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This is an expanded version of the article that originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of View Camera.
Michael A. Smith
In the best of all possible
worlds, all exposures would be perfectneither over nor under
exposed, and all negatives would be developed for the right amount
of time. All negatives would then print on a normal grade of paper,
require a standard amount of exposure, and require no dodging or
burning-in. Perhaps I dont know the right people, but I have
yet to meet a photographer who lives in that perfect world. Even
those who have done seemingly interminable testing and refining
of exposure and development techniques often have negatives that
arent exactly right on and/or that require extensive dodging
and burning-in. If you are one of those photographers that does
live in that perfect world where all negatives are perfect, read
no further; I have nothing to teach you. On the other hand, if you
are like the rest of us who sometimes have negatives that have wonderful
things in them but that are difficult-to-impossible to print, this
article is written for you, with the hope that it will make your
time in the darkroom less difficult and more productive.
Over the years, many photographers,
some quite accomplished, have come to my studio in the country in
eastern Pennsylvania to learn to make better prints. Most of these
photographers can already print fairly wellin some cases very
well, but nonetheless they want to see exactly how I make my prints
and to learn how to make their prints not only better, but with less
effort. Since relatively few photographers are able to come here to
work with me personally, I am writing about my approach to printing
in hopes that it will be helpful to a greater audience.
Although I only make contact
prints on Azo and develop them in Amidol, and although some of the
things I do while printing are specific to the materials I use, it
will be easy for those who make enlargements to adapt my approach
to their materials.
Outside of making perfect
negatives every time, there are two main ways to insure that all of
your negatives will be relatively easy to print. One is to use a metronome
to time exposures. The other is to use the method I call "outflanking
the print." Both are explained here in detail. A short discussion
of my processing procedures for archival permanence concludes the
article. Of course it should go without saying that the making of
any fine print primarily involves the making of many aesthetic decisions,
but a discussion of the basis for those decisions is for another time.
This article only deals with a way of working once those decisions
have been made.
why using one to time print exposures is absolutely essential:
Back in 1970 I was printing
my first portfolio and trying to make twenty-five identical prints
from each of twelve negatives. One print, even though it was a straight
print that required no dodging or burning-in, would not print the
same way twice in a row. Consistently, some prints were lighter and
some were darker. At that time I was using a Gra Lab timer to control
the exposure for my printsa timer that shut the light off automatically.
Since I had a voltage regulator connected to the light source, I couldnt
figure out what the problem was. At some point, I thought the only
possible cause had to be that the timer was not shutting the light
off at the same instant each time. I had previously read that Ansel
Adams recommended using a metronome to time print exposures, but I
had thought that the ticking would drive me nuts so I had never bothered
to try one. But now, in my frustration with this print, on a Sunday
night I drove 50 miles to a friends house, borrowed an electric
metronome, drove home and went back into the darkroom.
I covered the print with
a card, turned the light on, and then pulled the card away to begin
the exposure. When the time was up I quickly placed the card between
the light and the paper. To my relief, the prints started coming out
exactly alike. Every print I have made since that night has been timed
with a metronome. It was, however, not until I printed some seemingly
difficult negatives, ones that required significant amounts dodging
and burning-in, that the real value of using a metronome became apparent.
When using a metronome
to time prints, the light is turned on before the exposure begins
and is left on throughout the entire exposure. It is important that
the light not turn off automatically so that its intensity is always
at its peak. A thin semi-stiff card is used to cover the paper and
to begin and end the exposure and to interrupt it when dodging and
burning-in. I use "shirt-type" cardboard; it is opaque,
stiff enough to lay flat, and flexible enough to bend for use when
dodging and burning-in. With the light left on throughout the entire
exposure, ones eyes can remain constantly focused on the print.
One is not distracted by the need to look away to reset a timer, and
one neednt get reoriented to the print as is required when timers
shut the light off, even if it is then turned back on automatically.
Because one's eyes stay constantly focused on the print, one can concentrate
When timing a print with
a metronome, one can easily do quite extensive and much more precisely
timed dodging and burning-in. For example, with the light on for the
entire time and the metronome ticking, it is possible to dodge a print
for two seconds here, four and a half seconds there, seven seconds
over there, and then to burn-in the same print for a half second here,
four seconds there, nine seconds on the edge, fourteen and a half
seconds in the sky, and so on. Simply by moving the dodging tool or
burning-in card, one can easily dodge or burn any area for any multiple
of seconds. I have a few prints where I have even dodged and burned-in
over twenty places. (See examples of prints and printing maps.)
This would be almost impossible
to do if, after many of the dodges and burns, the timer and the light
went off and I had to reset it and then reorient myself and relocate
the right spot on the print from which to continue. With a metronome
ticking and ones eyes focused on the print, dodging and burning-in
goes so smoothly that one seemingly glides from area to area of the
print with rarely a pause or a missed beat. There are no wasted seconds.
I estimate that when I switched to using a metronome for timing prints
rather than using a clock-type timer, my hours in the darkroom for
making the same number of prints decreased by a third.
Although most of my prints
need relatively little dodging and burning-in, it is still only an
occasional print that needs absolutely none, and from time to time
some do require a great deal. Many photographers have told me that
they simply wouldnt bother printing a negative if as much dodging
and burning-in was involved as I am willing to do. Or conversely,
they would expend prodigious amounts of energy, even to the extent
of making elaborate masks. A photographer once proudly showed me an
acetate mask he had made consisting of over twenty layers. He said
that by laying it over the paper it enabled him to make one straight
exposure with no further dodging or burning-in. That sounded greatuntil
he added that it took him two weeks to make the mask. "And how
many pieces of paper," I silently wondered. When using a metronome,
elaborate and time-consuming masking techniques are simply not necessary.
I have also found that because using a metronome allows for such precise
control of dodging and burning-in, bleaching of prints is seldom necessary.
I found bleaching necessary on only two occasions, and those well
over twenty years ago.
To my surprise, I found
that the ticking of the metronome was not a distraction at all. Im
not sure why this is so, but my best guess is that because ones
eyes never leave the print, a rhythm gets established, the printing
experience becomes much more intense and focused, and therefore the
ticking simply becomes unobtrusive. When I began using a metronome
I quickly learned that it became impossible to listen to music while
printing. I did try it once, and because I got caught up in the rhythm
of the music I became distracted from the metronome count. And that
was the end of that experiment.
Although there are audible
electronic timers made for the photography market, metronomes are
generally far less expensive. There are two types that should be available
in any music store. There is the tall wind-up manual type where one
locks the pendulum behind a catch to stop the beat, and there is the
electric type that one turns on and off with a switch at the back.
It doesnt matter which type you use. I use the electric type.
I still have the Gra Lab timer, but now I use it only for timing the
development time and the rest of the print finishing processes. If
the metronome is plugged into the Gra Lab timer it will turn off automatically
when the Gra Lab starts timing the development. When that time is
up, the metronome will start beating again, reminding you to get the
print into the stop bath, which gives the added benefit of never accidentally
Outflanking the print:
I never make a test strip
and I strongly advise others never to make one. I think that making
test strips is simply a waste of time since they do not provide enough
information. If one is making contact prints or enlargements that
are of a constant size or a couple of constant sizes, one quickly
learns the approximate amount of light needed. If one makes test strips,
one learns at best, more or less what the correct exposure is, but
one doesnt learn how much dodging and burning-in might be necessary.
Usually, one goes through more paper figuring that out than if one
took the approach I call "outflanking."
To use outflanking: Look
at a negative, and based on experience take a guess at the proper
printing exposure. Try to guess it exactly, but hope you are wrongat
least by a little. I have used far more paper when I have guessed
the exposure seemingly correctly than when I was off, whether by a
little or by a lot. Why this is so I will get to later. If you are
wrong in your guess and the print is either too light or too dark,
you are off to a good start. Now make a second print so that you are
exactly the same distance on the other side of what you think the
correct exposure will be. After this, the correct exposure will usually
become immediately evident. Ideally, it will fall somewhere near the
middle of the two previous exposures.
Heres how this works
in practice: Lets say you look at a negative and estimate that
it needs a twelve second exposure. You expose it for twelve seconds,
but it is too light and you now think the proper exposure should be
fifteen seconds. Do not make the next exposure for fifteen seconds;
make it for eighteen secondsoutflanking the print. Now you will
have one print that is too light and, hopefully, one print that is
too dark. Next, step back and evaluate the two prints. Based on your
evaluation of the light and dark prints, make what you think is the
proper exposure. At this point do not dodge and burn, even if you
know you will need to. (The only exception to this is when in the
lighter print there are still some areas that are too dark, and in
the darker print there are still some areas that are too light.) Let
us say you expose this third print for fifteen seconds. Now evaluate
this newest print. Because now you also have a lighter and a darker
print as well as one that is at least very close to properly exposed,
you should be able to easily see if the overall print is a little
too light or a little too dark. Perhaps the exposure should have been
fifteen and a half, or sixteen seconds, or perhaps it should have
been fourteen or fourteen and a half seconds. If the exposure should
have been sixteen seconds, make another print for that amount of time,
again without dodging or burning-in. By working in this way you can
readily come to the exact basic exposure.
It is the lighter and
darker prints that give you the understanding of exactly how much
dodging and burning-in will probably be needed, and it is with the
print following the one that has the correct basic exposure, usually
the fourth or fifth print, that you begin to dodge and burn-in. By
referring back to the light print and to the dark print you can now
see exactly where and how much to dodge and burn-in. Had dodging and
burning-in been done sooner, it would have been impossible to tell
exactly what results were due to the dodging and burning-in and what
results were due to the basic exposureso make sure not to dodge
or burn-in until the correct basic exposure has been determined. Working
in this manner, ultimately you will save time and paper. Often you
will have a finished print by the fourth or fifth sheet of paperthe
first one that was dodged and burned-in.
If on the first print
you guessed what appears to be the correct basic exposure, almost
invariably you are in for trouble. First of all, you get no information
as to exactly how much dodging and burning-in may be necessary, and
then, you have what you think is the right exposure, but there is
often the nagging suspicion that maybe it needs an additional second
or a half second, or on occasion, an additional quarter second (easy
to time with a metronome). And so you make another print, lets
say for a second more. And lo, it is better, a bit richer perhaps.
Now, what would happen if yet another half second were added? If you
try that, you may end up thinking that an additional second is what
it really needed, not an additional half second. And conversely, if
you add an additional second, sure enough you will think it only needed
an additional half second after all. Had you outflanked the print
in the first place, usually you will not have to go through all of
that, and ultimately you will use less paper rather than more.
Since using a metronome
and the outflanking method, I have come to the conclusion that there
are no difficult negatives to print. Sure, some prints do need more
dodging and burning-in than others, but by timing them with a metronome,
that part is always easy. It is rare indeed that I cannot make five
prints from a new negative within an hour, and usually it takes less
time than that. And it is not because my negatives are always perfectly
exposed and developed.
As part of the occasional
workshops I teach, I ask the participants to bring their most difficult
negatives from which they eventually were able to make a decent print,
the ones that took many hours or even days to print. I then print
the negative using the methods described above. Even among these negatives
from other photographers I have yet to find a truly difficult negative
to printone that has taken longer than an hour to get right.
To anticipate questions about the rest of the printing process, here
are my procedures for processing archival prints.
Developer: I use Amidol,
which I sometimes use in conjunction with a water bath. For details
on how I use it, see my article, The Azo and Amidol Story, in the
July/August 1996 issue of ViewCamera®. The formula that I use
was published with that article, but that formula was only for the
use of Amidol with Azo. When I last printed on enlarging papers I
used the following formula. For one liter it was:
* Since BB Compound is
no longer available, Kodak Anti-Fog No. 1 (benzotriazole) can be substituted
As a starting point for
making three-liter quantities I recommend multiplying the Amidol by
only two and a half and multiplying the potassium bromide and benzotriazole
by four. The sulfite and citric acid are multiplied by three.
Stop bath: I use 28% acetic
acid that I dilute from 99% glacial acetic acid. Glacial acetic acid
is potent stuff. I do not dilute it in the darkroom. I go outside.
Even then it is wise to use a respirator or safety mask of some kind.
For use: For 8x10s I use 100 cc of 28% solution in a half gallon of
water in an 11 x 14 tray. For larger prints in larger trays I use
200 cc in one gallon of water. The prints need not be in the stop
bath for longer than 10 15 seconds. That is sufficient time
to neutralize the alkaline residue carried over from the developer
so that the fixer will not be neutralized too quickly.
Fixer: I use a fixer without
hardenerstraight sodium thiosulfate prismatic rice crystals
mixed 32 ounces by volume to one gallon of water. I mix ten gallons
at a time as a stock solution. For 8x10s I use a half gallon in an
11 x 14 tray. For 8x20s or 18x22s I use one gallon in larger trays.
I use two fixing baths. In the first fixer tray I add 25 grams of
sodium bisulfite to each half gallon of fixer. Sodium bisulfite is
acidic and buffers the sodium thiosulfate, keeping it from getting
cloudy. The fixer in the first tray is the same that was in the second
tray from the previous printing session, but now with the sodium bisulfite
added. In the first fixer, I fix for a total of four minutes. But
after the first 30 seconds I turn on the viewing lights and evaluate
the print. A gallon of fixer in a tray easily lasts for an entire
printing session, well over 40 finished 8x20s, which means, on average,
about 70 100 sheets of paper.
Holding bath: After prints
are fixed they go into a holding batha large tray with water
circulating through a Kodak tray siphon.
Second fixer: At the end
of the printing session, the prints are finished in batches of up
to fifteen prints. One gallon of fixer is always used to provide enough
depth of solution. The prints are shuffled in the second fixer, which
is plain sodium thiosulfateno sodium bisulfite is added. The
time for this is also four minutes. Why a second fixer is necessary:
In the first fixing bath the unexposed and undeveloped silver halide
molecules are removed from the surface of the print and become free
in the fixing solution. As they build up in the solution they get
reabsorbed by the paper fibers. These reabsorbed silver halide molecules
are extremely insoluble in water and so they must be removed by using
a second fixer. I have always thought that fixer was misnamed and
that it should have been called "remover" to more accurately
describe what it does.
Toner for archival permanence:
The prints go directly from the second fix to the toner, which consists
of Rapid Selenium Toner diluted in a gallon of working Perma Wash®
solution. The prints are shuffled in this bath for three minutes.
First wash: After all
of the prints have been toned I start timing the first wash. The prints
are washed here for thirty minutes. I use an old Lenz rotary print
Perma Wash®: But wait
a second, wasnt there Perma Wash® in the toner? Yes there
was, but one of the constituents of Rapid Selenium Toner is sodium
thiosulfate, and I want to make sure it is out of the prints as much
as possible before the final wash. Perma Wash® and other hypo-clear
agents change the thiosulfates, which are relatively insoluble in
water, to sulfates, which are much more readily soluble in water.
Again the prints are shuffled in batches of at least fifteen, occasionally
more, for five minutes.
Final wash: I wash prints
for one hour in an archival print washer that keeps the prints upright
The prints are then squeegeed
on both sides and placed face down on nylon drying screens.
Summary: I have found
that using a metronome for timing print exposures enables dodging
and burning-in to be more easily and accurately controlled. Its use
also encourages more extensive and complex dodges and burns than when
one uses timers that turn the exposure light off automatically. "Outflanking
the print," enables the basic print exposure to be determined
precisely and also provides exact information about the amount of
dodging and burning-in that will be needed. The only possible drawback
I can see to using these methods is that print output will be increased
so drastically that an expanded print drying area will need to be
A. Smith 1998
A note about my approach
to making a print:
Although it is the reality
of the subject before you that captures your attention, the feeling
one has while photographing is determined by myriad factors. The physical
reality before youthe very real three-dimensional space, the
light, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the weatheris of
course a major factor. Of the others, some are more or less stable,
such as ones world view and the general state of ones
psyche and health. Other factors are more fleeting, such as the time
you have available (it is hard to be calm and contemplative when rushed,
whether by quickly changing light or the need to be somewhere else),
the other people who may be present, your dreams from the night before,
or a conversation you may have just had. All of these factors contribute
to determining your mood, which in turn may affect how you feel about
what is before you.
Realizing the absolute
impossibility of trying to create for others and to recreate for myself,
in a two-dimensional black and white photograph, the feeling of the
multi-faceted experience of having been at the scene photographed,
my goal when making prints is simply to try to make the best print
I can, and thereby to provide, both for myself and for the viewer,
a new experienceone of the photograph itself.
As an artist, I am responsible
for every square millimeter of the print, in the same way that a composer
is responsible for every note, or a poet is responsible for every
word. I try to make my prints so that all parts are of equal importance
and do not feel they are successful if the viewers eyes are
not somehow involuntarily compelled to navigate to every part. Therefore,
the dodging and burning-in I do is not to make elements stand out,
but to have them cohere into a unity.
A. Smith 1998
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