By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Good photographs require good printing if they’re to be enjoyed over time by other people.
This week, by popular demand, we’ll take a first look at making good photographic prints.
Claiming “popular demand” may be overstating matters a bit. One person reminded me that I had promised such a discussion and had not yet delivered. Still, that’s more demand than I usually get.
Images on a computer screen look pretty good at first, until you look closer. Viewed by the brighter transmitted light of a computer screen or wide-screen TV, images seem to have bolder, less-subtle colors and snappy contrast. You’re giving up a lot, though, in exchange for those bright images.
When you examine computer and TV images more closely, you’ll find they cannot be any sharper than the computer screen itself. At the standard 72 dots per inch, computer screens are not very sharp. The same is true when viewing images on a large, wide-screen television, whose typical 1920-by-1200 resolution is comparable to top-end computer monitors.
In contrast, a well-made, properly sharpened display print will be several times sharper. Although many images look best when portions are not “sharp,” having the capability to display razor-sharp images is a basic part of your photographic tool kit, to be used when appropriate. After all, isn’t that why you purchased that expensive camera and bevy of good lenses?
There’s another limitation on photos displayed on computer and television screens — a quite limited tonal range. These devices generally display only a limited color and tonal range, eight steps from dark to light. That’s substantially less than the 10 to 14 tonal steps available in RAW format images made with a good-quality camera.
High-quality photographic prints thus are not only sharper, but can display a better color and tonal range. You can hang them on a wall where you and others can enjoy them at all times.
Whether a printed photograph is properly printed and worth hanging depends on several factors. Here are some rules of thumb that are generally useful. Remember, though, in any “artistic” medium, there are no hard-and-fast rules, only general suggestions. Every image is different. Trying to force a particular image into immutable rules doesn’t always work. In photography, as in life and politics, one size doesn’t fit all.
- Tonal range. A print should encompass the entire possible range of tones from a tiny bit of pure black to a few small highlights that are pure white. Another good rule of thumb is that the intermediate tones should be continuous, richly toned and smoothly transitioning without the obvious discontinuities, known as “banding.” Ideally, we would print with a 16-tone (16-bit) range, but only a few higher-end printers, such as the Epson 3880, include print driver software that can work with 16-bit tonal ranges. In order to use 16-bit tonal range, you’ll also need to use an RAW format image and set your software to work in a 16-bit color space, like AdobeRGB 1998. JPEG images shouldn’t bother applying — JPEG is inherently an 8-bit tonal range. Not all software allows you to work in 16-bit tones, but Abobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Adobe Lightroom all allow you to choose the tonal range. You’ll need to specifically calibrate your monitor and printer to properly display and print the full color range. I like X-Rite’s lower-end calibration products, such as the ColorMunki. They do the job and result in much better final prints without breaking the bank. This is a critical step on the journey to better photographic prints.
- Proper contrast. Contrast is related to tonal range. It describes how quickly tones transition within an image. Contrast is critical to the best final appearance of a photographic print. Once you’ve calibrated your monitor and printer, start experimenting with different contrast levels. It’s often the most important difference between ho-hum and well-done photos.
- Exposure. Just like the Three Bears porridge, a print should be not too dark and not too light, but just right. Proper exposure is critical and varies according to the subject matter and the effect that you want to achieve. Some prints look better dark, while others look muddy if too dark. Experiment and see what looks best to you when viewed under the same lighting that will illuminate the displayed print.
- Color balance. Generally, we try to achieve an overall color balance that is pleasing. Usually, that approximates what our eye and brain perceive as natural, but not always. Calibrate your system carefully and experiment with color balance to see what makes the most sense for an image. Adobe Lightroom allows you to correct and/or alter the overall color balance as well as adjusting individual colors for saturation and brightness for best results.
- Printers. Your choice of printer is obviously critical and the range of appropriate printer models is actually rather limited and only updated every three or four years. As a result, there are not too many good photo printers under $1,000. The best are probably the Canon 9000 and 9500 series, which produce prints up to 13-by-19 inches, and Epson’s 2880, also a 13-by-19 printer. In the $200 range, Canon’s 8120 is well-regarded. Above $1,000, Epson’s 3880 printer ($1,300 list price) is the best choice, unless you’re a commercial photographer. It uses sheet paper up to 17 inches wide. I very much like the strong, rich prints produced by this printer, which I used to print my new June photo exhibit. HP’s DesignJet 130 (usually around $1,200 to $1,400) is capable of producing excellent prints up to 24 inches wide from less-expensive roll paper. However, I do find the Epson 3880 easier to use. I’ll soon look at specific photo papers, ink sets and other factors in making a good photo print.
Odds and ends
- “Rarified Light.” It’s time for the statewide “Rarified Light” juried fine art photography exhibition. Entries must be postmarked not later than June 6. Go to http://www.akphotoctr.org to download entry information and forms.
- Your exhibition here! If you’re interested in submitting a proposal for an individual or group art exhibition to hang in 2012, contact the Kenai Fine Arts Center at 283-7040.
- Shameless Self-Promotion Department. There’s a free public reception at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Kenai Fine Arts Center for the opening of my June photo exhibition, “Obscured Views.”
- Science Book of the Week. This week’s recommended science book for laypersons is “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” by Richard Feynman. Unlike the past few books, this book is not lavishly illustrated nor is it beautifully done. In fact, it’s just an inexpensively made paperback without any photos. What’s inside makes this book special. Feynman was a real character, an American original. This book is a series of candid, often funny tales that happen to show how good scientists think and work. Along the way, Feynman recounts a rich and adventurous life, playing in a Brazilian samba band, becoming the Manhattan Project’s unofficial safecracker and getting the idea for his Nobel Prize-winning work while witnessing a student food fight at Cornell University. Aside from being an accomplished storyteller, Feynman was also one of the more original and important scientists of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize in physics by 47, headed an important section of World War II’s Manhattan Project at age 27, and demonstrated on national TV why the space shuttle Columbia was lost in that catastrophic 1986 explosion. Outside his own field of theoretical quantum physics, Feynman pioneered several now-important technologies, including nanotechnology and massively parallel supercomputing. This is a breezy, fun read about a highly productive life lived to the max, and then some. That it’s still in print after 25 years is testament to its enduring appeal.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.