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Completing the Journey

Michael Pilkington

I have the good for­tune to trav­el to many places around the world. I also spend time near­er to home explor­ing the local land­scape, main­ly trees and wood­lands which is a genre I love, espe­cial­ly in infrared which opens up more oppor­tu­ni­ties than colour and black and white. When I return home, I may have a few images or many if I have been away for an extend­ed peri­od of time. I don’t make that many expo­sures in the field. I like to visu­alise the land­scape in front of me and imag­ine the fin­ished pho­to­graph in a print, mount­ed and framed and hang­ing on a wall. If I can’t imag­ine that out­come or I don’t think it will work, then I won’t make the expo­sure. An image that is to be print­ed and giv­en the hon­our of being framed has to meet cer­tain cri­te­ria, such as visu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing, rep­re­sents the moment I expe­ri­enced whilst mak­ing the expo­sure, and mean some­thing to me per­son­al­ly, an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion. I sup­pose I am very demand­ing and crit­i­cal of my own work and know from many years of expe­ri­ence what is like­ly to work and what I will deem as mediocre. That is not to say that I don’t exper­i­ment with new ideas and tech­niques. Some­times you can have a RAW file that you did not have many expec­ta­tions of which deliv­ers some quite excep­tion­al results

In gen­er­al, though, I am excit­ed in the antic­i­pa­tion of see­ing the RAW file on the big screen’. It is then that you can tru­ly eval­u­ate what you have cap­tured. If you are for­tu­nate you will imme­di­ate­ly be excit­ed by what you see. Often, you have to work your way through the image to reveal the some­what hid­den trea­sure with­in. You have to nur­ture the file to recov­er the light, to re-estab­lish the shad­ows and high­lights in their cor­rect pro­por­tions and cre­ate bal­ance, recre­ate what you saw. Some­times though this can result in arriv­ing at a dead end. The poten­tial that you antic­i­pat­ed in the field is not to be and your mind’s eye has out­wit­ted you with real­i­ty ver­sus expec­ta­tion. How­ev­er, being selec­tive in the field, pre­vi­su­al­iz­ing what can be, care­ful­ly man­ag­ing the expo­sure and allow­ing your­self to con­nect emo­tion­al­ly with the envi­ron­ment you are in often reaps rewards. 

It is this process, back at your com­put­er, using your image edit­ing soft­ware of choice that is just as impor­tant as being in the field. It is the oth­er half of the pho­to­graph­ic jour­ney, indeed, the com­ple­tion of the jour­ney. Imag­ine the cre­ation of a house. The archi­tect can pre­pare the draw­ings and cre­ate 3D mock ups, the mate­ri­als for its con­struc­tion can be pro­cured, but is not until the house is built that its true majesty, its pres­ence, its iden­ti­ty is whol­ly revealed. In pho­tog­ra­phy, this is post pro­cess­ing and print­ing and it is some­thing that many pho­tog­ra­phers do not enjoy as much as being out there with their cam­eras cap­tur­ing the image. Hav­ing worked with many pho­tog­ra­phers in my career, post pro­cess­ing is often described in neg­a­tive terms as a nec­es­sary evil to be over and done with and cer­tain­ly one laced with com­plex­i­ty and frus­tra­tion. It is clear from con­ver­sa­tions with pho­tog­ra­phers that con­fi­dence in what and how to use pro­grammes like Light­room and Pho­to­shops is the main ratio­nale behind this opin­ion and the fail­ings that ulti­mate­ly result in using them. 

Equal­ly, they may not have been so dis­cern­ing the field so that they can­not com­plete­ly recall why they took the image in the first place, the light, the atmos­phere, the non-visu­al aspects such as the wind, scent, ambi­ence. This dis­con­nec­tion from these crit­i­cal aspects may result in the reliance on third par­ty plug-ins that can offer a pre-pack­aged, processed’ look and feel. It is sim­ply a mat­ter of scrolling through so many fil­ters until one looks prefer­able or indeed just looks like an improve­ment from the raw file. To use anoth­er anal­o­gy, it is like buy­ing flat packed fur­ni­ture from IKEA ver­sus hav­ing some­thing cre­at­ed by a car­pen­ter. Car­pen­ters are extreme­ly skilled peo­ple because they have tak­en the time to learn their craft and the tools they use. They can instinc­tive­ly reach for the right tool to progress the task in hand and to achieve the pol­ished, refined or del­i­cate look they are after. They have prac­ticed their craft over many years encoun­ter­ing dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions, some straight for­ward and oth­ers chal­leng­ing demand­ing that they stretch and devel­op their skills. The same applies to pho­tog­ra­phy. Know­ing the tools that we have at our dis­pos­al and their capa­bil­i­ties to such a degree that you are flu­ent in their use means that they do not require con­scious thought. You can give your full atten­tion to the cre­ative aspects of cre­at­ing your fin­ished photograph. 

Post pro­cess­ing is not quite the end of the sto­ry though. The real des­ti­na­tion for any pho­tog­ra­ph­er should be a fin­ished print. Some­thing that can be mount­ed, framed and hung on a wall or sim­ply shared with friends and fam­i­ly or enter­ing into a com­pe­ti­tion. The skills in pro­duc­ing a print are much more demand­ing than cre­at­ing a fin­ished image for dig­i­tal dis­play. A dig­i­tal pro­jec­tion, by virtue of the medi­um itself will give lumi­nos­i­ty and vibrance to the image. Achiev­ing this in a print is much more dif­fi­cult and much more demand­ing. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, paper reflects light and is a much more mut­ed cousin to an image viewed on a com­put­er mon­i­tor. Some media strug­gles to dif­fer­en­ti­ate dark­er tones and shad­ow details can get absorbed and may block out. Sim­i­lar­ly, high­lights may not ren­der well. There is no white ink in a print­er and the light­est tones inher­it their colours and lumi­nance from the paper itself. Last­ly, the gamut (the range of colours) of any paper will be far less than that of a good qual­i­ty com­put­er mon­i­tor. With so many obsta­cles to suc­cess, it is lit­tle won­der that many pho­tog­ra­phers do not choose to print. For those that do, it can be a frus­trat­ing and annoy­ing process.

Choos­ing what paper to print on is an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion. There are a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers and media avail­able to us. The prin­ci­pal con­sid­er­a­tions for choos­ing media for us pho­tog­ra­phers will be the thick­ness and weight of the paper and the sur­face fin­ish and tone.

The Fine Art Guild under its Art Sure’ scheme pub­lish­es a list of media and equip­ment that meet its stan­dards for dig­i­tal print­ing that endeav­our to give assures on light­fast­ness, acid­i­ty of sub­strates, min­i­mum weight and inks (gen­er­al­ly speak­ing these are the manufacturer’s own inks). This is a good place to select can­di­date papers that you might want to work with. Hav­ing select­ed some prospec­tive papers, you should get to know how they per­form. For exam­ple, some might be bet­ter suit­ed to a lim­it­ed palette of colours, some may strug­gle to reveal shad­ow detail in black and white prints, etc. Most papers will require some adjust­ments to your ful­ly post processed and fin­ished image to accom­mo­date their lim­i­ta­tions. It is bet­ter to work with a small num­ber of papers so that you can become famil­iar with their char­ac­ter­is­tics and how they behave. I tend to work with and a soft gloss or lus­tre paper and two mat­te papers (one bright white and the oth­er nat­ur­al, one smooth and one tex­tured. Each of these offers dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics. First­ly, the soft gloss is Epson’s Tra­di­tion­al Pho­to Paper. It works well with both black and white as well as colour images and is excel­lent at repro­duc­ing a good range of colours as well as man­ag­ing to reveal good detail in shad­ows. Just about any image I have will print well on this paper. The two mat­te papers are used when I want a painter­ly’ effect and have an image with a more lim­it­ed palette of colours and sub­tle tones. My pref­er­ences are for, again by Epson’, Fine Art Cot­ton Smooth Bright and Fine Art Cot­ton Smooth Nat­ur­al. The Nat­ur­al’ paper has a creamy colour to it as opposed to the Bright’ which is white. As men­tioned before, the colour of the paper has an impact on appar­ent lumi­nos­i­ty and the lighter tones in the image. Tex­tured paper will add to the impres­sion of a fine art painting.

If you are going to print, it is worth­while to invest prop­er­ly in the media and inks you are using. It can be quite sur­pris­ing the dif­fer­ence between a paper that costs £2 per sheet and one dou­ble that. The more expen­sive paper will gen­er­al­ly repro­duce colours more accu­rate­ly, also hav­ing a wider gamut, appear sharp­er and reveal the del­i­ca­cy of shad­ow and high­light details. Pho­tog­ra­phers can be shy of using expen­sive’ paper and inks being con­cerned with the costs asso­ci­at­ed with fail­ure. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to put this into con­text. Often, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er will have thou­sands of pounds of cam­era equip­ment and acces­sories to cap­ture the image, they may have invest­ed hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of pounds, jour­ney­ing to the loca­tion they have pho­tographed often nev­er con­sid­er­ing these costs in rela­tion to the com­par­a­tive­ly measly sum of mak­ing a print. Fur­ther­more, most pho­tog­ra­phers will only print a few of their images per month, if that. So over­all, the cost of media and ink is not real­ly that great. It has been the cumu­la­tive phy­co­log­i­cal effect of being informed for many years that inks are over­priced that has led to many pho­tog­ra­phers nev­er real­ly get­ting over the fin­ish­ing line.

In sum­ma­ry, for me, print­ing is a joy­ous activ­i­ty and the process of mak­ing the print is deeply sat­is­fy­ing. It feels like a tro­phy well earned. As the print emerges from the print­er, mil­lime­tre by mil­lime­tre, you are filled with antic­i­pa­tion. Will the colours be cor­rect? How are those shad­ows? Did I make the nec­es­sary and suf­fi­cient adjust­ments for the cho­sen media? As the com­plet­ed print com­pletes its birth from the print­er you gaze upon the full majesty of the image. The image that you per­haps trav­elled far over­seas to cap­ture, that you got up at some God­for­sak­en hour to arrive in good time for the sun­rise, that you set up your cam­era and assem­bled the cor­rect fil­tra­tion for, that you have care­ful­ly post processed and pre­pared for its final incar­na­tion as a print. This is the end of the jour­ney, the jour­ney tru­ly completed.