Topic: Printing theory (3 posts)


This one's going out to those of you that print your own photographs. There may be information in here that might help you if you send your files out to be printed by someone else, but principally this post will be for photographers that make their own inkjet prints.

It seems few make their own prints anymore, that printing has been relegated to a non-creative process, to a "technician" to translate the original files into a two dimensional representation on a piece of paper. But if you're an artist doesn't this seem a little bit skewed? It does to me.

As a career teacher I get that people struggle a great deal with making good prints. It can be very challenging. In darkroom days it often took students a whole semester to learn how to make a good print. But it doesn't have to be such agony. Let's start with the tools you are working with.

A reasonably capable computer is good, one that can handle your multiple files and that either has enough internal storage or enough external storage in RAIDS or  hard drives not to get bogged down. I am an advocate of keeping up to date, within reason, on Operating Systems and updated firmware as to fall behind means you might get locked out of some applications. Knowing Photoshop and your file management system, usually Lightroom these days, is also a prerequisite.Take a class if necessary to become skilled in these.

Your choice of printer probably means less than you think. Of course, maximum print size is the primary issue. How big do you need to print? Several of my  friends don't print large, usually.  For that special situation when they need something larger, they go to a lab or a friend who has a big printer. For most that makes sense as big prints are a pain; hard to handle, difficult to look at unless tacked up or framed, expensive and difficult to store. Don't get me started as I make many large prints. On the other hand a 5 or 6 foot print can be simply breathtaking if the quality is high.Whatever printer you are using should not have clogged nozzles, not have a terminal disease, and be clean and not destroying the paper you run through it. It does not have to be the newest one out there as long as it is healthy. Finally, the paper you choose is a topic for a whole workshop, let alone a short blog but suffice it to say that almost any paper is capable of making an excellent print. Also, you do get what you pay for with papers. If demand is high for a breakdown of papers I can go into this in a new post. Let me know.

Your workflow needs to be fluid and known. Work out a logical system for your- self. It is important that you be somewhat systematic. Can you get back to the file at a later time? Is your filing system understandable and organized? I make RTP files that sit in the project's folder. RTP means Ready to Print and this means the files in that folder are color corrected, sized, sharpened, cleaned if necessary and  ready to be sent to the printer.

Monitors and calibration. The quality (and size) of your display is another  important part of the equipment you use to make prints. I used Eizo's for years but have two different ones that I use now. My primary monitor is a Sharp PN-K321 which is 32 inches and very good. When on the road I usually bring a  Apple Thunderbolt large display that I use with a Mac laptop computer. This is a  reasonably good display and a lot cheaper as well. There is a great deal written about calibration and I am a believer, particularly when setting up a new monitor. Flat panel displays drift far less than older monitors but still they do age. 

Also, be aware of the light in the room where you work. It  shouldn't be too light or too dark. Also be careful to provide a viewing light to evaluate your prints. This should be close to daylight, not too warm(yellow) or too cold (blue).

Finally, to one of my main points: Closed Loop System(CLS). What's this?

A CLS of your own is self contained and holds few variables. CLS is your system taken as a whole, familiar and predictable, because you don't impose something new to it, at least not very often. Take your RTP file to someone else to print and you are now in an Open Loop System (OLS), meaning you are interjecting unknowns into your final results. CLS uses components that are yours, that you've debugged, calibrated and worked with over time. This makes problem solving easier and often results in superior prints. However, CLS means you are responsible for it all, including stocking the inks and papers needed. I went into this a little in my blog on Bob Korn Imaging (here). Part of Bob's expertise is his knowing how to get a great print from your file. Send your file off to someplace you don't know and can't speak with and who knows what will happen to your photograph. Clearly I am not a big fan of distant large printing companies with anonymous operators.  Buy local here if you don't make your own. 

ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles. Important? Yes. Don't know what these are? These are used to key your printer to the  kind of paper you are using. This isn't hard. Do the research and use them as they will affect your prints.

What else? Be patient. Great printing takes time to learn. Define your work as if you were a student, learning from your mistakes. You need to teach your eye/brain combination just what a really good print looks like. Look at lots of prints, judge them critically. Common mistakes: weird and overworked files that are oversaturated for impact and over sharpened because people think more is better. Take a class, a weekend workshop or a day long immersion into printing. But make sure the person teaching it knows what they are doing. Don't follow a false prophet. Be prepared to blow some materials in your pursuit for perfection. Do good printers make the best print the first time?  Hardly. For me, I am always trying to do that, for my first print to be magnificent. But it seldom happens. Same was true in the darkroom. No differents now that I make my prints with a computer and an inkjet printer. 

Look, good printing is a skill. It takes real ability to make a good print from such a wide array of hardware and software, a massive amount and yes's or no's or on's or off's in this digital world that it is a wonder we can get the results we do. So, it is a science. But it also is an art, needing great sympathy and empathy for the original intent to come to fruition, a sensitive person that interprets and uses the tools that are available to mold, meld and make a print that is evocative and expressive. Who knows that better than the person clicking the shutter in the first place? Committed to your work? Then show that commitment by getting serious about your prints. Even if you don't make prints yourself, knowing printing informs you as to what is needed from the person you choose to make your prints. 

Making beautiful prints of your imagery? Lost art? Doesn't have to be. 

Topics: Printing theory,Printing,Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 15, 2017

Printing Theory 2

In the last post I discussed the concept of great printing with poor ideas or no ideas at all (Printing Theory 1). As soon as that post went out, a friend shot me back an email saying that her problem isn't printing of bad photographs but in deciding what is worth printing. She further added that very often she ends up not printing anything. 

Of course, this really got me going.

Let me tell you why. Sorry if this comes across as teaching but it is what I am. By not following through you are denying yourself the full loop of experience you set out to create in the first place. If you've been reading my posts for awhile now this will be familiar but work in equates to work out, or effort in equals results out. One of the given tenents to being an artist is that we are on a trajectory to make the best work we can but then make better work in the future. If you believe that and are an artist photographer I believe you need to see the image produced as a print. Because that is the end game of what we do, the final form of our image, the full realization of its potential as a work of art, beautifully crafted and carefully realized. These days much of our seeing of our work and our editing is on screen. But for me this is a pass through vehicle, a way to see the image but not in its final format. I cannot know the image completely until it is down on a piece of paper as a print. My motto is, "when in doubt, print it".

Then what happens? Well, you have your image as a print, hopefully as well crafted as you can possibly make it. This then becomes something that can be stacked together with other prints to form a portfolio. I believe I've said here before that I don't hold much to single pictures. I like to sequence my work and, for me, the challenge is to put my images together somehow with others to form a larger story or execute a concept.  You also have created something that has a finality to it. Of course, you can make another print, alter its shape or size, tonality contrast, saturation, sharpness in an infinite number of ways, but that print you've just made is the end result of your effort and you have brought your concept to some sort of  fruition. I like that. The ending being the print, the finality of the print says it stops here. The very nature of being frozen helps conclude it and present it in all its glory, hopefully. But the print you've just made allows you to go onto the next and then the next. Your files sitting there on your hard drive, in the library of Aperture, Lightroom or Adobe Bridge? Not so much. 

So, my advice, for what it's worth, is to print your pictures. This is really a "follow through" lecture. I know, it is wasteful of resources so why make prints of pictures that aren't at their best? Because you need to be invested in making them be their best. To close them out, to take the chance that you'll discover something, or that someone you show the prints to will see something in them that you did not, or that they will grow on you after several weeks pinned to your cork board, or stuck to the fridge or leaning on your mantel. Finally, the print you've just made lets you leave the image behind so you can go on to the next one. Sound systematic? Well, that 's because it is. It would seem to make sense to develop a way of working that produces tangible results, wouldn't it?

In addition, printing is a big time craft. Printing well is a real skill, it doesn't matter if it is wet and darkroom-based or made with inks and a printer. Learning to print, really well, will make you proud, impress your photo friends to no end, and allow you to have a sense of accomplishment. Try this on: with good printing, the work you make now will hold its own when compared to the work you make five years or ten years from now. Want to play in the big leagues? Learn how to print well. Nothing eliminates you faster than presenting your work with less than first rate print quality.

Another scenario: the portfolio reviewer sitting at the table looking at work at one of the premier reviews: Houston, Paris, Portland, Oregon, etc, is seeing work from all over the world at 20 minute intervals for three straight days. She is looking at portfolios from people aspiring to have exhibitions or have their work published. This is the big leagues of art photography these days, love it or hate it. If she is qualified, do you think she will pay attention or remember work that isn't printed at the highest of possible quality? Point made.

Topics: Printing theory,Commentary

Permalink | Posted November 16, 2013

Printing Theory 1

See if you can follow this logic: the photographer has hiked for hours to the destination, has set up the camera on a tripod, has carefully adjusted it to frame the image the way he/she wants, has waited for the light to be right, for the clouds to be in the best position, the water in the foreground to be still, metered the subject carefully, cocked the shutter on the view camera, pulled the slide on the film holder and, finally, clicked the shutter to take the picture.

When back home the photographer develops the sheets of film shot on the trip carefully, "pushing" or "pulling the processing to expand or diminish contrast, makes contacts of all the frames shot, and begins to make prints, working diligently to vary contrast and exposure to produce as many tones in the black and white print as possible. At the end of a long darkroom day he/she has a print or two that is luminous, contains a full range of tonalities from black on up to white, has a  luscious silvery look to it in the reflection in the water and is very sharp. The photographer ends this day with a real sense of accomplishment and can't wait to show it to his/her gallery, colleagues, significant other, students, etc.

The image on this very beautiful print is banal, derivitive, mundane, boring, and totally without significance. 

To continue: this photographer is educated, sophisticated, knowledgeable and has had shows and been published. He/she is also superior, condescending, narcisistic, overbearing and conceited.

Simply stated: high craft, refined and skillful printing of unredeemingly banal subjects do not a good photograph make. Ansel Adams? He did all the above steps througout his whole career and made exquisite prints of subjects that have great drama and impact. They didn't call him the "Wagner of photography" for nothing.

Wynn Bullock? Another exquisite craftsman who imbued real mystery and intrigue into his work:

Attributing great significance to a banal subject by using large format and superior craftsmanship has its place (see Lewis Baltz's " New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, CA, for instance), but in most contexts simply results in a good print of a bad image. 

Lest you think I am only pointing my finger at others here, I am certainly guilty of making wonderful prints from bad pictures. In fact, it seems I do it all the time. 

Next up? Stay tuned for Printing Theory 2 where I will write about works by Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank, small format masters of "anti-fine art" printing. Pure genius.

Topics: Printing theory,Commentary

Permalink | Posted November 9, 2013