The Photographic Print
28 September 2014
updated and extended 14 August 2016
Don’t get me wrong. We enjoy on-screen viewing of the photographs immensely. We have always opened one window with an image displayed on our computers. And whenever finished with the business that is what’s remaining on the screen or is glowing into the room during our evenings.
But there is a difference here. The print, as a way of experiencing the photo, only ever has a greater impact on us. To be honest, to this day, I don’t recall a case when the print wasn’t looking better than its display copy. This will somewhat depend on the availability of papers, or more precisely, on how wide the range of papers we can consider for printing, as the paper is what has a great impact on the output of the particular capture. The display copy is a very good basis for preparing the file to be printed, though, which is also helping to maintain the consistency of your work throughout, including deliberate changes of style if your work swings towards more creative side as the overall perspective is maintained much easier when soft proofing rather than processing for the print. Unless you have your standard starting point already, e.g. in JPEG. The soft proof itself can turn into a lengthy session and even take a great part of the day or two. This is, after all, more a work with the paper than with the monitor, and a point where you can connect with the physical paper you know and are choosing for the photograph (which can fully reveal itself or change during the soft proofing). So a solid base is useful and the image processed (RAW or JPEG) for the monitor display is a good routine on the path to the print. Which, when done well, is the best medium we can experience the capture. And do it well is not at all difficult. You can as well do it excellently.
The photographic print, just like the painting, is printed on a physical material. Different types of paper become part of the process as the paper is tailored not only as a specific medium for the intent but also for the particular photograph to convey best its content through the depth, colour, texture, shades, light, tones and tone which can be distinct (or subtle in its distinction) in number of ways and even things like ambient lighting response. It archetypally is becoming a piece of Art (the contents aside) and in any case has become an artefact. This is different from the display on a monitor which is more an effect rather than an object. The potential is also different. Take just the size aspect, appearance and permanence of the form (you can hardly have 20, 40 monitors on with a picture on them). Vertical orientations, such as 3:2 aspect ratio, are never a comfortable experience on the screen (if reasonably possible at all), but is looking good on the walls. The prints lend a different depth to the capture compared to a backlit medium. This is particularly noticeable with non-(typical)-gloss papers like Matt or richer surface or texture type of papers. It’s hard to put your finger on this difference, especially when some displays do have their own kind of qualities on some monitors, but you will recognise the difference, and sometimes the difference is almost shocking. Especially with images that are drawn on a low light.
After the photo has become a physical form it starts to interact as an entity with the environment it is part of and with the changes in lighting. These elements from our lives and these interactions have been meaningful to us for very long time. The picture quite literally has its own life, not depending on a click of a mouse or on illumination of the electronic parts. And so there is little surprise that its own character, as much as its context and lasting impact of its very own permanency imprints on our mind. That I see as another aspect, the context. Because unlike the image projected on the screen the print placed in the interior is not a separate moment.
Brushes, canvas, the light and the ink
The light and the ink refer to the printing methods used today. It’s nearly two years since I wrote this little contribution on the print and photography and despite some questions marks I have noticed the interest in printing didn’t go down but went up instead and that in spite of all the shiny toys available today on which we flicker our exposures, at least in the areas where I can have some kind of measure of this. That doesn’t surprise me as the print is a vital component of the photography and I would be really surprised if it simply vanished.
There are many personal choices involved in photography, from the kit used to the processes and the style. Printing is no exception. It passes on the signature to the final stage in its most refined form. For some, the printing means a real highlight of the whole discipline and the choices made as well as the exact execution are finely tuned.
Various methods have their potentials and the workflow is adjusted to benefit from them. This is best talked about in examples so let’s go to our own magic through a few points. We are using quality Chromira/Laser printers for most of the printing. It’s a method using light and exposure to draw and the process is similar to the chromogenic print. One of its specifics is a continues tone just as what we had with the film. In that sense it is a more photographic representation and combination with today choice of papers makes it our favourite method. Besides the C-type process for most of the sizes, we use digital inkjets for some excellent papers like Hahnemühle Pearl, Canson Infinity Baryta and Epson Semi-Gloss for different look and characteristics of the print. *First two are outstanding for wildlife and delicate lighting (images benefitting markedly from Infinity Baryta 1, 2 and Hahnemühle Photo Pearl 1, 2, 3. The Ink and the Pearl are proving consistently to be best combination for subtle and difficult brown and golden shades). The preparation for the printing and the correct process of the printing are always important and many will agree that this can be more important than the method of the process itself.
The paper is certainly one of those important components. We use papers from Fujicolor Crystal Archive range for the lightjet print. First of all, it is Fuji Gloss excellent paper and Fujicolor Matte which is a very good dynamic range, semi-matte fine surface with a subtle shine through its texture. The partial reflection from a directly faced window will scatter all over its surface whereas the gloss will render a sharp edge reflecting faithfully the reflection while the contrast of the remaining parts is rendered clear. It’s difficult to say what is more distracting. Some prefer to see half of the image clearly despite the dazzling reflection moving across depending on the change in the angle and some the soft reflection of the matt that in these situations will cover the whole image with a diffusing veil (or a part with a smaller source of the reflection). The veiling shine softened by yet coarser surface texture is also characteristic for the high-performance classic style FineArt Pearl (from Hahnemühle). The best is avoiding difficult situations in the first place or as we found for these, using a different, very interesting paper with a special treatment over its top. I will say more about it below. The Fuji Matt is a benchmark and a must for many images and one of the best semi-matte papers we have seen for this and similar types of process. Fujiflex is a distinct paper which we use rarely for our personal use. It is a beautiful paper of a strong character/high gloss, though. An excellent match for some subjects. Then there is another and popular distinct paper Fuji Pearl. We don’t usually use this paper. It’s a paper with added extra-dimensional feel achieved through a composition of its surface layers and is particularly responsive to the changes in lighting and angles. For its extra-dimensional feel and unusual lustrous shine, this paper is often associated with Kodak Metallic Endura paper. The Kodak is rather special paper we started using with caution but that ultimately became one of our favourite papers for printing. Despite the associations, the Kodak Metallic is a rather different paper. It has got a similar touch of the multidimensional “transparency” diffusing through its surface but its shine is different, its rendering sharper and the overall feel more realistic. A wonderful paper of prominent depth that stresses the texture its own unique way and which lends the scene that sort of fluid appearance - motion (hence the third dimension). Because of this, the prints change its appearance during the day (and nights) more than other papers do - it’s exactly as the real scene experience. It’s a special paper with a prominent character. The response to the direct (high) light is of the gloss type but not nearly as strong as it maintains partial transparency in most of the reflection (and has no diffuse effect on it). The real answer for the directly facing lights (apart from Fujicolor Velvet) is when the Metallic is blended with Satin Acrylic film which results in absolutely unique ability to suppress and actually transform unwanted reflections to a light, that absorbed in the image makes it glow as if from the inside, spreading over its surface highlighting its definition and local dimensions. The combination literally turns what would otherwise be severe reflections into this effect while maintaining this sublime rendering in any other position and angles. Getting this film applied is not cheap but it is well worth the extra expense. It has obviously other benefits regarding the care of the print and its stability.
The choice of the paper can then also depend greatly on the exact spot and lighting of the place where the print is hung.
When it comes to mounting there are numerous options for it. For our own use, we like the bare or sealed print best mounted on a solid display card attached to a higher density MDF (18 and 12mm thick, formaldehyde-free board). The board is painted white and sometimes carob brown. The exchangeable part is the card with the print. We have also some slick frames with Acryglas XT® made to archival standards but to us, it is a less preferred way of mounting used for brighter photos. Our experience with the anti-reflective AR version is not very good either.
What Is Over
I sometimes hear that the print is a dead version of the ever so popular rhetoric these days. Or you can see on-line discussions unfolding that way. But as much as we like big news and get excitement from seeing revolutions behind every other stuff “discovered” this week it’s increasingly obvious that we should also stop and think what it actually is that is dying every day and so easily. So while I never say let’s close our eyes I also am saying let’s not lose the track. I think a movie such as Himalayan Boy and the TV Set could assist here.
This has been about our experience. I share it with those who love and noticed the value in the Art of printing as much as with those who haven’t quite seen it before. If I could make one recommendation it would be not scrimping on the materials. If you use a print Lab I would look for the quality first and check it for the value only after I know more what the quality is like. A good Lab in the UK will make a solid mid-size 20 x 24” on a card for £35-40. If you use acrylic seal (I recommend only the satin film) add another £15-20. With the prints the quality matters. It is a false economy in a true sense to scrimp the pennies on the print that has your hand and in many cases also heart in it. You won’t regret it. Cheap materials or execution can take all the magic away. And I suspect that this is exactly the experience of many who think the print, too, is dead. Without either any experience other than with postcards or without doing the due part. This really is not a click with the mouse. But that’s where I started writing this.