Print Quality
what is it ?


When invited to give a talk on my own personal quest for monochrome print quality at the Lancashire & Cheshire Photographic Union Big Day of Quality in October 2004, I began to consider how print quality can best be described.

Some years ago, I might have described a quality print as one which demonstrates the characteristics of medium or large format, ie. very sharp, grain free, excellent detail and with a full range of tones (probably Zone System based). More recently, I have come to realise that this is in fact a rather narrow definition of the term. I believe there is a distinction to be made between a fine print and a quality print. A fine print has all the characteristics I have described; it demonstrates masterful technique and may be what many would regard as a quality print. However, I feel that a quality print goes beyond perfect technique and must include a personal creative input that is immediately evident to the viewer.

The quality print may or may not have a full range of tones. It may or may not have perfect shadow and highlight detail. It may or may not be based on a perfect negative.

What is important is that sound technique should be allied with a personal vision and interpretation, which when appropriate can see beyond the “straight” image. For me, that is the essence of quality.

I would suggest therefore that a quality print is one which perfectly communicates its author’s intent, its “raison d’etre”, in which technique and process are seen to be the servant, not the master.

That is a personal view. However, I thought it would be useful and interesting to obtain a cross-section of thinking on the subject, to which end I approached a number of eminent darkroom printers and asked them to describe the characteristics which they would look for in a “quality” print. I was delighted with the enthusiasm evident in their responses and the time and thought they had devoted to my question, for which I thank them. There were many areas of agreement, but also a healthy divergence of views on some issues, which meant it was impossible to arrive at one definition of “print quality”. Perhaps, when all is said and done, quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder !

I am pleased to share their thoughts with you in the following pages, which begin with a brief, but telling quotation from Ansel Adams in his book “The Print”.



“I do not suggest that there is only one “right” print, or that all prints from one negative must be identical.

All I, or any photographer, can do is print an image as I feel it should be printed at a particular time.

Print quality, then, is basically a matter of sensitivity to values. What is important for all photographers is that the values of the image suit the image itself, and contribute to the intended visual effect.”



“Print quality is a variable thing depending on the purpose of the image. I would expect a pure record photograph to have a full range of tone, with both shadow and highlight gradation. Against this, pictorial or art based imagery requires the range of tones best suited to making the statement. The classic case is the “soot and whitewash” printing of Bill Brandt.

So we have a situation that carries a contradiction; blocked up shadows in applied work is not acceptable, but blocked up blacks in pictorial work is often perfectly acceptable if that lost information is not relative to the image. Burnt out highlights are more dangerous, but again Bill Brandt did it with great effect.

So in a nutshell it’s “horses for courses” but I also firmly believe that print quality should enhance the purpose of the image.”



“What is meant by print quality? It’s in the same bracket as “what is meant by pictorialism?”. The simple answer to both these questions is that you know it when you see it !

In “the old days” most of the pundits used to say that all good quality prints must have a full range of tones from a dead black through a range of intermediate greys to white, with no blocking out of shadow areas and –horror of horrors- no burnt out highlights. Grain was frowned on even when the print was viewed from 3 inches.

I have never gone along with these views because I have always believed that the printing should reflect the mood of the subject matter. For instance, a high key portrait can be very effective by just using a tracery of near white tones and subtle greys, whilst low key printing using grain effect and blocked in shadows can be most suitable for creating a mood.

I always feel that a good quality print “glows”, irrespective of the paper surface. Someone once said that if a print talks to you on first viewing, you can bet the quality of all the tonal values are as they should be to suit the image.”



“For me, the hallmarks of a quality print are :-

  • A print which reveals full tonality. This often requires using a long tonal range and probably a lower grade of paper. I normally print on Grade 2. Split-grading can often help with those negatives that simply refuse to print on 2, but the quality of the negative should never be under-estimated.
  • Print quality is a finite quality and does not, of itself, determine whether a print is good or bad. It reflects many of the issues that Ansel Adams held dear. Undoubtedly this means that there should be a wide range of tones with perceptible shadow and highlight detail.
  • Obviously one needs to be aware of the subject matter, but in photographs where the subject matter is under the control of the photographer, there is no excuse for not showing tonal detail throughout the image. What makes a photograph different from a painting is its ability to exude detail, and this is something I always look for in a photograph.
  • It is important to distinguish between print quality and aesthetics; it is possible to produce a deeply moving print which lacks print quality and by the same definition produce a print which oozes print quality, but reveals little else.
  • A high contrast grainy print does not represent good print quality; however, there are occasions when sacrificing print quality in order to convey mood, serves the print well. In this respect I think the sadly departed Barry Thornton was spot on.
  • A really great black and white print exudes texture. The rocks appear hard, whilst the clouds retain a gentle gaseous quality. I am usually suspicious of a print which appears grainy throughout and suspect the author has a negative he wishes to hide.”



“ Print Quality - what a minefield! Firstly you need to have something to say – so a pre-visualisation of the final print is essential (film type, contrast, method of printing, toning, etc.). Also, control of negative – contrast, metering, development etc. to give you the opportunity to print what you want. Know your film and developers. Keep it relatively simple by standardising methods and using only a small variety of film/developer combinations.

It is necessary to have total control of your darkroom environment, and familiarity with all equipment, papers and developers.

I build up my exposures, that way I’m painting with the light. I look for tonal balance, sharpness, grain or fine grain to suit the subject, good blacks, some detail in shadow areas and highlights I can work on.

Prints should ooze quality in lightness, in tone, in correct contrast, but also in feeling, in personality and “style”- an individualistic approach is a must. Light surrounded by dark, or vice versa, makes a telling image.

Print the emphasis, print to enhance the features in the image, re-print, re-test until it looks great. No second best.

It’s an art to be able to print to make people believe that what they see in your print is what you really felt when you took the picture.”



Print quality falls into two categories – technical and aesthetic –they often overlap and merge. Depending on the image and circumstances either may assume more relative importance, but there will always be exceptions to every rule !

Technical quality requires:-

  • sharpness of image (when appropriate)
  • corner to corner sharpness of grain (alignment)
  • even illumination, with no hot-spots or fall-off
  • clean sharp edges to image area, no fuzzy bits, “creep” or “shadows, unless for effect
  • full development with fresh developer
  • burning and dodging should not be apparent – unless for effect
  • no stains, no uneven development, no creases, wrinkles, pits and no visible spotting (done or not done)
  • if post processing treatments have been done they must have been done well – no uneven toning, stains, runs. Local work – no bald bleaching or grain distortion , overruns, etc.

In a full tonal range print we need good Dmax, visible Dmin (unless paper base required), good mid – tone separation, smooth highlight differentiation (unless for effect), and clean highlights and borders.

These give the “gleam” to a good full range cool tone B&W print and require fresh paper (no fog) and fresh developer (no fog) and good technique through the whole process. They also require technical knowledge of balancing exposure to contrast to get both “ends” right and still have mid-tone gleam.

Often of course not all prints are intended to gleam. They may for example require compression in the mid-tones, or even throughout - bad weather, rain, mist or dusk pictures being common examples. Although these choices are aesthetic, they also require practical and technical skills and an understanding of the materials used.

Similarly, not all images will require shadow and /or highlight detail to be apparent, as evidenced by some of the work of Eugene Smith, Ralph Gibson, Sam Haskins, David Bailey and others.

Aesthetic quality is more difficult to describe than technical quality because so many issues of taste and interpretation arise and there are fewer baseline criteria across the board. Questions of good taste and fashion are not quality issues in this sense ( one man’s meat, etc.)

However, skills like printing to exactly the “right” key for an image are probably more aesthetic than technical (although obviously both), but minor differences can sometimes make the apparent quality leap, or sink ! However, some images can be successfully printed in different keys. Similarly, picking exactly the “right” image tone for a print may sometimes be critical to its successful communication to the viewer.”



“Print Quality is one of those terms that lacks a precise definition (similarly with composition) but can mean different things to different people.

To some photographers, it’s about recording faithfully all the tonal values or zones throughout the print, but I feel that this is merely a technical exercise – about as exciting as printing from a step wedge !

During workshops, I usually ask people what they feel about an image, because this is the mood they have to capture when making the print. One aspect of composition is unity – that is, all elements of the picture must work together. It is the wrong approach to print a dramatic subject in a delicate high key manner. That, to me, is poor print quality. The subject matter, the elements of design and the style of printing must all work together- they must have unity. Further than this, the style of toning, paper surface and presentation must all fit in and maintain this unity.

So, in this artistic sense, print quality is all about deciding and achieving the appropriate key and having full control of the tonal values of the print – otherwise the mood of the print is “wrong”. The key of the print can be high, low or intermediate and either major or minor – all give quite a different feel and mood to the print.

Techniques for achieving print quality :

The print must have good contrast. Many workers – particularly those using the zone system – consider only the overall contrast of the print. To achieve good print quality, we must consider the micro contrast – that is the contrast in the detail of the print. The paper grade is chosen to achieve good micro contrast and the overall contrast is controlled by dodging and burning.

Furthermore, the print must have richness. For instance, large areas of a single tone – particularly blacks and greys – give a “dead” feel to the print. These areas are usually broken up by either dodging or burning to provide some variation in tone.

The “eye travel” through the print should also be considered and the tonal values adjusted so that the eye is guided through the print. In reality the foreground is generally darker and the background lighter, so it helps to emphasise this during printing.

Print finishing must be immaculate, and all printing defects and other detritus that is not relevant to the subject matter should be spotted out. Presentation must enhance the print and should not be too elaborate – this merely shows a lack of confidence in a print.

There is often a correct size for a print – some subjects look better as a small print, whilst others will print up quite large. Size and type of mount should also be considered. A small print in a large mount is often quite effective as it focuses the attention on the image – it will often stand out from a group of large prints in large mounts.”



“You ask a difficult question that I think has no simple answer. What is “good quality” to one could be “too contrasty” or “too flat” for another. Over the years I have seen standards (or perhaps fashions would be a better word) continually change. In the late sixties and seventies the UK International exhibitions were overwhelmed by the contrasty and graphic images from Eastern Europe. But fashions change and that style has now all but disappeared. It looked good in its day though! During that period many of us printed on Agfa Grade 5 for maximum impact, not bothering too much about shadow and highlight detail.

My personal definition of print quality might be :-

The print should contain the appropriate contrast and range of tones to create the atmosphere and emotion that the photographer is trying to achieve.”



“Regarding print quality, my first and perhaps most important consideration is that it is essential that the technical aspects of a black and white print should relate to the photographer’s interpretation of the subject; that is to say that a limited range of tones may suit the subject rather than a full range, or, a gritty subject may demand a grainy print.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that a print should have a full range of tones from black to white or be grain free. Sharpness is a similar issue; clearly most images should be sharp but there are times when deliberate blur and unsharpness work when it is part of the interpretation.

I do insist that quality prints should “glow”. Print quality is most associated with the technicalities of the medium, and whilst it is essential that we pay attention to those technicalities they alone do not necessarily provide us with a quality print.

In my view, print quality is a combination of mastery and control of the technicalities, the ability to apply judgement and bring them together to produce an expressive interpretation of the subject.”