The Psychology and Aesthetics of a Toned Monochrome Print

Color affects our emotions. Whole volumes have been written describing these effects, and how artists and advertisers use color to best induce specific emotions. Color also has profound effects on the perceived depth of any two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world.

To make the point, look at the three squares below. Which color, blue or red, seems ‘closer’ to you? This example is a good way to show how our eyes play tricks on us when it comes to color alone. If you see the red square appear to be in front of the blue squares, that is the typical response.  There is a biological explanation for this effect, but the result is that “warm (e.g., red) colors project” and “cool (e.g., blue) colors recede.”


How does this relate to the psychology of B&W (so called, “monochrome”) prints?

I’ve been creating B&W prints for years, but the truth is, I don’t really care for “black and white” prints. I much prefer “purple and white” or “eggplant and white,” and for some subjects, “brown and white.”

The 20th Century masters of landscape photography touted the physical and emotional effects of toning their B&W prints. There were dozens of techniques and materials used to impart colors selectively to silver gelatin prints. Among the most widely used was a selenium chloride solution. Depending on the paper and developer used to print the image, bathing the print in a weak solution of selenium chloride for a few minutes materially changed the color of the print to what Ansel Adams called an “eggplant” color, most noticeable in the darker shadow areas.

I loved the aesthetic effect selenium toning had on my prints, so it became a standard part of my darkroom workflow, and now continues in my hybrid workflow.

What was that effect?

Take a look at the two images below. The first is a straight “monochrome” depiction of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia. It’s a beautiful image, full of light and excitement and depth. These characteristics are imparted solely by the subjects, which are entirely shades of neutral gray (you may see color, but it’s because your monitor is not neutral–most are not). This depiction represents what comes out of the standard B&W developer or when you convert an image to B&W in a digital workflow.

Now look at the second image. It was given a treatment that selectively toned the shadow areas as if the print was toned in my darkroom method for selenium toning. The mid tones and shadow areas now have this deep purple (so called “eggplant”) tone.

Blackwater Falls at Full Force

Blackwater Falls at Full Force
“Blackwater Falls at Full Force” – Limited edition archival pigment print, up to 40×32 inches


There are many other tones besides the ‘eggplant’ of selenium toner that artists can choose to use. For some images, I like a warmer tone that mimics Kodak Brown Toner I used to use on wet prints made in the darkroom. Brown toner is very effective in giving a more nostalgic aesthetic to some subjects, such as those in my Virginia Grist Project and other old architectural subjects, like “Dappled Shadows” below.

example of a warm-toned print
“Dappled Shadows on a Store Front” – warmer brown tones gives a nostalgic aesthetic to old architectural subjects.

How do you feel about the two different presentations? If the second image appears to have more depth in the shadows, it’s because the cooler purple color appears to recede behind the screen surface; the comparatively warmer whites appear to be in front of the shadows. This therefore tends to push the highlights in the water forward and causes the trees and other shadows to fall back into the image, much like the red and blue squares above, creating a greater sense of depth in the image.  Depth in a two-dimensional picture encourages the viewer to want to engage in the picture, something all visual artists want from our audience.

There is also an emotional aspect to the image I think is important. Hues in the purple range are known to induce a sense of calm and creativity, of wonder and exploration. Purple is a very emotional color to most humans.  The toned image of this enormous waterfall therefore creates an internal conflict that is very subtle, but still there. First, you stand before this potentially dangerous, powerful, noisy waterfall that most of us react to with a bit of anxiety, red flags goes up in your consciousness: beware!  But surrounding the waterfall on all aspects is this calming tone that encourages exploration of the shoreline, the trees, the flowers and rocks along the river’s banks. This is a conceptual contrast, and one I think adds drama and excitement in the toned print that isn’t so apparent in the untoned print.

I always tone my B&W prints, varying between a cooler (more bluish) to a warmer (more reddish) selenium tone, depending on the subject of the photograph. It’s always a very subtle tone, not even as much as I’ve shown you in the second image above, which I exaggerated for purposes of this article.

If you make B&W prints (or even web images), experiment with toning to emphasize the feelings you want to compel in viewers. There is a infinite number of possibilities.  In Lightroom, use the Split Toning feature to do this. For the toned image above, I set the Highlight toning saturation to 0 and the Shadow saturation to 9, hue 354. I set Balance to +50, favoring toning to the shadows.

To my heart, monochrome images should be way more than black and white!

Do you already tone your B&W images? What are your experiences? Let me hear your thoughts.




Do I Need To Drum Scan My Negatives?

Out of the Sack by J Riley Stewart
Out of the Sack

Photographers who scan film will eventually ask themselves whether it’s worth the cost to get a drum scan of their negatives. Let’s discuss how drum scanning compares to flatbed scanning to learn when you might need the extra quality provided by that mystical drum scanner.

I’ve used film as my image recording tool since the early 1980s. I once printed the images in a wet darkroom on sensitized paper, but have since moved to scanning the negatives and using the resulting digital images to modify and make prints using inkjet printers. This is called the hybrid workflow, and most film users use it today, partially or totally.

Resolution and acuity are two very common ways to assess technical quality of photographic images. Resolution refers to how much subject detail is retained in the image or print. Acuity refers to the sharpness of fine edges and lines.

I own and use both the Epson V700 flatbed scanner and the Howtek 4500 drum scanner. I’ve made thousands of scans from each, so I think I’m qualified to help you answer “Do I need a drum scan?”

My needs for scanning will likely differ from yours. I like to make large high resolution prints. I’ve sold hundreds of such prints, and many up to 32×40 inches in size from medium- and large-format negatives. My experience with 35mm negatives isn’t vast, but I’ve scanned perhaps hundreds of them for evaluation or printing.

Large size prints demand the highest level of scanning resolution. Any lapse in quality will utterly destroy the feeling of a print needing a high sense of texture or subject clarity. But how much resolution is enough? Can you get by with a more affordable, small flatbed scanner or do you need to drum scan your negatives?

I’m going to show you a real life test that will illustrate the difference in resolving power of a drum scanner and a modern Epson V700 flatbed scanner. I’m using a 4×5 negative, but you can reasonably extrapolate my findings to any size negative.

The image below “Out of the Sack” is from my “Afterglow” project. The same 4×5 negative was scanned two ways: (1) Epson V700, undermount, wet mount technique, 4000 dpi using VueScan™ and (2) Howtek™ 4500 drum scanner at 4000 ppi and a 6 micron aperture using DPL™ software. Both resulting scans produced negatives in the 320 MP range, which means printing them at 300 dpi makes a print around 60 x 48 inches.

The small white rectangle represents an approximate 2″ wide section of the large 60 x 48″ print. We’re going to look at this section in detail to compare the V700 to the Howtek scan.

Rectangle shows area of interest for comparing V700 flatbed and Howtek 4500 drum scans.
11 inch wide section of the 60×48″ print, showing the delicate fine details and textures in the burlap fringe around the area of interest.

Remember the 2″ wide area of interest is a very small section of the 60×48″ print, but is still large enough to elicit a sense of fine texture and detail in someone viewing the photograph on a wall.. But in a 30×24 ” print, the area of interest would be 1″ wide, and in a 15 x 12 ” print, 0.5″ wide. And at some smaller print size, you’d need a loupe to see those same details and texture.

This is important, because any difference in quality between the two scans will be diminished merely because of the size of the print, regardless of viewing distance. As the print gets smaller, the relative significance of any small section of the print also diminishes. So if you routinely print no larger than say, 16×20 inches, the conclusions I draw from this experiment will have far less importance than I draw from the large reference photograph.

Let’s see how the V700 and Howtek compare in a real-world scenario.

The images below are 1:1 depictions of the small rectangle in the image above (i.e., the area of interest). On the left is the drum scan (Howtek 4500) and on the right is the flatbed (Epson V700). Neither image has been sharpened. Which is “better?”

First, there are differences between the drum scan and the unsharpened flatbed scan. Resolving power of the Epson V700 is very, very close to that of the Howtek 4500. Almost every element (lines, shapes, tones) in the image can be found in both scans. To assess resolution I like to look at lines that create a “V” pattern (or intersectional angles) and at parallel lines that create a line of shadow between them. You can see that almost 95% of such patterns appear in both, in both highlight tones and shadow tones. There are only a small number of very insignificant angles and inter-line shadows that can’t be found in the V700 scan. This indicates that resolving power in the V700 is very close to the Howtek drum scanner.

Second, the main difference between the drum scan and the flatbed scan appears to be due to the higher acuity possible in the drum scanner. All edges are just a bit sharper on the drum scan, giving the appearance of higher resolution, but in fact it is not. Acuity can be best enhanced by sharpening the image (but remember, excessive sharpening can also degrade resolution).

The next image permits side-by-side comparison between the unsharpened drum scan (Howtek 4500) and the V700 scanned image slightly sharpened in Lightroom. Which is “better?”

Indeed, a slight degree of sharpening to the V700 scan improves, but does not equal, the acuity of the drum scan. But it comes really, really close. The settings I used to sharpen the V700 image in Lightroom were Amt 91, Radius 2.0, Detail 33, and Masking 94. This is a small degree of sharpening on a 320 MP image.

What do these comparisons tell us?

My results are not inconsistent with those reported by others. They did the same thing (perhaps not as definitively as I have) showing the differences in image quality between a highly magnified portion of a image when scanned with a flatbed scanner and with a drum scanner. The drum scanner always looks ‘better’ than the flatbed scanner.

I’ve gone one step beyond and showed that the V700 appears to resolve details almost as well as the Howtek 4500 drum scanner, but the V700 suffers a bit in obtaining the same level of acuity. Luckily, minor lapses in acuity can be nearly corrected by careful sharpening.

So, let’s put all this in context again. We began with a scan of a 4×5 ” negative that would produce a 60 x 48 ” print when printed at 300 dpi. 300 dpi is above the 240 dpi below which most healthy human eyes begin to detect a loss of resolution. I showed that the V700 (using my undermount wetmount workflow using Vuescan can resolve nearly all the detail resolved by the Howtek, but that minor sharpening of the V700 image is required to produce nearly all the acuity provided in the unsharpened Howtek scan. This is actually pretty remarkable.

Is the difference between the Howtek and V700 acuity important enough to warrant the extra cost of a drum scan? To answer that, you’d need to ask:

  • Could your eyes detect the difference I’ve shown if you were to closely inspect a 2″ wide section of a 60 x 48 ” print and say “..that’s not as good as it could be.” You’d not have the benefit of having a drum scanned print as a comparator as we’ve done here. So I’d hazard a guess that most would not be able to detect that small difference.
  • Do you routinely produce prints that are over 12x linear enlargements of your negatives, as used in this example? If so, you may need to eake out every bit of resolution and acuity that only a drum scanner can provide. Having said that, I’ve created many exquisite, fine prints to 40 x 32 ” from 120 size negatives, a linear enlargement factor of around 15x.
  • Do you produce high-quality negatives having sharp subjects? If sharpness (i.e., resolution + acuity) isn’t a consideration in your final prints, then it won’t matter during scanning either.
  • Do you know how to get the most out of your flatbed scanner? I’ve written several articles about scanning with the Epson V700 to maximize image quality as well as several other articles about the Craft of Photography. You may enjoy reading them.

So, do you need to drum scan your negatives?

The short answer is “it depends on the size of the negative and the size of the prints to be made from that negative.” For most of us shooting 35mm film and printing to not larger than 16×20 inches, a high quality, 4000 ppi scan from a modern flatbed scanner could make an exceptional print. But you’ll need every bit of scanning power to make a quality print larger than 16 x 20 inches, and that may mean investing in a drum scan. This also assumes a perfectly sharp, full crop negative from which you take the scan, of course. Still, you will be limited in print size: even drum scanning will not likely get much beyond 18×24 inch fine print from perfect 35mm negative. If you want large fine prints, you need to start with large negatives.

Update 6/23/20:

Some of you have asked for a 35mm comparison as I’ve done above for a 4×5 negative.  I don’t have many as I rarely shoot 35mm, but I can offer one example. The first image is the complete 35mm frame showing an inset box, from which I then show a 1:1 view of a small pink bicycle on a roof top, first from a V700 Scan and then from a drum scan. Both were sized to 4000 dpi (~24mp) and under a wet mount protocol. Both images were sharpened optimally (and modestly). 

Full frame of a 35mm negative
Comparison of 35mm drum scan to flatbed scan
The left frame is a 1:1 view of a 24mp image scanned with the Epson V700 at 4000 dpi. The right is from the same negative, but scanned using the Howtek 4500 drum scanner.

You’ll probably agree that there are noticeable differences in both acuity and resolution comparing the flatbed with the drum scans in the 35mm format. Keep in mind this is approximately what you would see in an 18.5 x 13 inch full-frame print (printed at 300 dpi). The differences would be less detectable in smaller prints, to a point where you’d need a magnifying loupe to see them. 

End of Update

Since I have both my own drum scanner and a good flatbed scanner, which do I use for my final scans of my larger format negatives? Well, I tend to be a perfectionist and I know the drum scanner can get me closer to perfection, so I use my drum scanner for final production, especially for my larger prints for exhibition. But I have no qualms about relying on my Epson V700 for all pre-production proofs, book images, or anytime the expected print sizes are less than 40×32″ or so, depending on negative size..

Today’s modern flatbed scanners are really quite good once you’ve mastered their capabilities. The linear CCD sensors used in these printers will likely never compare exactly to the PMT sensors of the drum scanners of yesterday, but who knows? As the PMT machines become more rare, they may become completely obsolete. While we have them, they definitely have their place in creating the highest quality of images in large prints. For small prints, especially from larger negatives, the cost of getting a drum scan is probably not worth it.

All comments and questions welcomed.

J. Riley Stewart, copyright 2020.

Easily verify the focus on your flatbed scanner

Wet Mounting on the Epson V700 V750 V800 V850

This article describes a way to make sure the placement of negatives above your scanner’s platen is within the depth of field of your scanner’s lens for best sharpness.

If your film holders don’t place the film where the scanner focuses its lens, then you’re going to get fuzzy images. And that may be causing you to pull your hair out. Neither are good situations to find yourself in.

Now, let’s talk about checking the focus of your scanner.

Many flatbed scanners have a fixed focal distance set by the manufacturer, and they provide holders that place the negative “precisely” at that distance.  Most of the time, this works well.

But there are times when you might suspect that the fixed focus (or even auto focus) isn’t behaving right. If you are getting consistently blurry scans or scans that you believe should be sharp and aren’t, you may have a scanner that isn’t focusing precisely, or a holder that isn’t placing the negative where the lens is focusing.

In this short article, I’ll show you an easy way to verify the depth of field on your flatbed scanner’s lens.  Then, you can take steps to make sure your negative carrier places negatives precisely at the optimum distance above the scanner platen for maximum sharpness and resolution.

To verify the focusing capability of your flatbed scanner, all you’ll need is a transparent ruler and a second ruler to measure with.

I’ll be using the Epson V700/V800 for this instruction, but the procedures should work for any flatbed scanner.


Like any lens, your scanner’s lens has a range of acceptable focus, or depth of field (DOF) where it performs best.  You can determine DOF by scanning a transparent ruler that has been placed on an incline, with one end well below the minimum DOF height and the other end placed well above the maximum DOF height. The graduations on the scanned image of the transparent ruler will be sharp within the scanner’s DOF.


  1. The first step is to place the transparent ruler on an incline relative to the scanner platen. In the following picture, I placed one end of the ruler on the platen and placed the other end of the ruler to rest on the top of the scanner bed, shimmed by approximately 1/4″.   Shimming the elevated end of the ruler will steepen the incline and help differentiate the sharpness along the entire length of the ruler.  It’s important to check that when you lower the lid on the scanner that you don’t move or warp the ruler. You don’t need to lower the lid all the way; just close it enough to avoid touching the end of the ruler.  Now, open the lid and tape each end of the ruler down to avoid movement during scanning.

    Shows the inclined placement of the transparent ruler on the V700 platen. The upper end is shimmed to increase the steepness of the incline. The white sheet of paper is only for illustration purposes so you can ‘see’ the scanner’s glass platen in this illustration (it’s not used during the actual scan).
  1. Scan the ruler using your normal scanning settings (i.e., high resolution, 2400 ppi) without sharpening, and open the file in your photo viewing software, like Preview, Photoshop, or Lightroom. Do not move the transparent ruler yet; you’ll need it in exactly the same location in Step 4.
  2. On the scanned image, examine the ruler along its entire length, looking for the sharpest delineation of the numbers on the ruler. There should be a range of numbers/graduations that will be sharper than anywhere else along the ruler. If your scanner’s depth of field is very wide, you may not see any difference in sharpness along the ruler. This is good, because it means you shouldn’t be experiencing out of focus situation no matter where the negative is placed above the platen. But you need to examine closely to rule out minor differences in sharpness as you examine along the length of the ruler.  In my example below, maximum sharpness was seen about 23-24 cm on the ruler, call it 23.5 cm. The differences in sharpness between 0 and 4 inches on this image is difficult to show, but careful inspection at 50% in Preview clearly shows the difference.  You should see a clear difference. V700FocusTest003
  3. Now you need to determine the distance above the platen where you found the sharpest graduations on the ruler. Use a different ruler for this step. A micrometer may also be used if you have one, but you don’t need that much precision. I used a simple wooden ruler that  began graduations at the very end of the ruler. So, at the point on the transparent ruler (still resting on the scanner) where I found maximum resolution, I measured the distance above the platen surface and found it to be 1/8″. Your results may vary.  This measurement told me that my scanner’s best performance was 1/8″ above the platen. IMG_2946
  4.  Now compare this distance to the height of the negative plane on your negative holder to see if your holder is placing the negative where the scanner has its maximum resolution. First place your negative holder on a flat hard surface (e.g. a table top) and find the lip on the holder that holds the negative during scanning. Measure the distance from the table top to the top of the lip. This tells you exactly where your holder is placing the negative during scanning. IMG_2978 copy
  5. Interpretation

    If you’re lucky, the height measured in Step 5 is exactly the same as the height measured in Step 4. It means your holder is placing the negative exactly where the scanner lens is focusing.

    If the holder doesn’t place the negative within an acceptable distance for the scanner’s lens, you’ll need to modify your holder or change to a holder that does. The Epson holder comes with adjusting feet; merely changing the setting on the feet may fix the problem.

    For the vast majority of scanners, the distance you find is sharpest will be very close to the distance measured on the negative carrier. But this quick test of focus on your scanner should at least confirm that scanner focusing is or is not optimal, and you can take actions to fix it.

    It’s possible that after doing this test, you find that there is no region of perfect sharpness along the entire length of the transparent ruler. There are two possible reasons: 1. the ruler moved or deflected during the scan when the lid is closed (re-read Step 1 in Procedures above), or the scanner’s lens is faulty and you may need to replace or repair the scanner.

Bonus utility: I used this test to determine where my custom negative carrier had to sit for maximum sharpness. I modified my scanner to accommodate a wet-mount under-mount design, and knowing my scanner’s specific DOF told me how much shimming I had to do for correct placement of the negative in this custom carrier. We’re not constrained to using the manufacturer’s film carriers once we know the scanner’s true DOF.

What does it mean when the negative is placed optimally, but the scans still appear ‘fuzzy?’

First, make sure your shooting technique is perfect.  Barring the case where the scanner is not functioning properly, finding that your images still appear unsharp most likely suggests a fault in technique. BY FAR, this will be the cause of unsharp images (i.e., not the scanner). It’s been the same since the the advent of modern cameras and lenses; it’s not the tools but the technique that causes most situations of unsharp images. You already know this, right?  Do you use a tripod when sharpness is important to the image? Do you practice appropriate aperture/shutter speed relative to subject motion? Technique remains one of the most important factors in acquiring an image on the negative that is sharp or not sharp. It’s always been that way.

Second, make sure to minimize your subjective bias toward those hyper-acute images shot with modern digital cameras. I suspect this bias is a leading cause for people new to film   thinking their scans are ‘blurry.’ This topic is probably worth a separate article; because it took me a couple years after returning to film scanning after a year shooting with digital to realize that comparing the two technologies is an apples and oranges comparison. In short, never compare a 1:1 depiction of a digital image to a 1:1 depiction of a scanned image unless the two images are exactly the same resolution (i.e., 20 MP to 20 MP), and even that is a stretch.  The best evaluation of sharpness for a film scan is by looking at an appropriately sized print, not a file on your computer monitor.  Don’t toss your scanner or give up on shooting film before making a print comparison!

I hope this article helps you determine whether your scanner is functioning properly, and how to determine where the optimum focal point of your scanner’s lens is.  Feel free to ask questions.



Let me hear your questions or comments below.

A Short Trip to Amish Country

Distinctive crop patterns in Amish Country, Pennsylvania
“Clear Boundary” – Crops share a mighty thin line on this farm in Amish Country, Pennsylvania.

From northern Virginia, we needn’t go far to see a very different culture than we have in most of the United States. I found udder peace (whoops, my bad)  in Amish Country.

I recently spent 3 days in the Pennsylvania Amish Country. It was a strange experience. I was deep in rural agricultural land, but it almost felt like urban. Finding pull offs along roads, finding compositions to photograph, and the ever-present sense of “unwanted attention” were constants.

My trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was just what I needed. Visiting the “Pennsylvania Dutch” is like stepping back into the early 20th Century, driving the backroads at speeds no faster than horse-drawn carriages, stopping for long periods of time just to watch the Amish work their fields with mules (who actually did most of the work, I admit), and taking in the unique smell of natural fertilizer spewing from the their “honey” wagons.

Lancaster County is only a couple hours from my home, and I’ve been thinking all winter that I needed to go up there and experience it again after many years. Having grown up on a farm myself, pastoral settings have always been a favorite of mine. We have a saying in Oklahoma “you can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” That’s so true, I think.

In fact, I avoid cities when I can. Even in Lancaster County, I accidentally drove too close to the town of Lancaster on my first day, got caught up in city traffic and strip malls for an hour, and considered for a moment just heading home. “If this is what Amish Country has become, I’m done!”

Luckily, I quickly escaped modern humanity and spent the next 3 days traveling every back road I could find to the north, east, and south from Lancaster. This is where the rich Amish culture lives today, and I was surprised how strong it remains after all these years of American ‘progress.’ The Amish in their horse drawn carriages, farm teams, and foot-powered scooters were common sightings among the beautiful farm lands and buildings of rural Lancaster County. I’ve included a few travel photos below to give you an idea of what I found.

Photographically speaking, I met with several challenges to how I normally work in the field, to the point of giving that up for something else. I normally just pull off and park on the road easement when I find something to photograph, and then take my time setting up and composing the scene. I can be on site like this for half an hour or more.

But road easements in Lancaster County are essentially non-existent except where the rare power line happens to follow the road. Without utility easements, the Amish plant their crops to within a few feet of the road bed, making pulling off the road to photograph impossible. I would never drive onto their crops just to get a picture.

I was able to find and capture “Clear Boundary” (my opening picture) along a road where the easement was wide enough for my van to park safely while I composed the shot. And I didn’t have a lot of time to do that because I had to share the easement with farm machinery pulling over to allow car traffic to pass. Oh, the life of a landscape photographer! :)

The second challenge was that most of what I found that really interested me were scenes that included moving subjects. Things that move have to be photographed quickly, and in many cases repeatedly. That’s not so easy with the large bellows camera that I typically enjoy using.

So after the first full day of empty searching for “normal” situations, I decided to pull out my faster 35mm film camera with a zoom lens attached and just have fun shooting from the van window with butt in seat. These will never become large exhibition prints, but not everything we photograph has to be “serious,” I guess. I thought you might enjoy seeing what I saw.

I’ve added two images from the trip to my gallery, and they are now available. The first is “Clear Boundary.” Just click the picture to see it in the gallery. The other scene is “Bifurcations,” a quiet B&W composition of a lone tree reflecting itself in the Pequea River in southern Lancaster County. See it here: “Bifurcations

Image of the delicate bifurcations of a bare tree reflected in a river
“Bifurcations” – The elegance of a lone tree is only made greater when reflected.

More images from Amish Country.


What’s in a Name?

Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.
“Bridge to NoWhere” –Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.

I want to share something that you may take for granted, or perhaps never even thought about, and that is “..where do art titles come from?”

As art lovers, we’re accustomed to seeing titles on artworks. Titles are a convenient way to refer to a particular painting or photograph. So instead of saying “that photograph by Gurski of the Rhine River that someone bought for $4,200,000” we simply know it as “Rhine II.”

Photography lends itself very well to titling of images using nominal or geographic descriptors. That’s the tradition of photography. Whether it’s Weston’s “Pepper” series or any number of Ansel Adams’ titles (“Half Dome,” “Snake River”), or even Gurski’s “Rhine II.”  The title of the image often reveals the name of the subject itself, no question about it, just call it what it is.

I find such an objective approach to titling photographs a bit lacking. When I stand before a scene in the field,  I try to think about the concept I want to communicate, the story the scene is telling me. It is this story that I want the title to describe and not so much the physical entity in the picture. The title I give to a finished photograph often reflects the story that struck me at the time of capture. In fact, I often write the “working title” on the field log I keep for every picture I take.

For me, it’s important to title my photographs this way. It helps me recall how I felt when I discovered the scene, and it helps me know how I want to interpret the picture to extend and clarify that feeling.

“Bridge to NoWhere” is a good example.  This historic bridge over the Potomac River completely disappeared into the heavy fog on this particular morning. The far end of the bridge and the far river bank had completely lost all identity, at least in this story. In reality, I knew where the bridge went, but a title such as “Point of Rocks Bridge over the Potomac River” wouldn’t have communicated the mysterious nature of events that I saw when under the darkcloth.

Every artist has their own way of titling their artworks, and none of them are wrong. I have to admit, though, that when I see a piece of art titled “Untitled,” …well, I just don’t get that. Regardless, whatever the artist has named a particular scene, don’t let it keep you from dreaming up your own story. It’s your fantasy, so write it however you want!

Update on Dignan’s 2 Bath C41 Development

I’ve been using Kodak’s Flexcolor chemistry for 4 years with acceptable results, but have found the variability from day to day and batch to batch to be irritating. I thought it worthwhile to test a simpler formula published many years ago called the “Dignan’s 2 Bath C41 process.” (see

Using Kodak chemistry essentially requires mixing a fresh stock solution that must be used within a week’s period, even if developing far less than the the published capacity claims. In low volume operations, this can mean higher cost per roll/sheet, since you are forced to throw away “unused” developer. The modern C41 chemistry workflow requires very careful measurement of 4 solutions,  and tight temperature and time controls to make it work reliably in small volume manual operations such as small tank or tray development. If you have an autoprocessor like a Jobo, this may not be important to you. But I still develop my 4×5 negatives in open trays sitting in a tempering bath, and tightly controlling temperatures over several hours is challenging.

As a test, I purchased the chemicals required to mix Dignan’s C41 developer, which requires two stock solutions (A and B). The workflow is far simpler with this formula. First the negatives are bathed in Solution A for a time, then transferred to Solution B for a time. Bleaching, fixing, and stabilizing then occurs as with the Kodak workflow. The 2 batch workflow is claimed to be temperature tolerant: somewhere around 25 degree C and it need not be precise. The instructions prescribe at least 3 min in Solution A and at least 6 min in Solution B, with no wash between solutions. Sol A never exhausts because it doesn’t oxidize nor does it dilute over time. You just keep using it until you deplete the volume, and mix up another batch. Sol B is one-shot because the carryover Sol A on the negatives will consume the buffering power of Sol B quickly.

Most of the discussion on the boards about Dignan’s chemistry are quite old, perhaps dealing with older films, and were not very encouraging. My main concerns, based on the discussions, were 1) low saturation negatives and 2) grainy negatives.

I found both concerns eliminated after a simple test. I shot a full-scale color print (Colormunki print test onto canvas) placed in full sun using a 4×5 camera loaded with Ektar 100 film. I developed one sheet in Dignan’s formula for twice the rated times (i.e., 6 minutes in Solution A and 12 minutes in Solution B) at 30 deg C.  The next day, I developed the second sheet closer to the prescribed time and temperature: 25 deg C, 3 min Solution A and 6 min Solution B. Solution B must be fresh, but I used the same solution from the previous day’s work. In both cases (Day 1 and Day 2), the pH of my Solution B was 11.88 at 25 deg C.

Here’s a jpg of the scanned and converted negative from Day 1 (i.e., higher temp and time periods). The colors are fully saturated and the amount of grain was very typical to what I see with Flexicolor chemistry on Ektar (i.e., very fine).  There were minor color shifts I had to correct in software, but again, they were pretty typical of what I see using Flexicolor chemistry on Ektar film.


Even with the higher temperature and extended times that I used on Day 1, I still noticed some color mottling across the film frame that indicates uneven development. I saw this especially at the edges of the negative, and this was very obvious with the Day 2 negative, for which I used the published time and temperature specifications (75 deg F, 3 min Sol A, 6 min Sol B).  This tells me that I need to further extend either both time or temperature in both Sol A and Sol B. I don’t believe exhaustion of Sol B on Day 2 was the culprit because the pH had not changed. Instead, I  suspect that these modern films are engineered to maximize penetration of chemistry into all emulsion layers at high temperatures and short times, since the normal development of C41 is 100-103 deg F for 3:15 minutes.  I plan to adopt 100 deg F for 5min (Sol A) and 10 min (Sol B) as an arbitrary start point for further testing. I know this defeats one of the benefits of the 2 Bath workflow (i.e., room temperature processing), but it believe it will be necessary.

If you are searching for alternative C41 developers, you might try this old fashioned formula. It’s very simple, cheap, and should be robust.

Update 10/28/15:   I’ve been testing further. My thoughts above haven’t changed, but now I’ve developed a number of real negatives and I’m even more impressed with the NFC-41 workflow.  Scans well, minimal grain (Ektar and Portra films).  Some of the problems I’m seeing with uneven development have to be worked out. I typically use tray development, and I suspect that even though I’m getting good saturation in Bath A, it’s more important to agitate in Bath B to get even development. A couple of my negatives seem “undeveloped” in the centers of the negatives, where they have the most tendency to stagnate the flow of Bath B while in the tray. Tray development may not work here: either a carrier that can be taken from Bath A to Bath B without the need to manually shuffle the negatives, or perhaps using BTZ-like development tubes. I’ve used BTZ tubes before and they work great, but you have to constantly roll the tubes and that’s a pain.

Warning:  There is no real “buffering” power of Bath B. It’s only potassium carbonate and potassium bromide; no buffers. So be sure to use fresh Bath B for every set of negatives. I tried to test the capacity of Bath B by running several negatives before changing to fresh. The pH went from 11.9 (fresh) to 11.2 (used), and the last negatives were extremely thin. The bath volume was about 500 mls, and probably 5 drained negatives went through it. So, don’t trust that Bath B has much more capacity than a couple negatives..test it in your own workflow. One idea for stabilizing Bath B capacity would be to adopt a suitable buffer, e.g. Sodium bicarbonate: Sodium Hydroxide. The range of pH for this pair is 9.8-11, adjustable by the amount of NaOH added. Kodak Flexicolor pH is 10.03, and that should be the target pH of the bicarbonate buffer used in a putative “improved” Bath B.  I might try this. it would be extremely cheap and convenient since the ingredients are available as baking soda (sodium bicarb) and Red Devil ® Lye.

Update 11/5/2015:  After several more negatives, tray developed at 100 deg F for 6 minutes in both Bath A and Bath B, I haven’t stabilized the process. The image on the negatives has consistently been thin using this approach. That can be a good thing if you’re scanning your negatives like I do, but what’s happening with my technique is that I’m getting “too thin” negatives.  I’m giving up on this for the time being…may return for further experimentation later.


In image-making, you need to know the story before you can tell it.

Every picture tells a story. Sometimes it’s a story well-told, and sometimes not.

Just as a writer carefully maps out the setting, the plot, and cast of characters long before he/she begins typing a novel, visual story-tellers–those who make images instead of books–also will previsualize the story they want an image to tell.  Previsualization begins when we find or stage a subject that we believe has inherent artistic potential–i.e., has a story to tell–and leads to a point in time when we actually act on that belief by taking its picture or beginning to sketch on canvas.

In photography, previsualization is no less important than it is to any method of image-making. Often our eye will catch something we think has promise, but then we must exercise thoughtful previsualization to make the most of the story in front of us. In fact, previsualization must start with the story we want to tell, and all other compositional decisions we make should support that story.

One of the most important compositional decisions a photographer makes during previsualization is whether the final image will be in color or in B&W.

One good reason to decide on B&W film capture is the creative flexibility that B&W film lends to the photographer. If I can exploit this flexibility, I want to do that. Use of color subtraction filters and the ability to adjust film development to increase or decrease the contrast of the captured image are both good reasons to select B&W film over color film. Color film offers far fewer, if any, creative controls.

But first and foremost, the choice to use either color or B&W film should be based on the scene in front of the camera and what the photographer wants to say about that scene. In other words, does the presence of color support, or does it detract, from the story you want this scene to communicate? This is a question that is just as applicable to digital capture as it is to film capture, and it should be asked during previsualization.

It is so easy to defer the question of “color or B&W?” when shooting in color only, such as when shooting with a digital camera. Since the digital camera always captures the full color spectrum, the tendency is to just capture the scene and worry about converting to B&W later and see which, color or B&W, “looks best.”

This could be a mistake, regardless of whether you’re capturing to a digital sensor or onto film. The reason it’s a mistake is because you’ve also deferred the critical question: “Does my concept for this scene–i.e., the story I want to tell– require color? Does the color in the scene support or does it detract from that story?”  When shooting film specifically, deferring this question until later also means that by choosing to use color film, you have removed any opportunity to exploit the creative advantages that B&W film offers.

I follow the advice of the greats who came before me and try to nail down the story for every photograph I take long before I load the film into my camera and click the shutter. Nailing down the story is the first, and perhaps the most important, part of previsualization. The story not only affects the choice of color vs B&W, but also where to point the camera, choice of lens, and every other aspect of composition. I repeat, being in color or being in B&W is one of the strongest compositional decisions to make: it should be made during previsualization. You should know before you take the picture whether it should be B&W or color.

Deciding on color or B&W is an intuitive decision, and I admit that sometimes, I don’t trust my intuition and will capture the same scene onto both color film and B&W film. Most of the time, I learn that I should trust my intuition more.

Here’s a case in point:

Being Obvious (color)I came upon this massive mushroom this week while out walking on a local farm. It was more than 2 feet in diameter and rested in a bed of clover just at the base of an old dead tree stump.

What was immediately obvious was just how obvious this old mushroom was. It’s size and texture of course made it stand out from everything around it, but it’s color was intense as well. The yellow and orange hues really made it ‘different’ from the cooler greens of the surrounding grass and ivy, and from the old monochromatic stump.  The impression I had, and this became my concept for this scene, was “Being Obvious.”

From that point on, my single goal in taking its portrait was to support the concept of ‘being obvious.’ My intuition told me that it should be a B&W portrait, and by using a pale yellow filter I could enhance separation of the main subject from its surrounding cooler tones quite well. But its mushroom’s color was so intense that I began an inner argument with myself (i.e., with my intuition) that then caused me to take the portrait in both color and in B&W. Both portraits were taken in similar, flat overcast light.

The color portrait is interesting because of the subject, but I think it lacks balance, and the colors present in the scene seem to detract from the story of the mushroom “being obvious. The intense yellow/orange of the mushroom tends to share the space almost equally with the other two major colors: the blue green ivy and the brown stump.  In other words, the natural colors didn’t support my concept very well, even though intense.

I was glad I followed my first inclination and also took the mushroom’s portrait using B&W film. I chose to use a light yellow filter to deepen the tones of the cool green clover and lighten the tones of the fungus, thus exploiting the creative controls possible with B&W film.

Being Obvious
“Being Obvious” copyright 2015, J. Riley Stewart

The B&W portrait better segregates the mushroom from all other elements in the image; the ivy and stump are no longer competing for attention with the mushroom, and this change better supports my ‘being obvious’ story.  The B&W image also is better balanced than the color portrait, as I was easily able to lighten the tones on the far right of the frame to create that balance.  Brightening the same green ivy in the color photograph would not have accomplished the same result.

Had I not previsualized this scene and just took the pretty picture of the mushroom without thinking, I might not have  even thought to “see” this in monochromatic B&W, and would have failed to tell the best story for this fantastic, and worthy, subject.

Which do you prefer? Does this picture say something different to you? Would you have captured this portrait in color or B&W?

Leave a comment below! 

Where are the photography gurus today?

gu·ru  /goo’ roo/  noun: 1) a teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern; 2)  one who is an acknowledged leader or chief proponent; 3) a person with knowledge or expertise

Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter, copyright J. Riley Stewart, 40x32 in archival pigment print.
Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter, copyright J. Riley Stewart, 40×32 in archival pigment print.

I crave learning from others about the art in photography. Unfortunately, those I grew up learning from about what it takes to make a truly fine art print are no longer with us. I truly miss them. And I bet I’m not alone.

When I started seriously making and printing photographs in the 1970s, my favorite subscription was to Fred Picker’s monthly newsletter. I received it for 3 years or so, then had to abandon it for a couple years, during which he became ill and stopped publishing. But while it lasted, I poured over those pages time and time again to glean every bit of information he shared about making “the fine print.”

I also bought every one of Ansel Adams’s photography learning books, and read them all even though I found them a bit technical and stuffy. Picker’s writing, on the other hand, was fun to read and easier to understand. And he covered more about the art in photography than did Adams.

More recently, I found the wonderful content published online through “The Mindful Eye” by Craig Tanner. You can still access the great lessons he created over several years, but discontinued in 2011:

I consider Adams, Picker, and Tanner to be true gurus of the art in photography. I am unaware of any that today come close to teaching us about the making of artful photographs in any consistent manner.  Sure, there are tons of folks who write short articles about gear (God do we need any more of this???), and others who offer field workshops that focus on shooting tasks, and even some who sporadically write about how they realize their photographic vision, but where are the true gurus today?

Who are the experienced photographers who write specifically and selflessly solely to teach us what we need to know to be better artists?

It’s true that in this internet age, access to information is so much better than it used to be. You’d think that my question would be superflous as we sit in 2015. So, perhaps a better question would ask: “Have these gurus been replaced by Google search, from which we can get hundreds of relevant hits linking us to dozens of articles relevant to the art in photography?”   Uhhh, I don’t think so. I have to admit that when I want to know more about a technique, I can find very useful hits by doing a Google search. But try to find a hit to a credible person writing today about HOW and WHY they approach the making of fine prints to realize their artistic vision. Good luck.

As scant as it is, so much of what is written today about photographic art relates to web viewing and the ‘6 second’ mentality associated with such images. There is very little written about the making of beautiful, large exhibition prints. For example, large clipped areas in an image may be acceptable in 800×640 pixel format, but just try to get away with that in a 16×20 inch or larger print…..ghastly. And how many B&W images have you seen where convergence of gray tones has reduced the artistic impact to zero?  But where are developing photographers (or even experienced photographers) to turn to learn these fundamental lessons, short of trial and error?

If you know of such a source, please share it in the comments below. I’d really like to find them! Who are your gurus?

Happy Learning!SignatureLogo 200x75


PS> Want to see examples of my work? Go to Galleries and more…  Have fun!

Who likes art, anyway?

Sunrise Over the Nez Perce, Yellowstone NP  (Copyright J Riley Stewart)

I admit I’m as a newborn when it comes to knowing about art and artists. I’m not professionally trained in the arts. I can’t draw a straight line. And for most of my adult life, I lived in the left-brained, analytical world of science. But I now see that art has always been a large part of my life. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps it’s the same with you.

If someone were to ask me 35 years ago if I liked art, I would have said “no.” Loving art wasn’t a macho thing in the 80s. I didn’t really know what art was unless someone told me something was “art.”  I hadn’t the exposure to art required to have an opinion about it one way or the other.

It turns out I was in the majority.  It’s commonly thought that only 25% of Americans claim to like “art.” And about half of those actually buy or collect significant art pieces.  I wonder if that’s really true, that only 1 in 4 of us “like” art.

Thirty-five years ago I was art stupid. When I later saw Michaelangelo’s “David” in real life I was awestruck. But this didn’t make me an art lover. When I saw the “Mona Lisa;” again, awestruck. But that didn’t make me an art lover either. When I saw an original Ansel Adams’s “Moon Over Half Dome?”…. Again, awestruck; again, not a convert.

I know now that I remained art stupid through all these experiences (and many more), but something was changing in my mind and heart. I began respecting the emotions that art could evoke in me, if I just gave it a chance. Each of these experiences added just a bit of knowledge to my personal art appreciation toolkit, but not enough to know what to do with these bits. I just knew that I enjoyed the individual experiences beyond words.

Creation and love of art is a uniquely human attribute. Something in our DNA compels us to consciously create and love art.  This is not speculation or hyperbole: study after study has shown the value of art in our human lives. Some even believe that art isn’t merely a luxury as others claim; that art is, in fact, necessary to healthy, happy human lives. Why else would our earliest ancestors spend valuable time drawing on the walls instead of gathering food if they weren’t compelled to? Why do hospital patients heal faster when they have art as part of their treatment?

If art is such a universally valuable thing in our lives, why do so many discredit that value? Perhaps one explanation involves motivations developed in us as youngsters. From our earliest days we are encouraged to develop skills that can lead to a commercially viable trade or profession. Being an artist is not known as one of those promising enterprises, is it? When we think of “artist” we tend to attach adjectives such as “starving” or “quirky” to it.

We can’t truly appreciate art (or anything else for that matter) until we know something about it. At some point in my past something clicked in me that made me want to experience again those feelings I felt when I saw “Mona Lisa” and “Half Dome.” I remembered pouring over pictures of those marvelous landscapes by Thomas Moran and Bierstadt even as a kid, lost in the fantasy of it all.  I eventually was drawn to photography and fine prints, and developed a voracious appetite for photography’s history, its heroes, its processes, and its masterpieces. Ask me today if I’m an art-lover and I would say “absolutely.” I’m a convert.

Here’s a challenge:  Make a New Year’s Resolution to learn more about how art can add value to your own life. Visit local galleries and art museums. Talk to artists about their work (they love to talk about their passion, by the way). Check out photography and other art books from your local library. Subscribe or follow art sites on Facebook or Pinterest. And if you see something you love, buy the damn thing before someone else does. Live with it and you’ll find it will soon become part of you.

Don’t fight the natural inclination to embrace art. To do so only violates what’s in your DNA. And who needs that stress?

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Are there limits to artistic freedom in photography?

Most people who take pictures use them just as they come out of the camera. But this is rarely the case with photographic artists.  Artists may spend hours on the best images to transform the image provided by the camera into an image that meets their own artistic vision of the scene: this is the creative phase in photography. In this regard,  the photographic artist differs from artists who use paints or charcoal only in the medium used to fix the subject within a defined frame.

The creative approaches used by photographers during the creative phase–that phase in which the artists exercises the most artistic freedom– vary greatly. While one artist might limit his/her manipulation of the image to adjusting the lighting to create a more dramatic effect, another might take that same scene and compile it with several other images to create a ‘scene’ that departs drastically from what the camera saw; in fact drastically departing from reality. Jerry Uelsman was among those who exaggerated that definition by merging various photographs to create composite images. He became quite famous doing this (see

Photography has been traditionally a documentary technology used to capture on film an image produced by light waves emanating from a scene in front of a lens.   Because of this documentary aspect of photography, most people today still believe, and  expect, that a photographic image is essentially a factual representation of an actual scene, setting, subject, or incident.  When you ask the the man on the street  whether a picture is “real,” they will tell you that it is unless it obviously isn’t (such as the proverbial rabbit head on the body of a moose or the beautiful but fantastical composites by Uelsmann).

In the digital camera age using photo editing software, it’s a simple matter to overlay 2, 3, or 16 different camera shots into one “photograph.” Whether it’s Uelsman’s merging of several negatives or a modern digital photographer’s merging several digital files, the essence of fact that distinguishes photography as a documentary technology can be completely lost. So my question is.. “When does artistic freedom begin to contradict the fundamental definition of photography?” If compositing multiple images isn’t photography, then what is it?

When it comes to artistic freedom in general, I say “to each his/her own.” But that’s not my opinion when it comes to defining photographs. Photographs should be kept a pure art form. I think that every pixel (or grain of silver) should represent a wave of light that entered the camera and struck the sensor/film at the time of capture of the subject or scene.

Artists who paint or draw can put whatever feature(s) they want on the pallet before them and no one questions it because no one accepts a painting as representing reality: we all know it’s the artist’s imagination that we see on the canvas. I believe those who do the same using photographic images aren’t photographers, but they are artists, still. But what do we call this if not photography? Perhaps it’s more precisely an illustration.

Why should this matter to the fine art community and to photographers specifically? Because if we continue to merge multiple photographs into one image and still call it a photograph, then the art form we know as photography will revert to a tool no different than the paintbrush, spatula, or pencil in the hands of a skilled realist. Photography will have no distinction as an art form itself because it will not longer have a distinctive “form.” In fact, fine art photography may cease to exist. Beautiful vistas of the Grand Canyon will no longer be credible (“was that ridge really in the scene or did the photographer merely put it there?”). We’ll know this has happened when our viewing public expects that an image has been “photoshopped,” whether it has or hasn’t.

Where should photography draw the line regarding artistic freedom in image manipulation?

My opinion is that as long as the image doesn’t contain a physical entity that wasn’t there when the shutter was clicked, it’s a photograph. So putting a boat into a picture of a mountain lake, when that boat wasn’t there at the time the mountain lake was captured is not photography. But enhancing lighting by dodging and burning or setting levels, cropping, or enhancing colors, none of these change the content of the photograph as it was captured, and thus remains a valid documentation of light hitting the film (or sensor) when the shutter was clicked.

I’m certain this opinion will be hotly debated..I’m not the first to raise it as an issue for our times. What do you think… are then ANY bounds is how we define photography today?  When does a photographer stop being a photographer and start being an illustrator? Do we owe it to our art public to keep photography ‘real?”