Making Photographs

(EPSON 9800 News Here)

May 10, 2005

Details, details...

A brief technical overview of my work is that I use a four-by-five inch camera system and a variety of color films to capture the subject matter. After film processing, I select my favorites, scan the film on a very high quality film scanner, and use a large number of extremely complex imaging processes to realize the image in electronic form. I then use the image data to make a print with the best available method. The full story is over thirty-five years long. A little of it follows:


Travels

Since I was sixteen, I have traveled to wild places to find the natural beauty that my work is all about. California, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, and New England have been my favorite locations, but I have worked in many other states as well.

I have backpacked over two thousand miles in all, mostly in the Sierra Nevada, rafted or canoed nineteen North American rivers, led many week-long burro trips in the high Sierra, and camped extensively in many of the lovelier American places, looking for the rare scene that can make a worthy photograph. In the early seventies, I worked in the backcountry of Yosemite for four summers, doing research and usually carrying my view camera. The first summer, 1972, I hiked five hundred miles in fourteen consecutive weeks, on trips averaging nearly a week with just one lens and only three film holders for the black & white film (six exposures between reloads). My first book of photographs, The Father of Waters, A Mississippi River Chronicle, Sierra Club Books, 1982, was made from work I produced on a one-hundred-day expedition by canoe, small outboard, and tow boat, down the length of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1979. Among the other most memorable river trips were three long trips in Alaska, on the Copper, the Noatak, and the Tatshenshini/Alsek rivers and trips through the Grand Canyon and down the Escalante.

After a slow travel period of many years watching my children grow, making digital imaging work properly, and beginning to get caught up with my existing images, my travel schedule has picked up again.


Image Capture

For my first 17 years, I worked with both color and black & white film. In the many years since, it's been all color. I've never found the results from small or medium-format cameras to be satisfying. Working with view cameras is profoundly different from working with little cameras and is dramatically more difficult, but the results make it worthwhile. As lenses and film have improved and imaging techniques have improved, I have watched the quality of prints from 4 x 5 film come to easily surpass that of 8 x 10 work from the middle of the 20th century, and now, thanks to recent imaging advances, I can even match the detail and grainlessness of recent, traditional 8 x 10 in many cases.

The further happy prospect of digital cameras with area-array sensors of 40 million pixels and more portends of even higher color quality and sharpness, coming ever closer to the experience of my own vision. Linear-array scanning digital cameras already achieve the detail of modern 8 x 10 film systems or better, but are incapable of making over ninety percent of the images that I make, due to the need to make thousands of sequential exposures. I must therefore wait for the further developments which will make a replacement for film practical for me.

I currently use a combination of two excellent Kodak 4 x 5" films (one transparency and one negative) to successfully capture subject matter with as little contrast as one or two stops or as much as nine or more stops, making it possible to exercise a very broad vision in my prints with great success. I have also made extensive camera use of special-purpose transparency film intended for making darkroom copies of other film, and many of the images on this site were made that way. Ordinary transparency films are very limiting with regard to the subject contrast that can be successfully captured with them, especially when the film is being rendered as a enlarger or contact print. My own darkroom for making Cibachromes had the best control over tonality and color from transparencies that I know of on the planet, and it was nowhere near enough to achieve what I do today.

Thanks to digital imaging, the major adjustments of tonality and color which such a wide range of subject contrasts and characteristics demands can be readily accomplished. Color photography now surpasses the very broad tonal adjustment capabilities of traditional, chemical black & white photography first demonstrated by Ansel Adams. Thirty years ago, I never dared to expect this kind of control, though I have consistently done everything I can to achieve it.

Achieving control in color photography is profoundly more demanding in a fundamental sense than achieving control in black & white, because the problems are more multidimensional. Traditional, chemical-only color photography is inherently incapable of addressing the challenge of rendering a very wide range of subject matter with superb quality, let alone with expressive control which allows for a wide range of artistic interpretations.

The human visual system is vastly more flexible and capable than photography. We can see subjects clearly from roughly one stop of contrast (2:1) up to more than ten stops of contrast (1024:1). But for a photograph to work, as a general rule, a print must use essentially the entire dynamic range of the print medium, from paper white to maximum black (usually between five and eight stops, depending on the medium). Each subject must therefore be adjusted to fit the medium. Beyond this basic obstacle of contrast control, the issue of making the colorfulness of an image fit the medium adds another large element of complexity, which can also only be overcome well with the aid of computers. Thirdly, the quest for realism in color, as the starting point for fine work, can best be met with the help of the color management processes of digital imaging (whether the image is captured on film or with a digital camera), which can literally force image colors to match the subject's colors to a degree that film alone, and photographic papers exposed by contact or enlargement from film, cannot. Beyond all of that are a myriad of other kinds of control, available only with digital imaging, that also work to give a two-dimensional print the strength to compare favorably with the beauty of the original scene, with its three-dimensionality, exquisite detail, perfect color, and naturally unproblematic tonality.

Once I have identified a processed sheet of film as worthy of the long rendering process, I scan the film myself on the finest scanning system in the world, with the utmost care and precision, to obtain files that typically contain seventy-five million pixels of impeccable quality. This last step in my image capture process includes the first major image processing step. Expert use of image adjustments and color management techniques are needed to obtain a solid foundation for the main rendering steps which follow.


Image Processing

The post-scanning image processing involves many phases and a large number of steps to prepare perfected files for printing. All of this work is done, like the scanning, on a Macintosh. On average, I devote over twenty hours to the scanning and processing of each image, before reaching the point where I am ready to make the file that will be used to make the first print or to show on my web site. I continue to make adjustments to the image for a long time, until I can no longer find any way to improve upon it. I lately have watched many old favorite images finally mature using the new processes, after over twenty years of rendering them with a variety of high-end darkroom processes that nevertheless gave frustratingly flawed results.

Every image is retouched until it will print at 40 x 50" with immaculate quality. Nearly all of the many kinds of flaws introduced by the photographic processes and the film can be eliminated. The image is massaged and sculpted until its expressive power is maximized. The process yields pictures that are, on average, several times closer to my artistic vision than any all-chemical photographic process can manage, making photography much more analogous to the human visual system than photography based solely on conventional chemical processes has ever been, yet without merely endeavoring to make good copies of the subject matter.

The processes of color management — the science of making colors match between devices — are so complex, and I have been so involved in pushing the envelope of quality in digital imaging over the last decade, that I have literally spent more time studying those processes alone than I spent studying for my undergraduate degree from Cal Berkeley. Only with successful color management can the precious fruits of digital imaging be realized. Creative control is what most art is all about, and color management makes the ultimate form of creative control for color photography possible. These days I teach color management and imaging to other photographers from time to time.


Output/Media

One of the most beautiful features of digital imaging is the fact that it works like a wagon wheel, with many possible inputs and many possible outputs. Once an image is optimized from a capture, it can go to any kind of output system available, including printing presses for making publications, photographic paper exposed with lasers, inkjet papers printed with pigmented inks, or any of the many other kinds of systems that already exist and will exist in the future. All with automatic color matching. A website image, a book page, and a fine print can match very well and master files can be used in a multitude of ways to print on evolving systems in a vast range of sizes and media types.

Imaging in color began to mature to the point where exquisite prints on photographic papers could be made digitally in 1997. Until 2001, one kind of output system dominated the field — laser or LED exposure of chromogenic photographic paper, primarily LightJet 5000 prints on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper. From late 1997 until July of 2001, I only offered this type of print, but now the inexorable advances in inkjet technology have produced practical systems capable of high quality photographic results, with a traditional look and feel and extremely high stability on display. These inkjet prints slightly surpass the visual quality of the LightJet prints and simultaneously offer three to five times longer display life. The new printers are also dozens of times less expensive, are far smaller, require little maintenance, and are practical for a photographer to own.

The EPSON 10000CF printer, using EPSON's Archival pigmented inkset and EPSON Premium Luster Photo Paper (250) was the first combination to achieve the stated goals. The EPSON 9600 printer, using EPSON's UltraChrome pigmented inkset with the same paper was the next. Now the EPSON 9800, with the new UltraChrome K3 inkset has raised the bar even higher, and for much of 2005 I will be among only a handful of photographers in the world offering prints made on a 9800 printer, as a consequence of my testing and development relationship with EPSON America. Prints on 100% cotton paper are also possible with inkjet, and can achieve somewhat longer stability on display, depending on the paper used, but with a different, less photographic look and feel. As time goes by, combinations of ink and paper keep continuing to improve in both appearance and display longevity, as well as in several other respects. The latest changes, seen in the new UltraChrome K3 inkset are extremely gratifying, with superb blacks and nearly perfect surface reflectance characteristics. This new inkset and its associated driver technology will also allow me to finally begin printing my favorite black & white images again, for the first time in twenty-three years. Look for a few of them to appear here, most likely sometime this year (2005).

For the time being, my prints are made on Epson Premium Luster (250) paper, with an EPSON 9800 wide-format printer or two. I may begin to also print on a heavy, fine-art cotton paper, now that the inks have improved a lot. Once I am happy with a given paper, I will consider offering them for sale. I mat the prints myself, unless they are too large for me to mat (32 x 40 or 40 x 50"), or unless they are ordered unmatted. I use only 100% cotton board and archival mounting methods that make replacement of a damaged mat a possibility and protect the print from the failure of a mounting adhesive by avoiding it entirely.


Permanence

Testing of highly fade-resistant media takes a long time to complete, so fading numbers for any favorite combination of paper and ink, whether for display behind UV-filtering acrylic sheet or glass, or with plain glass (see my Framing Tips essay), are often unavailable for much of the life of a given product combination. The results for Premium Luster with the Archival inkset will apparently easily exceed a 200 year display permanence rating (although the test may never be completed) and the same paper with the UltraChrome inkset has ended at 165 years. Numbers for the newer UltraChrome K3 inkset with Premium Luster (250) are headed for a result which is "the same or better" than the prior results (165 years w. UV protection). These are relative numbers that depend on the light level and on the tolerance to image change set by my friend Henry Wilhelm of Wilhelm Imaging Research. See www.wilhelm-research.com for detailed information on the lightfastness, humidity-fastness, and dark keeping qualities of photographic materials of many types. Henry is the photographic industry's leading source of image permanence information and has been the industry leader in establishing test methods as well as in promoting the issue so that solutions can be found. Thanks largely to his many years of taking on the big corporations of the imaging industry, the entire world has much better materials for photography today.

It is highly probable that a print of mine purchased today would look nearly unchanged for five generations or longer on indoor display — your great, great, great grandchildren could still be enjoying it as adults with visible changes that would be pretty modest and would likely go unnoticed unless one had an unchanged print for comparison. This is entirely dependent on the display conditions, of course, and long life requires that these prints be framed for protection from air pollution, especially ozone. Note that full sunlight is apt to be roughly one hundred times brighter than daytime indoor display conditions, so outdoor display life ratings are about a hundred times less. Indoor lighting levels vary dramatically, so it is impossible to make accurate predictions that apply to all conditions. A print near a bright window might begin to be noticeably off in color balance in as little as a few decades.

Ordinary printed matter (posters, magazines, etcetera) has a display life of about two and a half years. You have almost certainly seen posters turning blue - cyan as they have lost yellow and magenta pigment. This can give you a good relative sense of what a 200-year display life rating means. A poster that has been up for ten years in your home or office under the same lighting conditions as the test will have passed the acceptable degree of change four times over. After twenty years, it will be in a pretty sorry state.

Ordinary chromogenic color prints made from color negatives, like you would get from a one-hour lab, have display life ratings, if properly processed, of between a few years and forty years (previously rated at 72, then at 60, now 40, as a result of improving test methods). Agfa's papers are the shortest lived and Fuji's are the longest lived. Kodak's have been in the 12 to 22-year range for more than twenty years now. Cibachrome (more recently called Ilfochrome) is rated at 29 years in this same comparison, but only half that long under halogen light. Most dye-transfer prints are rated at 32 years. Some pigment transfer prints achieve display life ratings of close to 500 years. All of these results are based solely on change due to exposure to light. And all of these results do not include the "reciprocity" effect which causes prints to fade faster than they would be expected to under low (real world) lighting conditions than they do under the high-intensity conditions of the accellerated tests. Many media have a reciprocity factor of about 2, meaning that in the real world, prints will fade about twice as fast as the calculated results from the WIR accellerated tests. Ilfochrome has a tragically high reciprocity factor of 8, however, and this means that Ilfochromes under glass-filtered fluorescent lighting could be expected to change noticeably in color, at 450 lux, for 12 hours a day, in just four years — not in 29 years. In my experience, they are not that fragile, but I have seen lots of them fade at what I consider to be a wholly unacceptable rate, and indeed in the early 1990's I got some prints back that had been on display under halogen lights at The Nature Company for less than five years and they were just about used up, having shifted in color due to a loss of magenta in large blue areas of the image. Because of these reciprocity factors (which cannot be quickly determined by definition because they require a test that runs for years), and also because of spectral differences between average indoor lighting and the test conditions, real world performance, under the fairly bright 450 lux condition, is apt to be shorter by over a factor of two, than the Predicted Years of Display Life figures would suggest. On the other hand, the average indoor display condition does have less light. Still, it matters a lot for a system to achieve a high display number, even if you only care about it lasting longer than you do. I certainly want my prints to last many times longer than I will!

Exposure to heat is another matter entirely, as are exposure to moisture and to ozone, or any of the above in combination. Change due to heat is called dark fading, and it works simultaneously with light fading or when an image is stored in the dark. Some media are highly unstable in the dark, meaning that all you can do to preserve them is to freeze them. Others are completely stable in the dark and could last for thousands of years without even yellowing, let alone losing color, at room temperature. Among the chromogenic print papers, first Fuji, then Konica and finally Kodak have recently begun to produce materials with 200-year dark fading ratings at room temperature, making them excellent for use in albums. Ilfochrome on polyester base is completely stable in dark storage, with respect to color change. Lithographic material does very well in the dark too, and is limited by the quality of the paper. Inkjet prints mostly do very well in dark fading tests, with some being essentially perfectly stable, depending mainly on the quality of the paper base. The Premium Luster paper base has been rated at 200 years and counting in the dark by WIR and at over 300 years by EPSON. Though prints currently look less brilliant on them, pure cotton papers can do considerably better still.