Set in the Swan River Valley between the Mission Mountains to the west and the towering Swan Mountains to the east, Bruce Barnbaum's "Seeing, Planning and Printing the Fine Photograph" got off to a rousing start June 13 at the Photographers' Formulary in Condon, Montana.
Recently returned from Peru where he photographed the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, Barnbaum opened the workshop with an introductory session displaying and discussing some of his current and past work. Held in the spacious classroom area of the Formulary workshop, the talk gave students a hint of what was to come in the next five days of intensive lecture and hands-on activities.
Barnbaum set out to demonstrate by example what he hoped to teach his class. He invited each student to display their work, then to answer the question, "What were your goals,” or, “What are you trying to say” [with the photographs] and a short explanation of purpose. In this way he hoped to encourage planning and a conscious goal for any photograph before the film is exposed, rather than trying to develop a raison d'etre after the film is developed.
Barnbaum noted that in any workshop he has only a few days to help students develop their talents to see what makes a good photograph, then to capture that perceived image on film for development and printing in the darkroom. If there was a lesson to be taken from the workshop it was the success of the image begins before the film is exposed.
His first question to his students asked, "What is composition?" Easily posed, the question generated many different responses, ranging from "How the photograph is put together," to "The arrangement of elements within the framework of the print," to "What is included or excluded in the photograph to hold or direct the viewer's interest?"
Composition, Barnbaum said, requires the “derandomizing” of the viewer’s eye movement focusing on the image. Said another way, it is creating an image with a purpose, and guiding the viewer’s eye to the main focal point of the image.
Keep in mind, said Barnbaum, that the frame of the image is a confined space, with an infinite amount of image beyond the borders of the frame. The negative is a false border on what the viewer is capable of seeing.
Bruce put his students through their paces. From start to finish, he honed in on how to successfully plan and print a black and white photograph for greatest effect.
High on the list of discussion was Ansel Adams’ Zone System of exposing the negative. Barnbaum reduced the Zone System from a mysterious process to an evaluation of the quality and the intensity of light on a given portion of an image. It’s not enough to meter your subject and expose your film.
Remember that every light meter made computes an exposure equal to 18% gray, or Zone V. This means, he said, that metering a very bright or very dark subject would in both cases give you an exposure based on middle gray, and both would be incorrect.
The Zone System, Barnbaum explained, allows the photographer to correctly expose an image based on an adjustment of that middle gray reading, so that a bright white cloud can be printed as bright and white, while an important shadow area with significant detail can also be printed .
During an early morning field trip into the woods nearby the Formulary, Barnbaum demonstrated his techniques for evaluating light and “placing” the exposure on a specific area of the image. Morning light in a forest, filtered through the trees and softened by ghostly mist above the waters of a pond creates a near magical effect. The entire scene metered to middle gray, or Zone V, will result in a “record shot.” There will be little or no “life” or sparkle in the image unless the exposure is adjusted to take into account the varying amounts and quality of light in different areas of the image.
The Field Trip into the Woods
The Field Trip into the Woods
To properly expose the brightest areas requires an increase in the amount of light striking the film. This is achieved by either allowing more light into the camera by increasing the time or by creating a larger opening in the lens by choosing a larger ƒ/stop.
Conversely, to properly expose shadow areas with significant detail requires reducing the exposure by one stop and “placing” that area on Zone IV.
On a single negative you can make a single adjustment in the exposure. Choose what part of the photograph contains the most important information and make the appropriate adjustment in exposure. From that adjustment the rest of the image’s exposure is also adjusted up or down.
Once internalized none of this is rocket science, but it is at the base of the Zone System and to be ignored at the peril of the photographer. You’ll never take your own “Moonrise over Hernandez, NM” unless you understand and apply these simple principles.
Developing the Negative
With a field session behind them, Barnbaum’s students returned to the classroom for discussions of how to develop the film for more or less than the nominal time recommended by the film manufacturer. Barnbaum explained again what all had learned early: on a negative, density is the product of exposure and contrast is a product of development.
While it is possible to print an underexposed negative, you can never print what is not on the negative. At the other end of the scale, an overexposed negative will have all the information, but will be difficult to print because of the long times required in the enlarger.
Underexposure of the negative can be deliberate, as can overexposure. The density on the underexposed negative is low, but within limits a photographer can “push” film, or overdevelop it to increase its contrast. “Pushing” the development of film is also called “Plus” development, while underdeveloping film is called “Minus” development.
Both techniques are handy in working toward the Nirvana of an eye-popping fine art photograph.
The Formulary Darkrooms
An attraction of the Photographers’ Formulary is the availability of three darkrooms. One is a traditional “wet” darkroom. Another can be set up for developing films in all formats from 35 mm roll film to 8x10 sheet film. A third darkroom is used for alternative processes such as cyanotype, platinum/palladium and Van Dyke Brown.
For those students with film to develop, Barnbaum worked with them to explain and demonstrate how to apply “plus” or “minus” development to individual sheets of large format film. This was invaluable for students who had never considered altering the manufacturer’s recommended development time to achieve a negative better suited for printing the ephemeral fine art image bouncing around inside the mind of the photographer.
At the same time, over in the “wet” darkroom, up to ten students were able to use the Formulary’s ten Saunders LPL enlargers to make prints from negatives they brought with them or made at the Formulary.
Students printed from 35 mm, 6x6, 6x7 and 4x5 negatives. As each print made its way from the enlarger to developer, stop and fix, then out into the hallway for evaluation and discussion, Barnbaum was there to help.
When a print was lifeless Barnbaum explained to the student how to best burn, dodge or later to bleach to achieve the best possible result. With more than 12 hours of darkroom time each printing day, it was possible to get a massive amount of printing instruction, and Barnbaum stayed as long as students had a problem or a question.
Making the Print
As a first step in printing, Barnbaum advised making contact prints of every single negative, and making that contact under a consistent low contrast setting. This gives each negative the same predictable starting point.
Then, tossing aside the time honored test strip with multiple exposures two seconds apart, Barnbaum advised making a test print of the entire image. The test print is easily constructed, he said, by using the best estimated exposure as the midpoint, then computing an initial exposure of 50% less time, and a final exposure of 50% more time. This is the quickest way to get a good idea of where your ideal exposure lies.
Don’t move toward your optimum exposure in “baby steps.” After evaluating your original three panel test print, be bold and unafraid to give more or less exposure under the enlarger to move in the direction of the best possible exposure.
"If you are printing a negative, and improving it by making it either lighter or darker, more or less contrasty, etc. on successive prints, you'll never know if you've reached the best print until you overshoot the mark.", Barnbaum said, so don’t hesitate.
Do the same in evaluating the contrast of your print. If your print looks weak in the knees, give it plenty of contrast to see what happens. If the print improves, then give it even more contrast until you see your print losing essential detail. Then back off. With this method you will have made the best possible print of your negative. It may not be the dazzling print you thought was on that negative, but it will be the best print you can make off the negative you have in the enlarger.
Bleaching a Print
Advising his students to save any print that isn’t a final print for practice with bleaching. Barnbaum demonstrated on one of his own prints how to use potassium ferrocyanide, or bleach, to bring out detail in areas of shadow or bring out areas of white from areas of gray.
"Mix a few crystals of bleach in an ounce or two of water in a heavy glass or cup," (so it doesn't tip over easily!), Barnbaum explained, saying that most photographers mix the bleach too strong. Make it weak and use it with water running beneath its path to keep it from bleaching the wrong areas of the print.
Work from the bottom up, keeping the water running, and don’t let bleach stay on the print any longer than necessary. By working from the bottom of the print toward the top, always with water running on the workspace, fresh, undiluted bleach mixture cannot run down onto areas of the print unprotected by running water. Bleach by degrees, not all at once. Don’t be over aggressive with bleach.
Remember that bleach attacks the highlights or the lighter areas of the print first. It won’t do much to a dark area right away, but it will bring out the whites by immediately attacking the highlights.
By now the workshop had progressed from a discussion of composition, to a field trip, with a return to the darkroom to develop film and to make prints. Barnbaum had shown how to “bump up” the contrast in the print by using greater filtration, and how to use less filtration to “burn in” discreet areas of the image.
He cautioned his class to burn with restraint, saying that when someone comments you have done a good job of burning you have done too much. Good burning should affect the appearance of the image, but be undetectable to the viewer.
The workshop had come full circle. From opening remarks to a closing discussion of what is meant by “fine art photography,” Bruce Barnbaum had led his students up a sharp learning curve on how to plan and to print a fine art photograph.
The workshop was over almost before it began. Five days had passed in the blink of an eye as students exchanged prints and said their goodbyes.