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Wednesday, 31 August 2011


I'm just glad I'm not the only one who struggles with shadow separation in digital prints. Perhaps this is why HDR tonemapping has become so prevalent?

It'll be interesting to revisit this discussion again in 10 years considering the endless onward march toward improving inkjet printing technology.

I know you're giggling behind the curtain, but heck, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I guess.

Thanks Ctein,

What I'll always remember from this is that if it's a highlights or primary colour picture I can do it myself with software and printer, if it's a shadow picture I can get it done pro. Nice to learn something.

all the best phil

Huh, did Ctein just tell us that the digital print of the Soyuz rocket that is on sale isn't as good as the dye transfer version? Surely that image will need a lot of shadow separation, or am I mistaken?

Dear Mike,

HDR and other local contrast enhancement techniques don't really solve the shadow problem. If it's important to get good and extensive tonal separation in the shadows and you have a limited density range to work within the print, either you have to compress the midtones and highlights a lot to be able to devote the extra density range to the shadows, or you have to lighten the shadows enough that they don't maintain as much visual separation, overall, from the other tones.

I can print the Jewels of Kilauea photos digitally, but I can't maintain both a strong distinction between shadows and everything else and good shadow tone separation. That turns out to be very important to the aesthetic of the photograph. The results are technically fine; you wouldn't be able to put your finger on anything wrong with the prints . They just don't look GOOD.


Dear Isaac,

Well, that isn't what I said, but even if it were true, consider that the digital print is 1/10 the cost of the dye transfer print. Maybe you would prefer the dye transfer print; if so, just send me a check for the appropriate amount and you can have one!

In fact, that photograph doesn't need a lot of shadow separation, overall. It just needs it in certain places and all that really has to happen is that the floodlight beams be distinct from the background sky. The richness of the shadows in the dye transfer does improve that photograph… but at the other end of the scale, it's very hard to get acceptable tonal rendition in the rocket and gantry, which are vastly overexposed in the original negative. At that end of the scale, I'm much better off with digital.

This is one of those photographs that I would consider a wash. The two versions don't look the same, and I'm sure some people would distinctly prefer one over the other, but I would consider them artistically comparable in merit.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Hi Ctein, I am not an experience printer so this might be a bad link I have made in the following question. I have noticed in my digital prints that the dark/shadow areas have a sort of muddy look about them, like a colour cast and particularly with pigment on matt papers. Is that what you are talking about with "rich seperation" being not so good with digital?

I am really keen to print well and am limited right now to a digital process, should I just shoot bright pictures for printing :)

Thanks for the hint about magenta distinguishing the greens. I was working on a scene showing a thick layer of evergreens down a hillside. Masked the image by brightness (except for the sky), then applied magenta through the mask. (This is in Picture Window Pro.) Wow, gives the eye much more intricacy to roam over.

Dear Tony,

I's not a problem limited to digital prints-- most traditional darkroom materials also have trouble separating out the deep shadow detail, because of the low contrast on that part of the characteristic curve.

Matte papers are NOT the way to get rich blacks and good shadow separation. You can have matte paper or you can have shadow detail you can "fall into." Take your pick.

pax / Ctein

Dear Folks,

Just so this is clear-- I am not saying digital prints have poor shadow detail and separation. I am saying dye transfers are capable truly extraordinary shadow detail and separation. Digital prints can have very good shadows; I am just used to getting much more than "very good."

pax / Ctein

The difference between dye transfer and digital printing is that I have a digital printer.

"Here's the thing: while dye transfer prints have an undeniable cachet, and so command exalted prices, they are not, artistically and aesthetically, obviously superior to digital inkjet prints"

And will someone please give me a pithy answer for the next person who earnestly explains to me at an exhibition how the photographer "still only uses film". Here am I looking at a display of skill and artistry that actually transcends the technology used to create it and all that some people see is how the image was captured (I don't like that word) and how it was transferred to paper. It's only a small step from "you take good pictures - you must have a good camera".

I am glad to read your treatment of this topic, Ctein, as you're one of the few people qualified to offer experienced thoughts on such a comparison.

The William Eggleston retro exhibition that toured here (Chicago) and elsewhere recently presented a stark dye transfer -vs- digital print comparison. Most of the exhibition prints were dye transfer (or "dye inhibition", as they were titled), as is such a birth mark of Eggleston's best work. But his more "recent" work, shown toward the end of the sequence, was printed on ink jet. They were well printed and would have looked fine...if they weren't floating in a sea of wonderful dye transfers. They looked like pathetic dowdy sisters.

The primary attraction of dye transfer prints for most collectors and connoisseurs is not detail retention or even palette width. It's the luscious, lick-able colors of a print well-selected and well rendered in the technique. They take on a color dimensionality that's extremely rare and difficult to achieve any other way. It can be done in ink and chromogenic but it takes extraordinary skill.

Prints by my good friend John Caruso consistently come closer than any others that I've seen.

Dear Henk,

JohnMFlores put it best, yesterday:

"Most cameras over $400 these days are talent-limited."

I *have* had someone say to me, upon seeing my prints, "Wow, you must have a really good printer."


Dear Ken,

I think a lot of that "lickable" quality does come from the huge color and density space. Like the difference between listening to music on a sound system that can properly convey a 60 dB range vs one that can convey 90. You don't just hear the difference at the extrema.

It'd be interesting to hear from folks like Charlie Cramer and Joe Holmes how long it took them before they thought they'd gotten any good at digital printing. Took me six months of serious work.

In the heyday of darkrooms, lots of people made darkroom prints; very few made really good ones.

pax / Ctein

Thanks for validating the last 8 years of my life.

I don't understand if you are saying dye transfer prints have a greater d-Max than some digital or what other measurable characteristic is causing the difference? Gamut or problems translating the tonalty from one print media to another? Why wouldn't masking or complex tonal curves application resolve the issue if d-Max and/or gamut was sufficient in the digital print media?

Dear Larry,

What I said:

"When it comes to inherent qualities of the medium, such as density range and color gamut, there's little out there that can beat dye transfer. It can render up to a 3.0 density unit range in a print, with a correspondingly huge color space."

Dye transfers don't offer a greater density range than "some digital," they can produce a greater density range than all digital media. And other traditional darkroom media.

Makes it hard to find a replacement if the subject is demanding such.

pax / Ctein

"...have trouble separating out the deep shadow detail, because of the low contrast on that part of the characteristic curve"

Oh man, I cant wait to get home and experiment with some prints. I think I have actually be reducing contrast (flattening) my pictures with the curves adjustment layers I typical apply (a roughly S type with a pulled down lower 5th to darken shadow... and flatten, doh). This might explain that muddy homogenous look in shadows to a degree. I might try adding some shadow contrast with a luminance masked curves layer.

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