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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Digital Dry-Down

Ever notice that even with the best equipment, it’s not all that easy to get exactly the digital print you want on the first try? If you have noticed this, or maybe find that it’s driving you crazy, relax. The important part of any photographic printing process happens up in your head, not in the equipment, either analog or digital.

Anyone familiar with traditional darkroom printing knows the term “dry-down.” It means the difference between the way a wet print looks when you turn on the lights and examine it in the fix tray, and the way it will look after it’s dry. David Vestal once told me “photography would be so much easier if we always looked at prints under two inches of water.” The wet print appears more luminous, more brilliant, and often at the same time more subtle, than its eventual dry self. Well, digital inkjet printing has its own version of dry-down. No matter how much you spend on a monitor, no matter how good a hardware/software calibration system you use, the glowing CRT or LCD screen cannot look exactly like an ink-on-paper print viewed by reflected light. They are just two completely different objects. To print well you need to allow for the difference.

In the traditional darkroom, each paper has its own dry-down characteristics that must be learned by trial and error. Highlights of silver prints darken as they dry, and glossy paper behaves quite differently from matte. Platinum/palladium prints “dry to the middle” with highlights getting darker and shadows getting lighter. You need to judge a wet Pt/Pd very differently, and allow for a different dry-down, than a silver print.

My experience with several properly calibrated and color-managed systems is that digital dry-down is something you always have to take into consideration, and, surprisingly, you should expect different changes with color and monochrome files. With my system (Mac running Photoshop with calibrated 20 inch flatscreen and Epson 4800 printer), full color pictures print middle tones, highlights, and deepest dark values just as you’d expect from the monitor. But the lower-middle values “plunge”—print darker than they seem onscreen. I need to get those low values a bit high and weak onscreen to avoid finding them dark and muddy once the ink is on the paper. The histogram is helpful here. I set up my Photoshop desktop so a histogram palette is always visible. When I think a file looks about right, but the histogram shows a lot of values in the left quarter, it’s a good indication that a curve should be used to move those values closer to the center. But with monochrome files, there’s quite a different gotcha. Here, upper values that seem fine onscreen tend to print weak and insubstantial. I find there’s almost never a subject value for monochrome that I want to print any whiter than what the printer delivers from value 230 or 235, even though a high value like a very pale blue sky in a color picture may print beautifully with rgb values like 248/249/252. At the other end of the scale, those dark values in the left quarter of the histogram, the ones that plunge into mud in a color picture, turn out to be just fine for monochrome. So the ideal histogram for monochrome is weighted quite a bit to the left compared to the ideal histogram for a color file.

The exact digital dry-down you can expect will depend on your monitor, your calibration, your color management system and your printer. Just don’t expect a magic translation from that glowing screen to the finished print without using some Kentucky windage. Next time, we’ll look at a couple of tricks, one cheap and the other absolutely free, that will help you understand the digital dry-down of your system and improve the number of successful first prints you get.

Posted by: CARL WEESE


Blogger Ibarionex R. Perello said...

A great point. Definitely something to consider for achieving quality prints.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Rod said...

I have my prints made by a lab using the R4 process. When I receive them, I compare them to what's on my screen so I can see how close I'm getting. If my color profile is right, then the colors will match, but in order to get the brightness close, I've found that I can turn down the monitor brightness to the lowest setting. It surprised me, but this really mimicked how my prints looked.

10:32 PM  

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