Platinum Printmaking - Chapter 3


In this chapter, we will cover what it takes to make a negative appropriate for platinum printing. My methods of work include making a large negative “in-camera,” but you can also enlarge a small negative either photographically or using a computer to generate a “digital” negative. Any of these methods is perfectly acceptable, so feel free to follow my lead or stike out in your own direction.


Pretty much everyone has seen 35mm slides or negatives. On the light table, they are jewels with a tiny universe trapped inside each one. Only under the magnifying power of a loupe or projected as an image on a screen or enlarging paper can their intricacy be appreciated. But a large format negative is a thing to behold on its own. A large format negative (or transparency, for that matter) is huge by any comparison. Fine details can be discerned with the naked eye. Grain—the pebbly textured bits of reduced silver that make up an image on film—is generally invisible, except under very high magnification. Graduation between light and dark areas of an image can be so subtle the human eye can't discern it or as sharp as the camera's lens will allow. Peering through a large format negative, without consciously being distracted by the level of detail, is like viewing another world through a window.

All the major manufacturers of 35mm film (the most common film size on the market) also make large format sheet film. In fact, all commercially available film is cut down from long, wide rolls of film stock, so some emulsions are exactly the same, whether they are packaged as 35mm rolls or 8x10 (or larger) sheets. But even when the emulsions aren't identical, sibling products, such as the 35mm and 4x5 versions of Kodak Tri-X, will almost always have similar working properties.

Today, there are also a number of smaller manufacturers of high-quality large format film. Several of these companies only make large format film and are particularly well attuned to the market's needs and desires. But while any photography store can order, if it doesn't already stock, Fuji or Kodak large format film, specialty manufacturer films will most likely have to be mail-ordered.

When I chose a film to use for large format photography and later, platinum printing, I simply moved from roll film sizes of Kodak T-MAX 100 (TMX) to sheet film sizes. TMX is a very fine-grained, continuous-tone film. I usually rated it at an effective film speed (EFS) of 60, which is fast enough for the natural light work I do and yields exceptionally "smooth" images.

For 4x5 format negatives, I still use TMX; however, the 8x10 version of the "same" film is no longer suitable for platinum printing. Several years ago and unannounced, Kodak added a UV blocking component to the 8x10 film stock, which completely changed its platinum printing properties (for the worse... much worse). To rub salt into already painful wounds, light table comparisons showed no difference between the two batches, and I shot all too many sheets of the new stock before discovering most of my new images were virtually unprintable. But such is life—you live, you learn, you forget or ignore what you've learned, and you learn again.

Even though I probably should have changed film suppliers in futile but personally empowering protest, I soldiered on with T-MAX 400 (TMY). It turns out TMY works just as well as TMX for platinum printing, much to my surprise. In fact, I found I liked having the extra speed (I generally rate it at an EFS of 400 for my normal conditions), and long exposures in low-light conditions still don't require much, if any, increase in length to account for the film's low-light characteristics (the $2 words for which are "reciprocity failure").

I highly recommend 4x5 TMX (for the time being) and 8x10 TMY film stock for platinum printing. But don't take my recommendation as requirements. If you are happy with the film you are currently using and it's available in the format you'll be using for platinum printing, certainly give it a try. After all, you should be pretty well familiar with its exposure characteristics.


I use uncoated, single-coated, and multicoated lenses in my work, and each has its own personality. All work well for platinum printing. I simply use the lens experience has taught me is appropriate to the scene's lighting and the composition I want. That said, I keep all my lenses and shutters clean and in good working order, so I can't offer any advice about using that wonderfully cruddy, old lens you picked up at a yard sale. You'll have to figure out its singular quirks, as well as those of every other lens you use, on your own.

Whenever I'm in the field, I carry a long-normal (about 20% longer than "normal" for the format) lens as my standard, as well as a wide-angle (one-half to one-third the length of normal) and a long (about two or three times longer than normal) lens to help with composition. That's no different than the kit I carried when I shot for silver prints and with smaller format cameras. I'm sure most field photographers—at least those without benefit of pack animals—carry something similar or even fewer lenses.

Although I'm not recommending specific lenses or shutters, the following are the ones I use most often for shooting 8x10. All were purchased used, but they are in good condition and work well for my shooting style, subject matter, quality requirements. That said, there are over 150 years worth of lens designs out there, including new designs that are as "perfect" as any have ever been (not that "perfect" is perfect for everyone, me included).

My normal lens is a multi-coated Schneider-Kreuznach "Gold Dot" 355mm (14-inch) ƒ:8 Dagor mounted in a Compur 3 shutter. For wide-angle work, I use a C. P. Goerz "Gold Ring" 6½-inch ƒ:8 Dagor mounted in a Synchro-Compur shutter. For long shots and when I don't want to carry the other lenses with me, I use a Turner-Reich 8x10 ƒ:7 "triple convertible" mounted in an Ilex No.4 Acme Synchro shutter. The T-R lens has two elements—front and rear— that, separately and together, give 12-inch, 19.7-inch, and 25-inch focal lengths in one lens set. The two Dagors are very nice lenses, and the triple-convertible, though not quite as sharp as and yielding less contrast than the others, is the Swiss Army knife of my lens kit.


My cameras consist of an 8x10 Zone VI field camera, a home-built 4x5 monorail, and a Zero Image 4x5 pinhole camera. The Zone VI—an early model—is my primary camera and includes a 4x5 back for the very infrequent, of late, times when I want to shoot something smaller than 8x10. It is a mid-weight, wooden, folding camera that has all the movements I normally use. I've equipped it with a Beattie Intenscreen fresnel ground glass in an attempt to eke out a little more image brightness in less than perfect shooting condition. The jury's still out on that one, though, because of the peculiarities of the fresnel design and its effects on the ground glass image, so I'm considering going back to the standard ground glass.

The home-built 4x5 has been largely relegated to storage for the time being. It's very lightweight, has every movement you could imagine, and works well, but it takes different lens boards from the 8x10, and I'm not shooting much 4x5 anymore. If I build another, or build the 8x20 camera I've been drawing up and dreaming about, I won't make the mistake of designing it with lens boards that don't match my standard.

The Zero Image pinhole camera, on the other hand, has been begging to be put back into service lately, and it will probably see more use in the near future. This is a really beautifully made camera, especially the shutter mechanism, which is a work of simplicity and art rolled into one. It also allows me to shoot at any one of several focal lengths and has a turret with pinholes and zone plates optimally sized for each focal length. In fact, the only disappointing thing about this camera is that the pinholes are too perfect, yielding images that are almost indistinguishable from those made with my lower contrast lenses. But because it weighs almost nothing and is extremely flexible to shoot with, I don't think I can resist its call much longer.

My next camera purchase (or construction project) is going to be an "ultra large format" unit. I have completed the design for an 8x20 pinhole camera, and as mentioned above, I've been toying with designs for a more standard 8x20 field camera. Right now, the holdups are lack of time, money, and an appropriate film tank for developing 8x20 film sheets. But a boy can dream...

While we are on the subject of cameras, we can't overlook the value of a good, sturdy tripod. I use a Gitzo G1410 (mk2) tripod with a Gitzo G1371M pan and tilt head. This is a very rigid, mid-weight combination that works well both in the field and in the studio. It may not be the best bet for serious backpacking, but it is rugged enough to stand up to anything I've dished out. I also have a lightweight tripod (a Slik U212) that I use for pinhole and light 4x5 work. It is a holdover from my 35mm and 120/220 days, but it is plenty sturdy for a small large format camera (which, I suppose, is an oxymoron along the lines of "jumbo shrimp").

Finally, there are two other accessories I require in my work—a darkcloth and film holders. I made my darkcloth myself from bolts of heavy cotton fabric. One side is black, and the other is white. I wrap the camera back and myself in the black side, with the white side out to reflect the sun. Usinig it the other way around, which I have seen some photographers do, just turns the inside into a not quite dark oven. Commercially made darkcloths, including innovative but claustrophobic looking tube-like hoods, are available from most camera stores. There are also reflex viewers, sport finders, and small viewfinders available for smaller view cameras, but none works quite as well for most image composition as directly viewing the ground glass under a darkcloth.

New and used film holders are available in both plastic and wooden versions. Personally, I prefer modern plastic film holders (Lisco or Fidelity brand) with metal dark slides. Plastic and fiberboard dark slides don't hold up as well, but they may be all you can find. Wooden film holders—old or new— seem to be more prone to warping and slightly heavier. I have had very good luck in finding perfectly serviceable used film holders on eBay, and they only end up costing about one-third or less the price of new ones. Plus, any that aren't in pristine condition can be used for parts. One word of caution, though—don't trust any film holder (new or "pre-owned") you haven't used before, because light leaks can find their way into any film holder and ruin that once-in-a-lifetime image. Also, I protect my 8x10 holders from dust and dirt in 2-gallon zipper storage bags (two holders to a bag), and you should never leave film holders sitting in the sun or an excessively hot area—extreme heat is even worse for the film holders than it is for the film.

Negative Exposure

Exposing a negative, like many other aspects of photography, is more art than science. I know, there are photographers who live and die by the Zone System, carrying PDAs into the hinterlands to calculate precise exposure levels. If that works for you, by all means, go for it (but don't call me when your batteries die). Personally, I let my eyes and experience guide exposure settings, augmented at times with a few spot light meter readings. Given the vagaries of old shutters and lens dynamics, precision computations just don't make sense to me. Plus, most film has the exposure latitude to accommodate reasonably imprecise settings.

When I look at a scene, I first build my composition—the elements I want in frame, whether in focus or not—using camera placement, lens choices, camera movements (lens and back tilt, swing, and shift), and lens aperture. Then, I evaluate the scene as a whole, making sure I can actually capture the range of light and dark I want and deciding whether to compromise detail in the dark areas or the highlights if the scene's lighting conditions are outside the film's range. Finally (in unusual situations—not normal daylight scenes), I'll pick a point on the pre-visualized image that I want rendered as "middle-grey" and use a Minolta Spotmeter M to take exposure readings.

Just prior to shooting, I take one last look around the ground glass. Is everything locked-down where I want it? Is there something in the scene I don't want there? (There's nothing worse than finding my shadow or a stray piece of gear in an image when the film is hung up to dry after processing.) Is the plane of focus and depth of field right? Is wind or a stray earthquake causing problems?

Over time, I have developed a series of ingrained steps I go through once everything is set-up. First, I close the lens' shutter and iris (they were open for image composition), check the exposure time and aperture settings, and insert the film holder. Then, I pull the dark slide, cock the shutter, wait for the camera to settle down, make sure my shadow and I (along with anything else that might have wandered in) are out of the scene, and depress the shutter release. Finally, I reinsert the dark slide, making sure the dark tab (dark slides have a light tab on one side and a dark one on the other side, the light tab indicating unexposed film and the dark one indicating exposed) is facing outward and remove the film holder. I also mark the film holder if the scene has an unusually wide or narrow brightness range, so I can accommodate for it during development.

Once the shot is made, I repeat the process, increasing or decreasing (usually increasing) the exposure by one stop. This serves three purposes, other than keeping the film companies in business. First, the two shots cover for shutter (or operator) issues during exposure. Second, they give me another chance, in case something bad happens during film processing or I want to "play" with development. And third, they provide a second, usually usable negative I can store offsite in case of a fire or other tragedy. All in all, that second sheet of film is inexpensive insurance that covers a multitude of bad outcomes.

Film Processing

I process all my film using a Jobo daylight rotary processing system. It consists of light-tight cylindrical tanks that hold the film and chemistry and a processor base that maintains a stable temperature, rotates the film tank, and facilitates adding chemistry to and removing it from the film tank. The Jobo system not only allows me to process film without benefit of a darkroom (I load tanks in a film changing tent), but also provides extremely even processing using a minimal amount of chemistry. The Jobo system serves me well, but you can also use other sorts of daylight tanks or tray processing with perfectly acceptable results.

After years of processing T-MAX film with T-MAX developer, I finally came full circle and now use D-76 developer, the first developer I ever used with black and white film over 30 years ago. In my opinion, D-76 works at least as well as T-MAX developer, and it is less expensive, seems to have a longer shelf life, and is easier to find. I mix the D-76 developer per the package instructions and dilute it 1:1 with water. The 1:1 dilution not only saves chemistry, but also appears to result in smoother tonal graduations.

Processing begins with stabilizing the chemistry, film, and tank at 70°F (approximately 20°C). I use plastic zipper bags filled with water, frozen, and floated in the processor's water bath to keep the bath temperature down. The processor's heating element then moderates the bath temperature at 70°F. It takes one liter of chemistry for each step (processing five 8x10 sheets of film simultaneously), so one liter bottles of presoak water, developer, stop bath, fixer, rinse water, film wash, and first wash water are all submerged in the processor's water bath to stabilize. I give everything 30 minutes to come up or down to temperature (with the film tank turning at the processor's speed number "4" and alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise rotation) before proceeding.

When the chemistry, film, and tank have stabilized and with the film tank still turning, I presoak the film in distilled water for five minutes. This wets-out the film and removes its antihalation backing. After dumping the presoak water, I add the developer and process for 15½ minutes for a normal platinum negative. Development is followed by a one-minute acetic acid stop bath, a five-minute fix in Kodafix, a 30-second rinse in distilled water, and a five-minute wash with a wash aid and water. I finish by running ten changes of plain wash water through the tank, removing the film, dunking it in a Photo-Flo solution, and hanging it to dry.

The only real variable in processing is the development time. My usual 15½-minute development time is for a subject that has normal brightness range from the areas of lightest details to those with the darkest details. Longer development will compensate for subjects with a shorter brightness range (a foggy landscape, for example), and shorter development will do the same for longer brightness range subjects (a dimly lit room with brightly lit windows). In the end, what we are trying to accomplish with variable development is to expand or compress a subject's brightness range to fit that of the platinum materials we will use to make the final print and produce the image we had visualized during composition.

For more information on film exposure indices, film/developer combinations, and development times, there is no better reference than Dick Arentz's Platinum & Palladium Printing (Second Edition). His work was a starting point for mine, and he probably covers a film/developer combination that fits your current methods of work (or you could find yours isn't particularly well suited to platinum and save yourself a lot of wasted effort). There is also a section on working with pyro developers, which has inspired me to delve deeper into a process I had pretty much written off.