“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Christmas Card 2001

"Ice and Branches, Gladhouse Reservoir"

About the Image

Sometime back in 1989, I realised that the way I made photographs (rather slowly and normally on a tripod) suited larger format cameras as much as it did smaller ones. After all, if one is going to carry a great sack full of equipment around, one might as well make a big negative with it. The immediate result was that I bought a roll-film technical view camera and slowed down even more.

I made the negative for Ice and Branches, Gladhouse Reservoir after using my first larger format camera for about a year. It was taken in the winter of 1990 at a reservoir outside Edinburgh. The weather was bad enough out of town that year that I had to give up on using my fancy electronic cameras altogether because they weren’t reliable: my otherwise reasonably trusty Nikon F-801 basically refused to operate on one of these outings. The clockwork mechanism in a larger camera, or in an older 35mm camera such as the Nikon F3 or FM, is a lot more tolerant to temperature and humidity than a plastic box full of electronics. Trudging through knee-deep snow with 25Kg of large format gear in a rucksack isn’t exactly enjoyable, but at least you know you will be able to make a picture when you unload it all.

I think it is probably obvious that what attracted me to this image was the ice “ruff” apparently suspended above the water. I assume this has happened because the water level in the reservoir fell after the ice originally formed. My other concern in this image is with the way the shapes of the two branches interact, without quite touching.

I have never attempted to make a conventional “wet” print from this negative. This is partly laziness, partly a feeling that it would be difficult to simultaneously get the qualities in the ice and water I was looking for, and partly because there are a couple of black blobs of something floating in the background of the image that I didn’t notice when I was composing the picture. These would be pretty difficult to deal with in a darkroom print (certainly well beyond my darkroom skills), but are reasonably simple to remove in a digital process.

About the Cards

It turns out that, at least from the point of view of a traditional monochrome photographer and printer, digital monochrome is a lot harder to do well than digital colour. One of the reasons desktop colour printers do a mediocre job of monochrome printing is that balancing the colour inks to produce a neutral tone is almost impossible: even if you seem to have got it right, the balance will change in a few weeks or in different lighting; the results can be downright ugly. The technique I have used here is to replace the standard 4-colour ink set with a so-called “quad black” set: there are still four inks, but now all of them are shades of black and this means that the result has a more stable and acceptable colour. The presence of multiple shades of black instead of the single one used in the conventional “CMYK” ink set allows a full range of tones to be produced with a nearly “dotless” result.

Technical Information

The original negative was made on Kodak T-Max 100 roll film downrated to EI50. The camera is a Linhof Super Technica IV 2¼ x 3¼ camera with a Schneider-Kreuznach 100mm Symmar lens; this is the standard focal length for the 6x7cm format this camera uses. Linhof still manufacture this camera; my camera, on the other hand, is probably older than I am. You can see a picture of it at the top of my home page.

[Update 2018-01-17: Linhof no longer manufacture medium format field cameras. If you’re interested in them, this page has some great images and information. I still own mine, although I don’t use it any more. Linhof do still manufacture a 6x9 cm rail camera, the M 679cs, and also the Master Technika classic, which is a large format 4″ x 5″ field camera and the “big brother” of the 6x9s.]

The image is a multiple exposure of 18 exposures each of 1/8 second at f/11. This kind of multiple exposure technique, where multiple short exposures are used instead of a single very long exposure, was popularised by John Blakemore, a wonderful British photographer and virtuoso monochrome darkroom worker. John’s book Inscape is an excellent introduction to his work, and I highly recommend it.

Although the effect in this image is fairly minor, it is an interesting technique and worth experimenting with. A conventional long exposure (here, the exposure is equivalent to 2.25 seconds at f/11) normally gives extreme blurring without texture in moving parts of the image: in this case, the water. Breaking the exposure up into 18 much shorter intervals instead gives the effect of superimposing many sharper renditions of the moving part of the image, which results in a blurring with texture. I find this effect extremely pleasing for all sorts of moving water and have used it often. It is a difficult technique to control, so I have made some images where I have exposed five or six sheets of film, each with a different number of multiple exposures. Such a sequence might take me an hour to work through; Blakemore has made images over several hours: in his series Rocks and tide, Friog Wales, the tide comes in round static foreground rocks; the exposures are arranged so that the unchanging rocks are surrounded by a mist or fog made from the multiple images of the water.

A 1600dpi, 12-bit-depth scan of this negative yields a Photoshop file size of around 30MB; after cropping this comes down to around 8MB, or 4MB in its 8-bit-depth form. This is plenty for use on the cards, but probably wouldn’t stretch beyond around 6x5 inches (say, A5) at excellent print quality, or beyond 10x8 inches at moderate print quality.

The first processing steps on the image were initial contrast correction, a little retouching and then cropping to the final image size and shape. Next, I removed the background lumps by “cloning” other parts of the image over them. Additional layers in the image add final tonal correction, an “edge burn” and a black border to hold the image in; the latter two are both conventional photographic techniques which get a lot easier (and certainly more repeatable) in the digital world. A further layer creates a joke variant of the card with a brightly coloured robin sitting on one of the branches.

The text on the back is in Microsoft’s “Comic Sans” font; the font used inside the card is called “Coronet”.

The cards were printed on an Epson Stylus Color 1160 desktop inkjet printer using MIS Associates quad black inks. It takes just over ten minutes to print each card. The paper is Imajet Photo-Gloss Card Blank stock, a 200g/m² product that comes pre-creased, for which my supplier was Chris Burslem at on-line.p@per.co.uk. I switched to this material for this year’s card after the trouble I ran into handling the German Etching Board last year. As well as being easier to handle, the gloss coating on these cards also adds to the apparent sharpness of the result. The two disadvantages of this paper and ink combination are significant “bronzing” in the shadows (you can see this if you hold the card up to the light at an angle) and a tendency for a slight “dusting” of loose pigment to come off on your fingers if you wipe them over the print. So, don’t do that.

All imaging work was done in Adobe Photoshop 6.0 under Windows 2000 Professional. The conversion from monochrome to quad black was performed using Chris Brandin’s four-colour workflow as described on the MIS Quadtone workflow page. I used Chris’ profile for MIS type 838 Premium Glossy paper in lieu of a profile for the Imajet cards. Again for simplicity, I did not use the more complex software solution I used for last year’s cards as this particular image did not require such a high degree of control.