Jack W. asked: "Can 'the glow' be obtained with digital cameras and digital papers?"
[If you just happened across this post, we've just been talking about B&W printmaking, and, just previous to that, the aesthetics of B&W tonality as seen in old-timey Hollywood movies.]
My answer: naturally, yes. As I said, I think it's actually easier now. As I said in 2002 in the previous post, 'the glow' is just a look.
There are slight differences, of course. "Long scale" platinum/palladium prints are difficult to reproduce even in ink, still less online, which is why we've had several Pt/Pd print sales in the past. But even fiber-base silver gelatin papers have a subtle depth that is difficult to reproduce exactly.
Color digital inkjet prints are potentially more beautiful than any color printing method in photography's history, although many different techniques have their charms. I say "potentially" because relatively few printmakers* have the gear, the skills, and the taste to produce top-quality prints; but it can certainly be done and it is done, widely. Professional printmakers have a little advantage in that they can spend more on equipment and they practice all day; amateur printmakers have a little advantage in that they can take their time over a single print—even days or weeks—and keep "spending" paper and ink until they get it exactly right. Who's best? Both pros and amateurs have about an equal chance at expressive success if you ask me. Depends on the individual.
Black-and-white has had a much spottier history in the digital age. It's more difficult than color to print well, and (thus) fewer people do it well. Personally I think the materials were getting problematic at the end of the film era, with the new "straight line" films that were problematic matches to certain papers. In the Digital Transition period, equipment and materials for taking and printing B&W digital images lagged behind all the tech and effort that was poured into color printing materials and methods.
Now, I think, we're over that. According to my definitions, we're seven years into the digital era of still photography, and now a.) the sensors are good enough, b.) the printers* are good enough, c.) the inks are good enough, and d.) the papers are good enough.
Actually several of those things are better than good enough. Especially the papers.
So how to you get a B&W print to sing when printmaking digitally? As ever, it's a question of skill and judgment.
In my view, the problem with printing is the same as with cameras: burgeoning complexity. Of course, some people like that...they're tech mavens, and they like being experts, and they get motivated by challenges. Which is all fine. But in general, my feeling with printing is that what keeps people away is that at the beginning of the learning curve you step into a rabbit hole, and the rabbit hole leads to a forbidding underworld of not knowing what to do, and things going mystifyingly wrong, and of not being able to find the information you need to figure out what to do next. Even if you do make it back out of the rabbit hole again, you just have to spend too much time "at a loss." It's not the time and effort to come up to speed that discourages people, as that so much of that time is spent feeling thwarted...just being frustrated and confused. So people get turned off of printing.
Really, the time should be spent "learning the music of tonality," rather than learning to play the instruments, right?
There's no one right way to print. In the spirit of the 2002 post, however, I'll mention a few specifics that might help you get there with B&W digital printing.
• Start with a small printer. When you can make an exquisite small print you're perfectly satisfied with, that's the time to get ambitious and start hankering after the big warships that need an entire small room or a big corner of a large one. There's always time for that.
• Use the best OEM (original equipment manufacturer) pigment/carbon inksets.
• Stick with the OEM's papers at first so you can use their profiles.
• If you want to have fun, once you get going—or better yet as you get going—invest in ImagePrint. ColorByte is just about to switch to new product names—there will be two: R.E.D., which means "runs every device," an easy-to-use interface for OEM drivers and OEM profiles. For B&W, you will need ImagePrint Black, which is the new name for the old full-version ImagePrint v.10; Black will be the name of v.11. (If you buy v.10 you'll receive a free upgrade to Black when it's released.) Yes, you need v.10/Black if you want to do B&W. No, it's not cheap—but you'll get an easy, ironclad interface with which to use custom drivers, plus custom profiles for almost literally every photo and fine-art paper made anywhere in the world. I haven't used this yet, but I keep hearing good things about it, and I admit I yearn for a simpler, more accurate method of printing. If you want to know more about ImagePrint, check out Kevin Raber's article and videos about it at The Luminous-Landscape. Tellingly, the L-L page is titled "Making Printing Easier."
• I use Photoshop CS6 with Nik Silver Efex 2 as a plugin, but whatever you use, I wouldn't necessarily become a converter "nomad," wandering from one to the next in search of the Holy Grail**. Just as with film and enlargers, it's easy to get sidetracked on minute differences in programs, but most of them will do what you need to do; learning what you want done is more important than slight differences in how it's accomplished.
• Forget the old saw that "every good print has a pure black and a pure white." An hour on Shorpy is the sentence for anyone convicted of this superstitious belief! Shadow (dark-tone) and highlight (light-tone) separation is what is wanted. For that, aim for a black just on the gray side of Dmax (maximum density) and a white just on the gray side of paper white.
Detail of a 1939 Russell Lee photo that recently appeared on Shorpy
• Look at the image as if it's real light. That is, look at it holistically. It's easy to get wrapped up in tones for tones' sake—try to relate the tones to what you know about what light on the surface of planet Earth looks like.
• Don't exaggerate. Gentle, gentle with that axe, Eugene.
• If you have ImagePrint, then experiment with abandon and try all the truly wonderful papers we have today! It's getting late on this Tuesday, so maybe papers is a post for a different day.
I guess the most important point is that learning how tones sing (or "glow," I guess I should say in this context) is a lifelong learning process, a happy and satisfying journey for me for sure. We gradually come to find the expressive tonality we each prefer, and it becomes part of the "signature" of our work in B&W. Peter Turnley told me that when he sits down with Voja Mitrovic to show him a stack of B&W prints, Voja will cast his expert eye on the tones and indicate slight changes that to him would be improvements. Consider that when Walter Rosenblum was exposed for passing off his own later prints as vintage Lewis Hine originals, the original tipoff was that they seemed to betray the characteristic tonality of Rosenblum prints. Look at a book of Ralph Gibson's B&W photos after a book of Lee Friedlander's B&W photos after a book of Roy de Carava's B&W photos after a book of Sally Mann's B&W photos; you will see in each a different and distinctive approach to tonality. If you're a sensitive worker with a sense of what looks right to you in your own work, this will emerge just as surely in digital printmaking as it would have from the darkroom.
(Several fine printmakers and manufacturer's representatives
contributed to this post. My thanks to all.)
**Remember, the point of the search for the Holy Grail is that there was no Holy Grail.
Original contents copyright 2018 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:
James Weekes: "Just to add to the chorus. I have used Image Print for years, through two printers, Epson 3800 and now P800. A magical program. The hidden gem of the company is their free tutorials. Almost any problem solved in minutes."
Tex Andrews: "Very, very helpful. Have bookmarked ImagePrint. But there's one I think very important thing I'd like to toss in as a visual artist of traditional media who also does photography now. Digital ink printing is different than chemical printing, and should be judged that way. Japanese whisky is excellent, but needs to be judged on its own terms, not in a constant comparison to Scotch whisky. Same with printing. Printing digitally involves ink, so the real comparison is with ink prints, such as etchings or fine art lithographs. I always hated matte paper and prints until digital; now I adore them, and am having problems with digital gloss paper. It's because I see in the inkjet print the quality of ink on paper that I see in traditional fine art ink prints."
Joe: "I believe that one of the keys to becoming a really good printmaker, whether B&W or color, is to get out and look at great prints—in galleries, museums, etc.—as often as you can. Not computer screens, magazines, or even most books. Look at really good silver and inkjet prints, printed by the masters. One thing I learned from studying great prints is how often the best printmakers are not obsessed with the things we've been taught to do so easily in Photoshop. Like? Pulling all the detail out of the shadows. Sometimes a shadow should just be a shadow."
Mike replies: Looking at prints in museums used to be good advice, but now that museums are saving money by keeping their light levels too low (and that's why they do it—don't believe their hooey about lights fading), looking at prints in museums is just as often a frustration as a pleasure these days. It's a deplorable fad I hope passes ASAP.
Charles Cramer: "I remember you posting a link to Shorpy years ago, and I just love the tonality there. Gorgeous, and so full of light! In my digital printing classes I find that most people's prints are the opposite—too dark. Many detailed shadow areas are almost black. Perhaps this dark style of printing reflects a more modern, bleak view of the world? (Also, the webmaster of Shorpy does a great job at opening shadows and restoring highlight detail. See https://www.shorpy.com/node/451 for before and after examples).
"With digital capture and processing, we can achieve a more linear rendering of tones, without the characteristic curve of film that wonderfully separates mid-tones, but at the expense of compressed highlights and shadows. And in most of the Shorpy images, I see clouds that are pretty compressed—but with just enough detail so they don’t look washed out. The clouds are certainly not 'fluffy,' a la Ansel Adams. Tonality is a series of compromises, and if you want the Shorpy tonality, I think you have to give up some of the highlight separation now possible with digital.
"Another problem that contributes to dark-looking prints are monitors, which I believe can be very deceptive, even when carefully calibrated. I talked about ways to make monitors more perceptually accurate in a talk I did for OnLandscape, (found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d8zxB4zMAg, around the 28 minute mark). Monitors always 'glow' since they are basically lit from behind. Prints have to exist in the real world, and are at a disadvantage. But, it still is very possible to make glowing prints. Just see some Adams, Weston, or Sexton original prints. One very obvious thing I tell classes about making a print glow is: darken the edges, and lighten the middle. I think that deserves a 'Duh!,' but it’s a good starting point."
[Charlie is one of the leading printmaking teachers in the USA. —Ed.]