The Procrustean Bed of Modern Photographic Papers

In ancient Greece there was a myth about a diabolical innkeeper named Procrustes who offered passing strangers an invitation to spend the night on his special iron bed which he claimed would magically fit all who slept on it. What he didn't reveal is that to enforce his "one size fits all" policy, he would either stretch unsuspecting short visitors on a rack until they fit his bed, or cut off lengths of their legs if they happened to be too tall.

Historic photographic papers could generously accommodate a wide range of negative contrasts, but modern papers are distinctly "procrustean," because photographers now have to either expand or compress the contrast of their negatives so that they print well on the paper of their choice.

Every beginning photographer has experienced attempting to make a beautiful print from a negative that has more or less than average contrast. Typically you find yourself wasting many sheets of paper as you switch to higher contrast papers or filters to compensate for negatives that print too gray; or lower grades for negatives that are too contrasty. Either way the results are usually disappointing. Some photographers even assume that this is what paper grades are essentially designed for.

A better procedure would be to understand the tonal separation qualities of each grade of paper and choose one that best suits the aesthetic qualities of your work. For example, some photographers like the softer tonal gradations of low-contrast papers while others prefer the harder, more dramatic tonal transitions of higher contrast papers.

Ideally what you would do is choose a grade of paper that best suits your work and establish that as your standard. You may, for example, decide for aesthetic reasons that from now on grade or multicontrast filter #3 will be your normal grade of paper.

With this established your goal would be to learn how to make "perfect negatives," in other words, ones whose contrasts would allow you to easily print them on your grade 3 regardless of how contrasty or flat the original scene happened to be.

If the contrast of photographic subjects never changed, as in a studio where the lighting can be controlled, it would be easy to adopt a standard shooting and processing method that would give you good results every time. Because the contrast of scenes in the real world can differ greatly, it is necessary to learn first how to measure subject contrast and then how to compensate for it.

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