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Tuesday, 24 January 2017


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Your early "experiments" remind of my own many years ago. (I opted for Tri-X and Rodinal) After a few years of this I was no longer satisfied and like you drifted into learning how to make a photograph interesting. In fact that is my only goal the days. Digital made the use of many varied techniques simple, and this variance in photographs these days —even from the same photographer is so common. Speaking personally, I still go for interest and sometimes do try to spread certain "looks" across my stories as long as I think the images themselves are interesting and fit certain personal criteria (horizontal and vertical do not mix. Color and B&W do not mix, etc.) In the end now it is just the story, nothing else.

Thanks, Mike-
You're very articulate about the decisions that you've made about how your pictures should look. Many people can't do that, and so rely on technical specs to find their 'best'. Or just use 'newest' instead.
Reminds me, somehow, of the old Woody Allen line;
"I know all about art; I just don't know what I like."

Mike wrote, "And I tend to like photographers who have a strong, recognizable taste that shows up in their pictures ... "

A style?


I choose clothes the same way - what's comfortable vs what's in style. I've been wearing Levis 501s for about 40 years now. Blue or black. (Not being required to adhere to a dress code is a definite plus in academia.)

I believe people get too carried away with numerical specifications when selecting a camera/car/computer/TV/phone/etc.

Would they dare choose a spouse or significant other in the same way?

We all know, at least intuitively, that wrong choices are very possible with obsessions for numbers.

FWIW I always preferred D-76 diluted 1:1 and used as a one-shot developer. I tried lots of different things (including Rodinal) but D-76 1:1 gave me the negatives I wanted. If I were to return to film today, I still use it.

Slight counterpoint.

I have decided what to NOT use when it didn't work for what I was trying to do, or I just didn't like it in use.

I disagree with the notion that the overly technical evaluations of X vs. Y were an artifact of the digital era. There might have been a bit more room for that sort of nonsense on the dork internet but there was certainly no lack of it in the pre-digital era. All you have to do to know this is look up the 56,867 different ways of doing Zone System, each with its own cult following.

Many moons ago when you wrote for the UK Black & White Photography magazine ( when Ailsa McWhinnie was Editor, I hope I got her name right). I remember in one of your articles, you included a picture of a young lady wearing a denim shirt ( I can't for the life of me remember her name, which you captioned). And I remember trying to emulate the tonality that you showed. I was pretty sure then it was D76 that played a part. That soon had me experimenting with D76 (plus Tri X or Ilford HP5). My usual combination all those years ago was Agfa APX400 with Rodinal.

[Was it this one?


That was Tri-X 400 rated at 200, D-76 1+1 for 8 1/2 minutes at 20°C, agitated by inversion 10 sec. per minute, sometimes with a K2 filter usually depending on the subject's skin (a yellow filter minimizes red blemishes--that was well before Photoshop--and enriches skin tones a bit). The shots at the linked post were taken with a Zeiss C/Y 85mm ƒ/2.8 Sonnar, a fine lens for B&W.

Man, I lived at a great time to be a photographer. I got to be fully immersed in classic B&W film photography, witnessed the whole digital transition from a nice vantage point, and now get to enjoy digital. Lucky. --Mike]

Great blog entry. I think we are in the era were all cameras are great and it's up to individual taste.

When I printed from my black and white negatives, I used HC-110, and underdeveloped the film 10% from the standard times. Now that I scan the negatives, I use the old style D-25 developer. It gives nice scannable results.

" I remember experimenting with D-76 and Rodinal and picking D-76. "
I bet you used a condenser enlarger. High acutance developers do chemically what collimated light source enlargers do optically.

Funny story, I once helped a photographer get his "look" back when he quit smoking and lost the black glow he had been getting in his smokey darkroom.

Personally, I arrived at a really weird recipe* of developing all film in D-19 one to one at 75 degrees F. The 75 degrees was because sometimes in NYC you just can't get cooler water out of the tap, and all films got the same time because sometimes I would develop 8 rolls of mixed film at once. And I was very much a diffusion head guy. In case anyone is thinking that that was unworkable,

Now I tend to run the sharpening slider in adobe camera raw / lightroom all the way up with the radius set to 1.4 (because square root of two you know) , no noise reduction, and sometimes set the clarity slider at minus 5 or so with a bit of highlight and shadow tone mapping when I'm feeling like old times.

*there were a lot of other factors, lighting in particular that made this workable and I couldn't have made a "normal" looking picture if my life depended on it.

I find that too much product researching and testing is just confusing. Therefore, I tend to keep my "gear footprint" low - for the last two years, I used a single camera body and two prime lenses. I don't care that the camera isn't a current model, or that the lenses might be "bad". On almost every outing, this gear yields me one or two pictures I'm pleased with, and that's what counts. For the same reason, I try to keep experimenting with inkjet papers within reasonable limits.

Confining choice, that's it for me.

Best, Thomas

Another way to choose: Flip a coin.
If you have to choose between A and B, say in your mind: tails is A. Toss the coin. If you are happy with the result, stay with it. If you feel disappointed, take the opposite.

The coin will show you, which do you actually prefer. Take the one you like, not the other one. Even if it has better numbers.

One of the advantages of the "good old days" is that it was cheap to try out different "sensor" and "processor" combinations. A few bucks for a roll of film and some chemicals and you could experiment to your heart's content. Not so easy (or inexpensive) with digital systems.

Yes...that was the picture. The young lady with the denim shirt. I could be wrong, but she could have a title (of the gentry) in her name (as captioned by you). I'm glad you remembered that pic, together with the film processing. I wouldn't have remembered that pic if I didn't like the tonality!

Figuring out what works and what your are comfortable with can be a long process for some. Same whether it is vehicles, style or photography.
Remember well when I was much younger and the car bug was going big time. Really wanted a GTO but ended up with a 52 Chevy because hauling Hay and working on farms didn't quite bring in enough to pay for a GTO. When I could finally afford one I didn't like the ride at all and had other priorities.
With style - bought 'Beatle Boots' with big horseshoe taps. The first time I fell on my Azz from sliding on the big metal taps I learned a good lesson.
Same with photo gear. All the bells and whistles are great but I seldom need them. A few decades and the Nikon F2 still works. The Deardorffs still work. Most of the 'whiz bang' accessories are as worthless as all the junk for the perfect golf swing.
It comes down to one thing for me. How does the picture look? Anything that gets in the way of a good final image goes. Camera that is a pain in the backside? I don't keep it no matter how beautiful the ads or who pushes it.
I want to be comfortable when photographing and know I can rely on the gear without having to look through a 300 page manual.

Almost anything out now is good so it is a question of what does not get in the way of making a good image with my work habits.

I believe that digital photographers are split into two camps: digital and photographers.

The digital camp worries about pixels and bits and dynamic range and gamuts and precise white balance and all that kind of stuff. For them, everything can be measured and therefore ranked, producing a best.

The photographers just want equipment that they like to use that produces pictures that they like the look of.

And no, of course it's not quite that simple.

>>Man, I lived at a great time to be a photographer. I got to be fully immersed in classic B&W film photography, witnessed the whole digital transition from a nice vantage point, and now get to enjoy digital. Lucky. --Mike]

Yes, Mike....exactly that!! The first photographic instruction I ever had was at Chicago's Columbia College, during the first year that they ever offered anything like a 'program' in the subject. Our darkroom was a converted janitor closet, where we developed our one-stop-overexposed Tri-X (if I recall correctly) in one shot Microdol-X, 1:3, 15 minutes, 75 degrees.

There was no room for a sink with a tray line, so our exposed sheets of single weight, fiber base, Polycontrast paper were run through an Ektamatic processor, then washed with a tray siphon. I still have one of those old Ektamatic prints, and it's quite...um...brown.

Gets me to wondering --- for all the apps that exist to emulate certain of the old film effects, why are there none to remind us of agitation surge marks and air bells?!


Great post. Very thought provoking.

Ultimately, I think liking your gear, both in terms of handling and results, is far more conducive to good images than camera specs.

But only up to a point. There is a 'minimum technical requirement' that is tightly linked to the output you are planning to generate.

For instance, large landscape prints really do benefit from sensor and lens resolution. The question is, how many megapixels do you need to make a decent print at 36"/24"? The answer is usually less than people think. But as long as you have 'enough' then it no longer matters.

Of course, that assumes you know how to post-process and print, which can make at least as much difference as 24MP vs 16MP, or FF vs APSC.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that 99.99% (I made that up - it's probably an underestimate) of all our personal photographic output is viewed on an uncalibrated sRGB monitor, which is only capable of displaying a fraction of the colour and tonal depth that an average 16MP MFT camera can deliver.

And a 27" 5K monitor is only 12.4 MP (when you view a whole 3:2 image at once).

Which does rather put the whole gear-head spec-sheet mania into some kind of perspective, but also explains why so many people are very happy with their iPhones. Their images really can look very good on a decent monitor.

Tough question. Now that I am gravitating back to film, I find that I am falling in love with virtually every lens that I own or use. I look at the photographs, think that THIS is my favorite lens, and then move on to the next to see if it might be better; then, it is back to a previously used lenses to make sure. Most recently it is a 2.0 Sonnar on a Zeiss Tenax II: I love it best, for now, because it captures the subtle shift of gray in an overcast sky like no other lens I have used. The skies have been overcast for about a month now. Who knows what will happen when the skies brighten.

Movie: Rosalie Blum. French but with subtitles. A truly wonderful movie.

The question is, how does an uncalibrated sRGB monitor (which is an oxymoron, really—an uncalibrated monitor would be uncalibrated, whereas an sRGB monitor is one that displays sRGB data correctly) compare to a paper print? Paper prints, also, can not display anything like the full range captured in cameras (certainly not on color negative film, in particular).

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