Musings on Photography

Paper Chase

Posted in equipment, hp z3100, process by Paul Butzi on February 19, 2007

If you were to split humanity into two groups, those who feel that artists worrying about materials choices is sensible, and those who don’t, I’d land firmly in the ‘worrying about materials is sensible’  camp.

But there is such a thing as taking it too far.  A good example can be when you spend so much time exploring the options that you don’t actually make any art.  For reasons I’m not sure I understand, this pitfall seems to be a particularly big trap for photographers.  Back when everything was silver based, it worked like this: some photographers spent all their time searching for the magic bullet combination of film, film developer, paper, and paper developer that would magically transform their photography from ‘mundane’ to ‘incredibly important work of art’.

The result was that you could go to any discussion forum dealing with photography and find heated, religious intensity discussions about which film was best, which developer produced the magical tonality, which paper had the best Dmax, which paper developer produced the richest warm or coldest cold tones.

And now, it’s the same thing all over again with inkjet printing.  The race is on – first there was metamerism, bronzing, differential gloss.  Then there was which papers and inksets produce the best Dmax, and then which produce the most archival prints.  I’ve actually read arguments about which inkset/paper combinations produce the best longevity when the purported difference between the two was that one was rated for 180 years and another for 190 years.

So, although I do think that choosing materials is important, I also think that all this fussing about paper, and inks, and so on is largely missing the mark.  Ralph Steiner pointed out that the hard part of photography is knowing ‘which way to point the camera and when to do the shutter.’  You’ll note that he didn’t say that the hard part was choosing materials.

Way back when I started getting serious about photography as an expressive art, I stumbled into what turned out to be an excellent decision.  I didn’t know what film, developer, paper, paper developer to use.  So I searched around, and I found an article where John Sexton mentioned what he used.  And, lazy soul that I am, I just adopted what he used, wholesale.  My reasoning was that if he got excellent results, good results using those materials were possible.  And then, if I didn’t get good results, I’d know it wasn’t the fault of the materials, it was the fault of… me.  By doing this, it forced me to get my process under control – a very important thing.  Control of process, it turns out, is far more important than the subtle differences between materials.  Even better, the process of learning the control I needed taught me a lot about how to actually make good choices of materials when I branched out.

It was the same with inkjet printing.  I’ve been doing inkjet printing seriously for years now, so in some sense I’m an early adopter.  But in fact, I piled in just at the point when things were being brought under control.  I bought an Epson 9600, and I piggybacked on the color control work done for that printer by Bill Atkinson, and that gave me a set of papers I could use and have things ‘just work’.  I’d seen excellent prints turned out using that system, so I knew it was possible, and that gave me the confidence I needed to keep at it when I was getting mediocre results.  And, sure enough, the mediocre results weren’t the result of inadequacies in the materials, they were the result of inadequancies in my methods.

That reinforced my feelings about materials:

  1. There are many ‘acceptable’ sets of materials – materials that you can use to produce excellent, high quality results if your process is under control.
  2. In general, the difference between in-control use of two different ‘acceptable’ materials will be far smaller than the difference between two attempts to use a single material without the process being under control.
  3. In other words, it’s far more important to have your process under control and understood than it is to make the ‘optimum’ selection of materials.

That feeling is reinforced by an anecdote – there was a photographer who produced exceptional, luminous B&W gelatin silver prints.  When asked which paper he used, he commented ‘Oh, I just buy whatever is cheapest’.  Face it, a skilled worker who understands the process can produce excellent results on just about any materials.  It’s never fun to discover that the reason you’re getting crappy results is not that you’re using the wrong materials but that you don’t know what the heck you’re doing.  But often, I think, if you find yourself switching from one choice to another, over and over, it’s a sign that that what you’re doing is chasing magic bullets. 

As an example, often when I read about another inkjet paper, or another ink set, the comments I’m reading seem to be about process control issues – dumping of shadow detail, or other things that make me suspect a bad (or less than great) profile, or some other process control issue.  And if you’re comparing paper A with a lousy profile, and paper B with a great profile, you’re left not knowing much about the relative merits of paper A and paper B.  To get a decent comparison, you need good profiles for both.  That’s why I think printers like the HP Z3100 are exciting – they apparently bring getting a good profile from a $100, one week turnaround proposition down to a zero incremental cost, do it yourself, no skills needed operation.  Instant control!

And now, for the flip side.  After year of printing almost exclusively on Epson Enhanced Matte, I recently made a set of prints on Epson Ultrasmooth, using near flawless profiles for each.  Two ears ago, when I took the time to do a comparison of the two papers, I saw differences between the two, but didn’t feel very strongly about it.  I ended up settling on Epson Enhanced Matte because it was a fine choice, and it was cheap, which meant that I could make a lot of prints without burning huge amounts of money.  But these recent prints on Ultrasmooth really have me enchanted.  I put up two prints, one on Ultrasmooth and one on EEM, on my work wall.  And now, after more than a week of looking at them, I think the Ultrasmooth beats the EEM print, for the work I’m doing right now.  So in the near term future, work prints will get made on EEM and final prints will be on Ultrasmooth.  (you’ll note this means I made the wrong decision with the prints for the show now hanging.  Drat!)  So I do think that it makes a difference which paper I print on.

But I’m not planning on spending hours and hours examining the other options.

4 Responses

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  1. Billie said, on February 20, 2007 at 7:03 am

    You are so right about getting your process under control. Fred Picker, RIP, was often picked on but the one thing I learned from him was figure out what you are doing and get your process under control before you start changing stuff.

    I’m just glad that I have photo friends who produce good work and like to test film and papers. Whenever I can I piggyback on their knowledge.

  2. Dave New said, on February 20, 2007 at 10:36 am

    I’d say that in this digital age, this goes double for things like choice of RAW development software.

    I started out a few years ago with earlier versions of PhaseOne’s CaptureOne for DSLRs, and got pretty frustrated with the buggy interface, and the ‘secret sauce’ attitude that meant that I’d never be able to get my process under control, because it was undocumented and not understood. Efforts to find out mundane things like the order in which various settings were being applied, and how they might interact were met with, “You don’t need to know.”

    My revelation came with Bruce Fraser’s (may he Rest In Peace) wonderful tome on Real World Camera Raw, wherein he discussed at great length what all the various knobs do in Adobe Camera Raw, and how to go about getting the best conversions out of my RAW material.

    I decided to adopt ACR (and, thereby, bought into the whole “Photoshop Thing”), and have been on a steep learning curve ever since. Even Lightroom now shares the same RAW engine, so any knowledge gained in ACR will transfer, if I do decide to go that route.

    Since adopting Photoshop/ACR, I’ve not lost any sleep over whether any competing RAW converters in the marketplace have any slight edge over what I’m using. As far as I’m concerned, for my purposes, it doesn’t matter. I’d rather spend my time learning something mainstream like PS/ACR/LR, than mucking about with various RAW workflows. Only certain specialty items have attracted me, like DxO Optics Pro (for lens corrections only) and Noise Ninja. My only disappointment with those 3rd-party plugins is that they don’t plugin to the RAW converter (a design limitation of the current ACR, which may have been fixed in the Lightroom version), where I believe they would do the most good.

    Believe me, being the software geek that I am, that is really saying a lot.

    Now, if I can only get my DAM (Digital Asset Management) workflow decided on and documented, I’ll be way ahead of the crowd. I bought iView MediaPro a while ago, and Peter Krogh’s DAM book, but I’ve yet to really get down to brass tacks with them. In the meantime, Microsoft bought iView, and so the program threatens to transmogrify itself into “Something Else”, and Lightroom, of course, offers its own version of mini-DAM-like features, which promise to grow into possibly the next mainstream Photoshop of DAMs (am I being too optimistic, here?).

    I put off committing to a DAM workflow, and so I now have thousands of digital images arranged only in folders by date, with little or no metadata keywording. I’ve had cause to find things I’ve shot a year or so ago, and so far it’s not been too bad, but I figure it’s only a matter of time before I get to the point where I can’t find some image(s) I’m looking for, because I have no idea when I took them, and wading through all the shots in something like Adobe Bridge can be excruciating, even on a fast machine with locally mounted storage.

  3. Brian Chapman said, on February 20, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Hey Paul,

    I agree with your thoughts on process control, etc, but assuming perfect calibration and profiling across the board, there is a significant enough difference between papers (and to a lesser extent inksets) to warrant at least some level of research and testing. Paper texture, warmth, surface, etc, are all important to the look and feel of the print and each varies wildly among different papers.


  4. […] wrote about these issues some in the post Paper Chase, but now that I’ve seen the profiling capabilities of the HP Z3100 used in anger, it’s […]

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