tkamiya: Before getting into technical suggestions I have a few questions:
1. When you begin printing an image do you have a clear (more or less) picture in your mind of what you want the print to look like?
2. Are you approaching the interpretation of the negative honestly, or do you find you sometimes second-guess yourself because of how you think it should look? (example - must be detail in all highlights, shadows etc)?
3. How often do you print?
1) Yes but sometimes my sessions are experimental in nature
2) If something is not there on the neg, I know enough not to try to get'em out. Otherwise, that's what dodging and burning are for....
3) Not often enough or not as often as I'd like
Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?
Sound to me like you are trying to make the perfect print....
well forget about that, no such thing.. I think you need to hang a few prints on a few walls and enjoy them. When I first started seriously printing silver prints for others I would try to make that perfect print.. after a few hundred portfolios and gallery shows,, and standing in the room observing how others appreciated my prints , I started to understand , that though I knew in my heart I could make a better print, people really liked my work.
Now after a few thousand portfolios and gallery shows , I just go in and move forward with my trays and make what I think are good prints and let them hang.
I am preparing a show of my personal work that is about to travel and I am using the above guidelines. They are not perfect prints, but I am confident enough to know they can hang well, I just hope the imagery works for others.
If you really work for hours on a print, and don't realize it's wrong until you've completely processed and dried it... there's something wrong.
Evaluate the print at each stage in the process, after each decision you make. Always evaluate prints in the same place, at the same viewing angle, and under the same light source. Otherwise, you're constantly comparing apples and oranges.
Write down everything you do with a print. Fred Picker called it "the recipe". Start with the image size, the paper you're printing on, the developer you're using, development time/temp, etc. Write down your initial exposure time. Then add a note for each burn or dodge, until you have the print's recipe. Finish up with whatever toning you do with it.
If you evaluate the print at each stage of the process, you should never get all the way to the end, and realize that you're not even close!
If you don't know how you got to a certain point, and the end result isn't what you wanted, you have to start all over again, because everything affects everything else!
"What drives man to create is the compulsion to, just once in his life, comprehend and record the pure, unadorned, unvarnished truth. Not some of it; all of it."
- Fred Picker
I usually print 8x10 RC photos as best I can and then check where the problems may lie when I go larger and use FB.
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Every couple of months or so, I quit photography for good. "That's it," I tell my wife, "I'm done. This whole photography thing was fun while it lasted, but it's going nowhere and I can't stand it any longer."
My last printing session a couple of years ago was a nightmare; I think my biggest mistake was trying to attempt 10-hour sessions in a temporary (bathroom) darkroom with not enough ventilation. None of those prints turned out.
One potentially inefficient thing I see in OPs original post is a tendency to go too far in the process too early. There is no point in going all the way into toning, hours of room-temp drying etc to evaluate what are essentially work prints. Use the microwave for drying test/work prints etc.
One "caution" I'd hold up at this point though, spending hours and lots of paper on a single image does not necessarily mean you are doing something wrong, particularly with a complex image. A casual reminder here (as I've harped on about before), nobody ever said making great prints was easy, no matter how much skill you have. Many times, you'll have to plain work your ass off, and there is nothing wrong with that.
There are people who use 2-3 sheets of paper to get where they want to go, and others who might use a box and take several sessions (with value-add breaks in between to live with the work prints a while). Consider people like George Tice or John Sexton for example. Lots of paper in the trash before they are happy. And over time they might make pretty substantial changes when reprinting images they've printed years earlier.
Printmaking - the final stage of the process, and also kind of where it begins.
Take into consideration that every step of the way up until the printing stage, serves the actual print. Exposure, filtration, film, film developer, agitation, dilution, process, camera, composition, lens, lighting, etc, etc, etc... All that is distilled into the negative, transferring to the print.
I find that if I am consistent in how I shoot and how I process the film, the printing becomes much more straight forward. I know that my approach isn't for everyone, but take the following scenario into account:
Currently I'm reprinting a series of pictures that are between four and six years old. I used many different types of negative film and developer combinations, and have tremendous trouble making the whole portfolio look somewhat cohesive. Every print takes several sheets of paper to get right, and the stack of paper in the trash can is much taller than usual.
If I pick up one of my more current negatives, I put it in the enlarger, print with white light and without filtration on variable contrast Ilford MGIV or MGWT paper, and within two sheets I have something that I'm reasonably pleased to use as a base for a final print. The difference is, in one word, consistency.
Taken into account is the increase in experience that I gain over the years, where I question the content and how it's printed, and knowing more is knowing less in a way, because a lot more subtle nuances are noticed, nuances that I will want to correct for when I print. Still I find that I arrive at a good work print faster now than ever.
I don't know what your work flow is, so I'm not even sure this will be of help to you, but it might be something to consider for anyone that is finding difficulty in coming to grips with getting prints they accept and like.
I also agree with Michael's observation above about the work print - it's probably best to let the work print basically be as simple representation of the negative, and not too overly complicated with toning and such.
Finally I'd like to second Bob Carnie's advice above too. He has done a massive amount of printing in his days, and most advice he's given me in the past has been of tremendous value. I guess at the heart of the message is - if the picture itself is strong enough in its content and composition, it may not be necessary to chase the 'perfect print'. Although when you view his prints, you'd think he's full of shit, because they look damned near perfect to me...
Good luck! I hope you find a good way to move forward again.
"...the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera".
- Yousuf Karsh
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit".
How are you guys making decisions early in the process?
I make test prints. Get the exposure in the ballpark. Get the tweaking such as dodging and burning in the ballpark. I do this with quick drying with hair dryer. Then, I make a full size print with complete processing - complete with full wash. This is the first day.
I then let it air dry, then hot press. Evaluate. This is my second day.
At this point, flaws become apparent. Prints look different when air dried and completely dried. (yes - looks different from quick dry with the hair dryer) Highlight looks little different. Shadow looks different. Contrast looks different. As such, the print as a whole looks different. I wait until the next day on purpose. I'm fresh. I'm not tired. I can evaluate more less as a second person - not someone who worked on it for hours.
THEN the real fun begins. Adjust the exposure, contrast, tweak dodge and burn, etc, etc, etc. From this point forward, I include toning in the process and stop and evaluate every potential candidate. Which means the result is not available until the next day.
I can guesstimate and plan for dry down. But, seeing a print is the only way for me before start making adjustments. As Bob says, yup, I am trying to make a "perfect" print by my standard - which is probably not even "good enough" by Bob's standard. At this skill level, that's all I can do....
I am aware how drying changes highlight and shadow differently. I know which way it moves and approximately how much. It's not that simple for me - when the print as a whole looks so different - far more than those individual changes.
The print I'm working on right now - a portrait, I got all the elements right. But as a whole print, a product, it doesn't say what I want it to say. A little too dark, little too purple. I went too far in selenium toning. I sepia toned it first to bring out the warmth then selenium (deep 1:5) to cool it down. I went too far! I actually have a larger print I did this perfectly. I'm now trying to size it down a bit as the former print was too large. Grrrr....
I am noticing, size does matter. The same process that looked good on large size print doesn't necessary look the same (as a whole) when it is scaled down.
Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?
I remember seeing an interview with W. Eugene Smith's son. His bedroom was above the darkroom and he would be kept awake by the sound of his dad weeping and screaming in frustration at 3 am.
Originally Posted by Michael R 1974