In the mid 1980’s I worked in television when the first video cameras for news gathering came in. Point and shoot mode digital nearly always works, a fact which kind of detracts from the pride of craftsmanship film photographers like to experience. In news photography an instant results is definitely a good thing. I was one of the first news photographers in London to own a digital stills camera which I married to sending pictures all round on a multiple address email, a masterstroke which took a surprisingly long time for the other photographers to pick-up on.
Now I have gone back to film for my own pictures because I like working with actual materials and I believe that the craft of handling real materials produces photographs which feel their own personality rather than being electronic clones. Also I feel a link to the photographers who have made photography what it is, the great masters whose work I have admired all my life. The next generation will be dominated by people who want the camera to be just an eye for their computer… not a bad way of working but it is a different experience. There will still be photographers who will make pictures that tell their story, and for print or web publication digital is the obvious choice.
I have had success in making news photographs, not a brilliant career but enough to know the taste of seeing my byline in the national press. Now I want to earn success making photographs which draw on my life experiences and my love of traditional film photography.
Here is a simple printing tip. Even with very expensive print tongs it is all too easy to scratch and crease prints moving them across the wet dishes of chemicals. Then there are those infuriating prints which manage to slip out of the tongs and land in a contaminating splash of chemicals. With a big print I find it such an awkward job merely to get the print to lay flat in the dish. My answer is simple: Don’t use tongs! When it comes to the final print I wear medical gloves. Buy the non-powdered ones from your local pharmacy, in boxes of 100 each glove costs just a few pennies. I wash my hands wearing the gloves and dry with a towel. I like the biggest size which are easy for me to slip on and off.
hang from one corner
flatten under glass
Everyone wants flat prints, to keep in a box or to hang on the wall in a frame, life is just so much better when your prints lie nice and flat. I used to hang my prints using two clips and two weights in the hope the print would dry with out curling. I’m talking about fibre based prints, resin prints dry flat whatever you do. I’ve also tried drying racks and lying damp prints between blotting paper. With all these methods I got wrinkly prints which needed hot-pressing to iron flat.
Then one day I read on the internet the most simple solution… simply hang the print from one corner using a big plastic peg. Leave until completely dry, it will gently curl but all I need to do is to place the prints overnight under a weight and they come out completely flat. I use a nice piece of heavy glass and I uncurl quite a few prints in one go, you don’t need to use blotter but I am happier interleaving with blotter just incase moisture is drawn out of the fibre based making two sheets stick together. It is so clean and simple and has never let me down. The biggest size I print is 16×12″, but I don’t see why really big pictures would dry any different.
Always lift the print completely wet from the wash tray and straight onto the peg allowing the water to run uninterrupted straight down the paper.. don’t turn the print round as any change in water flow direction can cause a drying mark particularly visible on flat black areas. This applies to resin coated prints too. There is no need to squeegee or wipe or add wetting agent, just let the water freely run off. I work in a hard water area and have had no drying marks with this method (apart from a very occasional chalky mark which rubs off with a soft cloth). If you water is really bad you can give the print a final soak in softened or bottled water.
light box and dusting kit
I spend lots of time right at the start of my printing sessions to ensure I am going to print from a dust free negative. Spotting, particularly spotting out hairs from a finished print, is another time consuming skill to master particularly if the print has warm tones.
I clean my carrier glass with lighter fuel using a lint free cloth and brush the glass with a ‘sable-type’ cleaning brush. Hopefully my negative is pretty clean when I take it out of the storage sleeve but I carefully check it with a magnifying loupe and brush off any particles with a puffer brush. Once in the carrier I again check with the loupe (my younger eyes did not need this aid). I use both a light box to see dark coloured particles and I also hold the carrier over a sheet of black paper to spot lighter particles especially small hairs. Single particals can be lifted off with a clean spotting brush.
Aerosol dust off cans are handy but can blow dust about rather than removing specific particles, also it is easy to blow the negative out of your hand and across the room or worse still make a horse-shoe shapped buckle in the negative… more expensive brands are easier to control. Half and hour or so seems like a drag but a clean print is much more satisfying solution than having to spot out pointless dust.
‘The Loneliness Of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe hit accord with me. At school rowing had been my big thing, dumb I know, and his underachieving protagonist getting back at the world through running hit the spot with me. I even got my friend and rowing partner Tim to run around some fields so I could make a photographic homage!
- Alan Sillitoe ©Nigel Barklie
So I was pleased when Alan Sillitoe agreed for me to visit him at his Notting Hill home for some photos. He had a tiny study where he worked and smoked with a framed map of Nottinghamshire the setting for his best known works. Alan was really generous and sent me a letter saying “You’ve got me absolutely right”.
Technical Notes – Lighting
This picture was taken in April 2004. The second floor room was small, in particular there was next to no room in front of Alan’s narrow desk. The only option was for him to be at his desk but thankfully there was a good sized window to his left which provided usable light. Alan wore a black leather waist-coat and wrote on white paper. He was a small man with intense observing eyes, ready to pounce on and store away any passing detail or characteristic.
I needed to put in flash light to get a usable exposure value. I like to work between f5.6 and f11 for portraits, this was made at f5.6 to blur the back wall and prevent it winning the fight for eye attention. I use shutter speeds near to 125th. Happily there was some white objects behind Alan so I was off to a good start in making him standout from the background. What I did was to use the available window light as fill but I had to add a main light with enough power to lift the black leather waist-coat. I used Fuji slide film as it is sharp and has good colours, 400 ASA to make to most of the light without looking too pushed.
To punch the light onto his body and shape his face I used a studio flash head aimed in low from his right side but softened off through a large diffuser panel. This light was placed in tight to keep it all a bit intense on his face and away from the background which was in danger of becoming over-bright and conflicting with Alan himself. I kept the flash quite level to his eye-line about half a stop brighter than the window light, this angle kept the flash off the writing paper and on the black leather waist-coat to give it a bit of kick-back. The close light also gave sharp catchlights in both eyes in sympathy with his author’s preditory nature.
At this time I was just getting back into using film after being knocked out by the new digital cameras. Alan Sillitoe’s writing is an icon of the 1950’s and so I wanted to use my twin lens roll film camera, with a standard 80 mm lens and it’s square format it is the look of that era. But I did not want the portrait to be too straight as Sillitoe’s writing questions societies values, so I gave the camera a bit of a twisty angle putting him as the upright commentator in a capsizing world.
Welcome: Sharing photographs and how to produce them is a big part of what I do. I like passing on my traditional black and white skills and you will find tips and techniques attached to some of the pictures on this site. Please email any questions, comments or tips you want to pass on.