Why do the contact prints look so good?

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In looking at contact prints from some very good photographers who use 8x10 and 11x14 cameras I see their photos look so good. Much better than those with 35mm film and enlarged. I thought it would be the other way around with 35mm having the sharpest lenses and the newest film technologies.

-- MaryAnne (MaryAnne@mywebnet.com), January 27, 2002


ah but you have to enlarge the negative. When you enlarge you magnify not only the grain but the spaces between the grain, these spaces have no image and thus are called fog (non image forming exposure). when you contact print you minimize this effect and you get the wondeful texture and "feel" of what you are seeing. It is the reason why so many photographers still carry many punds of equipment just to take one or two photogrpahs. In addition when you contact print you minimize the lens failures and so many other factors that become more apparent when you enlarge a negative.

-- Jorge Gasteazoro (jorgegm58@prodigy.net.mx), January 28, 2002.

MaryAnne: There is a lot more to picture quality than sharpness and film technology. With LF, there is simply more room on the negative to register detail and tone. There is a smoothness with a LF contact that cannot be obtained from enlarging small negatives. Even a piece of junk lens on an 8x10 can give you remarkable contact prints. The modern 35mm cameras and lenses are certainly state of the art, but cannot make up for the small negative. 35mm has its place in photography, but ultimate print quality is not it.


-- Doug Paramore (Dougmary@alaweb.com), January 28, 2002.


The new film technologies, as you describe, also apply to large format as well. Regarding lenses being better for 35mm; if one was to compress the image circle from a lens designed for a 4 X 5 format (for example) down to a 35mm format, I think you would find resolution per MM is as good as a 35mm lens....maybe better. As the others have stated, sharpness isn't everything....lack of grain and outstanding tonal quality also make large format better than smaller formats. I am always amazed at 19th century photos, many which are contact prints. The quality of some of the civil war photos makes my jaw drop!

J. P. Mose

-- J. P. Mose (j.p.mose@lmco.com), January 28, 2002.

MaryAnne, When an negative is enlarged, it passes through yet one more optical system, the enlarger lens. All lenses have some degree of internal flare and abberations. The net effect is that the tone reproduction of the negative is compromised to some degree. A good enlarging system (light source, lens, safelight, light baffling, etc.) minimize these effects but will not eliminate them. A contact print, however, eliminates these optical effects. Borrowing from terminology that radio and TV people use, the signal to noise ratio in large format is much better than smaller formats. If you put a 35mm camera along side a 8x10 with lenses that cover the same field of view, the 8x10 will record the image on a detector that has nearly 50 times the area. That translates into 1/50th the grain and 50 times the information capacity. The signal (picture) to noise (grain, dust, etc.) ratio is 50 times better. It's like the difference between AM radio and FM: clarity frequency response and dynamic range. Even if the lens on the 8x10 were only half as sharp as the 35mm, you still have an enormous difference between the images. When you get the exposure and development of the negative just right, there is nothing that compares with the beauty of a good contact print.

-- Andy Eads (aceads@3-cities.com), January 28, 2002.

Mary Anne:

I am surprised no one has mentioned the Callier effect. It is a continuing source of argument among photogs.

Ansel Adams used a flat light source as do many other LF types, including Kodak.

Theory has it that light close to a source such as a condenser lens or a dichroic head loses definition when passing thru the relatively densly packed silver grains in highlights. This loses the subtlety and creaminess (i.e. smooth transition from light to dark in continous tone subjects) that comes from a contct print made with light that has travelled a foot or so from the source before passing thru the silver. Cold light heads- Zone VI from Calumet, Aristo among others reduce this effect even in 35mm.

Some users of condenser enlargers claim it is all hogwash but I have seen in many times, thus explaining my move to 4x5 then 8x10 with contact prints. I also have a full battery of 35 & MF toys but large negs can NOT be beaten.

New inkjet technology with dedicted software and five shades of grey plus black ink comes close.

Adams "The Print" delves into this fully, as does Fred Picker's "Zone VI Workshop".


-- RICHARD ILOMAKI (richardjx@hotmail.com), February 03, 2002.

You are comparing apples with oranges. There are many superb 35mm enlargements which can't be visually distinguished from 8x10 contact prints.

-- Doc (wmitch3400@aol.com), February 03, 2002.

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