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Sunday, October 1, 2006

John Isaac: Master Printer

The former U.N. photographer shares his experiences in creating superior prints

John Isaac: Master Printer  For Isaac, the art of the print doesn't begin in the printer or even the computer, but in the camera at the moment of exposure. His experiences in the darkroom instilled in him the need to produce the best-quality file so that the final print would reflect his experience of the moment.

"Printing your own images is the only way to recognize the difficulties of making that final print look good when you're working from a poor-quality film or digital file," Isaac says. "You quickly learn that those mistakes made during shooting make creating a quality print harder."

Previsualization is a big part of Isaac's printing process. When evaluating a scene, he's considering how he hopes to interpret the moment on paper.

"In many ways, I'm an old-school photographer," he says. "I like to visualize my final print while I'm taking the photo. By doing this, I'm looking carefully at my image to see if and what areas may give me problems while printing, such as areas of very high contrast, which can be difficult to print, especially if the exposure is bad."

By using tools such as the camera's histogram to evaluate the tonal range of a scene and saving the image in RAW to ensure color accuracy, Isaac often succeeds in creating a file that doesn't require "fixing" in Photoshop, but leaves him the flexibility to enhance the image in whatever ways he sees fit.

Working In Photoshop

When he opens an image in Photoshop, Isaac carefully monitors contrast and color with each enhancement that he performs. His years of experience have taught him that the success of a photograph is often rooted in the image's contrast and the quality of its color.

Isaac will use Levels and Curves adjustments to boost overall contrast. He then controls the viewer's experience of the print by using the traditional darkroom technique of dodging and burning, where he selectively darkens or lightens portions of the image. Because he knows that the human eye is drawn to the brightest portion of the print, he'll often enhance his prints to guide the eye to those elements of an image that he considers important.

"I tend to make slight color corrections after I do each move," Isaac says. "If I correct with Levels or Curves, or if I Burn and Dodge the image, I try to look at the image carefully to see how each step may or may not have affected color. If I see that the photo is tending toward a warmer tone, I can correct for this immediately. If I wait until the end of all my moves, the image may have shifted color in a variety of ways, with each step making it hard to determine what the best color balance should be."

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