Path to better printing
After making a quick couple of prints last night and not getting what I wanted, I thought I'd ask this question:
What is the single (or few) techniques in darkroom printing that you feel you mastered, that took your print making to the next level ?
My prints last night needed some dodging and burning for sure, to make them "better", but they're a bit complicated for my current skill level, so I'm thinking its something I have to work on. Then I read about split grade printing, well maybe that's something I should try out, and then there's a device you can buy (Heiland ?) for this technique....
Interested in hearing about your eureka moments !
No easy path I am afraid: practice, practice and some more practice. It is also good to look on youtube videos - some stuff are pretty helpful there.
Good exposed negative for sure helps to get good print faster (for example yellow filter for skies vs. no filter, developing differently film when you have contrast scene vs. low contrast scene ...).
Also which paper size you are using? For dodging and burning for me it is difficult with small papers.
I did an internship under a Print Master in NYC for 8 months. It was inspiring to not only learn so much about printing, but about "good" documentary photographic techniques as well. Best decision I ever made. There wasn't ONE or even a few techniques that I can say came out above the rest. Everything advanced like a slow moving train and took a lot of hard work.
When I first started printing my prints were flat and muddy. Then I took a course and learned about split grade printing. I wouldn't say I've mastered it but I am able to work towards the results I want. Learning how to make test strips, analyse the results and decide how to make the necessary adjustments. Formulate a workflow that worked for me was another fat penny to drop. Dodging and burning seems logical to me (I paint so it seemed like a natural transcription or similar application in principal)
I would say landmark and pivotal events for me were:
- consistency. Using the same materials and chemistry.
- understanding split grade printing and having this demonstrated to me.
- dodging and burning and having this demonstrated to me.
- toning and in particular bleaching. This was a revelation.
I have multigrade enlarger so I cannot comment on the Heiland device. I guess the principal is the same. Depending on what enlarger you have, it may be easier to get a set of Under the Lens multigrade filters.
Ghostman has it -- consistency is your friend. Try to stick to familiar film, chemicals and paper -- Mary Ellen Mark was once asked about film and said she always used Tri-X, nothing else, and she learned how to get the most from it. I've played the game of trying different chemicals and films in the past because someone says they give this or that better result, but have found that consistency is my own key to getting what I want from what I am using.
Let your prints develop longer. Imogen Cunningham discovered that if she let her prints develop a coupla minutes longer than the norm she got better blacks and whites -- and her prints are amazing.
I've read about split grade printing -- using different grades for different areas of the print ? - but never had the energy to try it. I find the key area of my print that I know will draw the eye, make that perfect as to exposure and contrast, and let the rest follow along. If those buildings in the background are a little flat, who's going to notice if the faces are perfect and drawing all the attention?
It's like what the cab driver told you about getting to Carnegie Hall, baby -- practice.
Also keep this in mind: Some nights you can't make a good print to save your life. Dunno why, but it's the truth. On those nights take a walk, file negatives, sweep out the darkroom, or just go watch TV. Tomorrow will be better.
Steven, nice to see a Montrealer on here!
Dodging and burning are critical skills to learn. They take practice. An important extension of those skills is learning to dodge and burn with different filters (assuming you're using variable contrast paper). This allows you to not only selectively control exposure, but to selectively control contrast along with it. The generalized skill could be called multiple grade/contrast printing. "Split grade" printing is nothing more than a type of multiple grade printing in which the base exposure is split into two exposures, one with a soft contrast filter and one with a hard contrast filter.
Learning to dodge/burn with different filters will take you very far. And you don't need to buy extra machines. Beyond burning/dodging by hand you can later start to learn more specialized techniques to help with difficult negatives. In the end even the most complex techniques are aimed at controlling local exposure and contrast, so it is all really the same manipulations in the end.
One thing I find lots people are afraid of is hard work when printing. I think many people would be surprised to see how much work often goes into a print by a great printer, and how much paper goes in the trash along the way.
With that in mind, here are a few of my eureka tips:
1. Make the best negatives you can, that contain the information you need to make the print you envision in your mind. This takes some learning, and practice.
2. Be methodical in your printing approach (test strips, work prints, etc). If you're a beginner start with a good book and the available references from Kodak and Ilford (I posted a link to some of these in the articles section, and Simon Galley from Ilford can also send you Ilford's printing manual)
3. Keep things as simple as possible. With each negative you print, only make things as complicated as they need to be. Some negatives require lots of technique, some don't. In any case, special enlarging meters and other devices/gadgets are not required.
4. Don't skimp on materials. That means make proper test strips and prints that give you good information about how to proceed. Don't skimp on chemistry either.
5. Test for dry-down of highlights
6. Particularly if the negative is a difficult one, don't try to get to the ultimate finished print in one session. Get it to say 90%, make a few copies/variations, then wash them and stop. Let them dry, hang them on the wall, and "live with them" for a while. It sometimes also helps to heng them upside down to remove the familiarity of the image. When a print is difficult, we can tend to get bogged down in the complexity of it all when trying to do the whole thing in one session. Breaking it up sometimes allows you to see things better. You can come back to the work prints with a fresh mind and fresh eyes. Tonal problems will tend to jump out at you easier. You might also rethink things like burning/dodging plans that could be made simpler. Stuff like that.
7. Test your safelight using a proper test (described by Kodak and Ilford)
8. Don't be afraid to work your ass off. Nobody ever said great art is supposed to be easy.
Working hard is definitely the lesson that taught me the most. When I started printing years ago I was often happy after one or two sheets of simple testing. Today it takes a fair bit more effort to get me to a point where I'm satisfied with a print, and often I spend three or four sheets of paper before I end up in a place where I start to like what I see.
Patience is also a virtue in the darkroom. You can't rush perfection. Think of each individual print as if it was the last one you were ever going to make. Spend time with the negative, make some work prints and study them closely. Take notes, careful ones, that tell you later exactly what you did. This not only helps you learn, but it also helps you remember.
Try one technique at a time. Dodging and burning is essential, and learning how to make a good negative is imperative. Split grade printing is a good tool, but it's best to learn basics first.
Make test strips.
Even if I think I have the right exposure for a print, I'll still make a test strip with my chosen settings at the center to see if a little more or less exposure will make the picture better.
When I have the base exposure looking the way I want, I still make test strips of different areas on the print to see if dodging or burning would give an improvement. This gives me an exposure above or below the base that I can use to figure out a dodge or burn exposure.
If I want to tone a print, I'll make a test strip and tone it the same way I plan to do the entire print. Sometimes, I'll need to change the print exposure for toning. Test strips help me figure out whether I need to make that change.
Another thing I have learned is, once you think you have a print looking the way you like, let it dry completely. Let it dry overnight or at least for a few hours. It's especially important if you use fiber based paper or if you tone a print. I have often spent a lot of time trying to get a print to look the way I want it only to find that it looks different (darker) the next day after it has dried. I have learned to judge the way a print looks when it is wet compared to when it is dry and I can compensate for that a little bit but I still find it best to just wait until it is fully dry before I make a final decision.
Whether you make test strips or whether you let prints dry before deciding if they are right is up to you but, regardless of your personal methods, I say the bottom line is... TAKE YOUR TIME! DON'T RUSH! :)
I would advise to mastering basic printing first. Split grade printing can be very time consuming and takes a lot of experience to get right. I think using 8 x 10 size sheets is a good start and stick with RC paper, you'll find that you will produce more work in a shorter time. If you know a printer it would be worth your time to visit him bringing your results with you. There is nothing like a person to person chat when starting out. There are no shortcuts to gaining experience in the darkroom.
Try and find a good teacher. You need to get a really solid grip on exposure and development of film to make good negatives, without which, you'll struggle to make good prints.
That said, a bit of simple edge burning can really transform a print :)