10 Jun

It is almost laughable that this could even be a debate in June of 2013, when certainly the commercial photography world as well as the consumer photography world both made the switch a long time ago.

Who's left that stil wants to shoot film? Well to my surprise, everyone in my office: Julius, Ivan, and the "new guy," Mo, all still shoot and covet film. I get it, I do. I had a BW darkroom in high school, and nothing was more of a thrill than pulling that film out of the tank, freshly developed, water and chemicals everywhere just to see that image on film. What a rush. But here's the thing: somehow, you have to get that image into digital form. Unless you are a true purist and are printing your film in an enlarger, old school style. But most people need to get their photography into their computer at some point, in which case, you have to scan.

This has been a problem with film for a long time now. One that made me take up the art and science of drum scanning a long time ago (mid-90's); an art I honed for many years (15?) before recently deciding I hated scanning film. It really is a pain, and very few people still shooting film were willing to pay the rates necessary to justify the labor-intensive process of drum scanning. I have since retired my drum scanner. It may see another day, but for now I rarely offer this as a service. But that's a side note...

With film, you have to scan, which means a generation loss. This is not huge on a drum scanner, but again, it's a time consuming and painstaking process. And drum scanners were designed to scan chromes, not negs, often resulting in "weird" color. Which leads to me to my point here: digital IS better than film. For starters it's THE original, not a copy (as in the case of a film scan), which means better sharpness, not to mention no grain. Ok, fine, I like grain too, but it presents all sorts of problems when scanning. There is always a give and take of sharpness versus noise when film scanning, since even drum scanners don't quite resolve the actual grain. And if you want your digital files to have grain, there is tons of 3rd party software out there to add grain and fake it. Where digital really kicks film's ass is its ability to use high ISO and allow for very usable shots from very low light. As a teenager when I first started learning photography (in the 80's, shooting mostly BW film) I was always frustrated by film's inability to see things the way my eye did. Our eyes are tremendous imaging systems, able to see in near total darkness. Digital "sees" the world a lot closer to the way our eyes do. This makes photography easier; less lighting (or with a little imagination with your use of available light, no lighting) is required.

Ansel Adams once said, "It's the negative stupid." In today's digital world, I'd say, "It's the print stupid." Which actually isn't true either, the file is the neg, and the file is everything, but when it comes to that feeling, that thrill of photography, for me, it's the print. Sure the file is important; garbage in, garbage out. BUT, a c-print from a digital file is pretty close to a c-print from a film negative. So when purists say they hate digital, I say, how are you printing? Ink jet prints can be very beautiful, especially watercolor and other specialty papers like canvas, but more often than not they leave me flat. I've blogged about this before, but I'll say it here again: ink on paper is NOT a photograph. A photograph is made from light, that is, after all the definition of photography: "writing with light." Ink splattered on paper is not the same thing. It can give the illusion of a photograph and come really close, but I only get that magic of photography that I felt back in my darkroom over 20 years ago from silver halide prints exposed with light (lasers) and chemically (conventionally) processed. To put it another way, digital cameras need light, digital-c prints need light, ink jet just needs ink.

So if digital photography is leaving you flat and making you miss the days of film, I'd ask, have you tried something other than your Epson lately?

12 Jan

Being a fine art photgoraphic printer/service bureau (old school term!) were are often asked, "Should I upload 8 bit or 16 bit?"

Short answer? It doesn't matter.

"It doesn't matter? How can you say that?! Clearly you don't know what you're talking about! Your printing must also be awful!" This was my fear. In fact, my opinion on this topic is why I didn't post a blog sooner, because I know there are so many "experts" out there saying the opposite and, well, bigger is ALWAYS better, right? Well, no, not always (insert Big Gulp joke). You CAN have too much of a good thing in life. In fact, in my opinion, much of life is about learning what to cut out. My decision to finally confront this question was inspired by this old 37signals blog focused on web development, but I feel it's applicable to this discussion:

37 signals "it doesn't matter" blog post here

In our current "pro-sumer" driven photo-technology market, everyone wants your money. Marketers of all sorts of photography software (and yes cameras) have to convince you that you NEED their products to make better images. What makes this really difficult for someone starting out trying to learn digital imaging (aka digital photography) is that the blogs they will find on the subject are often written by people trying to sell a photo product through internet "affiliate marketing." For blogs whose biz model is Ad based, this is less true, but ultimately theses sites have to release fresh content on the latest gear, which goes back to getting you to think you need something new to make good images. Photography forums can be an excellent source for information, but sometimes there is a lot of false info out there. Hopefully those forums can adopt the stack overflow and Reddit practice of "voting up" responses to questions, but I digress.

A professional photographer I work closely with is always showing me the latest Nik software that he's quickly applied to his images, and I'm like, "Well I can do that with a curve, faster and with more control." Don't get me wrong, these products have their place and I do use them for certain things, and if you don't use curves and quickly want to make your images look cool it's great, just like Instagram. But often I find these new tools cumbersome, and that sometimes they are overcomplicating the issue and ultimately slow me down. Not to say speed is everything, but quality from efficiency IS. In fact I consider efficiency necessary for quality, because if something you're doing is terribly inefficient, there is probably a better way to do it. Of course that's not true for everything, I consider myself a SLOW photo retoucher, but I'm slow about the things that DO matter. Knowing what matters and what doesn't is what makes a good practioner of any profession: photographer, designer, retoucher, artist, doctor, lawyer, engineer...you get the point. And the specifics of what matters is gained from research and ultimately, experience. No blog can tackle that, not in one go at least.

16 bit has been around a long time. I don't know exactly when it was released in PS, and "it doesn't matter". The point is, the 16 bit workflow has been available to professionals in the larger graphic arts community for a long time now, and still 8 bit has always been the default color space for image editing. And, I would argue, 8 bit has been sufficient for the most critical of digital photographic applications. In the past, the decision to use 8 bit over 16 bit was made because of storage limitations (in the 90's this was precious), but the point is the most high end photographer and retouching studios all used 8 bit (and generally I would bet still do). I know I still use 8 bit in my day to day retouching projects. I simply have never felt a need for more color data. If I need more highlight detail or more shadow detail, I just go back to the raw, reprocess the file, and mask it in to the main processed file I'm working in. You may say, "Well you could do that all in Lightroom," or whatever latest product on the market, and yes, that is true. And if you ARE NOT retouching, this workflow WOULD be faster and "better" (e.g. wedding photographers who can't spend too much time on an image, and aren't retouching at a high level). But having to spend hours on an image retouching an actress or model I simply find the LR workflow more time consuming and inefficient, because I need to retouch the image at some point and good luck doing that in LR. So what if I do everything in LR, process and retouch in PS? This makes sense, and I have tried it, but generally I still find this cumbersome and find myself going back to my usual, somewhat old school workflow, drum roll please...

Process in Capture One (best raw processing IMO), and work in 8 bit in PS, usually in RGB. If I have banding problems after curving in some contrast or brightness, I NEED to re-process from the raw and mask the problem area in, or in some cases just reprocess and start over. No one hates banding more than me, but it's not a common problem unless your shooting a lot of blue skies and gray backgrounds. You may think, "well if you had been working in 16 bit all along you wouldn't need to reprocess." I thought this too, until I had a banding problem on a gray background. The files I was working with were in 16 bit, as they came to me processed like that. I still had the banding problems, even with 16 bit. The only solution was to re-process the raw file at the correct density, or retouch it out somehow (usually by adding noise and blurring slightly), although I much prefer going back to the raw. Banding is a large topic in itself, but in my experience 16 bit has failed to stop banding from happening, despite my high hopes.

And all printers print in 8 bit!? Actually no, or rather, it depends on the printer and RIP driving it. The Polie for instance CAN print a 16 bit file, and as I understand it, "works in 16 bit." The LightJet actually works in 12 bit. And this is done to prevent banding from being introduced in the printing process, but if there is already banding in the image you'll still get banding. Which is kind of my point again; if you have banding, 16 bit won't get rid of it. Better to expose and process your images properly, avoiding banding altogether (some exceptions aside).

7 Jan

I just got a phone call from someone asking what equipment we use, "what do you use? a LightJet? a Lambda?" To which I replied proudly, "we use a LightJet." Before I could even expand on the subject I got a polite, "Oh, Ok, Thank you." Click. I've had this phone call a few times in recent years.

I find this strange, because, if I even had a chance to respond I would have explained the reasoning behind our choice of the LightJet over the Lambda. But it's clear to me there is some serious mis-information out there about the merits of the Lambda, perpetuated (I'm assuming) by the large commercial labs here in NYC that use them. Why? Well because that's what they have and use. The Lambda is a great machine, especially for commercial purposes, it is a work horse, and capable of churning out large quantities of high quality photographic prints in hours. It's way faster than the LightJet, without question.

BUT, and there is a big BUT here, for fine art photographic applications, the LightJet will beat the Lambda every time on one very important distinction. The LightJet is sharper, which is why, those in the fine art photography community covet LightJet prints above all. What about the Polie you ask? Well it is essentially a "mini-LightJet." The exposure technology of both the Polie and the LightJet are nearly identical. I even remember rumors of a legal dispute between Cymoblic sciences (original LightJet manufacturer) and Polie about who exactly came up with the design, and who ripped who off, because the exposure design is so similar between the two printers.

So in order to help convince you and dis-spell the myth that Lambda is somehow better than the LightJet, let me quickly explain the engineering design difference between the Lambda and the LightJet, with a little background on the basics: A digital-c print is the same as a conventional photographic print, in that the paper is exposed to light and then chemically processed. The only difference in a digital-c is that the exposure of the paper happens with lasers or in some cases, LEDs (in case of the Chromira). With me so far? So lasers are sharper than LEDs, knocking out the Chromira for sharpness, sorry Chromira users. And so your left with the LightJet/Polie and the Lambda both using lasers to expose the print. The next question is how exactly is the print/paper exposed by the lasers? Well, in the case of the Lambda, the paper is rolled passed the lasers as it is exposed, in other words the papers is moving while the lasers (projected by a stationary spinning mirror) are stationary. In the case of the LightJet/Polie, the paper is stationary while the laser light moves across the paper (projected by a moving spinning mirror).

So besides running a test on both machines, which I have done years ago (and yes the Lambda was soft compared to the LightJet), one can deduce which one is sharper. The printer where the paper is moving during exposure? or the printer where the paper is stationary during exposure?

Hopefully, I've explained this well enough and your with me here, the LightJet/Polie with stationary paper exposure is sharper. If you don't believe me, please try a test.

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