Continued from the first half of the interview yesterday with printmaster Wesley Wong.
13. The colours of some objects/ scenes are difficult to reproduce in a photograph for several reasons – gamut, transmissive rather than reflective surfaces, matte vs shiny textures etc – how do you bridge this gap in print? Personally, I’m a big fan of baryta (fibre-based substrate with a barium sulphate surface coating) papers because of their tonal richness and semi-organic feel and ability to reproduce fine detail in a way that feels continuous and not digitally discrete due to the fibre structure; these are very similar in type to the paper used for a traditional darkroom print. Explain to us a bit about the different types of printing materials available, and what they might be most suitable for – both from a subject and usage/installation standpoint?
It all depends on the image, composition, and choice of how the final work is to be framed (with or without glass), ambient lighting conditions, etc. To keep things simple, I would normally advise customers to use a semi gloss/glossy paper, regardless of whether the substrate is resin-based or cotton/fiber based (like barytas) if higher perceived contrast is required. This is because the Dmax (maximum ink density) is much higher on glossy papers than matte ones. For example, Canson Infinity Platine Fiber Rag can produce a Dmax of up to 2.5-2.7 – translating much deeper blacks. By comparison, Dmax is limited to about 1.7-1.8 on typical fine art matte papers. That said, images printed on matte fine art paper give a more artistic feel; the choice between smooth or textured paper is also highly subjective. For most of my art reproduction work, it is almost natural to select a more textured surface to mimic the original work, such as canvas. One of the strengths of fine art giclee printmaking is the ability to have a wide selection of paper types.
14. What types of paper are most popular – both for normal consumer/ prosumer prints, commercial reproductions and fine art?
For most of the first time work (in print), I would recommend my customers to try printing on semigloss resin coated-based photo paper. It is not pricey and it feels exactly like a minilab print but with much higher paper quality, color accuracy and archival lifespan. There are also customers who like canvas prints, so it remains the only choice for them. For very large sized prints exceeding 48” width, I would also recommend canvas, because it is hardy and easier to handle. Also, at those sizes, framing becomes tough to handle. My personal favorite has always been cotton or fiber based fine art papers.
15. Printing during the film days was commonplace; the dominance of negative film meant that you couldn’t simply project it in the same way you could with slides. People were used to viewing images as prints, albeit in printed form. Those were mostly optical enlargements on photographic paper; how does the digital print process compare – where are the strengths and weaknesses?
The optical enlargement process is a thing of the past. Digital files today are interpolated to final output sizes through software such as Photoshop/ Lightroom or a RIP. Not all interpolation engines are the same, and depending on the mathematical model used i.e. BiCubic, Lanchoz, Fractals, Spline, etc…there can be a significant difference to the final file. Inkjet printers use a dithering process to make up intermediate colors and tones, squirting ink from densely packed fine nozzles (either through a thermal or piezo-electric printhead) which requires a higher PPI from the source file to make a print print. The advantage of this process is apparent with the ever-increasing resolution: a 24MP (6000px by 4000px) native image at 300dpi yields a 20” x 13.3” print without interpolation. With a good interpolation engine, it is possible to upsize it by 200-400%, maintaining a good visual appearance within a 3-5ft viewing distance without any apparent pixelation.
I believe that the interpolation engines can be further improved, perhaps to the point a 72dpi file becomes printable at least at life size to the viewing screen. At present, it is almost impossible to make a decent print from a 72ppi file to the size of a 24” monitor – even though it looks stunning when viewed at 72ppi on screen.
16. From a printing standpoint, do you think there are still reasons to shoot film, perhaps with a hybrid digital process similar to the one I use? Do you see any difference in the files?
Frankly, I think this is debatable. The question here is which is the reference? Are we trying to make a digital image look like an analog print or vice versa? This is indeed hard to answer. From the workflow point of view, it rather demands a complicated ‘indirect’ workflow from capture to print, because at some point the analog media (film) needs to be digitized. Personally I have not shot enough film to believe that film output beats digital in resolution and dynamic range. Your film work, however, is highly impressive – but then again, can the average viewer differentiate an image from a film or digital source when both are printed digitally? Or is the intention to converge both so that they are not differentiable?
At the end of the day, the choice is entirely up to the photographer and their preferred workflow and confidence in equipment used. It is very difficult to produce a pure analog print with enlargers these days, so we cannot do an A-B comparison with a digital print from a high megapixel digital source. I am however, very curious to know how much resolving power we can get from a 4×5 scan, and will be eager to make a very large print to find out. ☺
17. Which aspects of printing do you find most challenging? Which are most rewarding?
It is a constant challenge getting the right colors, and smooth gray tones in black and white work – it’s really about pushing the last 5% accuracy. Different papers have different limits in ink density, and they even differ in how ink droplets settle into the coated surface. This directly translates into how much ink the paper can hold, how well it reproduces colors and tones. The most rewarding is when you know you’ve hit the right note when the print comes to life with indiscernible color variation from the calibrated screen.
18. What’s the most challenging file (of mine, perhaps, so I can show an example) you’ve had to print, and why?
It has to be ‘The Forest’ on your November print run. For some reason, I just cannot reproduce the colors from your capture without making heavy manual adjustments in Photoshop. Even after a very meticulous (2hr+) multi-run calibration with the wide gamut Epson Stylus Pro 9900, all of your other images were accurate except for this one! There was no problem with the embedded color profile of the file, either. I still cannot find the reason why is it not printing according the captured colors. It is probably best to treat this as an isolated problem. ☺
MT: Ahh yes. I am starting to suspect in addition to really pushing the edges of the print gamut, it’s quite possible that the colors on that image were out of the monitor’s gamut too, and those two didn’t overlap – which in turn meant that we couldn’t even see the variance accurately.
19. Print technology has been advancing, perhaps not as fast as photography, but advancing nevertheless – what do you think is in most critical need for improvement? What are we missing?
On the contrary, pigment ink-based giclee photo printers have reached a stage of maturity. I cannot think of any technological advances to bring this to greater heights. I have close liaison with both HP and Epson, and they too think that their products have reached the pinnacle, in terms of product features, performance and price. Further improvement has to come from RIP software and interpolation engines.
20. What hardware do you currently use, and why?
At Giclee Art, we use HP Designjet Z6100 and Z3100 photo printers, and have recently acquired an Epson Stylus Pro 9900. Both Z3100 and Epson are 44” wide printers, while the main workhorse is the Z6100 at 60” with a take up reel for unattended continuous printing. I love the HP Designjet printers for their reliability and low cost of ownership. It is probably the only printer in this class with user replaceable print heads. I love the Epson for its color especially on matte fine art media, paper handling (straight) and speed which almost matches the Z6100. Both brands give me excellent support.
21. Let’s talk about handling and storing prints: aside from the obvious like not touching the surface any dos and don’ts?
One of the obvious reasons for us to leave a white unprinted border on a print is handling. Most print surfaces are very delicate, so they have to be handled carefully. Besides that, we have to consider other factors that will deteriorate a print over time such as humidity, UV and fungus/mould. Conservation-grade framing is an expensive process, and not many framing shops in Malaysia are aware of such procedures.
22. What’s the best method for storing prints?
I would suggest using archival boxes in areas with relatively low humidity. With that, fungus will not grow. This is especially true for tropical countries with all year high humidity like Malaysia.
23. How durable are modern giclee prints on an absolute scale, and compared to traditional optical darkroom methods?
Essentially, they are the same. Take the baryta papers for example…the substrate used are the same which are fiber based. Both surfaces are coated with barium sulphate, and they even smell the same. The only addition is the inkjet coating on the inkjet version of the same paper.
24. Are there ageing or curing effects, and do they need to be compensated for?
All fresh prints out of the printer are best left for a period of up to 24 hours for the curing to happen; inks settle, solvents dry, and tones separate out. Most prints are dry to the touch out of the printer, but it is a good practice to allow the print to fully cure and dry before storing it.
25. You also do mounting and exhibition installations – several of mine included – aside from the traditional matte-and-glass-frame methods, what else is available? Any particular recommendations?
I have always been asked by customers where they should send their prints for framing and how to best frame them. As I do not offer any framing services, it is hard for me to recommend any framing method other than recommending them to some reputable framing shops which handles the prints well. In 2013, I designed and offered a product called the Monobloc – it is a flush-mounted solution without glass and a substantial border; this has proven to be the most popular. [MT: my recent Engineering Art in Metal exhibition was mounted on Monoblocs.] We can also mount to Kapaline 5mm foamcore boards and DiLite 3mm aluminum sheets. I also intend to offer acrylic face mounts, as soon as the right material is available here.
26. Lighting – both direction, brightness and colour temperature – play a huge part in the perception of a print. What would you recommend?
I would still recommend a ceiling mounted daylight balanced fluorescent lighting system. It is easy to install, relatively low cost and low UV radiation. It also minimizes reflections due to the size of the source. I am still not too convinced by LED solutions as the color temperature is not consistent.
27. A personal question: since you’re also a photographer, does it feel odd to print other people’s work – and sometimes also have to optimise their files to make them look good? Ever feel jealous?
Not at all. To most photographers, I am a master printer. Since I do not do commercial photography work, I am not viewed as a competitor in any way. I shoot mainly stock for project requirements, and personal consumption. In most cases, I am just testing cameras and their output in print. I am usually impressed with high quality work and compositions from other photographers. I don’t envy their work, rather, I learn from them too. Not that I am copying their style, but it opens up my mind and inspires me artistically to take better images.
28. Do you have any advice or recommendations for photographers who are just starting to put their work into print?
Start with a smaller image, say 4R or 8×12”, and enjoy the process of making prints. You may start by getting your own desktop printer or sending it to an experienced master printer. The experience of holding your own print versus viewing it on screen is totally different. By completing your workflow in print, you will also learn to appreciate your equipment, while understanding its strengths and limitations. When one grows in confidence, he or she may try a larger print size. Besides that, it is also important to price your prints carefully if they are intended for sale – think of the time and effort invested, not to mention the equipment!
29. Finally, where would you like to take your work next?
I would like to productize more of my services, and designing custom framing ideas so that customers will purchase them as complete products rather than just being a printing service. Meanwhile, I will like to continue to push the limits of printmaking, both for color and black and white work. There are still limits which I have to breech to achieve the level which I will call the ‘ultimate print’. Getting to work on more high quality files is essential, and I believe that is where you come in… 🙂
MT: A big thank you to Wesley – that was a very detailed thorough dialogue. So much so we had to split it into two parts to make it readable 🙂
Tomorrow, the focus on printing continues. We present the evolution of the printmaking process and the result of a lot of joint R&D into, print production, perceptual psychology of viewing prints and refinements in post processing…
Wesley Wong is the founder of Giclee Art, offering extremely high quality printing solutions at a range of sizes. In addition to exclusively printing my fine art and commercial work, he also prints for quite a few of my students and a large number of the eminent photographers in Malaysia. He can be contacted via email here, or via his website. He also ships finished work internationally.
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