It's around again. Never went away, actually.
It can't be eradicated. Suppress it here, it pops up over there. A dread disease that wantonly wastes time and ruins photographic work.
I'm talking about pushing disease. Even having to write it gives me a shudder of dread.
A whole new generation of young photographers has gotten into B&W film photography, as an enthusiasm and a hobby, or a way to distinguish themselves from the indistinguishable digital masses, or a steampunk affectation, or because they want to experience it before it vanishes—or just because they like it.
And they are falling prey to the same disease their elders did. Because my generation failed to stamp it out, it is afflicting a whole new generation.
You see it everywhere. "HP5+ at 800." "Tri-X at 1600." Etc. ad nauseam.
Ooooh, pushing! I push my film. I can push more than you! See how much I can push? I'm special, I push. This developer allows me to push even further. Push! Push! Push!
Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.
Our generation did it too, though. So did the one before us.
But why, oh why, would anyone take the time and effort and care to particpate in an obsolescent art form—to choose nice materials and equipment—to expend the effort to get out into the world and hunt down promising pictures—to struggle with craft—to use beautiful, precious films that cost money to buy and process—and then not expose the film enough?
BANG! Shot right through the foot.
People think the basic rule of B&W is "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights." But that's not the most basic rule. That's the refinement of the most basic rule, because it presumes people know how to meter shadows—and actually have a sense of what shadow detail ought to look like. The more basic form of the rule is:
Expose enough. Don't develop too much.
(David Vestal said that.) So what do legions of happy B&W photographers do? Poor, pathetic, pitiable, disease-afflicted photographers?
They expose too little and develop too much.
Otherwise known as "pushing."
The new generation has been infected, I'm afraid.
JPEG of a severely pushed film photograph, albeit one we cannot envision any other way now. In the old days, they pushed as a necessary evil, because getting the shot was much better than not getting the shot. Photo by
Bill Eppridge, courtesy life.com.
It makes even less sense these days than it did in days of yore, when men were men and darkroom work was a PITA for most. Much less sense. In the old days, at least, there was always the argument that if you didn't push, you could lose the shot you had to get. But these days, that argument vanishes. Nobody has to shoot film now. We do it because we like to and want to. If the light gets low, just get out your DSLR. Remember your DSLR? The camera over which you obsessed endlessly about high ISOs and low noise before you bought it? Ninety percent of film photographers own a DSLR. If not 98%. I shot a D700 for a while at ISO 5000 for B&W conversions. No B&W film can be pushed that far. And the results looked fine in B&W. (Film only looks better in good light.) The lowliest one- or two-generation-old entry-level Canon or Nikon or Pentax will look better in really low light than your film camera will. There's absolutely no reason any more to push.
And yet people are still doing it.
The #1 thing you should do to make film picture look good is to expose enough. Given adequate exposure, films come into their own. They sing. They bloom. They blossom. One of the surest ways to make your film pictures look like merde is to cripple your chosen film by never giving it enough exposure.
The holiest, highest mantra among B&W film photographers of today, I really feel, ought to be: never, ever push.
Eradicate disease, I say. Do your part! Expose enough!!
ADDENDUM: For general photography in good light, the best, easiest, most immediate way to improve your B&W film technique is to halve the manufacturer's ISO rating and subtract 20% from the manufacturer's recommended development time. Don't take my word for it. Try it.
UPDATE (Saturday): Despite certain accusations from a small faction of our Commentariat and some private email correspondents, I was not feeling at all cranky about anything when I wrote this post. (Just so you know, I'll never write "shut up" in anger on this site.) Truth: I hardly ever get cranky about anything that happens here. Probably a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn't be doing this.
But it actually does make me a bit cranky when people won't accept my stated premises. This post was written for, and directed at, newcomers to film photography. Didn't I say that plainly at the beginning of the post? Or at least implied it plainly, for those with what I hope are ordinary levels of reading comprehension? I used Bill Eppridge's two-stops-pushed news photograph (and yes, it's pushed—see above. Would I get that wrong?!?) of the tragic RFK assassination on purpose, to make a concession—the concession that pushing at least used to be sometimes necessary, and resulted, occasionally, in photographic masterpieces. Back to the point: I wouldn't presume to tell Jean-Loup Sieff, or Ralph Gibson, or indeed any experienced photographer who knows his or her stuff about technique and is doing what they do deliberately, what to do. If ya follow. If you're making a conscious decision, you'll decide for yourself. You have—you always had—my blessing, not that you need it.
I was addressing in that post the fact, or what I perceive to be the fact, that many newcomers are slavishly following a style I dislike because they've been looking at too much crappy B&W online (and there's lots of that: I've looked, and seen it, firsthand, and no, this contention is not the same thing as saying there is no good work online, so don't pick up that ball and run with it, please). And/or they've been told to do so by some guru somewhere, and they therefore think that it's the way they have to do it because it's "the way B&W is done." I was using my own modest bully pulpit here on TOP to advocate that they try the opposite style instead—the style I like. As a counterweight.
Long story short, unless it's too late for that: I know I've said this before, but if anyone is going to get their dander up over something I've said, it would be nice if they'd first determine whether I actually said it.
I'll have more to say on the original subject soon, but I'm taking tomorrow off to watch football and despite working on from seven thirty this morning till now (half past noon), I won't be able to get it written today. Look for a possible post at some point in the future called "Masters of Tone."
—Actually-somewhat-cranky-for-once (but not that much) Mike
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Craig: "Pushing gives images a particular look. When that's the look you want, why not push? Come on, you sound like a narrow-minded audio engineer who doesn't understand why these rock-n-roll kids want to push their amps so hard that their guitar sound gets all distorted. Maybe the kids like the sound of distortion. Is that really so hard to imagine? I tend to think that people who think there's only one right way to make art don't really understand what art is in the first place. Not all photography has to be 'correctly' exposed for the same reason that not all paintings need to be strictly realistic."
Mike replies: No, there's nothing wrong with departing from standard technique to get specific effects, and I'm not talking to experienced photographers, as I took pains to make clear at the outset (paragraph 4). But, Craig, go look at random pushed film images on the 'net for half an hour. There's your argument rebutted. Rebuked, even. The people who "think there's only one right way to make art" in this case are the newbies who are reflexively pushing to 1600 and stand developing in Rodinal because of some idiotic thing they read somewhere.
Featured [partial] Comment by Bill OBrien: "Here at work many years ago one of the engineers was heard saying, 'He shot himself in the foot and then congratulated himself on his marksmanship.' Neat extension of an old saying."
Featured Comment by timd: "Thanks for the advice on halving the ISO and –20%. By the way here's Bill Eppridge holding that image:
[The photo is by Tim Mantoani and comes from an extensive—and wonderful and valuable—project he's been working on called "Behind Photographs." —Ed.]
Featured Comment by Kelvin: "I am so glad to leave push processing and high speed film behind me. I remember shooting stage performances in the '80s and '90s and pulling my hair out trying to get images of decent quality. We're talking high contrast, with spotlights and deep shadows. I don't know how Jim Marshall did it, because I certainly couldn't! Unpushed HP5 and Tri-X was just too slow. T-Max 400 was just horrible (and almost unprintable) no matter what I did with it. Pushed HP5, TX400 and T-Max 3200 had little resolution. I would have committed unspeakable acts to have something like a D700 back then!
"Despite this I'd occasionally get a result:
Featured Comment by Stan Waldhauser: "There's the story of the film representative talking to the media at a press conference to announce a breakthrough technology in film emulsion. He explains that the new film has a super-fine grain and an ISO rating of 204,800. All the hands in the crowd go up and in unison they ask, 'How far can you push it?'"