Printing is a Process

I’ve been working on client work the last two weeks, along with a presentation and a workshop, so posting has slowed, but I wanted to share some thoughts briefly from my morning printing session today.

Making museum prints is truly a process. Yesterday I fought a difficult client file for an hour trying to find what direction it would go in. The nature of the scene was such that I had to work with it, and I could only exert so much of my will upon it before I departed from the classic photographic look I want to give this client. I tried about three different approaches, and suffered through 2GB photoshop files saving, multiple variations on RAW settings, masks and more. By the end of the session I was mentally tapped, and it’s important to realize that expressing yourself through a print is often a mentally taxing process. I left the process frustrated that I had not achieved what I somewhere deep inside knew was possible. But I was tapped and had nothing else to give it. So I sent a jpeg to the client and closed up shop for the day.

The client gave me a thumbs up last night, but this morning I wanted to revisit the file to make sure that in the rough sketch approach I often use on first attempts at a print, I could actually refine my masks into a final print. Starting with fresh eyes, some good music playing, and a handful of chocolate covered coffee beans, I started looking at the file, and in the moment of clarity a nights sleep created, it became obvious what was missing. Well, actually it was the thought that “wow, those snow fields really look gray…man that is going to look ugly. What if I just made the snow brighter but left the rest of the image the same?” A quick color range mask isolated the snowfields, a curve brightened them, and like magic the whole print came alive in a way I could achieve the day before. That dissatisfaction from the day before vanished instantly, and the print became something that achieved both my personal expectations, and what I wanted to deliver for the client.

That kind of process is pretty typical when working. Making a beautiful print doesn’t always happen all at once. It’s a process, with many layers. Each time you peel one layer, more becomes apparent. Its a series of refinements, frustrations, insights, successes, disappointments, and sometimes victory. It often takes time, a fresh perspective. Brute force only takes so much. I’m reminded of the quote “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s a process, and only by continuing to chip away at it do you ever get to a resolution.

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.

Sony A7RII Miscellaneous Information

I made the switch to mirrorless in late 2018 with the Sony A7RII. Sony had given me a loner camera a year earlier that let me know that the quality was at least equal to my previous Nikon D810. I had also spent over a year with an a5000 as a every day carry camera that has gone everywhere with me, and made me very comfortable with the Sony image quality. The ability to put together a very light 42mp camera kit with high quality lenses for hiking and backpacking is what tipped me over to Sony.

I am really happy with my choice, which came down to image quality first, high quality light-weight lenses, and overall compact form.

This page is not meant to be a complete review, but a place to hold important reference information and some miscellaneous info for A7RII users or perspective users.

Manuals
In true quirky Sony fashion, the most detailed “manual” is not the manual but a separate document called the “Help Guide” which is available as a website or a downloadable PDF.

E-Mount Lenses
Spreadsheet of select E-mount lenses assembled to find lightest weight options. Really good lenses tend to be heavy, but for backpacking some quality sacrifices are acceptable. The question is, do I carry three average lenses that are light, or just one decent zoom? Sigma has teased Art quality lenses in a lighter form factor which would be my preference. My landscape work is mostly at f/11 anyway, and a f/4 or f/5.6 might be a good fit for street photography too.

Wikipedia article on E-Mount lenses – list of lenses, adapters, other interesting stuff.

Annoyances
-No intervalometer
-Batteries not keyed to prevent wrong way insertion
-Lens release on opposite side of Nikon/Canon
-Lens index mark location on flat instead of outside of lens mount
-Direction of lens rotation opposite of Nikon
(This lens stuff really annoys me as a 30+ year Nikon user. It’s hard to overcome that muscle memory, but even then, the Sony way just seems awkward. Fair or not, it’s my gripe)
-Large RAW file size – Nikon uncompressed NEF are much smaller. Takes up more memory card space, longer transfers, etc
-9 frame RAW buffer – older body with a lower costs comes with trade offs – works for landscape photography, but is still noticeable when doing brackets
– small grip size, feature and bug, works great for my normal landscape/fine art stuff, but shooting a multi hour event with heavy glass really begs for the extended size battery grip.

Updated 4/5/2019

Visualization

Celestial Cascade, Tuolumne River, Yosemite, California
Nikon D810 with Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4
1/45 sec, f/10, ISO 64

Photographs aren’t just about what we see, but about what we feel, what we believe. 

Visualization is one of my most important tools in that lofty goal when I’m trying to “see” and make a photograph.  Put simply, before I even take out the camera, I see in my mind’s eye what I want the final image to look like, and I use that visualization to direct all the creative choices in exposing and processing the photo. 

This may seem unimportant when a digital camera can give us a instant preview after we click the shutter, but visualization goes beyond that. That little camera LCD screen can’t show us all the possible processing choices we might make, nor can it match the range and depth of a final print. The visualization a skilled photographer makes goes way beyond what the camera can display. 

I find this to be particularly true in black and white, and by learning to visualize better, it opens our eyes to new possibilities. It can enable us to “see” better, both what is in front of the camera, and what is in the mind of the photographer. 

Take for example the photograph above, Celestial Cascade, Tuolumne River, Yosemite, California.   

Since this photograph is in black and white, what you see above is not what my eye saw. To the naked eye, it looked like this:

As part of a short hike with my family, we stopped to enjoy a favorite section of river and the coolness of this mountain stream. As my kids played with the rocks and waded, I had a few moments of quiet. The time of day didn’t seem conductive to making photographs, with high sun and contrasty light. But as I watched the water and contemplated the beauty of the scene, I found myself enjoying the patterns made as the water surged under the bridge and built into a wave, with the patterns of white foam it produced, and the play of sunlight reflecting as a million stars on the ever changing surface. The patterns reminded me of my friend David Ashcraft’s photograph “Universe Expanding”, and I knew if I just looked more deeply, I could express what I was seeing and feeling. I wanted to turn this little patch of the Tuolumne river into a proxy for the the infinite sea of stars in the night sky, and into the deeper realities of that infinite nature for which words are hard for me to find. 

At this point, my camera is still in the bag, but my mind is fully awake. The color was not interesting to me, so I decided that this should be in black and white. Once I switched that switch in my mind, things started to become clearer. I wanted the photograph to focus on the water and the patterns of sunlight and motion. Contrast would let me do that, and then all of a sudden, I saw in my mind exactly what I wanted the print to look like. It was at that moment that I went for the camera bag, and worked through the settings that I thought would give me what I saw in my minds eye. I was without a tripod and trying to work more freely, so I had to work within the shutter speeds that would let me hand hold the camera. I wanted some blurring of the water, but the light was so bright that even at ISO 64 and f/10 I was still at 1/45 of a second, but that happened to work out well for what I wanted to show. 

The thing about visualization is that it makes processing easier to a degree because you already know the look you want before you even open the file. That visualization guides your steps and choices of tools. 

RAW processing was pretty minimal. I just brought down the exposure and the highlights a little to try and hold detail in the foamy water. 

The Photoshop adjustments are all global changes. First I used Channel Mixer to convert the image to black & white using the red channel, as I liked how it allowed some of the shapes of the underlying rocks to come through. 

Then I added a simple one point curve that darkened the image overall, but by the placement of the point, biased that darkening to the shadows and midtones. This is one of the reasons I really like curves. They give me the instantaneous ability to exercise very precise control over how and where changes to density and contrast is applied. Instead of the linear “more or less” of a slider, I can move the points in both the x and y dimensions, as well as decide how many points to use. Points create inflection points that change how the curve works up and down slope, and those inflections are where I find the control to achieve what I envision. 

The file shows I played with a second curve as I looked at some alternative tonal relationships, but rejected that for my original curve. 

I want to draw attention to how simple this was to process. A single frame camera exposure, two minor moves in RAW, a simple conversion to black and white, and one curve with one point. This is an exercise in working with the materials, and seeing “through” them to how they can work at their most fundamental level. I’m not opposed to greater complexity in processing, but the more you work “with” the process, the easier making a photograph can become and the more you free your vision. 

My final step for this photo was cropping. Cropping is a creative decision for me, and I usually play with crops on every photographI make in attempt to find the composition that best draws attention to the subject. The goal is to eliminate as much distracting information as possible. Also, I’m not fond of the 2:3 ration, and I prefer the more squarish 4:5, and as well as the 1:1 square. I often find the 2:3 just includes too much and makes it hard to create the tension I like in a composition. 

For this photograph I settled on a 1:1 square crop, which I mark using the cyan “guide” lines, which are saved in the file so I know how to crop the Master File when making targeted files for screen or printing. In many things, Photoshop provides multiple paths to the same solution. I’ve been using this for crops since before Photoshop added a way to preserve crops, so it’s what works for me. 

The end result is something I wanted to say, but for which I had no words. Through visualization and applying the craft of photography, I was able to give voice to that vision, and in this case, the result is an expression of something I felt, more than what I saw before the camera.

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!

One Day Printing Workshop – July 13

Hands on learning is of incredible value to improving your printmaking skills, so I’m excited that Watkins College of Art is having me teach a one day workshop on July 13th.

The format of this workshop is very simple. I’ll look at your photographs, suggest changes, and then you can work through those changes with my help and immediately make new prints for further evaluation in the excellent computer/print lab at Watkins.  

This rapid feedback loop allows leaps of knowledge and understanding to happen quickly. I’ve seen students make incredible strides in short periods of time with this process, and I know it can be of huge benefit.

This is not a step by step teaching class for an imaging editing program. It assumes you have some level of comfort and familiarity with an image editing program and with making prints. You don’t need to me a expert, that’s the whole point, but you need to know where the gas, brakes, and turn signals are, so to speak. 

You can bring your own computer with your imaging editing program, or use one of their macs with Photoshop or Lightroom. I don’t care what software you use, as the goal of achieving good contrast, density, and color are universal to all photographs. 

One requirement for this class is a ten print portfolio and corresponding edited and un-edited files. Don’t be intimidated by this…I’m not looking for anything fancy. Just ten 8×10 or 8.5×11 prints of photos that you think represent your work. The goal is that you’ve already printed them once, and that we can look at them immediately and jump in to learning. For students who register early enough, I’m going to try and evaluate these before the workshop so that we can get the most out of that one day. 

Registration for this class starts April 1 on the Watkins Community Education website.

The workshop runs from 10am to 4pm and the cost is $110.

If you have any questions about this workshop and if it is right for you, please email me at rich@richseiling.com

Last Across the Pass

Tioga Pass, Elevation 9945 feet, Yosemite National Park

Sometimes a few minutes is the difference between a 3 hour drive home or a 9-12 hour trek around an entire mountain range. This October night in 2016, I pushed it right to the edge. 

Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road, peaking at 9945 feet elevation, provides access to the stunning Eastern Sierra, but can close suddenly during storms. The Yosemite photographers call this gamble “East Side Roulette”, and it’s a game of “will the storm close the pass before I make it home.”

After an exceedingly windy day exploring aspens with my family, the approaching clouds said it was time to go. I swear I heard the drums from the Braveheart soundtrack driving me to hit the road. If we didn’t stop to eat, it would be three long hours before the next food services. My wife wanted to stop and eat at The Mobile Station, but I convinced her to just get our food to go, the urgency of the storm in my head. I munched down my pizza while driving up the steep drop-offs of Tioga Pass to quickly worsening conditions. 

As we reached the top of the pass, the snow was already starting to fall, as you can see in the zoomed in crop. I stopped to make one last picture as the light faded, as I knew some big life changes were coming soon, and I wanted to mark this personally meaningful day at one of my favorite places. 

Faint streaks of spitting snow that would become a giant winter.

We resumed the drive, and snow started to cover the road, with no lines and only one fading set of tire tracks to follow, and no car lights behind us. I know the road very well, but it was still dicey. The knowledge that we would drop below the snow soon pushed me forward, and I was watching each landmark to measure how far we were from that safe haven. At this point, it was better to continue than go back. And soon we were below the snow, on dark, wet, rainy winter Yosemite roads. On our drive across the pass, we saw no one in front of us or behind us, even after stopping for a few comfort breaks. A few cars passed going the opposite direction, but then all traffic died. We had the road to ourself. 

About an hour later, Flashing Ranger lights greeted us at the Crane Flat gate. We weren’t in trouble. It was just a Ranger closing the road. Eastbound traffic had been closed for some time as evidenced by the lack of cars passing us. And the west bound lane was only open for people to exit the Tioga Road. As my wife looked back, she saw the Ranger close the gate behind us. We were the last car across the pass. 

Sometimes a storm only closes “The Pass” for a few days, but this was not the case in 2016. Once it started snowing that night, it never stopped. The second biggest winter in recorded history was upon the Sierra, that led to over 700 inches of snow in some locations.

I knew something epic was in the making that night, and the experience of being last car across that night is pretty cool. It was certainly memorable, and yes, I heard those Scottish drums from Braveheart driving me on the whole way. 

2016-10-15 17:11:27.088, give or take an hour for DST

Nikon D810, Sigma Art 35mm f1.4, 1/30 sec f/4.0 ISO 800

Newsletter Signup Error Fixed

I just fixed my email newsletter signup widget. Seems one setting was incorrect and that stopped people from subscribing. Give it a try and see if it works so you can get my monthly newsletter. I work to keep each newsletter high signal and low noise so that you want to read it every time. It’s a great way to keep up to date on the blog and on my latest workshops and events. Thanks for subscribing!

Big Winter in Yosemite

Black Oak, Snow, Cooks Meadow, Yosemite Valley

If you ever want to experience Yosemite in snow, this is a good year to do it. Yosemite is having a “big winter”, and is currently pushing towards 150% of normal snow fall thanks to frequent, and heavy storms. In a normal year, snowfall starts to decline in March, but this weather pattern often keeps snowing into April, and later. I lived in Yosemite Valley during a similar pattern during the winter of 97-98 and it was so cold we had to burn wood, our only source of heat, from October through May. 

The key to photographing Yosemite in snow is to get in the valley BEFORE the storm hits. That’s because there is a peak moment as the storm is clearing, usually the morning after a storm, where the snow is heavy on the trees and beautiful. But as soon as the sun comes out, the snow starts to melt and get ugly. I’ve been told that Ansel Adams wouldn’t even stop for coffee on such mornings, and would be out the door as quick as he could. 

If snow is not your thing, that heavy snowpack is going to lead to some incredible flow in the waterfalls.  With this size snow pack, peak will probably be in May, and warm temperatures may even lead to some flooding, turning the meadows into giant reflecting pools. All spring, the valley will rumble with the thunder of Yosemite Falls. 

April will have good waterfall activity too, with the added bonus of the dogwood bloom.

Dogwood near Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley

Expect a later opening to the Tioga Pass road…it all depends on how aggressive the current superintendent is about plowing and how long it keeps snowing (avalanche conditions.) 

If you ever needed an excuse to visit Yosemite, this year’s snowfall and waterfalls should be it!

Links:

Yosemite Webcams
Sierra Snow Pack
Weather
Call 209-372-0200 for current road conditions in Yosemite

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