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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Post-Post Processing Post

By John Lehet

Here's some thoughts on a low-tech post-processing trick, maybe cheaper than any Photoshop book on LAB or sharpening, and quicker to implement than the time it takes to read a book. It addresses the problematic difference between an office and a darkroom, and how we see a print as we work on it. Beyond our calibrations and technical tricks and all our Photoshop chops, we need to use our eyes and our gut sense of what works. We need to do it in good light. You may say, "Duh!" But read on.

John Lehet, Waterlily Leaf

In the old days I'd spend hours in the dark working on a print. Sometimes a print would take more than a single full-day darkroom session. Ugh. I'd mess with my chemistry, turn out the lights, draw the pre-planned, evolving dodge-burn sequence on the back of the paper, expose it, take it through all the trays, and then the magic moment—turn on the light! I'd put the new print on the back of a tray or in an empty one and blow dry it for dry-down, and then the second magic moment; I'd turn on my evaluation light. I learned about using an evaluation light from John Sexton when I studied fine printing with him in '82 at the Maine Workshop. At the time he was working as Ansel Adams' technical assistant, so most of the techniques we were learning came from the master's master. He said to clamp a reflective light with a very bright bulb 3 feet from the print. It was there at the workshop, and I came home and did it at home too.

My darkroom was a utilitarian space, and all about dark and light. Clamping an ugly, utilitarian reflector lamp the designated 3 feet from the print was an easy and natural thing to do. I screwed a block of wood to the wall, and the clamp-light clamped right onto it. After I started doing this, I could see much more easily if a print was on target. I could see into the shadow areas, see if there was detail there and if the blacks I wanted were solid. I could see if the textures with highlights were holding detail. Of course before a print went from Work Print to Final Print status I'd carry the WP around the house and look at it in different light to see how it worked. To be a good print, it has to work in a variety of lighting conditions, not just some perfect ideal. But the perfect ideal light was really really important to see exactly what I had created. The new print in the good light: it was a clear moment.

Now in the digital darkroom, which is more often than not actually something like an office, we stare into a light bulb—LCD, CRT, or in my case both—for some time in our processing of the image. Sometimes for hours. The pixels glow. We do what we do, and then we click print and wait not-so-long. What I get is to me always a bit odd at that moment: a piece of paper that's reflecting light rather than emitting it. I often work with test strips, as I did in the darkroom, and what I hold in my hand in my dim office seems frail and weak and small next to the big, bright image glowing beside it. This is as often as not a muddling moment. Things are less clear than ever.

Next to the monitor(s) is an important place; I need to see how true the color and tonal values are compared to my on-screen work. Then I take it out on my porch and around the house; I do what I've always done—look at the print in different lights.

The print is of course a different thing than the glowing monitor. It has to live or die with its own reflective properties. We have to let go of the glowing pixels and move into the real world. Those of us who do this know that a glowing monitor and a reflecting print rarely hit us in the same way, and it's rather an odd thing. Partly we have to use our intuition on-screen to think about the pixels as a future print. I find I often have to go back to the on-screen version and change it—so it's less optimal on screen and better as a print. The difference between monitor and print is another post. My point here is that to start to make these decisions the old-style light might be more than a little helpful.

And to me, as someone selling prints that I represent online, the matter is more than academic. I want my print to have the same kind of impact and look and feel as the image represented in pixels.

After some years of doing this digitally I'm still evolving, and that doesn't just mean trying to keep up with the technology. It means I'm constantly trying to understand the subtleties of every step along the way as the technical sand shifts quickly under my feet. And I'm thinking that the for-me most awkward step, from pixels to paper, could use a bit of old fashioned bright light on it. I haven't yet screwed a block of wood to the wall of my office and clamped something ugly onto it. I need to do something. New Years' Resolution.

Posted by: JOHN LEHET


Blogger Geoff said...

I think John's hit on one of the central issues in both digital post-processing and digital print-making. However, the article is essentially conclusion-less (no offense, it's still a good read). I'd been grappling with the same issues ever since I'd made the switch from (lab-produced, in my case) traditional photographic prints to digital prints.

I decided to do something like the "something" John alludes to at the end of the article. I went out and bought some Sylvania 100W "Daylight" bulbs for the overhead fixture in my digital darkroom/office. "Daylight" is in quotes because these bulbs, while certainly a lot whiter than the 2700 or so degrees K of many of the consumer tungsten sources around my workspace, are no where near even an average daylight value. I put them at about 4200 degress K. Not great, but a whole lot better than anything else in my space at the moment (at least after about 3pm in the afternoon). Plus they're really bright, they're really cheap and they're available everywhere.

I put the print up on a magnetic greyboard above the printer and turn on the overhead fixture (which is always off except for this post-print evaluation). I do more or less what John describes, look carefully at the tonal scale and see what's really there in the blacks and so forth. I also look at it for detail in the highlights and at oblique angles to see what the metamerism is like, since I print on glossy-ish paper with photo black. If things look good in this light -- which actuallly means 1) slightly too bright in the midtones and 2) slightly too little overall contrast, i.e. a little washed out -- then it's a good bet it will look right under a variety of lighting environments and sources.

Sure, ideally I'd have a "gallery presentation" corner in my workspace with a dead neutral 5200 degree K Solux bulb at a steep, shadowless downangle shining on a similarly neutral background to evaluate the print, or a fancy diffuse light viewing booth capable of accommodating prints up to 16x20, but that's not going to happen right now for space and budget reasons. This approach has allowed me to feel comfortable, really for the first time since I switched to digital, with the gulf between an illuminated screen image and a reflected light printed image.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Player said...

From a previous blog, I've been thinking about final output, specifically as a print. It seems that as long as a paper-based print is the final output of a digital file, for exhibition purposes, or just hanging on your wall, it means that digital photography is still not mature.

With the exception of slides, which is akin to a digital file, the print has always been the final output of the traditional wet darkroom. The digital print, even though not produced in the darkroom, seems to be an extrapolation of the final output that has existed for many years, the traditional print.

If digital photography is to be considered mature, then a new digital medium for exhibiting needs to be created, in place of prints. As long as prints are a final output with digital photography, there is an overlap between the analog and digital mediums, and digital is not completely standing on its own two feet.

As was mentioned in that other blog, by Gordon, perhaps a digital LCD picture frame is the solution. It seems to be moving in that direction with stuff like the Epson P2000 viewer. In fact, I sometimes show my photographs to friends with the P2000. If I have a great picture, I'd rather show it as a full-sized print, but that puts me back in the dark ages of final output.

11:47 AM  
Blogger George Barr said...

This raises a sore point with me. It is often recommended to buy a special 'daylight' light such as an Ot Lite for viewing prints. Two things happen when you do this. First, the light intensity is significantly higher than one would experience in almost any home and usually brighter than most galleries. The second issue is that few if any viewing situations call for light of this temperature. Real lighting is incandescent or cool white or warm white fluorescents, occasionally north window lighting (which is about 12000 degrees k, and virtually never sunlight (god forbid, we're trying to protect the prints).

That being the case, it behooves us (sp.?) to definitely set up a suitable viewing light but it wouldn't hurt to check with one of those old fashioned light meter thingies to see how the levels compare to real world galleries and home lighting.

In the wet darkroom days we delberately used a fairly dull viewing light to compensate for dry down, now we just need to reflect the real world of print viewing.

12:10 PM  
Blogger John Lehet said...

>In the wet darkroom days we delberately used a fairly dull viewing light to compensate for dry down<

Or we actually dried the print, instead of guessing.

The Ansel Adams technique through John Sexton was using a 75w tungsten bulb with a regular reflector from a hardware store, at 3 feet.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"The Ansel Adams technique through John Sexton was using a 75w tungsten bulb with a regular reflector from a hardware store, at 3 feet."

That's about right, bright but not overly bright. And to get the same effect out in the world you'd use a 100W bulb at three or four feet--going from dark to light to dark again in the darkroom, your eyes retain a little more sensitivity than they do when out in the light, so a slightly dimmer bulb seems brighter. I used to advocate a printing light that was one stop less than gallery lighting, until I went out and actually measured the illuminance at a bunch of galleries--they were all over the place. There was no standard at all.

In fact, at the Fixing a Shadow exhibition for the Sesquicentennial at the National Gallery, they had one whole room in very dim light, to protect the earliest works. One picture in that room was covered with a weighed curtain of velvet, although, oddly enough, I can't now remember exactly what it was--my memory was the it was the Niepce first photograph, but it might have been an early Bayard.

For years I've been saying of conventional prints, show me ten prints by a printer and I'll tell you whether his or her darkroom viewing light is too strong or too weak. Too weak, and the shadows will be unsupported. Too strong, and the printer will have printed down through the highlights too much.

John's strategy of looking at the print in many different kinds of light is the best one. I identified with the image of him "carrying the workprint all over the house." I do the same thing. Sometimes wandering all the way outdoors...


1:23 PM  
Blogger plabby said...

These comments have been a fascinating read. Thanks to you all for contributing your thoughts. And to the OP, who although I agree with geoff is "conclusionless", its still very comforting to know there are others out there exploring and fumbling in the manner I find myself doing all too often in the digital age.

If I may add something rather bold...

The paper based print may soon be dead.

I say this for 3 reasons (mostly based on personal experience and from what I hear is coming down the pipe).

1) Light emissive technology is more favorable than light refelective technology to the uninitiated. I notice that clients ooh and aah more when I show them a photo on my 30" Apple display as opposed to exactly the same frame in print. I can assure you that my printmaking skills are far from lacking, as I sell a good deal of prints too. This is just an observation of people in front of a bright 2560*1900 display, they are usually blown away.

2) I can already build a box for $1600 that features said 30" display which displays pictures in a slideshow that is completely customizable. The box uses a mac mini to drive the display and it will probably be saleable at some point in the future when the price drops a little bit more. If I put 10 pieces into the slideshow, its the equivalent of buying 10 prints, I net very little, but the prices keep dropping on the technology, and keep rising for my work. I only have to give away jpgs of 2600*1900 px resolution (the gamut of the display means I don't need anything more) for the slideshow so there is not the liability associated from using TIFF's. The end client would likely not get anything bigger than an 8*10 from printing these jpgs on their own, not big enough that I am worried about redistribution.

3) Once they make OLED digital paper, paper itself will be gone (much like the paradigm of film in todays market). I predict that plastic and sand will be easier to procure than a tree in 20 years, and cheaper too.

I find it funny that Bill Gates of all people, who can afford any painting or photograph he wants, has decided to go with Ultra High Res digital displays to supplement his art collection. Nothing from nothing, but I think he is onto something... he gets to change the art on his walls day to day to suit his mood.

Its hard for me not to beleive we all wouldn't do the same if we had the means.

That said, I find myself sitting in a room full of Epson R2400 empties, damn I am heavily invested in these k3 inks. The prints just look so sweet.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Gordon said...

and while our current displays fall down sorely compared to paper/ printing in terms of dpi, technologies such as the e-ink in sony's e-book reader already reaching 300dpi or so for an electronic display.

It seems only a matter of time before colour displays that can meet the resolution of a fine digital inkjet print are available. Then it'll be more likely that the edited version and the final output will start to look the same, rather than something that's manipulated via chopsticks down a long paper tube (I forget where I got that remote manipulation analogy from, but I've always liked it)

Instead of doing something to the image, in the hope that it'll do something to the end result, to move it more in the direction we want, the final result will be there, the thing we were editing. Then it'll just be displayed on the same media that it was edited and finished in.

So then the variance in light and illumination will at least be one step less removed I suppose, but still present.

4:09 PM  
Blogger John Lehet said...

Yes, my post is "conclusionless," but that's good. I'm doing more good by asking questions here than by giving answers. And, is there an answer?

On of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, writes, "We want resolution, but we deserve better than resolution."

There are things a lot less personal and intangible than this -- for example how the histogram on your camera should look when shooting a snow scene. But even there I'd be doing a disservice by saying, "It should look exactly like this!" It's your snow scene. How do you want to interpret it?

And as for the LCD vs paper, well. I love the image on the screen, yes. But those LCDs will be broken, burnt out, in the recycle bin in not many years. How long will the hard drive or logic board in the Mac mini last? It's all dust in the wind, ultimately, but I like to think of a pigment print on rag paper as something a bit more enduring and timeless.

I don't know the extent of Bill Gate's art collection or what brings him a thrill, but I think if I owned a print that Edward Weston, Atget , Strand, Caponigro, Adams, Cartier-Bresson had actually printed and squinted at and said, "yes, this is a good print." Well, I think that would be a bigger thrill for me than a digital slide show.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Michael Canyes said...

I have been using Solux daylight lights for some time now. I have them all over my work area and one that I can shine directly on a print right next to the computer. Check them out:

6:19 PM  
Blogger simon said...

I also use Solux bulbs in my work space. When I was setting them up, I was involved in a very interesting discussion about lighting on the Rob Galbraith colour management forums.

The Rob Galbraith forums have since been sold, and the thread can now be read at
NOTE: You have to register (free) to read the replies in full. This might be worth the trouble if you're considering building a Solux setup yourself.

2:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Higgins said...

I have had an evolution in my work flow since meeting Bob Korn this past November at his printing workshop ( Since that time I have been using my rotary cutter to make 5x7 paper sizes and making several small prints at specific steps in my work flow.

A large 17"x22"sheet of the paper I will be making a final print on such as Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308 will cut up into nine separate 5"x7" sheets to proof my work as I make changes to the file in Photoshop.

I will start with density and will work in levels and adjust the blacks and whites and make my first print to see if I like it. I view the print under color balanced lighting. If I don't the change than I keep making small alterations and small prints until I am satisfied with that first step.

My second step is the mid tones which I do on a separate layer and which I choose to do within curves. Some people will choose to use levels for this and there is no right or wrong. I just prefer curves. I then follow the same work flow as above and will make a change and make a print until I am satisfied with the results.

I keep this same work flow as I move into selective color to correct color casts. Every change is done on a layer and as my process has evolved I have been able to go from a dozen or so prints to a half dozen after the initial proof.

I ask you to consider the cost of cutting a 17" x 22" inch sheet into 9 separate 5"x7"'s to get to a final print. How many times have you made all of your changes and even soft proofed within Photoshop to be disappointed and then made a second or third or fourth pint on that large paper as you make corrections.

I make my one change such as removing a color cast and will them make a small 5x7 print and will then view it under the correct lighting. The object of this work flow is to make small changes and to get to a print that looks like it came from film and was printed in the darkroom. It's a slow process, but how many fine art prints do you make in a month?

Bob made me view what is a traditional Photoshop work flow as something that was basically ass backwards. Why not start with a print and build off from that vs a complicated process in Photoshop that leads to disappointment.

6:03 PM  

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