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Thread: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

  1. #1

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    Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    When I turned 66 last October, a few things finally dawned on me…that, nope - I wouldn’t be climbing Everest. Not owning that 911. Not getting that Guggenheim…

    But…who wants to stand on that rediculous Konga line anyway? And I’m perfectly happy with my 944, thank you. That Guggenheim? Well, to be honest….(sigh)

    But there is something that might still be in the realm of possibility - which is to give unsharp masking a try. Yeah…I know - just go ahead and TRY it, you doofus! But it looks like a lot of work (time, materials, learning curve)…and although I’m retired, I still have quite a bit on my plate as it is (loads of printing/re-printing to catch up on…and the 944 is still in pieces).

    And to be honest, I also find something a bit unsettling about some (much) of the actual, unsharp masked work I’ve seen “up close and personal” in galleries…that, although yes, while the degree of enhanced sharpness can indeed be fascinating - the prints themselves can, overall, look just a little too “harsh” for my tastes - with the erstwhile balance of sharpness and softness…that magical “glow” to which many of us aspire in our work - having been sacrificed to the gods of “detail at any cost.”

    But…if I have a specific issue which still might be addressed by a bit of unsharp masking - it would be related to my current scenario of creating large (40x60”) prints from 5x7 negatives. Don’t get me wrong - the overall balance I feel I’ve been achieving with these large prints has, thus far, been to my liking. But I feel like I’m working right on the edge here…and there are times when some of the finer details in a given image, such as tree bark and rock faces - could be just a bit sharper. But, to the extent that my work often combines such “fine” details with much softer elements (like ocean surf and/or fog), well, I’d truly hate to sacrifice the wonderful subtlety in this. Still…

    So I’m trolling for opinions here, as well as seeking some sage advice regarding the two currently available approaches (wet vs scanned interpositive) to creating the masks themselves. My only past (like 30 years ago) experience with anything close to this had been with using pan masking films in making interpositives to enlarged negatives for use in creating platinum/palladium/albumen prints…and my tendency, as one committed to “the old ways,” would be to go this route and give Bergger’s “Printfilm” (continuous tone ortho) film a try.

    So…Opinions? Advice (sage or otherwise)? Thanks!

  2. #2

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    Try it. It takes some trial and error, and experience (for example, with standard unsharp masks you might initially be a little surprised at how thin they need to be) but don't be intimidated. Make a few, print, see if any of them do what you want. Nothing lost if you don't like it.

    I'm partial to doing it the old fashioned wet way, but that's just because I'm a darkroom guy and am only just starting to look into hybrid workflows. I don't personally use masks for sharpness (edge effect) enhancement, but when you're going for that, my advice is to keep it subtle.

    Given the magnification/enlargement, doing it digitally may or may not work. My vague understanding of inkjet negatives is that they aren't high enough in resolution for enlarging - however that's for the image itself. For a mask, depending on the type of mask it might be good enough. Ultimately you'd really have to just try, spend some time experimenting and see. All this to say, wet has fewer of those technicalities to consider.

  3. #3
    Do or do not. There is no try.
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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    What Michael said - they need to be quite thin or you'll get ugly results. I don't often use this technique, but it has occasionally been useful.

    I use 4x5 Ilford Ortho Plus film for my 4x5 (surprise!) and 120 negatives as I can handle it under my normal red darkroom lighting, which makes things really easy. Before that I was using FP4+. I cut the sheets in half for the 120 negs. Ortho Plus is also offered in 8x10 sheets.
    Last edited by Steve Goldstein; 1-Jan-2021 at 15:42.

  4. #4

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    To mask or not to mask - that has been on my mind as well.
    I have Lynn Radeka’s Masking Kit and instructions; what is holding me back is the fear of the learning curve - learning these techniques in a workshop situation would be the ideal way to go.

  5. #5

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    Renato...I, too, have Lynn Radeka's Masking Kit (4x5 version - wish it were 5x7) - and what has held me back...as well as a bit of fear of the learning curve...has been the lack of a decent pan masking film - but now it looks like we have this with Bergger's new "Print-Film."

    I do agree that it would be nice to get this process started by attending a workshop, but I'll likely just dive in at some point...starting with purchasing some of the new Bergger film and experimenting with it.

  6. #6
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    Just try it? Just try playing a fiddle. Two minutes later - Nope, not for me. Just like any darkroom skill it takes awhile to master. If you see results by others which seem overdone or crude, it has nothing to do with masking per se, but only with their relative lack of experience or proper gear and supplies. Masking is not a single technique, but a whole tool box containing all kinds of options. Either get into it or don't; going halfway is guaranteed disappointment. The punch and register gear itself is an investment. Heiland can make you a 5x7 set. ; TMX100 is better for masking than Pan Masking film ever was if you have the right developer, but certain other films can be made to work too. As to which images are potentially helped in this manner, and which not, takes some experience. Expect to spend a lot of extra time cleaning film, carrier glass, and masking frame glass. Sure beats spotting afterwards.

  7. #7

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    Oh Drew. Making a standard unsharp contrast mask (which is what OP wants if you read what he wrote) is not overly complicated, is not like learning to play the fiddle, and can be done without fancy equipment, especially since the negatives are pretty big. It takes some trial and error to get the right exposure, density etc. but is not the quantum mechanics you make it sound like. So yes, he should consider trying it. Of course it will require some work, but what is wrong with that?

  8. #8

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    Mr. Layton- is there a problem with your current prints- and do you think that this technique will solve that problem (whatever it might be)?
    I ask this question in all honesty- because after 40+ years in the trade and craft, and decades in the lab, I've only heard reference to unsharp masking. I've never seen it done, never tried it, and am ignorant of the benefits. Of course my own KISS approach is about to be tested by the new darkroom that I'm just finishing, but still, "inquiring minds want to know".

  9. #9

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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    No real problem with my current prints...just wondering if I could push just a tad more feeling of sharpness out of my 40x60's without compromising overall character. Still on the fence...but if I do "just try" it...I will dive deep, and be thorough...as always!

  10. #10
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: Unsharp Masking…Would I/Could I/Should I?

    The answer is yes. Sharpening is easily achieved with a basic contrast mask; but fine tuning it takes some skill and understanding of how light gets scattered from an edge based upon several variables : the kind of diffusion sheet involved, the angle of incidence from your point light source (related to focal length and aperture of the enlarger lens above the masking frame), specific films, and dev, accuracy of your punch & register system etc. Once it becomes too obvious in the print, it's overdone. But at this point you haven't communicated what kind of film & dev is involved with the originals, so it's hard to be more specific. Generic contrast masking is easy in principle. But there are all kinds of ways to significantly improve the effect.

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