Making Photographic Prints, a Visit with the Way-Back-Machine

June 17, 2012  •  2 Comments

Great Meadow Lily Pads

"Great Meadow and Lily Pads" June 16, 2012 Acadia National Park, Maine.

check this out: I wrote this on wednesday, coming back to the island after getting my car fixed, and got stuck in the worst traffic jam ever! Living on an island we have one road to get on and off it and a bus was crashed into shutting down the road for 6 hours! I was stuck there in one spot for 5.5 hours!!!

Hi fellas! I'm stuck in an epic traffic jam so I'll take the impromptu break and try and make the most of it and jot down some things regarding printing that I've been thinking on recently. I've been printing up a storm here lately, it's work that should have been taken care of back in the late winter and spring, but you know how it goes. The busy tourist season has just about started to fully take off around here and between printing a couple small exhibitions and another set for a real nice local restaurant, and a couple other sets for some small galleries and stores and matting them all and reprinting the ones that should be reprinted, and going to the day job, and sleeping- has left me absolutely no time or energy to consider shooting new work lately. I'm scrambling badly, can feel my blood pressure like, it's a little stressful because the point is quality and attention to detail, and you shouldn't rush this, and I really wish I had done this back in the winter. But because I've been printing so much like a middle ages monk, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts that I thought about making photographic prints.

a color set

Right then, so the real reason that I've been scrambling so much over the past month and a half is that when I should have been making all of these prints back in the spring I was broke, something of a recurring symptom of the winter around here. It was just too financially demanding back then to buy rolls of paper and stacks of matts, but next year I'll at least have something of a backstock to get started! Now to say "financially demanding" is something of an overstatement as making a 16"x16" or 16"x24" inch print on my Epson 3880 is quite affordable indeed. I'm still not quite sure how to accurately pin down the costs for an individual print, but using Epson Ultra Smooth Fine Art paper, (which is my go-to preferred stock, see disclaimer), it really can't be much more then about 10 bucks American dollars per piece. When I initially inquired about having my work printed by a local printer a couple years ago, I was quoted 95 dollars for a 16"x24" inch- which would certainly cut into the profit margin, as well as I wasn't able to proof the images. These days places like Mpix etc. have much more affordable rates but still the same problem about not being able to proof the output exists, I want control over the print just like I want control of the post-processing. 

Disclaimer: a lot of my fine-art printing friends enjoy using the exotically named Hahnemuhle line of papers, but personally I think that the extra 30 percent in savings that comes with using the Epson USFA (ultra smooth fine art) paper at 325 gsm, coupled with the fantastic quality of it can't be beat. As well as I found that using the Hahnemuhle paper (Photo Rag 308 gsm matte) and the Hahnemuhle icc profile, the impression I had was that I was getting something of slightly muddy darks to midtones gradations? I tried tuning my output settings to compensate for this but was never really truly satisfied while using the Hahnemuhle, so for the time being at least, Epson paper it is.

Right then, so let's start from the beginning. In the beginning god created the heavens and the earth, and photographers made pictures and shared them on the internet, and all was good. But really the ultimate expression of the photograph is a nice print that one can hold in their hands and view with reflected light instead of on a backlit LED screen. So last year with the help of an amazingly gracious patron and friend and supporter I was able to acquire my Epson 3880. The 3880 is completely awesome and since then I have heard of more people and friends of mine who have chosen this machine then any other. My biggest consideration in choosing this model was the print size. I have heard Moose Peterson declare that the 17"x whatever size is the perfect print size for most walls. And in the year since I started using the 3880 I still think that 16"x16" inches (square crop), or 16"x20" inches (4x5 crop), or 16"x24" inches (2x3 crop) is still the perfect viewing size. And it has occurred to me that I can usually afford to buy paper but a 24" inch roll or the massive billboard making 9600 that prints 48" inch prints roll would cost nearly a months rent in a very nice apartment to restock paper for! No regrets going with the 3880 at all, it's a dream machine!

I'm printing off an 27" Imac out of Lightroom 4 usb'd to the printer that sits on my desktop (which I built an extension for to fit it). It was fairly easy to get it up and running and it's easy to fire up at a moments notice. But the "art" of fine-art printing seems to provide a lifetimes pursuit to refine and master, much like photography. Which is good, I love a challenge!

Printing considerations:

I live with a beautiful gardener lady who is my partner and two dogs and one cat and keeping an hermetically sealed clean-room isn't possible- so I keep my printer covered with the bag that it shipped in from the factory to keep dust out. When I prepare to print I try to choose times when there won't be a lot of dust raising activity in the house (also to keep dust out) and also I try to refrain from printing on inordinately dry days which could possibly lead to print head clogs. When I take a piece of paper out of the package to print on I brush it to remove any paper bits that may be on the surface from shipping, or worst-case scenario: dog hairs! (if there is a speck of dust on the surface that is printed over the dust will fall off later and reveal a white spot, called a "hicky".)

I mostly print black and white imagery and use the Epson Advanced B+W mode to do that. Initially I read that the "Darker" setting in the ABW interface was best but since have gone with the "Dark" setting for more accurate reproduction, and using the toning adjustments I can balance warmer or cooler papers nicely.

Paper: there are a great selection of fantastic fine-art papers out there to choose from. I prefer matte papers as the reflections caused by the coatings on luster or glossy papers are really distracting to me although some people prefer these kind of papers for their higher D-Max (ability to achieve blacker blacks). Some matte paper considerations are the surface or their "tooth" which refers to the textured surface of cold-press papers, thickness which is expressed as a gsm measurement, and color as a "natural" paper is warmer in appearance vs. a bright paper. In the end it all ends up being a personal preference and it's invaluable to check out a sample pack to get a feel for the differences.

It's absolutely necessary to calibrate your monitor to ensure proper tones and contrast and brightness and I went with the X-Rite ColorMunki Diplay calibration system which sits on my desktop next to my screen. One of the cool things about the ColorMunki Display is that after you make the profile it will constantly adjust to monitor ambient room temperature and brightness throughout the day to keep things true. Which leads me to: there are certain times of day that are better to develop images than others- I don't like having all the shades drawn to keep daylight out so when it's overly bright in the day it's bad for me to develop, as when it's too dark it tends to hurt my eyeballs when developing so perfect is a rainy day or twilight light, and then that often nicely coincides with appropriate times to have a beer or two too.

Like I said: it was easy to get printing initially but it is certainly a craft to make a perfect print. Lightroom and Photoshop both have a soft-proofing feature which will emulate the output medium that you are using, thereby enabling adjustments which will best suit printing on paper vs. viewing on a screen. But I don't like to softproof much. Through my brief experience as a print maker I have gone with using the Print Adjustments feature in Lightroom 4 in the print module to add about 15-25 points of brightness (depending on the stock that I'm using) as well as about 3 points of contrast or so. Most of the time the prints come out just as I want them, the biggest cause of having to reprint is a result of "hickies" ( a dust spot or some other kind of tiny imperfection). Fine-art prints need to be perfect it is the ultimate representation of your craftsmanship as a photographer and the attention to detail that we practice in the field and in the digital darkroom needs to be carried through the print and the mat.

One more thing: what I mean about "The Way-Back Machine" is that usually I am constantly thinking about my next images and looking forward , so printing is an invaluable exercise in self-curating my work and making critical review. Like you might think that the image that you're looking at on your monitor is a big-winner but when printed large all the little details and infinitesimally small sensor dust spots that you thought you dealt with become painfully evident- or pleasingly rewarding if you did a good job! And printing your work leads to bodies of work which is either concise and complimentary or sorted and disjointed.

Long story short: Print! Print your work and give it as gifts, sell it in galleries, hang it on your walls: which is the true test- how long can you hang an image on your wall without growing bored of looking at it? I'm happy to say that at least one of my images that hangs on a wall opposite of my relaxing chair has not lost it's initial appeal to me and I can still get lost in it when I look at it today.

P.p.s. One last bit: perhaps printing is the ultimate in archival storage and preserving your legacy as there's something about the digital storage of images that makes me nervous: solar flares and all and the reliance of systems beyond our control.

Enough of me, now get out of here and go shoot some pictures and then print them! Thanks for stopping by and have a nice day- Nate from Maine USA.




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Nathan Wirth(non-registered)
Great read, Nate! I agree with you, in part, about the Hahnemuhle paper; however, I have found that certain images of mine just work perfectly on that paper-- while quite a few do not. That's been the learning curve for me-- choosing the best paper for the image. Keep on printing, dude! Maybe one of your awesome images could end up on my wall someday! (hint, hint).
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