John Isaac: Master Printer

The former U.N. photographer shares his experiences in creating superior prints
John Isaac: Master Printer

Though John Isaac has traveled to all corners of the globe, capturing some of the world's most poignant moments, his photographic career began humbly.

"I started my career as a print washer and dryer," says Isaac, who for 30 years was a United Nations photographer covering events such as the wars in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq. "I stayed outside the lab and just washed the prints and dried them in the drum dryers all day."

The role of print washer may not have been the most glamorous of beginnings, but for Isaac, it shaped not only his photographic eye, but also the way that he approaches printing, especially now in the age of digital.

Getting It Right
"When you’re a printer responsible for other photographers’ work, you have the opportunity to learn about good and bad compositions and exposures," he says. "I learned a lot about making good negatives from all the varied negatives that I used to make prints from. Some of them were so difficult because they were overexposed or underexposed. This was a good lesson for me so that when I started to shoot, I was very concerned with exposures. I became very particular."

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."

John Isaac: Master Printer
Isaac will create a Burning and Dodging layer by creating a layer and filling it with gray.

With the blending mode set to "soft light," he uses Photoshop's Dodge and Burn tools to lighten or darken isolated portions of the image without dramatically impacting color.

But it's always color that Isaac is attempting to control and enhance in his photographs.

While his global adjustments (meaning that they affect the entire image) are important, he finds that controlling small ranges of color and hue can be critical.

"If I have a slight magenta cast in my white areas, I go to Selective Color (Image > Adjustments > Selective Color) and select "white" as the individual color that I want to work on. I'll then move the magenta slider to decrease the colorcast in my whites. This is a very helpful tool, as you can go directly to the affected color area and change the color without messing with all the other colors in the photograph.

"With digital, I've found that my printing is far superior to my conventional silver and chemical printing," he continues. "My color prints are more vibrant and more accurate."

Because color accuracy is so crucial, Isaac stresses the importance of having a color-managed workflow.

"Having your monitors calibrated is a must," he says. "You also have to use the right printer profiles for each type of paper that you put through your printer." By maintaining a color-managed workflow, he feels you save yourself both time and trouble.

Adds Isaac, "The fewer steps you create for yourself making a print help you to not only save time, but also improve quality. I believe less is more. I've seen many people use too many moves and adjustments and actually ruin the quality of the original image."

Printers And Papers

Isaac currently uses the Epson Stylus Pro 7600 printer to produce prints up to 24 inches in width. He has frequently used this inkjet technology to produce his own prints for exhibition, something that would have been difficult for him to do using a traditional color darkroom. But besides the size of the prints, Isaac has been especially excited about the variety of paper surfaces available to him and the resulting opportunities to experiment.


Isaac has been working recently with the Media Street line of paper and inks and is enjoying the possibilities this alternative system offers for his printing. He's especially attracted to the bulk ink system, which he feels is ideally suited for the high number of prints he produces.


Carefully storing his prints is a key step in his process as well. Poor handling and storage can quickly ruin a day's work.


"I have a shelf with trays," he says. "I store prints carefully between interleaving tissues in a big, oversized portfolio box if they're big prints. One of the things I've noticed is that papers with a matte surface have a tendency to scratch easily, so I quickly learned to take great care when handling all of my prints. It's always a good thing to use white cotton gloves when you're handling your photographs."


And for Isaac, it's the moment that all his work and effort are building toward.

"When you're holding that print in your hands," he says, "there's nothing like it."





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