorne

This picture was taken with a Horseman 45HD camera, equipped with a Schneider-Kreuznach Super Angulon 90mm f/8 wide angle lens. Exposure was 1/4s at f/22 on Ilford FP4+ film, pulled to EI 50.

As a side point, I’ve also been tracking the distance I travel to get to these churches across the county. So far I’ve driven 987km and I’ve not even done half of the towers!

Salt & Pepper

This week’s Photo Challenge is salt & pepper. It’s a simple theme with lots of scope for different interpretations. I immediately had the idea of a high-contrast black & white version.

Salt & Pepper

Salt & Pepper

This picture was taken using sheets of black and white plastic, and a small cookie cutter to sprinkle the condiments in circular heaps. It has had very little post-processing – just boosting the contrast and cloning out a few grains of salt that got away. I honestly spent longer prodding peppercorns with tweezers than I did on the computer.

Smartphone apps for film photographers

Just because I love film photography a non-digital workflow doesn’t mean I spurn all digital assistance. Here are my favourite smartphone apps which I use regularly to help with my traditional photographic work. I’ve focused on iPhone apps simply because I have an iPhone. I’m sure many of these (or close equivalents) are available for Android and Windows phones too. I’ve included links to the UK App Store if you click on the pictures.



PinholeMeter is a simple but useful app for calculating exposure times for pinhole cameras. You just have to tell it the ISO of your film/paper, and the f-number of your pinhole. Then you point your phone at the scene you want to measure, and it tells you how many seconds of exposure you’ll need to get perfectly-exposed pinhole photographs.

It does not take reciprocity failure into account, but based on my brief tests, it seems pretty accurate anyway.

Pocket Light Meter

Pocket Light Meter

Digital cameras all have built-in metering, but quite a lot of manual film cameras don’t. Even the ones that do have meters often don’t work well after decades of neglect. Buying a real light meter can be very expensive and using the sunny 16 rule can be inaccurate in difficult lighting conditions, so this app is a pretty good replacement.

Just set your ISO and point it at the scene. Set either the shutter speed or the aperture if you want to use priority exposure, otherwise let the meter decide. Dial the settings into your camera and click!

Film Tracks

Film Tracks

This one’s a geeky one. As its simplest, it’s a replacement for a pencil and paper when taking notes about your film exposures while you’re out and about. It can save exposure values, thumbnails, GPS co-ordinates, filters and zone system information to help with later development.

If you’re especially keen, later on you can re-add the information back into the scanned images using exiftool – the same way that digital cameras embed information into photos. I now do this with my photos. WordPress picks up the information and displays it automatically so other geeks can enjoy it.

Massive Dev Chart Timer

Massive Dev Chart

This one is a lifesaver for me. The Massive Dev Chart Timer has development information about vast numbers of films and developers. It makes it easy to find times and temperatures for your films. It can also do temperature compensation (if your developer is hotter/colder than it should be) and push/pull processing.

Once you’ve found your settings, it acts as a darkroom timer and gives visual and audible signals for developer, stop, fix, wash and more. I never process film without it.

Making a darkroom print

There are tons of excellent written guides about how to work in a photographic darkroom. There are even a few videos, but because digital cameras don’t really work well in almost total darkness, the videos are usually a bit rubbish.

However, I have a DSLR which has been converted for full spectrum photography (infra-red and ultraviolet), primarily for doing astronomy. The converted camera is not only sensitive to infrared light, but also about four times more sensitive to visible red light than a regular DSLR. This means my astronomical camera can “see” in the darkroom under red safelight as if it were broad daylight. To the human eye, it is quite dark but you can just about see what you’re doing. The video is deceptive!

I made a brief overview video depicting me making a black & white print from a negative, and toning it sepia. If this seems to be popular then I will consider making other darkroom videos, concentrating in more detail on technique (and doing a less sloppy job). If this appeals to you, please let me know in the comments.

Equipment used to make the video

  • Canon EOS 600D for shots under normal lighting
  • Canon EOS 600D with full-spectrum mod for shots under red safelighting
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens for most shots
  • Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 lens for most shots
  • Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens for close-ups
  • Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 wide angle zoom lens for wide shots

Equipment used in the video

  • De Vere 54 enlarger, converted to LED light source

Through the viewfinder

This week for the Photo Challenge, Kirsty suggested that we innovate and cobble together some lighting equipment out of household bits and bobs. Before I explain my method, here’s what I achieved.

Through the viewfinder

Through the viewfinder

This picture actually involved three cameras, some drinking straws, and lots of glue. I used the through-the-viewfinder (TtV) technique. The small camera in my picture is a Voigtlander Vito II, and is merely the subject of the photo. The second camera, the edges of which you can see, is a Mamiya C220 twin-lens reflex. Unlike most cameras, when you point it forward the image appears on the top, reflected through 90 degrees. Finally, the picture was actually taken with a Canon EOS 600D, pointed down into the C220’s viewfinder – like this:

TTV setup shot

TTV setup shot

Keen-eyed readers will also spot that the C220 has flipped the image from left to right. This is one of the quirks of using a TLR or SLR without a pentaprism. The surface on which I have placed the Vito II is actually the back side of a mirror that I haven’t yet hung on the wall in the guest bedroom.

The lighting is where the home-made element really comes into play. The tight pool of light around the Vito II was achieved by using a speedlight with a snoot – which is just a tube with a grid in it that forms the light into a narrow beam. They can be purchased ready-made but I followed these instructions to make my own from a cereal packet and a handful of black drinking straws. I stuck the snoot onto my flashgun with masking tape. Usually it’s push-fit and just about stays in place, but with the flash pointing vertically downwards it kept falling off :)

Homemade snoot

Homemade snoot

Chasing the Class 60

Ed, a good friend of mine is a railway photographer. He often takes trips to various industrial locations around the country to photograph diesel locomotives pulling different freight trains, and on his most recent jaunt to the Midlands he invited me to tag along. While I have no specific interest in trains, I do like big machinery and diesel engines – and a photo excursion is always fun so I took along a couple of cameras too.

  • Canon A-1 with Ilford FP4+ film, used mostly with Canon FD 70-210mm f/4
  • Canon AE-1 Program with Tudor Color XLX film, used mostly with Canon FD 200mm f/2.8

I also used a Canon FD 50mm f/1.4, Canon FD 35mm f/2.8 and Canon FD 300mm f/5.6 for some shots. I took along a Tokina RMC 400mm f/5.6 but it stayed in my bag because it was simply too slow to use with ISO100 film and I didn’t need the focal length.

I’m mostly pleased with the colours in these pictures. Tudor XLX is a very cheap film but the bold colours of the locomotives have come out well and the shots have a very “filmic” look.

Photographing le Tour de France

I’m a fan of cycling grand tours such as le Tour de France. This year I was lucky enough to be able to watch three stages of it in France. Needless to say, I took my camera but unfortunately I’m quite disappointed with the results. The reasons are (in descending order of importance) poor technique, poor conditions and poor equipment. I was hoping to be able to publish great pictures of the world’s most famous cycle race, but instead this is going to be an article about common pitfalls of amateur sports photography (amateur photography, not amateur sport).

We saw the Tour on three consecutive days, each with different weather conditions, different terrain and different viewpoints. It’s hard to refine your technique when you don’t get the same conditions twice. I’ll discuss the equipment in more detail at the end, but for now I’ll say that I was using a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens.

Stage 4

On the first day we stood behind barriers at the side of the road, about 100m before the finish line of a category 4 climb at Mont Noir. At the roadside you usually have very little idea of what is going on in the multi-hour race but this year I followed @letour on Twitter for updates. I learned that Thomas Voeckler had broken away from the peloton by over a minute and was ahead on his own. We were on the inside of a gentle bend, so I made the assumption that Voeckler would be sticking to the inside of the corner. I didn’t trust the autofocus on my consumer DSLR so I manually focused two metres away, chose a fairly short focal length and stopped down to increase depth of field. I was sure he would be safely within my depth of field.

Unfortunately, Voeckler decided to take the gentle corner wide, on the far side of the road. He’s a bit out of focus in my pictures.

Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir

Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800

Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir

Thomas Voeckler at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800

Shortly after Voeckler passed, the peloton swept by. As a group of almost 200 riders I knew they would occupy the entire width of the road so I stuck with the same settings – a wide focal length (20mm) and a moderate aperture (f/8) and retained the manual pre-focus at 2m. With the ISO set quite high at 800, the camera chose what seemed to be fast shutter speed of 1/500. Unfortunately, the peloton were too fast and almost all the picture show motion blur. I didn’t want to miss out on the action with my own eyes, so I held the camera in front of my chest in continuous shooting mode. This was the best of the pictures, despite the poor focus and motion blur.

Peloton at Mont Noir

Peloton at Mont Noir. 20mm, f/9.5, 1/500, ISO800

Stage 5

Stage 5 was a very different proposition – the race would pass by on a narrow cobbled stretch. Cobbles are notoriously difficult to ride on, especially in the rain. I knew the riders would pass by relatively slowly in small groups or individually, and could be at any position on the cobbles. Given the previous day’s manual focus disappointment, I decided to try autofocus again.

However, looking down the road at an approaching subject is one of the most difficult tasks for any autofocus system – especially when the cyclist is distant and only occupies a small proportion of the picture. I set the autofocus mode to AI Servo, which should track approaching subjects. I’m not sure whether it was the camera body having trouble taking measurements in the poor light with a relatively slow lens, or whether the lens was just too slow to actuate, but the autofocus missed on almost every shot.

The best of a very bad bunch of photos was this shot of Geraint Thomas, with a mud-splattered face of pure determination. On many of the other shots, the autofocus locked into the brightly-coloured spectators on the other side of the road.

Geraint Thomas at Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes

Geraint Thomas at Tilloy-lez-Marchiennes. 85mm, f/8, 1/90, ISO800

The shutter speed is far too slow and in retrospect I should have shot at ISO1600 or more. I zoomed in to capture Geraint’s face but this only accentuates the problem of poor focus. I deleted over half of these pictures because they were totally unusable.

Stage 6

On Stage 6, the light was brighter but still overcast. The major factor was that we witnessed the départ fictif, where the riders perform a slow, ceremonial circuit of the starting town before racing off. At these slow speeds with somewhat better light, the autofocus did a much better job, although the shutter speed is still too slow.

Départ fictif in Arras

Départ fictif in Arras. 17mm, f/8, 1/350, ISO800

The equipment

I already mentioned that I used consumer equipment – namely a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens.

While the 600D uses the same sensor and offers the same image quality as its big brothers the 60D and 7D, it is most certainly not the same camera. The 60D and 7D have more and better autofocus points for faster and more accurate focusing.

The 17-85mm is the kit lens supplied with the 60D. While it is clearly not a professional-standard lens, it should be a step up from the 18-55mm lens supplied with the 600D and its triple-digit ilk. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true, and my copy of the 17-85mm offers terrible chromatic aberration even when stopped down. Presumably it is just a faulty copy and not representative of all Canon’s 17-85mm lenses.

Stopping down to achieve extra depth of field and to remove as much chromatic aberration from the lens as possible obviously means that the shutter speed will be slower. A slow shutter speed is not suitable for sports photography so the ISO must be increased to compensate – and you find yourself trapped in the three-way compromise of the exposure triangle.

If I had had a similar L lens (for example the 17-40mm f/4L), while it is not faster, it can probably be used wide open – thus gaining me two extra stops of shutter speed for the same ISO. An f/2.8 lens would certainly help the autofocus but is likely to cause inaccurate focusing and insufficient depth of field if actually used at f/2.8.

I am not sure whether my autofocus woes came from the body struggling to find focus or the lens struggling to keep up in its actuation, but I am inclined to blame the body. The ultrasonic motor (USM) in the lens should be fast enough.

The lens I used also has optical image stabilisation (IS) which is supposed to help reduce camera shake. Common wisdom says the shutter speed should be no faster than the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, my photo of Geraint Thomas was shot at 85mm with a shutter speed of 1/90 – right on the brink of acceptability. IS should make this a more tenable situation, but of course it does not prevent motion blur from moving objects. 1/90 is just not fast enough to freeze Geraint Thomas. He’s fast.

Lessons learned

  • Use a fast lens if possible. Even if you stop it down when taking the photos, the extra light wide open will help the autofocus work quickly and accurately.
  • Manual pre-focusing is a valid technique but you have to be sure where your subject will be.
  • Canon’s higher-range bodies (e.g. 60D, 7D) have more sensitive and accurate autofocus sensors which will help any lens perform better.
  • Don’t underestimate the shutter speed required to capture fast action. Increase the ISO if necessary and worry about the noise later. Noise is not as bad as a blurred picture.
  • Set specific autofocus points, rather than letting the camera choose. I think forcing a single autofocus point would have helped me on the cobbles, where the camera often focused on distant spectators.
  • Usually, the Tour de France passes very quickly indeed. You only get one attempt per day to photograph it!