Enough time had passed since my last large format macro shots that I’d forgotten how testing it can be but, with the sun shining on the garden, the urge came upon me. Internet wisdom suggests that 5×4 macro is a waste of time and only for the foolish, which makes me its target market.
When attempting large format photography, it’s like living in a camera flow chart; you need to know your gear and remember the steps. Open the shutter at f5.6, compose the scene and focus, check the exposure, close the shutter, adjust aperture and time, set the lens to fire, put dark slide in, then open the slide and press shutter, and then close dark slide. I’m bound to have forgotten something I usually do. A whole heap of agro you might think, but it appeals to the purist in me and forces upon me a discipline that is quite unnatural. The payoff is to view the scene so large on the ground glass, looking quite beautiful, it’s upside down of course but almost everything looks stunningly clear and it gives me a thrill of pleasure every time.
Of course, you have a dark cloth over your head while composing and focusing so it gets darn hot with the sun shining. Then there’s the wind shaking those darling buds whenever you point a camera at them. I also found on this occasion that I needed a small torch to see the aperture numbers so, with the exposure meter, loupe, dark slide and torch, your hands are pretty full. A manservant would be the ideal accessory, perhaps serving a small aperitif before each shot. When I think of photographers in the 19th century out in the world, working like this with tougher conditions and more cumbersome equipment, my jaw drops in respect.
After an hour of huffing and puffing and the occasional curse, I had, what I hoped, were some interesting large negatives to process. This gave me the opportunity to use a new method of development, replacing the trays with a MOD54 plastic frame that allows six 5×4 negs to fit in a Patterson three reel tank. This means I don’t have to stand in complete darkness for ten minutes with only the robotic female voice of an audio timer for company. Operating the timer and manipulating the film into three trays while experiencing this sensory deprivation is an art in itself. A weaker man than I might experience the return of his childhood fear of the dark, or be forced to confront hideous monsters of the Id, in the gurgling nothingness that is a light tight darkroom.
The learning curve on the new MOD54 wasn’t without mishap as I tried to load it to its full capacity of six negatives. Having practiced in the light, it all seemed to be going so well in the changing bag until I took out the filled tank to find a sheet of film had fallen off in the bag and was now ruined. I’ve learnt to shrug off these disasters now, as it seems to be the price for not practicing this art more regularly.
The massive Dev chart suggested 9 mins @20 degrees for HP5+ in Ilford HC, but experience has taught me that my set-up and method always needs less time, so I knocked it down to 7 mins. The only other problem was my fix had gone off a tad so, although it appeared to be working, it was cloudy with white bits. I pressed on regardless as the corner shop gave up stocking photographic chemicals a long time ago.
The negatives turned out OK (though with a fair amount of white specks possibly dust or fix debris) but some seemed to have been mis-loaded or had jumped out of their grooves during agitation plus, to my horror, the MOD54 seemed to have scratched them at the edges. A quick Google confirmed that others had suffered the same fate and the suggestion was to load less sheets and to smooth any burrs on the plastic of the MOD54. I followed this advice and processed four in the second batch and appeared to have no scratches. I think practice will make me better, so it’s a big thumbs up from me for this method of developing 5×4 film.
Smart people will spot that I messed up one of the sheets with a double exposure, which I put down to poor method and a lack of discipline. I quite like the others, though some might say that 35mm or digital would produce better results a lot easier. But, heck, where’s the fun in that; plus when I die and go to photography heaven, I can look those Victorian antecedents in the eye and say at least I tried on occasion to do it their way.
A few tweaks in Lightroom 4 and then scanned with a Epson V700.