Judging prints

Discussion in 'Enlarging' started by urals, Jan 1, 2008.

  1. urals

    urals Member

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    Maybe it's seen as impudent for a newbie to make such a request, but I was wondering if some people could talk about how they judge B&W prints. I'm a photo student in university and I've kind of hit a wall in this regard and would really appreciate some help from you experts.

    If the image in question is a serious one that you're trying to make great, how do you, uh, know when you're done? Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the real challenge in printing is in good judgement of what a print needs, in knowing "how to see" prints.

    I notice that, with me at least, in the past (and still today) I could often look at a print and know that something was wrong, but not know what. Now I intuitively know what is wrong with a print, but still only to a frustratingly limited degree (I know that, for instance, certain problems come down to "competition" between values -- it might help to, say, mute highlight areas that "compete" visually with your main subject or just lead the eye astray from it).

    But how do you best develop this sense? Can someone offer me some tips or tricks on how to judge prints? What kinds of insights or truths were important to you in becoming a better printer? I ask this because, with learning other things, I notice that I periodically discover key, fundamental ideas that dramatically improve how I do something.
     
  2. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member

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    Put an under performing print under a very bright light. Look at it, as it could be, and learn.
     
  3. Dietmar Wolf

    Dietmar Wolf Member

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    What do you want to judge? Content or technical details?

    There are many technical perfect, but boring or repetitive prints out there.
    And there are many interesting and fascinating pictures, but technically "artless" printed.

    So if I judge I have always both in mind. A technical perfect print with weak content can also be a nice one. A picture with strong content is always nice, because we know there is a negative and you can always improve the technical side. So to speak, I prefer to concentrate on the content when judging a print.

    If you ask a technical question, it becomes difficult. There are people who like "full tonal range", but these prints sometimes look dull, not exciting. Then there are more contrasty prints, with real highlights and deep black which look more exciting. Maybe. It depends simply on the viewer.

    I recommend to post as many pics in real critique galleries. I have made great experience here at apug. Or to send them to honest friends who know you. And to gain a reputation to be a person who LOVES it to get critique. This helps a lot.

    Overall show the pictures to "normal" people, who dont have a glimpse of darkroom work and bw photography. Ask them and you will be sometimes very surprised with the opposite answers you get.
     
  4. Nacio Jan Brown

    Nacio Jan Brown Member

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    If you can get yourself to not be in a rush try this two-session print making procedure. In the first session you make just pretty good proofs with no dodging or burning in. It helps if when judging the wet proofs as you make them you view them along side a wet print that is half black and half white. You should be able to make a lot of negative proofs in this session because you are not spending a lot of time on any one of them--you're just getting into the ball park with exposure time and paper grade. Make exposure/grade notes for each proof. There is no need to archivally process these proofs. When washed and dried lay the proofs one at a time in the middle of a circle of first rate prints (borrow some if you need to). You should be able to see easily what different areas of the proof need: darker here, lighter there. Write down the details of which areas need what. I developed a vocabulary for gradations: a tiny bit, a little bit, somewhat, a fair amount, quite a bit, a lot, etc. As an example: the face should be "a bit" lighter, the upper corners "somewhat darker," etc. In the second session take along your notes and proofs. The proofs go into a water bath just past the fix. Follow your directions in making the new prints using the proof as control prints. Trust your directions. Whenever I second guessed my notes in the darkroom and made the print differently that specified I was wrong -- the notes were right. What this two-session method does is to allow you to make judgments in the light with fine prints as examples. It also takes the particular quality of the viewing light, both in and out of the darkroom, out of the loop. Last, the judgments you make in the darkroom are not aesthetic, they are objective: is the face on the wet print "a tiny bit lighter" than the face on the wet proof beside it or not?

    This technique is probably most appropriate when you need to make a number of prints in the same style. I developed it when I needed to make prints for a book and an exhibit. In an abbreviated version you would have one or two first rate prints in the water bath after the fix to view along side prints you are making.

    Whenever I have described this technique to a photographer I've seen their eyes glaze over, imaging it's too much work. It's not--it's a time saver in producing top quality prints.
     
  5. jp80874

    jp80874 Subscriber

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    Go to the galleries, exhibits, competitions and museums in your area. Study original prints that they felt were good enough to hang. If there are related programs, attend, ask questions, learn everything you can about the work and the artists. Develop your eye. Learn to SEE. Talk about what you see with your teachers and fellow students. Ask them if they see things in addition to what you see. If someone does not see as much as you do, ask them politely if you can show them more. Teaching is wonderful way to learn. Photo students here are required to visit at least three exhibits a term and write a two page paper on what they see each time.

    John Powers
     
  6. CPorter

    CPorter Member

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    Your question is fairly timely with me since I have been doing a lot of thinking about print making lately. But it has reminded me of a couple of quotes that seem very appropo, from AA "The Print", chapter 1:

    "The difference between a very good print and a fine print is quite subtle and difficult, if not impossible, to to describe in words. There is a feeling of satisfaction in the presence of a fine print --- and uneasiness with a print that falls short of optimum quality."

    "Print quality, then, is basically a matter of sensitivity to values. What is important for all photographers is that the values of the image suit the image itself, and contribute to the intended visual effect. Perhaps the best guideline I can give is to look carefully at your prints and heed the first impressions that enter your mind."

    I think it is a common struggle.

    Chuck
     
  7. Alden

    Alden Member

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    Setting up extremes helps. Make the lightest you like, then the darkest. Set up a contrasty print against a flat one. As far as burn and dodge goes, extremes look cool at first but then become too tricky and boring. experienced printers tend to make the burn and dodging unnoticable prefering to get their message across within the content. Live with them for awhile, then come back later and work another one. Good photography is a very hairsplitting affair. Another rule of mine is that the faster an image hits you, the faster it goes away. I like a slow read. Very easy on the impact. And of course look at the good stuff of others, in person if possible.
     
  8. jovo

    jovo Membership Council

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    I think a part of the answer is revealed in your question. Experience and exposure to many, many fine prints gradually informs your taste and refines your intuition. You're a university student you say, so you are probably rather young and if so, you're quite likely subject to the impatience typical of those of your years. But, this sentence: "I ask this because, with learning other things, I notice that I periodically discover key, fundamental ideas that dramatically improve how I do something." is the actual secret you seek.

    When I first went to conservatory my teacher told me to read Zen and the Art of Archery. My initial reaction was....whoa! I DO NOT need mystical kaka to get where I want to go. But, I couldn't have been more naive or mistaken. It was precisely the message in that book that became my reality and was a great comfort in the learning process. Consider finding and reading it. It will be of great use to you as well.
     
  9. Gord Wood

    Gord Wood Member

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    I imagine that painters have similar issues. It may seem they could always add a few more strokes to improve the image. Eventually, there will be a point where further efforts will not improve the results. The short and obvious answer is when the image generates the feeling you wanted.

    For me, reviewing works in progress (and finished work) with other photographers is extremely valuable. Simply commenting on each others work about which images "grab" you and which don't will help you to understand how others see your images.

    Think about what's important in your image. Then look to see if that quality or detail comes through easily to the viewer. VERY IMPORTANT - Don't let your personal associations affect your evaluation. Your fond memories of the day you took the photograph can influence your opinion. Your viewers will not make that association.

    Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide when a print is "done". Otherwise, it isn't "your" image.
     
  10. urals

    urals Member

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    Sorry, I should have been clearer: this is very much about the print itself and not so much about the image. I'm referring to the aesthetics of a print in general, and the skill of being able to identify problems that you feel are there. Knowing what practical steps to take to correct them (the technical side), is another, I'd say lesser, concern.

    Overall, it's such a deceptively simple matter. In theory you should just do it until it satisfies you, but it's so difficult to decipher the totality of a print and pinpoint specifically what it is that needs adjustment. I've noticed that, very often, I discover what to do by accident -- I forget to adjust the f stop or something and it's printed 1 stop too bright/dark. I then discover that there are nice values in some area that would benefit the print and, when I add them, the print comes to life. But I don't want to have to run tests for everything, visualization of what something would look like would be such an aid. I guess this really only comes with time.

    I also understand that sometimes creative, or just otherwise non-traditional, solutions are the best; Bill Brandt's nudes, for instance, strike me as a good example of printing that definitely strays from the norm but is beautiful and interesting for that reason.

    I definitely agree with what you said above about pursuing critiques, and just welcoming criticism generally. The immense value of honest feedback is something that I am only now really beginning to appreciate. It's very easy to get "too close" to your work, and other people can be great at restoring that objectivity that is so crucial. This Monday at school we have a critique and I'm going to follow your advice and try to gain that reputation.
     
  11. urals

    urals Member

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    Wow that's a very interesting approach, I can definitely see its value. It seems like it'd work, if not for any other reason, than because, as many people have mentioned so far, it really helps to just look at a print with fresh eyes. It also seems so useful to see prints in regular viewing conditions, and to reference a great print when judging yours, we should always have high standards, and other prints also might refresh our palette, so to speak.

    The only thing I would do differently is think of the changes I want to make in terms of stops. I've been trying to develop my eye to see all values in terms of stops -- such and such an area needs +1/4 stop, another area needs -2/3 stops, etc. But it does seem rational to at first interpret it in such subjective terms as you use -- a lot darker, a bit lighter -- and then translate them into stops.

    I have a bunch of similar negative that I'm going to print later this week, and I think I'll try this on for size, it seems like it'd help.
     
  12. urals

    urals Member

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    Last year I tried to expose myself to as much good photography as possible and I can tell you right now that your advice on it is spot on, it did immeasurable good for me. My school has around 150,000 slides of photographers' work, and I systematically went through them all over the course of the year, from A to Z. Not only did I discover many amazing photographers, it really had the net result of making me hold myself to a higher standard, technically and creatively.

    As an aside, going through them especially made me understand the value of a good concept, or creativity in general. Seeing so much great photography kind of devalues technical concerns and raises in importance creative ones. Perfectly exposed images with beautiful, lush printing seem to almost become the norm, you have to do something beyond that to actually stand out.

    That sounds like a good idea to make students go to exhibits and write papers, I'm going to mention this to my production teacher and see what she thinks.
     
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  13. urals

    urals Member

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    I read that book last year and that first quote rung true with me then and rings true with me now (second one is great as well, don't get me wrong). I think you ultimately have to use your gut feelings or unconscious reaction as a guide. I definitely notice how, with the best prints, I have that clear feeling of satisfaction, there is no tinge of ambivalence.
     
  14. urals

    urals Member

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    This is excellent advice, I think... or it at least accords perfectly with my own suspicions. I remember one print I worked on, that I am now very satisfied with, that I came to through such a method. I, without letting myself think about it, printed many, widely varying iterations of the image -- very high/low contrast, light/dark, etc. In doing so I learned a lot about the negative and became familiar with its potential. I settled on one of the higher contrast printings, and I know for a fact that I wouldn't have even considered doing it such if I just went about like I normally do.

    I'd only say that this is a kind of wasteful and time-consuming approach. I see it kind of as "training wheels," that later, once I develop my sense, I can take off. But for, as I originally said, serious prints that you want to squeeze every drop out of, this method is definitely applicable.

    I also think the ideal print would be one that both hits fast and has the potential for lasting interest. Some prints are stunning after 1 second and still stunning after 10 minutes. But, of course, this is just an ideal, and one I probably wont attain for another 20 years if at all.
     
  15. smieglitz

    smieglitz Subscriber

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    Along this line I would suggest making original test strip prints from a whole sheet of paper and following a geometric increase in exposure between each step. These strips have a similar contrast between each step unlike an arithmetic sequence. I like to make tests that cover a 2-stop range, 8-32 seconds in 1/3-stop increments for example (8+2.1+2.6+3.3+4.2+5.2+6.6 seconds). I've seen so many students try to base a print on a mere sliver of test paper and ultimately I think it causes them to waste more paper and reach a high level of frustration quickly. The entire sheet approach will let you see what the light is doing in the picture and give you an idea of what burning or dodging one- third stop will look like on the initial test.

    Another thing I tell students is that they can always make a better print. It may take years to see what could improve an image, but I don't think there is any such thing as a "perfect" print. Yet, a lot of people get hung up on perfectionism and drain the pleasure and soul out the printing experience. You want to stop before that happens in order to keep making prints of other images. Most viewers aren't going to care diddly-squat about all the fine-tuning you could do ad nauseam. The print should be engaging and of high quality, but it need not be perfect. Print it until you're happy with it.

    I learned to print in a commercial studio where I had unlimited access to someone else's paper. I learned to print on someone else's dime. I could always try this or that variation and get feedback from the boss and other coworkers. Not worrying about the cost and making a lot of prints (quickly, I might add) and experimenting made me a fairly decent printer. My point here is not to count the dimes you're spending on paper if you can. (And I know student budgets can be tight.) If you are worried about how much this is costing or if you only have a sheet or two left to get a print you're satisfied with, you'll never get there.

    And give yourself a package of paper and at least a half day to get a single print. Don't rush. Chances are you won't need that much of either.
     
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  16. jp80874

    jp80874 Subscriber

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  17. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    I don't think you ever become perfect, but I do believe that what constitutes a good print is different from person to person, with some common denominators.
    I think it's down to experience and lots of practice. What I think worked two years ago I may not be so sure about anymore. That clarity of vision is hard to come by, but I really believe in Ansel Adams' method of visualization, and I think that knowing when you open the shutter on your camera you already know what you want the final print to look like is essential to achieving what you want to see in the print.
    I think it comes down to practice and hard work. That's my theory. I'm not sure that learning it from someone else is always successful. You may be able to print what somebody else likes, but they can't know for sure what you like, only you do. What's a good print?
    With hard work I mean that when you're in the darkroom, always, and I mean always try to make the best print you know how to. That way you can grow your printing skills, and your ability to judge your print will come from that skill.

    With that said, I'm hardly an expert.

    - Thomas

     
  18. Nacio Jan Brown

    Nacio Jan Brown Member

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    Regarding two-session printing

    One thing I forgot to mention in my description of the two-session printing approach is that I frequently make two or three decent proofs, each a different contrast grade. Judging these dry surrounded by good prints quickly lets you know which is best. As for trying to estimate gradations of dark/light on a print in terms of stop differences this won't work because adding a stop with grade 0 will result in a smaller tone difference than adding a stop with grade 4. Happy printing! njb
     
  19. Dave Miller

    Dave Miller Member

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    Within any reasonable negative there are an infinite number of prints. The alteration tools you have are: cropping, exposure, contrast, tone, and paper texture. I suggest that you make a work print on R/C VC gloss paper, that is a whole negative print that shows all the detail available, or as much as possible, it will probably have to be low contrast to achieve that. Pin it up somewhere in good light where you will see it frequently, and think about it for at least a week. Then consider which of the above tools you are going to employ to lift it from a snap to a work of art.
     
  20. BobNewYork

    BobNewYork Member

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    I love the 'two-day' approach! Also, look at the original work of others whose work you admire - I mean REALLY look. You will often find that what you think you see in it is an impression. As I write this, I'm looking at a wonderful Ansel Adams photograph that I bought some years back. Even today it brings tears to my eyes. (Though not as many as it brought to the wife's eyes when I bought it!!!!) It's of the Merced River with HalfDome in the background. I just noticed that the sunlit snow on the mountain is pure white - no details whatsoever. That's what I mean by REALLY look. I just know that if I'd printed this neg. my important highlight would have been the sunlit snow - and MY print would have been muddy by comparison. You're not looking to copy someone else's work - but you are looking to learn from those you admire. After all, none of us would be doing this if the work of others who preceded us had not inspired us.
     
  21. kjsphoto

    kjsphoto Subscriber

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    A master printer taught me that when printing, use a low level light when judging your tones when printing. This way when you view the final print under normal light it glows. I normally use a 15 watt bulb but do not directly point the light on the print. Instead I use a reflector and bounce it off the ceiling to give me an even soft light. The prints look excellent once finished and dried.

    Hope that help...

    Kev
     
  22. BobNewYork

    BobNewYork Member

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    Yes. That also helps avoid the disappointments of 'dry down'. If you view the wet print under a weaker light it better approximates the dry print under normal lighting conditions. The 15 watt is a little too dim for me. I use a 40 watt bulb placed about 12 feet from the wash tray - mainly because I've reached the stage where I notice my arms have shrunk when try to read the newspaper!
     
  23. urals

    urals Member

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    Yeah I definitely agree with all of this, especially with letting yourself use as much paper as you need. When I'm stingy I produce the worst prints.
     
  24. urals

    urals Member

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    I think the advice in this thread has been really amazing, I appreciate it greatly everyone. I even went through it and took notes which I keep in my darkroom now and reference. There are some general truths that are good "signposts" for me to use to reorient myself when I'm lost, I think. I hope nobody minds, but I'm probably going to be badgering a lot of you for advice in the future! I think I can learn a lot this way. Thanks again.