Confessions of a recovering magic bullet chaser


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zaren

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by Kevin Bourque for largeformaphotography.info

Picture this…. you’re at a photography show or a gallery, and you see a print that takes your breath away. You look at the delicate highlights, perfectly rendered mid tones and deep blacks and think, “Man, what a great print. If I only knew what kind of (pick one: camera, lens, film, paper, developer, toner) he used, my pictures would look just as good.” You are now looking for a magic bullet.

Magic bullets are things that turn a mediocre photographer into a great one with a minimal amount of effort. They often take the form of some highly recommended piece of equipment, or some chemical brew with magical properties. It seems so easy…all you have to do is buy the right thing, and your pictures can look like the ones in the gallery.

It’s an insidious addiction. You’re driven by a desire to improve, so it seems as if the effort and expense is justified. You get distracted, thinking that you need to BUY something to fix your pictures, when you probably need to LEARN something. When the latest toy doesn’t work out, you move on to the next.

I am a recovering magic-bullet chaser. I’ve been down this road, friends, and it ain’t pretty. As part of my therapy, I am posting my painful lessons out here in public for all to see. Let me help you avoid some of it. I’m writing from the perspective of someone who does fine art black and white photography in the traditional darkroom, but the lessons are universal.

For years, I looked for miracle cures to save my crummy prints. I tried every film, lens and developer I could get my hands on (I still have a weakness for lenses, but I’m getting better). I'd read stuff like: "I just bought a 135mm f5.6 Ektakron (with the red dial) and I can't believe the difference! I'm throwing away all my old negatives and starting over!", or "You must try developing TMQ in D41-MicroGoop. I have, and my prints GLOW IN THE DARK". Of course I'd run right out and buy a red-dial Ektakron or ten gallons of glow-in-the-dark developer, and guess what? One more magic bullet, same pictures, slightly less disposable income.

The sad truth is that there are no magic bullets, no single-shot miracle cures. Good prints are the result of many incremental improvements. Furthermore, gross errors in one area can completely mask improvements in other areas. To see lots of improvement, you have to make lots of changes. Not just any changes, but the RIGHT ones.

Let's consider film developer. Judging by the volume of traffic on the forums, many of us obsess about which one we use. We are convinced that good prints will come our way if only we can find a magic potion. Pyro seems to come up a lot, so I'll use it as an example. Please, no flames. I'm sure it's fine stuff; I'm merely using it to illustrate a point.

The resurgence of pyro's popularity owes itself mostly to Gordon Hutchings' book. He makes some specific claims about the properties of pyro negatives, and by the way, his prints never looked better. Recovering bullet-chasers (like myself) read this and immediately start to drool. We fire off frantic phone calls, "No, FedEx overnight is NOT GOOD ENOUGH! Send a courier via a charter flight. I need the pyro by tomorrow morning! The future of photography is a stake!". We tremblingly develop our precious negatives, seductively yellow-green and luminous, while dreaming of "Moonrise, Hernandez". Breathlessly we make a print, and...uh oh. Kinda looks like the old prints.

How can this be? Gordon Hutchings uses pyro, and his prints are better than mine. Didn't I follow all the rules? Wasn't I a good consumer? I bought the book, developer, AND the t-shirt! Why am I being punished? What’s the problem? Well, here's a guess. Before Mr. Hutchings ever used pyro, he was already a very good photographer and a very good printer. He understands his tools and materials. He can look at his print and decide what to do to make it better, and then do it. In the chain of events that starts with the lens and ends with the finished print, he's eliminated 90% of possible problems. He's 90% efficient.

Now picture someone at the other end of the spectrum. I, uh, I mean HE is running at about 40%. His negative carrier is not parallel to the baseboard, so he has to stop down to f32 for depth of field. Don't worry that you've just lost all your sharpness to diffraction. He overdevelops his film, which guarantees blown-out highlights, not to mention enough grain to bake a billion bagels. His darkroom is about as dark as the inside of a ping-pong ball. Perhaps he has a flimsy tripod, and his camera flaps about like laundry in the breeze. Looking at his prints, he thinks it’s okay that the white horse and the asphalt parking lot are the same shade of gray. With all these problems, you could develop in Pyro or Drano and not tell the difference.

Pyro cannot save this poor tortured soul. Our hapless hero is condemned to wail and gnash his teeth in the outer darkness. Everyone else's prints leap off the page, and his look like they came from a 1970's Soviet photocopier. Any incremental gain he might have realized by changing developers has been consumed by problems in other areas.

Here's an analogy. Countless sets of golf clubs are sold with the implicit promise that they'll make you a better golfer. Legions of frustrated weekenders in plaid pants ante up for the new magnesium WunderWand, when they really ought to be fixing their swing (these are great guys to know, by the way. You can often get their cast-off clubs for pennies on the dollar). Their enthusiasm to improve is sincere but misdirected. They will drop an obscene amount of money on a set of clubs that could (in theory), deliver a golf ball to the hole with pinpoint accuracy. Yet the perverse sphere still turns a right angle and disappears into the pond. Nice try, but Tiger Woods could beat you with a hockey stick. Blindfolded.

If you’re a musician, maybe you’ve had this humbling experience (I have). You hand your instrument (guitar, in my case) to someone else, and they play it like you’ve never heard before. Whoa, I didn’t know it could DO that. Same strings, different fingers. Makes all the difference in the world.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that most of us already have the tools we need to make better prints. We just need to learn how to use them. Maybe we need to have someone SHOW us how to use them. I learned this when I attended a darkroom workshop with Howard Bond. He didn't tell me anything I hadn't already heard; but he did show me how to apply it. It’s the difference between knowing that a house is made from lumber and nails and wire and pipe, and actually BUILDING one. There were no red-dial Ektakrons or D41 Micro-Goop in his darkroom. What I did see was an experienced craftsman, using materials not unlike mine. It was liberating to know that I already had everything I needed to make much better prints. I just had to maximize their potential.

The bad news isn’t really all that bad. It’s just that there’s no five-minute road to success. You have to get a number of things under control. Some are more important than others. Yes, there are certain minimal technical standards for equipment, but lots of timeless photos have been made with second-rate hardware. Far better that you should refine your vision and printing skills than obsess over the newest APO 90mm f4.5. If you don’t like your pictures now, buying the new lens won’t help.

And you have to learn to SEE. You have to learn to look at a print and understand it’s potential. This is harder than buying a new tripod, and it’s best learned from someone who already knows how.

So, what’s a photographer to do? Where do you find these incremental improvements, these small, non- magic bullets? Here are a few suggestions. Optimize these things first, and THEN go buy a new lens, or change developers.

Do you know how to focus your view camera, and how to use movements to optimize the plane of focus? Always using f45 is not the answer.
Is your tripod up to the task of supporting your camera?
What ISO is your favorite film? It's probably not what's on the box. Same for development time.
Yes, developer does matter. The old standards (D76, HC110) work well, but there might be reasons to use others. The standard advice is to pick something and stick to it for a while. Pretty good advice, really. The worst thing you can do switch developers every week and never understand any of them.
Your enlarger's negative holder, lens board and easel all need to be very, very close to parallel. If you've never checked, they probably aren't.
Do you use fresh, healthy chemistry?
Your enlarger lens has a sharpest aperture. Do you know what it is?
How dark is your darkroom? Turn on the enlarger and look up into the light, and see what your print sees. Any other light sources up there? Reflections? Does light come under the door?
Does your enlarger vibrate when trucks drive by?
In any process that involves a chemical reaction, are all the variables (temperature, time, dilution) under tight control?
Do you know how to burn and dodge? Do you have effective tools readily available? The good news is that, unlike everything else in photography, the tools are cheap!

One of the most important things you can learn is to look at your prints objectively. Does it need to be darker or lighter? More or less contrast? Can I burn or dodge something? What does this print need, and how do I get there? What would it take to make this thing come alive? Having some high-quality prints on hand is one way to learn this, having a mentor is another.

Thanks for reading, and good light.
 

night86mare

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the d3 is the ultimate magic bullet :thumbsup:

the more expensive the magic bullet, the better it will work :thumbsup:
 

Del_CtrlnoAlt

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#3
the d3 is the ultimate magic bullet :thumbsup:

the more expensive the magic bullet, the better it will work :thumbsup:
well, there is printer that cost about 100x price of a d3... your magic bullet not that expensive after all... probably each time u change a set of ink, you can buy a D3.
 

HeiPiGu

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Any antidote for the magic bullet? I guess it's human nature to want to achieve the most in the least possible time.
Look at the many generations of Olympians, many of them still chasing the magic bullet.

It's a good read, sort of enlighten me a bit too. But I still need those darn ND filters :bsmilie:
 

J-Chan

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This is the sort of article that most CSers would benefit from reading.. Thanks for sharing..
 

grumpy

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This is the sort of article that most CSers would benefit from reading.. Thanks for sharing..

U refering to night86mare?
:bsmilie:

Thanks for sharing, Zaren.
 

ed9119

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#10
well written, candid, the self depreciating humour is cracking and forces self-examination ....... one of the shiners in a long while at CS

:thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup:
 

Garion

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#11
Thanks for the article, a good and humorous read. :thumbsup: A sobering dose of reality for those consumed by equipment lust and the BBB syndrome ever prevalent in CS. (Including myself.) :embrass:
 

zaren

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hi guys, glad u enjoyed reading the article as much as i did!

sorry, i don't do MO for magic bullets...u could try contacting the author of the article, mr kevin bourque, for help!

:cool:
 

calebk

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Jul 25, 2006
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Try "Your camera DOES matter" (www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/cameras-matter.shtml) for an alternative view that could debunk conventional wisdom.
I don't think the article here is saying your camera does not matter. To say that gear does not play a part at all is fallacy. However, that being said, what this article is driving at is this: just because a pro, producing great images, uses a certain camera or a certain lens, and you use the same camera or lens, you aren't necessarily going to get the same results.

The pro's good results come not only from a techical prowess and familiarity with his own gear, but also experience and proficiency in terms of aesthetic areas like recognising the quality and quantity of light, exposure control, a good eye, good compositional awareness, a good post-processing workflow and so forth.
 

attap seed

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Feb 16, 2006
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i tink the current MagicBullet in CS is ND filters to prevent over-exposure in bright daylight.
 

night86mare

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well, there is printer that cost about 100x price of a d3... your magic bullet not that expensive after all... probably each time u change a set of ink, you can buy a D3.
i cannot afford the lousiest magic bullet..... i.e. d3....

that printer is going to be magic machine gun.......

i think i go and chase the best sd card in the world, maybe it will improve my photographs by making them nicer because i spent more money on it :bsmilie:
 

kentjr

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Very interesting and real-life post!:thumbsup:
 

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