Whilst location, location, location might be king in some trades it is light, light and, oh yes, location for photography! On the Isle of Lewis I was in the perfect location but the light was a flat as a studio diffuser. Having travelled such a distance I could hardly pack away my camera, so as usual I found myself making the best of the situation. In such soft light at the Callanais II stones I could only envisage printing the scene with a dark and moody tone.
I was using Kodak Plus-X, that I later developed in PMK pyro developer. The camera was a Nikon FM2 and a zoom lens set at 105mm, 1x15th second at f11, which necessitated a tripod.
Various legends are attached to the stones but my favourite is that they are the petrified remains of unfaithful husbands: must have been footballers. Certainly the group seems to huddle together in conference, perhaps agreeing on alibis? The stones are not very high so in the darkening gloom of a late afternoon I had to find a viewpoint that isolated their shapes: the best angle used the sky and the reflected light of the distant loch.
A straight print of the full negative showing the flat light at Callanais II
Print A shows the full frame printed 'straight' with no shading on Agfa Multicontrast RC paper set at grade 2 for 7.0 seconds. This was a good starting point since the tone of the stones is about right but obviously the sky is washed out and needed a good deal more burning-in the reveal any detail.
My initial cropping, shown in print B splits the print by the rule of thirds: the top of the highest stone is roughly a third down from the top and the bold line of the water is a third up from the bottom. Because there is almost no directional light I decided to exaggerate its effect by softening the print further with polythene held under the enlarger lens. This makes the blacks bleed into the highlight areas on the water and complements the mood.
The negative is cropped and simple burning in adds tone to the sky
This artificial softening meant that an extra half grade was needed to keep rich black tones and a little extra exposure was needed. In print B the basic exposure was grade 2 1/2 for 9 seconds while a further 6 seconds at grade 1 has been added to the sky. The lower grade was needed for the sky to bring out the very subtle range of tones: a higher grade could have given darker clouds but the lighter areas would still be plain white. I experimented using a cut-out mask to see if I could more accurately darken the sky close to the stones but this was not successful. In the end I prefer the slight glow of lighter sky above the group that has resulted in burning in, using a soft card to limit the extra exposure.
Although the softening and darker sky gave more balance to the print I knew the effect could be taken to an extreme. By making the foreground almost black the eye is taken more directly towards the stones without the distraction of detail in the grass.
So in addition to burning in the sky in the final print C on Ilford MG FB Matt, I used the same soft card to form an uneven line across the base of the print: an extra 6 seconds exposure at grade 31/2 gave a really dark tone. An uneven line was necessary to match the existing shapes in the grass. I have also changed the cropping so that the stones are further right. Their original positioning left me feeling uncomfortable as they seemed to hover between being vaguely centred and vaguely right: the final crop seats them more firmly in the frame and the glow in the sky is positioned on that magic third in from the right.
Illustrating the sequence of printing and post development bleaching
Although I was happy with the basic print there was more I could do to improve it. I made up a weak solution of Farmers reducer and fixer to almost completely bleach out the tone from the areas of water. The solution goes off quickly but only a small amount is needed at a time and so I use an empty 35mm film pot as a container to make up about 20mls of solution at a time. Having rinsed the print clean, the highlights glowed and it was time to use the same technique on the stones themselves. The reducer acts first and most obviously on lighter tones so it was easy to paint it onto the areas where it was needed. By lightening the mid tones on the stones it restored the detail that had become rather muddy and so added some shape and interest.
After another 10 minute wash to remove all traces of bleach and fix, I finished by making up a strong solution of selenium toner 1:10 and toned the print for 5 minutes. This had the effect of increasing the areas of maximum density and adding a slight purplish tint to the midtones.
Final crop with a darkened foreground, bleached highlights and selenium toned