Sunday, 26 August 2012

The perfect print; possible?

It is still one of the most talked about subjects Visit any forum to do with photography digital or traditional and you will find threads relating to the perfect negative or capture. What developer to use, how to manipulate the raw file, what does a well exposed negative or histogram look like and so on. But this post is not about our digital friend or for that matter the negative it is to do with the photograph - the positive end of the process. I cannot get there without some negative chat first though!

After the recent deluge it is nice to be sitting back in the garden office writing this post and enjoying the late afternoon sun with my friend the cat. It is quite surprising how peaceful it can be in such a built up area. Not as negative as you thought but I digress.
It was Ansel Adams and Fred R. Archer that gave us a proven method of producing a properly exposed negative every time with the zone system. They divided the black and white negative up into eleven sections if you include zero from pure white to full black. Adams then said that really there are only nine zones if you are in pursuit of the perfect negative and then only seven of those will give texture. This is all well and good if you are using a plate camera but most of us don't. We use cassette and or roll film where all our carefully exposed negatives get a one time fits all development. In a round about way Mr Adams is saying that film sees the world in a more limited way to us. So we have all engineered ways of finding our perfect negative. What do I look for? A negative that has detail from high light to shadow and a good density above base clear in other words defined rectangles of tones the length of the film.

The day was very bright that the light
meter read a six stop difference
between the house wall in the background
and the shadow cast by the barn. I
over exposed the negative by two and a
half stops.
We all strive to produce the perfect negative but it was not until recently that it dawned on me that it does not necessarily translate to the perfect print. So what is the perfect print? One that is easy to print but what do they mean by easy to print? One that does not require a lot of dodging and burning. A single exposure success wouldn't that be the perfect print! With the way the negative sees the scene in front of it and all the variables in its path is it not inevitable that you will have to manipulate the image projected onto the base board of the enlarger to produce the perfect print? 

Recently I came close to my interpretation of the perfect print, one that does not require a lot of manipulation. By placing the test strip in such a way that the area that needed burning in was exposed to several different timed exposure segments this allowed me to add the extra time for that area to the first print. With experience the hit or miss aspect of the test strip process is lessened. It still doesn't take away that bit of a buzz when it all falls into place. Something I've never had with digital.


  1. You might want to read the Wikipedia page on this guy Fred R. Archer (1889 – April 27, 1963), was respect to the zone system. In particular the quote from Adams regarding credit for it.