Contact prints: are they that special ?

Compiled by Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page

I suffered through a period of "format confusion" about a year ago and in that time I went through several cameras- 8x10, 7x17, 11x14 and 12x20. The allure of the contact print was just over powering and the results made the weight and inconvenience a minor consideration. About the same time I started to use a locked away Deardorff 5x7 and I composed several pictures with that to match the perspective of my ULF prints.After looking VERY closely, I managed to convince myself that there was not really enough of a difference at normal viewing distances to warrant the fuss and bother of the bigger cameras (not to mention expense); so I sold off all my ULF stuff and happily went on using the 5x7 enlarging to 18x24 with no regrets. Then two things happened: first, after not looking at them for over a year I looked at my old 11x14 and 12x20 contact prints. Big mistake!Yes, there isn't a LOT of difference but damn it I can SEE it (even with my ageing eyes!) BTW, alot of people won't see it -you have to be somewhat fanatical! Secondly, my friend Burkhardt from Austria visited me and showed me a lot of his prints. Once again, the contact 8x10's made me drool but ,more interestingly, I loved several 8x20 and 12x20 prints that he showed me. In a couple of cases I had to ask him if they were contacts or not. They WERE'NT. They were enlargements from 8x10 masked in camera to 4x10 and 6x10 respectively and enlarged to the 8x20 and 12x20 final prints.Were they really indistinguishable from contact prints of that size? Well, when I was looking only at them I thought that they WERE contacts. When I compared my own proportional enlargements to contacts of that size there WAS a difference but ... My conclusion? Well, unless you are a fanatic (and there ARE some of us around) you can get pretty good results with todays emulsions and optics. I also think that it is the FORMAT of the print that can make a difference 12x20 is such a great format!(is it because of our movie addiction?) and 8x20 is also very appealing because I think that is the way our eyes look, sweeping in a large horizontal view... Because these formats are so appealing I think that enlargements in those proportions will look great especially from large format negs i.e. 8x10 and I bet even my 5x7 will be more than fine as should 4x5. BUT, I tell you....there's nothing like a big contact print, nothing!!!Also, I love AZO! Richard Kuzniak

My experience, through viewing at exhibitions and in my own work, is that there is a very subtle difference between the two. It's not that enlargement from 4x5 is not sharp; it is fine. However, the 8x10 seems a little more "lifelike". For example, a contact print is the best way to "feel" snow or sand in a print. You can sense the granular surfaces. I have several fine prints from 4x5 that contain snow/sand and they do not convey the same sense of surface texture. I am not sure how one would go about measuring these characteristics, but they do exist. George Papas

I use both 4x5 and 8x10. I can generally see a difference in B&W 11x14 prints in the 2 formats and can almost always see a difference in 16x20 prints in the 2 formats. These observations come from looking at lots of prints of different subjects made on the 2 formats. In the few cases where I've made photographs of the same subject on both formats, I couldn't see anything in an 8x10 print from each that indicated anything superior about the 8x10 contact though the prints are never completely identical. I have made a few 1:1 enlargements from 4x5 negatives and compared them with 4x5 contact prints (I've never done this with 8x10, though I may have to give it a try now) and always prefered the enlargements (I found it impossible to make the prints identical). From those experiments, I think there must be some visible difference between enlargements and contact prints that someone could learn to recognize. I don't think there is anything magic or superior to a contact print (I actually found the 1:1 prints through an enlarging lens sharper than the contact prints but I'm sure it depends on how close the light used for the contacts is to a true point source). I was also using a condenser enlarger at the time and the different grades of paper required make matching prints harder. My prints were on the same paper (probably Ilford Multigrade FB, or Oriental Seagull graded, it was a few years ago). If the prints are on different papers, the differences are likely to be even wider (I've never been able to make truely identical prints on any two different papers). John Sparks

Its impossible to argue with someone else's experience. I can't see such a difference [between 8x10 contact and enlarged from 4x5] in my own work. I can see differences in quality as the size of the negative goes up for a given size enlargement. Certainly the difference between 35mm and 6x6cm is quite obvious in an 8x10 print. I can see some difference (but much less than in the first case) in comparing 6x6cm to 4x5 but I am not sure when looking at old prints whether a photo was taken on 4x5 or 8x10 for an 8x10 print. That's just my visual judgement. I do not at the moment have an 8x10 enlarger. It would be interesting to make 1:1 projection prints and compare those to contact prints. There are a few folks out there who have the where withall to do this and I am interested in observations. I also suspect that some of the "magic" quality that contact prints are supposed to have are historical memory, so to speak. When projection paper first came out around the 'teens, it was Bromide emulsion which did not have very good tonal quality. It was distinctly inferior to the mostly Chloride contact papers available then. Modern enlarging paper is a far cry from this stuff. I don't think any purely Chloride paper has been made for decades. Kodak Azo is a Chlorobromide paper, like all Kodak papers for over fifty years. Richard Knoppow

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