For as long as I’ve been interested in photography, I’ve been particularly interested in the aesthetics of high-contrast photography. We were supposed to shoot 400TX in high school, I shot D3200 and made contact prints off of contact prints on the highest graded contrast paper I could find. Now, I find even 400TX to be too fast for my daily pursuits, and I work a hybrid system – developing film, but going digital for post-processing and printing. Digital contrast curves are designed to not be too harsh, but still don’t quite compare to grabbing that contrast in a chemical reaction. So, recently, I decided to try an experiment using lith developer designed for paper on film.
The lith process is a high-contrast process used in the graphics world, for line art and document copy type work. It is a process done in the print stage, using special lith developer, and generally working off of a prepared contact-printed large format lith negative. Lith developers can be rather complicated, coming in as many as five-part systems. Carefully choosing your ratios can dramatically change the end result, which allows for a lot of creative control, but also introduces a lot of room for failure. Moersch makes a two-part lith developer designed to take a lot of the guesswork out of the process, called Easylith. Since these developers are not designed for standard negative film, a lot of guesswork was already going to be involved, so for my experiment, I thought Easylith would be a good start. It’s also rather affordable – $14 at Freestyle Photo works out to just over a dollar a roll at the ratio I’m working in, as a one-shot. And that’s for the smallest (most expensive by volume) set of bottles available.
With no guidance from the internet, my first roll was a failure. Negatives were incredibly thin, and when I was able to pull out an image,there was no major pop in contrast. I shot at box speed, used 5cc each of part A and B Easylith, developed at 25c for 10 minutes, agitating vigorously every 20 seconds. When developing paper in Easylith, one is recommended to extend development times, and agitate thoroughly, something I attempted to replicate on the film side. One shot that I had overzealously bracketed came out with decent density, and showed me that I was on the right track, I just needed to go harder. I shot my second roll at a 2 stop (give or take) pull, and used 8cc each of part A and B Easylith, agitating every 15 seconds. These negatives were very dense, and many of them very usable, yielding just the results I had hoped for.
The ‘give or take’ on my 2 stop pull is an important detail. The meter on the Pentax MX only goes down to EI/ISO 20. I was shooting PanF+, rated at 50, which is about a 1.5 stop pull when shot at EI 20. I compensated manually, but in several cases, had a gut instinct to pull even further, and so I compensated even further. My gut instinct was generally wrong, and many of my negatives were impossibly dense. For the sake of experimentation, this is good. I now know to meter for about a 2 stop pull, and trust that I’ll get an image, even if it doesn’t necessarily have the characteristics that I want.
So, how then, to encourage that unreal contrast that I so desire? Well, shooting PanF+ was a smart choice, being a relatively contrasty film to begin with. Any of the stranger document films that Adox, Agfa, Rollei, &c. put out should give even stronger results. Shooting contrasty scenes, and in contrasty light certainly helps as well. In scanning, my hardware and software blasted such strong light through the negatives, and tried so hard to make them ‘normal,’ that tweaks were necessary in post-processing to bring back the contrast that shines through so brilliantly on the negatives themselves. Finally, I will continue to tweak the process, based on the effects that such tweaks would have if I were doing a normal lith process. This means messing with agitation (which encourages development of highlights), ratio of dev:water, and ratio of a:b. So far, I’m very happy with my results, and it’s only taken me one wasted roll. If anyone out there tries this process, I’d love to hear/see the results, so drop me a line here or on flickr.