View Full Version : Azo--Why do it?

Donald Miller
23-Mar-2004, 08:08
This post is the result of my own experience and is being offered up for those who may be considering a change of materials.

I have been contact printing on Azo (8X10 and 12X20) for a couple of years now. No doubt about it the Azo prints appeared to be very nice. Azo is acknowledged by many as being the "epitome" of silver papers today. My comparative benchmark to those Azo prints were enlarged prints from 4X5 negatives on my Saunders 4550 XLG VCCE enlarger. This enlarger manufacturer is favored by John Sexton, Bruce Barnbaum and others. I enlarged on Seagull VCFB. Again considered by many to be a good paper.

About 3 months ago I had the opportunity to purchase three Durst 138S condenser enlargers. (I can almost hear the gnashing of teeth at this point.)

The addition of these condenser enlargers into my operation has totally changed my view of things. When I begain using them I immediately noticed enhanced print sharpness, better tonal representation, and better local contrast then what I had produced before.

Not totally unreasonable many would say since this may be due to the change of enlargers. But I will go on to say that this is true when compared to my Azo contact prints too. I next approached individuals with varying degrees of photographic experience in a blind print evaluation. The prints that invariably were the most highly favored where the condensor enlarged prints on JandC Polywarmtone Classic and Oriental Seagull fiber graded paper. The most common comments were that the enlarged prints had greater depth and presence; that they exhibited more of a "glow' then the Azo prints and the diffusion enlarged prints.

So what is the purpose of this account? It is to simply indicate that one should find their own way. Determine their own best equipment and materials. The recommendations of Ansel Adams and others is based in their application of certain materials. There are alternatives to those materials and sometimes the acknowledged "epitomes" turn out to be something else.

George Losse
23-Mar-2004, 08:37

I have a couple of questions about your "blind print evaluation:" 1) Where all the prints the same size? 2) Where they all mounted and matted the same?

Sometimes people respond to the presentation of a print and then justify it with all kinds of fluff to back up their feelings.

Just asking, not to defend AZO, but just to know more of the details of your testing. There are no silver bullets in photography, only hard work and knowledge about their materials. And on the materials part, what works for some, will only hold others back, each and every one of us must find our own way.

Mike Chini
23-Mar-2004, 08:40
I think the key is to have the look of the print in one's mind and then to go find a way of achieving that look. Everyone has his/her own preferences and ever material has its uses. I love the look of AZO but am not a huge fan of glossy papers. The day they make AZO in a semi-matte (probably never) is the day I switch to one paper for everything. Again, if you know what you want the end result to look like, you can then set about achieving it. Otherwise, you may be searching and trying different materials forever.

Donald Miller
23-Mar-2004, 08:49
George, You raise a good and valid question.

The prints that I subjected to evaluation were of the same subject matter. These were prints that were unmounted and unmatted. The prints were 8X10 inch size. These were contact prints in the case of the Azo prints and 4X5 enlargements to 8X10 in the case of the enlarged prints. There were 6 prints of two different images (one each Azo, one each diffusion enlarged, one each condensor enlarged). I made the best prints that I could produce from all of the materials. The prints that most favored were as I indicated above.

I am not promoting any materials nor am I diminishing any materials in this account. My purpose was to indicate that one should find one's own way.

Thanks for your question and I hope that I have answered it.

Best regards, Donald Miller

23-Mar-2004, 09:32
Donald, after this test, will you continue to do your 12x20 contacts on AZO? Or what instead? I ask because I have a 12x20 camera on order and am gathering info about contacting materials.


Larry Gebhardt
23-Mar-2004, 09:39
Could the difference between the condensor and the diffusion prints just be a matter of contrast? If you developed the negs a bit more for the diffusion enlarger do you think that would change your results? I am finding that I prefer a more contrasty negative for my diffusion head and then printing on a lower grade of paper. I think the reason for this is more local contrast, but I am not sure at this point. Maybe I should put the condensor head back on for the difficult negatives and see if it makes a difference. I have never printed on Azo nor seen it so I can't comment on your central premise.

Christian Olivet
23-Mar-2004, 11:17
Could it be negative related? I mean it takes negatives of very different qualities to print on enlarging papers than on contact papers. Negatives for enlarging are extremely thin for contacting on AZO. A negative that prints well on AZO grade 2 can only be printed on grade 0 enlarging paper. How are you comparing?

Ken Lee
23-Mar-2004, 11:20
If I were going to test this more diligently, the way I would determine if it's only the enlarger, would be to eliminate all the other variables.

How about this: Use only one 4x5 negative and one paper. Contact print the negative and also enlarge it to the same size in your 2 different enlargers. Develop all the prints at the same time, in the same paper developer. Process them all identically. Forget all about AZO for now. See which negative you like best. Otherwise, there are so many variables, there's no way to be sure that it's the enlarger.

Donald Miller
23-Mar-2004, 13:06
There are certainly a number of additional variables that could be incorporated into my experience. My purpose as I stated is not to diminish or to promote any one way of doing things. I am simply relating that in my experience doing my film exposure, film development (according to the characteristics of the printing paper used) and paper exposure/development that the results indicated to me that the Durst condenser enlarged print (in conjunction with the two papers that I previously mentioned) gave me more of what I want in a print then either a diffusion enlarged print or a contact print on Azo. This is my experience. Your experience may vary. If you want to evaluate this then you must evaluate it for yourself. I make my evaluation solely on the basis of what I observe in the print...period.

I don't want to start any controversy...my sole aim was to indicate my experience to those who may be considering a change of materials.

23-Mar-2004, 15:27
Did you develop the Azo prints in amidol?

Donald Miller
23-Mar-2004, 16:02
Did you develop the Azo prints in amidol?

--Don, 2004-03-23 14:27:33


Michael A.Smith
23-Mar-2004, 17:24
Quite interesting. In Paula's and my workshops it is not unusual for participants to bring in prints made on Azo and prints made on enlarging paper. And it sometimes happens that the prints on enlarging paper have more appeal. They often have more "snap" to them. If that is what one prefers, then one should print on enlarging papers. If a long scale is more important, Azo would be the natural choice. Whether one way is more important for an individual than another way is a matter of personal preference, based, ultimately, on one's world view from one's deepest self. As I have said many times, there is no right and wrong in this.

Paula and I have also found that many who print on Azo make prints that we feel are too soft. Sure, they get a long scale, but often at the expense of richness. By selecting Grade 3 Azo for a negative that one would think should print on Grade 2 and then through use of a water bath it is often possible to move the print from 1/4 to 3/4 of a grade--the grade 3 can be made to print anywhere between a grade 2 1/4 to 2 3/4 (or 2 7/8 for that matter).

Tests like this are of necessity subjective, and that is the way they should be. But it would be interesting to know the experience level of those looking at the prints. In general, fine print conoisseurs, when they are looking at "straight" photographs made from a classical perspective (photographically speaking) prefer long scale prints to ones with "snap." Those coming to photography from the commercial world, and those who would not be considered knowledgeable and experienced lookers almost always prefer the snappier print.

We have hundreds of e-mails in our files stating that with the use of Azo the writers are finally able to make the prints they had wanted to make all along. And we only have a couple saying that they tried it, but prefer their enlarging paper, thank you.

I would love to see the comparison prints myself. I assume that both the Azo print and those made on enlarging paper can be loosely classed as "great" prints and are truly the best prints that can be made from those negatives using those materials. If you'd care to send them to me to take a look at, Don, I'll pay shipping both ways.

John D Gerndt
23-Mar-2004, 22:36
So many valid points raised here, one hiding underneath them all is: Do you know how to get where you are going?

Many among us (I’ll include myself here) don’t wish to do all the testing and refinement necessary to discover a particular set of materials best attributes. It puts holes in my wallet and schedule while putting nothing on my walls. If only we could have a look at what others are doing we might better decide how to go about things.

We work mostly alone, that is the shame of it. If we could all work with a few other photographers and share techniques in person (we need to see prints and how they were made) we would all grow a great deal I think. At very least we would be better informed about our choice of direction.

Once you settle in on a set of materials and really learn how to make them sing you can start making more articulate statements in photography. It is committing to that choice, that is hard.

Don brought up a good point about trying some new things on for size and the rest all seemed to note that to make an informed decision requires knowing a great deal about all that goes into a print and persons impressions of it.

I love this forum for all the information it provides and the encouragement. I have a current mode of working that I understand quite well and have much success wtih, but I am about to dive into a whole new set of materials in the hopes of improvement, hopes of expnading my vocabulary. I do this after long consideration and much input from this and other forums combined with a few sparks I made in initial trials. Do I know where I am going? I am not perfectly sure of my endpoint, but what sense of direction I have is partially derived from reading so much of what is given freely by people in this forum.

Good luck to all and keep on asking the tough questions…

Ben Calwell
24-Mar-2004, 07:27
Michael mentioned above that Azo prints sometimes appear softer than those that were enlarged. I like that look, but I think I'm in the minority. So many photographers are obsessed with contrast that they sometimes produce prints, which in my opinion, look almost garish they're so contrasty. I like the softer, quieter look of Azo. But one man's "soft" look is another's dreaded "flat" print.

24-Mar-2004, 08:14
Ben, I am one of your bretheren. I am accused of having a "softer print statement" than most. I am learning after 30 years to not worry about what others think. :) And I do love the Azo look.


Michael Kadillak
24-Mar-2004, 18:21
Everyone clearly has the ability to shoot and print to whatever standard that they want to without mandates or standards and if that is what they feel is the optimal representation of their vision, have at it. That is your right in a free country.

But when we hear from folks that complain about the fact that they are having little or no success cannot selling their work at the local craft fare or on their web site and they cannot understand why, I ask myself what went wrong in the expectations/reality analysis.

While many hobbyists dabble with large format as a way to provide them with a way to utilize a bit of their excess time, others that have more lofty expectations are focused on reaching the top of the mountain and enjoying the journey along the way. But I wanted to make a singular point in a response to this post.

If this were a journey that one could take on their own, why would anyone in their right mind spend good money to do a workshop with any number of seasoned visionaries? One could easily conclude that the financial resources would be much better spent on materials or gasoline for the truck to get into the field on a regular basis. Reality check - folks spend thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work elbow to elbow with a committed professional that can literaly kick them in the ass to the nest level. In life or business, competition is something that we accept as the norm and true success (however loosely or rigidly defined) is not an entitlement.

The reality is that a majority of the people IMHO that have real large format aspirations are not really willing to commit the time and financial resources for one reason or another to truly segregate them from the "pack". And that is perfectly acceptable.

Me, I want to workshop till I drop and whatever it costs, I can assure you that it is money well spent.

The only really pertinent question therefore is "What is your objective and what are you willing to do to accomplish it?"


Francis Abad
24-Mar-2004, 18:52
I am with you Michael. I take every opportunity to expose, develop and print a sheet of film. This is one passion that requires effort, patience and loads of practice. I wish I could get over my "one workshop equals 5 boxes of film" mentality so that I could finally make the trip to the USA.

Michael Kadillak
24-Mar-2004, 20:18
Amen Francis. I am going to spend some quality time with Michael and Paula in October and am looking for my next venue. Montana in May and July, British Colimbia in June with Colorado blended in between.

If it is worth doing - do it with everything you got.


phil sweeney
25-Mar-2004, 05:40
Don, I use a diffusion enlarger so I have no experience with the condensor types. When I got my 8 x 10, which I like alot better than my 4 x5, I decided that contact printing was the way to go. When I found out about AZO and M&P (Michael and Paula), I wanted to go to their workshop. Booked I had to wait and went last October. I like my enlargements but I do like the AZO alot. Now with a little more experience its like a package deal: I like the 8 x10, and with the vacuum frame printing is a breeze. Enlarging is a chore for me and I am processing more prints now than ever. Its about tradeoffs for me - that's why I do it!

For those thinking about a M&P workshop: nothing takes the place of seeing a long time master at work whatever their craft or trade. To boot they are nice folks and the workshop price is reasonable.