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Monday, October 23, 2006

The Seductive Tyranny of Digital Printing

by Ctein

Writing 400-word columns is good discipline for me (to say I've a predilection for loquaciousness is criminal understatement) but the disadvantage is that nuances and complex discussions don't fit into 400 words. If this column seems in conflict with my last, consider Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

That said...

Digital printing my color negatives eats up way too much of my time and money. I'm a very efficient wet darkroom printer. I can turn out a finished, color-balanced, dodged-and-burnt-in Ektacolor 8x10 in 20 minutes without breaking a sweat. I average 2.5 sheets per finished print, including proof sheets and test strips. Last week I ran through 100 sheets of Ektacolor paper at a total cost, including chemistry, of under $50.

It takes me about two sheets of paper to get a finished inkjet print, but the materials cost me $1.20-$1.50 per sheet. I can do a finished photo on the computer in about 30 minutes but only if I avoid really getting into refining the print. Then it's 45–60 minutes. Doing those same 100 prints on the computer would have cost me $120–$150 and taken two to three times as long.

You can see the biggest time problem is I spend way too much of it twiddling those bits. Digital printing gives me far more precise and complete control over the look of the print than darkroom printing does. At least, anything this side of dye transfer. I can refine the aesthetics of print on the computer vastly better than I ever can in an Ektacolor print.

click for full-size illustrationAn Ektacolor print. Dodged and burnt-in, natch, but there's only so much you can do with Ektacolor.

click for full-size illustrationAn inkjet print. Much, much better... but at 3X the cost and time. Was it worth it in this case? I think so. Could I afford to do that for all my prints? No way!

This extra level of the aesthetic control I get on the computer is terribly hard to resist. When I look at the ability to control curve shapes, do precise local dodging and burning-in and color corrections, etc., I succumb. As a fine printer who really cares about how his prints look I can't stand making second-best prints. I get sucked into making all those refinements that I couldn't possibly make in an Ektacolor print. Because I can. But that isn't unalloyed joy! I mean, time and money are why I never printed everything as dye transfer prints. Similarly, if I only printed digitally I could afford neither the time nor the money to print most of my photographs.

Computer-assisted printing is a true gift...but a gift is not always a blessing.

Posted by: CTEIN


George Barr said...

I think Ctein is correct in that I can spend hours working on a single image getting it right. That said, once it is done, the file saved, it is a five minute job to bring it back up, do output sharpening and a nozzle check if need be and the final print is ready - without me waiting for it 90+% of the time. If you never have to reprint an image for a customer, then you don't save time digitally, but if you do...

1:05 PM  
Jeff Kott said...

I honestly don't get this post by Ctein. If I nail my exposure, I can usually do most of my raw adjustments in less than 5 minutes. Say another 5 minutes for some photoshop tweaks, image sizing and a final round of output sharpening - I rarely spend more than 20 minutes processing an image. I must be missing something, but I am happy with my results.

5:09 PM  
Robert-Paul said...

It's the tyranny of choice. I sometimes drive myself crazy thinking about all the different directions I can take a photo in photoshop.

7:07 PM  
Ade said...

Oh yeah. I hate creating digital B&W; images with the channel mixer; just waaay too many possibilities, and I'm never convinced that "just one more tweak" wouldn't make it look better. Far preferable to scan a B&W; negative and be stuck with whatever tones were there in the first place. (OK, I might have used a filter at the time but at least once taken the "conversion" is fixed and doesn't require further thought.) I want a "HP5" button...

3:31 AM  
rickstrobist said...

The best is the enemy of the good. How much time you spend on an image should be proportional to how important the final print is. Getting the image right in the camera has always been the key.

4:50 AM  
Mike Johnston said...

"I want a 'HP5' button..."

You might want to take a look at this:


6:43 AM  
fizzy said...

Wait a minute. Ctein was the one who questioned people who print straight out of the digital camera, without exploring the possibilities. ( ). Now he's complaining that digital printing has too many possibilities, so he likes conventional printing. Is this post tongue-in-cheek?

3:30 PM  
Mike Johnston said...

He said he contains multitudes.


3:34 PM  
Al Benas said...

"I want a 'HP5' button..."


Pricey, but great plugins if you want to totally replicate film and don't want to acquire too many choices.

11:14 PM  
Ade said...

Great, Mike. Now I just want a HP5 button that isn't tied to one platform and application. :-)

4:41 AM  
Thomas said...

Ctein’s comments certainly resonate with me. I have never produced a perfect print (well, I do have one thirty-year-old Cibachrome that I regard as perfect, but I don’t examine it too closely for fear of finding something). I was more willing to accept imperfections in optical prints, believing them inevitable and that I had done the best I could have given the limited tools available. Now, I always suspect that there is a Photoshop technique of which I am unaware that will fix a problem better. Additionally, I know that a better printer will come along in two years rendering my digital prints temporary at best.

7:00 AM