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This is an expanded version of the article that originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of View Camera.

And why there in no such thing as a difficult negative to print

Michael A. Smith

In the best of all possible worlds, all exposures would be perfect—neither 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 don’t 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 aren’t 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 well—in 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.

On Metronomes—and 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 prints—a timer that shut the light off automatically. Since I had a voltage regulator connected to the light source, I couldn’t 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 friend’s 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, one’s eyes can remain constantly focused on the print. One is not distracted by the need to look away to reset a timer, and one needn’t 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 more intensely.

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 one’s 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 wouldn’t 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 great—until 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. I’m not sure why this is so, but my best guess is that because one’s 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 doesn’t 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 overtiming development.

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 doesn’t 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 wrong—at 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.

Here’s how this works in practice: Let’s 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 seconds—outflanking 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 exposure—so 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 paper—the 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, let’s 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 print—one that has taken longer than an hour to get right.

Processing procedures: 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:

Sodium Sulfite
Citric Acid
Potassium Bromide (10% solution)
BB Compound* (1% solution)
to make 1,000

* 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 hardener—straight 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 bath—a 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 thiosulfate—no 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 washer.

Perma Wash®: But wait a second, wasn’t 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 and separated.

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 constructed.

© Michael 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 you—the very real three-dimensional space, the light, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the weather—is of course a major factor. Of the others, some are more or less stable, such as one’s world view and the general state of one’s 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 experience—one 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 viewer’s 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.

© Michael A. Smith 1998

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