Becoming a better printer

Discussion in 'Enlarging' started by Ektagraphic, Oct 19, 2010.

  1. Ektagraphic

    Ektagraphic Member

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    Hi Guys- I have been trying to find ways to make a better print..I have read a few books most giving the same tips...I am going to probably look into a copy of Ansel Adams' The Print. What I am going to try to concentrate on now is effectively using the variable contrast filters. I will actually admit I don't know if there is any way to find the proper exposure of a print. Is it really just a matter of opinion. In order to find the proper exposure, wouldn't one have to work to find the best contrast at the same time as I have found using higher filters can result in a need for much more exposure. Are test strips (the ones with multiple variations of the same print made parallel on the same paper) going to become my best friend to learn? Are there some of you out there that are so good at printing you can look a negative and just see what the exposure and contrast grade will need to be? As of right now, I can make prints that are moderately satisfactory. I defiantly do show them to others and have sold prints so I think I am on the right track I just want to bring things full circle. I have been printing for the most part with a 2 or 2 1/2 filter...I'm thinking very much experimentation with the filters is going to be the best way for me to learn...Thanks in advance for any advice that you may give..

    Patrick
     
  2. Greg Davis

    Greg Davis Subscriber

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    After school, I worked as a professional printer for a few years before going to grad school. All I can tell you is nothing will make you a better printer than making a lot of prints. Reading about different techniques and chemicals may give you new things to try, but experience is what will really make a difference.
     
  3. Ektagraphic

    Ektagraphic Member

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    They say repetition equals mastery :smile:
     
  4. Valerie

    Valerie Subscriber

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    Have you read Les McLeans "Creative B/W Photography"? It helped me a lot, as did taking his workshop. His greatest bit of advice was "Bin it" (meaning make lots of prints and throw away most of them!).
     
  5. bdial

    bdial Subscriber

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    There are lots of paths to becoming a good printer. The trick is to distill the stuff you read into a set of methods that work for you. I think of test strips with little sections of various exposures kind of a crude tool. Useful sometimes, but maybe not the best. I prefer to either start with a "perfect proof" that is, a contact sheet exposed at your paper's minimum time to maximum black (read The Zone VI Workshop), or a largish test sheet, maybe 1/4 the size of your print, exposed for one time placed in a strategic location of the frame. That is somewhere that is mostly highlight but with some shadow areas. Or an area you'd like to receive the base exposure.

    Start with getting the exposure for your highlights using a soft filter, maybe 1 or 1 1/2. Then add contrast filtration to bring the dark tones to where you want them.

    While you're learning to read your negatives you might go through several sheets doing this, but once you gain some experience, you may only need one or two test sheets.
     
  6. David William White

    David William White Member

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    I'm worried that you're not convinced (or not sure) of the need for test strips. The comments above about repetition are within the framework of test strips, so start there. It's like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey: goes much better without the blindfold. So yes, you need some framework knowledge that can be found in any book on printing, including AA's.
     
  7. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Perhaps I'm remembering wrong, but another thing he says in his book, as I recall, is that the differences between a good print and a great print are very subtle.

    Practice (as others have said) is the best route to becoming a better printer, and the subtle differences between the prints that are good and great will become more obvious the stronger your eye gets with making a lot of prints.
     
  8. Casey Kidwell

    Casey Kidwell Member

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    I try to evaluate the negative first with the help of a good contact sheet, then pick a starting contrast filter, then make my test strips. If I need to adjust contrast, I'll compensate exposure based on experience and make a larger test strip at the same exposure. I'll then take that strip and use a hair dryer to judge "dry down" density. Then reevaluate if necessary, then a full print before deciding where to dodge and burn. Then adjust initial exposure if necessary. And don't forget to compensate for toners if you're going to use them. Toners like sepia will reduce density and toners such as selenium will increase it slightly. Hopefully this is helpful. I'm a complete moron compared to some of the amazing printers we have on this forum. Also, I can't express enough the value of going to shows and galleries and looking at peoples prints. A good print viewed in person pales in comparison to the scanned version online.
     
  9. David William White

    David William White Member

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    Excellent summary in one paragraph.
     
  10. jeroldharter

    jeroldharter Member

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    You could get a lot of opinions on this. I infer from your post that you meant to ask how to become a better printer quickly.

    I suggest a few things. First, get an f-stop timer like RH Designs or Darkroom Automations. I have the RH Designs and consider it indispensable. Do a safelight test to make sure you are not fogging your highlights. Do a drydown test with your paper and program that into the timer. Stick with one brand of paper and developer.

    The next thing to do is learn split contrast printing. Use the Les McLean book mentioned or Steve Anchell's book for guidance. That will take the thinking out of determining the precise paper grade to use. If you insist on avoiding split contrast printing, then use the Michael and Paula method of "outflanking" a print. Do test prints and purposely go too far so you can see when the contrast is too low and too high. Do that a few times and you get the feel.

    After that (or before ideally), improve your negatives. Read Beyond the Zone System by Phil Davis and have the View Camera Store do a BTZS film test for you (~$50). You will learn all you need to know about your film and developer. When you have an accurate system for exposing and developing your negatives, you will find that they are much easier to print. The required paper grade won't vary radically, the exposure time of the paper stays in a stable range.

    Somewhere in the mix, pick up the new edition of Way Beyond Monochrome which will help improve your understanding and craft. Likewise the Ansel Adams series and Tim Rudman's toning book.

    I suggest sticking with 8x10 or 11x14 paper size. 8x10 is relatively cheap and you won't be inhibited using lots of paper. In the beginning, use full sheets for test strips with 1/6 stop progression on the steps. This will give you a good feel for proper exposure in small but usable increments. It will also help you get a feel for dodge and burn times. The timer makes it easy to keep track of many exposures if you need edge burning or numerous small tweaks. I find that skimping on test strips with 8x10 or 11x14 paper is usually a false economy so I would start with a process that requires the minimum abstraction and use full sheets.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 19, 2010
  11. clayne

    clayne Member

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    IMO, stick to graded paper at first, no tricks, nothing funky, nothing huge. Just straight 5x7s with simple developers like Dektol and Selectol. Learn the nuances of local control of the print (dodge/burn). Add selenium into the process once you have a feel of things.

    Then after you feel you're competent with that simple set of variables, and have made a reasonably large set of consistent prints, start playing with multigrade and split-grade printing - but only if it actually adds or helps the image.

    I just don't feel that split-grade is necessary to make great prints if the negative is solid. Part of limiting oneself to not using it at first is to help beat it into oneself the importance of decent negs that contain worthwhile subject matter.

    Don't get lost down that road of a "fine art print" that says absolutely nothing and is the modern-age equivalent of a boring painting. It's a polished turd.
     
  12. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    I just spent a chunk of today printing, and I smiled when I read the OP's first post.

    One of the negatives I was working on was a bear to print - fiddly dodging and burning, and a central highlight area that is critical, but is also of a tone that is right on the cusp of the paper (extremely easy to print too light or too dark).

    If you are trying to improve your printing, don't spend too much time at first on negatives like this :smile:.

    I find that one of the best aids to printing well is to have a good reference print to refer to. That is a print on your favourite paper, developed in your favourite developer, and exhibiting a good range of tones and good contrast. When you have one of those in hand, put it up on your darkroom wall (or wherever you evaluate your prints). You need to learn to factor out the effect of wet vs dry and drydown, but that is doable.

    Also, be sure to make and keep good notes and, wherever possible, schedule printing sessions that cover two or more days. It really helps to look at prints under varying light.

    Finally, books like Ralph Lambrecht's Way Beyond Monochrome are very useful. Whether or not you have the book, Ralph has some wonderful aids on his website. I use his f-stop exposure table every time I print.
     
  13. perkeleellinen

    perkeleellinen Member

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    On a slightly different track, I think there more to being a better printer than just better prints. By this I mean that the process for making the print also has aspects where there's a potential to become better. For example you may able to create a master piece in the darkroom but if it took weeks of agonising and frustrating printing then you may end up resenting the time you spend in the dark, especially if your darkroom is uncomfortable after long periods. So I think it's wrong to just focus upon the final print, try to make the job of printing enjoyable as possible as well. Of course there's a converse aspect here in that if it's too easy to make prints you can get lazy or sloppy and the quality of your work will suffer. As with most things a balance needs to be struck and only you know where to make it.
     
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  15. tim k

    tim k Member

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    Print a lot.
    If everything you do sucks, tell yourself your an artist, and nothing meets your standards.
    At least thats my story.
     
  16. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Lots of good technical advice here, and of course practice and hard work are the most important. I have an additional suggestion which may be of some help in judging your own prints and determining when you've "got it" (as others of stated sometimes the differences between a finished fine print and one that isn't quite finished are very small):

    After working with a negative for a while during the printing session and getting through the initial tests and work prints to the point where it's looking the way you envisioned it, stop. Wash and dry that print, and live with it at least for a few days. Tack it to a wall where the lighting is decent. Every time you walk past it have a look and note your reaction or anything you notice. You'll probably find that when you remove the print from its darkroom environment where you are working on it, and allow yourself some time to look at it more casually you often notice things you might have not seen during the printing session. This is particularly the case when working on a difficult negative. You can get so caught up in the complexity of the thing it can actually become more difficult to figure out what your next move is. At this point I have found it very helpful to stop and take a step back. Looking at the print over the next several days gives me a clearer vision of the whole, and how I might improve it, or whether I've gone too far. All of a sudden things will jump out at you, like relative values and tonalities that are illogical, artifacts of burning/dodging you may not have initlally noticed etc. Over time you'll also react to the overall contrast of the print and maybe decide it's either too soft or hard. There are other things that can help you see the "big picture", like hanging the print upside down, which is an excellent way to help you find problem areas because you've removed the familiarity of the image.

    Anyway, for someone wanting to become a better printer, I think this method can be very helpful. You're almost sure to come out with a better finished product than if you're always determined to hammer your way through from test print to fine print in one long darkroom session.

    Michael
     
  17. Dinesh

    Dinesh Subscriber

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    Having seen a few accomplished professional printers at work, I am not sure that I agree with that statement.
     
  18. jp498

    jp498 Member

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    Bunch of good paths of suggestions. My tips: Make sure the developer is fresh; old/oxidized/muddy developer will make variable contrast prints look not so variable and kinda weak contrast. (perhaps good for paper negative processing). 2nd tip; separate in your mind (in your mind only, since these two are connected in practice), the concerns of contrast and exposure. I get the contrast the way I want first using a rough estimated exposure, then I fine tune the exposure. Both are entirely subjective in my opinion. I cut an 8x10 paper into 6 pieces and place a test piece on a representative part of the image (someone's face&hair, or a tree, depending on the subject) I print and process the test piece to fine tune the contrast with the exposure being perhaps 75% accurate. Printing requires very accurate exposure compared to the negative and 10% time difference is noticeable. Drydown might account for 5%.

    If you have printed enough in the darkroom and have some digital experience, you can compare the magenta/cyan dials or filters to the contrast slider in photoshop (with 2 being the center). You just have to figure out in your mind how much you wish to nudge the contrast, you just don't have a slider to do it. (Split-grade, which I don't bother to do, would be like using the curves instead of the contrast slider, to customize things a little more.) Contrast decisions depends on the density of the negative, the subject, light contrast at the time of negative exposure, the feeling you want to convey, etc... There's so many reasons to tweek contrast, that's why I like VC paper. Once the contrast is right, use any methods you want to guide you to the desired exposure.
     
  19. Doc W

    Doc W Subscriber

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    This is sage advice. While I am certainly not a great printer, I find that taking notes is invaluable. We learn from mistakes, and knowing exactly what you did wrong is as useful as knowing what you did right. The single most significant thing I changed in my printing was to use Ralph's f-stop timing chart, which is also in my darkroom. For subtle control of print values, this is the way to go. My prints looked better right away. I don't have an actual f-stop timer. I just use the chart.
     
  20. Ronald Moravec

    Ronald Moravec Member

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    First you have to look at many prints so you know what a good print is supposed to look like.

    Then you make negs that fit the paper/enlarger,/lens/paper developer of your choice so you can print a full tonal range subject with NO manipulation. Darks need detail. Whites need tonality.

    Exposure controls shadows. Development controls highlights. This never changes.

    Make a contact print as a recont and your first test print. Set the englarger to make a 8x10 and make a 8x10 contact. If your 8x10 contact goods good,an 8x10 print will look good at the same exposure.

    If you print with a condenser, then the contact will look a bit flat. If you print with a diffuser, they will match.

    The contact will always be the same regardless of film/developer if it is properly keyed to the enlarger. Brand X contact time should be same as Brand Y.

    Now make a test strip across the critical area of the image using the same exposure as the correct contact sheet. print to get the whites white and adjust contrast as necessary to get the blacks.

    After that you can burn/dodge/bleach, dye dodge, whatever to fine tune the image.

    You MUST be good enough to get a geed contact sheet or you will go crazy trying to make prints from a bunch of bad negs. I have boxes of contacts, every frame is correct so it serves as the initial test print.

    All this means the metering and shutters need to work properly.

    You can always make 4x5 print and open the enlarger lens 2 stops and an 8x10 will be very close to the same.
     
  21. RalphLambrecht

    RalphLambrecht Member

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  22. Mainecoonmaniac

    Mainecoonmaniac Subscriber

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    I would suggest that you go to as many photographic exhibitions as you can and see great prints. I also with concur with Ralph that practice makes perfect. Enjoy your journey of becoming a great printer.
     
  23. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    practice is good advice,
    but practice looking at your negative
    and translating what you see in it into
    something that can be printed.
    part of what makes photographic printing so hard
    is creating something from the film.
    kind of like oragami or making string figures i guess ...
    unless you can manipulate the paper or the string,
    you just have paper and string.
     
  24. marco.taje

    marco.taje Member

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  25. wfe

    wfe Member

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    I'll second what Valerie has said. I attended the same workshop that she did with Les McLean and he told me on the way in that my printing skills were good. On the way out and after returning to my darkroom and practicing my prints got even better.
     
  26. ROL

    ROL Member

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