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Tuesday, 10 December 2019


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It occurred to me (too late to comment on the previous entry) that the David Turnley "Nelson Mandela" (down two blog posts) might be an object lesson in fine B&W inkjet printing -- a black guy with silver hair wearing a white shirt in a whitish room looking out a brightly lit window toward white buildings. Are there any tones missing in there?

Thank you for this, Mike. Although I didn't disagree with your prior list of common faults found in today's digital B&W images, this post provides a constructive and useful way to avoid them. The "catch" of course is that it depends on being able to recognize and benchmark against truly excellent prints. On the other hand, if someone has no reference point for what their idea of excellence looks like, their odds of being able to replicate it are slim-to-none.

My brother in law, Greg Smallman, makes, arguably by some it seems, the worlds most revered and innovative classical guitars. Many would say the best. Played by the most highly regarded classical guitarists in the world. John Williams has bought many of them over the years and was choosing his next one to purchase. Greg offers him a few of his best to choose from. On this one occasion John plays one and gives it back to Greg and says, ‘this is the best guitar I have ever played (the best you have ever made), you must keep it.” It now sits in the tuning room and ever single guitar that gets maid is referenced against it.

I bought a reference print off you many years ago that Ctien created. I look at it regularly. It’s stunning in its craftsmanship. I have a draw full of reference prints.

You are so right, we need to look at them regularly to tune ourselves in, just as we need to practice taking photographs before we take good ones...

I attended one of Fred Picker's workshops many years ago and he also suggested keeping a set of reference prints in the darkroom. In fact, in his own darkroom Fred kept a copy of Ansel Adams' "Tenaya Lake".

Before you throw in the towel on digital BW. You must rent a Sigma SDQ from lens Rentals.


It even comes with the great 30mm lens with the rental. The Sigma Quattro sensor is the best affordable Digital BW camera with true pixel resolution. You can even select the tone. Also best if you remove the dust blocker filter to get the full spectrum range. The handling is great and the metering only worked for me in the monochrome mode, making it scream out to only use it in monochrome.
Please rent it, its cheap and give us a BW review.
Thank you,

A very helpful idea. Thanks Mike.

Good advice... definitely worth making... I’v read Ben Long’s books over and over, but when I went through the majority of his episodes on Lynda.com and the information sinks in better. Maybe has something to do with his voice or presentation?

Mike, you are on the right track here and I'm sure that every photo book and art exhibits you looked at over the years helped add to the cumulative image you knew was possible in the making. The musical soundtrack of our lives adds to both the look and feel of the photos we know are there. All the life changing experiences we go through show up in the world view we just want to share...

I make the best black and white print I can using my trusted P800 and then go into the darkroom and try to beat it. Sometimes I can... sometimes I can't.

When I was doing much more travel photography, about 30 years ago, before a trip I always tried to spend at least a week looking through the photo books in my collection. I found this "calibrated" my mind with good pictures and compositions which seemed to pay off as I travelled. I developed the ability to see a picture in an instant in my mind. Whether I stopped in time to get the shot is another matter.

Now that I'm older (73) I feel I still have that ability to very quickly see an image in a scene, if it's there. Conversely, many times I don't even raise the camera as the scene is nothing but cliches.

There was the one that got away! You'll remember HCB's famous photo of the robed person, arms outstretched, on a high hill looking out over a misty valley. I saw this! Or something like it. It was in Java in 1989. I was in a mini-bus as we rounded a corner but I didn't have the guts to yell "Stop! Photo!" I would have had to stage it, but the moment passed. I never got it on film, but it's stored in my mind. Carpe diem!

Mike wrote: "I have that old folder in the barn someplace. Wish I could find it—it would be interesting to post all the images and discuss them."
Please do. I fully understand the pain when searching for something that you know you have somewhere but cannot recall the location.
Let me propose Plan B also: why not post any photo it would fit, pretending you found it in the barn?

Although your post yesterday almost tweaked my grey cells into responding, (four previous decades of stop / fix residue in my nostrils and pores still keep me interested in monochrome), today's is more to the point I would like too make. During the summer I spent an afternoon at the truly excellent André Kertész exhibition in the nearby Chateau de Tours here in central France. Interestingly, for historical comparison, the show included several panels of tear-sheets from NYGS books and other noted publications. I had frequently leafed through NYGS tomes thinking their reproduction and printing standards were of top quality... but alongside the original Kertész prints the tonal ranges looked rather lacklustre. So to the point, yes, collect tear-outs for some inspiration, but also strive to collect original works whenever possible for a true reference.

Is there the possibility that ink jet printing could usher in a different tonal quality to 'good,' traditional darkroom B&W prints? Not worse or better, just different. From my own experience it would seem so, or perhaps digital color photography and ink jet printing makes it easier to consider alternative B&W tones.

I generally second your suggestion for folks to collect physical examples of prints they admire, although the actual mechanics of doing so are probably impractical. I buy books and visit works in-person when possible. Viewing works on the web is still highly problematic.

But I would add one important step to your suggestion: always attach notes regarding why you find the print compelling. How does it strike you? Why does it seem to capture your gaze?

Ben Long's very fluid overview of b&w tonality standards is a fine starting base. But tonality of any image (print) is only a modifier, like and adjective, in the visual language of imagery. Using his example of the woman's portrait, one is a bit foggy and the other is crisp. But it's entirely possible that the foggy print reflects the photographer's intentions. I can think of no better example of magnificent "bad" prints than those of the late Roy DeCarava, especially his photogravure prints. Lots of his work is dark, lacks contrast, and has motion blur or poor focus. Yet it's some of the most expressive b&w work ever made.

So I think that your real point is, or should be, to learn to master the medium by studying, not just collecting, examples that you admire. To apply an old English class finger-pointer, if you can't say what you mean you certainly won't mean what you say! But you must also learn to recognize what you want to say! If all you're trying to accomplish with that camera is to record light on surfaces (thanks Garry) you've probably wasted lots of money on tools you'll never really need.

I have a much loved developer stained copy of Michael Kenna's Twenty year Retrospective, it lived, for years, in my darkroom. I could never get near the look of that book with a wet print. Imagine my shock on visiting his former "home gallery" in San Fransisco, neither did he, the stunning book images, to my eye, surpassed the wet prints.

I used to have a personal rule where if I could not figure out a good way to print a picture in 4 or 5 (or 5 or 10) tries then I would decide the picture was no good anyway and put it away.

Maybe I would come back to it later. But usually not.

This rule is still good to apply to digital ... if you can't make it look good on the screen, in general, in just a few tries you probably have a better picture to work on anyway.

@Ben Long’s very clear explanation, the following. If you ever wrestle with color-casts in you B&W prints, try this (if you print from Lightroom and use an Epson printer): in the Print-module, go to Color-Management, and then under Profile go for Managed by Printer. That done, in Print Settings, go to Color Matching and now choose Epson Color Controls (instead of Color Sync), as now the color is managed by the lprinter, right? Then under click ‘Basic’ click Advanced B&W Photo, and under ‘Advanced Color Settings: Tone: Normal.
Now you will be printing with nothing but Black, Light Black and Light Light Black pigments. (As a bonus, as these pigments consist of nothing but carbon, your photo will not fade in centuries to come.)
But if you do wish to add some toning, that also is very easy to do with the color wheel that you will find in the Advanced Color Settings.
Most of this was pointed out to me by instruction book writer and photographer Martin Evening, now some ten years ago. The essence is, when printing B&W don’t let Adobe mix the greys, going by a profile, but DIY in the Epson menu.

The LATimes reported today that UCLA will create an endowed chair for photographer Catherine Opie, the first in the Art Department. In the LATimes article , is this: “Things have really shifted in photography,” Opie said. “We don’t need a color processor. Everyone is printing on Epson. So I’m redesigning the darkroom to bring it back to silver gelatin, black-and-white printing.”

Read the article here: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-12-09/catherine-opie-endowed-chair-ucla-resnick-donation

A few years back you discussed «how far should I go ?» with respect to treating an image for printing and your answer was «to far and one step back».
I have used that as a guideline for years, when unsure push your idea a little bit further, and you will see when you have gone to far, especially when you have the prints side by side.

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