The Worst Advice (in ANY format) : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hi Everyone –

I enjoyed reading previous posts about “The Worst Large Format Advice” and “The Funniest Thing You Ever Heard”. The “Worst Advice” post really got me thinking, though, and I came up with a far more insidious example. I still hear it from time to time. It’s not format-specific, so indulge me a little.

When I was first learning how to use a darkroom, I knew a guy who worked in a camera shop. He would say really wise sounding things like “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights”. He never really explained what that meant, but who was I to ask a bunch of questions? One day I was complaining about how bad my prints looked, and he said,

“You just need to buy a box of paper and lock yourself in the darkroom until you learn how to print”.

There’s the awful advice. It not only sounds innocent enough, it actually sounds good! I already had a great deal of enthusiasm for the work, and here was this god-like individual (he worked in camera store!) telling me that I just needed to apply some time and effort, and I would be a good printer. Wow, this was going to be easy AND fun!

So I got busy. I printed, tried some different paper, tried some different film, printed some more, tried some different chemicals, tried a different light source, made more prints, tried some different lenses, etc. I printed whenever I had the chance and made the same mistakes over and over and over again. Huge, nasty piles of bad pictures. I eventually became a Magic Bullet addict, but that’s another post.

The problem? His advice constituted an infinite loop. It included no test, no condition that tells you if you’re done, or even if you’re getting closer to your goal. Being literal-minded (and sometimes no too smart), I followed his dictum to the letter, and spent an embarrassing amount of time spinning in very small circles.

Not having an active photographic mentor, I did not understand the tragic incompleteness of what he offered me. The intention was sincere, but some of the steps were missing. I eventually got out of the loop, but think of all the wasted time!

So what should he have told me? It’s kind of obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t at the time. Here’s how I think about it now.

1) Look at your print and decide what you would change to make it better. This step is really the most difficult. Until you develop a critical eye, it’s hard to tell if a print will benefit from changing the contrast, brightness, composition, or something else. There may even be a mechanical problem (improperly developed film, for example). If you can’t decide, show it to someone whose pictures are better than yours and ask them. Make sure they make good pictures and not just opinions.

2) Find out what techniques will get you closer to your goal. In other words, how do I fix the problem? Again, you may need to ask someone.

3) Try it. Compare your new print to the old one. Is it what you expected? Is it better? Maybe you need more or less of what you tried in step 2. Maybe you need to try something else, or some combination of things. Go back to Step 1, and repeat as necessary. When you get a print you like, or run out of things to try, you’re done.

Most of you already know some version of these instructions and use them in your work. They sound completely obvious (but so does the Bad Advice). If you’re still in the “repeat mistakes until time and money are exhausted” loop, consider giving the expanded set a try.

And if you see that guy in the camera shop, poke him in the nose for me.

Thanks for reading –

- Kevin

-- Kevin Bourque (, April 20, 2002



I could not agree with you more. Far too many begining photographers try to correct their mistakes by automatically fooling around with different combinations like developers, films, temperatures, times, camera equipment, etc. They never get a handle on one thing, let along 100 different things. And I really think too much emphasis is placed upon working up from the negative, when, as you seem to suggest, one should work down from the print. After all, that is the final product. the good thing is that when makes so many mistakes, as you admit to have made, pretty soon you run out of mistakes.


-- Kevin Kolosky (, April 21, 2002.

If you still don't understand "expose for shadows, develop for highlights, I suggest you carefully read some good books on exposure and printing such as "The Negative" and "The Print" by Adams, or "Zone VI Workshop" and " The Fine Print" by Picker. If you don't start with the baisc principles the best critical eye won't lead you in the right direction.


-- David Walker (david,, April 21, 2002.

Kevin (and Kevin K.),

What you said about your early advice being an "infinite loop" suggests a deeper problem that I think many beginning photographers experience. Quickly stated, it seems that often photographers not only do not have a sense of what they want the final print to look like, but they do not have a mature sense of who they are as photographers, of what their artistic vision is or could be. (This statement is meant as a description, it is not meant to be a criticism.) Without a clear sense of purpose, it's hard to have technical advice change, let alone improve, a person's work. There are MFA programs filled with students who are starting very early and who are receiving all sorts of amazingly wrong-headed advice (occasionally I see what some of these students come up with for their final projects). They need time to live as well as time to work. Some of them will grow as photographers, and that growth will be primarily the result of stringent self-criticism.

-- Michael Alpert (, April 21, 2002.

Hi David -

"Expose for the shoadows and develop for the highlights" is one thing I can usually deal with (provided I don't set the meter to the wrong ISO). I can now reliably meter a scene, decide where to place the low values, see where that places the high values, and decide if I want to do anything with development to alter the range of values.

It was a major confidence builder to get that far, believe me! I've since moved on to more interesting mistakes.

-- Kevin Bourque (, April 21, 2002.

i can still remember, about 25 years ago, the young fellow from the local shutterbug store, after looking at some of my first attempts in B/W, telling me "mr norman, you should just stick to color.."

-- jnorman (, April 21, 2002.

David, Wasn't it Fred Picker who advocated " expose for the highlights and the other values including the shadows will fall into place. "

-- Barry Trabitz (, April 21, 2002.

One thing I noticed about Kevin's post is the emphasis on asking for advice and criticism from others. Truely I believe one cannot do anything really well just by themselves. All great athletes use coaches and thus it should be true that photographers need mentors/coaches. I think the critical idea here is that the coach can show you what is missing in your work. If one could see it on one's own, one would be Ansel by now.

The idea of a “distinction” is learning “what you don't know that you don't know”. Only another person can show you this. I just got back from the John Sexton workshop and the “coaching” there was superb. I have learned many new “distinctions” and profited immensely by it. I’m really beginning to get it that receiving help from others is really what will help me be able to express myself better in photography . .


-- Scott Jones (, April 21, 2002.

Here goes:

1) A pro should be able to get the exposure by just looking at the light.

2) Never mind what Kodak (Ilford, Fuji, Agfa) says, don't even try their time/temperature development numbers.

3) The Zone System will give you perfect negatives just like Ansel Adams'.

4) Although this isn't a one line quote of bad information, it's more the kind of advice your get at an art college:

- Use only a normal lens. - Print full frame. - Use lots of infrared film. - Paint yourself into creative corners that restrict you rather than liberate your art. - Defeat any technical criticism with "Well that's the way I felt." - - Don't use your photographic skills to earn a living by shooting a commercial job; it's better to earn a minimum wage flipping burgers or by working in a camera store.

-- David Grandy (, April 21, 2002.

"A fine print goes from a maximum black to paper white."

-- Dan Smith (, April 21, 2002.

"Get close and fill the frame with the subject."

That may help some people, but for what I'm doing right now, it may as well read, "make sure that the image is out of focus and is underexposed by six stops."

-- Matthew Runde (, April 21, 2002.

--Rule of thirds.

--Don't center the subject.

--Don't put the horizon in the middle of the frame.

-- David Goldfarb (, April 21, 2002.

Opinions of what lenses I should use.Many times I like the lens that others don't.I like my cheap Optar because it blows away all my other LF lenses hands down.I like my 3.5 and 2.8 Xenars because I can actually see the GG inside in dim light.I like my Noctilux because it is the fastest lens on the planet and is wonderful even though some dont care for it.Lesson learned....listen to others but.... make sure to go with your gut! One other thing...that lenses should only be used at their optimum apertures...

-- Emile de Leon (, April 21, 2002.

How about this:"Nobody uses that old_______(insert name of camera, lens, light meter, tripod etc...)anymore, You really need to get yourself a____________(insert name of overpriced, soon to be obsolete camera, lens ,light meter, tripod etc...)if you want to take great pictures!"

-- John Kasaian (, April 22, 2002.

Kevin's experience is like the the "just burn film" advice often dished out here and elsewhere. Nonesense, but people like saying it.

Sometimes it seems trivially easy to be a rebel in photography. I shoot at midday in full sunlight. I *like* wrap round ever-ready cases. I handhold large cameras at slow speeds. I cheerfully put my film through the hand baggage scanners. I crop in the darkroom.

-- Struan Gray (, April 22, 2002.


I think you are right. Somewhere down the line Picker changed his tiechnique based on his experiences. He could probably do that based on repeatable metering and processing technique. I was really referring to setting film speed (base exposure) at the low end and setting development time to fit printing and paper contrast at the high values. That he did not change that.

My daughter is taking a college level (not art school) photography course and thyt have her evaluating test strips as to whether "it's too dark or too light" arghh. No wonder begginners get grey and light grey in their prints

-- David Walker (, April 23, 2002.

Worst advice: "The smaller the f-stop, the sharper the picture."

-- bill youmans (, April 23, 2002.

ha!-- yeah, Bill, i was given that advice, and followed it for the whole first year i shot with 4x5. my lens could stop down to f/64, so i figured for best sharpness i'd shoot everything at f/64, and i couldn't figure out why all my transparencies were so dang fuzzy!

-- chris jordan (, April 24, 2002.

I guess this is a slight departure from the topic - not so much advice as comment - but I read the following in a review article in an increasingly popular UK photography magazine today:

'...depth of field is much shallower than I would expect for a lens of this focal length and quality...'

I don't think I'll be buying it again.

-- Huw Evans (, April 24, 2002.

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