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.
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?”
Will your prints match the next time you print them? Can you take the same file and obtain the same results using a different printer, ink, and paper? I can, and so can you.
For twenty years, I’ve been printing client photos, and my own, over and over again with a very exact match, using different printers including LightJet, Chromira, multiple generations of Epson printers, Canon Printers, and even Metal...and on dozens of different papers. It is still a little mind-blowing for me to realize that this is even possible; That I’ve been printmaking for that long, and with so many different processes.
Accuracy, control, and repeatability are what first made digital printing interesting to film photographers, long before there were viable DSLRs. For a photographer who sells prints, having the print they deliver match the one the client saw on the wall, regardless of size, was (and still is) a huge deal. With darkroom printing using an enlarger, this kind of matching was virtually impossible and caused many frustrations. My earliest clients were mostly photographers with galleries who needed to be able to deliver prints that matched on demand, at any time, and at any size. They moved to digital to make that a reality.
That requirement, to match the original print at any point in the future, makes how I set up my printer the most important step in my workflow. I absolutely need to print the file as accurately as possible so it will match the previous print. My pro clients can see the smallest differences in color, density, and contrast. They know their subjects, and their photos, inside and out. They immediately see if something is off. Some of them can even explain the scientific process that produces a certain shade of color in an animal’s feathers; or a geologic feature; or the ocean in a certain part of the world. Achieving this exacting level of color matching is one of the reasons they keep working with me, and drives every step of my process.
The key to this is color management; using ICC profiles to characterize a paper/printer/ink combination. With an accurate ICC profile, if you do all of the printing steps the same, you will enjoy the same result, time after time, even if you change printers or papers.
That’s why I take profiling very seriously. Every profile I use has been carefully tested by printing a test image, and comparing it to my library of previous test prints to see if they match. These test prints let me evaluate accuracy, but they also let me evaluate differences between printers, inks, and papers. Obviously, not all printers, papers, and inks can produce the same aesthetic feel, and the definition of “match” needs to include these factors. It also lets me see improvements to the printing process. When a manufacturer makes a blacker black ink, you can see it in the test prints, and see how it affects the image.
Matching also means that what I see on my printer looks like what I see on my $1,000 reference-grade monitor. Being able to make a very good screen-to-print match on the first print not only makes me efficient when working on client files, but it also lets me work more intuitively on my own photos, which I believe lets me bring more out of the process. It allows me to be more expressive because I’m not fighting the file, but can work with it fluently and easily.
How accurate do you need to be?
That’s something only you can answer. While very high accuracy is a vital part of my personal expression, and of my business printing for other photographers, a photographer printing for themselves has more leeway to say “good enough.” The public-at-large viewing your photographs are not trained to see the small differences in color and density that a photographer is. They don’t know what you saw in your mind’s eye when you clicked the shutter. They only know what they see on the print, and whether they like it or not.
Even if you don’t have the world’s best profile, you can make prints that “match” themselves as long as you use the exact same file, printer, paper, and settings. Of course, if you change any of those factors, then your prints will no longer match. When (not if) that happens, your only solution is to decide that the difference between how it printed before, and how it prints now, is acceptable...or go back and make new adjustments to make a better match.
My personal expectations, and those of my clients, don’t give me this kind of leeway. But when you are the one doing the printing, you set the expectation for how well your prints will match the next time you print them. Your bar is going to be set by your needs, expectations, and how well your eye is trained. When getting the prints you want becomes frustrating; when you’ve spend hours working on a photo in image processing software to make it look exactly the way you want it, only to have it print differently; then it’s time to learn to become more accurate.
But I encourage you to seek that high bar of accuracy even before you need it. The ability to see, and control, small differences in color and density will help you make better decisions when processing your photos, and make you a better photographer. (Plus, your prints will look the same 20 years from now!)
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.