There is no better way to learn photography skills, and in particular darkroom skills, than copying the style of a photographer or photograph that you much admire.

I like many of Robert Adams’ photographs. They are in the documentary style and often high key, which makes a nice change from many landscape photos today that tend to the burnt look. Adams liked to capture what he saw, and many of his photographs were taken ‘under the pitiless skies’ of the American mid-west. He was not one to romanticize what he saw through the lens.

So, when I visited North Dakota, I thought I would take a few pictures that borrowed from the style of Robert Adams. Empty roads, single trees and, of course, that pitiless sky.

To get to the picture, I opted to practice split-grade printing. So, this post  shows how I got on.

Below is the first test strip from an Ilford XP2 Super film exposed at grade 0 on Ilford classic WT paper.

Ilford XP2 Super 35mm negative exposed onto Ilford Classic WT paper at Grade 0 in intervals of 5 seconds

I find judging the right highlights quite difficult, as you have to ignore the dark parts of the photograph. Here I wanted just enough highlight detail in the empty sky so that it did not merge with the white border. So I chose 12 seconds as a starting point

So after exposing a sheet at grade 0 for 12 seconds, I performed a second test strip on this at grade 5 at 5 second intervals:

Test strip for grade 5

I didn’t want the trees to be black against the sky. Not many of Adams’ prairie photographs have expanses of deep black. So I chose a grade 5 exposure of 11 seconds.

A lot of information is contained in these test strips for dodging and burning. For example shifting up or down a tonality band requires a half stop change on exposure at my chosen overall exposures.

The resulting ‘work-print’ is show below:

Workprint: Grade 0 exposure at 12 seconds, Grade 5 exposure at 11 seconds.

Not a bad starting point. We have some tonality in the sky. There is also a hint of grey in the single tree. However the overall picture is too dark, it is a little too flat and there is a lack of depth.

So I decided to move from grade 0 exposure to grade 1/2 (half), reduce the grade 5 exposure by 1 second to 10 seconds, dodge the grade 1/2 exposure in the foreground for half a stop to increase foreground contrast and dodge the single tree on grade 5 for half a stop. Increasing the foreground contrast is something I normally do in my landscape work. Here is the result:

Workprint +1

The overall photograph is lighter in tone and the foreground has more contrast, picking out the stones. This adds to the illusion of depth. The sky however has lightened as a result of changing the exposure from grade 0 to grade 1/2.

The final work-print includes a 1/3 of a stop burn to the sky at grade 0 to bring in more highlight tonality. It also includes a 1/3 stop burn at grade 5 to the foreground to drop the eye as well as the adjustments made to work-print 1. It is difficult to see these on my monitor but I can see these tweaks in the actual print.

Sitting here at my monitor, I can see further improvements that I can make. A slight reduction in exposure overall, a little grade 5 dodging on the right hand side and a bit more grade 1/2 dodging in the closest foreground. Spotting out the bright spot on the right hand side margin, as this is distracting.

For an update on split-grade printing click here.

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