As others have said.. Good negative. fresh/consistent developer, get the contrast choices right, don't skip the test strips... I will even do some test strips or test prints to evaluate contrast choices.
I don't dodge/burn to take the print to the next level, but rather to make a portion of the image lighter or darker if I couldn't do it when I was shooting. After a while you will shoot knowing beforehand what you can make of the image in the darkroom. You can think, if that were a little brighter/darker here, I wouldn't need to dodge/burn in the darkroom; lets take care of that in the field. For dodging, I just wave my hand between the lens and paper, watching the shadow it casts and the time the shadow is on the photo relative to the total exposure.
Go to a good gallery or museum once a while to see top grade silver prints. It's inspiring and educating. It's becoming less common in the inkjet "giclee" era, but it's out there and worth seeing.
Making better negatives is the first step in making better prints. Taking notes of what and how you made an exposure, then how you developed so you can compare print results to exposure. Once you start fne tuning your negatives printing them becomes less work and more of a joy. You will know it when you have a negative that all but prints itself.
My "trick" isn't a trick at all.... but I'd share anyway.
I like to work SLOWLY. I make a test strip and this is quickly done. I then make my first and second test FULL print. I develop them completely, fix completely, wash completely, and DRY completely. Evaluate it slowly and for quite a while, not just a quick glance. At this point, I even wait til the next day if I feel it is necessary.
The reason why this is important TO ME is that I like to use fiber/matte surface paper. The brand I like has pretty severe dry down. So if I go fast, I tend to waste lots of paper and get none that I actually like. So by going slowly like this, I get to improve the print I'm working on steadily over the process of few days. Also, I tend to miss a lot when I hurry. By slowing down and evaluating few times, I catch more problems and figure out different ways to improve on it.
I can also tell you, there is no short cut. Everybody works differently. I was advised by someone who is a master printer to work FAST. It didn't work for me. So although there's nothing wrong with asking for a tip or two, please don't assume, you can employ them all and they will make you better.
Develop, stop, fix.... wait.... where's my film?
RC paper will of course speed things up, but for FB paper, I have been known to dry test strips with a hair dryer or throw them in the microwave to get them dry. View the test strips or test prints in different light as well; such as the light the final print will be displayed in rather than just flippin on the darkroom lights.
Be sure to make notes as you go!
“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
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Which is where the argument of hard work comes back. Basics can be learned quickly, put neg in enlarger and focus, shine light through it to expose some photo paper, and develop the paper. That part is so easy.
Originally Posted by tkamiya
I still remember my dad showing me how to make a print when I was about six or seven years old, and picking it up twenty years later, still remembering the basic method. Then I started to experiment with using different contrast filters, and after doing that for a while I realized that I had been developing my negatives to a much too low contrast, so I started working on film exposure and film development.
Along the way I made the mistake of experimenting with way too many films and developers, just because I didn't know any better. Once I settled on a film and developer combination, and started to learn how to use it, everything started to make sense. Then I learned how to standardize on a single printing paper, because if I wanted to eke the most performance out of it, it was way better if the negatives were geared to printing on that single paper.
On and on it goes. Every time I go into the darkroom to print I learn something new, and I do believe we will always learn, improve, and remain humble and open to new methods, techniques, and philosophies that will help us improve and advance our art into something amazing.
Get ready for an incredible ride!
"Often moments come looking for us". - Robert Frank
"Make good art!" - Neil Gaiman
"...the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera". - Yousuf Karsh
the best thing i ever did was print everything i could find,
poorly exposed film glass with paint on it, trash ... half of printing is
knowing what you want to print and how you want to print it ... not just making
a flat negative print not so flat ..
(don't forget to have fun)
I started to improve when I realised how quickly the shadow values develop during the print exposure. This realisation have me a better understanding of when and where to dodge, or burn-in areas. For me, getting the darker tones right is a good starting point, and I can then work on the lighter tones where necessary. I know this is opposite to the way many people work, but it suits me. Alex
Pick up a book on enlarging like Lootens "On Photographic Enlarging and Print Quality." Enlarging is a complex subject that cannot be taught on a single thread on APUG.
A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Everyone, thanks very much for all your suggestions ! I'll try to answer a few of the questions to give of better idea of "where I'm coming from"
I am mostly printing on FB 5x7 size sheets. I use mostly Minolta manual focus gear, but I have a few rangefinders around too, some other older classics too. Regarding my negatives, from what I can see under a loupe, I believe they are fine. I can see lots of detail in the highlights and shadows, to my eye it looks like all the information is there. i do use a few different films and have several bulk rolls in stock, but I will settle on Ilford FP4 once I get through that, and Kentmere Fineprint VC FB once I convince Ilford to not discontinue it !
I posted my question because my last print session, I felt it should have been an easy print, but it didn't turn out that way. The highlights had no detail. So I guess my frustration stemmed from my expectations. But, not really. I've never really made a jaw dropping print. At best they're sort of, "Oh, look...it's a picture..." Ugh....
There's a lot of info to digest from your posts, and I will certainly take it all in (right away I know I need to slow down !). For sure I will have more questions for everyone
And again, thanks very much for all your responses, it's all very encouraging !