Heiland Splitgrade Controller

 

by Christopher Osborne

 

The world of analogue photography has a mismatch. The introduction to the 2019 Ilford Photo Darkroom Printing Survey could not put it better. “We have seen sustained and continuous growth in film for a number of years. However, darkroom printing has not yet captured the hearts of film photographers in the same way”.

I can’t help wondering if part of the issue is the effort required to acquire the skill and experience to move from making OK prints to making really good quality prints. Perhaps this why many images shot on film are digitally printed (if they are printed at all)?

A few weeks before the pandemic, I was discussing the under-representation of analogue prints with the assistant director of an established arts foundation. They have been actively promoting the use of their darkroom facility both internally and externally, and usage is climbing at a healthy rate. But the output is still not making it onto the walls of their exhibitions.

 

The Heiland Splitgrade controller with an Ilford 500 head.

 

This started me thinking about the entry barriers to darkroom printing. According to Ilford Photo’s 2019 Darkroom Printing Survey, “a considerable majority (42%) would choose to learn by watching YouTube videos with only a combined 23% opting for paid courses. This supports the trend for ‘eLearning’ but goes against the views of experienced printers who appreciated the benefits of hands on tuition in a darkroom”.

I started wondering if technology could be used to help address this problem, and a subsequent discussion with Marwan Moyazen of SilverGrain Classics lead me to the Heiland Splitgrade controller.

Before going any further, it is worth remembering that split grade printing is a technique used with multigrade papers, where the exposure is made in two parts. Magenta light is used to expose the high contrast portions of a print i.e. the highlights and shadows and yellow light is used to expose for the mid-tones. Splitting these exposures apart allows more refined control during dodging and burning.

The Heiland’s Splitgrade controller is used to calculate both the required exposure and the required grade for prints. This is achieved by using a probe to identify the lightest grey and the darkest shadow areas where texture needs to be shown.

The controller can be used in three ways. Firstly, it can be integrated with a Heiland re-engineered colour head. The clever folks at Heiland can upgrade enlarger heads from Durst, Leica, Kaiser and others so that the controller can automatically change the settings on the head. Secondly, it can be used as a standalone unit and the measurement results manually entered onto an enlarger head or used to select the correct manual filters. And finally the controller can be used to control an enlarger with an Ilford 100 or 500 head.

I chose to go down the Ilford 500 route because I was lucky enough to inherit a 4×5 enlarger with one of these heads. Installation was simple. Unplug the Ilford key pad and replace it with the Heiland controller through a Heiland Ilford interface box. I also took the opportunity to control my safelights through the Heiland unit. They now turn off automatically when the controller is on.

The Heiland unit is easy to use. It has 5 control pages: Paper type, exposure and grade.

  1. Exposure and grade burning & dodging schedule
  2. Selection of highlight, midtone or shadow as the fixed point for changes
  3. Entry of an offset exposure and grade for global tuning
  4. Test strip management (by f-stop, time or grade)

The unit comes pre-loaded with calibrated data for common paper types and developers and is therefore ready to go out of the box. I wasn’t using one of these combinations, so I did spend a couple of hours printing calibrated test strips to set my unit up.

I chose a difficult very high contrast negative for my first print. It is an image with bright sunlight mixed with deep leafy shadows. The first print was good. I modified the second attempt by reducing the grade by 0.5 in order to slightly increase the mid-tone values and it was exactly what I had envisaged.

I have spent six full days in the darkroom, have printed my way through just over 24m2 of paper. I have used every feature that this unit offers. Looking back through my notes, just over 80% of the final prints have taken one or two attempts. I have needed far less dodging and burning because of good selection of split grades. The reminder have taken five or more. Without exception, these are all from difficult to print negatives. But, my hit rate is improving, and in one case I was surprised to find that the controller did a far better job of recognising the lightest area with texture than I had thought possible.

So, can this unit help photographers who intermittently visit the darkroom to make better work? Yes, without shadow of a doubt. Does it do away with the need for experience? Not really. To get really good results, the printer needs to know what they can expect a setting change to achieve. Could this unit help reduce the experience entry barrier? Absolutely. However, a mixture of online and physical courses will help hugely.

Footnote

I have now used the Heiland Splitgrade controller for five months. I have run my own calibration for my developer/temperature/paper combination.
I can now make test prints on say Multigrade IV and then switch the unit so say Ilford FB (fibre) paper and make the final print.