Transcending the process

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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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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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Comments

  1. I’ll be taking up the print challenge: the goal of the weekend is to prepare 2-3 photos for printing at 13×19, so I can get them printed next weekend. I’ll probably select a mix of photos: film, digital, fine detail, very light, and very dark.

    And I’m thinking that at the end of my email school session of making either prints out of all of my assignments or a photobook. Should be a fun souvenir, along with a handy place for notes.

    • That’s a good objective. Get in touch with Wesley, he does international commissions too.

      Remember to take into account both pixel quality and artistic merit/ suitability of the image to the medium and output size…

      • Good points: I need to review those print articles again. It will also be stuff I won’t mind looking at.

        We happen to have a pretty okay photography school in town, so I have access to some decent print shops, but Wesley is definitely a good backup.

      • I finally got the prints done, and 2 are OK, while the third is kind of a disaster. All were printed at 12 inches on the short side, so I had a 12×12, 12×16, and a 12×18.

        The two OK ones are both from the E-M1, and one is very dark and contrasty, while the other is quite light with lots of subtle tones. Both look great, and at my current skill and perception level, I would not know how to improve them. This is not to say that they are great photographs, but for what I saw on the screen and wanted, they pretty much look like that. They’ll be out in the open somewhere so I can keep looking at them, and maybe something will come to mind. I’ll probably use office binder clips on nails to hang them up — very elegant. :)

        The third is a 135 C-41 frame that was scanned by a Noritsu at its highest setting and output as TIFF (albeit 8-bit, I believe). On the computer, the file looks oversharpened, but OK at web sizes. There’s quite a bit of subtle tones. Printed, the oversharpened artifacts all pop out as random color speckles. It’s quite awful actually. The tonality becomes crunchy, too. The paper is a matte Hahnemule Photo Rag, and I’m surprised the little artifacts survived the matte paper texture so well.

        I’ve printed two other MF B&W negatives (6×6 and 6×9) before, both stitch-scanned with a NEX-5N, and they look really good, and as good as I intended it to be. So I guess the next step is to DSLR scan a 135 frame, and see what it looks like. I’m not holding out much hope — it’s slowly dawning on me that 135 negatives are pretty terrible in general.

        Which actually brings me to my last point — the cost. It’s $35/print at the 12-inch short side size, so printing costs are going to add up quickly if I really experiment, and I’m also starting to understand why people want to get their own printer. The costs are prohibitive if you want to use the print to close the loop on your own photography: shoot a picture, process, print it, see what it looks like, and adjust the photo-taking and post-processing technique appropriately. Anyway, suffice to say that I’m now seriously considering a printer of my own. The Canon Pixma Pros are said to be relatively maintenance-free compared to the Epsons, and equally good.

        • It all goes back to sufficiency in some respects – 135 is not spectacular for a few reasons: firstly, back then most of us had no idea if the cameras were focusing properly, or lenses were critically sharp, or if there was camera shake – no feedback, no awareness of it, and thus no steps to mitigate it. 135 film in general doesn’t have more than about 12MP of real equivalent resolution; even at that size you’re going to see noise and artefacts. MF is better because you’ve got at least 3.5x the area.

          As for print costs – ink and paper are not cheap for DIY. But at $35 per print with no possibility for custom tweaking, I think I’m seriously undercharging for the Ultraprints :)

          As for printers – I’ve only used the Canons on a handful of occasions, and they weren’t properly calibrated, so it’s hard to say where the two fall on an absolute scale…

          • OK, I’ve calmed down now. :) The 135 print is actually not too bad if I don’t look at it closer than about a foot. It’s also color, while the previous film prints were B&W, so the color artifacts may have been amplified. I’m definitely going to do a DSLR scan of a 135 neg for next month’s prints so I can get the pixel quality where I want it to be, but wish me luck on getting the C-41 inversion correct. The Noritsu gave really fine C-41 colors.

            Also, I reread the Wesley interviews, and was reminded that pixel quality is probably the most important factor in determining print quality, so of course an oversharpened scan was going to look terrible. I’m really impressed at how good the 16 Mpixel NEX-5N looks at 24×36 for native digital shots, and that was with a Helios 44-2 lens, a cheap (<$40 on eBay) Soviet copy of the Zeiss Biotar from before WW2.

            And figuring the cost of the desktop printer, it's about 20 prints for the printer alone, and that's about 6 months of printing at my current rate of 3/month. So I'll bide my time, and there're at least a couple of things to fix in my current print workflow before I give up.

            I looked at Wesley's price list, and he's even more expensive at about $48 for a 12×18 on a rag paper. I'm going to guess that includes a little bit of tweaking and/or consultation. My printer will do whatever's necessary to make the print look like the file I give him, and any tweaking I need probably has to be baked into the file. I'm sure I can pay him more to spend an hour with me and figure out exactly what I need.

            BTW, I've decided not to frame Clouds, and will keep it in a giant box. That way I can look at the print quality unimpeded by glass. Same with the Ultraprints when I get them.

            • Wesley’s prices include color proofing, and you’re paying for his expertise to ensure that the file matches the print exactly – remember that if your monitor isn’t calibrated, you may not be seeing ‘reality’.

              Rag papers (i.e. fiber barytas) are also significantly more expensive than normal RC photo paper. It’s what I print on.

              The ultra prints will have more detail than your naked eyes can resolve, at any viewing distance. I’d definitely recommend adding on that magnifying diopter I emailed about ;)

              • Okay, that’s much more reasonable. It’s an extra $10 at my printer for a small proof print. I wish he was more local — I imagine the personal interaction is a big part of his services.

                I already have a Canon loupe, but the Hoya may have a bigger FOV. The Canon does have a red L ring on it, so that must mean it’s awesome! :p

                • It is – I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent there or how much I’ve learned…

                  As for the Hoya thingy – it’s about 70mm in diameter, for a spectacles blank, so it’s pretty large :)

  2. I like your pictures a lot, especially those taken by GR..amazed at its image quality, i plan to sell my 17-55mm lens and get a Ricoh GR and a 50mm 1.8 lens for tele or portrait.shots. But i hope i could keep the 17-55mm..

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    Ming, you are a man of extremes !

  4. Really interesting article and although im way out in left field when it comes to being a photographer. I learn a lot from reading your articles . Im going to try that 5 step process (as I understand it and see where I land. Thankyou so much! : ))

  5. El Aura says:

    When I read the first sentence, art vs process vs results, I thought with art you might mean printing as a re-interpretation of a photograph, much like a painter reproducing anything man-made (architecture, gardens, interiors), or as it is sometimes said, architecture and photography living in a symbiosis. Though, more appropriate might be the comparison of musician and composer.

    Your post turned out to be more about the photographer mastering and combining all tasks, though including the outsourcing of some tasks, eg, to a printer (and some of the technical skill of taking an image to the smartness of the camera). For movies this kind of outsourcing takes place on a much larger scale (and whether it is the director or the producer that is the ultimate outsourcer can be debated naturally).

    • I think it’s a bit of both. The print process affects the reproduction of reality – think color/ contrast/ reflectance for instance – but at the same time, it still requires the photographer’s technical and creative interpretation as a starting point.

  6. That train image is really fun to study. Thanks for a great and inspiring series on printing. I’m motivated and have found some good local printing options in my small part of the world.

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Two (related) thoughts occur to me.

    Ultraprint:
    When fuzziness because of motion (e.g. of streaming water) or some other imperfection is an intended part of an image, I think it can still be worth an Ultraprint. The intended softness, or whatever, can show up better in a sharp print. Of course there is as ever the question of sufficiency, but printing a bit past sufficiency would, I think, often make the intension of the imperfection clearer.

    Reproduction in general:
    There is also our brain’s capacity to add missing information according to experience.

    Consider e.g. loudspeakers. There is the theory that you should equalize the sound to compensate for the accoustics of the room. But if you don’t, after a while your brain will compensate for it, at least if you have some experience of live music.

    I believe this is also true when viewing photos on different media. To some extent we can see a photo as intended even when the medium is not really adequate. Unless, of course, the missing information is essential to the idea of the photo, as e.g. sharpess of snow crystals or of leaves in a foliage, or an unusual combination of nuances of colour.

    • Ultraprint: you’re right; motion isn’t a problem, but you do need some static points of reference in an image anyway. The bigger issue is that if there is motion everywhere, then the additional realism of an Ultraprint is lost simply because there is no additional detail to be resolved.

      Brain compensation: it applies equally to both high and low resolution images, which of course means the high resolution image will be even better :)

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes.
        But there are also good photos that are unsharp everywhere.
        Even then you can use the Ultraprint, or at least a print significantly above sufficiency, to emphasize the intended imperfections (and I wasn’t thinking only of motion).
        The photo can then sometimes be more impressive and the viewer will see that the imperfections are not even partly the result of the printing process.
        There is, of course, the limit when a totally unsharp image is hard on the eyes, as they continuously try to focus, but then a paper with structure can help.

      • As I read this series-closing article, that occurred to me as well: some images simply won’t benefit from the process, not due to inferiority in technique or mechanical capabilities, but rather because the artistic idea conveyed transcends the ultra print medium’s inherent advantages. Thanks again, Ming, for a thoughtful experience. The artists-philosophers-mathmaticians-scientists of yore still beckon to us and remind us that any worthwhile endeavor involves a multi-dimensional set of disciplines that tests us and grows us as individuals.

  8. Great view. The symmetry is like a frame in the frame.

  9. Interesting, challenging, satisfying indeed. It all sounds rather pleasant to me.

    It occurs that monitor viewing still makes your images accessible to a broader audience than Ultraprints and monitor viewing today probably represents a significant demand generator. I’m curious to see what your approach will be regarding gaps between monitor viewing and print as you forge ahead.

    • That’s true; unfortunately, I don’t have a solution for this. I suppose once very high monitor density becomes commonplace the problem will be less serious. But right now, even with my 27″ Thunderbolt Display, the Ultraprint still looks better.

      • Yes I truly believe it when you say the Ultraprint does look better … and will when I view one first-hand.

        In some of my past work I was involved in design for monitor display and the target audience was assured to use displays all over the map and virtually none calibrated. Part of the challenge was in developing more awareness in the team because thinking of the motley collection of displays was foreign to some of them. In any case, when I read your article I felt momentarily concerned that work for Ultraprint would be so absorbing that it could or would leave less energy for other work. It’s not always easy feeding the bear!

  10. Racecar says:

    The most challenging part of the process is making the camera “see” things the way one sees them. I noticed this the first time I started to shoot photographs (in my early teens). I saw the scene one way, but the camera/film/lens didn’t conform to what I saw. I realised early on that cameras were stupid, and that I had to make them to produce the images the way I saw them. Still haven’t mastered all the elements…perhaps someday.

    • Part of the limitations are technical; there are certainly some lenses with better ‘transparency’ than others (the Otus is one of them). The other part of the problem is our eyes are stereoscopic, and the camera isn’t – this affects perception far more than we consciously think…

  11. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series on printing and definitely inspired with picking a series of my own shots and getting them printed. Now to find a print master locally…..

  12. very insightful and resonates within me. many thanks for the great set of articles, ming.

  13. NeutraL-GreY says:

    I am definitely going to take you up on the 5 step idea above.

    You mentioned that for optimal results you use either a tripod or studio. Out of pure curiosity did you just happen to have a tripod for the above train shot?

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