No Manipulation Required

Why more negatives don't lead to straight prints

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


Until now, in a decade of writing this column, there has always been a “straight print” and then a “final print,” and I have discussed the methods used to get from one to the other (except for my eight “Photographic Myths Exploded” articles, which had no prints associated with them). But here, for the very first time, I present a completely “straight” print, one that required no burning, no dodging, no increase or decrease in the basic contrast level, and no bleaching. I simply put the negative in the enlarger, focus it, give it the proper length of exposure under the enlarger, and develop it. It’s completely straightforward.

So why doesn’t this happen more often? After all, a lot of people think that if you fully understand the Ansel Adams Zone System, you should be able to make straight prints all the time. Or, have I simply been avoiding the preponderance of prints that I make that are really straight prints?

First, I have not been avoiding the supposed vast stores of straight prints that I have. As it turns out, of the 300–400 prints that I have that I would be happy to exhibit, I have only two that are straight prints.

Almost all prints require some manipulation, and many require extensive manipulation. Why?

Why manipulate?

To answer that question, let’s consider how the eye works. When you look at a scene, you see only a small portion of it sharply at any one time: just 3 radial degrees. That’s a very small angle, indeed. To fully understand how small it is, hold your hand in front of you at arm’s length and spread your fingers wide. Then look at your thumbnail. You’ll notice that your little finger is totally out of focus! In fact, you have to move your eye to really see your little finger at all. When you look at your thumbnail, the limit of sharp focus is the main knuckle connecting your hand to the thumb. So draw a circle at arm’s length with its center at your thumbnail and the radius being the distance from your thumbnail to that knuckle. That’s about 3 radial degrees, and that’s the limit of your sharp vision.

So what happens when you see a scene, any scene? Your eye jumps around from place to place. When you look at a bright part of the scene your pupil contracts to admit less light; when you look into a dark portion of the scene, the pupil opens up to allow more light in so you can see it better.

So, thinking in terms of the camera, when you view a scene with your own eyes, you really see the scene at multiple apertures: more opened up for the darkest areas (the so-called “shadow” areas); more closed down for the brighter areas (the so-called “highlight” areas). But when you make a photograph, the camera is restricted to one aperture for the entire scene. So how often is the scene so perfectly balanced in light distribution that what you see is exactly what the camera sees? In my case, it happens about one in 200 times. In fact it happens far less often, because those two negatives that require no manipulation are not just from the 300–400 I’m pleased to exhibit, but from the more than 12,000 negatives I’ve exposed over my career.

Second, it’s not true that knowing (and using) the Zone System will yield excellent straight prints. Not only does the eye not see things the way the camera does, but light does not always fall on the scene with exactly the intensity you would like it to have in all parts of the scene. Sometimes you have to brighten some areas to make them stand out or darken areas to subdue them, even when the light is good. You are still inter- preting the scene, you’re not just recording it as it is. You have input into the final print. You’re not just a “journalist” report- ing the scene, you’re an “editorialist” commenting on the scene.

Printing follows human vision

It turns out that most of the manipulations I do are not done to make the scene different from what I saw, but to actually bring things back to the way I remembered seeing them. Much of the time the burning and dodging I do in the darkroom emulates the automatic burning and dodging my eye did at the scene. Of course, I then have the option of enhancing that even further, should I choose to do so. Those are purely artistic decisions. They are not moral decisions. I have the artistic right to manipulate light as I wish to do so in every print that I create in order to create the illusion I wish to create. In general, I did not create the scene (though it’s possible in any still life or table-top model, or in many portrait situations), but in all cases, I do create the final image, and I can do with it whatever I want to do.

In the case of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University (which is one of my extensive “Cathedrals of England” studies from 1980 and 1981), I used a 150mm lens on my 4×5 Linhof Master Technika camera. I raised the lens slightly, but used no other movement. I gave the scene a four-minute exposure at ƒ/32, developing the single Tri-X negative that I exposed with greatly reduced contrast—what I call “compensating” development. After that, it’s just a straight print.

But it’s an awesome structure, and I simply wanted to convey its grandeur, along with that of the ornate wood screen that divides the structure, and the gleaming organ pipes that stand atop the screen. I felt that the symmetry of the structure and screen would be best honored by making a symmetric study, looking straight down the center, from the back of the stupendous room to the front, where you can see (through the screen opening) a portion of Ruben’s monumental painting, “The Adoration of the Magi.”

I must admit that I’m amazed that any print could deliver exactly what I wanted with no manipulations . . . that the light could have been so perfectly distributed that it required no alterations in printing. In fact, it makes me a bit nervous. The next time I print this image, I think I’ll do a little dodging in the upper right corner, and then burn it back in, just to make me feel that I’ve done something—anything!—in making the final print. A straight print feels really weird!

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.