Musings on Photography

Untitled 7

Posted in digital printing, equipment, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on December 11, 2009

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I got this via email, but I think I’ll answer it here:

subject: i downloaded your ‘curves’ digital toning files, very nice, but a quick question

i just read some of your blog
are we are all just luddites ?
in the digital world all photos are worthless
photographers are useless schmoes
how many of ansel adams printers died of strange diseases
and they were actually better off than the industry in general
vats of strange chemicals.

i bought a digital camera
basically perfect
with photoshop and epson, every question answered
despite its perfection, it is depressing
my question is
do you think you should go back to film
inferior though it is,
because you can ? and because you are one of the last people on earth who ever could or will?

Luddites were the social movement of textile artisans who railed against the mechanized looms introduced during the industrial revolution. I can’t speak for others, I can only speak for myself. I am not a luddite.

I don’t think photographers are worthless schmoes. In fact, I think the world would be a better place if more people were art-makers, and since I see photography as art-making, I think photographers are far from worthless.

I think there were environmental risks from various chemicals used in traditional gelatin silver printing (and in other processes, as well). I expect there is environmental risk associated with digital photography as well. Silicon foundries are not low environmental impact.

I expect there are people out there who buy digital cameras, photoshop, and printers, and think “Oh, now I am getting perfect results”. I disagree with that point of view. I don’t get perfect results. I don’t know what perfect results might look like. If you think you’re getting perfect results, I think perhaps your technical standards are not set high enough. And that’s the technical part. I don’t know of anyone engaged in any artistic endeavor who thinks they’re achieving perfection.

So I’m at a loss. I’m not clear on what’s depressing about digital photography. I don’t see it as lifeless. I have little desire to go back to film right now, but I’d not hesitate to go back if it seemed like the way for me to achieve something I wanted to try. But that comment needs to be tempered with the observation that I don’t care if the image is formed by bits of silver salt suspended in gelatin and exposed to light using an optical machine, or by pigments sprayed onto a paper base using a computer controlled robot, or by fermented weasel feces dabbed onto the paper by magic woodchucks wielding camel’s hair spotting brushes. I happen to like processing photos on a computer, but I enjoyed darkroom work tremendously as well. And I expect I’d enjoy casting spells controlling magic woodchucks.

As for the last – I don’t think I should go back to film, unless I decide I want to. I don’t think film is inferior, I think it’s different. I don’t think the fact that I can do traditional darkroom work and might well be one of the last people who ever could or will generates any obligation for me to do it.

Craft and technology

Posted in aesthetics, digital printing, materials, paper, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on June 14, 2009

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Colin Jago has some interesting points in response to my Kindle post. Colin writes (in part)

Printing used to be a craft. Ignore for the moment the old question of whether printing was also an art, for it most certainly was a craft regardless of that. It was something to get good at through practice and effort. And, do you know what, it still is. Yet, unlike the traditional wet darkroom, it is also very much a big business technology change driven occupation. That means that innovations are likely to sweep though the business regularly. A good thing, yes, but the downside is that change writes off our personal time investment in existing technologies. It might also mean that fewer people persist with any given technology to perfect and stretch it.

It isn’t that fanciful to imagine a time in the near future when people are trading the last ink cartridges and maintaining stocks of old fashioned rag papers just like they now do for dye transfer materials. The difference being that such changes will happen multiple times per lifetime.

Where does that leave the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to do something well?

I’ve spent, over the course of my life, an awful lot of time in various darkrooms. I doubt I’ve hit the 10 kilohour mark, but there was a time when I could produce pretty nice prints in the wet darkroom.

Some of the skills I acquired during that time had to do with physical mastery of darkroom tools. I learned how to burn and dodge without leaving obvious trails. I learned how to develop film and prints with consistency. I learned how to control the temperature of things with great reliability and precision. But those physical skills were, in the end, not the hard part of making good prints.

If I can draw on an analogy I like, those skills are to first rate printing in a wet darkroom as knowing how to use the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake are to a successful road trip. They’re skills that are necessary, but not sufficient. Unless you can control the car, you can’t travel by auto successfully. The big problem to be faced with travel by automobile, though, is not knowing how to drive, it’s knowing where you want to go. Anyone can learn to drive and then drive around in the US. It takes Charles Kuralt to drive around the US, find compelling stories in the lives of ordinary people, and present them in a way that changed the people’s understanding of the world they lived in.

And so it was with printing in the darkroom. The understanding of the physical principles needed can be taught quickly. The problem in the wet darkroom is, in the end, not a matter of knowing how to get what you want. It’s being good at knowing what you want, and being sufficiently open to serendipitous discovery that you aren’t just a machine whacking out yet another full range print each and every time.

So, not only did I learn the physical skills needed in the wet darkroom, but I also learned some about what I can only call “thinking about images”. By this I don’t mean thinking about images in some philosophic sense, but more a matter of thinking about images in the sense that I understand how to visualize different ways an image can be presented, and can more or less articulate a goal for how I want an image to look when I print it. Once you get there (and some of the process of working that out inevitably involves some experimentation), then it’s a matter of figuring out how to get a reasonable approximation of that to appear on the paper when you run it through the tray line.

That skill, which I think is the real craft part of darkroom work, came along with me when I transitioned from printing in the wet darkroom and into the world of digital printing. I already knew how to think of regions of a print in terms of density and contrast. I was already familiar with the idea of print tone and how it could be used to get the right ‘feel’ in a print. I knew about balance and tonal weight, and I knew quite a lot about how to trick the human visual system into certain responses (like ‘wet’ or ‘curved’) when I wanted. So my transition into digital printing was largely a matter of learning how to control density and contrast with new tools. The basic problem to be confronted had not changed – it was just a different tool set, and a display material with different properties.

So I guess my point is that the transition to digital printing didn’t suddenly put me on an even footing with someone just learning to print. It didn’t start me over with a new 10K hour counter set to zero. Some part of those long hours in a small room lit with a dim red bulb counted, in some very important way, toward the 10K hours that it will take me to become an maker of outstanding inkjet prints.

And so, I think, with the inevitable shift from inkjet printing to whatever comes along and displaces that. Photo Kindles do not magically take raw files and turn them into expressive photo displays. Humans do that, and I very much suspect that the skills needed are more or less independent of display medium. Not completely – not quite completely. But very close.

Kindle

Posted in paper, process, the art world, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on June 12, 2009

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When we travel, Paula and I almost never check bags. Not even on our 4 week trip to South America. Because of this desire to never check bags, we are pretty interested in things which make it easy to fit a lot of stuff (books, say) into not much space or weight. In the past, we were in the habit of buying a pile of books, jamming them into the bags, and then freeing up space by setting them free along our journey.

For the South America trip, however, we opted for an Amazon Kindle. Much has been written elsewhere about the physical properties of the Kindle, whether it’s a good deal cost wise, and so on. I’m not much interested in chiming in on that discussion.

One of the things that surprised us, though, was that we enjoyed reading books on the Kindle. We enjoyed it a lot. On a scale from 1 to 10, reading a mint hardback would be a 10. Reading a decent paperback would be a 5. Reading a bad paperback (crummy paper, smeary ink, small print, narrow margins and gutter) would be a 1. Reading a book on a Kindle is, to my surprise, somewhere around an 8.5 or 9. It’s not as good as a nicely bound fresh hardback, but it’s awfully darn close. One thing I like about the Kindle is that it’s excellent for reading while eating lunch or breakfast – turn a page by pushing a button (no worries about greasy fingerprints on pages), and no need to use weights to hold pages open when eating requires two hands.

Anyway, Paula and I now own TWO Kindles. They get pretty heavy use. We like them.

And they have me thinking about printing. I was stunned by how very ‘booky’ reading a novel on a Kindle is. Sure, the Kindle as it stands now is rotten at displaying photos. The Kindle 2, though, is better at photos than the Kindle 1 was. And I expect that for any number N, Kindle N will be better for photos than Kindle N-1.

Furthermore, I expect that there exists some N, where Kindle N-1 is monochrome but Kindle N is color. And then we will have the same incremental improvement in quality, until a Kindle-like device can display photos as well as a paper print can. Sure, we’ll have surface quality issues, and resolution issues. But the trend is clear, and I suspect mostly any argument is going to center around “how long” and not “will it ever”.

And although we know that the arguments about the displays will be hot and furious, I’d observe that although inkjet prints ran into uber-religious resistance just a short while ago, they’re pretty much accepted without thought today. So I predict that having Kindle-like devices to display photos will hit the same complaints – “oh, I can see the dots”, “the gamut is too small”, “short print life” and so on, but eventually the technology will evolve until the new technology is better than the old stuff, and everyone will stop arguing and just use the new stuff. And inkjet printing will become an ‘alternative process’.

And I have to say that I’m looking forward to being able to have a device which can hold thousands and thousands of photographs, is half a centimeter thick, and can display the photos better than an inkjet print can – with no power drain except when switching photos. Bring it on, and faster, please.

Film

Posted in equipment, large format, process, technique, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on May 20, 2009

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Every little while, someone suggests to me that the way for me to move my photography forward is to ‘go film’. This is often accompanied by a suggestion for a specific film or film/developer combo.

Since Tom was kind enough to make this suggestion in the comments, I’ll respond here, and perhaps set a few other minds at rest also.

But first, a bit on my past experience with film. I’ve used film. Actually, I’ve used film over several decades. I have dozens of binders filled with plastic negative sleeve pages, and those dozens of binders hold thousands of 35mm negatives. I used to buy 35mm TMY in 50 roll pro-packs.

And it doesn’t stop there. I’ve exposed thousands of sheets of 4×5 film.

I’ve printed those negatives, too, in a darkroom, on gelatin silver paper, both graded and variable contrast. I’ve spent many, many contented hours in a darkroom, both processing film and printing. I’ve even done color printing in a darkroom, both from color negatives and from transparencies. I’ve had articles on printing on variable contrast paper published in a major photo magazine. I’ve done a lot of work fine tuning a hybrid large format film/scanning/digital printing workflow.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to drive home the idea that, to me, film is a known thing. I have been there, done that, and it does not hold much mystery for me. I know it all, well enough to know that it’s not some magic thing that will somehow transform my photography or accelerate my photographic advancement.

Tom writes:

Here is everyone worried and talking about the technology of how they may have arrived at better art. Guys and gals, may I simply suggest one lil’ thingie, please, sometimes, grab for your passion, the photograph.

That’s pretty much what I do – go for the photograph. I’m not particularly invested in technology for technology’s sake. I’m invested in technology to get results. More on this anon…

How could you have taken this better? With a laptop? Maybe a large format digital back, i.e., Phase One 65 gigatons?

Or……

Maybe a 35mm Film camera with some 1600 speed film, get in the dark room and THINK. Maybe a small investment in a Crown Graphic 4×5 Large format with some film holders? (ya, they still make the 4×5 film)

Actually, that was my point – having a laptop there would let me get more or less instant, constant feedback on what I was getting. And my view is that that feedback would have let me run up the learning curve faster, with less heartbreak, and better results. As for 1600 speed film – I’ve exposed hundreds of rolls, thousands of frames. I know what tricks it can do, what tricks it can’t, what it’s good for, and when I want to use it. This particular project is not well suited to ANY of the available 1600 speed films.

I’ve been there, done the large format thing (for quite a few years, the only camera I used was a Linhof Technikardan 45s), and if there’s something to which I would NOT look forward, it would be doing this project with a 4×5. To get the tonality I want, I’d be using a relatively slow film – probably Acros, assuming you can still get it in 4×5.

Yesterday, I made nearly 100 exposures, many of which were on the order of 30 seconds or so. Reciprocity departure would push those out into the minute range. I’d be struggling for depth of field in those photographs where I wanted it. Focusing in low light would be a serious trick, even using a laser pointer.

On top of that, doing it in 4×5 would mean either a BIG pile of film holders, or else a serious raftload of quickloads/readyloads. When working in 4×5, I generally make a backup exposure, so for yesterday’s session I would have needed about 200 sheets of film. That works out to 100 film holders (I actually own about 25 regular holders, and enough grafmatics that I could load up about 120 sheets). Or, if I decided to go with packetized film, it would work out to just 200 sheets, and the readyload holder. Badger Graphic Sales lists Acros 100 in quickloads for $2.80 per sheet. So yesterday’s photography would have burned 200 sheets at $2.80 a pop, or about $540 just for film. Either that, or a lot of time spent loading film holders, and about $400 in loose sheet film.

200 sheets of film works out to 20 runs on my Jobo. Each run takes about .5 hour (I have three drums, so I can let one drum dry while I process in one drum and load the third). So that’s ten hours just to process the film. And then I have to scan it, at least the the stuff I want to print. Oh, and don’t forget the cost of the developer, stop, fix, clearing agent. All told, call it another buck a sheet. Or I can have the film run at a lab – call that $5 per sheet. So now my costs are up to something between $600 and $1540, just for film and processing.

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Let go, forgot the technologies just for a moment, I’ll beg you this one time. Try and then learn by studying your negs, your prints… Trust me on this one little point, try it, return to digital, and watch your craft in art go up about, oh, 1000 pct…..

There is no ‘forgetting the technologies just for a moment’. There’s just picking a technology that’s available based on your needs. I understand both film and digital – at least to a degree where I can make informed decisions about what technology to employ in a given situation, and make informed judgements about the tradeoffs involved.

I think film is great. I think there’s a place in the photo world for film. But I also think, based on my experience with both film and digital, that there is no such thing as a silver bullet technology. If you’re a photographer, your art can advance using film. It can also advance using digital. Or, as many photographers are finding, by blending digital and film.

Choosing between a film based workflow or a digital workflow involves a lot of tradeoffs – cost, time, space, quality, equipment properties. The choice determines a lot of things, and switching from one to the other changes a lot of things. That change might well jog you loose if you’re stuck. But if you’ve got experience with both, I don’t think changing, and then changing back is going to do much except waste time and money.

Decision Time

Posted in photoshop, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on February 21, 2008

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Colin Jago makes some interesting points about when irrevocable decisions are made in the photographic process, and some further observations about the difference between a film based process and a fully digital one.

The interesting thing for me is that, back when all of my photography was done with film, I made very few irrevocable decisions at exposure time. I suppose I did the whole ‘visualization’ thing, since the ground glass of my camera displayed the image upside down and in color but when I looked at the groundglass everything was right side up and the color wasn’t evident to me. But I didn’t ‘plan’ the look of the photo at exposure time. Instead, I took care to make the exposure so that I preserved as many options as possible.

That is, I didn’t make decisions like “Oh, I want all of that shadow to form a solid mass with no detail”. Instead I made the exposure that left detail in the shadows. I’ve struggled with lots of things in the wet darkroom, but I’ve never had a problem burning a detailed shadow down to featureless black. So my basic strategy with film has been (for a long time) “Get it all onto the negative. Sort it out in the darkroom.” My observation is that I’m not very adept at making decisions in the field. Better by far to procrastinate and make the decisions later, and in particular to preserve options so that the decisions aren’t irrevocable. If the detail is in the negative, you can always throw it away later. If the detail isn’t in the negative – well, we’re in there with the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyham:

The moving finger writes
and having writ, moves on,
nor all your Piety nor Wit
shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
nor all your tears wash out a word of it

As a result, my darkroom process had lots of twists in it, all designed to let me get functionality rather like what you get with Photoshop Curves. I flashed paper to change the curve shape. I bleached prints to change the curve shape. I dodged and burned and made prints with the contrast changing all over the print. Essentially all of the decisions about tonality and tone arrangement and how the print actually looked were made in the darkroom, not out in the field at exposure time.

The thing that made all this possible was the straight line, ‘modern’ films like TMAX films from Kodak and the Delta films from Ilford. All of that complicated zone system stuff boiled down to what, at the very end, was a very simple process – always give generous exposure to the shadows, so that you avoid losing shadow detail to the abrupt toe of these straight line films. Get the shadow exposure well up onto the curve. The straight line characteristic curve of the film ensures that you won’t blow out the highlights. TMAX-100 probably can capture up to zone XIII or XV without losing highlight contrast. The real limit to the recording of the film is that you end up running into halation when the highlights get really up there.

The bottom line was to give film generous exposure, so that everything in the scene is recorded on the film. Do that, and pick film development so that the density range of your developed negatives falls close to the middle of the range for the VC paper you use, and you’re cooking with gas.

The upshot here is that, since 1994 or so, I’ve used a process that was tailored to preserving as many options at exposure time and deferring all the decisions possible until printing time. I know that many large format photographers used/still use much the same process – I think I first heard it articulated by John Sexton in a printing workshop I took from him long ago.

It occurs to me that this might go a long way toward explaining why some folks are finding the switch from film to digital difficult to navigate and others seem to make the switch with minimal fuss, botheration, and hardship.

Pixel density, Prints, and the Future

Posted in digital printing, materials, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on September 8, 2007

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My recent experiences with slideshows on the Mac got me thinking. The ongoing discussion about the resolution/Pixel density of the Nikon D3, along with the news about the pixel density of the newly announced Apple iPod – that got me thinking even more.

The pixel density for displays, back in the good old days, was 72 pixels/inch. Oh, if you had a really high resolution display adaptor and a really good CRT display, you could get it higher, but 72ppi was pretty much the norm. Nowadays, LCD displays seem to have a pixel density more like 100 ppi. That’s the density on the MacBook Pro I’m typing this on, for instance.

The pixel density on the recently revamped iPod Nano is, according to Apple, the highest pixel density they’ve ever shipped in a product. It’s apparently a QVGA (320×240) 2″ display, which works out to about 200 pixels per inch. Call it double the resolution of the screen I’m looking at. And the display of the newly announced Nikon D3 is 640×480 (after we sort out all the nonsense stuff about the difference between dots and pixels) in a 3″ display, which works out to 240 ppi.

Naturally, as the pixel density increases, the maximum resolution you can display rises as well. One of the main arguments against viewing photos on a computer display has always been that the resolution of the computer display was hopelessly inadequate. At 72ppi, that’s pretty much true. You look at a 72ppi screen, and the phrase ‘high resolution’ doesn’t exactly spring to mind with the speed of summer lightning. At 100 ppi, things are looking better. At 200 ppi, things are looking good; at 240 ppi, they’re really looking good. At 300 or 360 ppi, we start to encounter arguments that adding resolution won’t help much because at normal viewing distances our unaided eye can no longer see the difference.

I will here wave my hands about and make funny faces and strange noises to distract you, and while you are thus distracted ignore the fact that similar claims of “so good it can’t get better” have been made before, and then disproven (think digital audio). The point is not that some fixed pixel density is sufficient for all needs. The point is that lately, the higher resolution is becoming available, the costs are falling, and the computing power needed to drive displays with much higher resolution is everywhere. There’s a world of difference between fabricating a 3″ diagonal 240 ppi display, and fabricating a 30″ 240 ppi display. But I expect that in the end, I’ll be able to drive to the Apple store and buy a replacement for my 30″ Cinema HD that instead of being 100ppi will be more like 300ppi. Not next week, but within my actuarial lifetime as a productive photographer.

Now, viewing a photograph on a display and viewing a print are not the same. The display emits light, the print reflects it. So the display is (ignoring second order effects) more or less independent of ambient lighting, and to look really good, a print needs to be generously lit. (Here’s the formula for adjusting the lighting to the optimum intensity for displaying prints: hang the print on the wall. Increase the brightness of the lights shining on the print until the print starts to smoke. Back the lights off until the print no longer smokes. Stop.)

And, although the furor over dMax of inks, papers, and printing technology seems to have died down of late, it’s still important. A good printing technology will give you a usable dMax of, say, somewhere between 1.8 logD and 2.4 logD. That corresponds to between 6 and 8 stops between dMax and dMin. But the display I’m looking at right now has a contrast ratio of 1000:1 – 10 stops between the darkest and lightest. 10 stops. Ten stops. I’m not going to claim that a wider range is the holy grail of photo display, but I’m pretty sure that 2 to four stop difference is part of why I look at stuff on my screen and think “Holy Cats, that looks good” and then look at the print and think “Um, not so much.”

Color gamut is another story. There are colors I can print but can’t display on my LCD monitors. There are colors I can display on the monitor but can’t print – interestingly, they seem to be mostly very light colors and very dark ones, and those are often the colors I struggle with when printing. All told I’d say I’d call the color gamut issue a win for the monitor, but the fact is that they are mostly *different* and not better or worse.

And so my question is this: when displays offer similar size and resolution to the prints we make on our printers, and the displays offer better options for color, better dynamic range, and so on, what properties of the print will remain that will mean that photographers continue to make prints? Will prints become a thing of the past, or will the object properties of print (the surface finish, the weight and hand of the paper, no need for a power source) mean that despite their limitations, prints are still what we think of as the natural end point of the photographic process?

Sea Change

Posted in digital printing, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on April 14, 2007

Two years ago, I wrote (going off) The Silver Standard.  In that article, I advanced the notion that, at long last, the art photography world was teetering on the brink of an upheaval, leaving the tradition of gelatin silver printing behind and moving to newer technology and materials.  Everyone was all in arms about how inkjet prints weren’t really photographs.  Fauxtographs, they sneeringly called them. 

So it’s with some amusement that I read Doug Plummer’s report from the front lines.  Plummer is at one of the big portfolio review events.  As part of the proceedings, he got to view about half of the portfolios at the event, and reports

My highly unscientific poll of the print types yielded this. Of the 80 or so portfolios I saw (or more accurately, glanced at), about a third to a half were black and white. I sussed out one silver print portfolio in that group, one ambriotype, and a half dozen platinum/palladium portfolios. The rest were digital prints.Among the color, 90% or better were inkjet prints, way up from two years ago. The small pool of C-print portfolios were more likely to have been printed with a digital C-print machine (LightJet or Lambda) than in a color darkroom.

It’s just five sentences, but it heralds a major shift in the world of photography.  Out of some 27-40 monochrome portfolios that Doug looked at, only one was printed using the Silver Standard of gelatin silver.  There were more pt/pd portfolios than there were gelatin silver.  Gelatin silver printing is now an alternative process, less popular than the most prominent alt process (pt/pd).  (I’d observe that the odds are good that a fair fraction of the half dozen pt/pd portfolios were done using digitally produced contact printing negatives, and those contact negs were probably made on (wait for it…) inkjet printers.)

And in the color world, Doug is reporting that 90% of the color portfolios were inkjet, and the C-41 prints were more likely to have been made digitally than made traditionally.

As delightful as all this is from “I told you so” point of view, the most stunning thing in Doug’s post was this:

Regardless of mono- or multi-chrome, most people appear to be inkjet printing on matte papers.

Matte papers.  Matte papers. It sounds to me like fine art photographers are enthusiastically embracing the amazing slew of wonderful new papers that have come out to meet the demand in the inkjet printing world.  All of my musing about the HP Z3100 and its built in profiling has me dreaming about all sorts of surfaces every night.  It’s not just glossy or matte anymore; there’s hot press watercolor and cold press watercolor and velvet and… well, the list just goes on and on. 

It’s an exciting time to be a photographer, when so many amazing possibilities are opening up all at once – bigger prints,  different surfaces, printing materials which have fundamentally different rendering properties from the traditional materials.  I think, I hope, I pray that this explosion of possibilities will be embraced by photographers rather than cause them to dig their heels in in some sort of Luddite response.  Now, more than ever before, we can invest in pushing against the new limits of our chosen form and find ourselves in new territory.

As Ariel sang

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Traditional printing is fading, but there’s no cause for alarm.  As it fades, it will undergo a sea change, and we can already see that it is turning into something rich and strange.  That’s a Good Thing.