IMO, stick to graded paper at first, no tricks, nothing funky, nothing huge. Just straight 5x7s with simple developers like Dektol and Selectol. Learn the nuances of local control of the print (dodge/burn). Add selenium into the process once you have a feel of things.
Then after you feel you're competent with that simple set of variables, and have made a reasonably large set of consistent prints, start playing with multigrade and split-grade printing - but only if it actually adds or helps the image.
I just don't feel that split-grade is necessary to make great prints if the negative is solid. Part of limiting oneself to not using it at first is to help beat it into oneself the importance of decent negs that contain worthwhile subject matter.
Don't get lost down that road of a "fine art print" that says absolutely nothing and is the modern-age equivalent of a boring painting. It's a polished turd.
Stop worrying about grain, resolution, sharpness, and everything else that doesn't have a damn thing to do with substance.
I just spent a chunk of today printing, and I smiled when I read the OP's first post.
One of the negatives I was working on was a bear to print - fiddly dodging and burning, and a central highlight area that is critical, but is also of a tone that is right on the cusp of the paper (extremely easy to print too light or too dark).
If you are trying to improve your printing, don't spend too much time at first on negatives like this .
I find that one of the best aids to printing well is to have a good reference print to refer to. That is a print on your favourite paper, developed in your favourite developer, and exhibiting a good range of tones and good contrast. When you have one of those in hand, put it up on your darkroom wall (or wherever you evaluate your prints). You need to learn to factor out the effect of wet vs dry and drydown, but that is doable.
Also, be sure to make and keep good notes and, wherever possible, schedule printing sessions that cover two or more days. It really helps to look at prints under varying light.
Finally, books like Ralph Lambrecht's Way Beyond Monochrome are very useful. Whether or not you have the book, Ralph has some wonderful aids on his website. I use his f-stop exposure table every time I print.
“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
On a slightly different track, I think there more to being a better printer than just better prints. By this I mean that the process for making the print also has aspects where there's a potential to become better. For example you may able to create a master piece in the darkroom but if it took weeks of agonising and frustrating printing then you may end up resenting the time you spend in the dark, especially if your darkroom is uncomfortable after long periods. So I think it's wrong to just focus upon the final print, try to make the job of printing enjoyable as possible as well. Of course there's a converse aspect here in that if it's too easy to make prints you can get lazy or sloppy and the quality of your work will suffer. As with most things a balance needs to be struck and only you know where to make it.
Print a lot.
If everything you do sucks, tell yourself your an artist, and nothing meets your standards.
At least thats my story.
Lots of good technical advice here, and of course practice and hard work are the most important. I have an additional suggestion which may be of some help in judging your own prints and determining when you've "got it" (as others of stated sometimes the differences between a finished fine print and one that isn't quite finished are very small):
After working with a negative for a while during the printing session and getting through the initial tests and work prints to the point where it's looking the way you envisioned it, stop. Wash and dry that print, and live with it at least for a few days. Tack it to a wall where the lighting is decent. Every time you walk past it have a look and note your reaction or anything you notice. You'll probably find that when you remove the print from its darkroom environment where you are working on it, and allow yourself some time to look at it more casually you often notice things you might have not seen during the printing session. This is particularly the case when working on a difficult negative. You can get so caught up in the complexity of the thing it can actually become more difficult to figure out what your next move is. At this point I have found it very helpful to stop and take a step back. Looking at the print over the next several days gives me a clearer vision of the whole, and how I might improve it, or whether I've gone too far. All of a sudden things will jump out at you, like relative values and tonalities that are illogical, artifacts of burning/dodging you may not have initlally noticed etc. Over time you'll also react to the overall contrast of the print and maybe decide it's either too soft or hard. There are other things that can help you see the "big picture", like hanging the print upside down, which is an excellent way to help you find problem areas because you've removed the familiarity of the image.
Anyway, for someone wanting to become a better printer, I think this method can be very helpful. You're almost sure to come out with a better finished product than if you're always determined to hammer your way through from test print to fine print in one long darkroom session.
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Having seen a few accomplished professional printers at work, I am not sure that I agree with that statement.
Originally Posted by clayne
Bunch of good paths of suggestions. My tips: Make sure the developer is fresh; old/oxidized/muddy developer will make variable contrast prints look not so variable and kinda weak contrast. (perhaps good for paper negative processing). 2nd tip; separate in your mind (in your mind only, since these two are connected in practice), the concerns of contrast and exposure. I get the contrast the way I want first using a rough estimated exposure, then I fine tune the exposure. Both are entirely subjective in my opinion. I cut an 8x10 paper into 6 pieces and place a test piece on a representative part of the image (someone's face&hair, or a tree, depending on the subject) I print and process the test piece to fine tune the contrast with the exposure being perhaps 75% accurate. Printing requires very accurate exposure compared to the negative and 10% time difference is noticeable. Drydown might account for 5%.
If you have printed enough in the darkroom and have some digital experience, you can compare the magenta/cyan dials or filters to the contrast slider in photoshop (with 2 being the center). You just have to figure out in your mind how much you wish to nudge the contrast, you just don't have a slider to do it. (Split-grade, which I don't bother to do, would be like using the curves instead of the contrast slider, to customize things a little more.) Contrast decisions depends on the density of the negative, the subject, light contrast at the time of negative exposure, the feeling you want to convey, etc... There's so many reasons to tweek contrast, that's why I like VC paper. Once the contrast is right, use any methods you want to guide you to the desired exposure.
This is sage advice. While I am certainly not a great printer, I find that taking notes is invaluable. We learn from mistakes, and knowing exactly what you did wrong is as useful as knowing what you did right. The single most significant thing I changed in my printing was to use Ralph's f-stop timing chart, which is also in my darkroom. For subtle control of print values, this is the way to go. My prints looked better right away. I don't have an actual f-stop timer. I just use the chart.
Originally Posted by MattKing
First you have to look at many prints so you know what a good print is supposed to look like.
Then you make negs that fit the paper/enlarger,/lens/paper developer of your choice so you can print a full tonal range subject with NO manipulation. Darks need detail. Whites need tonality.
Exposure controls shadows. Development controls highlights. This never changes.
Make a contact print as a recont and your first test print. Set the englarger to make a 8x10 and make a 8x10 contact. If your 8x10 contact goods good,an 8x10 print will look good at the same exposure.
If you print with a condenser, then the contact will look a bit flat. If you print with a diffuser, they will match.
The contact will always be the same regardless of film/developer if it is properly keyed to the enlarger. Brand X contact time should be same as Brand Y.
Now make a test strip across the critical area of the image using the same exposure as the correct contact sheet. print to get the whites white and adjust contrast as necessary to get the blacks.
After that you can burn/dodge/bleach, dye dodge, whatever to fine tune the image.
You MUST be good enough to get a geed contact sheet or you will go crazy trying to make prints from a bunch of bad negs. I have boxes of contacts, every frame is correct so it serves as the initial test print.
All this means the metering and shutters need to work properly.
You can always make 4x5 print and open the enlarger lens 2 stops and an 8x10 will be very close to the same.
Practice makes perfect, but guided practice avoids dead ends. AA's book is full of great advise but concentrates on printing with graded papers. You find this useful to get started in the right direction: