Equipment & Materials


People just tend to be interested in this sort of thing and perhaps this will make it unnecessary to explain some references I might make in future posts.

Long ago, in the dark ages, I used film. I had a monorail 4×5 Omega View camera that I literally wore out. (Tried 8×10 for a while. This is required under the rules for Ansel Adams clones, but it didn’t suit me.) I lugged the 4×5, 30 film holders and a large tripod (about 50 pounds, all together) all over the southern Peruvian Andes, bribed customs officials not to steal it and talked military officials out of seizing it. When I finally left Peru, I had to smuggle my own property out. You see, they taxed you for photo equipment (100% of list price), both coming and going! (I understand this is no longer done.)

I used Plus-X and Tri-X sheet film, along with Kodak’s Professional Copy Film Type 4125 which I adapted to use as an expansion film (higher contrast, for those not familiar with the Zone System). I habitually loaded each of the three films in ten holders, using them about equally. The 4125 allowed me to do things I simply could not have done otherwise. When they came out, I switched to the newer T-Max films from Kodak, replacing Plus-X and Tri-X, and used them until I made the change to digital capture. I never fully decided whether I actually preferred the T-Max films or not. They were superior in some ways, not in others.

Andenes — captured using Kodak Professional Copy Film Type 4125, size 4×5

I always carried a substantial set of gelatin filters with me and used them so much that if I forgot them, I would turn the car around and go get them. They were that important to the way I worked. These were colored filters that changed the way gray tones would come out in the negative and print. Their effect ranged from slight to extreme. It was rare for me to take a photograph without a filter behind the lens. If you’re interested, I used Kodak Wratten filters:
8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 21, 25, 29, 58, 61, 47, 47B, 32 & 44.

I wrote a two-part article on the advanced use of filters for B&W:

Filters were a very finicky and unpredictable thing. With the advent of T-Max films from Kodak they became even more problematic because those films did not behave with filters the same way all previous B&W films had. A different set of filter specifications was required for the new films.

For printing, I preferred variable contrast, double-weight, fiber-based papers. The last ones I used were Kodak and Ilford. I switched between the two pretty evenly. Previously I had used Seagull, before it went downhill and briefly, Agfa’s gorgeous Portriga Rapid before Agfa simply decided to ruin it one day. Overnight, Portriga went from being one of the world’s most gorgeous papers, to something suited only for wrapping fish.

Though I was a long-time follower of the air-dried, glossy, double-weight, selenium-toned, gelatin-silver religion, I must admit I was always a closet doubter. I would see hand-made platinum prints for example, and be mesmerized. I also very much liked the brown tones of turn-of-the-century papers and processes, but of course, those were all long gone. When Ilford brought out their warm tone, matte surface, variable contrast paper I thought I might get the look I wanted out of it. But, that didn’t pan out either. All methods for getting brown tones chemically were unpredictable and unreliable.

Frankly, I was never totally satisfied with the whole silver-gelatin print approach. These were basically papers intended for mass commercial consumption and maximum profit, not for the artist, despite advertising claims, and never quite gave me what I desired. But for all practical purposes, they were the only game in town.

I waited a lot longer than most to make the switch to digital capture and printing. Printing got there before capture by several years, but even that took a while. About 2005 a camera shop in Salt Lake City made a few digital prints for me from one of my negatives, using the latest inkjet wonder. They looked promising. Took them home, tossed them on a work table and watched them disintegrate over the space of what seemed only days. I waited a few more years.

I have to admit to an embarrassing truth here. I learned fairly early in my career as a photographer that photographic magazines tend to print things that are simply not true. Often, not true in the extreme. Writing for photography magazines drove that point home to me even further. So, I should not have been susceptible to such nonsense when I began to make the change from analog to digital, but was gullible, nonetheless. I guess I assumed that a new digital photographic world would involve some newer, cleaner practices.

I had to learn the hard way that camera manufacturers touting small sensor DSLRs as being just as good as larger sensors were selling snake oil. I really had to learn the hard way! I used that toy camera for three months of intensive work, traveling all over West Texas at considerable expense, only to discover later, when I tried to print those images, that they were all useless. Every single one of them! Remember, I was completely green with regard to every aspect of digital equipment and, on-screen, the images looked fine to me. So for those months, I blissfully kept on working, thinking I was accomplishing something.

(To clarify, the exact same thing is true of both film and digital photography: All else being equal, the larger the size of the image capture area, the better the image quality. This difference is by no means, small.)

When it came time to print some of these new images, I spent weeks attempting to get a decent result, without so much as getting close. At first, I thought I had made a mistake by buying an HP printer (longer lasting inks) instead of the industry standard Epson. The HP did turn out to be a mistake, but not for this particular reason. Then I started to think the whole changeover to digital had been a huge error in judgement and that I would almost certainly have to go back to analog, having already sold every scrap of analog equipment I owned, at a considerable loss.

One day it occurred to me the problem might be just the printer or just the camera, so I scanned one of my proven sheet film negatives, a known quantity. I had scanned none up to that point. Remember, I was just getting started with digital tools and knew absolutely zero. Scanned, run through Photoshop and printed, I could see with the very first test print that the printer was absolutely not the problem. Then I downloaded raw digital images from better cameras (larger sensors) and printed them. The problem was definitely the camera. The camera was useless. Three months of expensive work and travel, all lost!

I learned my lesson, licked my wounds, vowed never, EVER again to fall victim to ridiculous manufacturer and photo magazine exaggerations and, deservedly embarrassed, unloaded that useless lump of electronic landfill, made by a company named after a Greek mountain, on ebay. $7000 later, I had what I should have bought in the first place, a full-frame digital SLR with some meat on its bones.

More specifically, I bought a Sony alpha 900 which, as it turns out, was also a mistake, but only because Sony has since decided there will be no upgrade path for this camera. My primary lens was the Zeiss 24-70 made specifically for the a900. It is a remarkable lens that sadly is now useable on none of the cameras currently made by Sony. The Sony-Zeiss combination is infinitely superior to what I owned previously and even so, was occasionally not completely up to the job. Digital cameras need a couple more iterations, but the top end is acceptable for now.

Having no upgrade path I will be forced to switch to Nikon at some point in the near future. Fortunately, the new 800 series Nikon looks very promising. All I need now is that winning lottery ticket!   😉

02-16-17 Update. I replaced the Sony hardware with a Nikon D810 and a range of fixed focal length lenses. Image quality has taken a substantial leap and I can now massage my images without worrying about them falling apart half way through the process.

The printers I am currently using are:

Epson 3880 with factory color inks
Epson 3800 with aftermarket B&W inks + two HP color inks
Epson 1430 for brochures and such
Epson 1400 for ink experiments and as a paperweight

I work only in B&W. More specifically, I work in brown tone B&W. Very brown! The turn of the century look I always sought with silver-gelatin and never quite achieved consistently is there with digital prints, and then some. But there have been serious problems.

The HP B9180 printer I started out with made gorgeous prints with archivally very stable inks, far more stable than the Epson inks. But the printer had mechanical problems. Prints with heavy blacks had tracks left on those areas by the printer rollers. Only later did I realize the problem was that the ink was not sufficiently dry by the time the paper hit the front rollers and the tracks were actually skid marks through the still-wet ink. HP ignored the problem. Claimed they had no knowledge of it. As far as I know, they still deny it. So did paper manufacturers. After two years, I finally figured out that it could be solved by standing in front of the printer with a hair dryer and blowing warm air directly into the printer, as it was printing. This was tedious and annoying, but it did work, consistently.

These HP printers also broke down. Often. VERY often! Over the span of just three years, HP replaced my printer under extended warranty, eight times. (Be forewarned. Though the B9180 has been discontinued, current HP printers are just larger versions of the same design. Don’t say no one told you!) The last five or six times they replaced it with a refurbished printer, which really means they shipped me someone else’s problems. Two printers didn’t even work long enough to get them set up. One day I unceremoniously unplugged boat anchor number nine which I had for only a few days, and without regret, tossed it into my dumpster. Though the Epson inks are not nearly as archival, their printers are vastly more reliable and have been essentially problem free the past several years.

I had a great many problems over an extended period of time with the Epson 3800 using aftermarket carbon inks. It turned out in the end there was nothing wrong with either the printer or the inks, but with the refillable cartridges I had purchased and the fact the seller of said cartridges knew they were defective and refused to tell me. Buy the short cartridges that are the same size as OEM cartridges, NOT the long ones that stick out the front of the printer, requiring the cover door to be left open. The long cartridges cannot maintain pressure if less than about 80% full and make the printer behave precisely as though it were clogged.

(Remember below that I am talking strictly about 100% cotton rag, matte surface papers. I don’t use, and know nothing of other papers.)

There is a problem with making monochrome prints using OEM inks in any inkjet printer. (I know this to be true from experience with HP and Epson, but only presume it to be true of Canon, since I have never used a Canon printer.) Monochrome prints tend to have slight color shifts in some sharp tonal transition areas. In general the public has a hard time seeing these shifts. Artists on the other hand see them as glaring flaws that must be rejected. In my case, wanting very brown tones, the shift is generally toward a greenish tone. It happens in some prints, not in others, but happens often. Overall, it is simply unacceptable.

For this and other flaws, some Epson printers have a feature they call Advanced Black and White (ABW). Though I believe it possible that the above mentioned color shifts might not occur with ABW, I experimented with ABW only long enough to discover it could not give me the depth of brown tones I wanted, and abandoned it. It might be suitable for others not seeking such extremes.

Professional inkjet printers are made for producing color prints, not black and white. Users of Epson’s ABW feature tell me it is an effective solution to the problems inherent in inkjet B&W, but it was not acceptable for my purposes. Most people are after a more or less neutral gray tone and ABW seems to work for that. Again, I have no personal experience with it, to speak of.

Years ago, a number of people decided the solution to the problem that inkjet printers were not adequate for making B&W prints came up with aftermarket ink sets that used only varying dilutions of black/gray inks. This has evolved to the present carbon ink sets.

In my Epson 3800 I am currently using six shades of pure carbon ink which will undoubtedly last longer than the paper on which it is printed. Though what I am using is a personal variation intended to give maximum warm tones, the ink sets commercially available (not my variation) should provide suitable results for most anyone. In addition to the six gray inks, I have two slots in my 3800 filled with HP, not Epson inks. Those are HP’s Magenta and Yellow. These are used for the heavy brown tones I desire. This way I can print anything from bullet proof 100% carbon-only, to carbon plus long-life HP color pigments for toning. All of this, by the way, falls under the heading of, try this entirely at your own risk!

It took me some time to get the brown I wanted from the carbon plus HP ink combination. I began with Epson’s Magenta and Yellow. They were easier to work with. But now I have what I need with the HP inks and am slowly switching over to this combination as I make new work.

For those readers who might like to switch to pure carbon inks, the best supplier for both quality and price is:
Their web site is a bit confusing to navigate and the differences in ink sets can seem vague, but it is worth the effort. Cartridges are available there and other places, including ebay. Remember, stay away from the long cartridges. They are defective. (Some of the short cartridges require a folded piece of heavy paper be shoved underneath the front edge in order to make full electronic contact.)

Aftermarket B&W ink sets require a special printer driver called QuadToneRIP (QTR), available for Windows and Mac. QTR is a free download that is not hobbled. If you decide to use it, you must pay for it; $50. A genuine bargain. It is written and maintained by one person and without it, many B&W photographers would be lost. Pay the $50! QTR can be downloaded here:

Paper! Remember what I said about magazines exaggerating? I have found, after long experimentation, substantial expense and high degrees of frustration, that inkjet papers for fine art printing are overpriced, overhyped and just don’t look all that great.  (Remember that I am talking only about 100% cotton, matte papers. Don’t know about other surfaces.) I found them, like much of current color photography, gaudy and one-dimensional.

I started out with 100% cotton rag, coated papers from manufacturers of papers made specifically for inkjet use. I was never sold on these papers for the same reasons I was never really comfortable with silver-gelatin papers. They were too commercial looking and too mass-market. They were good, but lifeless and not good enough. I opened a matted print in front of an art buyer a couple years ago, only to be embarrassed to find severe yellowing around the edges of the image, an image made on quite expensive, name-brand inkjet paper. (03-01-17 Let’s forget the cuteness. It was Entrada Rag Bright White.)This confirmed my suspicions about the longevity of the coatings used on these papers. In that moment, I made the final decision I had been contemplating for some months…

I have abandoned all commercial inkjet papers of any kind and am now using strictly watercolor papers for my work. These are beautiful papers that are absolutely more suited to art than the cold, flat, lifeless look of commercial coated inkjet papers. With coated papers the image sits on top of the paper, held there by the inkjet coating. With watercolor papers, the ink is in the paper and gives a much more tactile, substantive print.

Because watercolor papers absorb ink, it is much harder to get dark blacks and strong contrasts than it is with coated inkjet papers. And some watercolor papers are more useful than others (heavy sizing helps a great deal). The exaggerated importance placed on having printer output look like the on-screen image goes right out the window with watercolor papers. Not even close! Overall, I find it is well worth the extra difficulty printing on watercolor papers.

Photoshop… OK, now that I think about it, EVERY purchase I made when starting down the digital brick road was a mistake. I bought an also-ran software package instead of Photoshop. I saved hundreds. Until I realized I should have gotten Photoshop. There is no substitute. I dislike that there is only one game in town, and especially that Adobe takes advantage of that fact, but that is the case. Only Photoshop will do.

Tripods… I have three tripods. (Five as of 02-16-17) Two Bogens, one medium, one large. I use the large one 99% of the time. And a Leitz Tiltall. A garage sale special I repaired and keep for no particular reason.

Glasses… Ansel Adams recommended a Wratten #90 filter (very dark yellow) for viewing potential B&W images in the field. I always found that filter dark, dubious and very inconvenient, though I had one. What does help, a lot, is yellow sunglasses. The brown ones work pretty well too, but yellow is better. Yellow glasses help me see the B&W potential of a scene far more readily.

Recently I have added a radically different approach to printing to my tool set, but that is a topic for another time. This is where I am, at present, with equipment and materials. This page is already long enough, so any updates with regard to these subjects, I will probably make with posts, rather than pages.

Please remember that all of the foregoing is simply what I feel that I need for my work. I am in no way saying that others should do exactly the same, or that no other approaches are valid. All roads lead to Rome.