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Monday, October 2

Fantasy or reality?

Two Trees, Ashludie

There's more than one way to skin a cat. But unlike skinning a cat, where the better method can be established by considering time-to-skin and efficacy of technique, there's no easy way to tell which is the better way to print a photograph. That's what this post is about: trying to figure out which images from the three pairs posted here are "better".

The first image in each case is a darkroom print I made on Friday when I was in a minimalist mood and considering negative space and the like. Those beneath are scans of the same negatives that I tarted up slightly in Lightroom before posting them some time ago.

I don't think there's much doubt that, in terms of impact, the Lightroom shots win the contest but photography isn't just abut impact, is it? Or is it? The darkroom prints look a little flat here in comparison, not helped by the fact that they were printed on Ilford Multigrade Matt, a surface I really don't like very much as it seems to soak all the life out of a print.

We might as well start with the first pair of prints since they're up there. This is where I get to play optometrist. Look at the images. Which is clearer? Is it A or B? A or B? In the second pic I cropped in a bit from the right and left edges to lose a few trees and shrubs near the periphery. As a result, it's a slightly squarer composition which helps to concentrate focus on the trees.

B is also printed slightly darker and with more contrast. My initial darkroom print was like that but then I decided to drop down half a grade and print it very slightly lighter. The differences are obvious but may not have survived the scanning and posting process. Whereas I put a little tone into the sky and water on B, I deliberately left the same areas in A more or less blank.

My preference is for A. It has more serenity to it and a feeeling of space around the trees that lets them breathe a little instead of feeling hemmed in by the encroaching border. Yes, you can see the odd shrub or two in the background but is that really so bad? It places the trees in their natural context, atop a hill in the countryside but not completely isolated.

Arbroath Esplanade

Moving on. This one is a shot of Arbroath Esplanade on a wet and windy day. Again, I could have replicated more or less the Lightroom edit as it's just some dodging and burning but I chose not to. I have the advantage over you of having stood on the spot with a Nikon and 85mm lens in hand and know how bleak the scene was. Rain was coming and going and the wind was whipping up the waves on the North Sea. Inhospitable is a good word here.

B is more striking and was the visualisation I had in mind when I clicked the shutter. But A is more truthful. Viewing it takes me right back to that moment and makes me want to reach for my sou'wester, wellies and hand warmer. A makes me want to reach for some sunglasses.

Six months ago I would have probably preferred B but now I'm not so sure. I feel my "eye" and my outlook on photography are beginning to change. It's not always easy to put these things into words but B appeals more to my arty side whilst A is more of a documentary approach.

Pitch and Putt

Pitch and Putt is a photograph of the hut near the waterfront at Arbroath where the attendant takes your money if you want to chase a wee white ball around a bit of grass - something I spent all of my teenage years and into my twenties thoroughly enjoying. Definitely the happiest times of my life.

I've made life harder for myself with the darkroom print here, though, as I didn't dodge the hut enough. I knew it was too dark, had time for just one more print and didn't hold it back enough. When I print it again, I'll make sure there's more detail in there, a bit like the hut in B. So bear that in mind when considering the two images.

B was slightly cropped in from the edges to excise the sliver of bin you can just see protruding into the right hand side of the frame on A. I blame the camera. It wasn't there when I was looking through the viewfinder but, with a few exceptions like the Nikon F, you always get a mm or two extra around the edges of the negative whether you want them or not.

When I was scanning negs. that didn't seem to matter so much as they were seldom shown 100% intact anyway. Now I'm back printing, I have this weird fetish about cropping: I hate doing it. It adds to the challenge of photography if I have to get the image absolutely spot on at the taking stage in terms of framing. Knowing that the viewfinder only shows 95% or whatever of the field of view means that I'll have to take extreme care to make sure there's nothing unwanted loitering around the edges. I'll also need to try my utmost to get horizons level, something that can be a problem for me - and quite a lot of photographers judging by many of the pics I see online - when shooting hand-held.

So is it A or B with this one? A or B? With better dodging of the hut and maybe some bleaching of the water in front of it, definitely A. I think I'm really getting into white skies just now. All three of the darkroom prints have a lot of negative space and I like them for it. I'm not feeling the need to burn in skies for a darker, moodier look. Lets face it, scenes like these are bleak enough as it is!


DavidM said...

Well, a bit of a conundrum. No doubt there's a better Scottish expression for conundrum.
Not quite the same images, really.
All the "A" prints have a great clodhopping black line around them which draws my eye without pleasing it. I think it affects my judgement, as I seem to be going for B in most cases.
That said, I wonder if the improved composition of 1B is what I'm liking, as I think I prefer the rendering of the furrows in 1A.
I think I prefer the sky in 2B and the rendering of the backlit reflection on wet concrete seems, on my screen, to be what's I'd expect to see. I would like to see a tiny bit of detail in the grass, if possible, so it's not higher contrast that I want to see. As it stands, the grass could be a layer of coal dust.
In 3B, I greatly prefer the rendering of the hut. 3A's hut looks murky on my screen. And again, I like to see tone in the sky.
Reading this back, I don't think my preferences are influenced by the wet/dry dichotomy, but by the way you've handled the printing. Can it be that your big bright white skies use up some of the available contrast range, making the rest of the print look a bit duller than it really is?
In my view, the major difference between wet and dry prints is that digital printers can't (yet?) do curly edges. I'm not saying there are no other differences.
Please remember, we can't see effect of Ilford Matt; they are all Apple Gloss to me.

Bruce Robbins said...

"Clodhopping black line"? You mean the Robbins Signature Border? That's here to stay, I'm afraid, but I am working on getting it more ballet shoe than clodhopper. :) So that's 3-0 to the Bs then.

Herman Sheephouse said...

All A's for me Bruce (wouldn't you have known!) though the hut in 3A could have been held back a bit and some dodging at the edges would have just set things in a bit. Joe McKenzie used to routinely give all edges of a frame a bit more exposure, to (in his words) 'set things in' . . . and given he's the best printer I've ever encountered, who am I to argue, and I find myself following his advice quite often.

The B's look a bit over-worked - you see it everywhere in every 'tog magazine you pick up, it's the 'Ive got a palette of tools that would have cost 10's of thousands years ago . . I know what I'll do . . I'll use the lot'. Not that you've done that, you haven't, but to be honest it doesn't look an awful lot like a 'photographic' print (whatever that is, but in my case defined as something printed in a darkroom). But then that's just me. Or am I just deliberately raising hackles ';0)

I like wellies clogs and clodhoppers, so consequently, key lines from negative frames are something I also like - I dunno, again it sort of sets something in place, like 'this is exactly what I saw - you are seeing the whole thing too'. As for cropping, for myself done as much as possible 'in camera' that is why I love The F. A full frame photograph is what I like doing - it doesn't suit everyone and a lot of the old iconic images are cropped, but then it wouldn't do if everyone was the same. It's a challenge at times and bins and phone lines do intrude sometimes, but I don't mind that - we don't live in a visually 'pristine' world!

Even Stevens so far . . .

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm beginning to see things like you, Phil. I've been looking at Ray Moore's work a lot and the thing that strikes me is how straight his photos are printed. There's not a lot in the way of tarting up beyond a bit of dodging and burning to balance things up tonally. The photography I llike best is just like that. Ravilious is another. I used to like what Eddie Ephraums did but now when I look at his photographs I tend to recoil a bit. This is a relatively recent reaction for me.

It certainly could be a response to overly worked digital stuff as it's hard to avoid seeing it sometimes. It might also be a feeling that film photography really is the medium of record and should be as honest as possible. What's better than spotting a subject or scene, capturing it in the camera and presenting it to the world as it was. The idea that the scene might be viewed as raw material that could be manipulated in the darkroom into something it wasn't isn't a million miles away from digital trickery. I suppose it's just a matter of degree.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I got Creative Elements by Ephraums because it was a a recommended printing title, and whilst initially I thought it was OK, I have come to find it a bit iffy. I don't like over-manipulated photographs - strangely Joe did a lot of OTT burning but I somehow don't mind that in his photos!

Like I've said many times, printing is essentially as simple or as complex as you want it to be, but I like simplicity - I don't mind burned out highs and white skies and 'blocked' shadows. Obviously something printed with great subtlety and a master's palette of greys is a wonderful sight to behold - I like Minor White, and Weston and the whole pantheon of master printers - but I am also not adverse to something which, whilst it might not be the last word in printing, is an honest record of the photographer's eye. I totally got that from Arboath Esplanade, which is a very good print btw. Days like that are unrelentingly white (or even grey, or just plain dull) in the bit above the horizon and your proper print of it has rendered it exactly how I imagined it would be.

I stopped looking at photography mags a few years back because every 'print' fell into the 'WTF? the light was really like that???' category.

DavidM said...

Well folks...
It's the No Black Line versions for me every time, however they've been produced. When my eye passes over what I see on screen, the combination of blank white skies, next to the thick black lines generates an area of very hight contrast all around the edge. The effect is exaggerated by the weight of the lines as they are as prominent as objects inside the image proper. A further difficulty for me is that the frames are irregular, which compels the eye to explore the different thickness and textures, in the same way as it would explore detail in the image itself.
You may know that you can get software that puts all kinds of borders around digital images, so the Signature Border reminds me of EfexPro. (?) I suspect you didn't want that.

My original intention was to point out the lack of a level playing field when judging your rival prints. In my case, I'm think I'm voting against the Signature Border every time, but I'd like to see all the prints presented decently without these supplementary embellishments. Or, if you must, all images with, but not mixed. This effect is well-known in market research.

I once read an account of Ray Moore's printing. Dodging and burning and a little bit of ferri, it seems. All the darkroom tools. A Ray Moore image usually has something in it beyond aesthetics; something odd, disturbing, unexpected; something inducing thought. Perhaps that's why he never became popular. Many photographers seem to prefer aesthetics to thought – leading lines, the accursed thirds, big rock in foreground and so on. And now we have the plague of the Big Stopper. I've always regretted missing a workshop with Ray Moore. He was very highly regarded as a perceptive teacher by all who met him.

I used to read articles by E Ephraum explaining how to print, but all the advice seemed to lead to dark, grainy, moody Ephraum-style prints.

Bruce Robbins said...

I know what you mean about the heaviness of the border lines, David. As you'll no doubt know if you've tried it, it's a bugger getting the image including the lines centred within the "arms" of the easel. Easels aren't always perfectly square so there's a bit of compromise involved, shifting the thing minutely one way and then the other, trying to even-up the uneveness. There are easier ways, of course, such as cutting a piece of stiff card to the same 6x9 inch format but then lopping a mm off a long end and a short end and simply moving it diagonally from one corner of the print to the other to expose the 1mm border. The border on 1B was done in Photoshop, btw. I think the borders remind you of Efex Pro borders because the latter are supposed to look like real film borders! It's a circular thing. If you know a way of getting nice, thin, regular borders using the film rebate then I'm all ears.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Keylines are difficult Bruce - I've found for me the easiest way is to focus on baseboard of the enlarger factoring in the keylines, fine focus, and then turn the lights on as well as the enlarger light - you see the hard edges of the easel and sort of the image on the baseboard, but the clearness of the film rebate really looks quite obvious. From there it's heavy duty lining up!

David - Joe McKenzie always recommended mounting prints on a light to mid grey board as opposed to bright white. Even with keylines, the print fits into the mount rather nicely.

DavidM said...

Do they still make Rotring pens? German made, so no problems with quality. Lovely even lines. Or, for the traditionally-built mind, a proper ruling pen, well cared for, is supreme. The ink can be diluted or water colour used, to give the perfect density and colour.

You can do lovely quarter-point borders (hold your breath and wash out your mouth) in Illustrator. Other software is available.

I do appreciate the problem. The best darkroom solution I've heard is that very-slightly-smaller-card, shuffled round to do each edge, but less than a millimetre if possible. Probably best made of thin black plastic, as card will fray after a few uses. Do I remember someone selling some sort of adjustable gadget? Might have to search...

I rather like the traditional angle-cut window mount myself, although when it turns up on a web image, it seems to look wrong. I think it happens when people mount and frame a print and then snap it on their phones to post on the web.

My original point, which I made badly, was that it was hard to choose between the different versions when the borders clouded my judgement. We shall have to differ on the borders themselves.

Bruce Robbins said...

Your point was very clear to me, David, and it's a good one. If I get time tonight I'll put one pt (or 1/4 pt if you'd prefer) borders around everything and you can see what you think. There is no escape. Bwahahaha. I think the white skies need some sort or border otherwise they'll merge into the background or something.

Thin black plastic is a good idea. A Rotring or similar? Yes, that would work. I take it they're archival?

Herman Sheephouse said...

The Isograph is alive and kicking - heavenly pens - I even bear a Rotring scar myself . . on a tooth . . don't ask . .
The problem you will find though is that the ink is very different to emulsion and will leave a ghastly slightly gloss finish which doesn't look like it has anything to do with the print . . I know because I did it 30 years ago! Best to print a keyline - I like chunky ones by the way, like a mouse on a mini scooter has dipped his tyres in black stuff and scooted around the perimeter . . .

Alan C. said...

I suspect that you only really need a keylne if the sky is paper-white, causing the edge of the print to be undefined without a line. A lot depends on what you are doing with the prints You won't need the line if you choose to mount the print, because the mount can overlap the print and the mount bevel will define its edge.
I stick most of my favourite prints into books or albums. I don't use keylines. If the edge of the print is darker all round than the print paper - usually the case - then I trim the print so it has about 3mm of its own border. This makes it stand out from the album page, which is invariably a different colour. If the print has a paper-white sky, I dispense with this border and trim the print to its exact edge before sticking it in. Because the background page is a different colour to the sky everything reads clearly and the print stands out.
I have to admit that I find keylines distracting, and the more ostentatious ones can look like a bit of an affectation, and o I lose no sleep over worrying how to do them.
Apologies for the rant - we are supposed, after all, to be commenting on the prints themselves. I have no strong preference with the first print. The composition of the darkroom print disturbs me a bit, so I can't see beyond that. With prints 2 and 3 I really prefer the darkroom versions. The digital versions look too manipulated to me, with burnt-in skies too obvious and unnatural, and too much artificial tonal contrast for the prevailing light conditions.
Apologies for sounding over-critical....just trying to contribute truthfully.


Bruce Robbins said...

Good advice Alan. Thanks. These are just work prints at the moment. I'm trying to find my feet again so I'm printing lots of different negs and trying things out. Once I'm happy I'll start making finished prints and I'll have to decide then how they'll be presented. The skies aren't quite paper white. I want to sepia tone the highlights in the manner of Bill Schwab and Michael Kenna so I need a bit of tone there.

DavidM said...

That's a very good point about the glossy 3D nature of an ink line. For the immediate purpose of viewing on screen, I think it might suffice, but it wouldn't work in an exhibition print.
We are all agog now.
I didn't know that Baron Lambothie was a talented mouse-trainer. Live and learn, eh?

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi David - yeah Rotring ink is wonderful stuff and will be fairly matt on art board, but on emulsion it'll be slightly gloss and looks very weird!

You can't beat a bit of mouse training.

Bruce Robbins said...

The Germans are a brilliant people. Surely they could have come up with an ink that keeps its matt appearance on unglazed glossy FB paper?

Herman Sheephouse said...

Maybe they have - been a long time since I tried to do it - there's always spotting ink I suppose, but then again why not just expose the paper!
You should try my lights and enlarger light on lining up method though - works for me most of the time.

Bruce Robbins said...

I'll give it a go. I can see how that would work.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I use the back of a dry scrap print in the easel with the lights off, focus the negative to get the border size I want, then lights on which nicely illuminates the edge of the frame so you can see what you're doing and take it from there.
Your easel might be off slightly, my Beard one is, but a small amount of careful easing generally gets it into shape, and Bob's yer Aunty . .

MartyNL said...

I'm with DavidM on this. Key lines at worst can become a bit of a cliché or even a crutch for photo's that don't print well otherwise.
So I would stay well away from them and focus on getting the image right first time. And by the way, I have never experienced a 'paper white' sky and it probably doesn't exist in the natural world. It will be down to perception and interpretation in my view.