This week's column by Ctein
Two disappointed readers who missed out on last week's blow-out dye transfer sale asked me if I'd be making digital prints of "Roses Against Black Stone Wall" and "Niagara Falls" in the future. I won't be able to say for certain until I try, but the prospects are very good for the latter and problematical for the former. Why is that?
It goes to the inherent strengths of the two media. Something that dye transfer has uniquely going for it is the huge density range it can render. It's possible to achieve a D-max of 3.0 if the subject demands it. Furthermore, the medium is more linear in the shadows than conventional darkroom materials. That means that dye transfer prints can hold more and deeper shadow detail and produce better tonal separation in the shadow detail that falls within the range of other print media.
For many photographs, even most, this is not a critical issue; the quality of the shadow detail doesn't make or break the photograph. Sometimes, it does. Within a few years of taking up dye transfer printing, I was photographing with that in mind. I knew I could print an exceptionally long exposure range and rich but open shadows, so I didn't hesitate to photograph subjects that would demand that. For example, I started photographing in the American desert under the midday sun, a time avoided by most color photographers, because I could hold both highlight and shadow detail in my prints.
I definitely made the photographs in my Jewels of Kilauea series with dye transfer in mind. All that rich, black shiny pahoehoe just soaks up the light and provides a great backdrop to the iridescent flashes of color that I'm photographing. The problem is, many of the compositions fall apart without that impression of intense shadow detail you could fall into. Figure 1, for example. I've tried printing that as a digital print. So far it's been a failure. The photograph doesn't work well without those three dimensional shadows.
A lot of the photographs in the series are like that. Probably has something to do with why those prints haven't sold very well; I can't reproduce that quality in a JPEG any more than I can in a digital print. Consequently, the online presentation doesn't show those photographs in a good light.
All of this is subject to change, of course. There's no fundamental reason future digital printing technologies and displays can't give me as rich and long-range a rendering as dye transfer does. But at the present time they come up lacking. I'd say that approximately 20% of the photographs in my portfolio just won't work as digital prints, for the present.
"Roses" may turn out to be one of them. I won't know if it depends upon that shadow detail richness and three-dimensionality until I try printing it without that. I may be able to come up with an interpretation in a digital print that entirely satisfies me. If not, I'll be disappointed but not surprised.
At the highlight end of the tonal scale, though, digital printing is massively superior to anything I can do in the darkroom. In this case, though, it's not about any inherently superior tone or color rendition in the digital print media—it's all about the control.
Highlights are very difficult to precisely control in the darkroom, regardless of the process. It's inherent in the nature of silver halide print materials; there is always a severe rolloff in contrast in the extreme highlights. Consequently, it's very hard to separate delicate highlight detail from the paper-base white. In addition, the usual darkroom controls and masking methods, even with a process like dye transfer, give you fairly poor and crude control over the exact shape of the highlight curve. While precise tonal placement is possible in midtones, with highlights you're substantially stuck with what the print hands you once you've established the overall exposure and contrast.
The curves tools in digital printing make it possible to shape highlight tonal rendition with exquisite precision, independent of any other control you exercise over the print. Most notably, it's possible to get a linear rendition of tones and colors that preserves both delicacy and separation much better than in a darkroom print.
A photograph like figure 2 is a good example of one that turned out much better as a digital print than a dye transfer. Not that the dye transfers don't look fine, but the digital print looks even better. Getting exactly the right tonality and tonal separation in those clouds so that it properly mirrors the forms in the hills, which is what makes this photograph work, succeeds better in the digital print than in the dye transfer.
Extreme highlights exist in places you wouldn't think, for example in figure 3. Colors that are close to primaries, like the greens and yellows in this photograph, actually depend on the quality of the highlight control. The reason for that is that colors that are very close to primaries contain only small amounts of the complementary color. For example, where the greens are most intense and delicate in this photograph, there is almost no magenta density; the precise quality of the greens is entirely dependent upon the highlight rendition of the magentas.
Figures 4 through 6 show the red, green, and blue channels for this photograph; they would correspond to cyan, magenta, and yellow ink or dye densities in a print. Notice how high key much of the green image is, especially in the yellow-green grass at the base of the hills. Getting these colors and tones exactly right requires being able to control the highlight curve shape for the magenta image very precisely, and that's extremely difficult in the darkroom. By itself the dye transfer print looks wonderful, but placed side-by-side with a digital print the colors in the dye transfer print look cruder and less real.
Some of you may be wondering, apropos the discussions of a few weeks ago, how this relates to the art market.
It doesn't. The art market is not remotely driven by measures of visual quality, either objective or subjective, nor by the artist's intent. The concerns of this column have nothing to do with making prints that sell better or for more money.
My dye transfer prints, both of my own photographs and others', sell substantially better than digital prints of the same photographs, even when by every visual measure, and even by the artist's own vision, the digital prints are superior. Does this distress me? Let me rephrase the question—
Does it bother me that people would rather buy a much more expensive print of mine? You get two guesses, and the first one doesn't count.
There's art, and then there's commerce.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
-et- (signed Tom): "As an addendum to Ctein's comments above, a couple of years ago I wrote to him asking about purchasing a dye transfer print of 'Apollo 17 at Dawn.' However, I was interested in a larger print than the size he listed in his catalog—which offered only the smaller of the two sizes for which his other dye transfer prints were available.
"Ctein replied that this image would not meet his standards for quality if printed any larger, due to limitations imposed by the negative sharpness. He wrote that he had a second negative shot at the same time that was quite sharp, but simply could not produce a quality dye transfer, so his only option was to limit the size of his dye transfer print from the first negative.
"I expressed my regret at the circumstances he described, as I really liked that image for both artistic reasons and sentimental reasons. (I had been one of the design engineers on the Saturn launch vehicle for the Apollo capsule.)
"Ctein replied that the discussion had made him take another look at his negatives, and that he thought that he might be able to use the second negative to generate a print that met his standards if he used digital techniques. Accordingly, he was going to experiment to see if his 40-year-old negative that could not be used for a dye transfer print would work well for a digital print.
"Some time later he wrote to say that his experiment was a success, and he was pleased with the large digital print from the second negative. Was I still interested? My response was very brief—'How much do I make the check out for?'
"The resulting print is now framed and hanging on the wall in my home. It is everything that I would have expected from looking at his dye transfer print in his online catalog, and much more."
Nigel: "That was one of your most interesting columns—which is high praise indeed. Though it makes me wish even more that you'd offered the SR71 pictures in the recent sale (probably a minority view)."
Mike replies: I have to take the blame for that, as I chose the pictures. The SR71 shot was in the running, however. I'd still like to see it as a dye.
Frank Gorga: "My first response, upon reading only the title, was 'of course, just like painting, water color and oil are two different media and no one confuses those.'
"Then I remembered an encounter I had with an acquaintance some years back (when digital was fairly new). This fellow knew that I made cyanotypes (I still do) and he wanted to show me his cyanotypes.
"You can probably see where this is going...he had some bluish-toned inkjet prints (on glossy paper, no less) for me to look at. I tried to be polite and explain that they were not at all similar to my cyanotypes except for the hue.
"I have had similar discussions many times since but it is a losing battle. I fear that the differences in media are lost on many photographers...present company excepted!
"And don't get me started on simulated IR images...these should be against the law!
"Thanks for the interesting article. It is too bad that this is the end of the line for dye transfer."