Friday, May 18, 2007


White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 1996

Yes, I'm posting another White Sands image, but this one is a year later. I got a comment on Thursday's post asking why I didn't talk about how I make images look like this since the place is so totally white. To start with, the dunes only have the appearance of sand, but they are composed of almost pure gypsum crystals. Yeah, the same stuff drywall, or sheetrock is make of. And it's not entirely white, either, but rather a very light gray, about Zone VIII.5.

A little background – I learned the Zone System from Ansel's first set of books. I own a first edition. And I learned it from Minor White's little yellow Zone System manual. My first sheet films were Versapan, Super Pan Press Type B, Tri-X, FP-4, and others. (I've been photographing almost a half century now.) Films that had much more silver content than today's films, and because of that high silver concentration, you could radically alter the development to achieve radical compressions or expansions of tonal scales. It's was very much like what you can do with “levels” in Photoshop. The films of the mid-60's are long gone (don't tell me that Tri-X is still with us – the Tri-X of today has little resemblance of the Tri-x from 40+ years ago), and many of the techniques used then simply do not work with films of today. There is just not enough or the right kind of silver in todays films. “T-Grain” films sorta' wiped the slate clean.
I should tell my readers that I also spent seven summer in the '80's teaching Zone System as an instructor with the Oliver Gagliani Zone System and Fine Print Workshops in Virginia City, NV. IOW's, I have some credentials when it comes to Zone.

With today's films, I find I can force process Tmax100 to an approximate N+3+ with about 1.5 hours of development in straight D-76 with the addition of 10ml/ltr of 1% benzoletriazole. People doing PyroAB claim about the same. I process all my films with a JOBO – 6x7cm, 4x5, and 8x10 -- and I process all my films in D-76 that I make from the raw chemicals. I shoot Ilford PanF, Tmax100, and Tri-X. I know that a lot of folks use Tmax RS developer, or Pyro AB, but I can site a study that states that the two chief Kodak chemists responsible for bringing the Tmax films to market used only D-76 for all their test. Good enough for them, good enough for me.

So how did I make these two White Sands images? First of all I'm not interested in making images that merely represent what the place actually looks like, I want to make images of what the place feels like. White Sands is about form and shape, highlight and shadow, time and place. It can be glowing, hot, searing in the sun on top of the dunes, but it is instantly 20+ degrees cooler in the shadows. Like stepping into an air conditioned room. It took me four trips to White Sands before I found a way to represent all that I felt standing looking west toward the San Andreas Mountains.

My technique is rather simple. First of all, I have done extensive test for N+SNOT developments. That's the “photoing” term that several of us came up with in reference to “developing the snot out of the film.” It has roots in what Ansel called Gamma Infinity development. The principle is you can continue to build a tonal range so long as printable negative highlight density is building faster than film base plus fog density. Oliver Gagliani tended to teach that exposures falling below a certain point on the film would pretty much stay put while any exposure above that point would increase in density. He referred to that point as the “X” point. The dunes, even in the late afternoon raking light, read only about 1.5-2 stops difference from the shadows to the highlights. I know, my images bely that, but that's my point. In exposing these images, I place the brightest parts just above the “X” point, and let all the other values fall where they may. The “X” point usually falls somewhere between Zone III and Zone II, so the highest readings are placed approximately at Zone III.5. And I'm not proud, I bracket my exposures 1/3 stop over, and 1/3, and 2/3 stop under. One of the four is usually printable. Why bracket? Because the “X” point can wander slightly depending on the color of the light. With increased developments, ISO's change, also. Generally I expose Tmax 100 at ISO 160 for the “SNOT” developments. Film is still the least expensive part of what I do. Traveling from my base in Central Massachusetts to Southern New Mexico is the expensive part. Bracketing a few extra sheets of film is good insurance.

One further thing, there is always haze and dust in the air at White Sands. It is, after all, desert country. To help increase the contrast and keep the back-lighted skies under control, I always shoot with a #25 filter.

You should know that the resulting negative will look pretty normal except for a slight silveryness on the emulsion side. The development process releases free silver into the solution and given enough time, it will literally plate-out onto the silver of the image. This is a good thing because it plates heavier on the more exposed areas where there are high concentrations of metal therefore helping build density. Today's and yesterday's image, both, printed pretty much with #2 filtration on Ilford Multigrade IV Fiberbased paper.

If you have any questions about the technique, just write and I'll try to tell you what I know.


CodyandMichelle said...

First time on blog, all I can say is those last two shots are frickin Ansel Adams type photos. Beautifully done. I'm impressed!

pitchertaker said...


Thanks. One of few things about being older is that I got to meet Ansel several times. Like I said, I need to get back to White Sands to do some more work there.


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