Output objectives and creative development

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I was discussing printmaking with one of the regulars readers of this site recently when a thought struck me: one of the biggest turning points for me personally was when I started shooting with an eventual printability objective for all of my images. This happened around early 2012, before which I’d felt I was stagnating creatively somewhat – perhaps partially due to day job commitments (this was before I turned to photography full time) and partially because well, I didn’t have an output objective.

We need to take a step back first: I talk a lot about sufficiency. Firstly, what is sufficient for web or even screen viewing is not sufficient for really high quality printing; don’t get me wrong, you can make a good print from not that many pixels, and of course the ultimate impact of an image comes down to composition and content rather than file quality. But if you want to produce final output where the output medium isn’t the restriction, then that bar of sufficiency needs to be re-evaluated objectively commensurate with the output and intended final use. We’ve talked about web: even the most common high resolution screens run perhaps 4MP; web is closer to 1MP (at best) or 0.5MP (more likely). The images on this site are about 0.5MP in general; anything larger and you cannot see the whole image at once, or you cannot read the text. There are images that do not work at web sizes, and images that do not work as large prints. This is an important point; we’ll return to it later.

Photographing with an end goal is much easier than without: if you are just tasked to ‘take pictures’, it can be challenging because you’ll suffer either from visual overload and a lack of focus, or a lack of inspiration and zero output. Either way, the resulting images won’t be as strong as if you were told ‘take pictures of X’, or better yet, ‘I want a specific image of X doing X’ or ‘show this aspect of X’. Professional photographers slip into this mindset all the time: I find that talking to a lot of people in the industry, they shoot a lot while on assignment, but very little outside. Some of it may be due to photography feeling like a job, but I suspect the lack of focus also affects motivation. For hobbyists, you can see it most clearly when you go on vacation: I bet a lot more photographing is done than when you’re at home, even if time is not an issue.

It’s a similar case when it comes to output: if you know you’re going to have to put every single pixel of your camera to use to get the print quality you want, then you’re subconsciously going to work a lot harder to get it; this in turn will change the way you shoot and the bar you set when curating the output. That much is obvious. The crux of today’s article is that the effect of the output medium goes much, much further than that – if you’re willing to let it.

I think to a large extent, social media is responsible for both the degradation and increase in quality of photographs ‘published’ – well, shown to a wide audience, at any rate – today. On one end of the scale, there is little, if any, care given to capture; it’s just to show something to the rest of the world. On the other hand, because a much wider audience can see your work, you’re going to try to put more effort into it – that’s human nature. I wouldn’t want to publish an image I’m not completely happy with, and I keep raising that bar – both for personal creative development and because I have a professional reputation to maintain. I suspect it’s the same for a lot of the audience here, too (and one of the reasons why the bar for submissions to the reader flickr pool keeps getting higher 🙂 On top of this, since the output doesn’t have to be good enough to print or keep – that implies a degree of ‘seriousness’ and commitment to an image and output that perhaps not everybody has – the bar for quality is lowered.

Let’s do a thought experiment: from your last shooting session – take a reasonable body of work, say 100-200 images – if I asked you to pick ten to be printed, I think you may well have trouble either narrowing it down, or filling the quota. I know I do, frequently. And then this would change again if I said they were to be small 6×4″ postcard-sized images, or if I said they were to be wall-sized. Why? Because the objective has suddenly shifted: the images may or may not (more likely) have been created with this output in mind. And suddenly considerations that may not have been present at the time of capture (say marginal handholding conditions causing a bit of camera shake) now matter. Especially if I then tell you that you’re going to be paying for the prints.

It’s probably quite clear to see now how having a specific print objective (in this case) forces you to level up at the time of capture.

This brings me back to the earlier point: different images work at different sizes, and different media. I strongly suspect part of the reason why a lot of people (myself included) don’t understand images like Rhein II is because we haven’t seen them as the creator intended: there is no possible way that a small web jpeg does it justice; much the same as it is impossible for me to convey what an Ultraprint looks like through a digital medium. The medium itself is so limited that the best it can do is insufficient. Everybody who’s seen them in person says that there is no other way of capturing the experience other than by physical viewing. I don’t even feel as though I can fully appreciate the output of my D810/645Z on my 27″ monitor; at any given time, I’m looking at barely 10% of the image, or less.

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From a content and subject point of view, there are simply some images that do not work well at smaller sizes – a forest, for instance; and others do not have enough areas of visual interest to hold your attention for very long if printed large. This brings me to an explanation of the two images which I’ve chosen for this article: they represent a before and after for me, and both are of similar subject matter. The first image is a recent image that I shot a couple of months ago in Hong Kong; it has a structure of decreasing visual weight from bottom to top; it has areas of tonal interest and fine detail to hold attention, and is shot and processed to extract maximum pixel quality. The second image is a much earlier image that was shot because I found the reflections interesting in person, but the light wasn’t optimal and as a result, pixel quality is a bit off for many reasons. The first image would print well, and use the full available tonal and resolving power gamut; the second would be pretty flat. And no amount of postprocessing will bring that back – it just wasn’t there to begin with. The image was simply not shot with the intention of being printed.

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Forest III. There is simply no way this works at web sizes: how can any display convey the feeling of being there, looking at the intricacy of the branches and twigs, and the feeling of an alpine forest in winter? We have a simple problem of insufficient information to begin with: there are no 250MP displays. Forest III is available here as a limited edition large Ultraprint.

Bottom line: I now firmly believe that the objective of printing, or at least very large digital output, is important to furthering one’s creative development as a photographer. If I wasn’t making Ultraprints, I wouldn’t be chasing ultimate image quality as aggressively; I wouldn’t be experimenting with landscapes, and I certainly wouldn’t be consciously looking for the kinds of complex, immersive subjects that would benefit from such a presentation. It encourages me to explore ideas that I wouldn’t have done otherwise – using a medium that ironically has transparency as its defining quality. I can only highly encourage you to all give it a try – I am certain you will shoot differently afterwards. MT

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Limited edition Ultraprints of these images and others are available from mingthein.gallery

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Beautiful and thought-provoking, as always.

    Ming, are you looking forward to the just-appearing generation of 5K displays? At ~15Mpixel, they would be the first generation of tech to allow you to see a reasonable fraction of your images at 1:1 onscreen at once.

    • The trouble is you can see it…but retouching is hell, and clients without them tend to scream when you miss a pixel. They’d be useful for visualising larger Ultraprints, but even then we’re still only at about 240ppi.

  2. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “Bottom line: I now firmly believe that the objective of printing, or at least very large digital output, is important to furthering one’s creative development as a photographer.”

    I can’t agree more!

    But I would like to add, that practising to print yourself (in different sizes) also helps a lot.

    I can only speak for B/W printing, but practising (now 20 years ago) with a limited resolution black inkjet and only a curves tool taught me a lot about tonality and dynamic range; even though my first schooling in the -60:es was with an enlarger where exposure and paper gradation were the learning tools.

    ( Outside these periods I had, alas, to resign myself to the local lab for the occasional print.)

    Although this is about the craft, I believe it influences the way you see and thus also the art.

  3. I was happy to read this. I find it refreshing to see young photographers coming to grips with the artful thinking and process in this day and age when it is no longer a given that an image is created in the camera to be printed as a matter of fact or due course. From my perspective, learning to operate cameras in the 60’s and 70’s, I still think in terms of the print. Although I only find a few each year that I think are really worthy of the gallery treatment, it’s always in my mind and for me, it’s that understanding or vision that informs to some extent the composition and exposure details I select in order to achieve that objective. Pushing the boundaries, as you are, is something that’s been a part of the DNA of photography since the beginning, and as we approach the 200th anniversary of the photographic print, it is exciting to witness some of the new frontiers being created in the area of natural realism in print.

  4. Ming, you continue to stretch and, via this blog, to force me to stretch as well. I’m sure I’ll be spending some time this year with a tripod and my best equipment seeing what I can do with a more immersive / higher quality output as my goal. Thanks again.

    • The tripod has another benefit: forcing you to slow down and think. I went out and shot on Saturday morning. And in two hours, only made three images. One of them took the rest of the weekend to complete (wind/moving trees/stitching issues) – but they were worth it, and personally, more satisfying than a more but less ‘concentrated’ images. And I know none of them will work except in print.

  5. While this talks significantly about printing, it seems (to me) to be one aspect of an approach to photography that was discussed at length by Ansel Adams in his writings and teachings many years ago – that of visualization of the finished ‘product’ at the time the image is made. While many are familiar with the use of the Zone System for realizing the tonal aspects of the finished work, he also discussed at length the aspects of presentation – including size of the finished print – as a key aspect to consider in the original composition. As Ming points out, some images work well only in small sizes and others benefit from larger presentations.

    The other thing this brings to mind is the relationship of art and craft in photography. I have always viewed the ‘art’ aspect as the thing which is visualized. That is to say that the art qualities should exist when and in what you visualize before exposing the image. The ‘craft’ is the ability to use your tools, techniques, and process to achieve the desires (i.e. visualized) result. Neither is more or less valuable or necessary than the other to the final result, but they play different roles.

    Of course, sometimes we take the image (whether negative or digital) and go off in a different direction than was originally intended. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. But there is real satisfaction, at least to me, when the final result is conceived and realized in a consistent manner.

    This also means you can separate the two aspects of photography (what I have called art and craft), practicing either independently. Practicing the art can be done by walking around and seeing, camera optional, but a cropping L is handy. Practicing the craft is critical since it is only developed through execution, and can be done on more ‘mundane’ subject matter to accelerate the process.

    Interested to hear others thoughts on this.

  6. Gerner Christensen says:

    Very interesting article this one Ming. Thanks for that. I could just imagine how a ‘print set’ mind would influence the way one executes a take out there in the field. I would need to expand my in-brain execution envelope quite a bit.
    So far it has been totally random when I see a print worthy shot among the takes I bring home and if there are some, I have been curating around geometrical objects or scenes that shows a tight framing and non-complex texture. So in most cases more or less out of pure luck if there were any worth printing.
    With a ‘print mindset’ as you describe, my casual shoot away style would certainly be challenged and I just wonder how often or rarely I would release the shutter? Perhaps there could be a potential group of photographers who would show big interest in a Masterclass for ‘printers’?
    There is a practical problem about private use printing. How to find space on the walls for it? OK. I exchange my ‘exhibition’ quite often to avoid smog frames around the image frames but also to refresh the dedicated walls once in a while, hence most of my print work ends up in A2 format albums. Being less ideal for viewing of course, but I enjoy to take out an album with typical 10 pages and dwell a bit with it, think how could I have executed this better for the general quality,crop,IQ, tonality and sharpening issues.
    For me I have a thousand times less pleasure to view images on a monitor, it is simply just for the record and scrapbook usage.

  7. NeutraL-GreY says:

    My apologies if you have already answered this somewhere else but have you considered making and selling a video series about the whole printing process?

    • I did, but it wouldn’t make sense because a lot of the process is very hardware specific. Ultraprints require a modified printer, for instance. There are also creative choices – mostly to do with color calibration, gamut and contrast – that cannot be method-ized or quantified and are largely experience based. There’s also no easy formula to translate from a transmissive medium (screen) to a reflective (print) one. It depends on subject matter, paper, intended viewing light etc.

  8. Great Article Ming! Time to setup the printer…

  9. A very interesting post. I am just now realizing this myself. I also noticed that when I print some images they are a little darker printed them they are on my screen. Now I get small proofs so I can check before I make the final request for a print. But I am just using a lab online for printing. I think you get better results going to a print store where they have more Control over the printing and don’t use standard logarithms. Is that true in your opinion?

  10. It is probably true that one does need ambitious goals to drive technical excellence in one’s craft.

    However, it is at least as important to give oneself permission to fail, and fail completely. One might aim to create a framed and hung masterpiece, but there is a danger that expectations of perfection so intimidate the artist that they never release the shutter or write a word. Creativity must start in privacy so that the artist has the complete freedom to fail and discard. (There is always plenty more where that came from.)

    The most important output objective is probably to simply have an output: to ensure that the camera is pulled out, silicon or film exposed; that one experiments with new material; and finally discard, discard and discard until a mature result is obtained that can tolerate the light of publication.

    • Nothing wrong with failure. Without failures we won’t know what to fix. But they don’t always have to be publicly shown, either; it’s a tough and unforgiving world and you’re almost never given another chance, sadly.

  11. Pick 10, I agree that is difficult. Quality? Two days ago I went to see “Interstellar” in a supposedly 4k digital format. It was barely DVD quality. A great movie, yes, but I have seen better quality in my den.

Trackbacks

  1. […] point, the medium will have a huge influence on the impact and translation of an image: we have to shoot with the end output in mind, or risk a weak image. Unless a specific assignment requires otherwise, I create images that I know […]

  2. […] aware of the limitations of my equipment, but more because I’m also trying to work to the strengths and limitations of the output medium. Even if I stopped posting or sharing these images, I’d probably continue to shoot them […]

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