Dark print vs bright print.... what's going on?

Discussion in 'Enlarging' started by tkamiya, Mar 22, 2012.

  1. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    I'm having a problem determining what makes a print "bright" and "dark". It seems like an easy concept but it isn't for me. I need to understand this accurately.

    I can "instantly" tell by looking, if the image looks "bright" or "dark". (sorry about all the quoting...) But! What makes these prints bright or dark? If I take a given negative and print it with less exposure, it will be a THIN print or an under-exposed print. If I take a given negative and print it with more exposure, it will be a DENSE print or an over-exposed print. Either way, they look WRONG. There is a narrow range where I can adjust the exposure and make the print look "correct."

    I looked at this from average density stand point. That doesn't seem to be the cause either.

    Is it a local contrast around the subject?
    Is it a global contrast, as in use of different contrast filter?
    Is it the subject being lighter than the rest?

    Can someone explain the mechanics behind how all of this work?
     
  2. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    Total and local contrast in the negative, and contrast control in printing obviously have significant impacts. It's not just about exposure.

    As an example, take a low contrast negative and print it with relatively low contrast in the enlarger. If you print it light, it will look light but low in contrast. If you increase the enlarging exposure, it will print dark, but still low in contrast.

    Exposure and contrast go hand in hand when you print. Most of the time adjustments are required to both exposure and contrast to get the desired print.
     
  3. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    Yes, I understand THAT.

    Say I'm looking at a print - any print. I want it to look brighter or darker - what do I change in what direction to achieve the desired goal? In other words.... what visual queues do our brains use to reach this conclusion - this is a bright scene or this is a dark scene?
     
  4. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    Well, I can only comment on the science of perception as a layman. But one thing about looking at prints, no matter how adept we might be as printers, visually our brains are very sensitive to what I'll call "illogical print values". I didn't invent that term, I'm stealing it from Ansel Adams and John Sexton, but I'm broadening the concept beyond burning and dodging errors. For example, someone can pull out all the stops to print a bright daylight scene down to dark night-time values, but in the end our brain tells us something is not quite right, and that the original scene was not dark. On some level we are acutely aware of the differences in types of light, shadows etc, and for all our interpretive efforts, in the end there does usually seems to be some relatively narrow range range within which the print will seem to make sense, or seem "right". Actually perhaps a better term is "believable".

    Of course, the printer might intentionally want to create an alternative response, but that is another, purely subjective matter.

    Then again I might still have completely misunderstood the question :smile:
     
  5. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    Hi tkamiya,

    I'm wrangling this situation at the moment through a series of prints for an exchange.

    I use an enlarger with a round fluorescent bulb that provides very different illumination cold than it does once it warms up. You may be aware that stabilizers were invented to solve this problem. Well, I have so far opted to just "live with it" and I must accept minor variations in my prints.

    For this series I checked the light and waited for it to warm up as I made the work print and the first few final prints. These prints are consistently "dark". This was the "stylized" representation I visualized and wanted.

    The negative itself was taken in late afternoon light, in a shaded "patio," backlit awnings struck by light with a bit of open sky and some spectral highlights on shiny leaves. It is a full-scale negative and should print on Grade 2 or 3. I selected Grade 2 and printed the open shade of the patio as nearly black. There is plenty of detail in the shadows on the print but since it is nearly black you might call the print "dark". The spectral highlights remain clear white and the sky is light gray.

    The next day I made an additional few prints and carelessly did not allow the bulb to warm up. The first two prints are what you would call "light". They are also what you might call "straight" or "literal" because now you can see the patio for what it is. Since you can see exactly what the picture is, now this print would be "acceptable" to more people. Since none of the shadows reach full black though, a straight, "light" print might be better on Grade 3.

    But which is the better print? I am sure I want this set to go out "dark," but these lighter prints are kind of nice too.
     
  6. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    While our brain may be illogical, figuring out a basic behavior is helpful, I think. Somehow, we seem to know when something is bright or dark and it doesn't necessary have to do with the zone where level of gray falls in.

    Michael,

    No, you got my question right. Somehow, our mind is picking up some queues in the print and figuring out the mood. I have prints that a part is only 1/6 of stop different from what I consider RIGHT for the scene. I still see that as WRONG. So our senses are quite sensitive. I'm trying to figure out what these queues are....

    I have a scene where it was taken under a bright daylight. (in Mexico no less!) Somehow, when printed, it looks like it was taken in evening light. It's not bright enough. Yet, some part of the scene is only slightly above the base white. The print has a full tonal range within the scene.

    Bill,

    Change of contrast did enter my thought. But the scene already has plenty of contrast so I don't want it any higher. I don't want it any lower either so I am confident that the global contrast is right. That leaves local contrast..... Would higher contrast look "brighter?" I'm not sure. (probably NOT is my current thought)

    I use Omega D2 so no technical issue concerning warming up.
     
  7. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    Me too, I don't think I need to change contrast. The lighter print "looks good" on Grade 2 (so the "local contrast" is correct). Perhaps what I need to accept is that the area under the awnings in the patio is essentially a "low contrast" scene. There isn't an obvious "shadow" to key to pitch black. So what ends up looking good is a photograph without a black key.

    And maybe that is what galls us, we keep demanding something black, so we print down to black and make the print "dark".

    Well, maybe not every print needs something black.
     
  8. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    It is important to remember that prints are limited to a relatively narrow range of tones. Your eyes/brain and the real world has a lot more dynamic range. :smile:

    For that reason, we are always trying to squeeze the image into that narrow range. The decisions we make about how we effect that "squeeze" really affects our perception of the results.

    There is also an interplay between the contents of the scene and our perception of how dark or light it is. If, for example, a scene has a strong centre of interest, we will be much more likely to react negatively to the lightness or darkness of a print if that centre of interest is either markedly lighter or darker than one would expect it to be, or if in relation to the other parts of the scene, that centre of interest is either markedly lighter or darker than one would expect it to be.

    That is where contrast can also come into play.
     
  9. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    Bill,

    I agree.... not every print needs full range of tones. I think many of us are conditioned otherwise though. On the scene I'm currently working on, there is INDEED a full range of tones. Barely off base white to maximum black. The scene looks pretty well balanced - except I get this impression that it was taken on evening hours. I know I'm close to getting this right.... the problem is, I have no idea what the problem is.
     
  10. Ronald Moravec

    Ronald Moravec Member

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    Get the exposure correct for the main subject, burn/dodge as necessary for the balance of the print. Change contrast outside the main subject if you use VC paper. Try split contrast printing.
     
  11. markbarendt

    markbarendt Subscriber

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    Part of this may be a difference between luminance and brightness.

    Luminance is a measurable physical property.

    Brightness is a psychological thing.

    I am constantly surprised by darker prints that look brighter.
     
  12. brian steinberger

    brian steinberger Member

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    I've been struggling with this alot lately. I make prints that I feel are great and then I'll look at them once dry or in different light and think "these are too bright" or "these are too contrasty." Lighting is everything when viewing a fine print. I was always under the belief that every print has to have a maximum black and just barley off base white (Ansel Adams). But I've made some prints where the highlight is a bit lower than base white and the print just seems to glow, much like what Mark is talking about above. So I think there is a fine line between a fine print and a near miss. And I believe it's in the highlights and how they are handled during printing. It is something I will continue to work on.
     
  13. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    Hi tkamiya,

    Still struggling? In my case, I laid out the series and saw from the variations that I was happiest with the prints somewhere in-between.


    We always hear quotes from famous teachers and references. Here's one that is not that well-known (I find no glaring fault in the publication), that directly relates to your question:

    In photofacts number 24 Print Faults and how to correct them by Fountain Press 1951 there is a chapter on The Dark Print.

    It lists the following causes of dark prints:

    Over-exposure
    Changing paper
    Voltage fluctuation
    Drying changes
    Over-development

    Paraphrasing the two topics that aren't self-explanatory:
    -Changing paper, from one grade or brand to another requires a new test.
    -Over-development won't be an issue if you always do FULL development.
     
  14. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    We're a little off tkamiya's original topic which was more about how we perceive print values in the context of an image. But to address the evaluation of prints as raised by Brian, I'd offer the following.

    Regularity counts for a lot when judging your prints during a printing session, because prints can often look so different under different lighting etc. It's not enough to have excellent technique. Because I don't get to print every day (and there can sometimes be periods of weeks or even months of no printing), I don't make final decisions in a single session. I stop when I think I've got it pretty much right, make a few versions, wash, dry and then live with them for a while. If I don't do that, I find myself spending too much time staring at my microwaved work prints, moving from room to room to look at them under different light levels etc.

    Refraining from final decisions in a single printing session is particularly helpful with complicated, labourious prints, in which case by the end of a printing session I'm sometimes too immersed in the complexity to make an ideal overall evaluation. Sometimes even coming back the next day makes a difference. Things that aren't quite right will tend to jump out at you more easily. Or sometimes I'll realize the print is just too dark, contrast needs adjustment etc. It's a chance to really evaluate the direction you took and whether or not the original desired outcome has been realized.

    I've also found this technique makes my printing sessions more fun because my stress level is lower if I know I don't have to have it all perfect by the end of the session. Otherwise I tend to get pretty stressed out when printing.
     
  15. Doremus Scudder

    Doremus Scudder Member

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    Interesting thread with a lot of food for thought.

    Here are some of my ideas, in no particular order:

    First, how much detail we see in shadows and the quality of the shadow edges often gives us a perceptual cue as to the "original" lighting situation. Our eyes lose the ability to see detail as it gets darker. In darker situations, shadows are empty to our eyes. In prints with high contrast taken in bright, harsh lighting situations, the shadows go dark and detail-less in the print, or at least the detail is in the very lowest values. This cues our brains to think that the "original" lighting was dark. Ever notice that even in harsh sunlight, you can see easily into the shadows? But that in softly-lit dark situations (read low-contrast) you can't?

    Remember those old black-and-white TV shows from the 50s and 60s? When they wanted a "night scene," they simply put on a red filter and underexposed. The shadows went black, the highlights were darker than usual, but still fairly bright, but we all bought it that it was "night" and that the characters were sneaking around in the dark.

    I think that opening up the shadows, by changing paper contrast or by dodging/burning/changing exposure can make a huge difference in the perception of what we think is the "original" lighting situation. Some hard shadows are needed, but they need to be open and detailed enough that our brain doesn't think "oh, it's nighttime." This might be the answer to the OPs original problem.

    The opposite is often true with photos on orthochromatic materials. Shadows are often very soft and luminous on prints made from ortho film, and the skies are usually white. Our brain says, "bright overcast with low contrast and open shadows" even if the original lighting was clear blue skies and direct sunlight.

    It all lies in the interplay between shadowed and lit areas and the way our brains interpret the relationships of tonalities and amount of detail.

    As for prints needing a maximum black, or that all highlights should be printed just below paper-base white, etc. These are just guidelines for beginners. Highlights belong where they work best; i.e., where the balance of brilliance and detail is right for the subject. Placing these is totally subjective and often material-dependent (some papers separate more than others in the toe). Display lighting plays a huge role, as does the relationship between tonalities in the print. We need a well-developed aesthetic sense as printers to make the highlights feel like we want them to.

    Sometimes I print to pure paper white (a "no-no" in some circles), and sometimes my highest value is a richly-detailed Zone VIII. And, I have tons of prints that I purposely print without a maximum black, or even very close. Dense blacks in a print look solid; lifting them a little gives them an openness even if there is no detail present, which is often the difference between a print that sings and one that doesn't.

    At university, along with my other studies, I took courses in optics and visual perception. These were "eye-opening" to say the least. How we perceive values in adjacent areas of different tonalities is fascinating. The same gray feels very different next to a lighter value than a darker one. Zone V can look really bright when surrounded by blacks, but really drab and dark when it's in a field of whites. This gets very subtle and complex very quickly when there are a lot of tonalities in a print. A feeling for how tonalities expressively interrelate takes a while to develop (at least it did for me) and should be applied at the visualization stage, when deciding Zone placements and development schemes.

    When printing, we need to balance all these different perceptual and subjective things when making decisions about contrast, print manipulations, etc. It is complex enough that one cannot make rules to follow; it is really an art, and precisely here lies the art of printing in my estimation.

    Print evaluation is difficult unless one knows exactly what lighting the print will be displayed under. I evaluate my prints in everything from direct sunlight to rather dim incandescent lighting and try to strike a compromise that works in various lighting conditions. But, shadows that look open and luminous in sunlight can often look dark and featureless in dimmer artificial light (the same phenomenon that I mentioned at the beginning). There's nothing to do about this but print for an ideal lighting situation. I try to print for rather bright gallery lighting, but I know that when someone buys a print and then displays it in a dark corner of their living room, it's just not going to look as good. I try to bring this to the purchaser's attention when I can.

    For me, there is always a point when printing when I have several prints of different exposure/contrast/manipulations tacked up on the viewing board and I say to myself, "any of those do the job for me, depending on my mood and the display lighting." At this point, I stop refining; one can get to obsessive about getting the "perfect" print and really get lost in the law of diminishing returns. No two performances of a piece of music are exactly the same, so why should my performances of a negative be? As long as they are pleasing and expressive and communicate the visual and artistic goals I have, then small variances, or even different basic interpretations are possible. Loud or soft, fast or slow, bright or dark, contrasty or soft? The main thing is that the print works within itself... for me.

    I'll quit now, this is getting so long no one will bother to read it.

    Best,

    Doremus

    www.DoremusScudder.com
     
  16. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    Michael,

    I have the same routine. When I make prints, I make a few with different exposures. I keep ones that are too light and too dark as well as the one I *think* it's right and wait until the next day to evaluate. I had SO MANY times what I thought as prints that are too light, too dark, too contrasty, too (anything) was the one I liked and ended up framing. This is beyond dry-down.... My prints seem to change a bit from what I feel as dry to few days later when it's really dry. Plus, my perceptions change. The worst thing for me is to pursue perfection on the first day. I end up going through so many sheets of paper and liking the first one. I go from room to room, outside, inside, take it to work sometimes, put it in my standard mat, etc, etc, etc. I also tend to get better ideas about additional adjustments or removing or lightening over-adjustments few days later as well. I have to convince myself to stop on the first day. I'm glad I'm not the only one doing this.
     
  17. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    Doremus,

    You might be right on on your suggestion of opening up deep shadows. In this particular print (that I'm having problems with), there are deep, featureless shadows in the key area. Yes, it was a brightly lit scene. I dodged it somewhat but I'm going to do some more and see how it works out. I am working with matte surface paper (FB) so "deep black" isn't that deep. Nevertheless, there isn't sufficient details there. That might very well be the problem.

    I would very much like to take classes on visual perception if such thing is offered.....

    Thank you for your detailed response.
     
  18. ROL

    ROL Member

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    While there is much to be said about good (fine) printing technique, and usually not enough IMO – not enough seems to ever be said about the ability (or talent :whistling:) in finding good light and composition to support good printing technique.

    ...and that much said without SHOUTING :tongue:.
     
  19. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    I experimented with something today.

    I took the same print but one that was printed a little lighter (overall exposure was a little less), cut it up into pieces and selenium toned it to different degrees.

    The end result was that highlight part stayed the same or slightly increased and Dmax increased - visibly on the one I toned for 8 minutes. Which made the light print darker and contrast higher perhaps by about 1/4 grade worth. That part now looks brighter although the max density is the same as the original print. I can also see more detail in the shadow area because of this increased contrast.

    The changes are rather subtle but I see a clear change.... if that makes any sense.

    My next step is to reprint this, tone it, and see how it will actually work on overall image.
     
  20. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    That was interesting....

    I took the same image, printed it with base exposure 2 seconds shorter, then toned it in selenium toner diluted 1:40 for 2 minutes. The result is, shadow being just a tad darker and removal of greenish cast. Highlight stayed the same.

    The difference is such that if I concentrate on the change themselves, I have to have the prints side-by-side and even then, it's hard to tell. (green cast being gone is more noticeable)

    The contrast has increased a little, perhaps 1/4 grade worth - if that.

    However, if I step back and look at the entire print, this new print leaves me with an impression that the scene was bright mid day scene where as the old one tells me it was an evening scene. I'm amazed how much the print changed when not much actually has....
     
  21. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    I have a very simple system..

    When I print the details of contrast, dodge and burn is done by an recollection of the original scene.
    Or if I am printing for others questions are asked about the lighting ratio and conditions of the original scene.

    then in the fix after a few attempts I finally say This Looks Right.
    then I make another print slightly lighter or darker and move on to the next image.