Three Days in a Darkish Room

I’m back from my trip, which included spending three days in a darkish room learning how to print photographs. After all, Lightroom has a print module built in. There are many good labs like MPIX or Bay Photo that will handle your printing and turn out good prints. Isn’t that good enough?

The answer, I believe is a profound “it depends”.

David duChemin is one photographer that argues that you need to print your work, to live with those prints, and to study them to really make your images the best they can be.  I’ve been feeling for a while that the quality of my images had stagnated — good, but I knew there was another level of “better” in them, but I wasn’t sure where the ladder was.

I’ve been questioning my approach to my photography for a while, either, which ended up as an extended “what do I want to be when I grow up” discussion with myself. Between all of this, there’s been a lot of thought and research and contemplation about what I’ve been doing and where I was trying to take my imaging. I haven’t talked very much about it because questions without answers is lousy conversation, and because most of it would frankly be incredibly boring to you, because much of it was incredibly boring to myself, when it wasn’t incredibly frustrating.

When your wanderings take you into a box canyon, sometimes the only answer is to retrace your steps and try a different path. That’s what I’ve been fighting the last few months, here on the blog and in my photography. A feeling like things were on the wrong path, that things had stagnated, and that I needed to figure out how to fix it or stop going through the motions and turning out mediocre content.

For my photography, it took me a while to sort it all out.

What I finally realized was that what really drew me into photography, what I really appreciated was seeing my images on the wall. When I first started making that switch from “I hold a camera and press this button” to “photographer”, what I originally wanted to end up doing was fine art images, whatever that was — prints on a wall. Not flickr, not stock, not licensing images for publication — big, pretty pictures I stood near and looked at.

Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that.

The last few months have been about figuring that out, refocussing myself and my work, and deciding what path to choose to start moving forward again and then stepping out and taking it.

I’ve been trying to get a specific image to look like I knew it could — literally for months. And I was failing miserably. I’ve talked about it before:

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The problem is that while I love the subjects and composition, technically, this image has problems. It was shot with a 30d, an older body who’s sensor isn’t nearly as good as modern ones. And it was shot with my 300 F4 attached with a 2X teleconverter at an effective 600mm. So the original is as sharp as maybe it could be, plus it was handheld. And it’s cropped — when I was done, it’s about 2400 x 1500. Not a huge amount of megapixels to work with.

But I love the image, and I wanted a print of it on the wall. And I had another person who wanted a print on his wall. And I was unwilling to hand off a print that wasn’t up to par.

And I couldn’t make a print that was good enough, but I knew that print was in there somewhere — and I was struggling to figure out how to pull it out and get it on paper.

I had retired my old HP 9180 a while back and stopped printing. I did some lab printing, but stopped even doing that — and then I realized that I missed the act of printing and seeing my images on my walls and putting copies in the hands of people. I bought a new printer, my Epson R2880, which I love. The prints that came out of it? I hated. I could see they were flat, were soft, were — wrong.

It wasn’t the printer. It was a combination of things, but mostly my lack of technique, and the fact that since I retired the 9180, my eye has improved and I demand a lot more out of my images than I did a couple of years ago — and my technique wasn’t up to it. I found myself getting really frustrated, and I realized I had some major work ahead of me, and I was at a point where I had no time to sit and focus on it, so I had to put it on hold until I did. I picked it up again at the start of the year.

As it happened, I had scheduled a trip to SoCal to visit my mom and spend time with her, and I had reserved some time where I was thinking of heading out into the desert or Death Valley for a few days of photography. I’ve been trying to get out to Death Vally since 2008 — and my schedules just haven’t meshed yet.

But then I realized that the Light Photographic Workshop in Los Osos (now closed) folks had their printing class scheduled that same time. This became a no-brainer. I scheduled myself in. Light Photo taught classes and runs workshops and tours out of a facility in Los Osos, California, near Morro Bay. I first ran into them at a Morro Photo Expo when I took an HDR class from them. At the time, the current owners (Hal and Victoria Schmitt) were just taking over the operation from George Lepp. Since then, they’ve been on my radar since as an option when I was looking for a class on a specific subject. I know Hal knows printing. I knew I needed someone to kick me in the butt and drag me forward past this technical hump I’d been struggling with.

Signing up for the class was an immediate no-brainer, so I did.

This was my boot camp.

Quick digression — I don’t care how good you are at teaching yourself stuff, I don’t care how plugged in you are to learning from online resources, at some point you’re going to find that the best way to push yourself forward is to find someone who knows this stuff a lot better than you, sit down at their feet and have them teach. Even more importantly, have them show. And you need to sit there and soak it in, and ask questions, and think, and poke and try, and ask more questions, and use that time with your sensei with as much enthusiasm and intensity as you can muster. As much as I love resources like Craft & Vision and CreativeLIVE — and I can’t tell you how much both have helped me improve my craft in the last couple of years (but I plan on trying, soon) — at some point, you need to get in person, with someone who can twiddle the knobs on your image and talk to you about your problems and get one on one about specific challenges. I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I say this class shaved weeks or months off my learning curve, and there were things I probably never would have gotten a handle on without it, much less taken a long time to get there. Seriously.

Anyway, the class. There were eight of us, with Hal teaching and Victoria kibitzing and assisting. I might have been the youngest in the class; if not, it was close. Everyone there was a damn good photographer and very serious about it — one specialized in underwater photography, another was doing stunning black and white work. One was doing a combination of pictures of her grandkids and some truly majestic landscapes from Yosemite. About half the class was from the Morro Bay area, the other half came in for the class — me from Silicon Valley, another from San Diego, one from outside Yosemite, and one from Oregon.

Day one was lecture on theory and technique. Color theory, how computers deal with color, color spaces, gamuts, how they interact with each other, what happens when you change color spaces. Lots of geeky detail. I felt I had a good grounding in this going in, but I still ran into a lot of details that were new to me and filled in gaps. As the day progressed we moved from theory to technique, and Hal started walking us through his processing and printing workflows.  He went through his workflow for preparing an image and various techniques for output sharpening and proofing and how to get the image out of the computer and onto paper.

This carried into day 2, and by late morning, we started working on doing our own printing. By lunch, we were starting to print our own images. We’d been asked to bring our own images to work on. I had about 25, all of them things I knew would give me grief in some way or another.

Once we started processing and printing, the class shifted into lab mode. Everyone had their own projects and interests. A couple of people had a specific image they wanted to optimize and get printed, and spent most of the time on those. A couple were working through a number of images and trying to get finished prints of them. Hal’s facility was set up with one big-ass Canon printer (24″ wide format or bigger) for every two people, plus there were his really big printers, going up to, I think, 60″, and with the capability of both printing various papers and canvas.

The lab itself was kept fairly dark and the monitors calibrated to that. A nearby room had a color-calibrated viewing area, plus we could carry the images out into the front to see them in natural light. Once we got started printing, Hal and Victoria were available to comment or to teach a technique or to make suggestions on ways to improve the image. For the rest of the class — about a day and a half — it was about working on an image, making a print, taking it out to the lightbox to evaluate it, and then iterating. We spent time looking at each other’s works and commenting, and Hal and Victoria offered up their advice, or at times would show someone how to do something, or work with them to get the image ready to print on one of the really big images or on canvas.

Like I said, for a couple, it was about going home with that one great image and in a couple of cases, it was on canvas, and it looked awesome. For me, I was less interested in a finished print and more interested in improving technique, so my time was spent beating on an image trying to draw what I could out of it, printing it out, evaluating it and figuring out how to improve it and going back and working on it again, until I either was happy with the result, or I’d solved the specific problem that image had (like noise, or a sharpness problem) until I was comfortable I knew how to manage that problem, and then I’d move on to some other image and some other problem.

For me, a major stumbling block has always been sharpening. I have sucked at it. Nothing I’ve studied and nothing I’ve done has really made me competent at sharpening. I finally got to the point where I wasn’t actively destroying images by mis-sharpening them, but only by borrowing some basic sharpening presets (from Jared Platt’s CreativeLIVE lightroom class) and using them without over thinking it. That worked fine for online images, but I could tell I wasn’t doing it right to get them really optimized for printing.

But listening to Hal talk through Sharpening, and watching him do it, and seeing the results, and learning how to do some of the techniques he was using, and then working through some images and talking them through with Hal — now I can sharpen, and I don’t suck at it. Sharpening is one of those things that really doesn’t come through well online and in books and videos; at least I can’t look at an image that’s been printed in a book and really see what that version is good sharpening and this version is bad, and online, well it’s easy to look good online, and hard to translate that good look to paper. At least to my eye.

So a few hours on sharpening with Hal solved a problem I’ve been literally beating me head against a wall over for years. Or at least got me past that hump. I’m sure there are more humps to find in my sharpening life, but I was able to pull back what I learned on output sharpening and apply it to workflow sharpening as well, and consistently get to the point where I can get that image on paper looking like I believe it should look.

And if I print the image out both with and without sharpening, I can now SEE the difference. Before, it was all kind of magic, magic I couldn’t really grok.

That alone made the class pay for itself. It was what I hoped for out of the class, and it paid off.

When the class was done, I came home with a bunch of test prints, but not anything I considered “final”. That wasn’t my goal. So when I got home, I spent the next couple of weeks working my way through images because one thing you need to do after learning material like this is practice it and turn it into habits, and figure out how to integrate and adapt it into your own personal workflow. If you don’t do that, if you don’t keep at it and really burn it into your brain, then when you go back and try to use it down the road, you’ll struggle to remember how everything happened.

The thing is, figuring out all of the details that lead to a good print isn’t necessarily difficult, but there are a fair number of steps, and there are a number of decisions that need to be made along the way. The process isn’t complicated, but it’s tactical and technical. Doing it a few times gets you started, but you have to do it until it’s second-nature and you aren’t really thinking through the process.

It’s more than simply hitting the Print button, at least if you want to generate a quality print and be able to take an image and make it a quality print reliably and efficiently. Those two words are key here; you really want to get to the point that this stuff becomes habit so you aren’t making mistakes and botching prints and wasting time.

So for me, the class was perfectly timed and just what I needed. Hal and Victoria are good teachers, their facility is top-notch, and hell, it’s in Morro Bay, and you know what I think about having to visit that area (well, if you insist…).

They don’t teach this class often, but if you’re trying to figure out how to improve your printing and turn out high quality prints reliably, I recommend it highly. They teach a number of different classes there, and if it’s a facility you can get to and a class you’re interested in, I suggest you consider it. If you’re trying to figure out all of this printing stuff and you want to get serious about doing your own prints or you feel the prints you’re doing through a lab could be better, but this class isn’t an option for you, I suggest you start reading Martin Bailey and you pick up his book Making the Print from Craft & Vision. I found it another very good and useful resource as I was working my way through all of this.

If you take nothing else out of this discussion of the class though, it’s two things:

  • While I’m a big fan of ebooks and recorded classes to study and learn from, there are limitations to pre-recorded material because if you hit a sticking point where what you need to learn isn’t what they teach. that’s one reason why I really like the CreativeLIVE format, because the interactivity of their live classes and the Q&A they build into them goes a long way to burning those sticking points into their recordings, because if it’s a sticking point for you, it’s probably a sticking point for someone else, too.
  • But there comes a time when you really should do it in person. Maybe it’s a class (but make it a class with a small audience, not one of the 200 person lecture hall things — you need the ability to go one on one with the teachers); maybe it’s a workshop. Maybe it’s getting to know experience photographers and buying them a coffee or a dinner and picking their brain. However you do it, there are going to be times when what you really need is to get one on one with people who can teach you, and sitting back and letting them. As with me and sharpening, there are going to be things you’re grappling with where that’s the only way you’re going to get over the hump and take control of them.

When you realize you’re at that point? Do it.