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More prints from the Epson Pro 3880

Saturday 10 September 2011

I can’t describe how fulfilling it is to be “back in the darkroom” creating fine prints. There’s something magical about bringing the creative process through to its final steps. To paraphrase Ansel Adams, taking the picture is like writing the score, printing is the performance. And for me, that’s what it’s all about: conveying, through the print, all the nuances of my experiences in the field when I first made the exposure.

I’ve done about half a dozen images now including one black-and-white which I’ll describe in a later post. Due to cost issues, I have not profiled my monitor, yet I am getting very consistent and reliable results. I know what I am saying is taboo amongst fine art printers, but there is the reality of being on a limited budget – do I buy paper or do I buy a monitor profiler? [Aside: Most of the time I specifically do not purchase extended warranties – for the Epson I did, and spent the extra $149 to extend the warranty from 1 year to 4 years. Printers can be finicky. There are a lot of moving parts which must all line up to to micro-millitre. When the minimum repair bill is $200, it makes sense to buy a $149 warranty.]

Back to monitor profiling. I decided against it for 4 reasons:

  • As I said previously, the extra $200+ to get one that was truly worth having (i1Display Pro or Spyder 3 Pro – both do projectors as well), just wasn’t in the budget;
  • If I was as working on a cheap $150 monitor, I would definitely get a profiler, but I’m not. The machine I use exclusively is a MacBook Pro. Apple does not scrimp when it comes to displays, even in their laptops – they are state of the art;
  • Every Mac system has an excellent display calibrator that takes you through 6 or 8 steps of calibration – it’s not perfect, but, judging from my prints, it’s pretty darn close if you do it well (like anything, practice makes perfect!)
  • I have worked in photography and darkrooms, including colour darkrooms, for about 30 years. When printing colour Cibachromes I would use these viewing filters to help decide what colour shift is needed: ±5 magenta or ± 5 yellow. My eyes quickly learned what to look for. This, in itself has been a huge advantage to me when colour printing today.

What I am finding is that I tend to view and process the photos slightly darker for the screen than is needed for a print. That makes sense:  a computer display is backlit so the light is pouring through the pixels colouring them brilliantly. With a paper print the light is reflecting off the paper so not as much light is transmitted to your eye. So for most images I have already processed, I am increasing the exposure or brightness (depending on the image) by about 30 to 50%. The image still looks great on screen, just brighter than I might have done for screen viewing or projecting.

I am also finding that I am boosting the highlight half of the histogram up a bit. Basic processing tells us to bring the  pure whites to just at or shy of clipping and I’ve always done that. Now I find that a print looks better with the top 1/4 of the highlights a little brighter while maintaining the same clipping. Typically, I make these adjustments using the Tone Curve palette in Lightroom.

Test Strip Presets in Lightroom

How am I judging this, you ask? Am I printing out full sheets each time? Absolutely not! Remember, I’m a stingy troll from the wet darkroom era – I use the venerated test strips. That’s right – remember them? But I’ve modified the concept for digital printing. In Lightroom I’ve created a set of presets for printing a 3″ strip of the photo I’m working on. After judging the photo based on the first strip, I make the necessary corrections in the Develop Module then, in the Print Module, I select the Test Strip 2 preset which prints a 3″ strip of the same portion of the photo right beside the first. Now I can compare the two directly and chart my next set of changes.

With my first print on the Epson, I ended up using 6 strips – a full sheet. Now I’m down to 3 before making a full-sized print, mostly because I’m still learning about  the amount and type of sharpening needed. For the more recent prints, I’m down to 3 test strips before making a full-sized print. From my perspective, that’s pretty darn good and I’m convinced that a monitor profiler would not change this. While some of the changes I make are colour related, most of them have to do with local contrast and sharpening which is outside of the parameters of monitor adjustments.

Test Strip 1 Layout in Lightroom

I’ve created separate test strips for different paper sizes and for colour and black-and-white. Seems like a lot of work, but setting it up ahead of time saves oodles of time (and paper) later on. Using presets means  I don’t need to remember to change paper settings or invoke or turn off Advanced Black-and-White mode (more on this as I explore it).

Setting up the Presets is simple enough:

  1. In the Print Module, open the Page/Print Set-up window and set your printer and paper size;
  2. In the Print Settings window, select the Page Setup and Media Type and save those as a Preset within the Epson driver;
  3. In the Layout palette of LR’s Print Module set a left margin of .25″, add on the 3″ for the test strip (= 3.25″) then subtract from 19″ to get 15.75″ for a right margin; I’ve chosen top and bottom margins of 0.5″ as the widest print I want on a 13″ page is 12″;
  4. At this point, you may need to navigate to the Image Settings palette and select “Zoom to Fill”
  5. Back into Layout palette, maximize the cell size (at the bottom) to 12″ x 3″

The next test strip preset “Test Strip 2″ will use Margins of (L) 3.25″; (R) 12.75″. For each successive test strip , the left margin increases by 3″ with the right margin decreasing by 3”. Simple – once you’ve done it a few times. At first I began with just one test strip and altered th margins each time as needed.  I quickly realized the advantage of setting up each Preset.

I must admit that with all these presets, fine art printing begins to sound more like push-button, assembly-line printing, but let’s face it, if all these details can be handled through presets,my limited brain power is then freed up for concentrating on the task at hand: creating prints that truly convey the nuances I saw and felt when I first exposed the image out in the field. After all, that’s what it’s all about!

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