Sometimes a few minutes is the difference between a 3 hour drive home or a 9-12 hour trek around an entire mountain range. This October night in 2016, I pushed it right to the edge.
Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road, peaking at 9945 feet elevation, provides access to the stunning Eastern Sierra, but can close suddenly during storms. The Yosemite photographers call this gamble “East Side Roulette”, and it’s a game of “will the storm close the pass before I make it home.”
After an exceedingly windy day exploring aspens with my family, the approaching clouds said it was time to go. I swear I heard the drums from the Braveheart soundtrack driving me to hit the road. If we didn’t stop to eat, it would be three long hours before the next food services. My wife wanted to stop and eat at The Mobile Station, but I convinced her to just get our food to go, the urgency of the storm in my head. I munched down my pizza while driving up the steep drop-offs of Tioga Pass to quickly worsening conditions.
As we reached the top of the pass, the snow was already starting to fall, as you can see in the zoomed in crop. I stopped to make one last picture as the light faded, as I knew some big life changes were coming soon, and I wanted to mark this personally meaningful day at one of my favorite places.
We resumed the drive, and snow started to cover the road, with no lines and only one fading set of tire tracks to follow, and no car lights behind us. I know the road very well, but it was still dicey. The knowledge that we would drop below the snow soon pushed me forward, and I was watching each landmark to measure how far we were from that safe haven. At this point, it was better to continue than go back. And soon we were below the snow, on dark, wet, rainy winter Yosemite roads. On our drive across the pass, we saw no one in front of us or behind us, even after stopping for a few comfort breaks. A few cars passed going the opposite direction, but then all traffic died. We had the road to ourself.
About an hour later, Flashing Ranger lights greeted us at the Crane Flat gate. We weren’t in trouble. It was just a Ranger closing the road. Eastbound traffic had been closed for some time as evidenced by the lack of cars passing us. And the west bound lane was only open for people to exit the Tioga Road. As my wife looked back, she saw the Ranger close the gate behind us. We were the last car across the pass.
Sometimes a storm only closes “The Pass” for a few days, but this was not the case in 2016. Once it started snowing that night, it never stopped. The second biggest winter in recorded history was upon the Sierra, that led to over 700 inches of snow in some locations.
I knew something epic was in the making that night, and the experience of being last car across that night is pretty cool. It was certainly memorable, and yes, I heard those Scottish drums from Braveheart driving me on the whole way.
2016-10-15 17:11:27.088, give or take an hour for DST
Nikon D810, Sigma Art 35mm f1.4, 1/30 sec f/4.0 ISO 800
900 dpi prints?!?! That’s kinda crazy, right? You just need to print at 300 or 240 or 200 because somebody on the internet told me no one can tell the difference. But it works, and it works really well!
If you know me, you know I’m kinda obsessed with print quality. I cut my teeth looking at Ansel Adams prints every day, burning that quality expectation into my brain. I helped people like Galen Rowell print their first all digital print exhibitions. There’s magic in a extremely well made print, something that makes you appreciate it for years instead of a quick swipe on Instagram.
So I tried some things on my Canon PRO-4000 printer on a hunch and curiosity. I made a print from a very high dpi file and the result was something I never expected to see. I wasn’t sure if it was true so I compared it to my library of test prints from Epson Printers, Canon Printers, LighJets, and Chromiras on all kinds of papers with prints made at 300 dpi. And sure enough, what I was seeing was real.
So I made the test prints in this post to see just how much resolution the Canon printer could handle. And ever time I gave the printer more resolution, the print got better. Sharper edges, more detail…fine branches moved from mushy to crisp and clear, and everything became more dimensional, more 3-D, more like I could reach in and grab it. It makes me giddy just to think about it because it brings so much of that magic to a print. I never thought digital printing could do this, and it is letting me make prints that are closer to my vision than ever before.
I made a video to explain it a little more, and I plan on making more to show how to use this process that you can view on YouTube.
I’ve been using it to make prints for my clients too, and the results are breathtaking. Every print becomes a new experience.
I don’t know if it will work on your brand or model of printer but you should give it a try, and let me know what happens.
I'm working on a more in-depth article that will go into more detail about the process, so stay tuned!
Courteous comments and questions are always welcome
What’s the best DPI to print at? Breaking the rules led me to a discovery that can give you the best digital prints I’ve ever seen. Printing at resolutions higher than 300 dpi lead to a significant quality gain with the Canon PRO series printers. I lay it all out in this video.
Making a good print starts with making a good file. Your digital files control what a printer produces, so if what you want is not in the file, it’s not going to be in the print.
The printer, paper, and profile/color management all play a role as well, but if those are done properly, your file should print the same on any printer anywhere in the world.
To paraphrase Ansel Adams, the file is the score, the print is the performance!
When we edit a photo, we are the composer. Our editing is the same as a composer putting down notes on sheet music for the orchestra to perform. As long as they orchestra is in tune and playing what is on the page, it should sound the way we wrote it.
So the core skill of making better prints is making better files. We need to learn how to build into the file the things we want to see in the print, and this comes down to the decisions you make in Photoshop/Lightroom/ON1/etc.
It’s very easy with these tools to make things too contrasty, to make shadows and highlights that are too dark or too light, to create oversaturated colors or unrealistic hues and color balances.
Just as a musician has to learn to produce notes that are on key, printmakers need to learn to make edits that produce the results they want.
Part of this is learning a new precision. We need to train our eye to be sensitive to small differences just as a musician needs to learn to hear notes precisely. Learning to see the difference in slider moves of +1 or -1 instead of +10 and -10 will produce more refinement.
How to produce better files is beyond the scope of a single post. But knowing that making better files is the key to making better prints lets you start working on that goal
I'll be teaching a Mini-Clinic for Brentwood Photo Group members on March 14. This clinic is a members only even and free to BPG members.
Musicals expect that middle C will sound the same on any piano in the world. Photographer should have a similar expectation of a properly tuned instrument when they make prints. This is achieved through color management. I’ll talk about what color management is, and how to use it properly. A key part of this clinic will be looking at prints to see what is correct calibration, and learning to see what is in-tune and out-of-tune. We'll look at how to evaluate canned profiles as well as prints from labs. I’ll have samples of "in-tune" prints, and will encourage participants to print my test file to bring and evaluate their printer or lab. Participants will leave with a new understanding of the level of accuracy and repeatability possible with color management that will make their prints "sound" their best.
Check out my Blog Post Will your prints match the next time you print them?
for a peek at some of what we'll be covering.
I'll be teaching a free 2 hour intro to Photoshop class on January 19th in Murfreesboro. Check out the Rutherford County Library site for a course description and to sign up.
Debating which camera brand is best is a sure way to create a lively discussion among photographers. It’s easy to endlessly discuss specs and online reviews, and to think that the latest model will give us some missing edge. But what about when you really put images to the test with prints?
As fine art printmaker, I’ve had the chance to do just that, looking at an endless stream of prints from photographers of all experience levels and types of equipment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that for most people, what brand you use doesn’t really matter.
I’m not saying that there aren’t differences between brands. Lens selection, user interface, all these things lead to preferences that matter to the individual. And when you are pushing the extremes, like high ISO work, or speciality niches, you’ll find that some camera can do what you want and other can’t. But when looking at prints from the typical 24 MP camera setup, from a typical photographer, the brand camera they used is not immediately apparent to me. This was a bit of a shocking realization for me because I think it’s hard wired in that some cameras are better than others, and that thinking usually validates the brand we choose to buy.
This is a complete flip from the days of film, where the sensor (film) had a tremendous impact on the final product, and created legions of loyal fans for one brand of color film or another. Even today different films have unique looks and feels hardwired into them that give them a unique fingerprint.
I don’t see this same “fingerprint” from digital sensors in most situations. When photographing with typical ISOs of typical landscape subjects, camera brand is just not something that’s stood out to me on first look when viewing prints.
So if camera brand is not the most visible difference between photographs, what is? Here’s my top 5 ways to make a visible difference in your photographs.
Lens quality affects your photo more than any other factor. When looking at prints, the difference between a high grade Prime lens versus a typical prime or zoom is significant. Both the sharpness and the color rendition are improved, which adds to the sense of realism.
Shooting with high grade Primes will make a difference. Zoom lenses can never be as good as a well designed Prime.
Average Primes and zoom lenses typically have a sweet spot of sharpness in the middle of the frame, with resolution (sharpness) falling off near the edges. High quality lenses are designed to better maintain sharpness across the full frame. You can see this to some degree by looking at the MTF curves for a lens. A typical high quality Prime will cost you in the range of $900 or more. But the difference in quality is significant, and is a key part of getting the most out of your sensor at any megapixel resolution. Adding even one excellent prime lens to your bag will make a major difference in the quality of photograph you can produce. Sharp lenses always stand out when I’m printing customer work.
2. Newish Pro Body
With film, everyone could use the same quality “image sensor” at the same price, regardless the cost of their camera. Digital changed all of that. The more expensive the camera you buy, the better the sensor and features, and the better file they make. The camera’s age or generation also makes a difference. The pro cameras from ten years ago are not as good as those shipping now. Moving up from a consumer-grade camera to a “pro” body costing $1,000 or more made within the last 4-5 years will typically give you better image quality. The rare exception I’ve found is Sony. They seem to not pull their punches with their A series cameras as much as they could. Even the bottom end a5000 gives a superb file at 100 ISO in my experience using it as an every day carry camera.
How you process your files can degrade the quality of even the best camera and lenses. Photos processed to produce subtle highlights, shadows, and contrast like Ansel Adams is known for will tend to show the best a camera can do, while HDR and excessive slider moves in Lightroom or other software will obliterate the subtle highlights and shadows a high-end camera is capable of producing. Well processed files make prints that stand out from the average.
4. Excellent Exposure, Focus, Aperture, Shutter Speed
Well exposed photos, with the subject in focus, using adequate depth of field, without camera shake or motion blur, stand out from photos that didn’t consider these controls. Own every decision in making a photograph and the results will speak for themselves.
What brand of brush did Van Gogh use asked no one ever! It’s not the brush, it’s how he used it. Ansel Adams said “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Our tools are never more important than our vision. Sharper lenses won’t make a boring photograph more interesting. The experience to know what you want to say clearly is the hardest part of photography. You can’t order it online. You have to make photographs and practice the craft to attain it. When you combine vision with great tools, the results can be breathtaking.
A photograph is the sum of all it’s parts. If you already have a decent camera body, adding a really sharp lens or two and good processing may be all you need to take your photography to the next level as you continue to increase your vision.
If you’ve been asked this about your photos, you are not alone. It’s a common question people have because for most of the history of photography, there has been an assumed veracity attached to the medium. While I think that illusion has been largely shattered, the question still remains, and in the realm of landscape and wildlife photography, there are still expectations of a sort of truthfulness. It is still a career ender to manipulate news photos, and for scientific publications as well as many magazines like National Geographic, there are still strict rules regarding what can, and can’t, be done to a photograph.
But at it’s simplest, when a viewer is before a landscape photograph and asks this question, I think what they are trying to connect with is the experience. They want to know “Is this something that really happened? Is this something I could see with my eye? Or is this a ‘trick’ of processing?” I use landscapes as an example because I think this genre is particularly linked to this question. People are drawn to nature in part because of it’s realness. There is a desire for authentic experiences, and therefore, photographs that capture that authenticity.
I was taking about this the other day with a friend who texted a passage from Looking at Ansel Adams by Andrea Stillman where Ansel describes his making of “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”
“I felt I had accomplished something, but did not realize its significance until I had developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization! I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. The sky had actually been a light, slightly hazy blue and the sunlit areas of Half Dome were moderately dark gray in value. The red filter dramatically darkened the sky and the shadows of the great cliff.”
For my friend, saying “I don’t try to capture what I see, but what I felt” is a way for him to answer the numerous times he’s asked “did you enhance this?!?!” when showing his work.
I agree with that statement, as it is what I seek to do in my own photography, but I think it warrants further discussion. And as much as I wanted to discuss it further with him over beer and tacos at our local taqueria hangout spot, writing about it will have to suffice.
I find I have very different lines for acceptability in the changes I make to a B&W photo versus a color photo. In B&W, I do not feel constrained at all because it is naturally abstracted from reality once color is removed. Large changes in tonality and contrast can be applied without the viewer noticing that something was done, because we don’t see in black and white.
However, we do see in color. We know what things are supposed to look like, and we have a lifetime of experiences built up to inform us. Because of that, in my photographs, I feel there needs to be a certain relationship to reality to be believable, or at least be beautiful.
Software can be our enemy here. Oversaturated colors or strange hues are just a slider adjustment away. Anyone can make fluorescent green aspen leaves or a sunset so colorful it never could happen. Having the trained eye to use those sliders to make a natural result takes study, time, and patience. It’s so easy to get seduced by the "wow" factor of rich saturated colors, which often denies the inherent beauty of the subject as it really is.
Like most things, loud is easy, but subtlety is hard. It’s true of any art from music to cooking, to craft beer. Making a IPA that is so bitter it makes you cringe is easier than making a beer with complexity and subtle notes of all the ingredients. That subtlety and complexity is my goal in making a color print because it’s the integrity of the subject and the experience it created that most interests me. My color photographs are capturing experiences, things seen that I want to re-experience and enjoy over and over.
I think that also speaks to the why of the question. When people ask “did you manipulate this?”, they are really asking “can I actually see this, or is the wow you are creating in me a falsehood?” It’s speaking to their personal connection to nature, to the world around them. The question is a very human reaction, a desire for truthfulness. They would never ask that of a Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, because they understand it’s a painting. But a photograph brings along with it a certain expectation of capturing reality, and that pre-programed viewer expectation is something that the photographer always has to consider and deal with in their photo. I feel that departure from reality needs to be done in such a clear artistic style that the question becomes moot.
So much more could be said, which makes great conversation over beer & tacos, or in the comments below. What is your take on “Is it real?”
What does specular highlight mean? Or how about local contrast, d-max, pixel value, or paper white? Do you just nod along when people use these terms? Be honest now!
Photography is full of terms that are completely foreign outside of the medium, but are a necessary part of talking about it. I've compiled a brief glossary of terms that I use frequently and I thought could use a little definition. So I've created an Articles section of my website and added a Glossary with some of my most commonly used terms.
Some of these are technical, and others are terms in common use among professional photographers and photo printmakers, but all of them bring necessary insight and understanding to the medium.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and is mostly meant to define things that will help understand my articles and workshops. Most of these words and concepts are worthy of in-depth study; a more complete understanding of the what, when, why, and how will grow your skill and abilities. So treat this as a study guide as there will be a test every time you click the shutter, move a slider, or click print!
Want to add a word? Or have something explained? Ask in the comments and let's discuss!
What process and papers should you make your prints on? Most prints you’ll order from a photo lab are made on darkroom paper that is exposed with light and processed in chemistry called RA-4. It’s a fast and cost effective way to make a good print, but it’s no longer the best way. The latest technology inkjet prints offer many advantage over darkroom prints.
Here’s the top 5 ways inkjet printing bests RA-4 lab prints.
Inkjet prints look sharper and appear to resolve more detail. This is a result of how they are produced, with millions of nearly microscopic dots of ink.
2. More Colorful
Using up to 12 inks, current inkjet printers offer a much wider color gamut than darkroom papers. You’ll see this in more saturated colors as well as being able to produce colors more accurately thanks to dedicated red, green, and blue inks on some printers.
Darkroom lab prints are currently rated for a life of 40 years. The best inkjet prints double or triple that, and may even last longer if properly cared for. While all prints can fade with exposure to light, RA-4 darkroom prints will develop a amber stain even if stored in the dark. But there is good reason to believe that inkjet prints made on cotton papers and stored in the dark can last hundreds of years.
4. Paper options
Because inkjet prints don’t need to be processed through high temperature chemistry, you can print on a variety of papers and finishes. These include hot and cold press artist’s papers made from 100% cotton, baryta papers (my personal favorite), delicate Japanese papers, canvas, as well as traditional matte, gloss, and luster papers.
5. Black & White
Most professional inkjet prints have multiple shades of gray ink they use when printing in B&W. RA-4 darkroom prints make up the image from Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow dyes in the paper. It is very difficult to adjust these CMY dyes to make a neutral gray, which often adds unpleasing tints to black & white photographs. (Traditional black & white prints made with silver gelatin papers still offer the ultimate in quality when used by master photographers and printmakers, but are a very speciality product.)
What do I base this on?
I’ve printed somewhere around 200,000 prints for over 20,000 clients on Fuji RA-4 papers over the years. I’ve also owned two $100,000 Chromira printers as I’ve chased the best in printing for photographers who sell their work in galleries. And I've produced tens of thousands of inkjet prints on several generations of printers.
Inkjet printing has now advanced to the point that it more clearly expresses my vision and gives me a more beautiful print. At it’s best, it produces qualities I’ve never seen in color printing, and makes me more excited about printing than ever.
What is an RA-4 print?
Digitally exposed RA-4 prints were the first technology able to mass produce fine art quality photographic prints, and for over twenty years has been a primary way of printing digital photographs.
RA-4 refers to the chemistry used to process light sensitive color photograph papers. This is the same kind of paper used to print snapshots on since about 1990, and most of your family memories are probably printed on it.
For digital printing, RA-4 papers are exposed to light in a digital enlarger, then processed in high temperature chemistry. Fuji and Kodak are the most well known producers of RA-4 papers, and prints on RA-4 are often referred to by names such a LightJet, Chromira, Lambda, RA-4, Digital-C, Chromogenic, or E-surface prints.
Photographer, teacher, and fine art printmaker Rich Seiling works to push the limits of printing technology to create beautiful Museum quality photographic prints for his clients and himself.