Confessions of a recovering "Magic Bullet" chaser : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Ever heard of a magic bullet? It's a mystical potion or piece of hardware that will turn a mediocre photographer into a great one. I am a recovering magic-bullet chaser. As part of my recovery, I am posting my tortured tale out here in public for all to see. I chose the LF forum because I mostly shoot 4x5, but the painful lessons contained herein could be applied to any format. It's a long ramble, so thanks in advance for your patience.

I'm finally out of the closet, and it feels good. For years, I looked for miracle cures to save my crummy prints. I tried every film, lens and developer I could get my hands on. I'd read stuff like this: "I just bought a 135mm f5.6 Ektakron (with the red dial) and I can't believe the difference! I'm throwing away all my old negatives and starting over!", or "You must try developing TMQ in D11-MicroGoop. I have, and my prints GLOW IN THE DARK", or "If you're not using fireflies as your enlarger light source, throw away your camera!". Of course I'd run right out and buy a red-dial Ektakron or ten gallons of glow-in-the-dark developer, and guess what? One more magic bullet, same pictures, less disposable income.

Thesis: There are no magic bullets, no miracle cures. Good prints are the result of many incremental improvements. Furthermore, gross errors in one area can completely mask many such improvements in other areas. To see lots of improvement, you have to make lots of changes.

Let's consider film developer. Judging by the volume of traffic I see on the Web, many of us obsess about which one we use. We are convinced that good prints will come our way if only we can find the right potion. Pyro seems to come up a lot, so I'll use it as an example. Please, no flames. I'm sure it's fine stuff; I'm merely illustrating a point.

The resurgence of pyro's popularity owes itself mostly to Gordon Hutchings' book. He makes some specific claims about the properties of pyro negatives, and by the way, his prints never looked better. Recovering bullet-chasers (like myself) read this and immediately start to drool. Frantic phone calls are made. "FedEx overnight is NOT GOOD ENOUGH! Send a courier via a charter flight. I need the pyro by tomorrow morning! The future of photography is a stake!". We tremblingly develop our precious negatives, seductively yellow-green and luminous, while dreaming of "Moonrise, Hernandez". Breathlessly we make a print, and……hmmm. Kinda looks like the old prints.

How can this be? Gordon Hutchings uses pyro, and his prints are better than mine. Didn't I follow all the rules? Wasn't I a good consumer? Why am I being punished? Where's the disconnect? Here's a guess. Before Mr. Hutchings ever used pyro, he was already a very good photographer and a very good printer. He understands his tools and materials. In the chain of events that starts with the lens and ends with the finished print, he's eliminated 90% of possible problems. He's 90% efficient.

To a guy who's running at 90% effectiveness, a change in developer is probably going to make a difference. Maybe pyro has some special properties that give you an additional 3% potential to play with. A guy who's already got his act together will fully realize that potential. The incremental gain won't be masked by other problems.

Now picture someone at the other end of the spectrum. I, um, I mean HE is running at about 40%. His negative carrier is not parallel to the baseboard, so he has to stop down to f32 for depth of field. Don't worry that you've just lost all your sharpness to diffraction. And maybe his darkroom is about as dark as the inside of a ping-pong ball. Pesky highlights. The list goes on, and I think you get the point.

Pyro cannot save this poor tortured soul. He is condemned to wail and gnash his teeth in the outer darkness. Everyone else's prints leap off the page, and his look like they came from a 1970's Soviet photocopier. Any incremental gain he might have realized by changing developers has been consumed by much larger losses in other areas.

Here's an analogy. Countless sets of golf clubs are sold with the implicit promise that they'll make you a better golfer. Legions of frustrated weekenders in plaid pants ante up for the new magnesium WunderWand or golf balls with a proprietary dimple pattern guaranteed to work on the surface of Pluto. Their enthusiasm to improve is sincere but misdirected. What they really ought to doing is learning how to use the stuff they already own. They will drop an obscene amount of money on a set of clubs that could (in theory), deliver a golf ball to the hole with pinpoint accuracy, and yet the perverse sphere still turns a right angle and disappears into the pond. Nice try, but Tiger Woods could beat you with a hockey stick.

Most of us already have the tools we need to make better prints. We just need to learn how to use them. This was brought into focus when I attended a darkroom workshop with Howard Bond a few months ago. He didn't tell me anything I hadn't already heard; he just showed me how to apply it. I didn't see any red-dial Ektakrons or Micro-FlowD23. What I did see was an experienced craftsman, using materials not unlike mine. It was liberating to know that I already had everything I needed to make much better prints. I just had to learn to realize their maximum potential.

So, where do you find these incremental improvements, these small, non-magic bullets? I've listed a few suggestions. Optimize these things first, THEN go buy a new lens, or change developers. Aim the obsession where it can do some good.

Do you know how to focus your view camera, how to use movements to optimize the plane of focus? Always using f45 is not the answer.

What ISO is your favorite film? It's probably not what's on the box. Same for development time.

Your enlarger's negative holder, lens board and easel all need to be very, very close to parallel. If you've never checked, they probably aren't.

Do you use fresh, healthy chemistry?

Your enlarger lens has a sharpest aperture. Do you know what it is?

How dark is your darkroom? Turn on the enlarger and look up into the light, and see what your print sees. Any other light sources up there? Reflections? Light leaks?

Does your enlarger vibrate when trucks drive by?

In any process that involves a chemical reaction, are all the variables (temperature, time) under tight control?

Do you know how to burn and dodge? Do you have effective tools readily available, tools that make the job easy? The good news is that, unlike everything else in photography, the tools are cheap!

Well, there's a start….I'm sure there's plenty more. Maybe the forum readers could suggest some others.

And by the way, I told a lie earlier. The chain of events doesn't start at the lens. It starts inside your head.

So.....anyone want to buy a red-dial Ektakron? It's in MINT condition, and guaranteed to make your negatives glow in the dark.

Thanks for reading, and good light.

-- Kevin Bourque (, November 17, 2001


I'm still panting from having just run out to buy the as yet unreleased 27mm-1288mm zoom Schiendenista F1.2 zoom that covers my 8x10 with 100mm of movement. It is guaranteed to deliver the most fantastic philosophical metaphysical preraferlist interpretations of both real and imaginaty subjects on Gods geen eath. I would give you a more complete reply but I have to take more medication to ease the excitment this brings my synapses. I am considering a full lobotomy and I have already booked it for the week following delivery of my new pride and joy just in case my weak human mind cannot cope with the revealtions I get from the images it produces. In the pre release materials the manufactures assues me that I will be able to still produce the same meaninful images before and after the lobotomy due to the effectiveness of the lenses resolving power. It promises to resolve not only lines per milimeter but moral, ethical and thoelogical dilemmas at the rate of 1000 dilemas per MM at on ecandle power at the distance of 2.34 meters.


Yours in Photographic Phaith


-- Ed (, November 17, 2001.

I, too, used to chase the magic bullets. I started doing photography six years ago during my freshman year of high school. At that time I was using my dad's old Minolta 35mm slr and trying every conceivable combination of god knows what in an attempt to make things look better, except for my actual technique. I read just about every book there is on photographic technique and over time my philosophy went to the other end of the scale. By my junior year of high school I was shooting 120 and 4x5, sticking to one film, one developer, one paper, etc. I tried my best to exploit everything that one set of materials and techniques had to offer. This helped me some, but things didn't really start to get better until I found a happy medium. I now use whatever hardware and materials I feel best suit what I'm trying to do. If something I'm using isn't doing what I need it to do, I find something that will. For me the hardest thing to learn was to only make changes that were warranted by an actual need, not just by some passing feeling or desire to change things up a bit. Sure, I try new things fairly regularly, but only to supplement what I'm using or as a side project of some sort.

Of course, I don't think anyone is immune to the occasional magic bullet. When the 35mm rangefinder scene exploded over the last couple of years, I found myself caught up in it. As I type this, there's a largely unused vintage Canon VT rangefinder sitting on top of my computer monitor. Sure, it was fun for a while, but did it improve my photography? I'll let you figure that one out.

My current take on things is that in order to truly start doing better photography, one has to constantly refine technique, try and keep from stagnating, and most importantly become a perfectionist. When I started rejecting the idea of "good enough" my compositions and resulting photographs improved markedly.

My suggestions:

Never take anything in photography at face value. Example: I've seen quite a few references to photographers shooting HP5 at 400 and developing in PMK. I do HP5 and PMK quite regularly, but I shoot the stuff at EI 250 because that's what I found worked best for me.

Never be completely satisfied- always strive to do that little bit better. If you get lazy, your work will suffer.

That's really about it for me. I've only been in the photography game for 6 years and LF for the last 4 so there's only a limited amount I can offer at this point.

-- David Munson (, November 17, 2001.

I, too, am a magic bullet chaser. The problem is that I'm already past the 90% level which Kevin mentions. As I have gotten old and creaky, and possibly lazy, I want to maintain that level of proficiency without the effort, dedication, and time that I spend to get my present results. Do I have to work with a back-breaking tripod; is there a new fast film which will give me the grain and sharpness of my old, slow stuff? How about if I try 4x5 and an Omega D-2 instead of 35mm in a Leica V35? Are there new equipment, materials, processes, that will free me from my old chains? There have certainly been break-throughs in the past, such as Kodak's Ektaflex process which freed me from Dye Transfer bondage. Kodachrome is nearly gone. Do I exchange my 16oz Leica D for a 3 pound Canon with autofocus, autoexposure, autoadvance, and a viewfinder I can actually see through with these damn byfocals I have to wear? As Paul Strand once complained, "Just about the time I find a product I really like, they take it off the market." Two years of trying this and that and the other have so far convinced me that unless Digital is the answer (that's my next adventure), then the cost of even teeny-tiny incremental improvement is excessive. If I want sharp negatives, give up my wonderful zooms for prime lenses. If I want really sharp pictures shoot Technical Pan on a tripod instead of anything with enough speed to hand hold. If I want exquisite shadow detail in my prints, use Amidol wich costs a fortune and lasts only a few hours. Chasing the Magic Bullet is the only way to find out.

-- Wilheim (, November 17, 2001.

Geez Kevin....and here I was just dying to try out the new Dammitol!

-- John Hicks (, November 17, 2001.

I just stepped out of the darkroom and found this post, to which I can only add

Time, Patience, Diligence.

and Oh, the best magic bullet I ever bought was a laser aligner.

-- Kevin Kemner (, November 17, 2001.

There could be a 12-step program for all our futures.

-- Todd Caudle (, November 17, 2001.

All of the equipment in the world, all of the mastery of technique you can muster, is nothing if:

-You don't have anything to say that can only be most directly expressed with photography

You don't have talent

You don't have a feel for the poetry of photography and a desire to explore that poetic feel.

If you don't have the passion and fierce desire to use that talent to share your vision.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, November 17, 2001.

Kevin: Good thoughts. I was thinking along those lines today while I was showing my work at a local arts show. During every show, I get questions on what brand of camera I made the picture with, or what brand enlarger I used to make the prints. Too many times, I give the brand names and the person leaves perfectly satisfied. I try not to confuse the issue and give the several brand names of the lenses I use. What disturbs me is that no one ever asks about the thought processes, how I made the decision to expose and develop the negs, or why I selected that paper and contrast to make the print, or what burning and dodging was necessary to make the print look right. It is if buying the right brand of equipment, or the brand used by someone else, is all that is needed. No one ever asks why I decided to make the picture in the first place. Just use the Hasseldorf camera with a Snidergon Ektar and develop in Dammitol and you can't miss.


-- Doug Paramore (, November 17, 2001.

Ellis: good point. I didn't mean to imply that technical prowess alone was going to make anyone a great artist. I just wanted to point out that magic bullets are "easy" fixes....all you have to so is spend money. The other stuff involves thinking and experiments and maybe some hard work.

The world is full of artists with great ability and nothing to say. For all I know, I'm one of them. Maybe I'm just generating some interesting stuff for my heirs to throw out. On the other hand, I want to know if my prints are bad because I have no vision, or because I don't know who to use my tools. I have to say, I like them better now that they don't look like mud!

Also, much of the appeal of a print from a large format negative has to do with subtleties of tone and detail. Throw that away, and you might as well use APS.

Thanks for all the thoughtful replies.

-- Kevin Bourque (, November 17, 2001.

I was fortunate to avoid this malady to a great extent. Fortunately when I got serious about my photography 15 years ago I took the advice of a teacher and stuck with a few basic materials and learned to get the most out of them. I started out with the Kodak Trinity- TriX, D76 and Dektol. I pretty much stuck with this combo along with expanding into TMAX films for 5 years. I removed some variables early by purchasing a Nikon FA and a new Beseler Enlarger. i learned that the technical side of photography is simply following sound scientific methods. Set a baseline of standards, Then experiment in a rational way to improve those standards. I discovered that with patience you can make any combination of film, paper, and chemistry produce excellent prints as long as you understand their strengths and work with them in mind. When I moved into large format 10 years ago I realized that I now had to eliminate more variables so with a used D-2 I purchased new lenses, and one new 150mm lens for the camera. No excuses for unsharp negs or prints except my technique. So i experiment, eliminate variables etc.

I still use Dektol, but I have grown to using other chemistry, specific developers for certain situations and certain papers for certain negs and I still test and experiment with them to get the results i want.

One last item, I have found that the other indespensible item(s) are some fine prints from other photographers that you can compare your work with. The quality of those prints was a good strating point to strive for.

-- James Chinn (, November 17, 2001.

Chasing the bullet? How about dodging it? I wear Kevlar

-- Sean yates (, November 18, 2001.

There's an easy solution - unemployment.

I've just had to flog all the Hasselblad and Leica magic bullets to pay the rent. Now I'm back to a basic 5x4 kit and a Nikon F2 with some old Q-series lenses. I can only afford a few films a week so wasted frames are not an option. Result? Some of the best photos I've taken in years, a massive release of creative energy and a determination to put in that extra effort to get the best results out of what I've got.

So give it a try - tell your boss to go F. himself and sell most of the gear. (Those who want to try this cure as a short term, reversible measure could just try locking all equipment in a cupboard for a weekend except for one camera, one lens and a few film holders.)

-- Stuart Whatling (, November 19, 2001.

One of the best bodies of work I've seen recently was done by photographer who used a plastic 120 camera with a plastic lens.

-- Jim (, November 19, 2001.

May I add the "Land of Magic" to the discussion... Racing 80 mph down a boring interstate to get to the "Good Spots", and missing the wonderful people and country that line the highways and roads that sail by overhead at the overpasses. -Dave

-- Dave Richhart (, November 19, 2001.

I took the Rollie twin out refreshing to use one camera and one lens only....light and fast to use ...all hand held...great Zeiss lens that seems to alwaws feel right no matter had been sitting for a while but something told me to use it today in the forest and beach.I used to think it was a slow camera when I used 35mm more, but now it seems incredibly fast and convenient and LIGHT as compared to a view camera. Maybe simplification is the real magic bullet. I really had fun with soul could breathe more deeply without having to worry about all the errors that I might make with the view camera.If I have all day to photograph I do love to use the view camera though! The Rollie let me take 36 shots in 2 hours while on a 3 mile hike with no particular destination...just walking and composing and photographing.....being in the moment...photographing with nature in tune with the universe and with my wife!Believe me wife would have been less than enthusiastic if I brought the tripod/view along!Now to develop the film.

-- Emile de Leon (knight, November 19, 2001.

Gosh Kevin the writing is on the wall for me and I guess I had better also sign up for “Magic Bullet Anonymous”. Now I have but one small question. What am I going to do with that money? Give it to the wife? Heaven forbid! I starting to feel weak in the knees already!

-- GreyWolf (, November 19, 2001.

What a great post! So many of us have been there and recognize both the desire and the futility! Since re-entering lf after many years away I have been very determined not to repeat mistakes of the past- in 4x5 TriX/PMK/Galerie/Dektol ( I wa susing HC110 until I shot exactly the same subject with TriX/C110 and TriX/PMK and could see the difference (acutance/highlights)-only PMK since then) and in 8x10 HP5/PMK/Azo/Amidol-these combos are "under control" in my darkroom so any problem with the photographs-ITS ME!. This has forced me to focus only on what Im doing to make a good picture or what Im not doing when a mediocre image comes about. As with another message having prints to "inspire" you also helps A LOT. What is lacking for many of us is really good, constructive criticism. As with many passions it is about self discovery-the magic bullet syndrome is part of that journey. Thanks for a great thread...


-- Alan Barton (, November 19, 2001.

What a wonderful post. I would like to share one thing that is helping me greatly that was hinted at above. I have found and befriended a photographer here where I live who is also a professor of photography at the local art college. I have employed him as my personal photographic coach for an hourly rate when I need critique of work that I have just finished. He does this gladly and it has helped my printing to an amazing degree. I tend to "fall in love" at times with an image and my objectivity goes out the window. He shows me what's missing, ill-conceived, or poorly executed. He asks me tough questions about intention in taking the photo and composition. I ALWAYS seem to come away with something new and fresh with deeper understanding or new distinctions that I NEVER could have come up with just on my own. People in other fields always use a coach to get to the next level: mucisians, athletes, dancers, singers, meditators, craftsman of all types. We photographers tend to be an "independent lot" and what we miss is the opportunity for others to contribute to our growth and development.

Someone once said that anyone who wants to master anything needs three things: Knowledge, practice and coaching. We tend to forget the coaching.


-- Scott Jones (, November 20, 2001.

Damn these folks with the puritan work ethic who want to replace good old silver bullets with plain hard work. I mean, hard work can be found around any street corner, but the seductive lure of a Silmarillion gold dot negative souped in Rudimentol - ah, you don't find that just anywhere, my good friends. Cheers, DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, November 20, 2001.

Kevin's posting is very thought-provoking. Everyone should read it, to help gain perspective. I nominate it for placement on the homepage!

-- Michael Chmilar (, November 20, 2001.


Thought provoking ideas. Don't tell that to many of the crowd at they might try to tear you a new one. I've always used one film, one developer, and a 4x5 with three lenses. Subsequently, I have learned immensely about the craft of photography. I've been fortunate enough to learn photography from people who aren't obsessed with "magic bullets"... they helped me avoid that trap.

Now what do we do about lazy photographers and Photoshop?

-- floren (, November 20, 2001.

Just a comment on what Scott says about coaching.Independent views can be enormously helpful,and an experienced hand a great learning tool.The idea of apprenticeship is sorely missing in this day and age,and I'm sure many here would have liked to have been trained to some degree by a master practitioner.Often the creative ideas are in place,but the means to translate them from a visualisation to an image are missing.Whether it be chemical or digital,learning of technique is best learnt through sustained practice and a watchful,independent eye.Learning to manage the processes involved in producing platinumn prints on your own will be frustrating and expensive.Taking a workshop will eradicate this wasteful and tedious process.You will be shown how to maximise your materials and time,and get a result sooner than expected. We are a solitary lot,and forums like this are indispensable in exchanging technique,philosophy and tools....shame that images cannot be posted for constructive group criticism!

-- Andrey Belopopsky (, November 20, 2001.

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