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 folks had their printing class scheduled that same time. This became a no-brainer. I scheduled myself in. Light Photo teaches 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.

Posted in Photography

A bit of a rant on how the internet is killing newspapers…

circles of CONFUSION – From hot type to bottom feeders:

Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, my great grandfather started a printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, which, for many, many years was one of the finest and most successful letterpress shops in that city. Nearly every male descendant of Charles Jefferson Armor, including my great uncle, my grandfather, and my father, worked there for most if not all of their lives. I recall with great fondness the occasional Saturday mornings when I would accompany my dad into work, stopping first at the Horn and Hardart automat at 8th and Market St. for cream donuts and hot chocolate. Incidentally, and an interesting tangent to my story here, H&H (as it was known for nearly a century) closed its doors in Philly forever in the late 70‘s. It was another victim of the fast food craze being led by more ubiquitous, lower cost chains like McDonald’s, whose shiny new franchise quickly occupied the automat’s former space at 8th and Market.

Randall Armor has written a great piece here. It could be about my family and my dad, except then it’d be about Kansas and SoCal, not Philly. My dad ran a newspaper and print shop when I was growing up. I was studying journalism in high school. The death of the newspaper was already in process and accelerating when my dad sold the paper and the print shop in the 70’s. The change in the newspaper industry, the consolidation into fewer-bigger until there were no small things to eat, followed by the long, slow decline into irrelevancy, was in full swing 40 years ago. 

Like Randall, I grew up in a print shop. I’ve set type on a hot lead linotype. I’ve sorted type in those old wonderful funky type boxes the size of refrigerators. I’ve been way too close to presses with way too little safety gear for someone my age (shh. nobody tell OSHA. Oh, wait, anyone they could yell at is dead…). Here’s my dad’s press that used to put out the Placentia Courier once a week:

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I come from a newspaper family. My dad took over the Courier from his dad. Before that, he founded a publication called Overseas Weekly, which if you know post WW II history, you’ve probably heard of. 

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My grandfather founded the Courier in Southern California. Before that, they were involved in a newspaper in Kansas, which was founded by my great-grandfather. Both my father and grandfather took terms as president of the California newspaper publisher’s association, and I grew up getting hauled to conventions and conferences and interacting with much of the publishing leaders of the state. 

(weird-ass trivia of my life: I was once babysat by a US Senator — Alan Cranston — in our cabin at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite so mom and dad could get to a board meeting of the CNPA. How many people can claim this?) 

Interesting that both Randall and I ended up involved with computers; he went through design and pagemaker, I went into programming, although people who remember OtherRealms know I did my side trip back to my roots and spent time with early versions of pagemaker, and before that I was cutting and waxing up page masters like the good old days… But in any event, we’re both refugees from the hot lead and ink gypsies who have integrated off into new societies, because the industries our families grew up in stopped existing.

So I’ve been watching the newspaper industry shrink and collapse for a long time before the internet noticed. the list of newspapers I worked for growing up is scary given how few still exist. I did stringer work for, or delivered papers for the Fullerton News-Tribune, Anaheim Bulletin, Santa Ana Register, the Orange County and LA versions of the Times, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Of those, only the Times and the Register (now the OC Register) still exist in any real form, and the Times is this sad self-parody of itself that I wish they’d just kill and be done with. 

So yeah, what he said. And to those of you who are talking about about how the internet is killing newspapers? Part of me wants to just say “oh, you finally noticed?” but mostly, I ultimately see what the internet did as accelerating what newspapers have been doing to themselves for a long time, and frankly, it’s a bit of a mercy killing. Which, FWIW, I feel no joy in saying, but it doesn’t make it less true.

(and what you see in newspapers is the same thing we’ve seen with on-air radio, and fast food chains, and the book publishing industry, and god knows how many other industries: at some point the growth stops and the markets start stagnating or shrinking. And rather than putting energy and investment into revitalizing the industry and stimulating new customers, the big companies buy the small companies and hide the problems in the industry by eating the smaller fish, until they hit the point where only big fish exist, and then they start trying to swallow each other. At which point some of them choke and die trying, but you continue to see increasingly fewer players trying to figure out how to survive in an increasingly smaller pond. Too bad nobody had the vision to try to fix the leak in the pond when it would have made a difference…)

Posted in About Chuq

Beyond “vacation snaps”

Attention Overload | Guy Tal Photography Journal:

I was in one of Utah’s National Parks, scouting for a new workshop itinerary. As I stood there, rummaging through the ice for the last can of iced tea, a car parked behind me. With its motor still running, the driver’s window slid partly down to reveal the top half of an iPad aimed at the view across the road. I could smell the artificial scent of chemical air freshener wafting out of the narrow slit, and hear the loud booming beat of music I could not recognize. A second later I heard the synthesized sound of a fake shutter, the window slid back up, and the car continued on down the road, its passengers never knowing the silence left in their wake, never feeling the grit of the sandstone, never smelling the delicate aroma of sagebrush, never hearing the mocking laughter of pinyon jays, never feeling the breeze on their faces – never experiencing the place. They were there for the sole purpose of recording an image, never really disconnecting from the (presumably) urban technology-rich environment they left to get here.

I disagree with Guy Tal slightly — they did experience the place, but on their terms, not on Guy’s. You have to be really careful about assigning and judging someone’s actions based on them not being the actions you’d take. Now, the way they were experiencing the park isn’t one I would do or recommend, but then, they’re not me and they’re not demanding I live my life to their satisfaction, either… Since I hate to be judged, I try to limit my judging as well…

But this does bring up a situation that highlights something I’ve been pondering about my own work for a while. When I dropped into my most recent struggle with myself over my photography, I found myself asking a question I couldn’t answer: 

How does my photography differ from a vacation snapshot? Or does it?

I think discovering the answer to that question is a key to leaping the huge gap between being an enthusiastic photographer and being an enthusiast.

What the person in the car was doing with their tablet camera was creating an image for themselves. They may show it to their friends. They may put it on Flickr or instagram — but that image is personal. When they look at it, it’s going to trigger a memory, and it’s the memory that creates the emotional response and impact, not the image. That’s why so many vacation slideshows are so painful to watch: because the images mean something to the people who were there, and those of us politely waiting for them to end don’t have the memories and experiences to trigger that make them interesting and meaningful. But that doesn’t make the images poor or meaningless to the people who were there.

But that’s the key difference between the image that person took and the kind of images that photographers like Guy Tal take, and that I strive for. When you start shooting images that are intended to be enjoyed by others, you no longer have the ability to trigger a memory. You have to create one. Your image can’t invoke a reaction to something that happened to have an emotional response, it has to initiate that emotional response.

Learning that this difference exists is the key point that, I think, shifts a photographer from being a hobbyist to a craftsman and starts the process of learning how to make photos instead of merely take them. And learning how to master that craft of making photos is how you grow along the path of craftsmanship towards that point where you can consistently create not just technically good images, but artistic and emotionally powerful ones — the kind of images that people react to because the image creates the reaction. 

So don’t put down the person in the car with the iPad. At least they were in the park and exploring and looking at it. They could have been sitting at home and watching a documentary of it on Travel Channel instead, after all. Hopefully this is their first step down that path towards discovering the great opportunities for life that exist in these places. And if not? Well, my dad was one of the most enthusiastic vacation photographers that ever lived — and most of his photography was frankly pretty poor technically and compositionally. 

And he loved it. He enjoyed taking them, he enjoyed looking at them, and he enjoyed the memories they triggered about the times and places and people they represented. He had no interest in his photos being more than that. 

And we shouldn’t put people down for that, we should accept and encourage that. Those images aren’t failures, they’re a gateway drug to the kind of imagery and craft we’re all hoping to produce.  Some of those people will want more, and some of them will find the path that takes them away from that and searching for deeper meaning in their images — and some of those will end up being people like Guy Tal or David duChemin or Galen Rowell or Ansel Adams.

And when I finally could answer that question — when I understood what I needed to learn to make sure my images weren’t just vacation snaps — that’s when my craft started moving forward again. Because unlike my dad, I’m not satisfied with images that only are interesting to me. We should appreciate and encourage people on all of these paths, not think less of them because the path they chose isn’t the one we prefer.

Posted in Photography