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Reviewing Edward Weston’s Camera Gear & Contact Printing

When I think of Edward Weston, I think of a man that used simple tools and techniques to make world-class photographs.

I have assembled a lot of research about Weston’s camera gear and methods for you in this article, and I conclude with my own observations.

Edward Henry Weston (March 24, 1886 – January 1, 1958) was a 20th-century American photographer. He has been called “one of the most innovative and influential American photographers…” and “one of the masters of 20th century photography.”

Over the course of his 40-year career, Edward Weston photographed an increasingly expansive set of subjects, including landscapes, still lives, nudes, portraits, genre scenes, and even whimsical parodies. The advice today from art coaches and galleries is to photograph one primary subject and become known for it. Weston would have laughed at that advice, is my guess.

In 1937 Weston was the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and over the next two years, he produced nearly 1,400 negatives using his 8 × 10 view camera. You will discover below that he didn’t start out with his famous 8×10 camera. Some of his most famous photographs were taken of the trees and rocks at Point Lobos, California, near where he lived for many years.

I wonder if we could all be a little more aware and interested in photographing what is under our feet instead of thinking we always need to travel to epic locations. I think we both know the answer to this.

Weston was born in Chicago but moved to California when he was 21. He knew he wanted to be a photographer from an early age, and initially, his work was typical of the soft-focus pictorialism that was popular at the time.

Within a few years, however, he abandoned that style and became one of the foremost champions of highly detailed photographic images. When researching Weston, I learned that he destroyed his early pictorialist work, and he later regretted doing that. Based on the few examples that still exist of his pictorialist work, I think it was some of his best work in my opinion.

In 1947 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he stopped photographing soon thereafter. He spent the remaining ten years of his life overseeing the printing of more than 1,000 of his most famous images.

As I get older, I am thinking about the negatives that I have created over my life and when the day comes when I can’t lug my big cameras around, a new chapter of opportunity will begin by revisiting my lifetime of negatives and printing them as if they were just exposed.

I have a dedicated Ultra Large Format Photography playlist on my YouTube Channel.

If you are a photographer or interested in learning about analog photography, we have an Analog Photography Membership Community that is the only community of its kind where you can learn and explore analog photography in depth. I also have an extensive training library of video workshops and guidebooks if you prefer to download the videos and books for offline use.

Equipment & Techniques of Edward Weston

During his lifetime, Weston worked with several cameras. He began as a more serious photographer in 1902 when he purchased a 5 × 7 camera. When most people think of Weston, they probably think of him using 8×10 and making contact prints from a single lightbulb hanging above his workbench. While that may be true, he didn’t start with his 8×10 view camera.

When Weston moved to Tropico, now part of Glendale, and opened his studio in 1911, he acquired an ultra large format 11 x 14 Graf Variable studio portrait camera. I have never seen any of his 11×14 contact prints, but I would love to do that one day.

Once Weston started creating children portraits in 1912, he started using a 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ Graflex to better capture their quickly changing expressions.

When he went to Mexico in 1924, he took an 8 × 10 Seneca folding-bed view camera with several lenses, including a Graf Variable and a Wollensak Verito. I have three Verito lenses in different focal lengths and love to shoot them wide open for their soft focus splendor. I wonder how many pictorialist-style soft focus prints Weston made that we have never seen?

While in Mexico he purchased a used Rapid Rectilinear lens which was his primary lens for many years. The lens, now in the George Eastman House, did not have a manufacturer’s name.

He also took a 3¼ × 4¼ Graflex with a ƒ/4.5 Tessar lens, which he used for portraits and in 1933 he purchased a 4 × 5 R. B. Auto-Graflex and used it thereafter for all portraits.

He continued to use the Seneca view camera for all other work.

In 1939 he listed the following items as his standard equipment: 8 x 10 Century Universal camera, triple convertible Turner Reich, 12″, 21″, 28, K2, G, A filters, 12 film holders, Paul Ries Tripod. From this point on, this is the Weston we all know and think about.

If you do your research, you will soon discover the gear listed here would not be considered elite or high-quality by today’s standards. I think this is a critical point to consider as we aspire to get newer or “better” gear. If Weston could create world-class large format contact prints using very average gear and equipment, this should serve as a good reminder that it’s not the gear that matters; it’s the photographer standing behind it.

Weston boasted he could “set up the tripod, fasten the camera securely to it, attach the lens to the camera, open the shutter, study the image on the ground glass, focus it, close the shutter, insert the plate holder, cock the shutter, set it to the appropriate aperture and speed, remove the slide from the plate holder, make the exposure, replace the slide, and remove the plate holder in two minutes and twenty seconds.”

FILM USED BY WESTON

Weston started photographing with orthochromatic sheet film and continued to use it until panchromatic film was widely available in the early 1920s.

It is widely known that Weston used Agfa Isopan film that was available in the 1930s and he used it for the rest of his life. This film was rated at about ISO 25, but the developing technique Weston used reduced the effective rating to about ISO 12.

Many people don’t know that Kodak asked Weston to try out their new Kodachrome film, and over the next two years, he made at least 60 8 x 10 color images using this film. They were some of the last photographs he took since, by late 1948, he was no longer able to operate a camera due to the effects of his Parkinson’s disease.

It is important to match your film and developer. I have standardized on using PMK Pyro to tray develop my large and ultra-large format HP5 of FP4 sheet film. When using this combination with a silver chloride contact print developed in Amidol, there is nothing better in my opinion.

EXPOSURE & DEVELOPMENT

During the first 20 years of his photography Weston determined all of his exposure settings by estimation based on his previous experiences and the relatively narrow tolerances of the film at that time. He said, “I dislike to figure out time, and find my exposures more accurate when only “felt”.”

In the late 1930s, he purchased a Weston exposure meter and continued to use it as an aid to determining exposures throughout the rest of his career. The Weston exposure meter was invented by Edward Faraday Weston, an electrical engineer, and inventor who was unrelated to the photographer Edward Weston. The Weston meter was introduced in 1932 and was widely used by photographers until production ceased in 1967.

According to photo historian Nancy Newhall, Weston believed in “massive exposure”, which he then compensated for by hand-processing the film in a weak developer solution and individually inspecting each negative as it continued to develop to get the right balance of highlights and shadows. The low ISO rating of the sheet film Weston used necessitated very long exposures when using his view camera, ranging from 1 to 3 seconds for outdoor landscape exposures to as long as 4½ hours for still lifes such as peppers or shells.

DARKROOM METHODS

Weston always made contact prints, meaning that the print was exactly the same size as the negative.

This was essential for the platinum printing that he preferred early in his career. Weston did not have an artificial ultraviolet light source, so he placed the contact print directly in sunlight to expose it. This limited him to printing only on sunny days.

When he wanted a print that was larger than the original negative size, he used an enlarger to create a larger inter-positive, then contact printed it to a new negative. The enlarged negative was then used to print that size. I use this same method frequently, and I think it is a shame that almost no one knows how to make enlarged negatives any longer because of the ease of digital negatives. Easy doesn’t always mean better quality.

In 1924 Weston wrote this about his darkroom process, “I have returned, after several years use of Metol-Hydroquinine open-tank” developer to a three-solution Pyro developer, and I develop one at a time in a tray instead of a dozen in a tank.” Each sheet of film was viewed under either a green or an orange safelight in his darkroom, allowing him to control the individual development of a negative. He continued to use this technique for the rest of his life. Weston extensively used dodging and burning to achieve the look he wanted in his prints.

PAPER CHOICES

Early in his career Weston printed on several kinds of paper, including Velox, Apex, Convira, Defender Velour Black and Haloid.

When he went to Mexico, he learned how to use platinum and palladium paper, made by Willis & Clement and imported from England.

After his return to California, he abandoned platinum and palladium printing due to the scarcity and increasing price of the paper. Eventually, he got most of the qualities he preferred with Kodak’s Azo glossy silver gelatin paper developed in Amidol. He continued to use this paper almost exclusively until he stopped printing.

I wish Kodak AZO paper were still available, but for the time being, we have a limited supply of Adox Lupex silver chloride paper as our only choice. I have compared my prints on Kodak AZO and Lupex, and I much prefer Kodak AZO.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Collectors have frequently described large format silver chloride prints as “the finest images I have ever seen, and they were not only incredibly sharp and detailed, but grain-free with an astounding luminosity, volume, and space with a lovely tonality.” 

I share this opinion, and it is my absolute pleasure to continue the proven darkroom methods used by the greats like Weston.

Edward Weston printed on silver chloride paper for over four decades and collectors and curators to this day continue to describe his prints as having a special glow and depth that are uncommon in any type of fine art print. 

A large or ultra large format negative that is developed in PMK Pyro and printed on silver chloride paper using Amidol as the developer is the magic formula that most people overlook today.  This is a very special and unique set of tools to create these extraordinary fine art prints. Shorthand for my workflow is FP4/HP5 – PMK Pyro – DBI – AZO – Amidol – KRST. If you understand this, then you are ahead of most people.

Like Weston, I use a hand-mixed formula for my developer using Amidol and potassium bromide.  I am able to control the general contrast of the prints with my special two-bath development process and the overall color rendering of my prints from a very warm, almost chocolate type of feeling to the deepest and richest blacks you may have ever seen. 

My blacks are more profound and richer with my PMK Pryo tray-developed negatives when printed on silver chloride paper than with any other combination.

I have also found that PMK Pyro creates a long toe versus other pyro developers and creates very open, long, and brilliant mid-tones. Combine this with silver chloride contact printing paper and you have a recipe for world-class gallery prints.

-Tim Layton Sr.

If you are a photographer or interested in learning about analog photography, we have an Analog Photography Membership Community that is the only community of its kind where you can learn and explore analog photography in depth. I also have an extensive training library of video workshops and guidebooks if you prefer to download the videos and books for offline use.