Printing: Shaprness & Contrast

Discussion in 'Enlarging' started by Bruce Osgood, Feb 25, 2004.

  1. Bruce Osgood

    Bruce Osgood Membership Council Council

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    I have noticed, in my own work and here in the galleries more and more prints of high contrast being evaluated in glowing terms of sharpness. As if greater contrast produces greater sharpness. I think this is a mistake.
    I've always felt sharpness in a negative or print is determined by optics and may be obliterated by development and that contrast is another issue.
    While negative contrast is set by more or less development, and print contrast by filters or paper grade, the sharp line will be dulled by excessive contrast.
    Where a high contrast image is sought (one with few shades) the sharpness of the line can devastate a viewer (well, maybe not devastate but stop them in their tracks) but when that line is muted or melted into broader tones, the image is muted.
    By adding contrast arn't we just mushing the blacks together and the whites together. We're not making more shades of black but fewer.
    This may just be a personal thing with me but I am wondering if anyone else sees this?
     
  2. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Bruce,

    You raise a valid point. I think that the matter of print contrast is almost a personal matter. I remember some years ago that I had the opportunity to view some 11X14 contact prints of Brett Weston's. I was absolutely appalled at the empty blacks that he printed. However today I have an great appreciation for his images. The difference is that at that earlier time I was operating from the Ansel Adams lineage of full and present detail in all areas. Thus there were different views by two different yet equally gifted photographers.

    On the matter of contrast, there are, as I view it, at least two different (possibly three) different contrasts at work in a print. The first that most people operate from is overall contrast. The second is local contrast. Some people that this to a further classification beyond this.

    I think that local contrast is what brings "presence" to a print. More recently I viewed some prints made by Edward Weston. These seemed to be printed very heavily to me initially. But they had a presence that was unmistakable.
    This presence is what some people name a "glow". Here again we have another gifted photographer and an entirely different way of printing.

    Oliver Gagliano (sp?) and Don Worth have prints that absolutely jump out at me. Very high overall contrast in both cases. Different gifted photographers and still different printing styles.

    In essence, I think that you observe something that your personal tastes don't follow. There is nothing wrong in either viewpoint. Yours or the photographer that printed in a certain way.

    Good luck in your photography.

    Donald Miller
     
  3. victor

    victor Member

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    bruce...
    first of all, like donal says.. contrast (the everall contrast of the print) is usually a matter of taste, mode and aesthetic statement.
    sharpness deals with the countures of the lines, details, objects etc etc.
    optics plays the most important role in sharpness. but note, scienifically the sharpnes is determined by contrarst (the kind of contrast which is used in the mtf tables - lp/m). than of course comes the importance of the film used, and the developer.
    what, do u want to be sharp, with the capable optics ??. do u want sharp finest details - than it is a very slow film very well exposed without the vibrations, and very well developed. do u want the general counturs of the object -than the faster films will do the job.. etc. so even here there are some kind of sharpneses.
    contrast in the print is devided mainly in three.
    the overall, the local and the micro contrast. the micro contrast deals very directly with the sharpnes of finest details.
    the main importance of overall contrast is the general appearance. actually the overall contrast is a part of the composition - no matter what is your object and its positioning etc. it puts the eye into some tention - which many times means - interesting, emotional etc.
    the local contrast is the prime thing in creating the 3d effect on the 2d paper. the local contrast creates the tonal difinition.
    with the micro contrast u can view the finest and the smallest details on the pront even from the close exemination.
    those are lots of aspects, while every photographer has his own relation to those aspects. this way actually we create our visual and material language.
    of course there are other not less important aspects in creating style and languege like subject, the visual and cognitive perspectives etc, but those are another issues.
     
  4. JMcLaug351

    JMcLaug351 Member

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    Thank you victor for your informative post. I've been thinking along these lines for some time now. It was the "micro contrast" thing that I had not heard about before this. It helped to clear up some of my ideas. I've started to taylor my film development times to local contrast rather than over all contrast. Controlling the overall contrast by minimizing agitation and higher dilution developers. I've found that this method gives the less exposed areas time to fully develop and separate fully. My negatives now have a life and fullness they never had before. (in the prints, of course!)
     
  5. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    It is really difficult to really apreciate the real contrast of an image unless you see a print. A few years ago I saw an exhibition of Ralph Gibson prints from early work (Days at Sea, Deja Vu, etc) and was really surprised by the "glow" the prints had. In any publication or even the books themselves the images seemed to be printed with quite high contrast. But in person you understand how he really mastered TriX and Rodinal to use the grain to provide depth to shadow areas and greater subtleties of tonality. In fact the prints looked extremely sharp even though the contrast appeared less in the actual prints.
     
  6. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    I have also began working on local contrast in the negative as opposed to overall contrast. This, in my estimation, is what gives a print a "glow" or "life".

    The difficulty that I see in pursuing this course of action is that one can not effect greater local contrast without at the same time increasing overall contrast. Therein lies the conundrum. ie. in increasing local contrast the overall contrast will oftentimes exceed the scale of the materials one uses.

    The means that I see to control overall contrast fall basically into two categories. The first being flashing of the paper and second is masking of the negative. The first course compresses highlight values downward. Whereas masking compresses shadow values upward.
     
  7. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I think of sharpness as a kind of complex perceptual phenomenon, and contrast (local and general) as part of it, other parts being resolution, acutance, and probably a few other things like the sense that when selective focus is used, the sharp part of the image seems sharper than it might if there had been more DOF.
     
  8. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    I have always found the artistic use of bleach on the print is a great way to mold local contrast in ways that are pleasing to me.