Recently I wrote about a tweet that had an Ansel Adams’ quote about photography rules. In the course of our tweeting, she commented that Ansel Adams actually dodged and burned his photographs, almost as if to say this was a totally remarkable thing for Adams to do.
This conversation on Twitter is the basis for this post.
When I was learning black and white photography, my instructors always emphasized the following two ideas. Always do as much composing as possible in the camera viewfinder, and be prepared to make adjustments in the darkroom to make up for our human errors. Every print was dodged or burned, a contrast filter was used as well as the cropping of the final image to tighten the composition. For example, if a photo had a blown out sky, a little burning in using a low contrast filter would fix the problem. This process usually involved many test strips, many test prints and multiple trips from the enlarger to the developing tray. My personal best was 14 images until I finally got everything correct for one photograph.
In addition to all of the normal developing in the darkroom, many photographers over time attempted to do other types of manipulations during the photographic process to alter the look of the final image. Some of these techniques are:
- Petroleum jelly smeared on the camera lens or darkroom lens.
- Nylon or other fabric stretched across the lens.
- Negative manipulation: scratching or burning the emulsion on the negative. Samples are here.
- Selective development: spraying or dripping developer over selective areas of the print. Samples of selective development are here.
- Texture screens: sandwiching the negative with a negative that is just texture. A photographer could buy them or shoot their own textures and make their own screens. Samples of texture screens are here.
- Solarisation: This effect is achieved by exposing either the paper or the negative briefly to light during the developing processing. Solarisation samples are here.
- Compositing: The combination of several images into one. The master of this technique is Jerry Uelsmann. He was known to use as many as nine enlargers to create his final images. Here are samples of Jerry Uelsmann’s work.
Happily, the ability to do these type of actions on our photographs has found its way to the digital photography era via Lightroom and Photoshop. And there are a couple of techniques that I am very happy are as easy as pushing a button or moving a slider.
Toning: I am talking about sepia toning and blue toning. The huge drawback to this process was the rotten egg smell that came along with toning. As if the darkroom didn’t have enough odor problems. Supposedly they have odorless toners, but my experience with darkroom chemicals is there is no such thing as odorless.
Spot removal. White spots on the print? In spite of all the care in cleaning camera and enlarger lenses and wiping the negatives clean, there will always be a white spot or two or more on the print. This calls for the art of spot toning. You use a 000 brush and mix 3 different spot toning dyes together and through trial and error, find the correct shade to match the tone of the area on the print which needs filled in. Eventually spot toning pens were invented, but they didn’t do quite the same job as the liquid toners.
I am very happy to trade in the brush and dyes for a circle and delete.
Since all blogs are better with a photograph, here is a sepia tone, done in the comfort of my office chair with absolutely no rotten egg smell wafting about.
Tim Poole – PAC member
Larry Pollock says
Nicely written. A good friend of mine worked with Ansel and visited him at his home. The original images don’t look like the ones we know and love.
Tim Poole says
How cool. I always showed a video on Ansel Adams just to show the kids how much was possible in getting the final image. A little bit more work involved than just pushing a button.
gene wild says
Good post. Another thing that was part of our darkroom world was the mixing of our own developers to achieve a specific result. Ansel wrote a book on some of his darkroom techniques.
I don’t miss those days. My digital darkroom takes up less space and is a more pleasant environment to work in.
Tim Poole says
A definite roger that! However, I do miss the darkroom a little. It was a sanctuary of sorts.
Ansel Adams always shared details of setting up his photos and his processes in the dark room in all of his books and was always very excited about new advancements in the photographic field. He even created “HDR” images in the darkroom!
I’m not sure who tweeted the original tweet, or what the original tweet was, but I guess what you’re trying to say is you’ve had the experience of editing in the darkroom and much prefer the digital version these days. Meaning digital editing is easier since the format and editing programs do most of the heavy lifting since it’s a different medium, making it more efficient for high volume and quick turnaround times.
Tim Poole says
The original tweet was an Adams quote “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” I commented back to her that the quote was coming from the man who invented the Zone System, which is sort of rule intensive.
Babe Barton says
I enjoyed your blog, very visual, Tim Poole! Not only was it informative, you took me to an era of “true grits” in the darkroom! I can only imagine by your description, because I lasted less than an hour with the chemicals in the darkroom; it was too much for me to continue! I appreciate your experiences as it filled in the gaps of what I have missed out on but happy to date that my breathing is great and that digital evolved. As for the sepia image above, it is stunning! It reminds me of marine life and how light and personal connection with subject can be so profound to both photographer and others. 🙂 Babe B.
Tim Poole says
First, thanks for the compliment. Sorry you had a reaction to the darkroom. It is tough to get used to. The last few years I taught, I bought “odorless” chemicals. They were just “less” odorless.
I began my photography in the digital world so I really don’t have any experiences to compare them. I wish I had learned on film but oh well. However, I have been in a few darkroom and I have a large format camera that upon opening the case has a distinct darkroom smell. To tell you the truth I like it. Thanks for the blog Tim.
Tim Poole says
Thanks for the comment.
Michael Rosenberg says
I once read an interview with Adam’s son who worked with him in the field and the dark room. He stated that it may take several day for his father to shoot an image, but that it could take weeks in the darkroom to perfect the image as he perceived it. Further, he stated that his father would have been thrilled to work in a digital darkroom.
I could not work in my father’s darkroom because I was allergic to the chemicals. The digital age was a revolution for my photography. Thank you, Adobe.
Tim Poole says
Thanks for sharing. What struck me about the original Tweets was that the young lady seemed surprise that Adams dodged and burned his images, as if she believed they came out like that straight out of the camera. Your point is spot on. We can do all that wonderful adjusting and creating and more in this digital age of ours.
I am happy to say that I did every one of the above mentioned techniques and I must also add that truly, I miss the experience and adventures of the darkroom. Of course, I use Lightroom and Photoshop and enjoy that as well, but it just isn’t the same. I think Ansel Adams would be in agreement. There seemed to be more of a learning, hands on experience by manipulating images in the darkroom. There was tons of hours spent as well as money on supplies, paper, and filters. And along with the long tedious hours there was a huge sense of accomplishment with creating beautiful results from “scratch”. Beautiful images are always going to be beautiful images, no matter how they are accomplished… but getting the hands dirty gave the whole process a larger degree of earned rewarded satisfaction that I will always remember and think fondly of.
Tim Poole says
When I taught I would get the occasional transfer student from an all digital school. When asked they all said they preferred the darkroom. The main reason for them was that they said all they did was push buttons. No doubt there are numerous advantages of digital over film, but film is a good starting place to make decisions about composition and lighting, in my opinion. Unfortunately, after I retired my school only kept the darkroom for one more year. Now it is totally digital.
Thanks for the comments.