How We Got Here: Analog Photoshop

There is nothing about flash in this post, except for "pre-flashing," and that is not what you think.

Every time I adjust the exposure slider in a raw converter or tweak the tonal curve into a subtle S-shape, I think back to how we used to do some pretty insane stuff—very improbably—with film, little tweaks of light and a witches-brew of chemistry.

If you are under 40, most of this is gonna be brand new. If you are older than that and used to shoot night sports for a newspaper, see how your experience matches up...

Short version: At every step of the film and chemical process we used to "cheat" to create photos that, by all rights, should not exist.

How You Were Supposed to Do it

The whole expose-develop-print process was pretty straightforward. You load film into your camera. You expose it. You develop it in a tank. You get negatives.

You load those negs into an enlarger, which was basically a vertical projector. Then you repeat the exposure-development process onto a projected piece of light-sensitive paper instead of film. This produced a negative of a negative, or, a positive.

Sounds simple enough, right? And it worked great, as long as there was enough light to expose your film. But what about when you had to shoot very high-contrast subjects, at night, with shutter speeds fast enough to stop action? And your fastest film was rated at ISO 400?

Then, you needed Photoshop. But in the early '80s it was still years away from being invented. So we invented Analog Photoshop to hold us over while we waited. And if you are wondering why we would start to experiment with lighting high school basketball, for instance, you'll totally understand after reading the process behind the available light alternative.

Even Before You Shoot, Alter Your Film

Yep, you heard right. We are going to change the film before we even take the first photo.

The film is Tri-X, rated at ISO (actually, ASA back then) 400. And we are going to "push process" it later, to increase the ISO. But doing that only really overdevelops the highlights. Which makes super-contrasty film, not a truly shifted ISO. So before we even shoot, we are going to mess with the film.

Because of the way film reacts to extended development, or push processing, the highlights (and, to a lesser extent, the mid-tones) get all of the benefit. The shadows get no love at all. They stay dark. Which is a problem when they are the most important part of your image. Say, a dark-skinned face under a football helmet in a poorly lit night game.

Say you were going to push-process your film four stops, from ISO 400 to ISO 6400(!). Yes, there will be grain and lots of it. But you can live with grain. What you really need is shadow detail, which pushing the film will largely destroy.

So, we'll pre-expose (or, pre-flash) the film to where the next photon of light that hits it will leave some information in the shadows. And because of the logarithmic relationship between film and light, this will have very little effect on the highlights which we will sadly blow out by push processing.

Pre-Exposing Film

How, exactly, does one pre-expose a roll of film?

First, you need to know exactly how much light you'll need to get the film super-sensitized to shadow detail at a given push-ISO. You do this by shooting a blank wall, out of focus at medium gray exposure (i.e., zero out the meter.)

Then you shoot a frame at minus one-third stop. Then minus another third, and another third, etc. Then push develop the film exactly as you will later and look at the tonal scale of differently exposed frames.

Being a negative, the frames will get lighter and lighter—clearer and clearer. The first image in which you cannot tell the difference between the frame and and the clear area between the frames is the exposure you want. You can't see it yet, but at that exposure your Tri-X had been presensitized so that the next tiny bit of light would create some detail.

So you run four rolls of film (you'll be shooting ~144 frames at tonight's game) through the camera, pre-exposing a blank wall at your chosen level. You'll need ensure the frames line up when you run the film through to actually shoot the game. So you remove the lens for the first frame, shoot it on bulb and stick a Sharpie right through your camera and outline the film during the bulb exposure.

Now repeat the process for each roll of film in this manner. (That'll kill a frame on each roll, of course. So now you are down to 140 shots for the night—with manual focus, natch. Pray.)

Line up your Sharpied film correctly every time you load a roll, checking with another no-lens bulb exposure. Or reload it until you get it aligned correctly. Try not to have to do this during a critical moment in the game.

Develop With Your Witches Brew

One hundred forty frames later, you are back at the paper. You are anxious, but eating pizza so there's that. You have no idea what you have gotten, because digital displays on the backs of cameras are still many years away. Let's develop our film, and do some more analog Photoshopping.

Rather than use the normal D-76 film developer, we'll use a special developer designed for pushing film. I liked Edwal FG-7, with an added film can full of sodium sulfite mixed in. FG-7 was designed for pushing film and was thus less contrasty. The sodium sulfite kicker I heard about from a guy.

Normally when you develop film you "agitate" (or, invert and swish around) the developer tank every thirty seconds or so throughout the 7-minute process. But we're not gonna do that tonight. By not agitating, our theory will be that the developer that is right next to the highlights area of the exposed frames will wear itself out somewhat. By not agitating, we sacrifice a little evenness and hopefully get non-nuclear pushed highlights.

A quick run through the stop bath (neutralizes the developer) and fixer (makes the film no long light sensitive) and a wash and dry and we are ready to make a print.

And for some more analog Photoshop.

Enlarger Photoshop

Now we can turn on a red safelight so you can see but not mess up your enlarging paper. Or better, since you are gonna be there until 3am, use a B&W portable TV with a red gel taped over it. A red-and-black John Wayne movie with pizza trumps a normal safelight.

As we said earlier, to make a print you project a negative onto a sheet of "negative" paper. Negative of a negative is a positive. Develop, fix, wash and dry. Ready to go.

But that is not a uniform process when you are doing Analog Photoshop. First, much like pre-fogging our film, we are going to pre-fog every sheet of paper before we expose it with our enlarger.

We do this before the main exposure with a very low-wattage light bulb on an arm which swings out over the paper. This bulb is on a timer. We will expose the paper for just long enough to make sure the next photon will leave some detail—but the light itself does not leave any detail other than increased sensitivity.

Since this is a negative process, at this point we are not helping the shadows but instead are taming the highlights that we have stretched the crap out of with our insane 400-to-6400 ISO shift. Same principle as the film pre-fog. Works great.

In both the film and paper pre-fogging steps, you are creating a variable, non-linear tonal response. You are creating S-curves. This process is reproduced (and visually represented as such) when you tweak a curve in Digital Photoshop.

Projecting the image is not a uniform process, either—we use more Analog Photoshop. By shading areas of the paper with your constantly moving hands in different shadow-puppet shapes, you can "dodge" areas into receiving less exposure from the enlarger.

Some people would use home made (or, if they were stupid, store-bought) "dodging wands," which were discs of opaque material taped to a thin wire. Thus the Digital Photoshop icon.

By giving additional exposure to some areas of the frame through a card with a hole cut into it, we can "burn" some areas into being darker if needed. Some people used their hands shaped together to create the holes. Thus the "burn" icon in Digital Photoshop.

Interestingly, the limitations of this physical darkroom process is also what set our ethical limits when Digital Photoshop arrived. If you could have done it with an enlarger (dodging, burning, tonal adjustments, etc.) it was ethical. If not (cloning out a Coke can on a table or a power line behind a head shot) it was not.

And if caught, you would be fired for doing so. This was not a theoretical thing. Many news photographers were publicly sacrificed to the Ethics Gods. Meanwhile, National Geographic Magazine happily moved entire pyramids on their cover photos. Sigh.

Developing the Print: More Analog Photoshop

So, back to analog. The exposed print goes into a tray of developer. Normally you agitate it, just as with the film. But for the same contrast control reasons, we will not agitate it. Or maybe just a tad.

More stop bath, fixer and then wash it. If you have areas of the film you need to bring up selectively, and you will not be "lassoing" the areas to do so. You will use a Q-tip dipped in potassium ferricyanide, AKA photographic bleach.

Do not lick this Q-tip. Because you are using the stuff some sicko put into some Tylenol capsules and killed seven people with in the fall of 1982.

This was right about when I was learning how to bleach prints at 18 years old. This is something you do not mention to your mom while the story dominates the news. This is also why medicine comes in tamper-proof "capules" now.

If you did everything right, and got some decent images onto film to begin with, the black and white picture in the sports section will look awesome tomorrow. If not, you will feel like crap until you redeem yourself on your next assignment.

And one day, it will occur to you that it might be easier to bring a few lights to a basketball game and fix the illumination problem at the source.

But that is another story. And it is still several years away, too.


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