The final article in this series on printing leaves behind the technique and even the images to consider a far deeper philosophical consideration: art vs. the process vs. the result. To make a successful image, there are three primary considerations: the idea, the execution, and the display medium. Most photographers struggle to manage more than one of these – there are a lot of people who are very good at shooting brick walls and test charts and can remember ever single custom function of their cameras, but cannot compose at all. Similarly, there are a lot of people who point and shoot with their phones but are quite gifted compositionally; yet they are frustrated by their inability to capture what they imagine. And both groups almost never think about how the finished work is to be presented and viewed.
Print introduces additional technical and aesthetic complexities into the final step of the chain. Even if you are shooting with solely digital output in mind, if you do not know how the images are going to be viewed – size/ resolution and gamut/ colour accuracy being the two main considerations – it is impossible to optimise the work to its fullest potential. There is no point creating something with wonderful tonal subtleties that only works when viewed at full resolution, uncompressed, on a properly color-managed 30″ 4k display: unless you know your audience is going to see the image as you intended. Similarly, work for mobile consumption and viewing must work at small physical sizes (but not necessarily resolutions) and bigger enlargements are relatively unimportant.
One piece of feedback I’ve frequently received from people who’ve seen my prints in person is that they greatly transcend the digital image; that’s not exactly a surprise, given size/ resolution and questionable calibration on the viewing device. But it is what made me consider this weakness in the chain: my images are not really suited for monitor viewing at all.
The Process is what I like to think of as describing the end-to-end creative workflow: from the time you come up with an idea or concept to capture in a photograph, to looking for the compositional elements required to create it, to selecting your perspective and choosing or looking for light – all the way to the production of the final output medium. It is only natural for us as humans to obsess over the quantitative portions of The Process – gear, technique, lighting, postprocessing – because by and large these are the easiest things to master: once you’ve memorised the steps or functions or keys, there’s not much else to do. But mastering these steps alone can take some considerable investment of time and effort. Even assuming there are no issues with conceptualisation of the idea and composition of the image, we are still left with production: i.e. print.
By their very nature, the further along you go with the process, the less familiar photographers in general become – simply because ever increasing commitment is required. It is very expensive to print 20×30″ prints as an experiment to see how certain post processing treatment looks or to determine how much detail is required for an acceptable print, but it isn’t expensive to take another shot with a different exposure. And the crux of the matter is that the more inaccessible the steps become, the greater the risk of the photographer becoming bogged down in the process – and effectively losing sight of why they were photographing in the first place.
As usual the two images I’ve chosen to illustrate this article with are an example of that: both of them are shot to the highest technical standard possible, processed with the intention of making an Ultraprint, and obey all of the requisite and popular compositional rules. Except, the first one is interesting, and the second one isn’t – both to me as the photographer, and to the audience – if Flickr is any indication, 11 favourites from 767 views vs 108 from 2,766 – in about the same amount of time. The second image is of course a demonstration of how it’s possible to be bogged down in the process: at the time, I was so concerned with seeing just how much transparency/ realism/ clarity/ resolution/ x-factor/ whatever I could out of the Otus, that I landed up making a boring image. Of course it required some hindsight to realise that the image was boring; even if it was technically very satisfying.
It’s the same thing with printing: images that print well – both of the images in this article would print well – and display the technical chops of printer, print master and paper are not necessarily interesting images. Nor are interesting images the kind of thing you’d necessarily want to buy, hang and look at every day for some extended duration. This is the contextual part, the artistic part, and the part where a bit of objective separation is required. It is far too easy to look for the kinds of scenes that test your camera or lens or printer, but become aesthetically boring and intellectually uninteresting. And of course, there’s the photographer’s equivalent of ‘you are what you eat': your audience can only see the images you choose to show them.
Because of this, the concept of the Ultraprint becomes a bit more focused still: not from a technical standpoint, but from a creative one. I have images that would meet the technical requirements, but not necessarily the artistic ones; similarly, I have images that have wonderful story and mood, but are technically poor due to camera limitations at the time, or because motion is part of what creates the story, or for some other reason. In my mind, even if we printed either of this type of image with the Ultraprint’s technical specifications, they would not qualify as Ultraprints. The Ultraprint is meant to include only the best photographs that I know how to create – and this covers all of The Process. The artistic/ creative, technical and production aspects of the final product must all be balanced: the idea has to be strong enough to be visually compelling and interesting; the technical quality of the image must be as good as it can possibly get, and it must hold up to the demanding resolution and tonal requirements of the Ultraprint process. If an image does not meet any one of these criteria, it cannot be an Ultraprint.
Interestingly, it means that there are actually very few images in my archive that qualify. For starters, the resolution requirements rule out anything below about 24MP – at the barest minimum – for 10×15″, and 16MP for 8×12″; even then we have to have perfection at the pixel level. It rules out anything smaller than medium format film. And it further eliminates a lot of my reportage work, partially because most of it was shot with lower resolution cameras, and partially because even though I’m very picky about image quality, there is simply no way something shot handheld with available light is going to have the same technical quality as studio or tripod work at optimal apertures.
Though the image creation process has now become significantly more demanding, I’m actually relishing the challenge. I’m going to end the print series with a final entreaty to those of you who don’t print on a regular basis or haven’t printed at all:
- Pick ten of your favourite images; consider The Process and try to look for consistency in idea, technical execution/ pixel quality and pick an appropriate output size – 13×19″ is a good place to start.
- Find a good printer; a minilab is a bad idea because those machines are likely to be improperly calibrated and/or have limited gamuts. Find a person: somebody you can talk to, somebody who cares about the process. You could buy your own photo inkjet, but to do it properly is a very complex and costly process – not really recommended for beginners.
- Experience a really excellent print in order to know what’s possible, to inspire you, and to have some idea of what to aim for – I recommend Nick Brandt’s books, or one of the Ultraprints in the current print sale.
- Look at the differences between the output from 2. and 3.; don’t get discouraged if they’re large. Instead, try to figure out what to do to close the gap.
- Rinse and repeat.
Having a print objective already tends to improve one’s photography because you have to be very disciplined in your editing and selection of which images to print, but having a very demanding print objective raises the bar another notch. I am finding that I produce fewer images that meet the new bar – and spend much longer making individual images – but the results are far more satisfying.
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