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  1. #1

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    Dark print vs bright print.... what's going on?

    I'm having a problem determining what makes a print "bright" and "dark". It seems like an easy concept but it isn't for me. I need to understand this accurately.

    I can "instantly" tell by looking, if the image looks "bright" or "dark". (sorry about all the quoting...) But! What makes these prints bright or dark? If I take a given negative and print it with less exposure, it will be a THIN print or an under-exposed print. If I take a given negative and print it with more exposure, it will be a DENSE print or an over-exposed print. Either way, they look WRONG. There is a narrow range where I can adjust the exposure and make the print look "correct."

    I looked at this from average density stand point. That doesn't seem to be the cause either.

    Is it a local contrast around the subject?
    Is it a global contrast, as in use of different contrast filter?
    Is it the subject being lighter than the rest?

    Can someone explain the mechanics behind how all of this work?
    Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?

  2. #2

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    Total and local contrast in the negative, and contrast control in printing obviously have significant impacts. It's not just about exposure.

    As an example, take a low contrast negative and print it with relatively low contrast in the enlarger. If you print it light, it will look light but low in contrast. If you increase the enlarging exposure, it will print dark, but still low in contrast.

    Exposure and contrast go hand in hand when you print. Most of the time adjustments are required to both exposure and contrast to get the desired print.

  3. #3

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    Yes, I understand THAT.

    Say I'm looking at a print - any print. I want it to look brighter or darker - what do I change in what direction to achieve the desired goal? In other words.... what visual queues do our brains use to reach this conclusion - this is a bright scene or this is a dark scene?
    Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?

  4. #4

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    Well, I can only comment on the science of perception as a layman. But one thing about looking at prints, no matter how adept we might be as printers, visually our brains are very sensitive to what I'll call "illogical print values". I didn't invent that term, I'm stealing it from Ansel Adams and John Sexton, but I'm broadening the concept beyond burning and dodging errors. For example, someone can pull out all the stops to print a bright daylight scene down to dark night-time values, but in the end our brain tells us something is not quite right, and that the original scene was not dark. On some level we are acutely aware of the differences in types of light, shadows etc, and for all our interpretive efforts, in the end there does usually seems to be some relatively narrow range range within which the print will seem to make sense, or seem "right". Actually perhaps a better term is "believable".

    Of course, the printer might intentionally want to create an alternative response, but that is another, purely subjective matter.

    Then again I might still have completely misunderstood the question

  5. #5
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    Hi tkamiya,

    I'm wrangling this situation at the moment through a series of prints for an exchange.

    I use an enlarger with a round fluorescent bulb that provides very different illumination cold than it does once it warms up. You may be aware that stabilizers were invented to solve this problem. Well, I have so far opted to just "live with it" and I must accept minor variations in my prints.

    For this series I checked the light and waited for it to warm up as I made the work print and the first few final prints. These prints are consistently "dark". This was the "stylized" representation I visualized and wanted.

    The negative itself was taken in late afternoon light, in a shaded "patio," backlit awnings struck by light with a bit of open sky and some spectral highlights on shiny leaves. It is a full-scale negative and should print on Grade 2 or 3. I selected Grade 2 and printed the open shade of the patio as nearly black. There is plenty of detail in the shadows on the print but since it is nearly black you might call the print "dark". The spectral highlights remain clear white and the sky is light gray.

    The next day I made an additional few prints and carelessly did not allow the bulb to warm up. The first two prints are what you would call "light". They are also what you might call "straight" or "literal" because now you can see the patio for what it is. Since you can see exactly what the picture is, now this print would be "acceptable" to more people. Since none of the shadows reach full black though, a straight, "light" print might be better on Grade 3.

    But which is the better print? I am sure I want this set to go out "dark," but these lighter prints are kind of nice too.

  6. #6

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    While our brain may be illogical, figuring out a basic behavior is helpful, I think. Somehow, we seem to know when something is bright or dark and it doesn't necessary have to do with the zone where level of gray falls in.

    Michael,

    No, you got my question right. Somehow, our mind is picking up some queues in the print and figuring out the mood. I have prints that a part is only 1/6 of stop different from what I consider RIGHT for the scene. I still see that as WRONG. So our senses are quite sensitive. I'm trying to figure out what these queues are....

    I have a scene where it was taken under a bright daylight. (in Mexico no less!) Somehow, when printed, it looks like it was taken in evening light. It's not bright enough. Yet, some part of the scene is only slightly above the base white. The print has a full tonal range within the scene.

    Bill,

    Change of contrast did enter my thought. But the scene already has plenty of contrast so I don't want it any higher. I don't want it any lower either so I am confident that the global contrast is right. That leaves local contrast..... Would higher contrast look "brighter?" I'm not sure. (probably NOT is my current thought)

    I use Omega D2 so no technical issue concerning warming up.
    Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?

  7. #7
    Bill Burk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tkamiya View Post
    Change of contrast did enter my thought. But the scene already has plenty of contrast so I don't want it any higher. I don't want it any lower either so I am confident that the global contrast is right. That leaves local contrast..... Would higher contrast look "brighter?" I'm not sure. (probably NOT is my current thought)

    I use Omega D2 so no technical issue concerning warming up.
    Me too, I don't think I need to change contrast. The lighter print "looks good" on Grade 2 (so the "local contrast" is correct). Perhaps what I need to accept is that the area under the awnings in the patio is essentially a "low contrast" scene. There isn't an obvious "shadow" to key to pitch black. So what ends up looking good is a photograph without a black key.

    And maybe that is what galls us, we keep demanding something black, so we print down to black and make the print "dark".

    Well, maybe not every print needs something black.

  8. #8
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    It is important to remember that prints are limited to a relatively narrow range of tones. Your eyes/brain and the real world has a lot more dynamic range.

    For that reason, we are always trying to squeeze the image into that narrow range. The decisions we make about how we effect that "squeeze" really affects our perception of the results.

    There is also an interplay between the contents of the scene and our perception of how dark or light it is. If, for example, a scene has a strong centre of interest, we will be much more likely to react negatively to the lightness or darkness of a print if that centre of interest is either markedly lighter or darker than one would expect it to be, or if in relation to the other parts of the scene, that centre of interest is either markedly lighter or darker than one would expect it to be.

    That is where contrast can also come into play.
    Matt

    “Photography is a complex and fluid medium, and its many factors are not applied in simple sequence. Rather, the process may be likened to the art of the juggler in keeping many balls in the air at one time!”

    Ansel Adams, from the introduction to The Negative - The New Ansel Adams Photography Series / Book 2

  9. #9

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    Bill,

    I agree.... not every print needs full range of tones. I think many of us are conditioned otherwise though. On the scene I'm currently working on, there is INDEED a full range of tones. Barely off base white to maximum black. The scene looks pretty well balanced - except I get this impression that it was taken on evening hours. I know I'm close to getting this right.... the problem is, I have no idea what the problem is.
    Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?

  10. #10

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    Get the exposure correct for the main subject, burn/dodge as necessary for the balance of the print. Change contrast outside the main subject if you use VC paper. Try split contrast printing.

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