Confessions of a recovering magic bullet chaser

by Kevin Bourque for

Picture thisÖ. youíre 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, ďMan, 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.Ē 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 easyÖall you have to do is buy the right thing, and your pictures can look like the ones in the gallery.

Itís an insidious addiction. Youíre 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 doesnít work out, you move on to the next.

I am a recovering magic-bullet chaser. Iíve been down this road, friends, and it ainít 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. Iím 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 Iím 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? Whatís 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.

To a guy who's running at 90% effectiveness, a change in developer might make a difference. Maybe pyro has some special properties that give you an additional 3% potential to play with. A guy who's already got his act together will fully realize that potential. The incremental gain won't be masked by other problems.

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 itís 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 youíre a musician, maybe youíve had this humbling experience (I have). You hand your instrument (guitar, in my case) to someone else, and they play it like youíve never heard before. Whoa, I didnít know it could DO that. Same strings, different fingers. Makes all the difference in the world.

Thereís 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. Itís 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 isnít really all that bad. Itís just that thereís 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 donít like your pictures now, buying the new lens wonít help.

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

So, whatís 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.

Well, there's a startÖ.I'm sure there's plenty more. If you can think of more, Iíd like to hear your suggestions.

So, anyone want to buy a red-dial Ektakron? It's in MINT condition, and guaranteed to make your negatives glow in the dark.


I originally posted a version of this on the Large Format Forum in November 2001. Since the original posting I have purchased and read Barry Thorntonís ďThe Edge of DarknessĒ, which addresses some of the non-magic bullets listed above (Sadly, Mr. Thornton just recently passed away). I found the book to be well written and very useful. Youíre not going to find a cheaper bullet than a paperback book!

I got many thoughtful follow-ups. Some were incorporated in the essay, and here are some others. Several readers pointed out that mentoring was an important link in the quest to be a better photographer. I agree. If you can, find someone whose work you admire and ask for advice and help. Life is too short to reinvent the wheel. Itís something worth having, even if you have to pay.

It is possible to produce perfectly executed prints that are completely devoid of soul and passion. We arenít serving artistic inspiration here; you have to bring your own.

Please understand that Iím not knocking experimentation. Itís an important element of your work. Just donít thrash about randomly and tell yourself that youíre experimenting. Theyíre quite different.

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 the afore-mentioned mentor is another.

Thanks for reading, and good light.

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