Tutorial: Working the Fine Print

Test Print with small images run through the printer multiple times with different settings.

(excerpt from the book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography unreleased revised electronic version)

Most first prints are work prints. It is the first look at the behaviors of the color management workflow, overall density and balance, the glow of white from the paper, the apparent perceived sharpness. If you think of printing as a process that evolves as you explore, tweak and refine, you step right into the traditions of fine-art photographic printmaking that has yielded an astonishingly beautiful history of photographs on paper.

As a general rule, a fully edited file will still take work to make a beautiful print. Anything less than the most refined edit you can make in Photoshop should be expected to print poorly, and will need extra and sometimes confusing work to make a great print. As general advice, take the time and care to edit your image to a high level of satisfaction, then start the printing interpretation process.

Paper
I believe our artwork deserves the best materials possible and that it is largely a waste of time to test on anything less. So I do all of my test prints on the paper I intend to print on, although often as small 3×5 images on letter-sized paper. Sometimes a lighter-weight version of the same paper is available and cheaper.

My papers of choice have been the same for many years now. Specifically the Hahnemühle Museum Etching (which I helped create) for the cotton printmaking paper look. I also use the Hahnemühle PhotoRag Pearl for a more traditional gelatin-silver look. It should also be pointed out that Hahnemühle supplies these papers to my workshops, but of course they are by my choice the papers that I use and want to teach with.

Color Management
A color managed workflow is essential for printing, from monitor, through printer/settings/paper profiles to a viewing light matched to the white point of your monitor.

Whites
It is very important to me that a print has a glow about its tonality that lets it seem light-based. Although there may be exceptions to this, I mostly look to pull back detail of the whites to make sure some of the glowing white of the paper itself is able to shine through.

Tonal Balance
I would describe a balanced print as one where the viewers eye goes primarily where I intend, where no one element seems to get more attention than I intend, and where the viewers eye is kept engaged and moving around the image. This is achieved not only by your original composition and subject matter, but also by how you lighten or darken certain areas of the print to emphasize or de-emphasize the area in question.

I would suggest in general that carefully made masks and Curve Adjustment Layers are often the best means of controlling specific tonal emphasis, or perhaps a Doge/Burn Layer. I would discourage the use of Doge/Burn brushes and Brightness/Contrast editors.

Edges and Vignettes
Lenses often fall off in density at the edges of the frame, and certainly traditional condenser enlargers did. Lightening and darkening of the corner of the image to treat problems is something I always try to watch out for. I am not a fan of “burning-in” the edges to concentrate the viewers attention. It often looks fake and in my judgment is treating a symptom of the past with a stylistic affectation.

Sharpening
In the digital photo realm, where focus is sometimes thought of as a “sharpness” that you can add after the fact, I caution people that actual sharpness takes place in the camera. The optical illusion of “edge-contrast exaggeration” that we call sharpening can be very useful, but can be easily overused and make the image look fake. Use restraint in sharpening and use your file as a measure of what is needed initially, then examine the print for any additional illusion-creating effects you may deem are needed. Too often, rote values and unexamined imperatives simply make an image look tacky.

Borders
It has long been an archival standard to allow at least a one-inch border around your image to the paper edge. This ensures you have space to handle the print, and that there is space for a reveal overmatt if desired. The print is then essentially presentation ready for casual view with a border that looks a bit like an overmat. It is also true that this border around the image separates the photograph from any contaminates that may creep in from the edge over time.

Matting and Framing
I believe it is important to present your work as framed in the least attention-getting manor possible, so that the image is preserved and cared for, but not distracted from. Consequently, I feel that standard white overmatts look the best, either silver or white metal frames, or simple light wood for the most beautiful earth tone possible. Check out the Matting and Framing DVD.

Prints should always be overmatted to protect the image from direct contact with the glass or acrylic. Most non-glare glass or plex looks awful as it adds texture or matt sprays to archive their so-called non glare status. There is however, beautiful glass and acrylic available from vendors like TrueVue make Museum Glass and Optium acrylic that truly do reduce the reflectivity of the surface material. They are not cheap.

Featured Print: Lone Pine

Whitney Crest and Alabama Hills above Lone Pine. 2012.

Whitney Crest and Alabama Hills above Lone Pine. 2012.
Canon 1Ds III
11×14 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each. Purchase here.

We’re offering an 11×14 inch print of either photograph, matted to 16×20 and ready to frame for $195, framed in silver for an additional $75, wood for $150. This print at this price is offered through February 29. We’ll be taking orders until then, and shipping them out by March 15th.

About the Program
Each month we offer a signed, original print, at a special price. This is a great opportunity to own a very affordable fine-art photograph. Orders are taken for a 30-day period, then printed and shipped within two weeks after the close. When it’s over, it’s over, these prints won’t be available again at this price.

The View from Here: RAW Processors plus Photoshop

Much has been said in the last few years about the wonders of Adobe Lightroom and the obsolescence of Photoshop. Lightroom is remarkable and powerful. In many forums however, I remind people that for all of their power and conveniences, Adobe’s Camera RAW, and Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture, and PhaseOne’s Capture One are after all RAW processors, not image editors in the same sense of Photoshop’s flexibility and pixel by pixel precision. I believe that Photoshop remains an absolutely critical ingredient in image editing.

Many photographers are simply put off by the complexity of Photoshop, the seemingly endless array of options and elaborate workflows abounding on the internet. Others simply want the flexibility of RAW without all of the work and time that finishing the image in Photoshop implies. The cost differential is also real. I can understand all of these notions, but want to discuss a few of them here.

Photoshop need not be too much more complex than what your needs and knowledge desire. There certainly is no imperative that you do as much stuff to your photograph as possible just because you can. I teach a fairly straightforward path through Photoshop that needs little more in most cases than a few Adjustment Layers for some tone and color needs, some so called “sharpening” and some image tone-balance work for prints. I go through much of this in the Selections, Adjustment Layers, Tone and Color Workshop coming up next weekend February 11-12, 2012.

One thing I’ve always liked about Lightroom and RAW processors in general is that there is no encouragement of composited faking of photographs inherent in the software. I think this encourages a straight forward workflow which is where in my interest in photography primarily lies. The image database is also useful, but not for me as I use other approaches and simply have way too many photographs over too many decades for it to be as useful to me as it is for some. The Lightroom Virtual Copy is great, as well as some of the stylistic and annotation automation.

As I am not a regular Lightroom or Aperture user, there are no doubt other features that I haven’t yet noticed. But even in a program I know well, like Photoshop, I am constantly noticing, or having things pointed out to me that I had not seen, either in development or post-release.

But for me, Photoshop’s shipping companion Camera RAW is just simpler to use. I find the tabs in CameraRaw very direct and I work well with the interface. The tight integration between Adobe’s browser Bridge, CameraRAW and Photoshop is a relationship I find very convenient and empowering.

When it comes to precision editing, the RAW processors are great for basic interpretation of the RAW data, but I would feel deeply limited if I didn’t have Photoshop at my disposal for precise editing, even pixel by pixel for some picky issues. I would also feel very constrained in my ability to fine tune the image for printing. That is why I discourage people from printing through Lightroom or Aperture as that decision bypasses many of the finishing and balance options I have and need in Photoshop.

The non-destructive editing metaphor which many have picked up on from Lightroom, and is inherent in RAW processing, has been in place in Photoshop for a very long time. Photoshop’s Layers feature was dramatically empowered with the introduction of Adjustment Layer editors a long time ago.

It is only with Photoshop’s precision and iterative editing that I feel that I can really work an image into a fine print. Critical to my printmaking capabilities is the careful balancing of tone, density, nuances of color imbalance and careful attention to the optical illusions of “sharpening” and texture. Without these controls, I feel like I would be left in a more crude position than I was in a conventional darkroom in terms of careful interpretation of the image.

Many of the needed capabilities of image editing continue to grow in the RAW processors, as a new preview of Adobe’s Camera RAW by product manager Bryan O’Neil Hughes demonstrates. Check it out.

Featured Print: Lake Michigan

Blowing Snow and Shore. Lake Michigan. 2012.

Blowing Snow and Shore. Lake Michigan. 2012.
Canon 1Ds III
11×14 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each.

We’re offering an 11×14 inch print of either photograph, matted to 16×20 and ready to frame for $195, framed in silver for an additional $75, wood for $150. This print at this price is offered through January 31. We’ll be taking orders until then, and shipping them out by February 15th.

About the Program
Each month we offer a signed original print at a special price. This is a great opportunity to own a very affordable fine-art photograph. Orders are taken for a 30-day period, then printed and shipped within two weeks after the close. When it’s over, it’s over, these prints won’t be available again at this price.

The View From Here: Death Valley and Yosemite

Sentinal Meadow, Yosemite.

As I write, I’m out in Death Valley, between workshop sessions, pondering the new year ahead, my presence in this landscape and my movement around this planet in exploration.

In a place I’ve visited so often, like Death Valley, I wonder about even making new photographs, as I certainly have more than I’ll ever use. But in the making is seeing first, and seeing something new with every visit is part of the wonder of this world and of photography. The variety of this place, its scale, its unexpected color and upheaved geology is truly remarkable.

As I think forward a few weeks to my Yosemite Valley in Winter workshop, that thought is even more prominent in my mind as I grew up near Yosemite and so much of what I think of as nature were experiences born there…those early backpacking trips with my friend Peter Mauffray, artist and musician, now gone, or my first memories of seeing deer, bear, and snow. The birth of my interest in landscape photography came from Yosemite, Ansel Adams’ wonderfully inspiring and dramatic black and white landscapes. I clearly remember my first conversations with Ansel on the porch of the house behind the Ansel Adams gallery in the Valley, talking about the At Mono Lake Exhibition.

I am drawn to Yosemite in unique ways. It forces an instant re-apprecition of grandeur. It reminds me that even a famous and heavily visited place can remain full of solitude. It keeps me aware of the power of the earth’s forces to constantly reshape itself and the tiny little window of time that our lives here can witness. Yosemite Valley fosters an appreciation of all of these things, and builds in the heart a unique place of personal memory and scale.

The park is remarkable. Lying at the heart of the 10 million year old Sierra Nevada range, glaciers have cut through its river valleys for over a million years. Yosemite Valley formed from a massive 4000 foot deep river of ice, slicing huge granite domes and carving today’s valley. Yosemite Falls is 2425 feet tall, the highest in North America, and 5th largest in the world. El Capitain is the world’s largest monolith of solid granite, its huge brother in the park, Half Dome is perhaps the most recognizable rock formation on the planet. Yosemite was set aside not only for its spectacular scenery but for its huge Giant Sequoia redwoods which were starting to be logged in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Photographically, Yosemite remains hard as the reality competes with the photographic history and our preconceived views. But I never find the photographs equal to the experience, and consequently keep getting pulled into reaching deeper into the being there to understand what I see and want to record. And I want to share what I’ve found…

I move around this great big world
see such beauty and intricacy
I want to hold it like some precious love
Let another soul see and believe
from Make the Art, 1999 by Stephen Johnson

It is that sharing, that wanting to say “isn’t this remarkable” that is the recurring theme for us as imagemakers. Our artistic vision may take many paths, but for me, that “remarkableness” is fundamental. It is at the heart of why I do straight photography, because it is my interest in this real world and its uncanny beauty, variety and nuance that continues to amaze me, and draw me in with my camera. It is almost as if the photographs become something other than a product from the experience, they become a constant suggestion of wonder, and reminder of our privilege in being here, being able to be witness.

Notebook Scribbles from Death Valley’s West Side Road
The silence. The silence here is amazing, pervasive and feels profound. It is so unlike our normal worlds. I can hear the crinkle of paper in my hand, and the scratch across it of the pen as I write.

I’m looking into a 100 mile 360 degree space, almost devoid of human constructs, but full of earth upheaval and light-heat of our sun.

There is a low level, barely audible under-sound of distant wind rushing through endless canyons, almost a bottom-end shelf under which there is only real silence.

A raven suddenly appears squawking north through this huge valley. I wish I could inquire about its journey.

The earth has now dropped the sun below the mountains, with a huge cirrus arc rising above, stretching well beyond the zenith.

iPhone memos (perhaps not profound, but fun to remember the things that come to mind):
sometimes you have to get to an edge to see new horizon

sharpening radius controls the width of the band of exaggeration

your position is as important as your curiosity

integrating the technical with the aesthetic in photography is often a process of finessing your way through a path of compromise

Featured Print: Apollo 11

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia in Acrylic.

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia in Acrylic.
Canon 1Ds III
11×14 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each.

The vehicle that carried the dreams of humanity to explore the cosmos…

We’re offering an 11×14 inch print of either photograph, matted to 16×20 and ready to frame for $195, framed in silver for an additional $75, wood for $150. This print at this price is offered through December 31. We’ll be taking orders until then, and shipping them out by January 15th.

About the Program
Each month we offer a signed, original print, at a special price. This is a great opportunity to own a very affordable fine-art photograph. Orders are taken for a 30-day period, then printed and shipped within two weeks after the close. When it’s over, it’s over, these prints won’t be available again at this price.