One of the interesting (because it was unexpected) results of the educational print offer of a few weeks back was that people thought I invoked extraordinary measures to come up with a good print of that photograph. Not even close. I worked with a level of care and attention to detail and meticulousness that most people wouldn't muster, but that's a different thing. In that respect, I am unusual, and that's why I get paid for what I do.
But the measures themselves had nothing extraordinary about them. They're just the kind of things that any more-than-routine printer should be doing.
Good printing is not accomplished merely by getting curves and color balance and saturation correct. That's basic, like figuring out the right exposure and paper grade (or filter pack) in the darkroom.
One step above that is local tone correction—dodging and burning in. It's always amazed me (not in a good way) how many printers don't do that, in the darkroom or out. The majority of photographs I've printed over the past 40 years, and that's many thousands, have been improved by some amount of local correction. Frequently, it's very slight and very subtle. But it's not the norm for a print to be better with none at all.
If you don't have that under your control, you're not even a competent printer. If you are, you're competent. You can be trusted to turn out a good journeyman print.
Note: In each of the following pairs of photographs, the "before" version is what I get from my default settings for Adobe Camera Raw prior to making any adjustments to the photograph. The "after" version is what I use to make my finished prints; it isn't optimized for viewing at small resolution on a screen, but you'll get the idea. To put it another way, the "before version" is what the camera saw, and the "after" version is what I saw when I made the photograph—and what I wanted in a print.
Before (above) and after (below): The most important change to this photograph was a lot of dodging and burning in. Human beings are really good at ignoring large-scale variations in brightness that cameras see all too clearly.
What is it take to move beyond that level? Just as in the darkroom, it requires some real understanding of the limitations and quirks of the media (both film/sensor and print) you're working with. That leads me to three tools that are part of my standard printmaking toolkit. Some variation on these ought to be part of yours.
1. Local contrast enhancement. Simply, you can do it with a mild dose of unsharp masking or you can do it in a much more sophisticated way with plug-ins like Photo Wiz's ContrastMaster. What you can't get away with is not doing it. Digital prints tend to come out flat, with poor separation of fine and subtle tonal differences. I don't know why, but I've observed it to be broadly true. The delicate nuances that are there in the original file, whether it comes from a digital camera or a film scan, don't get rendered well in the print. You need to make that tonal separation stronger in the file or the print will look duller than it should.
Before (above) and after (below): The near-setting sun produced a grazing light that brought out wonderful textures in the building and provided great contrast in tone and color between the building in the sky. I made adjustments that emphasized sharpness and fine tonal detail.
2. Deconvolution sharpening. Simply, there's Smart Sharpen in Photoshop, with a radius of a few tenths of the pixel and the percentage set to taste. Complexly, any of several plug-ins, like Topaz Lab's InFocus. If you're trying to produce a digital photograph with the best and most nicely-rendered fine detail, and you're using a Bayer array camera, this is pretty much a must. (Can't speak to non-Bayer array cameras; never printed from them.) There is a genuine improvement in sharpness and fine detail buried in those Raw files that deconvolution sharpening can dig out.
3. Noise reduction. It's the counterbalance to the previous two tools. Both local enhancement and sharpening increase noise at the same time they improve fine detail, gradation, and texture. Noise reduction, on the other hand, tends to suppress precisely those image attributes. Many digital files (and film scans) are improved by just a whisper of noise reduction, no matter how great the camera is. A lot more digital files need it when local enhancement or sharpening are coming into play.
Before (above) and after (below): To turn this photograph from what the camera saw into what I saw, I needed a certain amount of dodging and burning in but far more important was bringing up the large-scale tonal variations so that they would separate and print well.
Combining all three of these in different measures gives you broad control over the characteristics image. You can get reduced noise with no visible sacrifice of fine detail and texture. Or, you can get substantially improved sharpness and detail with no significant increase in noise. Or, you can split the difference and get a photograph that has lower noise and better sharpness at the same time.
Before (above) and after (below): This photograph got "the works"; everything in my basic toolkit was important to making this photograph work as a print: Proper dodging and burning in, local contrast enhancement to bring out the gorgeous ripples in the water I had seen, proper sharpening to bring out the details in the seals and make them stand out against the water, and noise reduction to get rid of the increased noise from the previous operations.
None of this is heroic; none of it is exceptional. It's the norm for good digital printing.
No mincing of words: this is what it takes to be better than run-of-the-mill.
Ctein's weekly column, which usually appears on Wednesdays, is a day late this week through no fault of his own.
[Note that the illustrations are only approximations. Real corrections would have to take size into account, as well as the big jump between screen and paper, and the TypePad blogging software has an effect on how illustrations look that is impossible to compensate for precisely. Finally, your monitor and its calibration might change what you're seeing relative to what Ctein—or anyone else—is seeing. —MJ]
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Richard Tugwell: "I bought one of Charlie Cramer's prints from TOP a while back—quite beautiful. I see he has an interesting and in-depth article on tonal adjustments using Lightroom 4 over at The Luminous-Landscape."
Featured Comment by Ned: "In my opinion this is an area where books, videos and other training techniques just don't cut it. I don't even know what a good print looks like, which is why I purchased Ctien's Micro 4/3 print. I don't like to print because I know it will be a piece of crap."
Mike replies: Sounds like you might be a candidte to become a client of a custom printer. Don't forget that there are numerous photographers, now and in history—including some of the greats—who let other people print their pictures for them. It's how Ctein makes his living. Perhaps his best-known client was the late rock-and-roll photographer Jim Marshall, but he prints for many other clients as well, some of whom are quite famous. Years ago I made my living as a custom printer too—and many of my clients at the time never made their own prints.
Remember this picture?
It was taken by Peter Turnley at Voja Mitrovic's retirement party, and shows Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka good-naturedly begging Voja not to retire.
Featured Comment by Ed: "Mornin', Ctein, great read as ever. To me printing is about effort and the ability to reject (no matter the cost). In a German documentary I saw Gursky at work at Grieger (one of the best digital print shops on the face of this planet). He was making a test print...2 meters 60 cm by .5 meter. Just to check local contrast, after he rejected a full print of 'Hamm Bergwerg Ost.' If your print does not provide what you want, tear it up—it is a painful, wasteful, yet very important part of the process of learning to print. And looking at examples like the ones you provided, well, that may make people wonder about their skills (and their preferences), but, hey, you don't get 40 years of experience overnight."