Thursday, March 12, 2009

How I Print

A wise photographer once said that the only way to know when you've got the best print possible from an image is to keep printing until each new print no longer shows improvement. Alas, the source of the quote and exact verbiage escapes me, but the spirit is clear: the only way to get the best print is to experiment with variations.

These days we put a whole lot of stock in fancy color management systems. I perpetually hear photographers posit that if your prints aren't coming out right, then either your monitor or your lab/printer's calibration is incorrect.

I think that's a load of hooey.

Now, I absolutely use a photo spectrometer to keep my screen consistent, and use fancy ICC profiles specific to my printer and paper choice to "soft-proof" my images before printing. And yes, it certainly helps.

However, I don't see how a bunch of electrically stimulated liquid crystals (or projected cathode ray) can really look like paper. A monitor generates light and color for itself, while a piece of paper is subject to the ambient light that it has the ability to reflect. This fundamental difference in physical properties ensures that there may always be a difference between what looks good on your screen and what looks good on a wall. If you want to get REALLY particular, you can actually make a print specific to the lighting conditions under which it will be viewed (such as one might do for print competitions).

The first consideration when it comes time to make a killer print is paper choice. We live in a new golden age of digital printing, where there are countless paper choices to ponder. There are richly textured matte papers like the Epson Velvet, which is not dissimilar to a fine watercolor paper. There are papers with a mirror gloss so shiny that it appears to be glass. There are bamboo papers and rag papers, and papers with all sorts of coatings.

For this shot, I felt that I wanted a contemporary look with some texture, but deep blacks and excellent color saturation. I also like a heavyweight paper, so the Hahnemuhle Fine Art Bayarta 325 GSM felt like a good fit. So I cued up my edited image and set my ICC to correspond to that paper, and it looked pretty good. However, I know that this paper can really suck up the pigment, and this shot is (in my opinion) very dependent on hitting just the right saturation level to have the best effect.

So I cued up a test 8.5x11" sheet that looked something like this:

Sure enough, I found that it took a LOT more color saturation in the background to get a print that looked good to me. It looks overdone on screen, but great on the paper. Those thumbnails may all look the same to you so tiny on this screen, but in print I can tell you that the difference between some of them is night and day.

I targeted for a 14" print, but when I actually made my first edition of the print I felt that it looked a hint softer than I wanted it to be, so I discarded that print and selectively applied some sharpening to detail critical areas. I also found some minor color-shift in his nose that I evened out for the final version. Never noticed it on the screen, but it showed up in the print.

Now, some techno-geeks may come on here and suggest that I need to spend more money on a fancier or more comprehensive color management system.... and I'll concede that if I was willing to spend a lot of money on it I could get my starting point closer. Some extremely high volume portrait studios do their color correction in a black room with no windows and hourly calibrations, even requiring the techs to wear black so as not to reflect light back onto the screen. However, my experience tells me that the different physical properties of a screen and a print will always have me making test sheets for images that really matter, or that have specific qualities that must be critically accurate for a successful print.

Some people ask me why they should pay a higher price to have me make a print of their image vs. simply taking it to Cosco or Walgreens. However, they never ask that question after I show them a comparison between the two options. The hard work that goes into perfecting the final presentation of an image represents one of the key differences between snapshots and art.

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