Musings on Photography

Decision Time

Posted in photoshop, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on February 21, 2008

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Colin Jago makes some interesting points about when irrevocable decisions are made in the photographic process, and some further observations about the difference between a film based process and a fully digital one.

The interesting thing for me is that, back when all of my photography was done with film, I made very few irrevocable decisions at exposure time. I suppose I did the whole ‘visualization’ thing, since the ground glass of my camera displayed the image upside down and in color but when I looked at the groundglass everything was right side up and the color wasn’t evident to me. But I didn’t ‘plan’ the look of the photo at exposure time. Instead, I took care to make the exposure so that I preserved as many options as possible.

That is, I didn’t make decisions like “Oh, I want all of that shadow to form a solid mass with no detail”. Instead I made the exposure that left detail in the shadows. I’ve struggled with lots of things in the wet darkroom, but I’ve never had a problem burning a detailed shadow down to featureless black. So my basic strategy with film has been (for a long time) “Get it all onto the negative. Sort it out in the darkroom.” My observation is that I’m not very adept at making decisions in the field. Better by far to procrastinate and make the decisions later, and in particular to preserve options so that the decisions aren’t irrevocable. If the detail is in the negative, you can always throw it away later. If the detail isn’t in the negative – well, we’re in there with the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyham:

The moving finger writes
and having writ, moves on,
nor all your Piety nor Wit
shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
nor all your tears wash out a word of it

As a result, my darkroom process had lots of twists in it, all designed to let me get functionality rather like what you get with Photoshop Curves. I flashed paper to change the curve shape. I bleached prints to change the curve shape. I dodged and burned and made prints with the contrast changing all over the print. Essentially all of the decisions about tonality and tone arrangement and how the print actually looked were made in the darkroom, not out in the field at exposure time.

The thing that made all this possible was the straight line, ‘modern’ films like TMAX films from Kodak and the Delta films from Ilford. All of that complicated zone system stuff boiled down to what, at the very end, was a very simple process – always give generous exposure to the shadows, so that you avoid losing shadow detail to the abrupt toe of these straight line films. Get the shadow exposure well up onto the curve. The straight line characteristic curve of the film ensures that you won’t blow out the highlights. TMAX-100 probably can capture up to zone XIII or XV without losing highlight contrast. The real limit to the recording of the film is that you end up running into halation when the highlights get really up there.

The bottom line was to give film generous exposure, so that everything in the scene is recorded on the film. Do that, and pick film development so that the density range of your developed negatives falls close to the middle of the range for the VC paper you use, and you’re cooking with gas.

The upshot here is that, since 1994 or so, I’ve used a process that was tailored to preserving as many options at exposure time and deferring all the decisions possible until printing time. I know that many large format photographers used/still use much the same process – I think I first heard it articulated by John Sexton in a printing workshop I took from him long ago.

It occurs to me that this might go a long way toward explaining why some folks are finding the switch from film to digital difficult to navigate and others seem to make the switch with minimal fuss, botheration, and hardship.

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