What you are seeing is not a capture or printing error. The irregular inner concave surface of the moon is due to variations in depth from craters; the moon itself is in the very extremes of Zone X in the actual image, yet there is still tonal separation present in the print.
Following on from my earlier article on pushing print limits, I’d like to show you the fruits our labour: the Ultraprint. I think the above image pretty much says it all: that is a photograph of the actual print, with a ruler for comparison. Scale markings are in millimetres, as shown.
The concept for the Ultraprint originated from two sources: firstly, traditional wet contact printing, and secondly, the fact that I live in a small apartment with limited wall space means that not only do I not have space to hang a lot of large prints, I don’t even really have adequate space to store them. However, as anybody who’s seen one of my prints will tell you, there’s a world of difference between seeing an 800px web JPEG and a large print. Unfortunately, most people don’t have room to store or hang large prints, much like myself, and this limits the number of people who can enjoy them.
Recall that our impression of acuity/ ‘sharpness’ is a function of both spatial resolution and contrast; the better the microcontrast, the more recorded/ presented separation between nearly adjacent tones, and the higher our perception of acuity. It also increases the reproduction medium’s ability to replicate high-frequency detail. However, the required threshold for ‘sufficient sharpness’ drops off quite quickly as the viewing distance increases: i.e. as we make larger and larger prints, we’re always going to have to move further back to see the entire image at once. This is good, because it means we don’t actually need more resolution to make a larger print so long as the viewing angle remains constant – our eyes limit this anyway – but not so good because when we do choose to examine a small portion of the details of the print at close distance, we are often disappointed because we can see the limits of resolution – be it pixels, print dots, or simply smudging.
The Ultraprint resolves at the equivalent level of 720 PPI; that’s beyond the naked human eye’s ability to distinguish. What this means is that we can look at the prints as near as our eyes will focus, and there will still be the impression of more detail – you really need a 3-5x magnifying loupe to fully appreciate how much detail is in one of these prints. Think of it as the condensed essence of the image…
Production of an Ultraprint starts with the right file: a perfect, sharp-at-100%-actual-pixels 36-39MP (D800E, CFV-39) capture will yield a clean 10×15″ image. Any larger, and you can see that the process is capable of resolving more detail. Our tests have found that ~720 PPI is the maximum the print process can resolve; you can clearly see the difference between a 16MP and 36MP capture at 10×15″, but not at 8×12″. The file stays in 16 bit TIFF.
The paper is also carefully selected: it must have a very fine fibre structure so that the substrate does not limit resolution, but also so the density is high enough to be able to take a large quantity of ink – this allows us to have greater tonal separation, which is especially important for images that have areas that might run out of gamut – rich greens, strong reds and some blues are typical culprits. We are using Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag; this paper can trace its roots back to the Arches Platine paper manufactured by one of the oldest paper mills in Europe (and subsequently acquired by Canson) – but more importantly, the favourite paper of Picasso, Van Gogh and Chagall, amongst others. It has been in production for over four hundred years, which makes me think they probably know a thing or two about making paper.
Color calibration is the next step: we started with a calibrated profile for that paper and ink set, but further refine the boundaries of the profile – especially the out-of-gamut transitions – manually, with many test prints until I’m happy that the final result both matches the artistic intention as well as the initial image as closely as possible under a typical range of lighting conditions – it’s of course possible to calibrate perfectly for bright daylight only, but realistically, a lot of prints will be viewed under anything from tungsten (~2500K) to daylight mix (5000K). We try to achieve a realistic balance across that range of colour temperatures.
The file is then prepared for printing – we size the output to match the maximum resolution of the printer, then apply a recursive sharpening process to optimise edge acuity. There are also other settings that need to be altered for each file as they affect detail and tonality in various ways – including print head speed (drying time between passes, and thus ink absorption time), print head distance (resolution vs speed vs ink density and tonality) and various edge smoothing parameters.
Now only is the final print made, and individually hand-checked by me both for color consistency and flaws under a loupe. Needless to say, the entire process is extremely labor intensive, and very demanding of both raw capture quality and workflow. I’ve found that a lot of my earlier favourites will not hold the level of detail shown here to beyond 8×10″ or thereabouts – this is probably the first accessible print process that really makes the full use of all of the resolution our current generation of cameras can provide. Who’d have thought you actually need a D800E’s 36MP for a sub-A3 print?
Above: Original image, resized digital. D800E and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus
Above: Print, grey balanced and photographed under neutral light – the reflective ‘sparkles’ at the bottom are due to the irregular surface of the paper. NO colour correction was applied post-capture other than eyedropper WB.
The end results I think speak for themselves: these two images I’ve selected to show as test examples are very challenging for different reasons. The moon image has a lot of nearly out-of-gamut blues and magentas in the clouds; lose those and you lose definition. In fact, the print has slightly better tonal separation than the web JPEG of the original! In addition to that, the moon itself is not overexposed in the actual file – but it does lie in Zone X, with both very subtle colour and luminance variation defining the craters:
Above: 100% crop from original file
Above: Matched crop from closeup image of 10×15″ print, ruler for scale
I’m also pleased to report that the print process is also faithful for monochrome images: the following image was printed at 10×15″ – it is a uncropped file from a D800E, Zeiss 2/135 APO at f5.6 and on a tripod – i.e. under optimal conditions:
And the lower image is of course a closeup of the print, from a portion towards the upper left of the image. There are what appears to be some surface imperfections/ dust/ noise; these ‘flecks’ are actually portions of the paper’s surface that is at a slightly different angle to the rest – barytas are irregular, rough papers – and happen to have caught the incident light. I think you’ll agree this level of resolution and tonal detail is quite impressive.
The final example is another very challenging image to print: we’ve got nearly-out-of-gamut red-oranges in the tree, very slight depth of field separation between the red tree and the background, and a lot of foreground deep shadow detail in Zones 1-3:
Above: Original image, resized digital. Hasselblad 501CM, CFV-39 digital back, CF 2.8/80
Above: Print – once again, grey balanced and photographed under neutral light. No colour correction applied post-capture other than eyedropper WB.
Above: To give you a sense of scale: the image printed here is about 10×13″ due to the original aspect ratio.
Above: 100% crop from the digital file; note slightly out of focus background – this helps give the actual image a very strong sense of three-dimensionality by enforcing separation between the foreground and background…
Above: 100% crop from 10×13″ print
…And note how this is also replicated faithfully in the actual image. Beyond that, notice also how close the challenging intense orange-red colours are to the original file; more importantly, the tonal separation between leaves is maintained. You’ll notice microcontrast seems a bit higher in the printed image; that was an intentional adjustment to avoid the image looking too flat and subdued at normal viewing distances. Note also the level of resolution: there is a stick under the 28mm marking that’s approximately 50um wide. This level of detail is both repeatable and consistent.
Let’s look at this a different way: against what is arguably one of the best displays today for pixel density: an iPad Mini Retina, which has 326DPI. Please ignore colour; photographing an LCD panel never yields good results. Look only at resolution.
Above: Here’s how the same area looks on the iPad Mini, scaled to match the size of the print and then photographed to provide an approximate relative comparison between the three when viewed with the naked eye – file, print and screen. I think in some areas, the print is reproducing visibly more detail than the screen – look at the pine needles and separation between red leaves, for instance. (Ignore colour accuracy.)
Above: And here you can start to see the pixel grid making itself known – good displays have both small pixels and small gaps between them. Click here for a larger version.
Again, for those of you who’ve seen one of these displays, you’ll know that it’s a really quite impressive way of reproducing images; all I can say is imagine what the prints look like. What the Ultraprint does is bring the detail/ resolution impact of a large print to a smaller, more accessible (and easily displayed/ stored) format.
In the next couple of days, I will launch the first edition of these prints for you to enjoy in person, preferably with a loupe or high power magnifying glass. We strongly believe that this has significantly raised the bar for fine art printing to a whole new level – but more importantly, I hope the new size also makes it more accessible to a wider audience. MT
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