I wanted to write a high level article outlining one possible path to black and white fine art photography. In my mind the ultimate source for this path is contained in five books by two authors. The trilogy “The Camera“, “The Negative“, and “The Print” by Ansel Adams is the definitive writings in this space in my opinion. John P. Schaefer wrote two books that were modern day extensions and updates to Ansel’s work titled “The Ansel Adams Guide” book 1 and book 2. Schaefer expands on the work of Adams and also offers new information post Ansel’s time. The five books and a lot of time is the ultimate formula for black and white fine art photography. A very ambitious photographer could expect to spend a minimum of 3 or 4 years learning, adapting, applying and ultimately creating their own style based off of this solid foundation. Most will spend a lifetime continuing to learn from these resources and applying the finer points contained within.
In a nutshell I will outline the steps that Adam’s and Schaefer recommend a serious photographer must take to produce professional quality fine art prints. The only assumption I make is that you own a film camera, know how to use your exposure meter, know how to successfully develop your own black and white film and have made prints in the darkroom. If you are in the early stages and don’t know how to do these things then you can refer to “Tim’s Darkroom Corner” articles I have written or read the books mentioned above in detail.
You should understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ASA/ISO (film speed). I have other articles on this site that can help with those areas if needed. A serious black and white photographer should learn and know how to use the infamous “zone system“. The end goal of the zone system is to produce a proper negative suitable for printing in the darkroom. This is accomplished by taking the proper exposure and combining that with a negative development process that will ultimately allow a photographer to produce the print he or she envisioned when they took the exposure. There are many resources on the zone system and my logic is why go anywhere but the source. I would suggest that you read “The Negative” and by doing so you will understand the concepts of the zone system.
High Level Steps
- Calibrate Exposure Meter
- Proper Proofs
- Determine EI for each Film and Developer Used
- Establish Standard Development Time For Each Film and Developer Combination
- Determine Plus & Minus Development Times for Each Film and Developer Combination
- Print Negatives in the Darkroom
Calibrate Exposure Meter
I strongly suggest that you use the same exposure meter for all of your work. If your camera has an internal meter then you have the option to use it but I wouldn’t because if you get another camera then the meter will be different and that is not ideal. If your meter or your use of it is not correct for your photography then everything will be flawed. You are ultimately trying to place many different tones in your print within a scale (zone system) so this is why your meter must be calibrated to your work. Our goal in this step is to find your film’s threshold for zone I. If you are unclear of what zone I means then refer to the resources I have listed on the topic. If zone I is properly calibrated then all of the other zones will simply fall into place as expected.
In order to properly assign the ISO to your light meter for your film you need to contact print the zone I threshold film established in your meter calibration step. As you might have guessed the proper proof time will be unique for each film, developer and paper combination so it is a good idea to really minimize variables. If you were to use a variety of films and developers this entire testing process must be completed. It is easy to see why fine art photographers minimize as many variables as possible.
Determine EI for each Film and Developer Used
I have never seen a tested film to be the same speed as the box rating provided by the manufacturer. For that reason and for total control over your exposure and printing process you need to test and use your own personal speed rating for each film and developer combination. This is a one-time detailed process that you need to go through and then you can simply just use it moving forward. The process to do this is included in the reading materials I listed at the top of this article.
Establish Standard Development Time For Each Film and Developer Combination
You may have already guessed that the standard or normal development time provided by the manufacturer may not be the best time for you. When you have no other data to use then it is a good guideline or starting point. Your environment and process will vary from another photographer so you need to establish your own metrics. Because you have created proper proof times you will know if your development and exposure is accurate or not.
Determine Plus & Minus Development Times for Each Film and Developer Combination
Before you can contract or expand your development times (i.e., N+, N-) you need to have your normal or standard development time. You contract your development time to lower contrast and expand to increase contrast. When I photograph using large format sheet film the ability to contract or expand is wonderful because you are only developing one sheet at a time. If you are using roll film such as 120 or 35mm then you simply won’t have as much control, however if you are in similar lighting for your exposures then you will be just fine. If not, then you could swap out film backs as I do to address different lighting scenes.
The steps that I have outlined in this article will help you in your journey. There are still other aspects to learn to include a vast array of darkroom skills and finishing your print by archiving and presenting it properly.
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