Tag Archives: Printing

Using Photoshop with Restraint

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” That’s an old saying, but it’s extremely relevant to manipulating digital images with Photoshop in today’s “digital darkrooms”.

Photoshop has become such a powerful and complex program that I doubt that anyone truly knows all its tricks. I would estimate, on the high end, that I might use 5% of its total capabilities.

Photoshop’s power can truly be a siren song, and it undoubtedly has played a major role in ruining many a good image (and many more bad ones). It’s human nature to want more saturation, more contrast, more clarity, more sharpness, and on and on.  It’s also now possible to make all these adjustments in truly complex and convoluted ways, all the way down to making changes on a pixel by pixel basis.

In my experience (in Photoshop and elsewhere in life), the more complicated things become, the more chances there are to screw them up. If I’m having trouble printing an image, the first thing I do is turn off all the adjustments I’ve done and go back to square one. Often, by simplifying things considerably, I end up where I really wanted to be in the first place.

I spent many years printing in a traditional darkroom, and follow the same basic approach when I print digitally. While the tools are different, the primary goal in black and white printing remains the same: taking the tonalities that existed in the original scene and translating them into the desired values by the use of filtering, global and local contrast control, and dodging and burning (lightening and darkening certain areas of a print). A quote from Ansel Adams, as relayed by John Sexton, applies nicely: “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made when establishing tonal relationships.”

As in a traditional darkroom, it seems best to build up to a final print gradually. A final print shouldn’t be produced in one step. Print it, evaluate it, think about it – the process takes time.  Come back to it additional times and start over if necessary. It’s an evolutionary process. As in the darkroom, once you go too far, it is often hard to go backwards to what might be a more subtle, more delicate, and more appropriate print.

My aim is to present a final image that shows no sign that it has been manipulated in any way. Although each image has been carefully processed and printed, and may have many layers of adjustments, my goal is to make those adjustments invisible.  I try very hard not to let Photoshop get in my way.

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The Print As An “Object”

When I moved to the Bay Area in the late 1980s, I was fortunate to work about three blocks away from the Ansel Adams Center.  This housed the gallery, bookstore, and offices of the Friends of Photography (an organization founded in 1967 by Ansel Adams and others in Carmel, which relocated to the Bay Area in 1989 and ultimately ceased operations in 2001).  The Ansel Adams Center was a beautiful facility on 4th Street in San Francisco near Moscone Center, in a building that formerly housed San Francisco’s venereal disease clinic, a bit of trivia I always found amusing.  There were three galleries of photography with rotating shows, one of which was always devoted to the work of Ansel Adams.

I spent countless lunch hours there.  I would always visit all three galleries, but would usually linger in the one devoted to Ansel Adams, appreciating his prints and craftsmanship.  This time spent with his prints, the final concrete expression of his vision, was inspiring and contributed to the way I look at my own work as well as that of others today.

This relates to the concept of the “print as an object” (a well-known term for which I have not been able to find a source to credit).  In addition to the image (the subject), the final presentation of the image (the object) is of supreme importance, at least in certain circles.  To relate this to Ansel Adams’ well known quote (the negative is the score and the print is the performance), many people like to experience the performance in person.

This experience is often lacking today. The digital presentation of photographs allows vastly more photographs to be viewed, but in my opinion it is not a substitute for viewing the object itself.  In many cases, the “object” may not even exist beyond its digital form. This is undoubtedly the case for the vast majority of casual photographs made today.  Although you can get an idea of the tune, the subtleties and nuance of the performance are not readily revealed.  In some cases prints may not live up to the expectations set by their digital counterparts, while in others the reverse is true.

Reports are that Bill Gates’ mansion on Lake Washington features video displays on the walls to show revolving works of art.  While interesting, the experience must be quite different than looking at the originals.  In this case, the digital presentation becomes another “object”, clouding the issue.

While I look at a lot of images online, I still try to look at the “real thing” whenever possible.  It’s well worth the effort.

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Shades of Gray

Black and white digital printing has come a long way over the last decade or so.  In ancient times (in digital terms) – say the year 2000 – color inks were used, and they were notoriously bad at producing black and white prints.  The prints often had an unpleasant tint, were subject to color shifting or fading, had less-than-satisfactory detail, and suffered from “metamerism” – appearing differently under different lighting conditions.

To combat these issues, dedicated black and white software and inks were developed, most notably by Jon Cone at Cone Editions in Vermont.  The early inks were prone to clogging, but when they worked properly, the results were impressive.

Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find a host of off-the-shelf solutions: for example, the “Advanced Black and White” mode offered in some Epson printers, and a variety of dedicated black and white ink sets.

What do I currently use?  I print with a modified version of the hex-tone process developed by my friend Tom Mallonee at Owens Valley Imaging. Hex-tone uses six custom-blended carbon-pigment inks (black plus five shades of gray) to create exceptional digital black and white prints.  Using six black / gray inks provides smooth tonal gradations, and results in what is essentially a continuous tone print, even though it is produced digitally.  The printer is controlled by special software called a Raster Image Processor (RIP).  I use Quad Tone RIP developed by Roy Harrington (which despite its name can be used to control more than four inks).

Ink Colors Used in Digital Black and White Printing

I’ve replaced the eight original inks in my Epson printer with carbon-pigment inks: black, plus seven different shades and tones of gray.  Using Quad Tone RIP, I’ve created two separate hex-tone profiles which control how the inks are put down on paper – one slightly warm and one slightly cool in tone.  The warm and cool profiles can then be blended to further fine-tune each print.  The result is exceptional control and beautiful prints.

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