I may be VERY naive here, but here goes...
I just finished a printing session contacting some 5x7 portraits using Azo and Amidol. The portraits were originally developed in Xtol and are pretty thin by both contact printing and Azo standards. I found that they all printed perfectly on grade 3 with little or no water bath.
So here's the thing. I always hear that the goal is to produce a negative that prints well at normal contrast on VC paper or grade 2 on graded paper. Does it have to be that way? What do I lose if a negative's "normal" paper is of a higher contrast grade? Mid tones? Overall tonality and smoothness? The prints I made tonight look pretty smoothly toned, and they have MUCH more tonal range than when I enlarged them previously.
Thanks for whatever insight you can offer.
In theory, you can print a negative with a density range of 1.4logD on a grade 0 and a negative with a density range of 0.4logD on a grade 5 and get the same results. However, theory and practice do not always coincide, especially when the theory is a simplification. There are several side effects to take into account:
· Paper grades below “2” have usually a lower Dmax.
· Grain is a more or less sharp light-dark-transition which leads to a discrete rendering on higher grades (i.e. grain becomes more apparent)
· Film is a continuous tone recorder only at a certain macroscopic level and within certain limits.
The latter two do not apply to contact printing. You may actually get the same results between grades 2 and 5 and may not detect any difference between a grade 2 and 3. Remember, that this applies only to the straight part of the density curve! Any development method that changes the effective shape of the curve (e.g. tanning developers) will also influence the look on different paper grades.
That “damn densiwhatsit” allow you to predict roughly how a print will look like. If you examine that technique, you can actually say good-bye to the test strip and you will need significantly less trial-and-error attempts. Learn to print and save a tree.
However, this is just a technique or “an abstract tool”. You still have to have an idea of what your print *should* look like. It is not a substitute for any creative action. It is just a more systematic method of working.
Experience might of course be an alternative. However, it will take you much longer to get there. Knowing the basic principles behind Photographic Techniques will allow you to draw much more conclusions than just knowing how to select the right paper grade for a negative.
There is an explanation for every photographic effect, even the apparently mystical ones. I have to accept that not all people like such demystifications, especially in the context of the arts. I, however, always wanted to know why something is the way it is.
There is nothing wrong with higher grade papers at all. The whole idea behind trying for a negative that prints on grade 2 comes from a time when there were no (or very few) multicontrast papers, and settling on grade 2 was just a goal to make things more convenient. Grade 1 is a low contrast paper, grade 3 and up are higher contrast, and grade 2 is "normal". I regularly print on grade 2 and then decide grade 3 would look better. The grade of paper or contrast filter depends on what looks good to you. Trying for a negative that prints well on grade 2 gives a "middle of the road" starting point. Then you pick a grade that looks good overall. A lot of times, the lighting conditions at the time of exposure will have a big effect in the grade you finally use. You can use Zone methods, but you will later still make a choice as to the paper. "Zoning" will keep the negative from being blown out or blocked up, and later will just make it easier to print without needing extreme grades. To me, Zones are mostly about getting all the "data" you can get onto the film, and then getting that "data" onto the paper. What you then do with it is your choice.
Actually, there used to be many more paper grades available for graded paper, sometimes 0 through 5. Trying for grade 2 or 3 gives you a full-range negative that you can manipulate in any way you want using a variety of techniques, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use grade 4 when you need it.
The late Fred Picker actually recommended that all 35 mm film should be targeted to print on Grade 3 paper. His reasoning, which seems valid to me, was that this would involve less development time for the 35 mm negative. He felt that this would lead to a somewhat less grainy negative and that the 35 mm negative needed all of the help it could get. While it has been a number of years since I shot any 35 mm film, I wonder if my medium format would not benefit from the same reasoning. I have not shot any medium format for a long time. I think that if and when I pick that format up again that I will develop my film accordingly.
I had never heard of Fred until just recently, but we arrived at the same conclusions about developing for a paper grade of 3. I use that for both 35mm and MF. Works for the style of photography I do.
Thanks for what you have offered so far.
My brain may have been too soaked in fumes last night. To make sure I am asking the correct question:
Is there a loss of anything by printing a thinner negative on a higher grade of paper, as a rule? Is there a gain of anything unsightly, as a rule?
OK, that's two questions. And I REALLY appreciate your insight.