Over the winter I’ve been taking a lot of photos of an orchid plant in my back room. Whenever the winter light emerges from our frequently-grey skies I’ll try to take a shot or two. One afternoon in mid-December a thin beam of light snuck through a mostly-closed curtain and hit the orchid just so and I managed to take a couple of shots.

I mentioned that I wanted to talk about this shot more in the pushing Ilford post last week. Now it’s time!

After developing and scanning I got this

A black and white close up photo of two small orchid flowers. The flowers are mostly in shadow except for a vertical strip of light that bisects them.

In this version of the photo the background shadows are not that dark and the edge of the beam of light is somewhat fuzzy
A largely untouched scan

That’s not exactly how it came out of the scanner. As with any black-and-white scan there are some small adjustments. I’ve trimmed the levels to match the range of the photo. I gave the curves a slight s shape. But that’s about it.

And…it’s fine. Pretty good. But it’s not the picture I visualized when taking the shot. The beam of light is strong, but not strong enough. And the background flowers are dim, but not dim enough. I was looking for more contrast and a more defined beam of light than I got here.

In a photo editor I can do whatever I want. I don’t usually tweak scans a lot, but I did in this case to bring the photo more in line with my visualization.

A black and white close up photo of two small orchid flowers. The flowers are mostly in shadow except for a vertical strip of light that bisects them.

In this version of the photo the background shadows are much darker and the edges of the beam of light are sharper and more defined
A scan closer to my visualization

And I like that a lot more. But I wanted to make a silver gelatin print to match it and I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

I started with a normal test strip using f-stop timings and an Ilford 2 filter.

A test strip of the orchid photo divided in to 5 vertical bands of exposure time. On the far left the picture is underexposed. On the far right the picture is over exposed.
5 to 20 seconds in 1/2 stop increments: 5, 7.1, 10, 14.1, 20

For all of my tests strips I focused on this section of the image as it contained the main details I wanted to get right, the strip of light and the dark shadow surrounding it.

Based on this strip I wasn’t sure if 10 seconds was too dark, so I did a quick test at 8.4 seconds (1/4 stop between 7.1 and 10) to compare. It was too light, so I stuck with 10 seconds.

With my timing determined, I turned to contrast and made more test strips from using Ilford filters 0, 1, 2 and 3. All of these were exposed for the base time of 10 seconds.

Four test strips of the orchid photo made using four different contrast filters. The far left is low contrast and has soft shadow edges. On the far right is high contrast and has sharper shadow edges.
Left to right: Ilford 0, 1, 2, and 3

The higher & harder contrast filters are where I start to see the sharpness of the light beam match what I want. At the lower contrasts the beam kind of fades in out of the shadows. But at Ilford 3 there’s a crisper division.

But Ilford 3 also has a problem. Here’s a zoom in on the highlights.

A close up of the orchid photos using Ilford filter 2 and 3. The one using filter 2 has more texture and detail in the brightly lit sections of the orchid. The one using filter three has lost these details and is more pure white.
Left: Ilford 2. Right: Ilford 3

At higher contrast I’m losing the faint highlight detail on the petals. If I push in to even higher contrast I’ll lose even more detail. And I wanted some texture on the petals in my final print.

So I decided to try pre-flashing, a technique I hadn’t tried before. After a few tests to determine the amount of pre-flashing my paper needed I made this test strip.

A pre-flashed test strip. The contrast of the leaves here is much lower, more like lilford 1.5 or 2.
7 second pre-flash, 10 second exposure with Ilford 3 filter

Here I’ve lost the contrast that I liked in the Ilford 3. This is a known thing about pre-flashing; it reduces the contrast of your final photo. Something I could have done here is to change the exposure to Ilford 4 or 5 to see the effect it had. But I didn’t do that for some reason. Maybe I’ll give it a try later.

What I decided to do was change tack and use split-grade printing. I figured this would let me retain the faint highlights of the petal while still achieving the harder contrast I wanted in the shadow. I made more test strips using different ratios of exposure time at Ilford 5 and Ilford 0.

Three test strips of the orchid photo using different mixes of Ilford 5 and Ilford 0 filters. The test strips have different levels of detail in the leaves and darkness in the shadows, though all look similar.
Trying to get the right mix of timings

I eventually found a mix that gave me the results I liked. A strong shadow border combined with details on the bright parts of the flower. In an attempt to deepen the blacks of the photo even more I toned it in a weak selenium solution (1:20) for about 4 minutes. As I understand it this will ‘increase the dmax’. Or, to put that in terms that I understand, make the blacks darker.

A photo of two full 5x7 prints of the orchid photo. One is sitting in a tray of senlenium toner. While the other one is sitting off to the side, as a reference to compare to the toning print.
Reference photo on the left, print soaking in selnium on the right

And the final result, taped in to my darkroom notebook.

The finished 5x7 reference print of the orchid. It's taped in to a notebook where I keep notes on prints I make.

The glare on the print in this photo doesn’t help much, but I find that the print itself is a very good first draft at the print I want to make of this negative. Let’s compare it to the digital version of this photo

A side by side comparison of the physical and digital print of the orchid photo.

I think I can say that I’ve made a print that closely matches the digital version. My print pushes the background flowers more in to shadow than the digital one does, which I prefer. On the flip side, I think the highlights on the digital print are nicer than on the physical print. But, overall, I think this is a good first attempt.

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