Following Rules For Stupid Reasons

One of the smaller hobbies in my life is homebrew mead making. It is something that started doing around 2008 after buying some mead at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival and thinking a) “This is good.” and b) “Feels like it is brewed weaker then the lore around it would otherwise imply.”

I did proper research on the internet and it seemed pretty straightforward so I gave it a shot. The early results were great. Definitely more potent than what I had at the Ren Fest.

I still very much approach this hobby casually. I had a five-year stretch where I didn’t even make a single batch. By spring of 2016 my last remaining stocks of mead from were running dry, so I started brewing up some more.

As I was looking at some bottles I’ve accumulated that were soaking so I could remove the labels, I had another flashback to my early days of mead making.

Summit bottles soaking to be delabelled

One of the really good tips I picked up when doing my initial research on mead making at home was to use twelve-ounce beer bottles for much of the bottling. This solves an important problem of opening just enough mead to enjoy by yourself on any given night without getting stupid drunk.

Along with the recommendation to use twelve-ounce beer bottles, the Internet told me that there was also another thing I needed to make sure I was doing correctly.

That one other thing?

“Don’t use bottles that already have another brewer’s logos formed into the glass. Because if the bottle is carrying someone else’s logo, you won’t be able to enter it into any homebrewing competitions.”

Internet Forum Paraphrasing

Egads! That is an important tip I wouldn’t have known about until it was too late! Thanks Internet!

This actually led to a period of time where when I was buying beer with the intention of cleaning and reusing the bottles, I wouldn’t buy beer that came in branded bottles.

Now that I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, by what reason did I have to follow such a rule I picked up on the Internet?

Did I really think that with my very first attempt ever at mead making, that I was going to create such a wonderful elixir that I’d have no choice but to drive it to the nearest homebrew battle royale and crush all the opposition with its beautiful bouquet of flavors?

Hell no!

Even if I did somehow brew up a batch of something amazing, all I did was follow a recipe I found on the internet. If it didn’t taste right, I had no practical experience or wisdom to the process to even understand what I might have done wrong to change the next time.

The rule itself isn’t stupid. I imagine it is a useful rule to be known and followed for the serious homebrewer trying to make a name for themselves. My application of the rule was 100% unnecessary.

It is like the photography equivalent of seeing a blog post outlining how to do some flavor of the month technique, such as steel wool spinning. Trying the techniques once before calling myself a creative artist for copying the steps in the tutorial. Then submitting everything I shot on that first wool spinning outing for a Guggenheim Fellowship application.

Stupid Rules In Photography

In my fifteen years of interacting with photographers on the Internet, I’ve come across a boatload of what I believe to be stupid photography rules that people follow for stupid reasons. But for the remainder of this post, I’m going to just address one that has stuck with me for the past few years.

This particular rule also came from the critique I did in January 2013 where the comment that inspired my post Dismissal Via Snapshot also took place.

The photos that I was showing at the critique were all captured on eight inch by ten-inch negatives. The prints that I put on the wall I had enlarged slightly to something like thirteen inches by fifteen inches in size.

At some point a man who was older than me asked the following question.

“Why would you enlarge these if you are using an 8x10 negative? Aren’t 4x5 negatives for enlarging and 8x10 negatives just for contact printing?”

I didn’t think that enlarging the photos so people could see them better at a distance was a thing to be concerned with, so this rule was new and confusing to me. I don’t recall what I said to him at the time, but thinking about it again recently I think at least understand where this notion could at least have come from.

I think what I was dealing with was a photographic version of the old “Cutting the ends off the ham.” story.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, the gist of it is that a young woman is taught by her mother to cut the ends off of a ham before putting it in the oven. When she questions why the ends of the ham need to be cut off, the mother doesn’t really know, but it was what her mother taught her. The woman then chases the reasoning back a few generation until finally, the great grandmother tells her it was because the oven of her time was too small to fit the full ham.

The thing with large format photography is that each step up in negative size vastly increases the size of the equipment needed to make an enlargement from the negative. With the size of the equipment scaling up, also increases the number of headaches to make a quality print.

Enlarging from a 4x5 negative is still within the realm of sanity in an analog/darkroom environment. The jump to enlarging 8x10 and larger negatives in a darkroom is where sanity starts to break down. This video of Clyde Butcher working in his dark room is a good depiction of the scale that gets involved.

But the thing is, that just laying that large negative directly onto a sheet of paper and printing it at the same size of the negative is a very simple procedure that requires almost no specialized equipment to make a print. I’ve personally done it with nothing more than a piece of glass from a picture frame, and the overhead lights already installed in the bathroom.

So it seems reasonable that for many decades, among amateur photographers who didn’t have space or money to build an Ansel Adam’s sized darkroom notion existed to just eschew the complications of enlarging from negatives larger than 8x10 inches by just not doing it. Leave the enlargements to the smaller negatives which can be handled easier.

Digital scanners then came along. Although the general vibe on the photography forums in the early 2000s was that if you wanted to get an 8x10 negative scanned, you needed to do it with a drum scanner.

For any nonphotographers who have made it this far, drum scanners are expensive complicated beasts that are typically used in professional photo finishing shops as the price of a new unit could cost as much a new car.

In the early 21st century, as the digital revolution came along, enlarging an 8x10 negative required a large darkroom, a stupid expensive scanner, or paying someone a lot of money to enlarge your negative in their own stupid large darkroom or on their own stupid expensive scanner.

I can sort of see why the older generation would get the notion that making enlargements from large negatives wasn’t something to be done.

But all that seemed to really come crashing down in 2006 when the Epson v700 hit the market. While a handful of affordable scanners were on the market by then that could do 8x10 negatives, I don’t think any had nearly the commercial success that the v700 did.

My Epson v700 with an 8x10 Negative
My Epson v700 with an 8x10 negative and a bunch of other junk

I used the money from the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 to buy mine in 2008 for roughly $450. It wouldn’t even be until 2011 that I started shooting 8x10 negatives to even use it for scanning those. But the thing is, my entire life experience with 8x10 film has happened in the age where the oven is large enough to fit the entire ham in it. So this notion that 8x10 format negatives would only be used for making contact prints of the same size was a non-existent concept.

It is interesting how technology can change the game that old rules are still trying to be applied to. Large Format Photography is the oldest form of photography. Even though digital cameras have overtaken the world, the same technological advances have also made large format photography the easiest it has ever been to work with.

In 2016 I can now make very large prints from 8x10 negatives in my own home. No special room is needed. No chemicals to prepare or clean up after. Just a scanner and a printer that takes up no more room than a digital piano and a microwave.

I can even drink the mead I made while making prints without fear of accidently grabbing some photo chemicals to drink instead because the room is so dark.

Truly a golden age.