Patience, Practice, and Printing

By John Sexton Back to


I made the image Lower Calf Creek Falls Detail in Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on a blistering hot day. From delicate and subtle landscapes to jarring topography, Southern Utah is an always changing and wondrous portion of the planet. The three-mile round trip walk was indeed a warm one. My wife Anne and I walked at an accelerated pace from the most intense exposure to the sun to the mild relief found in the shade. Upon turning the last bend in the trail, we entered a cool and verdant paradise. The lush canyon was filled with the delicate whisper of the falls ahead, and we were immersed in a cooling mist. With gently shifting winds, the autumn flow of the fall was never the same for more than a few seconds.

We spent a rejuvenating few hours photographing the falls, as veils of water constantly changed in the shifting breeze. We would wait for just the right instant to release the shutter–often being a second too early, or a few seconds too late. Each of the twelve 4×5 negatives I exposed that day was unique. The negative I finally printed was the only negative where the water pattern formed a design that was exactly what I had hoped for. It was one of the few days where we used all of the film that we had with us in our camera packs.

You can see a reproduction of that 4×5 inch Kodak T-Max 400 negative (Figure 1) as it would appear on a light box. It was processed in Kodak Xtol developer, and given N+1 development to increase the contrast. After processing a negative, I always make a low-contrast contact sheet, as shown (Figure 2). I gleaned this approach from studying, and later working, with Ansel Adams. He liked to make low-contrast contact sheets so that he could reveal all of the tones in the negative that could be rendered on the paper. In the contact sheet, the dark areas are often a little smoky, and the highlights may be a bit dingy, but with practice one can visualize the possibilities of the final print.

After carefully studying the contact sheet, I generally know with some degree of certainty whether or not the image has potential for further exploration in the darkroom. Often, an image is technically adequate, but lacks some element of magic. There are times when I wish I had used a “magic filter” on my camera lens, but, alas, no such filter exists! Once I decide I want to print a negative, I use the contact sheet—along with a careful examination of the negative on a light box—to determine the lowest contrast that might produce a successful result, and use that as my starting point. I find working up in contrast (i.e., starting with a soft print) to be far more productive than backpedaling from a higher contrast print.

In Figure 3, you can see a straight print of the negative with no manipulation, and in Figure 4 my finished print, both of which were made on Kodak Polymax Fine Art paper with grade 3 filtration. The basic exposure on both prints is identical. The difference between the straight print and my finished print is the result of dodging to lighten certain areas of the rock and flowing water, combined with a number of burns to darken and balance the tones in the wet rock wall. When printing, I always try and remember that a photograph is an illusion. The only way to make the light tones in a print lighter is to decrease the exposure in those areas, but on many occasions that also can reduce the amount of detail and local contrast. What I really wanted in this image was to create the illusion of brighter water. I attempted to achieve this goal by darkening the surrounding wet sandstone cliff. This also enhanced the feeling of wetness. Finally, I locally applied some potassium ferricyanide bleach in surprisingly small amounts in various areas to balance, brighten, and increase the local contrast in those areas.

One of the magical aspects of the medium of photography is the ability to transport the viewer back in time, not just to what the photographer saw, but also to what the photographer felt. As I look at this photograph of Lower Calf Creek Falls, it amazes me how it brings back vivid memories: the blistering heat of the hike; the cool breezes bathing us in a light mist below the fall; the shroud of solitude created by the constant reverberation of falling water—broken occasionally by my favorite sound in the Southwest, the call of the Canyon Wren.

About the Author

John Sexton
John Sexton is known as a photographer, master print maker, workshop instructor and lecturer. Author of four award-winning books, Sexton is best known for his luminous black and white images of the natural environment. Sexton served as photographic assistant and consultant to photographer Ansel Adams. John’s finely crafted large format photographs have appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications, and are included in permanent collections and exhibitions, throughout the world. For information on John’s workshops, prints, and publications, visit