Keep it Simple

The ideal print process should be invisible

By Al Weber Back to


In 1980, on assignment for the Finnish Museum of Architecture, I made this photograph of Resurrection Chapel in Turku, Finland. Architect Erik Bryggman created what has become one of Finland’s proudest structures during what the Finns call the Winter War and what we know as World War II. To my taste, it is simple, but profusely elegant. The intentional quality of light and graceful, romantic carvings are but two of the buildings outstanding features. I decided to use the light that was there, with no supplementary assistance, to keep the carvings understated but visible. Existing contrast was great to the eye, but beyond normal treatment for film. I elected to use 4!5 Tri-X film, carefully exposing for low values and, processing in Gordon Hutchings PMK Pyro to N–2. The resulting negative prints well on a grade 3 paper, with minimal dodging and burning.

My camera of choice was, and has been for a long time, a 1958 Sinar Expert. The lens was a 300 mm Rodenstock Sironar. I carry the necessary film development materials so that I can see exactly where I am at the end of each day. HC-110 and the PMK cover most situations. For trays I use plastic drawer dividers found in any variety store. When I eventually get home, I re-fix and wash all film to assure proper processing.

For me, the ideal print process should be invisible. It should allow the viewer to immediately and totally concentrate on the image. I want you to get right into the carvings and the quality of light without being side tracked by clever film manipulation or tricky printing applications. Any manipulation I do must be unnoticed, to the best of my ability.

Too many photographers make prints that are excessive in technique—it is common that one first notices the quality of printing, and even negative making before or even if they see the photograph. Craft supports Art. It always has. Some misguided photographers labor under the pretense that if a photograph is well-executed, the subject is of minor concern. I do not mean that craft is to be ignored, but it should never intrude on the art. If the quality of printing is good and the negative has been properly exposed and developed, the viewer has the pleasure of seeing directly what the photographer had in mind. If the photograph reeks of the Zone System, the viewer is distracted. Any process that calls attention to itself is a negative force.

Keep it simple

I like the AA slogan, K.I.S.S.— keep it simple, stupid. Being an optimist by nature, I assume every print I make will be a simple projection, without corrections in the mid contrast range, developed normally in a conventional developer, such as Dektol. The more I photograph, the more this seems to hap- pen. If one makes toast every morning and has to scrape it because it is burned, one usually adjusts the toaster, without going into some metaphysical séance. The same is true in photography. If one finds they always have to print on high- contrast paper, negative development needs to be increased. How much? Just like the toast situation. Trial and error always shows the way.

If the low values of a negative are always empty, or inadequate, decrease the ISO of the film. How much? About as much as one adjusts putting salt on food. To taste. (Try moving in increments of one f-stop; it makes the math easier. To adjust film development, I move 20%, up or down. These movements are noticeable, but not devastating if you make a mistake).

As I work, I am constantly adjusting. Roll to roll, allowing for small changes along the way. Film development sometimes is changed at the last minute, in the dark, while I am thinking about the exposures on the roll. I may, for no good reason other than instinct, change the time 15–20 seconds. The making of photographs is based more on habit and experience than what some technician in Rochester (now Japan or England) decides. Remember. They only make the product. You are the one who uses it.

Test prints, not strips

Once I have the negative, I make a test print. Properly done, the test strip, or print, can give the following information: proper exposure, contrast-adjustment needed, and cropping. If the test strip is too small, all of the above may be difficult. It is standard procedure to use small strips of unexposed paper for test strips. My thinking is that if the strip is too small and you make a mistake, you’ve not only lost money, but also time—and time is a factor. Small test strips are accurate if each is exactly placed. Larger test prints, are not so demanding. If one uses a whole sheet of paper, one can also adjust contrast and evaluate any needed cropping. It is my experience that I get to a finished print faster by using a full-size test print. This test is also washed and dried for future evaluation and further printing. By studying the projected image, space divisions are determined that divide important areas so that one can see different exposures for a similar subject, such as a cloud or a rock or a face. Theses divisions are rarely equal.

For me, I want to see the greatest separation between print values. This means minimum exposure to get maximum black. If I have this in my pocket, I can always adjust values by changing the developing time or changing the contrast filtration.


I start every printing by making a test print, usually to a grade 2 contrast, developed in Dektol 1:2 for 150 seconds. I have found that Dektol reaches its maximum contrast at 150 seconds. Going beyond that time simply makes the whole print darker. Going a lesser time decreases the separation between print values. I also like both Selectol and Selectol-Soft. Selectol is no longer marketed by Kodak, but is available at the Photographers Formulary in Montana. Selectol or Selectol-Soft can give the same contrast as Dektol if developing times are adjusted. Selectol reaches total development for me in 4-5 minutes; Selectol-Soft in 9 minutes. The blacks and whites are about the same. Dektol makes it from black to white in maybe 20 steps. In Selectol, the steps are smaller and there are more of them. In photographing a baby, the smaller divisions give a smoother look. Photographing a grizzly old mountain man however, may be better with Dektol. There also is the matter of print color. Dektol is a cold-toned developer. Selectol is warmer. Selectol-Soft is warmest.

From the test print, first I choose the exposure that I want. The test print must show print densities that are too light and too dark. I also usually can get a good idea as to contrast if the test is large enough. I always print full-frame. But at this point I can start looking at any needed cropping. Dodging and burning needs may also be obvious. First however, I make a straight print. I want to see the overall print density before making any adjustments. The next step is to make a controlled print, at proper exposure to get the desired print density, and, using the large test print for reference, dial in any required dodging and burning.

Three prints then, usually get you into a pretty good photograph. To me however, I still call this a work print, and a fourth print, on a harder paper brings the print to where I like it. I am always looking for minimal adjustments. A change of light sources.  A change of papers or developers. The use of selenium toner, either for contrast change or color shift or permanence or all three. How does it look dry? (I dry all test prints in a microwave oven to facilitate judgment; there is no substitute for looking at the print when it is bone dry).

I continue to adjust the making of a print for a long time. Sometimes it never comes to an end. That is part of the photographic process. If the original negative has been well made, it can grow and mature with you. At any time, you can re-explore the photograph. Negative making, to me, provides a resource in which I can dwell forever. Over time, I record each printing and the changes made. Size changes are easily made by using the Ilford M-10 Print Monitor. Read the instructions. I’ve used a variety of monitors and find this under $30 simplified densitometer to be a useful darkroom tool.

Everyone has an Ansel Adams story. Especially now that he is gone. I worked for Ansel in the Yosemite workshops from 1963 to 1981. As staff, we could buy special edition prints at cost. Each year I would buy a few. One time I got them all out to look them over and found I had several versions of one of my favorites at Lake Tenaya. No two were alike. They were all good. Over the years, he changed the printing. A good negative should offer that choice. That’s part of photography. That’s your privilege.

About the Author

Al Weber
Al Weber’s photography is exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Art in Kyoto, Japan, and in many regional museums. He has taught photography since 1963, as instructor for Ansel Adams in Yosemite, at his own Victor School, CO, and workshops including those with David Vestal at the Photographers’ Formulary in Montana. He was Education Chairman at Friends of Photography in Carmel, CA and spent many years in a varied career of commercial photography for national publications and major manufacturers. This article is a prelude to a book of Al Weber's aerial photography published in 2010 by Café Margo Press.