Printing Re-Imagined

Recent improvements in printing technology should have you reconsidering how you print your photographs.

If you’re printing with a lab, you’ve probably been making C-prints. C-prints are made on Kodak or Fuji paper C-print is the name given to the chemical process used in the paper, an abbreviation of longer name “chromogenic print”. Sometimes they are referred to by their surface, such as E-surface, or Luster, but that is not always a precise identifier. 

What defines a C-print is that it’s made on a light sensitive paper which exposes a negative image with light (LED or laser light for digital prints,) then is processed in RA-4 chemicals. 

C-print papers came from the pre-digital age, and were designed to make prints from color negatives easy and affordable for mass production of color photography. Your family photo albums are likely stuffed with C-prints.

When the first “digital enlargers” came on the scene around 1997, they most commonly used these same C-print papers, which offered great ease of use, quality, and price. Printing on a “negative” paper was no problem for a digital device that could easily convert a digital file into the data needed by the printer. 

I saw my first LightJet digital C-prints around 1996/7 when I was working at The Ansel Adams Gallery. They were nothing short of amazing.  At that time I was trying to perfect my own photographic skills, looking to find the best methods for color printing, so I was constantly studying prints. I was very fortunate that my position as Assistant Curator brought me in contact with some of the world’s best prints daily.  

What those first digital C-prints represented was a paradigm shift. Finally there was a way to turn digital files into a true fine art quality print that was as good as they very best darkroom prints I had seen. This was a huge accomplishment and changed the way we print forever. 

To say the prints were a hit is an understatement. The process was championed early on by several of the gallery’s photographers including Charlie Cramer and William Neill, and all of the Yosemite photo community quickly jumped on board. As a curator, I was able to sell more work than ever from our artists because of the ease of producing duplicate prints in quantity that exactly matched the previous batches, and at any size. Suddenly it was relatively easy to gat a 30×40 print made once a file had been perfected.  I had an incredible run with one photograph in particular by Charlie Cramer, selling somewhere near 100 copies. (I have a copy of that print on my desk that still looks as good as it did when I first saw it. )

Digital C-prints quickly became the dominant form of color printing in museums, galleries, and were also embraced by advanced amateurs and  hobbyists. 

While the technology was readily available, the knowledge to use it to make true fine art quality prints was still quite difficult. To help solve that, I started my first print studio, West Coast Imaging, with a focus on making gallery quality prints using my knowledge to great digital prints that didn’t feel “digital” but retained the inherent qualities of fine art photography.  

 In my time running WCI, I printed the first digital exhibitions for Galen Rowell, Jack Dykinga, Robert Glenn Ketchum, and many others, and used hundreds of thousands feet of Fuji C-print material. So it would be fair to say I know C-prints very well. I’ve been committed to it over the years for my personal as well as my professional work. And alongside it, I’ve used about every generation of Epson inkjet printer since about 1999/2000, as well as several Canon Pro printers. 

For a long time, C-prints were better than inkjet prints when printing on similar surface papers.

But recently that has changed. 

When I started testing my Canon PRO-4000 printer, I noticed something was different, and better. Much better. 

As I compared my calibrated test sheets from the Canon PRO-4000 to my reference digital C-print, something about the Canon print made the C-print look dead and lifeless. Perhaps it’s better explained that the Canon print had a depth, a brilliance, a dimensionality that I could never recall seeing before. 

I was taken off guard because I didn’t recall seeing this big a difference a few years earlier comparing the previous generation Canon or Epson inks to C-prints. So I dug in to my archive of calibrated test prints to try and confirm what I was seeing. What I saw surprised me. 

The wider color gamut and darker blacks (D-Max) of the new Canon printer really did make a difference. The new Canon prints bested every print I had made before. And not only were they “better”, they were magical. I realized I was seeing things in the prints I never thought would be possible. It was the same “ah-ha” moment I had when I saw my first  digital C-print at the Ansel Adams Gallery a few years later. These new print set a high water mark, one that allows photographers to express themselves in ways not possible before.

It became clear that this was the process I wanted to use to print my personal photographs, as well as the work of my clients. While C-prints are still a legitimate medium for fine art, the qualities of these new prints are too exciting to overlook. With this new process, I’m making the best prints of my career, and expressing qualities I never thought were possible in a print. It’s taken a long time to reach this level of quality, but now that we have, I’m excited to switch from C-prints to inkjet and explore all the new possibilities!

Settings That Work

Printed a lovely 24×36 for a client today. I’ve printed the photo before, but not to this large size, so I looked up the settings to build my mental reference library of what settings produce what result. I though it would be valuable to share a real world example of what I think worked to make a gallery quality wildlife photography print.

Camera was a Nikon D850 with a 80-200 lens used at 150mm. Exposure was at f/5 at ISO 640. The results are what I’d expect from a medium format camera using 100 ISO film. Print was made from a ~223 ppi file at the output size. It’s a perfect example of how large prints still look fantastic below 300 dpi. I was also surprised with how much the lens resolved with the high resolution sensor of the D850. It’s exciting to see how the D850 is helping photographers raise the bar on wildlife photography.

I can’t say enough how striking it was, and the effect it had on me. Most important to the photo was the subject, the light, and the moment captured, but when you throw in a high res capture, the effect is a stunning piece.

Buying A Printer

Buying a printer can be a big decision and a significant investment. I’m posting these quick thoughts from an email with a client today to start your brain thinking about some of the decision points, and I hope to expand this into a full article in the future.

To buy a printer or not is a big question. It comes down to a couple things:

1. will it make you money?

2. will it really save you money?

3. Is the cost inconsequential compared to the convenience? 

4. Will it give you control you can’t get with a lab?

5. Do you need the faster turnaround times. 

A printer is like getting a dog, it has needs (ink, paper, maintenance, profile making/testing) that cost money and will always be there, and you need to take care of it. Unless you print a lot, the total cost of ownership is going to be close to just sending out, but if you want to print a lot, it makes those individual prints less expensive.

At the $400 price point, a printer can be more easily justified. Once you get to the $1,000 17×22 printers, you have to be printing enough to make it work out.

Printers should be viewed as consumable/disposable items, as painful as that sounds. They are made to work for a couple years, not forever, and the manufacturers expect you to upgrade. Do not look at it as a long term investment. It’s not like buying a car, it’s like buying tires, you expect them to wear out. 

Thoughts or experiences? Share them in the comments!

Inkjet Printing Through Photoshop – Macintosh

Using printer profiles correctly when printing is essential to getting accurate color from your printer. The challenge is that you have a bunch of settings that have to be set up exactly right, every time, for it to work. That is further complicated because every editing software, OS, and printer driver has it’s own settings and names for those settings.

You’d think that there should be some good information out there on how do do all this, but even the paper manufacturers don’t have good guides. One of my favorite companies has German language screenshots in their English language document, and they note that their instructions don’t work for every setup. Uggg!!!! It makes you want to pull your hair out.

I’m going to make my attempt to solve this problem by sharing the settings I use with Photoshop on the Mac. These settings have been tested and verified to print my Color Test Sheets correctly.

The settings for Lightroom on the Mac are quite similar to these, so you should be able to translate them over. Understanding what each setting does may also help you translate this for other editing programs and setups. As time allows, I plan to make more of these, but the easiest place to start was with the software I print through.

download the PDF here:
Inkjet Printing Through Photoshop – Macintosh.pdf

Ansel Adams Books

Few people have had such a sweeping impact on an art as Ansel Adams continues to have on photography. He helped make photography acceptable as a fine art, and even today, he is the best selling photographer at the annual art auction. But one of the things that makes Ansel most unique is his lifelong effort to teach photography and improve the understanding of the medium. His Zone System has helped countless photographers gain control over exposure, development, and printing, and still has relevancy in the digital age.

I think there is much to be learned by reading Ansel’s books and studying his methods. I’ve been a student of Ansel since I first discovered him as a eager, but inexperienced seventeen year old. In Ansel’s books, I found answers I couldn’t find in the dozens and dozens of other books I had read. In my early years, I devoured Ansel’s books as I attempted to improve my craft, and started a journey that lead me to a stint working at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, and the chance to meet many of the people who worked with him and whom he influenced.

His way of approaching the making of a photograph has had a profound effect on me, and I still find directly applicable to digital cameras today. So I’ve compiled a list of his books that I think will help give insight into the photographic process. While Ansel’s books are primarily about black & white (please don’t call it monochrome), the though process of making a print is equally applicable to color.


Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs
Detailed notes on the controls Ansel applied at printing to create the final piece. How he selectively lightened and darkened, controlled contrast, and more. As interesting as the technical part is, the insight into is though process, how he “saw” and pre-visualised the results is arguably of even greater valuable.

The Print
Book three of Ansel’s three part instructional series on the Zone System, The Print focuses on everything related to the printing process. The insight in to how to approach the challenges of adjusting contrast and image density both global and locally through dodging & burning is as applicable to digital processing as it is to darkroom work.

The Negative
Valuable insight into the Zone System which describes the series of shades in a photograph from black to white as Zones that can be pre-visualised to better control exposure.

The Camera
Fundamentals of how to “see” with different focal length lenses. How wide angle and telephoto lenses change the perspective on a subject, and so much more fundamental information on how cameras and lenses work.

Yosemite and the Range of Light
Ansel’s Magnum Opus, reflecting his life long relationship with Yosemite and the High Sierra. One of my favorite coffee table books, and still an inspiration.

Glossary of Photo Terms

What does specular highlight mean? Or how about local contrast, d-max, pixel value, or paper white? Do you just nod along when people use these terms? Be honest now!

Photography is full of terms that are completely foreign outside of the medium, but are a necessary part of talking about it. I’ve compiled a brief glossary of terms that I use frequently and I thought could use a little definition.

Some of these are technical, and others are terms in common use among professional photographers and photo printmakers, but all of them bring necessary insight and understanding to the medium. 

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and is mostly meant to define things that will help understand my articles and workshops. Most of these words and concepts are worthy of in-depth study; a more complete understanding of the what, when, why, and how will grow your skill and abilities. So treat this as a study guide as there will be a test every time you click the shutter, move a slider, or make a print!

Want to add a word? Or have something explained? Ask in the comments and let’s discuss! 

Color Correction

Still Photos – The process of correcting color and density with the objective of correcting errors in camera exposure and color balance

Contrast

Used to describe the difference in tonal values in a photograph, both global and locally. Large differences are described as high contrast, small differences are described as low contrast.  High contrast may also be used to describe a photograph where less than the full range of tones is used.

Contrast – Global

What we normally think of when we hear the word contrast. This is the  overall contrast of the photograph based on the the difference and amount of the brightest areas of a photograph. It can also be defined by the speed at which tones transition from black to white. 

Contrast – Local

Contrast within a specific area of the photograph as opposed to the overall contrast of a photograph.

Cropping

Still Photos – Making a photo fit a specific aspect ratio. May be done for practical purposes to fit a frame or print size. Also done to improve the aesthetics of a photograph by removing unwanted content and or changing the center point of the photograph.

D-Max

The highest density black a material can achieve, i.e. density maximum. Every paper and ink combinations or analog paper produces a different d-max. Higher D-max can be desirable because it creates more dynamic range, and a greater illusion of three dimensionality. Papers with some degree of gloss typically create the highest d-maxes. Matte papers, or artist papers generally have a lower d-max, or softer appearing blacks that produced reduced contrast. 

D-Min

The lightest value a paper can produce. See also paper white.

Interpretation

A set of adjustment to a photograph that produce a specific appearance. The goal of interpretation is to bring forth on paper the image or expression pre-visualised in the photographer’s mind at the moment of exposure.

Pixel Value

The numeric value of a pixel that defines it’s color and or density. Pixel values can be measured with the info tool in Photoshop to previsualize their final appearance on a print. 

Pre-visualization

Seeing what you want the print (or final outcome) to look like before you click the shutter. Pre-visualization guides choices in camera to produce the desired print including exposure, depth of field, motion, etc. Requires learning to see the way the camera and print see. 

Editing

Still photos: A sorting process to find the best photos from a group. 

Paper white

The color and brightness of a paper determine paper white. This in turn affects the color tone of the image. Papers typically fall into warm or cool paper whites. I generally prefer warmer paper bases for black and white photographs as they more closely replicate prints made in the darkroom. 

Specular Highlight

Small areas of extreme brightness caused by reflection of smooth, shiny, or reflective surfaces. Examples include metal, water, polished or glossy surfaces. Specular highlights contain no detail and are typically printed as paper white or the whitest white of the output medium. 

Lighting for Screen to Print Match

Lighting is a critical component of achieving a screen to print match. Most importantly, the color of the light needs to be the about the same temperature as your monitor, and it needs to be full spectrum to reveal all the eyes the color can see.  Prepress professionals rely on $1,000+ industry standard D50 viewing booths to compare prints, press sheets, and product samples in consistent and quality light. But there is actually a better option that can fit the budget of any photographer. 

SoLux makes a 4700k full spectrum tungsten halogen bulb that fits in standard track lighting and costs about $15 a bulb. I’ve used these for years at my studio, and they have proven their accuracy again and again when compared to NEC color reference monitors. In fact, I’ve trained myself to not really trust the color unless it’s under a SoLux bulb. 

How does it work? Well, first of all, the 4700K white point is close enough to the 5000k or 6500k most color reference monitors are calibrated to. I’ve used SoLux with both calibrations and can attest that it works equally well with both. 

Of equal importance is it’s accuracy. To see all the colors in a print, you need a full spectrum lamp. If you’ve ever seen ugly office fluorescent lighting, part of the cause was the gaps in the spectrum that didn’t cover the full range of light our eye is sensitive to. This is often measured as CRI or color rendition index. Cheap fluorescent are often a CRI of about 70, although there are higher quality bulbs. Sunlight is a perfect 100. SoLux achieves a CRI of 98, which very good for a $15 bulb, and I know of no better light source in common use.

So what is the difference between SoLux and those thousand dollar viewing booths I mentioned earlier? The viewing booths use special multi phosphor fluorescent tubes to better cover the full visible spectrum, but there are still peaks and irregularities that can limit their accuracy. They are very good, but the SoLux is better in my experience because it’s tungsten halogen bulb emits light smoothly over the entire visible spectrum. And it does it for a lot less money. 

What about LED? Don’t even get me started. LEDs suck for viewing art and they have even damaged prices originals by Van Gogh. They suffer the same issues with spectrum that fluorescent lights do, in addition to putting out more UV light which accelerates fading. LED has it’s place, but not for viewing art in my opinion, and it hasn’t replaced the accuracy of tungsten filament technology. 

While SoLux 4700k lights are my choice for viewing color accuracy, they are not my choice for display lighting. For print display in a home, gallery, or business setting, I recommend standard tungsten halogen bulbs which will average about 2800k to 3200k, give or take. This “warm white” is still full spectrum but I find makes for much more pleasant room lighting. 

SoLux can be purchased from Amazon and other sources and is available in a variety of wattages, spot and flood, as well as different color temperatures. I’ve added a list below to make  purchasing easy. 

Manufacturer website:
http://solux.net/cgi-bin/tlistore/infopages/index.html

50 Watt 4700k
36 Degree Flood
36 Degree Black Back
24 Degree Narrow Flood
17 Degree Spot
17 Degree Black Back
10 Degree Narrow Spot Black Back

35 Watt 4700k
36 Degree Flood
36 Degree Black Back
24 Degree

Color Test Sheets

Testing profiles and printers is an important part of ensuring your printer is “in tune” and maintaining a color managed workflow. To make sure my profiles are in tune, I use a reference print that I created that allows me to visually compare color that I find to be the best way to evaluate. This is the process behind the hundreds of thousands of prints I’ve made for customers.

Below are links for 8×10 sections of my reference print that you can print on your own printer and compare them to my validated reference prints. I bring my reference prints to select workshop, and I also sell them so that you can have a copy for reference.

Purchase a copy of my approved and validated color test sheet.

Download files for testing:

Color 1
Color 2
Color 3
B&W 1
B&W 2

I suggest you print these files using your normal workflow as a test of your process. I have found that in addition to color, they can uncover other problems in the printing process that you may not even be aware of.

The files are sized to print at 8×10, and should be printed to that exact size to make the most accurate and useful test. 

You SHOULD NOT do any processing on them. That defeats the purpose of trying to see how the same file prints on different printer/profile/paper combinations. The file is our control to test the variables of printer setups.

How to use these test files in conjunction with my approved test prints:

Make a print on the paper you want to test using your normal printing procedures and profile. 

Write the paper name, date, printing profile, and any other useful settings and data that will help you identify how when and where your test print was made. This will make it more valuable in the future when you want to compare new printers, papers, and profiles to it. 

Use the right light to compare prints. I prefer to use SoLux 4700k bulbs, or if not available, actual daylight. Check out my blog post on SoLux for an explanation of why I use it. 

Compare your print to my print. I like to stack the prints on top of each other so that I can view the colors right next to each other. Compare each image as a whole and then look at specific colors. Look at dmax (black density) and also be sure to consider white points. Warmer paper bases will make the image look warmer overall than color papers, and this warmth or coolness can not be added or subtracted in an imaging editing program as it is inherent to each paper. 

If you are happy with the match, then “approve” your print by signing it and writing “approved” on it.  This is now your known reference to use for your printer, and can be used in the future to test your printer against itself. Keep it in a safe place with the other reference prints you will be making.  Why would you test your printer? If you are getting different results, if something significant changes, like settings, head replacement, three year olds, moving the printer, etc. It also becomes a record of what your printer was producing at a given point in time, and allows you to compare it to other printers, profiles, and papers. 

MAKE YOUR OWN REFERENCE PRINT! Once you have a known and approved printing setup that has been validated with my reference print, pick some of your favorite images and make your own reference print so that you can have your own personal reference that you know is printing right because you validated your process with my reference print.  Choosing a range of colors and densities will help, and you’ll learn over time which colors are most sensitive to changing with different ink sets and paper white points. 

If my reference print was helpful to you, take a picture of your print overlapping mine and share it on social media with a few words on how it helped, and tag me in it so I can re-share it too.

Sharpening and USM

A quick post on sharpening drawn from advice I gave a print client today. Sharpening is one of the the places I see photographers have the least confidence in.  

The challenge is every image is different and requires different settings. Getting the “correct” settings requires developing an understanding of what you see on screen and what that produces on print. It’s possible to make something that looks too sharp on screen, but looks perfect on the print  because a typical screen displays the image at about 93 pixels per inch, but the print can be of much higher resolution, so what you see on screen is in essence “magnified”. 

A couple quick tips:

  1. Always view the image at 100% magnification, or actual pixels. This will make sure that one pixel in your image equals one pixel in your screen. When you view your file at some other magnification, what you see on screen is some average of the pixels and can disguise the effects. 


2. Don’t use a 4x or 5k monitor like those found on newer iMacs. You need a monitor with a pixel resolution of ~72-110 pixels per inch, or a pixel pitch of around .23-.27mm.  In contrast a 4K 24” display has a pixel pitch of ~0.13725mm and resolution of ~180 pixels per inch, which makes the pixels too small to evaluate sharpening easily. 

3. Smart Sharpen is not a magic fix. There are many flavors of sharpening. Sharpening is an ingredient, and how, and where you apply it is all preference.

Looking forward to turing this into a expanded tutorial at some point. Until then, experiment!