How Long for a 'Fine Print'? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Greetings, I wonder how many hours, days or weeks it can take to produce a so-called 'fine print' (Ansel Adams definition). I usually spend 3-5 hours to get it right but even then, it may not be quite perfect. In the hands of an acomplished printer, how long does it usually take to get from the first draft print to the final print (the so-called fine print). I realize that it is dependent on how close the straight print is to the final print. Some examples would be quite helpful. Thanks and Happy Holidays. KB

-- Keith Baker (, December 22, 2001


what is "right"


-- Kevin Kolosky (, December 22, 2001.

well, after 30 years, it takes about 10 minutes. i used to spend hours screwing around with the intricacies of printing very sublte variations but after doing a million prints, you get to where you can look at a negative and just know what to do. it's pretty hard to beat experience...

-- jnorman (, December 23, 2001.

Wow - mine spend like half that much time in the developer alone!

-- Henry Friedman (, December 23, 2001.

This is so dependent on many variables. First of all, when I make a new negative, I need to make a straight 8x10 of it to "live " with for awhile. I don't spend a great deal of time doing this print (usually on RC paper) but it may take days or weeks before I actually tackle it for real. Then, I start by making an 11x14 on fiber paper. By now, I've had a good chance to think about what needs to be done to make this into the final product. Sometimes, a negative is a good candiditate for some kind of masking or an alternative paper or some other material or technique. Even after I've taken great pains and maybe a couple of hours to arrive at what I want, when I mount it and show it to other photogrpaher friends of mine, I may hear comments or suggestions or just observe reactions that lead to revising the way I print it. I may even temporarily abandon it and go back and revise it months later when I'm certain I know what I want. I think it's a mistake to try and force the fishined product in one session or to attempt doing so right after you've made the negative. The other thing to remember is that as you get to be better at printing, negatives you had trouble with a year or two ago, may now be printable to a higher standard, given your improved skill.

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, December 23, 2001.

Robert, that is great advice.

-- Ted Kaufman (, December 23, 2001.

Well I figured out that I can get a fine print when I finall get into the darkroom strat exposing and splashing around and can say " Fine that's printed"

the actual definition f a fine print depends on the subject the negative nad your own taste. Some negs are esy to print and others darn near drive you nuts. Then you go back and look at your own work years lter and say ,"that ain't nothing" .

-- Ed (, December 23, 2001.

...or, "You ain't all that!"

-- Andre Noble (, December 23, 2001.

Keith: I can usually get a print I like in about four tries, starting from scratch. I start with a test strip of at least half a sheet of 8x10, get the overall exposure time, then make a full 8x10 work print. From the work print I can decide what the print needs, and by referring back to the test strip I can determine the seconds of burning in needed to get me in the ball park. Then I make that print and see what fine tuning needs to be done. The fourth print is usually pretty close. It takes longer when changes in contrast are called for. Also, I will look at the print after it dries to see if it dried down too much, and make another print if needed. The key for me is to standardize processing times, keep the developer fresh and the familiarity with my own setup and neg developing. Even then, I may go back a week later, look at the print, and wonder why I didn't see something that needs fixing. As stated earlier, experience and familiarity with your stuff speeds up the process. There just ain't no easy way if you are gonna make prints you are proud of.

Merry Christmas,

-- Doug Paramore (, December 23, 2001.

20 seconds @ f:5.6.

-- Wihlmhn (, December 23, 2001.

It depends on the negative.When doing his last prints of the "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico" negative I recall reading that Ansel Adams and his assistant would set up the enlarger the day before and come back for a full day of printing, to a series of finished prints that met his standards which included being free of surface defects, processing marks, etc.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, December 23, 2001.

The time varies with the negative, when I print & how I feel at the time. Some prints are almost identical from session to session. Others I interpret differently as time goes on or in trying to see just how I want it to look. At times it is within 3 sheets of paper, give or take a bit of planned post print manipulation. Other times it is longer and at times it is a few sheets of paper, fix-rinse-tone- rinse-mount-mat-frame & look for awhile before deciding if I like it enough to go ahead & do a few finished prints. A bit slow this way but sometimes after looking I throw it out & start all over while other times it is a matter of tweaking for final presentation. Even going back to duplicate what I already did as living with it a bit tells me I like it as I printed it.

One surprise through the years came with moving up in film formats. The idea of shoot & contact print the perfect image just doesn't work for me too often. Small manipulations on the print in dodging/burning as well as bleaching & intensifying from neg to print take time. Even when printing on Azo with 60 second developing times it can take more time than expected. I think part of the time factor is in knowing this is the final image... the contact. Limiting yourself this way makes for less work in some ways but forces more concentration in others. In the end I prefer contact printing. The sharpness & clarity is there in a way enlarging can't give me. Both have their advantages & both their own path to a final 'fine print'. All I really know is that when I see a body of work that is consistent in vision and high quality I know the photographer worked to get it that way. Anyone can get lucky every now & then but to do it on a regular basis, getting quality every step of the way, is difficult. My hat is off to all those who make the effort & learn to do it.

-- Dan Smith (, December 23, 2001.


If you follow the method I describe in my article , "On Printing--and why there is no such thing as a difficult negative to print" (the article can be found on our web site [] under "Writings"), you should never have to spend more than an hour or two at the most making the best print your negative can yield. Let me know if you try it and find otherwise. This method will work whether you are contact printing or enlarging.

Michael A. Smith

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 23, 2001.

As others have said, it depends. I've attended all of John Sexton's darkroom workshops and have generally followed the methods learned there when I'm enarging. His "system" involves first making as good a straight print as possible, which may take an hour or two, then starting in with dodging, burning, flashing, masking, whatever seems necessary. He spends a lot of time and effort, I'd guess on average at least half a day probably more, the first time a negative is printed. He advocates not assuming you'll make the final vesion the first time a negative is printed but instead doing the best you can do the first time around and then living with it for a while. Of course once a final version is decided upon, things go much quicker for copies. I think the guy who did a lot of Ansel Adams printing after his death said he got to where he could print "Moonrise" in a couple minutes. All of this assumes you're enlarging. I contact print 8x10 negatives occasionally and that's much faster since the burning, dodging, etc. is usually far less (for me at least) when contact printing on Azo paper.

-- Brian Ellis (, December 24, 2001.


I'm curious about something. I assume that John Sexton uses the zone System to calculate exposure and development of his negatives. And that his determination of exposure and development is a function of how he previsualizes the final print. That being the case, why would it take so long to get a proper straight print, and then so many more hours to dodge, burn, mask, etc. to get a proper print? And then, since the print was previsualized and supposedly exposed and developed properly, why would he first have to live with it for some period of time before figuring out how he wants to print it? That just doesn't make sense to me.

Michael A. Smith

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 24, 2001.

Maybe this is why it is The Art of Photography.

-- Jeff White (, December 25, 2001.

Interesting question about previsualization and the zone system. As much as I try to previsualize, I find that the image evolves as I work with it. I usually shoot full frame, for instance, but I might change my mind later, and the same goes for the placement of tones.

-- David Goldfarb (, December 25, 2001.

Often I`ll make a work print just to see how it "hangs" for a while. Then if its worth the trouble, I`ll spend the necessary time on a finished print.

-- Steve Clark (, December 25, 2001.

Paula and I use the zone system only very loosely (developing negatives by inspection negates the rigid standards arrived at by extensive zone system testing) and we previsualize the final print, in its tonal makeup only in general terms--we have more of a general feeling of what we want rather than anything absolutely precise. And yet we are usually able to make final prints of just about any negative in about an hour. This is due not only to our method of printing, though surely that helps, but to our understanding of what makes a fine print and what the print should look like. Hoping you will find the writing below to be helpful.

Long ago I was asked by a museum to write a statement for a catalog of their collection. They specifically asked something like "What is your goal when you make a photograph"? After attempts at several paragraph- long answers, I trashed them all and wrote, "I'm just trying to make the best pictures I can." By extension, when printng, I am just trying to make the best print I can. That is a very different approach than trying to recreate what I felt when I was at the scene photographing. I have written about this before and will take the liberty to quote myself.

"Although it is the reality of the subject before you that captures your attention, the feeling one has while photographing is determined by myriad factors. The physical reality before youóthe very real three- dimensional space, the light, the colors, the sounds, the smells, the weatheróis of course a major factor. Of the others, some are more or less stable, such as oneís world view and the general state of oneís psyche and health. Other factors are more fleeting, such as the time you have available (it is hard to be calm and contemplative when rushed, whether by quickly changing light or the need to be somewhere else), the other people who may be present, your dreams from the night before, or a conversation you may have just had. All of these factors contribute to determining your mood, which in turn may affect how you feel about what is before you.

Realizing the absolute impossibility of trying to create for others and to recreate for myself, in a two-dimensional black and white photograph, the feeling of the multi-faceted experience of having been at the scene photographed, my goal when making prints is simply to try to make the best print I can, and thereby to provide, both for myself and for the viewer, a new experienceóone of the photograph itself. As an artist, I am responsible for every square millimeter of the print, in the same way that a composer is responsible for every note, or a poet is responsible for every word. I try to make my prints so that all parts are of equal importance and do not feel they are successful if the viewerís eyes are not somehow involuntarily compelled to navigate to every part. Therefore, the dodging and burning-in I do is not to make elements stand out, but to have them cohere into a unity." End of quote.

In order to look at the print as a unity when one is printing in the darkroom it is essential that you place a large viewing board--a piece of glass or plexiglas--and a proper viewing light (one that matches normal viewing light of finished prints) behind the fixer tray and that you have the space to step back about seven or eight feet from the print. Then you can look at it as a whole and not get hung up in each little part (You do that also, when you look at the print closely. Most people do look at their prints very closely; they often don't step back far enough to look at them impersonally as a whole.) Looking on them impersonally helps, too. When looking at your prints at this time, forget, or try to forget that they are yours. Your only concern should be to make the best print you can. If it is in accord with what you felt at the time you exposed the negative, that's fine; if not, that's fine, too. Your photographs are not providing the viewer (yourself or others) with an experience of the scene, but with an experience of the photograph.

Good luck to all in being able to print more decisively so that you can spend less time per print in the darkroom and more time out there exposing new negatives.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 25, 2001.

The zone system is great for analyzing what is before you and determining what might be done with proper filtration, exposure and development to arrive at a negative that will come closer to achieve the result you feel you want at that moment. The problems are: not everything can be changed by applying zone system technique and when viewing the print in one's darkroom, one is deprived of exactly those real life influences that may have propmted the initial decisions in the first place. Here is where the license to alter the image further can impel the artist to apply some darkroom techiniques such as masking, selective toning of the negative, dodging, burning, bleaching, etc. to see if it's possible to further improve the print. If we were to simply stop at the point of accepting the negative as is and allow ourselves just so much time to do all the dodging and burning we think might help, I suspect many prints would never see the light of day and others would fall far short of everything they could be.

Michael, I read your article on printing and I don't recall reading a sentence that deals with fitting the the negative to the proper contrast grade of paper! Many excellent printers feel this is perhaps the most important step in making a fine print. Is this something you accidentally ommitted, does not apply to contact printing with AZO or do you not feel it's that important?

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, December 25, 2001.

Robert and others,

Michael, I read your article on printing and I don't recall reading a sentence that deals with fitting the negative to the proper contrast grade of paper! Many excellent printers feel this is perhaps the most important step in making a fine print. Is this something you accidentally omitted, does not apply to contact printing with AZO or do you not feel it's that important?

Fitting the negative to the proper grade of paper is of absolute and central importance--so much so that I take it for granted that everyone does this before they go further. It's the first step.

Well, actually it is the second step. The first step is to make what we call a "proof"--a quick print on Grade 2 (or for some on Grade 1) paper. Use these grades regardless of the grade you think will be needed for the final print. This print should have full detail in the highlights and full detail in all of the dark areas. Will this print be gray--too gray? In all likelihood it will. But now you should have full information of what is on the negative. The degree of grayness will almost invariably tell you what grade of paper the negative should be printed on. If the proof is very flat--grade 4 will be needed and so on. It is important that you always make these proofs on the same grade of paper.

When I first started doing this many years ago I had come back from a long trip and had over 600 negatives to print. I tried to match the grade of paper used in the proofs to the negatives. Some of the proofs were extremely contrasty. As I had made them all in one day (they were indeed quick proofs) by looking at the proofs I had no recollection of the degree of contrast of each negative. Years later, when I finally got around to printing some of these negatives I found, much to my surprise, that some of the contrastiest proofs--ones that I had avoided printing because of that--were from quite flat negatives that had been proofed on Grade 4 paper. In general when I looked at these proofs I was given no clue as to the proper grade to print on.

But when all the proofs are on the same grade of paper--and you compare them to each other--the proper grade of paper is usually immediately evident. I'd say that on only about one out of 20 prints I try to print on one grade but have to switch to another--just barely, usually, but enough to make the switch. And that information I get from the proofs, and also from looking quickly at the negative on a light table, which I built into the darkroom.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 25, 2001.

Let me first say that I like Michael's, and Paula's, images very much. But I also have seen pretty much straight prints from them both. Not much change in what was there to begin with. The prints represent the tonalities that existed in the scene withoput much change in printing. I may be wrong, and please reply and set me straight if this assumption is wrong, but after looking at a whole lot of your prints Micheal, I think I understand your puzzlement of why Sexton takes longer to make a final print than you do. Where Michaels prints are fairly literal interpretations of the scene as it was, Sexton's prints are non literal, heavily manipulated interpretations of the tonalities that existed in the original scene. Having seen him make prints from new negatives, and having seen the sites he has photographed, the prints of these scenes are heavily changed. And this is even more so in his recent images in his book "Places of Power". The tonalities of the scene are changed. He uses the zone system to get a negative that will give him the information he needs to then proceed to develop the print as he wants it to be and not how it really appeared. If you saw some of the ruins in person he has photographed, and then looked at the prints that have been made of these ruins, you would see the differences he makes through the printing controls he employees to get the print and feeling he is after. The original scene and it's appearance in the print are two very different things. I think this is where Robert is coming from. Each printer has their own interpretation of a scene and all are as valid as the other. If we were all the same it would get boring quickly. I appreciate Michael's methods and how he arrives at his prints. But it is not the only method in producing a print. And I am glad of that. Keep em coming Michael. I hope to see you at PhotoLA 2002. Or at least a lot more prints. James

-- bigmac (, December 25, 2001.

I would imagine Sexton is more concerned with making the "expressive" print, rather than the "correct" print.

-- mark lindsey (, December 25, 2001.

damn, bigmac, you beat me to it.

-- mark lindsey (, December 25, 2001.

Bigmac and others,

That's an interesting point. However, since you weren't with us at the scene photographed you cannot see the extent to which we have exposed and developed the negative to change the tonalities. Sometimes our prints have the same tonalities as the scene we photographed and sometimes they are quite different. The way we expose and develop or negatives often changes the tonalities significantly. There is a particular tonal look I like to my prints--the major influence on my printing was old engravings and I expose and develop accordingly.

That being said, there are a number of interesting issues that your comments call up. When either Paula or I expose a negative we are seeing not only the shapes and forms and objects; we are also seeing the tonal relationships and it is that we are responding to as much as anything else. (I have often said that I am not photographing things but am photographing relationships.) That being the case, there is no need to do excessive manipulation to get the print that we feel is the most expressive print. From the teaching we have done, and from the many photographers we know, we have found that tonal relationships between each and every thing in the photograph are something often overlooked when photographers are exposing their negatives--so they need to do extensive manipulation later to get what they want.

But there is a bigger and more interesting question your comment calls up as well--it has to do ones influences and one's world's view. Both Paula and I happened, as it turned out, to have had Edward Weston's photographs as our first influence in photography. In fact, it was seeing Weston's work that got us both making photographs in the first place, albeit over 20 years apart. Weston printed pretty much as we do- -some dodging and burning to balance the print, but not anything else. Sexton's main influence was Ansel Adams. Adams often manipulated his prints and changed the tonalities significantly to get an "expressive" print.

So what is the essential difference between Weston and Adams in this regard? Weston talked about not wanting to impose himself on nature, talked about the straightforward recognition of himself in the world. He said that what he was photographing was, "the me of universal rhythms." Adams, on the other hand, had a quite different approach: he thought nothing of changing tonal relationships to get what he felt-- the tonal relationships already existing in the world weren't enough for him. Either that or he did not see them in the most expressive way.

I have never had much of an interest in Adams or in his approach. It always seemed to me to be too much "look at me." Weston's, to my way of thinking, more respectful approach, always has had strong appeal. For myself I have put it this way, "The world has more to teach me than I have to teach it." I hope to always learn and to grow, both as an individual and as a photographer. I feel that to impose myself on the world (in the manner of manipulating my prints to make them more "expressive") would not teach me anything, it would simply confirm what I know. But to discover, already existing in the world, relationships that imply the universal without my having to interfere--from that I learn a great deal.

I certainly hope my photographs, my prints, are expressive, as Weston's surely are. It is just that the expression comes from a different place than does the expression in Adams's and Sexton's photographs. There is no right or wrong in this. It ultimately is a question of who one is.

I don't believe that it has been publicly posted, but since you mentioned it I will make an announcement: Paula and I will be at Photo LA from January 17-20. We, as Lodima Press, our publishing company have a booth there. We invite all participants on this list to visit us there and see our prints first hand. If you come, please introduce yourselves--it would be nice to put faces to the names.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 26, 2001.

Aaron, I hope you're reading this exchange, as it relates to your question: what is meant by personal vision?

Since I print in gum bichromate, my answer to the present question wouldn't be of much use to the group, but I am enjoying reading this thread.

-- Katharine Thayer (, December 26, 2001.

Mr. Smith,

Perhaps just as you advise that we shouldnít judge you because we werenít there, so should you take that same advice when judging Mr. Sexton?

You say we donít know the extent to which you change tonalities, doesnít Mr. Sexton also do this? As did Mr. Adams? And yet you criticize them for doing so. This seems to suggest that there is some arbitrary point that you seem to have that no one else is to go beyond? You say there is no right or wrong in these methods, yet you continue to talk of as if these people are making "mistakes", such as,

"overlooked when photographers are exposing their negatives--so they need to do extensive manipulation later to get what they want. "

Adams wasnít interested in showing only what existed, but wanted to show, in print, the result of the combination of what he saw and what he felt. Adams was very expressive, Nature moved him, and he wanted to show how in a visual sense, is there something wrong with that? Perhaps you should explore the lesser known works of Adams, I think that you would be suprised.

One way is more "respectful" than another? Please explain how that is possibleÖ.

I have no problem with your preference for Weston over Adams or your preference for how you do your darkroom work, but please, please do not tell me that the rest of us are wrong and are going down the wrong path.

-- mark lindsey (, December 26, 2001.

Hi Keith,

When I print, I usually find that I have better results when I print a negative that I have a "passion" for on that particular day. If someone asks me to make a particular print, I usually have trouble if I am not in the mood for it - it can seem forced or unmotivated. But if I feel that a negative may contain a possible gem, and I have a desire to tackle it head on, then I think there is a good chance for making something "fine". As to time, when I am loving the process, 6 hours can seem like 6 minutes, and time can kiss my ass during those magic moments. The only thing on my mind is that negative and the magic that is appearing on the paper. At the end of the session, if I can get a print that seems like a jewel in its appearance - luminous, mysterious, deep, filled with beauty, well, hey, then I feel like somebody had just placed a million dollars into my Paypal account.

Good luck with your printing!

-- James Webb (, December 26, 2001.

Mr. Lindsay,

First, I thank you for your comments. This is a wonderful forum for me to put down some things I have been meaning to put down for a long time and I thank you, and everyone else for providing the excuse for me to get to it. Second, I ask you to read more carefully. Where have I told anyone they are doing anything wrong? And I don't believe I criticized anyone. Nor have I judged anyone. What I said was, "I'm curious about something. I assume that John Sexton uses the Zone System to calculate exposure and development of his negatives. And that his determination of exposure and development is a function of how he previsualizes the final print. That being the case, why would it take so long to get a proper straight print, and then so many more hours to dodge, burn, mask, etc. to get a proper print? And then, since the print was previsualized and supposedly exposed and developed properly, why would he first have to live with it for some period of time before figuring out how he wants to print it? That just doesn't make sense to me."

And it doesn't make sense to me. With all Adams's and Sexton's talk of previsualizing and calibrating the Zone System precisely, I cannot understand that they need to do all of that post-exposure manipulation. There is nothing wrong with doing it. No viewer of a photograph, including me, cares how the finished print comes about. To the viewer it is the object--the photograph itself--that matters. To the maker, however, it is never the thing finished that is important but the process of doing the work--the process of getting there. It is the making that counts, not the things made. I don't care how anyone does their work and I certainly don't begrudge anyone their own pleasure in the process of making their photographs. If some prefer to spend those long hours in the darkroom on each print, I can only say that I hope they get deep pleasure from the process. But to me it still doesn't make sense, given the degree of precision that goes into their making of all the decisions (exposure and development) prior to getting down to make the print, that Sexton and Adams would need to spend all of that time getting what they want. Based on my own experience, I can only assume that something was overlooked when the ground glass was looked at. I make that assumption because I assume they have the technical stuff down pat. If I am wrong, I will happily stand corrected. But I don't know how else to explain the need for the extensive darkroom work.

I believe, by definition, all photographic artists, and I consider Adams, Weston, Sexton, and myself in that category, are not interested in "copying" their subject. Any commercial photographer can do that. What we all are interested in is making something--a photograph--which goes beyond mere recording. Many years ago I wrote in a statement for a book, "These photographs are really records--records of the interaction between myself and the things recorded." I then went on to say, "It is my hope that the end result of this interaction--the picture--will create an exciting new interaction between itself and the viewer."

Sexton and Adams both have made many beautiful photographs. I can recognize them as beautiful, but can also recognize that most of them don't do a whole lot for me. And I've thought about why that was so. And I stated why that was so in my previous post.

Weston's approach ("the thing itself") seems indeed more respectful than Adams's. Given that we all are imposing ourselves when we make a photograph (just the act of photographing does that), it seems to me that the attitude of going humbly before nature (and the rest of the world) is more respectful of it than the attitude of going to nature with the idea that "I want to show what I saw and felt." To repeat in other words: we are all showing what we saw and felt. The difference is in the attitude toward achieving that end. To repeat myself again, "There is no right or wrong in this. It ultimately is a question of who one is."

There is also a sense of discovery at work with Weston that often wasn't there with Adams. Adams wrote repeatedly about knowing what the light would be like at a particular place and time and then making sure that he was there when the light was "right." He even goes so far in his book, "My Camera in Yosemite Valley," published in 1949, to have a section of recommendations telling other, would-be, photographers what time of day, what time of year, what vantage point, and what filter to use, to get the best results. Weston, on the other hand, stated that he never waited for the light to be right--that the light would always be fine somewhere else if he just looked. Weston didn't know what he would be photographing until he saw it and connected with it, whereas Adams often "knew" ahead of time (not with his best work, though). That's one consequence of Adams's and Weston's different approaches.

Finally, you should know that I am quite conversant with Adams's photographs--his little known works as well as his better known ones. I have seen many exhibitions of his photographs and have spent countless hours in many museums looking at every print of his they had. I've also done that with Weston's photographs, and with many other photographers work. How could I not have done that? Doesn't everyone who is serious about our beloved medium?

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 27, 2001.

So Keith, you were asking for an example of how long it might take to get from first draft to final print and I just this last weekend came upon a situation that might illustrate my earlier point about rediscovering an abanodoned image. In the fall of 2000, I made a trip to New England and one of the negatives I came back with was made inside a covered bridge. I was aimed toward the end of the bridge at a farm lane flanked by trees and lit by a late afternoon sun. Despite careful exposure calculations and the requisite contraction of development time, which did help a bit, the negative was simply too contrasty to print without manipulation. I attempted to make a simple burning tool which I held under the enlarger, but despite all efforts a year ago, I could not get a print I was satisfied with. The burning was too obvious. I recently discovered some articles in ViewCamera and Photo Techniques on selective dodging and burning masks and with some helpful suggestions from my friend Howard Bond, made a masking fixture for my enlarger and a set of three very simple masks for my covered bridge negative. The initial time needed to fabricate the negative holder aside, the masks took only ten or fifteen minutes to make. I now am able to print this image in one continuous exposure without any manual manipulation whatsoever! But, it did take a little over a year to come upon a solution. I'm now sorting through many other negatives, long abandoned, to see if there are any prospective candidates for selective masking. Even if I only find a handful, or even if I only make some simple masks for negatives that were okay but now might be improved a bit, it will be worth the effort in my view.

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, December 27, 2001.

Mr. Smith,

I must apologize first for not specifying what I alluded to when I talked of your criticism of others. This was a comment based on your overall attitude toward those of us who use the Zone system that you have expressed throughout the collective forums here. Maybe you donít realize you are doing it, or maybe I am over reacting, but I always get the distinct feeling that I am one of those "silly little people" who just donít get it because I use the zone system rather than d.b.i..

I guess the thing that bothers me most is the myth you continue to spread that Zone system users are constantly testing and have no time for shootingÖ.very untrue. I am sure however that there are plenty of people out there who do this, zone system or not, but I assure you, I, and many like me, do not. Once my testing is done, one day or two at the most, I am good to go. Nor do I have to retest any of my equipment every time something goes slightly out of calibration. I simply tweak or nudge my e.i. or development times to compensate as I notice slight variations in my negatives/prints. Iíve tested twice in the last 10-15 years, I think I have plenty of time to shoot otherwise.

I think that the difference between yourself and someone like Sexton is that, although you both strive for a negative that departs from the "literal", I think that (correct me if Iím wrong) you then print a "literal" print from the negative. Sexton, and others like him, perhaps donít see the negative as the end result of the creative process, rather they see it as the first of two parts. This doesnít mean that they are unable to get the appropriate amount of information on film just like anyone else, it just means that they are going to take the image, in printing, to a place that the negative is not able to get to regardless of development techniques. Its all about vision, and if your vision allows you to stop the creative step at the completion of the negative, then thatís fine, however some interpretations require not only the manipulation of the negative, but also the print. "The negative is the score and the print the performance", I strongly believe that for my own work and how I see things.

You stated that there is no right or wrong when it comes to ones own vision, and yet you say that one vision is more honest than another. How can there be no right or wrong in your mind and at the same time have one be more honest than the other?

I donít see how knowing that a general area will have interesting light makes any difference in the discovery of images within that area, and I canít believe that Weston never made a mental note of an area that he passed through.

Didnít you say that only the print on the wall matters? Then why would how Adams went about getting his images make any difference? How then could it be considered more or less dishonest?

I understand that you are very passionate about the way that you practice the craft of photography, but I donít think it is necessary to criticize another way of doing things to legitimize your own, is it?

good talking to you, and forgive me if I ever get a little excited (as many here can attest) I am trying to get better, really.


-- mark lindsey (, December 28, 2001.

Mr. Lindsay,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

However, again, I must ask that you read more carefully. Nowhere have I ever said, or implied, that Adams's or Sexton's or anyone else's approach was dishonest. I did say that I found Weston's approach more respectful than Adams's.

Perhaps I overdo my comments about Zone System users, although I have heard that there are even whole workshops devoted to it. Last year, one fellow took our workshop after spending a full year(!) doing Zone System tests under the guidance (workshop?--not sure) of a photographer/teacher. And until very recently, when there have been a few threads on this forum that have dealt with non-technical things (sparked perhaps by Aaron's questions), most threads have dealt with technical matters, although, I'll admit, not the zone system. And I've been told by the owner of the largest photography book store that the only really big sellers he has are technical books. I guess I think of the Zone System as a metaphor for the overly technical concerns that people have.

I look at it this way: There are times when one's technique needs to keep up with one's vision. At those times a concern for technical matters is warranted. There are other times, however, when the reverse is true: one's vision needs to keep up with one's technical facility. At those times one should just use the technique one has and learn to make better pictures (visually).

Unfortunately, few people know how to do that (make better pictures visually). Let's face it, most photographs made with a view camera (or other cameras, too) are uninteresting and repetitive (note I have not said imitative). They are repetitive of ones own work. And generally people haven't the foggiest idea, despite being serious, diligent, and well-intentioned, of how to get out of their own ruts. And not knowing which way to turn, they look for something technical--"better" developer, paper, film, method of exposure, etc. Of course they never find their way clear to what they really want--better pictures.

Regarding printing: you have it wrong here in your inference as to how I print. I also agree with Adams that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. No one could print my negatives like I do (which is why they will all be destroyed some day). I don't necessarily make a literal print from my negatives. Rarely do I make straight prints without dodging or burning or both. (Wish there were more of the straight one.) Of course itís a two-part process. I guess it comes down to the fact that I am able to make prints fairly easily, as was Weston, and some others are not. I'm into doing it easily--leaves more energy to concentrate on the most important thing--photographic seeing-- vision. Certainly the creative part of the work process does not stop at making the negative. I'm puzzled that you, after having read what I have written (here and perhaps elsewhere), could think I was so stupid as to think making prints was a merely mechanical process and that the creative process didn't include that. Ya gotta read more carefully, Mark.

I am posting this to you directly as well as posting a response to the forum, but I am not posting this paragraph to the forum. It is for you only. I have been called by curators (not all certainly, but by many more than one), collectors, and by other photographers, "the best printer of my generation." Another comment made to Paula and me last year (twice, by a curator and by a very knowledgeable collector) was, "you two make the most beautiful prints I have ever seen." Quite frankly, I would disagree with them. My comment to Paula was that cannot possibly have seen great prints by the previous generation. But in any case, trust me, Paula and I do make very fine prints. Each one very carefully, obsessively, considered. (That's each one from each negative. If five prints are made from one negative they each get the same excessive, obsessive, consideration.

As far as the business about the light. Damn it, Mark, read more carefully. I was referring to very specific instances. Adams often scoped out his photographs ahead of time. Weston never did.

In closing, I happen to believe that Adams's influence on view camera photographers has had negative consequences as well as positive ones. I am trying to counter that. The "St. Ansel" appellation, whether said tongue-in-cheek or not, is an indication of the reverence with which every utterance and photograph of his (and often of his most visible followers) is held. For me, there's a problem with that, I don't believe Adams was of the stature of Weston or of a number of other photographers. That too many view camera photographers have, to one degree or another, have emulated him, or tried to, has been, I believe, a hindrance to the development of our medium.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 30, 2001.

Keith chek this: maybe you get yuor answer happy holiday.

-- Hernan Villar (, December 30, 2001.

Mr. Smith,

First let me apologize, I did say "dishonest" and actually meant "respectful".

I didnít intend to insult you with the quote about creativity as it referred to negative dev./exposure or printing. I certainly donít think of you as "stupid". I personally think it would be great if I could do everything on the negative without requiring any additional manipulation when printing, it certainly would make things easier. But film just canít handle that amount of manipulation. I read you perfectly well, but took my interpretation of it to an extreme in trying to get my point across.

Everybody sees the subject differently, and therefore each person will require a different amount of manipulation (exposure, development or printing). You and I could print from the same negative and both of us would come up with a different interpretation, and not all interpretations take the same amount of time. Some are longer, some shorter, and neither is better than the otherÖ.simply different. So to sum it up, I think it is each persons own vision that dictates why they need more or less time in the darkroom. I personally have some negatives that I feel meet my expectations with minimal darkroom manipulation, still others need much moreÖ.not because the negative was incorrectly exposed or developed, only because my idea of what the image should be is beyond what the film and minimal printing techniques can accomplish, again, not better or worse, just different.

Whatís wrong with workshops devoted to the zone system? Is that any different than workshops devoted to specific printing or developing techniques? They are all tools for the photographer. Yes I agree, the guy who spent a whole year testing wasted at least 363 days that he could have been out shooting or at least seeing the light of day. Thatís not me, it wasnít Adams and I am sure that isnít the case for many more people besides.

I agree that photographers tend to become obsessed with the technical aspects, hell as much as I admire Adams he was still a bit too technical for me, I just donít have that kind of energy for that kind of organization. But on the other hand I think Westonís obsessive avoidance of technology was much more of a detriment than an advantage. It goes both ways.

I agree totally with you on your next point, craft and vision must keep up with each other. If not, then whatís the point? And yes, most pictures made with ANY camera are uninteresting and repetitive. I agree wholeheartedly.

I donít see anything wrong with planning ahead for a future image, and you didnít mention specific instances, only that he knew when the light was optimal for a particular place, so this tells me nothing of a specific instance. Is this any worse than the shell shots on the beach that Weston set up to look natural, they certainly werenít the found object. Neither bothers me, although the set up shell shots were greatly lacking I thought. I still cannot believe that Weston never scoped out shots. He was human you know!

Actually the "St Ansel" title has been used on this and other forums just as much or more as a denigration of Adams than as a title of dignity, in fact, I cannot recall a comment made with this connotation at any time in the forums that was positive. Certainly there are those who put him on an unobtainable pedestal, this happens with many famous people/photographers. There are many people who contribute to the forums who emulate Weston amongst many other photographers who have celebrity or "cult" status.

You yourself claim that Weston greatly influenced your work, technique and choice of materials, should I say that the influence Weston had on you is a hindrance to our medium? What is the actual count of how many photographers are influenced by Weston, is there some magical number between him and Adams that is ok and then not ok? Everyone has their preferences for which photographers they admire, emulate or simply agree with when it comes to their own belief systems.

I like many images made by both men, they also made images that I donít care for. It just doesnít have to be that black and whiteÖ.

its Lindsey by the way, not Lindsay...

-- mark lindsey (, December 30, 2001.

In my last post, the paragraph about how fine Paula's and my prints have been said to be was not supposed to be posted. But I forgot to delete it. I want to add that whether or not it is true, our fine prints are not due to our skills as printers being better than many other photographer's skills. We're all pretty much equal in that regard. I attribute the fineness of our prints to the materials we use: the Super XX film, but more importantly, the Azo paper. I feel a bit like Frederick Evans who stopped photographing when platinum paper stopped being manufactured. If Azo were no longer manufactured, I might have the same reaction he did.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 30, 2001.

Mr. Lindsey,

Apologies for not getting your name right.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. This discussion is coming to a close, for me at least. I've enjoyed the excuse to write some things I have thought and spoken about, but never put down on paper. So your comments are very much appreciated. To get a reaction, I often do state things somewhat extremely and I truly hope I have not offended you or anyone else.

After your last comments I realize that the ease with which I am able to print may be due to nothing more than the materials I use--mainly Azo, the contact printing paper I print on. Why everyone cannot see, that all things being equal, Azo yields finer prints (that are easier to print than the same negatives printed on enlarging paper) is a mystery to me. But what if one wants bigger prints? Then you must use bigger negatives, a choice I made years ago. An extreme position? Sure it is. I believe in a life of balance--achieved through excess in all things--either do whatever you are doing fully and all the way--or don't do it at all. Seems to work for me, although I would be hesitant about recommending that way of living to others.

What's wrong with planning ahead for a future image? Nothing if you are a studio photographer. And nothing if you are doing an assignment. But if you are just going out to make pictures I think there is a lot wrong with it. The photographer's paradox is this: One can only recognize, or see, things one already knows. That's true by definition. If somewhere inside you don't know something, you won't see it. (That's an assumption that, for the sake of the point I am making you have to accept as true.) Most photographers go along until they see something that catches their eye, makes their heart beat a little faster, makes them say, "Wow." Then they photograph that which caught their eye, mind, or heart, and then they move on to the next thing. Now, because, by definition, one can only respond to what one already knows, by making photographs of what captured your attention, you are merely confirming what you already know. And the work becomes repetitive. So what to do? You have to photograph what you don't know. But how can you do that if by definition you can only respond to what you already know? I have an answer for that, and it is the core of our workshop. It is too difficult to describe in words and needs to be demonstrated. So, having only posed the problem, I'll leave you there. To get back to the beginning of this paragraph. By planning ahead for those photographs you make when"going out to make pictures" you are not even giving yourself the opportunity to say, "Wow," that having already been determined. For the maker it is never the thing made that is important, it is the making that is. For the maker, the photographer, consider the photograph to be a bonus--the point is to have a full, genuine experience, one in which something is learned, not just confirmed. And if something is learned there will be personal growth and as a consequence one's photographs will not be repetitive. As e.e. cummings said, "An artist, whose every agony is to grow."

The Zone System is simply one way of understanding exposure and development relationships. If a photographer doesn't understand those relationships so thoroughly that it is like counting to 10 or saying the ABCs, then they can't possibly figure out what to do if everything is not perfect. You would think that everyone would know this. But they don't, and sadly we see many people unable to instantly identify over or under exposed negatives and over and under developed negatives, even after they have taken Zone System workshops. There is nothing wrong with Zone System or other workshops. But if the basic understanding is not there, these workshops can be essentially a waste of time. A thorough understanding of exposure/development relationships should enable one to fine-tune one's negatives in a few pictures without any testing at all. Instead of testing, one could use that time to make new pictures. And if they don't come out? That's okay. (Remember that the photograph is only a bonus.) At least you would have had the pleasure of the experience of making the picture as opposed to photographing a gray card. My position here is extreme, I know. There is nothing wrong with testing. And, hey, some people might like making photographs of gray cards.

Re: Adams often knowing ahead of time what, and the conditions under which he wanted to photograph versus Weston's sense of discovery. You'll just have to read what they wrote to find that to be true. Adams best pictures occurred through a discovery process, but he did not always allow himself that. One example only: He knew what time the sun rose and what time of year the light was "best" at the Alabama Hills (Lone Pine with white horse). He got a good one there, however. An exception. Lucky that the horse was there, but then, luck favors those who are prepared, doesn't it?

That's it. Thanks again, Mark.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 30, 2001.

Hi Michael, I don't want to prolong this discussion but something you alluded to puzzles me. You find that too many photographers labor to calibrate their systems using zone system workshops but come away not knowing how to use the information they gained. If you take a zone system workshop from a qualified individual, pay attention and practice what was taught, then you should come away with enough information that you can spot the over/under exposed and over/under developed negative although if you practiced what was taught you won't have the problem in the first place. If you can't then you weren't paying attention. That is what the zone system and it's teaching is about. Using a system that allows you to fully capture what is in front of you using the knowlege of exposure/development relationships. This endless testing you talk about isn't inherent to zone system practitioners alone but to the technically obsessed. I tried DBI and gave it up as an unsatisfactory method of development. Without lots and lots of practice, wasting film and time, it is an unreliable method of processing. Not to say it can't be done but I found that the zone system of exposure/development was a much more reliable method. Meters don't lie if you listen to them and time/temp/developer/materials don't lie if you understand what to do with them. You said in a thread that you were puzzled as to why Sexton and others who supposedly had extensive knowlege of the zone system had to labor so much to get a print. The prints usually aren't literal representations of scenes as they existed. Adams print of "Clearing Winter Storm" is one example. The tonal relationships that existed were on the negative. That is not how he wanted the image to look as a print so he used other controls to make a print that represented the scene as he wanted it to look. Sexton's work on "Places of Power" is another example of prints that are not literal interpretations of a scene. They are prints that represent what he wanted the scene to look like. Hard to make a dirty dusty power station beautiful using the zone system alone. No amount of DBI alone would have produced this print the way it was presented. The method isn't designed to do that anyway. DBI and the zone system are two different methods used to come to the same result. And both are valid. But for my money the zone system as taught, if used properly, is the easier method yeilding the most consistent results. There is no judgement to be made with the zone system as far as how the materials will react. With the DBI it is a subjective method of coming to a conclusion. Every eye is different. DBI is a useful tool and is used by some to make beautiful prints. Anyone who has seen your prints would have to agree. They are superb. But look at your materials and format too. Hard to go wrong with an 8x10 and larger format. And contact printing is hard to beat. But the larger format is also fraught with problems. Versatility and portability. Just not a handy format for many photographers. You and Paula are masters at these formats. And these formats are limited as to the scenes photographed by their very nature. They are good formats for what they were intended to be used for. As to f8 and being there as you espouse was Westons photographic values, I disagree. He many times would be someplace at a certian time and certain time of the year to capture something that he had seen before. Pt. Lobos is a good example. That's why he lived there. He knew the tides and the time of year that would make an image he thought would be there. He shot his nudes at a certain time of day knowing the light would be at a certain value. He controlled closely when he would photograph knowing that the materials he used would give the best results under certain conditions. And he and Adams and other contemporaries shot different subjects. Most people identify Adams as a grand landscape photographer only. Having seen most of his images including his vast negative collection in Arizona I can say that he was much more than the master of the grand landscape. Trailer Park Children and his image of Orville Cox bantering with Georgia O'Keffe are two that come to mind. As are a lot of his FSA images. Each photographer has their own vision. I hear to much about how too many photographers are redundant or sterile. You yourself have alluded to this in this thread. I disaggree with this view. Too many photographers hold this view while seeing themselves as having a unique and valid view point in their photography. Street photographers are always dismissing landscape photographers as dead visions and landscapers are always lambasting street shooters as worthless waste of film. These may be exagerations but you know where this is conming from. I think we all have our unique perspectives and we should value each others points of view. There are few fresh perspectives. Robert Parke Harrioson is one of the few truly unique creative photographers today. Your landscapes are derivative of many whom have come before you. And Paula's farmstead images are too. That doesn't diminish their relavence one bit. They are as valid as Sexton's powerplants or Evans Appalacian work. When I started out in photography I took sides in this argument. I have come to the conclusion I was wrong. It is all valid. We are all individuals and our different perspectives are what make our work unique. See you in Santa Monica on Friday. James aka Lumberjack

-- bigmac (, December 30, 2001.


Quickly. Regarding the Zone System: if it works for you, great. No one way is better than any other. Whatever works. I sure hope I am wrong with my perception that many who have "studied" the Zone System still cannot instantly recognize in what way bad negatives are bad. My experience leads me to another conclusion but, as I said somewhere else, perhaps I haven't met the right people.

I have to respectfully disagree with you regarding Weston's/Adams's way of working. In general terms, sure, Weston knew that Point Lobos would be good at certain seasons at certain times of day, but he never had a specific photograph in mind to make at say 5:45 P.M. on June 21, the way Adams not infrequently did. Adams could tell you the "best" time to photograph Half Dome and other landmarks in Yosemite. Not generally the best time, but exactly the best time of day, year, etc. And he would have his camera ready then, tripod legs planted. I went photographing years ago with one of his acolytes (a very well-known photographer, by the way). This fellow got to his location three hours ahead of time, set up his tripod, and waited for the light to be exactly as he knew it would be. He knew because he had been to that spot a dozen times previously just to learn when the light would be right. In the three hours that he was waiting, I was making photographs--one of them just at sunset when I made a mad dash of about 100 yards with camera on shoulder--set up and "got it" all in about two minutes (about 3 seconds before the light went). Needless to say, this fellow and I did not get along with each other. Among other things he said that he had never seen a photographer carry his camera around the landscape on his shoulder on the tripod. He wouldn't do that with his camera because he was afraid of getting dust on it. A camera is a tool for god's sake; it is not a piece of furniture. Our photographs derivative? Influenced by what has come before, certainly. But not derivative. And I can point out exactly how they are different--perhaps in Santa Monica if we have the time. In general people are incapable of making fine discriminations. The more you know about a field, the finer the discriminations you can make. The difference between each of the Baroque composers is immense if one really knows music. There is a negligible difference, if there is any at all, for those who are not musicians who are just beginning to listen to that music.

We're all unique. Although there is such a thing as personal vision (and not everyone has it even though they are unique) work that is derivative is work that never evinces a personal vision.

See you in Santa Monica.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 30, 2001.

What a delightful education this thread has provided. I wonder how much of the technical differences expressed here is due to one group (Weston/Smith) making prints by contact, and the other (Adams/Sexton) by projection. By the way, Happy New Year Michael and Paula.

-- (, December 30, 2001.

Hello Again,

I know this has gone on and on, and I wouldn't feel hurt if you don't have time to reply, but I did have a few things to bring up......

I am sure that Azo is the best paper for you and gives your prints the look that you desire, whether its best paper or not is not really the issue, its just a matter of taste. If a paper existed that loaded itself into stinky chemicals and developed itself I still wouldn't purchase it if I preferred something else! Like you said, what's on the wall is what counts, we all must go with the look that pleases us.

Fine-tuning with or without the Zone system is identical. I don't doubt for a minute that when working with a never before used developer and/or film, I can attain working times/temps much faster with zone style testing than without. The fine-tuning however is identical to what you describe. Adams himself said that regardless of what the tests show, you must go out and shoot to really see if what your getting is what's right for you.

I still feel that you are exaggerating a bit when discussing the Adams "pre-planning" of shots, I don't really think that he did it as often as you suggest. I think that the manual you were talking about was probably a guide for the amateur, whom I am sure you know would be written in an entirely different mindset altogether. The person you spoke of who sat for three hours...that would drive me crazy to do that too! again, that's this one person, not all zone users. and yes, I do put my camera over my shoulder on the tripod. I agree, the camera is just a tool. I also can't understand people who will not sacrifice a piece of equipment if it means getting the "ultimate" shot, the image is once in a lifetime, there are whole rows of lenses, etc. stacked up that I can replace mine with.

I have no problem with Adams knowledge of the Alabama hill lighting situation, how could you drive by such places and not notice. Yes the horse being there to give a size perspective was indeed lucky, even luckier was the fact that the horse turned sideways to the camera just in time to take the picture and not lose the light,(Adams said otherwise that the horse would have looked like a stump) A beautiful image I think.

I also find it hard to believe that Adams did too much waiting around due to the fact that 40,000 plus negative wouldn't allow for much waiting around!

I've had fun, hope to hear more from you in the forum in the future,


Mark Lindsey

-- Mark Lindsey (, December 31, 2001.

Quickly, while the dry mount press heats up. Adams: "My Camera in Yosemite Valley" is not a how-to book for amateurs, but is a very elegant superbly reproduced book of Adams Yosemite photographs. Re: pre-planning. It wasn't a question of driving by the Alabama Hills and noticing or not. He wrote that he had a chart that told him that sunrise would be at 5:36 A. M., or whatever, and he knew what he would be getting. He did make a great photograph there. But other times that approach got in his way, I believe, and led him to repeat himself, as I discussed in general terms above.

40,000 negatives is not that many when you consider that for the last many years of his working life he mostly used a Hasselblad and that at times he used a 35mm. (I'm not being critical here, just pointing it out.). In proportion to the whole of his work, he used an 8x10 relatively little. Curious, isn't it, that his finest work for the most part was done during the period that he was closest to Weston, when they occasionally even went photographing together--late 30s to mid- 40s. I find that fact not insignificant.

We'll be away for a while, so there will be whole periods when I do not access this forum. A pity. Although Paula keeps telling me I don't have time for this now, that we have work to do. But I have enjoyed it and will contribute again when I can.

Happy New Year to all.

-- Michael A. Smith (, December 31, 2001.

Well, That was the BEST group of answers to a very simple question. Thanks to all and to all a Happy New Year. KB

-- Keith Baker (, December 31, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ