The Darkroom
Working With Imperfection Page 2

Do not be afraid to use extreme grades, if that is what it takes. If you need softer than 1, go to 0. If you need softer than 0, go to 00. Zeus will not strike you with thunderbolts. The same is true if you have to go to Grade 5 paper developed in a high-contrast paper developer. Sometimes, using extreme grades can teach you more about what makes a "good" print than all the Grade 2 and 3 in the world.

Cat, Mertola, Portugal. This was a grab shot with a manual camera (Nikon F with 200mm f/4 Nikkor) and my husband Roger Hicks got the exposure wrong. I had to use Grade 5 paper (Ilfospeed) which is significantly harder than any Grade 5 VC.
© 2004, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Dodging And Burning
The brightest white in a print is at most about 180 times as bright as the darkest black: the brightness range is 180:1. A negative can easily record a brightness range of 1000:1 and with reduced development it can handle 10,000:1 and beyond.

Some people mistakenly believe that you should be able to compress the subject brightness range, no matter what it is, onto the paper. This takes no account of how we scan a scene, with the iris of the eye constantly adjusting to different light levels. It is much more natural, with most subjects, to dodge or hold back the shadows locally, while burning in or darkening the highlights. A "difficult" negative may need no more than localized dodging or burning to get an excellent print, even at a normal grade. Remember, too, that with VC papers you can use different grades in different parts of the print.

If there is a lot of detail in the lightest tones of a picture, but you still need plenty of detail in the other tones, a useful trick is often "pre-flashing." This involves giving a very weak uniform exposure to the paper before printing it, to overcome its "inertia": I use a second enlarger, with no negative in the carrier, raised high on the column and well stopped down.

Determine the intensity of the uniform exposure by making a test strip across a range that runs from no tone at all to the faintest of grays: typically 1-2-3-4-5 seconds at f/16. The last exposure that gives no tone at all, or the one before it, is the one to use for a pre-flash.

Castle interior, Portugal. The space was cramped so I put the 14mm f/3.5 Sigma on a Nikon F for this shot. The only place where the highlights are "blown" is where the hot southern sun is coming through a crack beside the shutter into the darkened room (exposure was about 1 sec at f/8)--the lack of flare is a tribute to the lens. In order to hold texture in the walls, I had to pre-flash the paper. As it is, you can even see a little texture in the black bucket in the original print.
© 2004, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

All right: you have a print with pure whites, good blacks, and a full range of tones in between--and you still don't like it. What went wrong?

Here, we are in the most nebulous area of print quality: tonality. Good tonality is easy to recognize, but hard to describe. To be brutal, bad tonality is even easier to recognize.

The main reasons for bad tonality are poor exposure; poor development; and a bad negative-paper match. This is an article about printing what you have, so there is not much point in saying a great deal about the first two. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that underexposure leads to far more problems than overexposure, while at the development stage, overdevelopment is the most common problem. It is also true that some developers suit some films much better than others. If your chosen film-developer combination doesn't give you tonality you like, try something else. Again, it's a question of knowing when to quit. The aim of photography is to get good pictures, not to purify the soul through suffering.

Back to the paper. If one paper won't give you the tonality you like, try another: another make entirely, or another kind of paper from the same manufacturer. Each paper has its own characteristic curve, its own way of rendering shadows, mid tones, and highlights, and it can be astonishing how much difference this can make. Some film-paper combinations "sing"; others may also sing, but out of tune and flat. Even if you standardize on one paper, keep another--as different as possible--for those negatives where you don't like the tonality on your regular paper.

With less-than-perfect negatives, it is often a question of compromise, experimenting, and perhaps settling for a print that is "good enough" rather than absolutely right. But you may also find, in the course of your experiments, that some of your prints from "hard-to-print" negatives are actually better than you used to get from your "good" negatives. At the very least, you'll be learning to print better, and to be more critical, and that will stand you in better stead even with your most perfect negatives.


ColleenH's picture

These are an amazing example of a good work on the black-and-whites. The pics look really fascinating and beautiful.

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