Maybe it's seen as impudent for a newbie to make such a request, but I was wondering if some people could talk about how they judge B&W prints. I'm a photo student in university and I've kind of hit a wall in this regard and would really appreciate some help from you experts.
If the image in question is a serious one that you're trying to make great, how do you, uh, know when you're done? Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the real challenge in printing is in good judgement of what a print needs, in knowing "how to see" prints.
I notice that, with me at least, in the past (and still today) I could often look at a print and know that something was wrong, but not know what. Now I intuitively know what is wrong with a print, but still only to a frustratingly limited degree (I know that, for instance, certain problems come down to "competition" between values -- it might help to, say, mute highlight areas that "compete" visually with your main subject or just lead the eye astray from it).
But how do you best develop this sense? Can someone offer me some tips or tricks on how to judge prints? What kinds of insights or truths were important to you in becoming a better printer? I ask this because, with learning other things, I notice that I periodically discover key, fundamental ideas that dramatically improve how I do something.
Put an under performing print under a very bright light. Look at it, as it could be, and learn.
What do you want to judge? Content or technical details?
There are many technical perfect, but boring or repetitive prints out there.
And there are many interesting and fascinating pictures, but technically "artless" printed.
So if I judge I have always both in mind. A technical perfect print with weak content can also be a nice one. A picture with strong content is always nice, because we know there is a negative and you can always improve the technical side. So to speak, I prefer to concentrate on the content when judging a print.
If you ask a technical question, it becomes difficult. There are people who like "full tonal range", but these prints sometimes look dull, not exciting. Then there are more contrasty prints, with real highlights and deep black which look more exciting. Maybe. It depends simply on the viewer.
I recommend to post as many pics in real critique galleries. I have made great experience here at apug. Or to send them to honest friends who know you. And to gain a reputation to be a person who LOVES it to get critique. This helps a lot.
Overall show the pictures to "normal" people, who dont have a glimpse of darkroom work and bw photography. Ask them and you will be sometimes very surprised with the opposite answers you get.
If you can get yourself to not be in a rush try this two-session print making procedure. In the first session you make just pretty good proofs with no dodging or burning in. It helps if when judging the wet proofs as you make them you view them along side a wet print that is half black and half white. You should be able to make a lot of negative proofs in this session because you are not spending a lot of time on any one of them--you're just getting into the ball park with exposure time and paper grade. Make exposure/grade notes for each proof. There is no need to archivally process these proofs. When washed and dried lay the proofs one at a time in the middle of a circle of first rate prints (borrow some if you need to). You should be able to see easily what different areas of the proof need: darker here, lighter there. Write down the details of which areas need what. I developed a vocabulary for gradations: a tiny bit, a little bit, somewhat, a fair amount, quite a bit, a lot, etc. As an example: the face should be "a bit" lighter, the upper corners "somewhat darker," etc. In the second session take along your notes and proofs. The proofs go into a water bath just past the fix. Follow your directions in making the new prints using the proof as control prints. Trust your directions. Whenever I second guessed my notes in the darkroom and made the print differently that specified I was wrong -- the notes were right. What this two-session method does is to allow you to make judgments in the light with fine prints as examples. It also takes the particular quality of the viewing light, both in and out of the darkroom, out of the loop. Last, the judgments you make in the darkroom are not aesthetic, they are objective: is the face on the wet print "a tiny bit lighter" than the face on the wet proof beside it or not?
This technique is probably most appropriate when you need to make a number of prints in the same style. I developed it when I needed to make prints for a book and an exhibit. In an abbreviated version you would have one or two first rate prints in the water bath after the fix to view along side prints you are making.
Whenever I have described this technique to a photographer I've seen their eyes glaze over, imaging it's too much work. It's not--it's a time saver in producing top quality prints.
Go to the galleries, exhibits, competitions and museums in your area. Study original prints that they felt were good enough to hang. If there are related programs, attend, ask questions, learn everything you can about the work and the artists. Develop your eye. Learn to SEE. Talk about what you see with your teachers and fellow students. Ask them if they see things in addition to what you see. If someone does not see as much as you do, ask them politely if you can show them more. Teaching is wonderful way to learn. Photo students here are required to visit at least three exhibits a term and write a two page paper on what they see each time.
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Your question is fairly timely with me since I have been doing a lot of thinking about print making lately. But it has reminded me of a couple of quotes that seem very appropo, from AA "The Print", chapter 1:
Originally Posted by urals
"The difference between a very good print and a fine print is quite subtle and difficult, if not impossible, to to describe in words. There is a feeling of satisfaction in the presence of a fine print --- and uneasiness with a print that falls short of optimum quality."
"Print quality, then, is basically a matter of sensitivity to values. What is important for all photographers is that the values of the image suit the image itself, and contribute to the intended visual effect. Perhaps the best guideline I can give is to look carefully at your prints and heed the first impressions that enter your mind."
I think it is a common struggle.
Setting up extremes helps. Make the lightest you like, then the darkest. Set up a contrasty print against a flat one. As far as burn and dodge goes, extremes look cool at first but then become too tricky and boring. experienced printers tend to make the burn and dodging unnoticable prefering to get their message across within the content. Live with them for awhile, then come back later and work another one. Good photography is a very hairsplitting affair. Another rule of mine is that the faster an image hits you, the faster it goes away. I like a slow read. Very easy on the impact. And of course look at the good stuff of others, in person if possible.
I think a part of the answer is revealed in your question. Experience and exposure to many, many fine prints gradually informs your taste and refines your intuition. You're a university student you say, so you are probably rather young and if so, you're quite likely subject to the impatience typical of those of your years. But, this sentence: "I ask this because, with learning other things, I notice that I periodically discover key, fundamental ideas that dramatically improve how I do something." is the actual secret you seek.
Originally Posted by urals
When I first went to conservatory my teacher told me to read Zen and the Art of Archery. My initial reaction was....whoa! I DO NOT need mystical kaka to get where I want to go. But, I couldn't have been more naive or mistaken. It was precisely the message in that book that became my reality and was a great comfort in the learning process. Consider finding and reading it. It will be of great use to you as well.
I imagine that painters have similar issues. It may seem they could always add a few more strokes to improve the image. Eventually, there will be a point where further efforts will not improve the results. The short and obvious answer is when the image generates the feeling you wanted.
Originally Posted by urals
For me, reviewing works in progress (and finished work) with other photographers is extremely valuable. Simply commenting on each others work about which images "grab" you and which don't will help you to understand how others see your images.
Think about what's important in your image. Then look to see if that quality or detail comes through easily to the viewer. VERY IMPORTANT - Don't let your personal associations affect your evaluation. Your fond memories of the day you took the photograph can influence your opinion. Your viewers will not make that association.
Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide when a print is "done". Otherwise, it isn't "your" image.
Sorry, I should have been clearer: this is very much about the print itself and not so much about the image. I'm referring to the aesthetics of a print in general, and the skill of being able to identify problems that you feel are there. Knowing what practical steps to take to correct them (the technical side), is another, I'd say lesser, concern.
Originally Posted by Dietmar Wolf
Overall, it's such a deceptively simple matter. In theory you should just do it until it satisfies you, but it's so difficult to decipher the totality of a print and pinpoint specifically what it is that needs adjustment. I've noticed that, very often, I discover what to do by accident -- I forget to adjust the f stop or something and it's printed 1 stop too bright/dark. I then discover that there are nice values in some area that would benefit the print and, when I add them, the print comes to life. But I don't want to have to run tests for everything, visualization of what something would look like would be such an aid. I guess this really only comes with time.
I also understand that sometimes creative, or just otherwise non-traditional, solutions are the best; Bill Brandt's nudes, for instance, strike me as a good example of printing that definitely strays from the norm but is beautiful and interesting for that reason.
I definitely agree with what you said above about pursuing critiques, and just welcoming criticism generally. The immense value of honest feedback is something that I am only now really beginning to appreciate. It's very easy to get "too close" to your work, and other people can be great at restoring that objectivity that is so crucial. This Monday at school we have a critique and I'm going to follow your advice and try to gain that reputation.