Using Color Heads with Variable Contrast Paper

Let me start by giving credit to Bruce Barnbaum. Many years ago I read an article that he either wrote or one that described his printing methods. He was extolling the virtues of using color heads over cold light heads to make black and white prints with variable contrast paper. I decided to give it a try and have never looked back!

At first it sounds counter intuitive … making black and white prints with a color head, but it turns out to make great sense!

When I first started printing as a teenager I had an Omega B22. From there I graduated to a more solid Beseler 23C, and then on to an Omega D2V and several variants of the Beseler 45MX. Like most people in the Seventies I used the standard issue condenser heads that came with these machines. But then I came across Fred Picker and read the Ansel Adams trilogy (The Camera, The Negative, and The Print). The result … I converted to cold light, which among other things dispenses a softer and more diffuse light.

I’m not going to argue the merits of cold light vs. condenser light sources, except to say cold light is better (less visible dust spots, less harsh prints, greater luminosity, no negative buckling, and more)!

I bought an Aristo cold light and mounted it onto the Beseler. At the time I was still using graded paper. I wasn’t an early adopter of VC. It took some years before it could hold it’s own with the best graded papers. But I finally made that switch due to the dwindling availability of graded papers and the tremendous improvement of VC papers. Thankfully, VC was finally able to deliver the goods that only graded stock had been able to do. Phew!

I eventually moved onto the wonderful and well-built Zone VI Type 2 enlarger with a dedicated Zone VI VC head. I had the Zone VI for several years until I heard about Devere enlargers. Built in the UK, they are straightforward solid machines made to withstand a nuclear effect!

Now back to Bruce Barnbaum. It was around this time that I came across the aforementioned piece advocating color heads as an efficient, flexible and more precise alternative for cold light. Like cold light, color heads are a diffusion light source. A different method of diffusion for sure, but so close in results that it doesn’t matter for all intents in purpose. And let’s face it; if it’s good enough for a Master like Barnbaum, well it’s good enough for me!

Needless to say I found and purchased a Devere 504 with a Devere color head from a local color lab scaling down its darkroom business. Simply stated, I LOVE THIS ENLARGER (but more on that at another time)!!

For me the color head provides all of the benefits of cold light, but is far easier to use and enables greater precision! Best of all, they are plentiful and cheap! All enlarger manufacturers made them and they’re easily available on eBay, Craigslist, APUG, etc. And yes, I also use one on my Leitz Focomat V35 too. Sure, I own the dedicated black and white diffusion VC heads that came with both of my enlargers, but truth be told, why would I want to use them? In my experience the color heads just flat out offer so much more flexibility and ease of use.

So how do I use color heads with VC paper? There are different approaches, and your mileage may vary as they say on the forums, but after so many years of printing with graded paper my that’s the way my mind thinks, so that’s the way I come at it. It’s fast and yields great results. I simply take the paper manufacturer’s recommended color head settings for the “grades” I usually make test strips of and dial in the settings on the color head (Note: I don’t use strips but whole sheets of paper). Grade 2 and 3. I examine both papers under my viewing light to determine the proper basic exposure for each “grade”. Then I make a pilot print for each one. Using my viewing light again, I then dispense with one of the “graded” pilot prints (e.g., Grade 3). Now I go to work to fine-tune the one I have chosen (e.g., Grade 2) and create the finished fine print. Of course I can easily dial up or dial down the contrast for subtle change if I need to. In the past with graded papers I would use Selectol Soft with Dektol or Zone VI developer to lower contrast between grades, or more vigorously agitate the print in Dektol/Zone VI to slightly raise contrast. Finally, I can burn in using the chosen “grade” setting I’ve made, or I can simply dial in harder or softer settings depending on the effect I wish to achieve. So effective and so easy!

So if you are ready to get an enlarger (Note: I didn’t say buy because you might easily pick one up for free!) do consider one with a color head. And if you are currently printing with a black and white head of some kind think about picking up a color head and giving it a go. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

Third Photo Walk Meet Up

By popular demand we are going to take another break from doing our periodic Photo Chat Get-Togethers and instead get together for another Photo Walk Meet Up!

Yes, how about getting together to make some photographs in and around the historic New Hope and Ivyland Railroad station in Hope, PA. There are plenty of old train cars in various conditions near the train station to photograph so we will have opportunities to capture a wide range of images from train cars to abstract images of decaying metal and graffiti.

Well, if this sounds interesting and fun, how about joining me on Sunday, June 4th, at 10am.  We will meet at the train station located at 32 W Bridge St New Hope, PA 18938.

Photographers of all levels are welcome.

Email at or call me at 215-348-9171 if you are interested.

I look forward to meeting you!

Takeaways from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent Exhibit

I finally got there! Wasn’t sure I was going to make it before it closed, but on Saturday I fought through the crowded scene to witness this historic show on its last weekend. What can I say … wow! 140 water color paintings by American artists, including many by the great masters Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Thomas Hine of the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that the exhibition makes a strong case that “watercolors were among the greatest achievements of American art during the 19th and early 20th centuries”.

It was a glorious show to see despite the low light levels needed to prevent fading of the artworks. And the paintings presented a different look than I was used to seeing with works done in oil or acrylic.

Two wonderful surprises for me were paintings by Charles Sheeler (see my recent entry on Charles Sheeler’s photographs and paintings at the James A. Michener Art Museum) and Man Ray. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a multi-talented artist, capable of making truly great work in more than one medium. It’s hard enough for me to soldier on, only with photography!

Not a bad segue to take me into my takeaways from this wonderful experience! I’ve stated before and will do so again … we as photographers can learn a great deal from looking at paintings! I know … the vast number of paintings are not monochromatic (however there was a very nice black and white watercolor harbor scene in the exhibit!), so as black and white photographers, what’s the point? I can only say that in my experience I learn a lot from every great exhibit of paintings I go to see — the presentations (horizontal vs. vertical), the subject matter, the perspective of view (think normal vs. wide angle or telephoto lenses), and of course the feeling of light!

To my eyes the watercolors render a somewhat different presentation of light compared to what I have seen in oil or acrylic works. It’s hard for me to describe, but there was a real sense of transparency, luminosity and delicacy I could easily detect even in the less then optimal museum lighting conditions. It is this sense of light that I think we should strive for in our black and white prints! Contrast that is snappy sometimes gets me to take an initial look. And while there is an immediate allure, the feeling soon passes.

Another thing that struck me right away was the size of the paintings. By my guess most were no larger than about 11×14. This forced me to look closely to see the delicate beauty and locate the secrets waiting to be discovered. There’s another takeaway here; the intimate sizes of the paintings again reinforced my thinking concerning why I print no larger than 8×10 and generally admire smaller picture made by others.

I encourage you to continually be on the lookout for exhibits of the true painting masters. I always learn a lot when these opportunities present themselves, but perhaps most importantly I am inspired to translate what I learn into my own work.

An Exciting Outcome

I just finished teaching a course at Delaware Valley University’s Center for Learning in Retirement called “Planning and Creating a Photographic Project”. My thinking in putting it together was that we often snap pictures without much thought or make them without a larger purpose in mind. Or sometimes we get in a rut and can’t get motivated to make any pictures at all! Guess what … our horizons need expanding!

The objective of the class was for students to produce a theme-based photographic project with a specific objective in mind. I would help them along the way in terms of producing better photographs that they would be proud of and perhaps want to display.

Lofty goals for sure, but why not!

Back in February at the beginning of the semester I could tell most of the students were either ambivalent or nervous about what they had signed up for. First, they had to plan a project based on personal research concerning their chosen subject or area of interest. Then they had to create a thematic body of work and produce a portfolio containing 10 printed photographs. Finally they had to prepare a written essay describing the theme; why they chose it, what it meant to them, and what they learned during the course of making the photos and arranging their portfolio. Of course, each photograph had to be accompanied by a short written description of what it was and how it fit within the project theme. Piece of cake?

Ok, so it was a little daunting and not everyone that signed up stuck it out. But that’s all right. Better not to stay if you don’t want to put in the effort or you’re afraid of trying. Believe me I understand that it is far easier to keep doing things willy-nilly without much thought, or that is it is more fun to think about the next gear purchase rather than using what you have to make meaningful pictures.

I wanted the class to go beyond these stumbling blocks to plan a meaningful project and take the steps necessary to complete it. One thing I kept pounding them with is that there are stories and projects all around us! For gosh sakes if you can’t find something to do in a place like Buck’s County then there is a real problem! But it really doesn’t really matter where you live. The problem is that most of us feel we have to travel to some exotic location before we can get juiced up about making “important” photographs. Nonsense!

You have to open your eyes and become more aware of your surroundings and the range of possibilities they offer. That means new thinking concerning what’s really important in your life … and for that matter … life in general. And when you do have a project or theme you are working on, please don’t have a blind spot when it comes to unexpected opportunities. Bottom line … there’s so much to see and capture if only we are open to it!

I wanted the students to write about what they hoped to … and did accomplish … and what the work meant to them. This would help crystalize things and writing about each picture would further help to tie the portfolio together.

After seeing what the students accomplished, I was more than satisfied with my strategy and I am now especially convinced that writing can be a great tool in your photographic arsenal!

But what really excited the students and me was the result of their hard work! They really grew and created some very nice work! In some cases they surprised themselves … and me! Those that were most successful truly did open their eyes to see things in new ways … such as abstract designs found in man made objects or nature … or the true importance and deep meaning of family relationships. In short, they learned that there really are extraordinary stories and projects to do all around us worth discovering and photographing!!

Seeing the results of their hard work was my reward. That and a renewed purpose to keep my own eyes open to all the wonderful possibilities that lie before me.

Am I Being Sacrilegious?

I was thinking about what I wanted to write this week. I had just finished power washing the paint off our outdoor deck. Yeah, it took five hours. Now I get to let it dry for two weeks before sanding it down and eventually repainting it. I did it on the day it wasn’t supposed to rain … but of course it did. Well the deck didn’t care, as it was being saturated anyway, but I sure wasn’t too happy @#$%^&*(. Now it was time for me to write. My cutesy wife suggested I write about my power washing experience, but I didn’t think it would generate much interest … but I am writing about it after all … aren’t I?

OK, enough of that! So I continue to think about the last two entries I wrote concerning proof sheets. I guess there’s still some gas left in the tank, so I’ve decided I would like to discuss cropping, a subject I touched upon last time and one that continues to come up in my classes.

I know that many, including the late great Henri Cartier Bresson believe in an almost religious way that what was captured on the negative is a sacred, and if you didn’t capture the subject as it should be … well then too bad … you lose!

Here’s an excerpt from a 1958 interview with HCB:

“Interviewer: You’ve been known for never cropping your photos. Do you want to say anything about that?

HCB: About cropping? Uh, I said in that forward, we have to have a feeling for the geometry of the relation of shapes, like in any plastic medium. And I think that you place yourself in time, we’re dealing with time, and with space. Just like you pick a right moment in an expression, you pick your right spot, also. I will get closer, or further, there’s an emphasis on the subject, and if the relations, the interplay of lines is correct, well, it is there. If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it. If a picture is mediocre, well it remains mediocre. The thing is done, once for all.”

Cropping … let me say it now… I believe it is ok and I do it.

There, I said it!

That’s right … I don’t believe it should be an article of religious faith that what is contained in the negative is sacrosanct and can only be printed full frame.   I guess that means I’m at odds with the great Master and others on this one, but I can live with that … and I think you can too without lying awake at night. Yes, there are things that keep me up at night, but this isn’t one of them!

It is absolutely essential to do your best to see and compose the image as carefully as possible when you make the picture. But let’s face it; sometimes things can be improved with cropping. Yes, I suppose it’s better if you don’t have to, if only because there is less to think about in the darkroom. But if you need to do the deed in order to create something of substance should anyone really care? I don’t.

I mean if this really bothers you, perhaps you should take a deep breath and relax.

Now, I am no HCB and most of us will never be, but we are working to create meaningful images … if not for others, at least for ourselves. Of course we shouldn’t have license to be sloppy with our vision and technique. Nevertheless, if we come up a little short during the moment of truth, but have captured something that still can be special with a little corrective surgery (based thoughtful analysis of the image on the proof sheet), then why go for it?

In short I don’t believe anyone has the perfect power of pre-visualization, not HCB or Adams or Frank or Evans or Steiglitz or Kertesz or Brandt… no one. That is why they … and we … have so few keepers relative to the total amount of exposures made. It’s also why so many of the Masters crop if necessary!

Here’s an excerpt from an essay published by Bill Brandt in 1948; it is still spot on:

“When young photographers come to show me their work, they often tell me proudly that they follow all the fashionable rules. They never use electric lamps or flashlight; they never crop a picture in the darkroom, but print from an untrimmed negative; they snap their model while walking about the room.

I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport. If I think a picture will look better brilliantly lit, I use lights, or even flash. It is the result that counts, no matter how it was achieved. I find the darkroom work most important, as I can finish the composition of a picture only under the enlarger. I do not understand why this is supposed to interfere with the truth. Photographers should follow their own judgment, and not the fads and dictates of others.”  

So when it comes time to print, why include a distracting element, or forgo the opportunity to intensify a critical compositional feature? In my opinion the only thing that matters is the final result. If cropping can strengthen an image, then by all means crop!

It’s not a sin, but pray for me if you must.

Don’t Be a Bozo — Make Proof Sheets!

I thought I would follow up on my recent post where I discussed revisiting your proof sheets. What made me think about this were some questions that arose this past week during a darkroom demonstration I gave for my Delaware Valley University Center for Learning in Retirement students. All are digital shooters, but several are thinking of giving film a try and many have actually started making black and white pictures … damn!!!!! They were very concerned about cropping and image size decisions. How did I make them and how should they? I told them that’s what a proof sheet is for!

Now I hope most of you make proof sheets, but for those that don’t, it’s time to hop on the bandwagon! First of all, the most important reason to make proof sheets is to catalog your negatives and know what you actually have. Duh! If you don’t have proof sheets you are setting your self up for a lot of wasted time. Forget about making printing decisions based on viewing your negatives on a light table, or worse by holding them up to the light. Of course that is if you can find what you’re looking for! And if your negatives are properly developed they’re all going to look good. So what you need is more information!

I have a simple filing system that works for me, and you might find it works for you. I have all my negatives contained in clear archival Print File Negative Preserver Pages that are stored in three ring archival closed box binders to keep any dust out. Separate binders for each film size. Each page is numbered and has the same numeral as its matching proof sheet contained in a separate but corresponding loose-leaf binder. With each proof sheet are print recipes and other notes for each image printed from the particular roll of film or set of large format negatives. Now that is simple and sure makes things easer to find!

What else is the proof sheet good for? Well several things. After knowing what you have, the next important thing to determine is what you actually want to print! By carefully studying my proof sheet, I first decide if it contains anything worth printing. If I think it does I take my marking pen and draw a rectangle around the image(s). That’s a time saver too because I usually print images sometime after the proof sheets have been made. Why have to go back and do the same thing all over again? Another thing the proof sheet tells you is whether your negative exposure/development was good or not. Depending on how bad things look, you may not want to try to print that negative (truth be told … I have made many successful prints where the proof indicted exposure issues).

Finally, as mentioned above, there is the matter of cropping and image size consideration. Looking at the proof sheet really helps me here and saves me a lot of time later when I’m in the darkroom. I think the worse thing you can do is try to make cropping decisions based on what you see projected onto your easel. Less so with image size decisions, but the proof sheet does help me to get a good idea of what I want to do here. So in addition drawing a rectangle around any pictures I want to print, I mark any cropping to be done. Now when it is time to print I know exactly what I am going to do and get right down to the task of making a successful image!

So there you have it. Some very good reasons to make … and use proof sheets! If your not making them, start doing so! Trust me on this!

Upcoming Workshop: Living a Photographic Life – Balancing the Day to Day with Personal Enrichment, Chimayo Gallery, Wednesdays June 7-July 12, 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Together with the Chimayo Gallery, located in Perkasie, PA, I am adopting my popular class taught at Delaware Valley University’s Center for Learning In Retirement to make it available to a wider audience. This series of classes will provide a fun and learning experience in a friendly and supportive environment for photographers of all skill levels.

Learn how to make photography important, fun and rewarding so it will become an integral part of your life despite all the other activities and responsibilities you have.

“Keeping your head in the game”. That idea relates to the joy of living a photographic life. The question is how to do this! Let’s face it; most of us have non-photographic jobs, family obligations, etc. So short of making photography your livelihood, what can you do? Obviously you will want to go out into the world and make photographs. Trouble is that most don’t have the time or ability to do that on a regular and continuous basis. So our avocation can’t be our vocation. Time to move onto Plan B, which for most of us is the real world. But living in the real world doesn’t mean we cannot live a photographic life. That is a major part of what this course is about, as well as to help you make better pictures that you will be proud of and want to actually have displayed.

Yes displayed! The reason we are going to do this is that in today’s world many rarely hold a meaningful photograph in their hands let alone see one on their walls! Rather most store them on their iPhone, iPad or computer, or perhaps upload them to photo sites like Flickr on the Internet.

You will produce a portfolio project containing 10 printed photographs on a theme of your choice along with a written essay describing why you chose it, what it means to you, and what was learned during the course of making the photos and arranging your portfolio.

In addition to the theme/portfolio, students will be making photographs every week to bring in for discussion and friendly critique. The purpose of this to get a better idea of composition and light, as well the importance of meeting the objective you had in mind when you decided to make the photograph in the first place. Doing this every week will help you as you are thinking about making good photographs and building your final portfolio.

By the end of the course students will have learned about or discovered a range of activities that will enable them to always keep their heads in the game and will have created a strong portfolio to be proud of, containing photographs that deserve to be hung on the wall! 

Fee: $130

Please contact Chimayo Gallery by phone or email to reserve a spot.


Revisiting Your Proof Sheets … What You Find Might Surprise You!

About a year ago I decided to take a little trip down memory lane. That’s right, I decided to take a look through my many proof sheets going all the way back to the beginning! Now I’m pretty picky about I what I print, but what surprised me after spending a couple of days at it was the discovery that there might be some gems here that I missed for some reason.

All in all, I found around a hundred or so images that looked like they deserved a chance to be printed and prove themselves. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Go through a lot of paper (at $1.00 or so a sheet for 8×10), chemicals, not to mention a lot of time. On the other hand, now that I’ve found them I won’t know if there are any keepers here unless I give it a shot.

So I will be slowly going through the many flagged proof sheets and printing in between current work. No doubt it will take a long time, but I am excited by prospects!

The question is why do so many images I recently peered at through the magnifying loupe somehow now look more appealing than they did at first glance? To be honest, I’m not completely sure. Perhaps a different perspective, a new point of view, or the fact that I am older and hopefully somewhat wiser. Or maybe I was too hasty the first time around.

I’m sure this could be psychoanalyzed, but the bottom line is that I’m not sure it really matters. What does matter is the fact that taking some time off and then going back to the sources can be illuminating. Just as it makes sense to study your finished prints for a while to confirm they are what you envisioned, or determine they need some more work … or belong in the trash.

There’s no shame if you find out that the circular file is the end result when looking at your finished work. In fact the trashcan, fireplace or whatever mechanism you use to dispose of the also-rans is one of the most important tools you have at your creative disposal! So please do go back through your old proof sheets. Maybe there won’t be anything there, or what you end up printing may be so-so … or maybe you might be surprised to find some overlooked keepers you somehow missed the first time around!