Push me, pull you

Despite the dread, you really have to do little. (See what I did there?)

So, pushing film means underexposing it, or exposing it as though it had a higher ISO, which is the same thing. To compensate we give it more development.

When we pull film we overexpose it then give it less development to compensate.

Why would you bother? Well sometimes pushing the film is the only way to get the picture. The side effect of giving it more development is that the contrast can be increased. This means you can also push the film when you want to deliberately increase the contrast. Ted Vieira shoots 400ISO black and white film at 1600 and loves it.

Similarly, you might pull the film to reduce contrast.

But what does increase or decrease development mean? By how much? Let me consult the notebook of photographic lore.

Clever book

Pushing film
1 stop, increase development time 50%
2 stops, increase development time 80%

Pulling film
1 stop, decrease development time 30%
2 stops, decrease development time 50%

The book of all cleverness also gives a formula to calculate the development time to use if you are pulling film. Take the normal development time and halve it. Take the times increase in exposure (eg 2 stops is 4 times increase, so use the figure 4) and take the reciprocal of this number (so 4 becomes 1/4). Multiply this reciprocal number by the halved value of development time. Add this number to half the normal development time.

So, imagine I pulled the film 1 stop (2x increase in exposure). Normal development time is 10 mins. Half the dev time is 5 mins; multiply by 1/2 = 2.5 mins. Add this to half the dev time of 5 mins and the new development time is 7.5 minutes. The quick reference above says cut development by 30%, so it’s a fairly good match.

Or you could start with a degree in maths. Or you could look up your film and developer combination on the Massive Dev Chart. But it your special brand of madness is not there, try the suggestions above.

But why on earth would you pull film? Well the Zoners will tell you that it is to increase the number of tones captured on the film, so expanding a high-contrast scene to show more of the intermediate tones between black and white. The book of photographic cleverness says that you can match the amount you pull the film to the tonal range of the scene like this:

‘Nomal’ range 125:1 – normal exposure and development.
250:1 – overexpose 1/3 stop, cut development 10%
500:1 – overexpose 1/2 stop, cut development 20%
1000:1 – overexpose 1 stop, cut development 30%
up to 4000:1 – overexpose 2 stops, cut development 50%

Beware though, this leads to the Dark Zone.

What I have come round to is pushing the film so that I can use better cameras settings in poor light, then using Rodinal at 1:100 to do semi-stand development.

The Enid
Even FP4 can be pushed, if it is all you have to hand. This was pushed two stops by the simple +80% development time method.

Fixed it in post

From a cartoon I saw that had a group of surgeons gathered around a screen in an operating theatre. One of them is leaning over to tell the patient “we’ve fixed your leg in Photoshop”.

I hear a lot of people saying “I’ll fix it in post” and an equal number insisting that one should get it right in-camera. So what’s the right answer?

I’m not sure there is a single right answer. I can tell you my experience, and it’s tied to my gradual learning of how to use Photoshop. I started with something like Elements 5 and progressed to Elements 7, which does most of what I need.

Apart from the obvious learning curve (cliff) of using Photoshop itself, I realised that what I have been learning are the skills that a good darkroom printer would use. I have also been building a library of effects: how to obtain the look of certain types of processing or film, such as lith printing. And yes, I have also been rescuing mistakes such as poor exposure, poor background, poor framing and so on.

And while I appreciate that one should endeavour to get it right in camera, even Ansel Adams recognised that post-processing was required to finish the job. He called the negative the score and the print the performance. In his case though this wasn’t fixing it in post, this was developing its full potential. Another example – in the digital world we are supposed to expose to the right: to capture as much light as possible short of blowing the highlights. But to avoid the result being high key, we then darken the final image to get back to what we saw.

So perhaps we should separate ‘fix it’ from ‘develop it’? As I said, I’ve done my share of fixing. Sometimes you grab a shot with less than ideal exposure or you make a mistake or the lighting is too contrasty. The dynamic range of a raw file can be your friend. Recover those highlights, put some detail back in the shadows and remove that colour cast. Ideally though, you would get it right at the time. Otherwise you might a well swap your camera for your phone and reduce your input to pointing it in the right direction.

Developing the image though, that’s a completely different game. I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles on improving images in Photoshop, or methods of obtaining a particular look. Some things are really simple and make a big difference, like midtone contrast using an unsharp mask (amount 20% radius 60 threshold 0, since you ask). This isn’t a fix – it’s something I might have been able to do in the camera or darkroom if I knew how. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that I made the effort to capture all of the tones and range in the subject and then used my post-processing to interpret the captured data in a way that pleases me. Like Ansell Adams, except he was good at it. Having all of the information present in the original file or negative means I can re-interpret it any way I want. There is a picture of a motorbike in an earlier post that is mostly shadow and a few highlights. The original negative shows all the detail you could want, but who wants an accurate picture of a bike engine when you could have moody darkness?

It’s the same as when I learned that I could dodge or burn only the highlights or shadows. What a difference it can make to do some tiny local adjustments that would only have been possible in-camera under studio conditions. Or I would have had to do something clever in the darkroom with cotton buds and bleach. And the joy of having shot for maximum detail originally is that I can go back each time I learn a new trick and improve on my previous version. And the joy of something like Photoshop is that I can experiment, go too far, wind it back and learn.

So now I have my very own cookbook of editing methods so that I can recreate things that worked. Nothing fancy or wordy, just a brief description and a diagram of the various layers and settings. Most of the techniques don’t get used – who needs posterisation or cross-processing in every shot? But it makes things much easier that I have just one place to look when I do want to pull a trick out of the bag.

Coming back to this idea of doing it all in camera and not relying on post-processing, what do you think of the film photographers who make prints showing the entire image area of the negative plus surrounds? These are the prints that say “look, I framed it perfectly and I can prove it”. I wonder if their prints were made as straight enlargements onto grade 2 paper, or if there might have been a bit of dodging and burning? Surely if you can compose perfectly in camera, you can expose perfectly too? Unless it’s art, of course. Or perhaps what they are saying is “I spent some serious coin on this film, so I’m printing even the bits with sprocket holes in”?

This all makes me sound horribly smug. I have honestly bent, broken, burned and generally cocked-up everything at some time. Photoshop has both saved my arse and, more often, helped me drag at least a cotton purse out of the pig’s ear I started with. But I do believe I should be using it to develop the potential of a picture rather than saving it from the bin. And I do try hard to get it right in-camera. If you are doing the wrong thing, then getting better at it with practice just makes your results wronger. It’s better to make the effort to do something right, as then every improvement you make to your methods will make things righter. The problem comes when you are getting reasonable results even though you are doing it wrong. You have to cross the ditch of awful to get to the other side and this can hurt. But if the majority of your shots don’t need to be rescued, it leaves you a good margin of safety for the odd one that does.

Aysgarth Lower Falls

By the way, the Photoshop cookbook is a real thing. It’s quite terse, as it is mainly reminders on how to get particular effects. But if there is any interest I could post it online. Let me know in the comments.

Up the revolution!

A night’s tale

So what do you do when it’s darker than your meter will read or the lighting is so unusual you don’t have a clue?

You can start with what other people know.

There is a list of exposures to use in all sorts of odd situations called the Black Cat guide. The only down side to this is that it costs £20, which would buy a chunk of film or even a working light meter.

There is a free online alternative: Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Computer. This is like the Black Cat guide but probably has more information on how to use a light meter. The best thing though is that it gives good guide exposures for all sorts of situations.

For the rest, I used to take notes of every suggested exposure situation. The photo magazines used to run articles all the time about fireworks, fog, street scenes and so on. Good for them, as they could re-run pretty much the same articles at the same time each year. And I used to write down their suggested settings in what became the notebook of all photographic knowledge.

For example, taking a picture of someone lighting a cigarette using just the light from the match. Almost impossible to meter unless you have one of those clever cameras that continues to meter even when the shutter is open. Or you consult the notebook and use 400ISO and f4 for the time it takes to the match to flare. The example here used Tri-X pushed to 1600, which gave me a tad more depth of field.


I shot two frames (two matches’ worth) before my subject stopped cupping the match and actually lit their fag with it. This one was sharp, the second one blurred.

What about flames? Try 400ISO and 1/500 at f8. This picture below was actually given a fair bit more exposure as I wanted some detail in the background. I’m not sure how well it shows on a small screen, but you can see the climbing frame and other bits of the play area to give the fire some context.

Bonfire night, kids in silhouette against bonfire on playground.

And no, the fire wasn’t really that colour. It was a black and white picture that I toned red in the highlights later.

How about dim indoor lighting? Well, Fred says that dim indoor lighting is around EV0 or 8 secs at F5.6 on 400ISO. I think it turned out OK.

I was talking to someone a month or so back who had grown up in towns and later moved out to the countryside. They said how surprised they were that you could walk around easily under a full moon, as it was light enough to see by.

Moonlight is about 19 stops less bright than sunlight. If you allow say 3 stops for recipricity, you would open-up 22 stops from sunny 16. Sounds a lot, but what it translates to is roughly:

Full moon, 400ISO, 15 mins at f5.6
3/4 moon – 15 mins at f4
1/2 moon – 60 mins at f5.6
1/4 moon – 120 mins at f5.6

You might want to keep the moon itself out of shot, as it will move some distance during these shooting times and give you a streak in the sky. Also, these settings will give you daylight-like lighting. If you want it to look like moonlight you could reduce the time.

The moon itself is in full sunlight, so use sunny 16 and a long lens to get pictures of the craters.
OK, I’ve mentioned Sunny 16 a few times. Apart from being a great podcast, what is it? In bright sunlight, set your aperture to f16 and the shutter speed to the nearest value to the ISO. So 100ISO would mean f16 and 1/125. 400ISO would be f16 and 1/500. This works about right and gives about the right exposure for when you don’t have a meter.

If it’s less than sunny, you dial it down appropriately:

Sunny, hard shadows – f16
Hazy sun, soft shadows – f11
Cloudy, no shadows – f8
Overcast – f5.6

As with all of this stuff, you need to experiment and keep notes so that you can repeat what worked. And don’t fear the Fup Duck. Writing that, I can hear a tune in my head – ‘don’t fear the quacker‘ anyone? Or perhaps, as it was Mr Parker’s advice we are following, it should be ‘light, said Fred‘.


Maybe you did buy it, but it’s not yours

I was reading about HP’s subscription ink service. The idea looks pretty good – you decide how many prints you want to make a month and HP send you ink cartridges in the post. If I was making prints for sale this might be a good deal: I work out how many prints of each size I can sell and then churn through them.

The complication seems to be in the detail. It appears that you cannot exceed the planned number of prints. If you do, the printer stops working. If you cancel your subscription, the ink cartridges stop working even if they are full. So basically you give HP remote control over your printer to only print what you have paid them for, using only their cartridges. You thought it was your printer when you bought it, but it’s not.

Epson apparently sent out an update to its printers that made them stop working with refilled or third-party ink cartridges. You thought it was your printer when you bought it, but it’s not.

This is one aspect of an issue that is growing with smartphones and tractors. The original manufacturer is trying to lock the device so that it can only be repaired by them or has to be replaced. You may think it’s a simple fix to replace a cracked screen on a phone, and it should be, but not when the phone has been programmed to reject a non-approved screen or will only work if some magic hidden register is reset by the original manufacturer. So the phone goes to landfill and a new one arrives on contract. And we lose the raw materials from the old phone while extracting more to make the new one.

Kodak used to try doing this by using proprietary film formats. It’s difficult to be a rapacious capitalist though, when the only thing stopping a competitor is whether the market is big enough to be worth the tooling costs to make the new format. But imagine what one could do, now that cameras have computers in them. If you make memory cards, or have a business relationship with someone who does, you could subtly slow-down other people’s cards or switch the occasion bit in the stored file to degrade it ever so slightly. You could slow-down the autofocus on third-party lenses, or even put the focus slightly out. Even more sneaky would be to apply a bit of image softening during the processing and saving of the image. And what happens when the scene recognition in your smartphone camera thinks you are taking a picture of children, or terrorists?

Not that the camera manufacturers do this. But the makers of smartphones, inkjet printers and tractors seem to.

Couldn’t happen with film, right? Well you used to be able to pop the end off a 35mm cassette to unload it, meaning that the cassette could be reloaded and reused multiple times. Not any more. Now you have to pry the end cap off a cassette, which destroys it. This turns a useful item into small bits of metal and plastic waste. I know that I can buy plastic reloadable cassettes, but that’s not the point. And in all my fumbled handling of film cassettes, I have never managed to accidentally pop the end off one of the old-style ones (so there can be no real argument that swaging the caps on is a safety feature). Plus, they don’t bear the costs of disposal.

Gosh darn it – I’ll have to get with the programme and buy new rather than reload

Where does this leave us? As the product. The printer makers don’t want to sell you a printer, they want to generate a perpetual revenue stream. If you refill your cartridges or use someone else’s, you harm their profits. If you get someone to repair your smartphone you might not buy a new one. Farm machinery like tractors probably lasts for years, so retaining an income from spare parts and servicing helps maintain profit between eventual replacements.

What can you do? Repair before replace. Support the right to repair. Think hard before you buy something that locks you in – you would be supporting the manufacturer in milking you. Stop being a product.


See this.