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Talking About Papers On The B&H Photography Podcast

I was invited to be a guest on the B&H Photography Podcast last week to discuss fine art papers and printing in general. We also had August Pross with us, co-owner of LTI-Lightside, a film and print studio in NYC. The idea was to present both sides of printing your work, either doing it yourself or using a print studio, and what some of the considerations are.

I really enjoyed the conversation, especially where once again I was asked to recommend papers for different types of images, and I answered like I always do; it depends on what you’re trying to convey to the viewer.  

It’s an interesting question that seems to perplex many, perhaps because it requires a hard look at your images from the inside. Why did you press the shutter button? It also requires an understanding of paper characteristics and how they interact with a photograph to create a look or feel.

I discuss all of these issues in-depth in my printing workshops, but I am planning a live webinar soon to answer any questions you might have about printing and photography in general. I will be announcing the webinar dates soon, so stay tuned!

Hope you enjoy the podcast!

The Image-Centric Approach to Paper Selection

One of the most common questions I receive about fine art printing is Which paper is best for…black and white images, or landscapes, or portraits?” And I totally understand those questions because I used to ask myself the same questions when I started down the path of printing my own work.

But eventually either you start to look at other paper options and wonder if there’s a better choice, or one (or many) of your prints don’t quite work as well as you’d like on your “chosen” paper.

Perhaps you’ve had the feeling that there’s something missing, but you don’t know exactly what that is. Or you simply accept the doubt because you think that’s the best you can do given the materials at hand. I’ve been there too.

On one such occasion, I decided to experiment with some sample papers I had received from my local dealer, and before the day was over, a whole new world had opened up to me. I had stumbled upon a new way (at least for me) of imagining my prints, and my landscape photography. For the first time I saw more of what I had envisioned in the field simply by using a paper that had a different texture or finish than what I was used to.

And that’s when I learned that there was more than one approach to selecting papers, one that could potentially allow me to become more creative with my prints. I learned that papers that have more contrast or saturation don’t lead to better prints. Nor is texture to be avoided with highly detailed images. It all depends on what you want to say with your prints. 

Lets examine the two approaches that I think are most common amongst photographers and print makers.

  • Paper-centric Approach – In a paper-centric approach, you evaluate different papers and their characteristics and decide which paper is best for you. This implies that most if not all of your images will be printed on this paper. You may have more than one favorite paper, but the focus is generally on the paper, not the image.
    When photographers ask me to recommend a paper for their images, or for a particular subject matter, ie. landscapes, I can tell they are using this approach. My answer is usually I don’t know.

  • Image-centric Approach– Instead of finding one paper that works best for your images, or even which paper is best for b&w or HDR, you evaluate each image based on what you’re trying to convey and choose a paper that best complements or strengthens that vision.
    The paper selection comes after you’ve determined what the image is about, not before. This allows you to be much more expressive with your prints, and use the unique qualities that a great paper can add to your images.

Because I use Canson Infinity papers, there is an exceptional range of high quality papers to choose from. But this doesn’t mean that I select from the whole range  because there are some papers that generally don’t complement the style of my images. 

Once you identify the papers that do complement your style and vision, and get to know those papers well, you can leverage them for their strengths and make stronger prints. I also love how this promotes a creative approach to print making, which can lead to many eye-opening surprises

I’m not saying that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but for me the image-centric approach definitely allows me to make the most expressive prints possible. It lets me become more creative and effective with paper selection. Given that we have the choices and technology that were never available to generations of photographer before us, I think it’s an artistic privilege tat I want to take advantage to produce the best work I can. 

Learning how to match an image to a specific paper requires at least these four factors:

  1. Clarity about what the image is about and how you want to convey that to the viewer.
  2. Understanding the specific tonal, textural, and aesthetic characteristics of a specific paper or range of papers.
  3. Allowing a print to become an object separate and distinct from the digital file or representation on your monitor or electronic device. Too often we fall into the trap of wanting to match what we see on screen, yet I believe this is a mistake. These are distinct mediums with their own unique ways of representing tone and color. Furthermore, this diminishes the role of the paper in creating a new or enhanced interpretation of the image—the reason we print in the first place. What matters most is not matching what we see on screen, but making a print we can be proud of. 
  4. Trial and error – Yes it’s unavoidable that paper will be wasted, but it’s the only way to truly learn the nuances of paper selection. Printing workshops can help as well, assuming paper selection is a major focus. (We dedicate a large portion of our workshops to this very topic.)

A painter adapts his approach and methods to the medium he’s painting on for the greatest aesthetic and emotional impact. Likewise I think a similar approach to paper selection yields the most captivating prints. Combine that with the excellent papers available from Canson Infinity, and there’s much to explore for the creative print maker.

I love paper and how it impacts and refines my vision as a landscape photographer. If you want to elevate your prints, or your photography though print making, the use of the right paper can make all the difference and set you on a new path of photographic discovery as it did for me years ago.

I’ll share more tips and insights about paper selection in future posts. Thanks for reading!

Photo Journal: Herring Cove, Campobello Is., NB

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Olympus E-M1 | f/4 @1/15 sec, 62mm (Olympus 40-150mm), ISO 200, no filters

So much of landscape photography is about being open to discovery. We may have an idea of what a potential image might look like, but that’s only possible given certain circumstances, many of which are usually out of our control.

That’s really the story of this image. On several visits to this shoreline at Herring Cove in New Brunswick, I considered several approaches to making an image. What I could use as foreground elements, how I might position my camera, what lens and focal length I might use.

I imagined an image that featured the rocks that only become exposed at low tide, perhaps with more rocks in the middle ground to create depth, and finally the many different hues of green in the trees in the background to create color variation and interest. The sky area would provide the cool blues that so often help add depth to an image—as we know warm colors come forward, cool colors recede. And so I had a plan.

On my final visit at sunrise however, nature had her own plans as usual. And this to me is the moment when photography becomes most exciting, when the chance to enter a “flow” state is greatest. Plans and preconceptions give way to single-minded attention and spontaneity.

At least they should if you want to give as much of yourself as possible to the moment; where flow happens and your creative instincts can take over.

As I looked at the scene, I decided that the sky, the colors, and the light were my subjects, certainly not what I had envisioned before. And so I reversed my previous idea for a composition. I would use the colors and patterns of the sky to create the image, and balance that with the foreground elements as a compliment.

The dark silhouettes of the trees and shoreline became areas to contrast the energy of the colors—a passive area that provides even greater interest to the active area—the sky.

Dark shadows, especially silhouettes, also influence the rhythm of an image, in that they slow down the viewer’s eye to some degree. This influences the feel of an image, and helps to focus the attention on what I wanted to convey—that very elusive quality we all need to share in our images, emotion.

Visual Design

From a design standpoint, I used a basic diagonal from bottom right to top left. The reflection in the immediate foreground served as a way to enter the image, and also provided the repetitive semi-circular shapes that I played with to lead the viewer’s eye up to to the tress and sky. There are three of them, which is a fundamental element you should always look for in your compositions. Three similar shapes, patterns, or colors for example, is almost always visually interesting.

But all of that is secondary to the sky, and this is where I had the greatest challenge and difficulty. How much sky? Where do I place the horizon? Which part of the sky has the strongest colors and greatest variation? These are all questions I asked myself in the brief moments I worked this scene, because as you well know, time is the other factor, changing the conditions by the second. Ultimately what I’m after is the simplest image possible that contains the essence of my experience.

The only way I know how to solve these kinds of problems is to remain engaged in the energy of the moment and focus on responding, not reacting. My definitions are as follows:

  • Responding: using the fundamentals of camera technique and composition intuitively, and staying open to the visual elements as they are, without judgment or expectation. A spontaneous moment follows another spontaneous moment. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is higher or highest.
  • Reacting: self-criticism, judging the images you’re making while making them, and generally becoming more and more trapped in the mechanics of the process. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is much lower, or lowest.

The only way to be more “responsive” is to eliminate as many variables as possible that you can control, so that you can focus on the real task, the creative process. When you don’t have to think about lens choice, focal length, exposure settings, and compositional options, you’re free to focus more on how to capture a scene as strongly as possible, aesthetically and emotionally.

I don’t care if the images I’m capturing work or don’t work when I’m in the field, I only care about responding. The histogram is the only thing I check on the LCD to make sure I’ve captured the proper tones. I know that may sound hard to believe, but what other option is there really?

The time to judge and evaluate your images is when the moments to respond are over, which are often brief and elusive. For me that time is back at home on my computer.

As long as I’m in the field, I’d rather take advantage of that opportunity, that privilege really, to keep my vision (both physically and emotionally) connected to the reality around me. Plus research has shown your brain works much better when you remain engaged on a single task versus switching between the creative side and the editing side—from left to right sides of the brain.

I made eight images starting at 5:42am and ending at 5:46am, and then the color was gone. You can see in the screenshot of Lightroom below that most of what I struggled with was the upper left corner, balancing the trees, the tones in the sky, and the relationship of both to the reflection in the lower right. There’s also a nice tonal line in the sky upper right that I also considered, but I felt it wasn’t as important as the lower right in terms of establishing the strongest diagonal.

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The red lines show the general path I want to viewer to follow through the images based on the strongest lines along areas of highest contrast. Notice they flow along a diagonal path and divide the image between the “active” area (shown by the yellow lines) and the less active, or “passive” area (shown by the grey lines. The concept of active and passive areas influence the unity of an image, its visual rhythm, and the over focal point – in this case the vibrant colors and patterns of the sky. BTW – I never really think about the labels – “sky” for example, when composing, but rather about color, tonal values, lines, and how they all relate. 

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This to me is really the key to the image, where to place the division between the main axis of the image – color vs no color, detail vs very little detail, and dark shadows without any life vs the real life of the image. The reflection in the sand at the bottom is critical in so many ways, yet is only complementary, like the intro to a song. 

The Print

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Here’s a print of the image on Canson Infinity PrintMaKing Rag (printed on an Epson P800), probably my favorite mat papers for images where I really want to de-emphasize the photographic nature of an image, and bring attention to shapes, colors, patterns, and the feel of the relationships they create. Shadow detail is not the key here, but rather how the tones and colors work together without overpowering each other. A mat paper is great when nuance and subtlety is most important to the vision of the photographer. For me it conveys more of what I felt standing on the beach that morning.

None of this is easy or obvious, and comes from years of practice and error, lots of error. But hopefully these “notes’ provide you with idea and inspiration you can use in your own path, which is certainly as valid as anyone else’s.

Please share your thoughts and questions, it’s always an honor to read what you have to share.

New Dates for the Fine Art Printing Masterclass

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For those of you who are not subscribed to my Beyond the Lens newsletter, I wanted to announce that I’ve added a few more dates to the highly popular Fine Art Printing Masterclass. It’s an intensive 2-day workshop where I cover all you need to to know get started in printing your own work.

I’ve written at length about why I think making your own prints is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a photographer, and in this masterclass I thoroughly explain how and why. For example many people choose papers based on the general look they think they like for their images, but this overlooks one of the most important characteristics of paper:  how a papers surface and texture changes the perception of an image.

Quiet, aggressive, subdued, nuanced, painterly, photographic, literal or poetic – these are all aesthetic and perceptual qualities that the right paper can add to a photograph and to your personal vision for a print. When you factor in a world class fine art paper from Canson Infinity, the creative possibilities become much more personal and meaningful.

I cover all of this in detail and more in the workshop – if you’re interested, here are the remaining dates for 2016:

  • August 27th-28th
  • October 29th-30th
  • December 4th-5th
Register Here

 

Also read more than 25 in-depth reviews from students – many, many thanks to those who have taken the time to leave their feedback, I am extremely grateful.


Lakies Head, Nova Scotia printed on Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag paper.

Image Selection and Printing for PhotoPlus Expo 2015

I am honored and humbled once again to be a guest artist with Canson Infinity at this year’s 2015 PhotoPlus Expo at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC from Oct 22-24.

I’ll be in attendance all three days explaining why I think Canson makes the best fine art paper on the market and answering questions about all things photography. While the days are long and grueling, I enjoy chatting with all of the people that visit the booth as well as saying hello to old and new friends. And my work gets seen by thousands of people, which is something I never take for granted. I’m often asked about my relationship with Canson, so I thought I would share some of the details.

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Becoming a Canson Ambassador

My relationship with Canson Infinity started over five years ago when I visited PhotoPlus as an attendee, and noticed their distinctive black sign for the first time. I had already been using their paper based on a recommendation from my local dealer but had never seen them before at the convention. I made a beeline for their booth, excited to share what I carried.

In my backpack was a freshly printed copy of my 8.5×11 Hudson Valley folio, comprised of 10 fine art prints together with a title page and an elegant cover and custom label. Critically, it was printed on Canson Edition Etching Rag, which had become my favorite paper at the time. I had brought it with me for promotional purposes but didn’t have any specific person or company in mind. That is until I saw the Canson banner.

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As I approached their booth, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the photography on the walls. It was more than just the quality of the prints. It was obvious to me they cared as much about the paper as they did about the images. And that made an impression on me. I introduced myself and asked if they might be interested in looking at my folio that was printed on their paper. One thing slowly lead to another and six months later was invited to their American headquarters in Massachusetts and asked I wanted to become an ambassador. My role is basically to promote their papers in any way I’d like, as well as help with product development and provide feedback on current papers.

In an age of commercialism and profits driven marketing, it’s refreshing to work with a company that puts the interests of the artist first. Landscape photography is already unbelievably competitive, and I pride myself on using the finest materials I can find. When a customer purchases a print, I’m confident in knowing they’re getting the very best I can produce as a photographer and printmaker. The differences may be subtle, but are still critically important. I want to earn the trust of my customers. The best way to do that is to show that the details matter. So I continue to recommend Canson paper without hesitation in my printing workshops, and anywhere I share my print portfolio.

Selecting and Printing Images

For this year’s expo, I sent about a dozen images to Canson for evaluation, and they picked seven with some paper recommendations and specific sizes. However, they let me have the final decision as far as paper, and I print them myself in my studio. I then send the prints to Canson to be mounted onto gatorboard and prepared for the expo.

As I discuss at length in my printing workshops , paper selection is based on subject matter, and the overall mood and feel of each image and what I’m trying to convey. Sometimes that requires more contrast and shadow depth. For other images, I prefer a softer, quieter feel that adds nuance to the light and textures in the image. It ultimately depends on my vision for each print, separate and distinct from the image on screen. Prints take on a physical life of their own, and I love that I can hold something I created.

I’ve shared each of the images below as well as the paper choices and brief notes. I hope it gives you some insight into paper selection and how critical personal vision is.

Canyon Trail, UT

Printed on Canson Platine Fibre Rag/Canon ipf8400 – complements the deep shadows, hard edges, and dramatic light that I want to emphasize. I felt in awe at the time, and I want the print to convey the real depth and richness of that experience.

Cove Light, TN

Printed on Canson Edition Etching Rag/Canon ipf8400- mood and feel are the main goals here created by the soft ethereal light, and Edition Rag’s mat finish with a slight texture adds depth and maintains the quiet nature of the image.

Printed on Canson Velin Museum Rag/Epson 3880- lots of texture and detail, and rich color means I want a paper that doesn’t get in the way. A beautiful rag mat paper like Velin maintains the rich color and adds a subtle slight texture that complements the image. Smoothness is paramount because of the subject matter, which is jagged and edgy.

Printed on Canson Velin Museum Rag/Epson 3880- similar to the previous image, a rag paper like Velin maintains the overall mood and feel of the moment without compromising color or detail.

Printed on Canson Rag Photographique/Canon ipf8400- this image was a challenge due to the deep shadows and sharp and distinct details. I made prints on both Platine Fibre Rag and Rag Photographique and ultimately decided on the latter because I preferred the more subtle look and feel of the mat paper. Plus the ultra smooth finish of Photographique complements both the smooth sky and water given all the detail and texture.

Hadlock Light, ME

Printed on Canson Platine Fibre Rag/Canon ipf8400- another tough image to make and print, but I chose Platine Fibre Rag for that extra separation in the dense grasses in the foreground and also the presence it adds to the clouds and forest along the opposite shoreline. It’s less about subtlety and more about emphasizing contrasts in the image.

Marsh Lines, Acadia NP

Printed on Canson Edition Etching Rag/Canon ipf8400 – while this image has lots of texture and detail, it’s the colors and patterns I want to emphasize together with the broader shapes and how it leads the viewer through the image. It’s movement and flow more that any specific area of the image, and Edition conveys all of that without compromising detail. Once again, it’s the smoothness, or harmony, I’m interested in most.

All of these decision are a matter of personal preference and totally subjective. That’s why you will never hear me recommend a specific paper for any broad category of images. The best paper for black and white images doesn’t exist. What does exist is the paper that best complements your artistic vision for an image, regardless of the subject matter or techniques you use. The image and personal preference should dictate the paper choice, not the other way around. 

Thanks as always for reading, and comments or questions are always welcome – please leave them below!

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