I'm working with my teenage artist son as he creates a pen and ink drawing with extremely fine cross-hatching. Nobody would argue charcoal is less an art. So, as a group, we should be able to quickly and effortlessly switch between discussing images which show amazing detail and other images where the amazing qualities are in other aspects such as the ideas and compositions.
My son's pen and ink drawing is going to have the kind of quality I go for when I use 4x5 inch film and enlarge to 11x14 inch print, lots of detail to captivate the eye, and flaws which capture the imagination.
I can see that any contact print is microscopically better than any enlargement. Because I want 11x14 inch prints, I'd shoot an 11x14 inch camera if I felt strongly that this microscopic beauty was the ultimate to be achieved... And yes, I feel it is AN ultimate. But I decided to compromise and I shoot the tiny 4x5 and smaller formats as the mood strikes me, and I enlarge to make my "inferior to contact print" prints. I'm willing to compromise JUST this much. More power to the person who shoots larger and contact prints, I'll appreciate what you've done when I go to see your shows.
In general a 6x9cm negative the size that starts to make breathtaking contact prints. So there would be nothing wrong with a 4x5 inch contact print to my eyes.
Arcturus, You could use 8x10 inch film for portraiture if you want. One good reason is that a large negative can be more easily retouched.
But although the lens is important choice of film & developer is just as critical. Kodak themselves put their 3 main B&W developers into perspective in various publications, HC110 is worst over all, D76 a bit better but Xtol is way ahead on all fronts in terms of film speed, finer grain and, sharpness and from my POV tonality. I think they are right as well.
I've seen a lens range (brand) pass all the tests for MTF etc as good as their main competitors only to be totally scrapped because of poor Multi Coating and horrific flare. So I take these kind of test results cautiously.
If you go back over 65+ years to the start of the era of modern coated Lenses then there were many quite pedestrian LF lenses from numerous manufacturers Kodak included. But there were also some superb lens, the 203mm (8") f7.7 Ektar is one example. It's so subjective I used various convertible Schneider Symmmars and with excellent results but their MTF tests wouldn't get that close to the Symmas-S lenses and equivalent
I think there was a "historic perception" that we didn't need lenses of as high a quality for LF as was needed for 35mm or 120, but I've always believed we should have the best a available.
Then we also take for granted the superb quality of modern films forgetting the step changes that took place with each new generation, not so obvious with Kodak nomenclature (after all Tri-X & Plus-X etc first made before WWII) but those of us who use Ilford films remember HP3, HP4, HP5 and now HP5+ for example and there were noticeable improvements between the first 3.
My point is as photographers we are depenent on a number of afctors in achieving high quality and ultimately it's the weakest link in the chain that can let us down.
Ian, Roger--I use a Beseler MCR-X instead of an Omega. Even at current giveaway prices, it would probably be silly to get another enlarger to fill a once or twice per decade need. If I knew I needed a tiny print, I'd just use 35mm and get quality which would be virtually undetectable compared to results from a larger negative.
Interesting discussion on this topic from all who contributed.
I don't shoot LF, although I own a 4x5 or two. So I can't really comment on contact prints. However, when comparing enlargements from 35 mm (Nikon in my case) vs 6x7 (Pentax), and 6x4.5 (Mamiya) in between, the one thing I think is clearly different is the effect of accutance, which is related to developer, dilution and agitation. The accutance "margin" for 35 mm is enlarged more, which gives it the appearance of an image that was sharpened in Photoshop with a larger radius. Depending on the lighting and subject, this can be a good or bad thing. For me it partly explains why the tonality in larger negatives is handled more gracefully in a print. I agree that the taking lens and enlarging lens are both important factors, but I think they tend to outresolve the accutance effect, so the effect will mostly be visible despite using good rather than exceptional lenses. With that said, I am not afraid to print 35 mm negatives to 12x16, and if I could print larger, I probably would. With that being true for 35 mm, all the more so for every step up to 6x4.5 and 6x7 and beyond. In any event, I couldn't afford anything but 35 mm until about four or five years ago. One of the joys of larger prints is that one doesn't have to stand with your nose to them in order to take in what they have to offer. With wall space at a premium, one can display them slightly out of reach and they can still be appreciated. To turn it around a bit, one should be excited about what is possible from 35 mm, to the effect that it is absolutely worth using for a very wide range of purposes.
It is just as important to be able to afford your equipment, get it to where your subject is, to have it respond in the way you need to capture the image, and to be geared to process afterwards. That is my main reason for not shooting LF, but I can see why others would want to. However, I believe that few LF shooters extract the inherent differences between LF and MF in a way that matters, yet there is no lack of pretentiousness. One can easily apply the same logic to MF vs 35 mm (or digital sensor sizes!). If you just happen to love owning and shooting large cameras, my comment is not aimed at you, but rather at the crowd who endlessly obsess over the most minor of perceivable differences, and who look down at lesser formats disdainfully, while creating nothing with the larger format to really set them apart. One finds this mentality in so many other walks of life as well: fishing tackle, running shoes, golf clubs, cars, make-up, knives and guns, musical instruments - the list goes on and on. I walk into our local fishing-tackle retailer, and see guys buying fishing rods and reels costing well over a thousand dollars, and they probably don't ever catch a single fish with them. There are people armed to the hilt, with nothing to shoot (thank goodness). Then I wonder why we need gear and stuff to define our identity. Creative content will almost always triumph over absolute image quality, as long as the image quality gets above a certain bar. How high that bar is depends a lot on subject and context, which is why there is a place for larger formats in the first place. And nothing should discourage us from having fun, of course.
My life became much simpler when I started trying to enlarging everything to roughly the same magnification ratio. Now 'image quality' is rarely an issue between the various formats that I use.
There is a very, very big difference between a print produced from 35mm and one produced from anything upwards of that, be it medium format or large format. The postage-stamp sized 35mm has definite limits to the amount of detail that can be recorded, and what can appear clear as the size is increased. True, excellent results are achievable up to poster size in negative film (but not really transparency), but it is still a tiny format with definite limits.
What irks me though is how people invest thousands in a large format kit but never print beyond 8x10 (I know of a few that only print postcard-sized prints!), when the format itself easily accommodates mural sized prints — the stuff to really make a statement in whatever genre you master. For all intents and purposes they may as well stick with 35mm.
I generally don't print 35mm larger than 5x7~ due to the quality issues. To get a good 10x15 out of 35 is possible, but you need a tripod, fine grain film, careful focussing, mirror lockup, impeccable enlarging technique, and it's far easier to grab the Rollei or the 4x5 and the results are always far better.
But when I want a really good 8x10, I make a contact print.;)
Besides, why would anyone else's personal choices about such things "irk" you?
I used to wonder about the relative merits of different large format systems. 8x10 is my regular format but I occasionally use 4x5 and rollfilm cameras. My practical testing shows:
Up to 8x10 final size rollfilm and 4x5 can deliver remarkably sharp results but the 4x5 is superior. But it takes a direct side-by-side to comparison to make this convincing. In practice well used rollfilm, on subjects that do not require camera movements, gives away very little to 4x5.
Photographs made by contact exposure with 4x5 and 8x10 negatives are of equivalent technical quality, just different (er, obviously) sizes. The 4x5 is too small for most subjects and the 8x10 is the minimum to deliver a sense of "presence".
An 8x10 enlargement from a 4x5 negative is awfully good but an 8x10 contact beats it visibly. In practice it is a comparison few photographers get to make. Either photograph is so good it could make the average digi-grapher's eyes fall out.
An 8x10 "enlargement" from an 8x10 negative made with a first class enlarger (Durst 184 for me) is not as good as the same photograph made by contact. The photograph made by projection shows fine white lines thinner than they should be and fine black lines thicker than expected. All this happens at the barely visible micro scale and is caused by image flare inevitable in even the best enlarger+lens combinations. Again this is a sharpness comparison only tech heads tend to make. The casual viewer without comparison photographs at hand sees none of this.