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black and white photography - photo tips

Tips on taking photographs

My best tip is to keep taking photos, keep thinking about it, keep experimenting - there's really no substitute for practice. In my experience, it's best to work intuitively, really focussing on 'being' with your subject, bringing your own feelings to it, and taking photographs from there; a good photo should say as much about you as your subject. Try not to have preconceptions, or 'rules' in your head; be open to seeing what's there as directly as you can. Having said all that, it helps if you have some interesting weather on your side; if you are able to, pick and choose when to go out; get up early and see if you can catch some mist, or choose a thundery day, or sunshine and showers; try different times of day to see what different sun directions bring.

Another tip is to read a book I discovered recently - 'The Tao of Photography - Seeing Beyond Seeing' by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro, published by Tenspeed Press - nice philosophy about taking photos.

Tips on Equipment

For my photography, I use and would recommend Canon EOS equipment - I have two 50E cameras for normal use, plus a secondhand 600 I use for infrared (the 50E's fog it, as do many modern cameras). I do not favour the professional cameras as they are expensive and heavy, and frankly I find the amateur versions perfectly satisfactory. The EOS system is so universal it gives lots of choice of lenses. I find the Sigma lenses very good, and I use zoom lenses - an 18-35mm, a 28-70 mm and a 80-300mm. For architectural work, I have a couple of shift lenses (which avoid converging verticals) - one at 24mm and one at 35mm.

My early photography, however, used Olympus cameras, and abandoning my beloved OM1 was a real wrench. But the EOS system has some real advantages - not least that you can get modern lenses to fit!

I recently switched enlargers from a Durst M670 to a Meopta Magnifax 4A, which (though cheaper than the Durst!) I much prefer. It seems much better built, and is very accurately aligned - unlike the Durst! Plus it features a neutral density filter which is invaluable for dialing in corrections when creating enlargements at different magnifications. However, I still use my Durst Neonon enlarger lens which is excellent.

With the enlarger, I use an RH Designs analyser/timer - an excellent piece of equipment, with nice added features like automatic test-strips, footswitch, etc.

For processing my prints, I use a Durst Printo processor. This does the job, and is much to be preferred to dish-processing large numbers of prints. However, it has some annoying niggles which are both money and time-consuming, so I couldn't recommend it wholeheartedly.

For cutting mounts, I use a Logan 4000 cutter, which is excellent.


Historically, I 've used a number of black and white films, including Ilford FP4 and Ilford Delta 100. Recently I have been using mostly Ilford's XP2Super chromogenic film.

I use exclusively Ilford's Multigrade IV RC printing paper - it's reliable, consistent and I know how it behaves! (I do have some more interesting papers in the fridge, but somehow I never get around to trying them!).

For producing sepia prints, I recommend Tetenal's Triponal Toner - it gives good, consistent results, is pleasant to use, and has a high capacity. I now make up the equivalent from raw chemicals, as this is more ecological (fewer plastic bottles!!) and economical.

Tips for using Infrared Film

My experience is with Kodak High Speed infrared film, processed in ID11. Use with a red filter, rated at 400 ASA as metered by the camera through the filter (Kodak's suggestions on speed are up the wall!). Best conditions to use - sunny or bright overcast. Focus slightly shorter than you would normally (you may have a special infrared mark on your lens). Beware of modern cameras which may fog the film (almost all the Canon's do). Also beware of a dimpled film backplate, which can create a pattern on the negative. I had this problem with an OM1 - a good tip is to stick a piece of black (fogged) negative over the backplate, which seems to solve the problem. You must not expose the film cassette to light - load/unload in a changing bag or darkroom. If using a manual wind-on camera, check the rewind spool is turning as you wind on, to confirm the film is loaded properly ...

How I go about my own photography

I generally like to go out alone to do my photography - it is a concentrated, meditative process - often involving waiting for long periods for the right conditions (clouds, sunlight, lack of people) to arise. Patience is vital - and a willingness to 'be' with what is. Some days nothing quite seems to work, but at other times - especially in exceptional weather conditions like frost and fog - there seem to be great photos everywhere. So take a tip from the Boy Scouts - 'be prepared' - with lots of film!

Sometimes I take a photo which I am convinced is going to be brilliant, but eventually decide it isn't. This realisation is very painful, particularly if I've invested a lot of time trying unsuccessfully to print it.

My tip for this issue is to keep some distance between the 'taking' and 'printing' stages of the process. That way, I don't have such an emotional investment in the taking of the photo, and can look at it more objectively. Also, by processing my film in batches, I can save some time.

Once I have my negatives, I start off by doing a number of contact sheets (lots of tiny prints on one photo) at different contrasts and exposures. These I study at leisure with a magnifying glass, to decide which photographs have potential, and to make a first stab at how they should be printed.

The next stage is to make 5"x7" test prints of each of the candidate negatives, using the settings derived from the contact sheets. These are again studied at leisure - some discarded as being not worth pursuing - the rest examined with a view to deciding how best to print them.

Now finally, I am ready to attempt to a final print. I have already invested a great deal of time in these photos, but this final stage will still typically take me several hours. Rarely do I have a negative which I can print 'straight' - where the whole print shares the same exposure and contrast.

Generally, I find that some part of the print needs to be lightened, another part darkened - this is done by shadowing parts of the print during its exposure to the light from the enlarger. Despite my years of experience, this involves much trial and error, during which I really get intimate with the picture - a process I believe essential to get the right print. And when I get one part of the print right, I suddenly discover that this changes the balance of the composition, and something else needs changing - it is a painstakingly iterative process.

A tip I got from one of Ansel Adams' books is to use a metronome to time my shading process - this beeps every 1/2 second, and after a lot of practice, I find I can use this shade my prints to within maybe 1/5 of a second.

Often I cut special masks to help me in shading the print successfully. Sometimes these have hinged sections so I can vary the amount of shading for different parts of the print. I may also combine masks with use of filters to selectively alter the contrast in particular areas of the photograph.

When finally I have a successful print, I assiduously note down on the back all the details of how it was achieved - this is my 'reference print', which is filed away for future use.

It is now relatively easy to produce a batch of similar photos, which (after suitable toning, retouching and mounting) are available for sale!

Digital Photography

Although my setup is essentially traditional, I am reviewing using more digital imaging in my photography - indeed I recently used it to rescue a flawed image, which I had transferred to film for printing in the traditional way - and I use digital imaging to prepare photos for publication.

Digital imaging has two huge advantages. Firstly, you can amend the picture in ways difficult to achieve traditionally - for example to remove unwanted people. Secondly, you can very quickly achieve tonal adjustments to get the picture just as you want it - a process taking hours of darkroom time.

Until recently, it was very difficult to get permanent 'photographs' from digital sources (since the ink-jet inks fade), but that is changing with new inks from Lyson and Epson, and the quality of digital photographs can be excellent.

For image-capture, traditional film still has better resolution than digital cameras, although you then have the problem of scanning the film into digital form. Having said that, a good film scanner is far cheaper than a good digital camera - I've recently bought a Canon FS400US film scanner which I'm well pleased with.

My present view is that digital imaging does not yet produce the resolution I want, and therefore I remain predominantly traditional.

However, digital photography is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative - particularly if you're limited on time, already have the computer, or have no space for a darkroom.