The Big Overview – The Key Reasons Why Your Tools Matter When Printing

Prints are produced by not one but many things – a system.  You can make better prints if you understand how each of the tools you use to make them influences quality. In addition, you’ll be able to identify and come up with solutions for problems you run into, now or in the future.

I’ve written whole articles on each one of these components (Follow this article with the individual ones you’d like more clarity on.), nevertheless, rather than having to piece all of that information together, I find it’s also useful to have a broad overview of how the whole system works.

Here’s a quick survey of why each element of a printing system matters.

 

Camera                        resolution – dynamic range – bit depth

Lens                              sharpness – low distortion – few artifacts

Editing Space             saturation

Bit Depth                     gradation

Software                      color – detail – composition

Monitor                        accurate preview – saturation – brightness of white

Printer                          ink – size

Ink                                 black – saturation – longevity

Paper                            whites – materials

Printer Profile           accurate color – graybalance

Light                              how well you can see

 

 

I’m currently testing the Fuji GFX 100

100 mp / 14 bit / ISO 12,800 expandable to 102,400

Camera

resolution – dynamic range – bit depth

A camera’s chip determines how much detail it can render with three primary characteristics – resolution (sharpness), dynamic range (shadows and highlights), and bit depth (gradation). More is better. It’s easier to throw away what you don’t need than create it.

Among several lenses, I favor the Fuji 32-64mm

Lens

sharpness – low distortion – few artifacts

Good lenses are sharper, better lenses maintain that sharpness edge to edge, while the best lenses also produce beautiful bokeh (depth of field blur). Good lenses are also free of distortion and artifacts like chromatic aberration. Fixing these things in post-production can sometimes be arduous and at a certain point impossible.

Prophoto is bigger than Adobe RGB and sRGB

I edit in ProPhoto RGB

Editing Space

saturation

Pro-Photo RGB can hold all of the saturation your camera can capture while other standard editing spaces cannot. If you use one of the smaller spaces (like Adobe RGB or sRGB) you may lose and not be able to produce that saturation.

Read more here.

I edit in 16-bit

Bit Depth

gradation

16 bit’s thousands of shades of gray don’t give you more separation in prints. Printers can take 16-bit data but they can only print 256 shades of gray. Editing in16-bit eliminates the possibility of producing posterization (which can produce harsh graphic transitions and/or noise).

Read more here.

I use Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop together.

Software

color – detail – composition

You can pretty much change anything about the way your images look … for better or worse.

Good software lets you be more precise and go further. Better software does it more easily without cutting corners.

For traditionalists, it’s shadow and highlight detail, midtone contrast, color clarity, sharpness and reduced noise.

For non-traditionalists, it’s the ability to produce unique color palettes, special effects, and composites.

Read more on color here.

Read more on detail here.

Read more on composition here.

I use an NEC PA311D

Monitor

accurate preview – saturation – brightness of white

What could be more important than seeing your images accurately while you’re editing them? Good monitors can be calibrated to a device neutral standard that shows you what your images truly look like now and in the future (when you replace your current monitor). 

Better monitors render more saturation. (Currently, the best monitors can show you almost all of the values in Adobe RGB.) 

The best monitors can be tuned to show you the white of your print more accurately.

Read more here.

I use Epson’s P900 and 9000

Printer

ink – size

A printers manufacturer determines which ink set you’ll use. 

A printer’s series determines which of the manufacturer’s inkset you’ll use.

A printer’s model determines how big you can print.

Additionally, a printer’s head also impacts speed.

 

I use Epson’s Ultrachrome HDX ink

Ink

black – saturation – longevity

The ink you use has a huge impact on print quality and longevity … but to see what it can do you need paper.

Read more here.

Ink & Paper

black – saturation – longevity

Together, ink and paper determine … 

Black

The black of the ink and the white of the paper set the limits of a print’s contrast ratio. 

No matter how much ink you put down on some substrates you won’t get a blacker black and each substrate has an ink limit, which is the maximum amount of ink that can be put down before detail starts being lost.

Saturation

Good inks and paper coatings produce more saturation in all colors.

Longevity & Durability

Some are more archival than others. (Visit Wilhelm Research for reliable data.)

I use Epson’s Legacy Fibre and Legacy Platine papers

Paper or Substrate

whites – materials

Substrates determine an image’s white (where the ink doesn’t go) and so contrast ratio. A brighter, bluer white is more versatile, but may or may not be as archival.

Only paper (or substrate if it’s canvas, plastic, metal, wood, etc) can give your images a look and feel. It’s first and foremost about the physical characteristics of materials including things like reflectivity and texture.

Read more here.

Photo papers have greater gamuts than matte because of their blacker blacks.

I use Epson’s profiles

Printer Profile

accurate color – graybalance – gradation – shadow and highlight detail

A good profile can be more than getting a good match with your screen. But it can be more. Poor profiles can cause color shifts, reduce saturation, produce posterization, and even lose shadow and highlight detail.

If you’re using Epson profiles for Epson papers, you’re in good shape. Epson makes great profiles for their papers. But if you’re using a third-party or hand-made substrate you need a good profile. Don’t assume that the profiles you download from websites are good. Test them. If they’re not great, get a professional to build one for you. Or, build your own.

Read more here.

I use Solux 3500K lights

Light

how well you can see good results

Event the best print can’t be seen in the dark. To be seen well, good prints need good light. 

Think about three things …

1 Use a generous amount of light. Not so much light that it creates eye strain but use a lot. Good prints glow when they reflect light but they need enough light to create that glow.

2 Use the right color temperature. If you can’t control the light people view your prints in, assume it’s warmer than 5000K (most people prefer warmer light, like 3500K) and make your prints look good in a similar light.

3 If you really want to dial in the color for your exhibits (or your clients) recommend a full spectrum light source (like Solux) that doesn’t make one color look more saturated than another and so preserves the color relationships you produced in your prints.

Read more here.

It takes some initial research and testing to find the tools that are best for you but once you settle on a system of your own you only occasionally have to repeat this and only for specific components. It gets easier because you have a baseline. All you have to do is ask how much better can the new gear do and is it worth the cost and effort?

Meanwhile, if you run into issues (like my blacks aren’t black enough or my colors aren’t saturated enough or I’m losing detail) you’ll know which pieces of your system to tweak to get better results.

 

Read more on Color Management here.

Read more on digital Printing here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

How To Get More Light In Your Photographs With Photoshop

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Warning! This collection of videos may change the way you think about light. Photoshop’s ability to enhance and add light into photographs is so powerful few photographers grasp the full extent of it. You’ll get a good taste for this in the collection of videos I’ve assembled for you – even if you just glance at them. Or you can dig in and enjoy hours of inspiration!

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These free online treasures are generously shared by top Photoshop gurus including Colin Smith, Matt Koslowski, Jesus Ramirez, and Unmesh Dinda.
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Alumn Cira Crowell – Exhibition & Book – "Envisioning Ecstasy"

Cirrus Above Thiksey

In the summer of 2013 I had the fortune of travelling to Ladakh, India, a remote Himalayan kingdom that is now far Northwestern India, bordered by Pakistani controlled Kasmir and Chinese controlled Tibet.  Ladakh’s high desert rises from valley floors at 12,000 feet to the mountain peaks at 20,000ft. Water from the Indus River is skillfully directed through lush fields then on to irrigate countless other valleys in India. The Ladakhis live in carefully organized communities of adobe homes where they maintain cattle and yak, pashmina goat herds, make mud bricks for export, hone their traditional crafts, keep cultural ways of life and practice an intense spirituality.  It is a place where monasteries seem to float above military bases and vast expanses that shimmer in the intense, clear light. Translated as “The Land of High Passes” Ladakh is a region of sunshine and snow, of dark temples and bright spirits.

I happened to meet fellow photographer Christopher Michel in Delhi when he was doing what he does best, photographing people with his happy-go-lucky-how-could-you-say-no direct approach.  We happened to have the same somewhat unusual camera and lens combo so I struck up a conversation.  Little did I know we would be traveling to the same place and often shooting standing shoulder to shoulder with several thousand other people.

Faster and Faster

One hundred and fifty thousand ethnic Tibetans were gathering in Ladakh for the ancient Kalachakra ceremony, a two thousand year old ten-day teaching given by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.  I went as a student of life, to see and experience with camera in hand but no specific assignment or shot list.  It was not easy.  The mid-summer heat of India was as hard on the equipment as it was on the attendees.  It was difficult to breathe, move, and photograph in the dust, smoke, heat and an international crowd of so many, packed into a tight space and hurrying over long distances to get there.  There were near mob-scene moments as well as times of great kindness that transcended language barriers.  The intense sun cast deep shadows in the desert while the traditional adobe architecture had dark interiors often only illuminated with butter lamps and a single strong shaft of light.  The experience was overwhelming and required great openness to each moment, the physical stamina to endure heat and altitude as well as the willingness to play well with others.  

Every extra moment from sunrise to starry night was spent exploring the stupa fields, monasteries, city of Leh and village life with friends met along the way.  Chris’ focus on the essence of each moment was an inspiration and his photographs reflect his incisive eye, whether the subject was people or place. During the two weeks in Ladakh we did not share work or even review our own images.  There was limited electricity for anything beyond charging batteries.  Several weeks later I happened to come across a blog article about Chris’ work in Ladakh and immediately suggested a collaborative show to benefit Tibetan culture at Tibet House US.  Fortunately Chris agreed to my out-of-the-blue request and the curator of Tibet House US, Zola Nyambuu, was happy with the show we proposed.  So began the coincidental collaboration of “Envisioning Ecstasy.”

The show has forty black and white photographic prints of landscape, portraits and details of Ladakh during the Kalachakra.  These range from arid desertscapes to lush irrigated fields reflecting the mountains.  There are images from the Kalachakra as well as incongruous graffiti overlooking the capitol city, Leh.  Curious camels, luminous nightscapes and the famously painted Indian trucks balance the spiritual iconography.  A traveling circus with a lotus-decorated ferris wheel loomed above the vast desert providing an unforgettable personal and photographic experience.

“Envisioning Ecstasy” also has a conceptual aspect in the form of eleven large-scale lumenographic prints based on illustration based photographs originally sketched during the Kalachakra.  Two projected animations bring these drawings to life and complete the show. The story behind many of the documentary images was captured in Chas Curtis’ keen videograpy.  Chas’ evocative timelapses and captivating clips from ceremony to circus were seamlessly edited into a luminous video interview by Kyle Ruddick. The video is a multi-media presentation of “Envisioning Ecstasy” and will be screened at the opening. The show is accompanied by a catalog, Envisioning Ecstasy and a clothbound book, 108 Visions : Ladakh During the Kalachakra, thoughtfully designed by Michael Motley, which offers glimpses of the journey from small details to sweeping vistas.  Books and print sales benefit Tibet House US, which brings the concept of collaboration full circle. 

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All of this work was greatly enhanced by John Paul and Seth’s dynamic duo Art of Processing and Art of Creativity. The workshops are an intense immersive experience for honing artistic vision, voice and direction.  And of course any workshop with JP and Seth is a lesson in that all important art of playing well with others, one of my favorite photographic mantras.  Photography is often seen as a solitary pursuit and though it has it’s quiet moments, communal creativity widens the collective perspective. This golden rule underpins the entire show of “Envisioning Ecstasy.” 

“Envisioning Ecstasy” opens at Tibet House US, New York, May 20 from 6-8pm and is on exhibit until June 26. Two publications will be released for the show: a catalog, “Envisioning Ecstasy,” and a hardcover book, 108 Visions: Ladakh During the Kalachakra.  Please contact Tibet House US regarding show information and books. 

Learn more about Envisioning Ecstacy on The Leica Blog.

Find out more about Cira Crowell here.

Read more Alumni Success Stories here.