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Thursday, July 1, 2004

Get The Best Prints From Your Lab


A pro photographer and master printer talk about what it takes to get the highest levels of print quality and consistency


For more than 30 years, I printed almost exclusively on Cibachrome. My hesitation to move away from Cibachrome to digital output was because of my concern that prints on new digital papers wouldn't look as good as on Cibachrome. I never felt that inkjet prints could produce the kind of results that I'm accustomed to from true chromogenic paper.

My breakthrough into digital was the result of several things coming together in Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper. First, it offered the longevity I needed to have credibility in the art sales market. Second, I wanted the look and subtle qualities of the traditional color print and, in as much as Fujicolor Crystal Archive is a chromogenic paper, I was able to achieve that.

get the best printsLastly, this paper and the associated technologies are a breakthrough in the fact that they use almost no water or chemicals. Due to environmental and health concerns, there's a diminishing future for Cibachrome because it's a much more toxic process. Now that equivalent or even better products are available, I didn't want to be left with a dinosaur product and not be able to move forward into a new generation of printmaking. It was time to look seriously into taking the digital leap, and Fujicolor Crystal Archive was the complete solution for me.

At trade shows and NANPA conventions, I learned about many of the top labs and service bureaus that were offering new digital services, from printing to scanning. I've worked with a lot of the best labs to learn who's doing what and how they're doing it—A&I, Calypso, Nancy Scans and others. The lab that really stood out for me, with whose work I was most impressed and who was working with photographers whom I admire, such as Bill Neill, was Rich Seiling's West Coast Imaging (WCI).

WCI gave me something that other facilities didn't. Not only would they scan and print my images to my satisfaction, but they also offered service bureau solutions essential to my business. For example, they'll deliver guide prints and configured files to publishers. I simply call WCI and tell them what a given publisher or magazine needs.

West Coast Imaging takes it from there, working with the individual publishers and managing the process for me to ensure that my work is printed at the highest standards. I've been amazed by the remarkable reproduction results. Both of my two newest books, Rivers of Life and Wood-Tikchik, were prep-scanned at WCI. Dummies for the books were created from their guide prints. It has been terrific working with WCI, and I recommend that all photographers who want to use a lab for prints establish this kind of close working relationship with the lab of their choice.

I demand proofs of every image WCI scans for me. Several proofs often are necessary, especially when printing an image at multiple sizes. WCI makes relatively affordable 8x10-inch guide prints, and this is part of what a photographer like me considers an essential asset. Guide prints are critical not just for working with publications, but as a point of reference for yourself and the lab so that everyone is on the same page.

When you're making big prints or large volumes of prints, you simply can't afford to work without guide prints. It's the master to which everything should be matched in order to reproduce the same results every time, even when platforms and output devices change.

I'm now printing exclusively on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper; I have the same feelings about it that I had with Cibachrome. No matter what type of output you choose, I recommend you pick one that meets your needs and stick with it. It's important if you expect to have a reputation as a printmaker and to look a client squarely in the eye and say, "This is the best there is and there is nobody that can do it any better than this." If you jump around with your materials all the time, you're really bringing a tremendous weight down on yourself because it's difficult to expect to thoroughly know how to print in multiple materials.

I feel that just learning one material and knowing every nuance within it is an effort unto itself, and that's one of the reasons I printed on Cibachrome for 30-plus years. My Cibachrome printer, Michael Wilder, and I learned how to do it in the '70s, and we only improved upon that. It made us masters in our delivery. The Cibachromes that we put out over the years were perfect in my consideration as a printmaking photographer.

I needed to have that same cache with my digital output if I was going to maintain my reputation, and that's why I've embraced Fujicolor Crystal Archive. I want to know absolutely every exacting detail of what Adobe software offers me in the digital darkroom, and what Fujicolor Crystal Archive offers me in reproduction. That's a vast range of possibilities, so I don't want to be distracted by other papers and processes. I want to eke out every subtlety of my digital prints so that they will have the same visual edge that I think my Cibachromes always had.

Another benefit of Fujicolor Crystal Archive is that it's available in 50-inch by 100-foot rolls, allowing me to print 49 inches by whatever width my image requires. What I've found with large prints like this is a level of sharpness that wasn't possible with traditional film enlargers.

When printing Cibachrome, we decided not to go larger than 30x40-inches because we felt that the acuity of the image was beginning to deteriorate when we printed any larger. At those larger sizes, we started to see the softness of lens distortion, light diffraction over a greater projection distance and those sorts of cumulative traditional darkroom shortcomings. When you're printing with a laser beam from a digital file, as in the case of Fujicolor Crystal Archive, your only limitation is the resolution of your scan or digital file.

The best advice I can give to photographers who want to print digitally from a lab is to really consider what they need from their prints—size, longevity, cost, etc. Based on that, choose a lab, select an output process and then stick with those. In this way, you can gain control over a lot of the variables and, in time, produce stunning images with exacting consistency.

The Master Printer's Perspective: Terrance Reimer
We first started working with Robert Glenn Ketchum when he desired to make a series of very large prints and wanted the extra sharpness that a digital process would add, compared to the Cibachrome enlargements he had been making. I think he also saw the need for digital delivery of his photographs because of all the ways they're used all over the world.

When we started, Ketchum's experience was with an analog process and the craft necessary to control the unique and often difficult characteristics of Cibachrome. Our job was to not only make beautiful prints for him, but to show him the freedom the digital process gave us to make prints that better match his vision and experience of the original subject. This communication is vital. We need to understand what a client means when giving direction that's qualitative, for example, "Make it more luminous." There's no "luminous" filter or button in Photoshop. As a printer, I have to comprehend what the photographer means by qualitative words, then use my understanding of the photographer's work and the tools I have in Photoshop to create the look the photographer desires.

This dialogue happened totally remotely. While less experienced photographers can benefit from participating directly in the process, it's a myth that the photographer has to be there looking at the screen. By mailing proofs and talking on the phone, we were able to have a dynamic, distinct working relationship that let us quickly produce extremely expressive prints for Ketchum with the digital process. The detailed, delicate control we have for fine-tuning color and density allows Ketchum much freedom with his final print interpretations. It's incredibly powerful to explore together what our process can do for his images and present body of work. There's no magic Robert Glenn Ketchum plug-in filter to use. Each image is unique to his vision. Through our mutual understanding and working relationship, we realize Ketchum's final interpretation effectively and efficiently.


This is a brief summary of the process we use to work on Ketchum's photos:


First, we scan his original transparency to a 300 MB, 8-bit file on our Heidelberg Tango drum scanner,
using extremely accurate ICC profiles to pull out the richness and subtlety of the original. Scanning isn't a step where we're trying to interpret the photograph. Rather, we try to create a good score for the performance in Photoshop, following an adaptation of Ansel Adams' axiom that "the negative is the score, the print is the performance." In the digital world, the scan is the score, it's not the performance.

Photoshop is where we fine-tune the image to replicate the feel of the original chrome. Typically, this is done using simple adjustments of curves, color balance, hue/saturation and a little selective color. The key to this working is having the best scan to start with.

After making a round of changes, we generate proofs on our ZBE's Chromira using Fujicolor Crystal Archive Glossy paper. To eliminate any inconsistency, it's essential to proof on the same printing device with which you wish to make your final exhibition prints. By having a superb ICC profile for the Chromira and carefully controlling the variables of the production process, we're able to pull out the amazing color gamut and D-max that's inherent in the Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper, and make luminous and dimensional prints that exceed what we've seen from other digital enlargers or inkjet printers.

Not every Ketchum photograph ends up as a print for the wall. When Ketchum has approved a proof, we make a file for the immediate use required. This might be a file for a magazine or book that needs to be FTP'd right away to the other side of the world, or it might be a targeted file that we use to make a final fine-art print. In addition, the file is archived for future use. By making a master file from the initial 300 MB scan, we can create targeted files for any use Ketchum needs.


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