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The art of the big photographic landscape print

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The art of the large fine art photographic print

Considerations for making very large prints of your photographs


What technical and compositional differences do you need to consider when deciding to make larger landscape or architectural prints (A2 and above)?

For the first time in many years, we don’t have a working large format printer here at Northlight, and after a year with lots of print testing for reviews of papers and printers, Keith takes a look at why making a big print is so much more than buying a big printer or using the latest large sensor cameras.

keith demonstrates printing

You need lots of megapixels

No, you don’t. I first started making large prints in 2004 with my 11MP Canon 1Ds, using the Epson SP-9600 44″ large format printer.

After hearing that I really ‘needed’ 300 pixels per inch of ‘real resolution’, was I limited to A3 (~13″x9″)with the 1Ds?

Given I had an exhibition of some prints ranging from 17″ x 25″ upwards the answer for me was most definitely not [2005 RAC Exhibition].

hood canal in black and white

Still one of my favourite B&W prints, this view of Hood Canal has been printed at 19″ x 28″ and no-one has ever pointed to a lack of detail.

I’ve written up a detailed article about the making of this print right from stopping the car at the scene to finishing the print, which still reflects my overall attitude to making large B&W prints of the ‘landscape’ variety.

Lenses? No I don’t have a collection of super quality (and expensive) third party prime lenses. I do have ‘not cheap’ lenses such as the Canon TS-E17mm and TS-E24mm or the EF11-24 F4L. The lenses I use for my work are an important choice for a variety of reasons, but they benefit all my photographic work [See Expensive 3rd party primes – are they worth it? – something I wrote back in 2011]

Once I moved to the 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 in 2007, I appreciated that whilst you didn’t ‘need’ lots of megapixels for making large prints, the number of images that would technically look OK as a large print went up appreciably.

Larger prints do need a more considered and adaptive approach to editing though.

Editing for large prints

A few years ago, Innova (the paper company) asked if they could use one of my images to show their JetMaster mounting and display system at a photography show.

That’s great I thought, until I noted that the image they wanted was from the 1Ds and it was to be printed at 3m tall by 2 m wide.

That’s a lot of print for 11MP…

However, going back to the original RAW file and paying careful attention to sharpening and processing at every stage of the edit, I managed to create an image that works surprisingly well.

full innova print

One of my key conclusions was that the oft quoted 3 stage sharpening process (capture/creative/print) broke down seriously for very big prints, being pushed this far. For very big prints, much larger than you’d expect from the megapixel count, all sharpening is creative, and there are parts of the image above that have had virtually none.

Anyway, if you’re curious, I’ve written up many more details in an article about this giant print.

In 2015 I got the 50MP Canon 5Ds and immediately noticed that it just made it even easier – I could crop to square and still have a 30MP image.

In a test to see just how easy the process could be with a 50MP camera, good lens and a good printer, I created this large print, with the photography and editing taking less time than it did to print [print details]

keith cooper and large print

At this point I wondered again if I was missing the point with the technical stuff.

Why did some images work well and what did people actually see in large prints?

The viewing experiment

A simple view across the street where I live illustrates this well.

view across the street

Using the same 24mm lens I took three shots, with the three 35mm full frame cameras I have. 11MP, 21MP and 50MP. I then produced a set of prints at each camera’s ‘native’ 300 pixel per inch sizes, along with the native sizes of the other cameras.

So, nine prints in all – all individually produced from the RAW file and edited to produce the best print I could at the particular size. As you won’t be surprised to hear, I’ve written this up in much more detail… [5Ds print tests]

nine prints

First up, the differences are nowhere near as obvious as you might think.

What did people see in the prints?

Well, most concentrated on the fact that those beds were dumped there and the state of housing in the area, with far too many rapacious landlords unwilling to spend money disposing of rubbish and not caring for the area…

With the largest print, someone did read the ‘No Tipping’ sign and wondered when someone was last fined. Karen (my wife) noticed the cracking in the brickwork above the bay windows (left).

Pressed on differences between the prints, people looked for things missing or new. No-one looked at the fine detail of the brickwork or leaves.

How we look at prints

It seems obvious, that we look at different size pictures from different distances.

One immediate consequence of this is that as we move further back from a print, the actual need for that magical ‘300ppi’ becomes ever less important.

There has been quite a lot of research into the capabilities of our visual system and how we see sharpness and contrast – I wrote up some info about print viewing distances some time ago, and the fundamentals are still relevant [print viewing distances]

At 3-4 metres from a print, very few people’s eyesight will resolve extremely fine detail, something I’ve taken advantage of when producing a 3 metre wide print that could only be viewed from across a stairwell.

rac gallery

You do have to be careful if people are going to be close to a print, but I’ve found it’s only other photographers who shove their noses into prints, and frankly, since they don’t buy prints, I don’t much care.

Apart from a few specialist ultra high resolution prints for architectural survey purposes, my work is intended to be viewed from a reasonable distance.

How else does that distance affect how the print looks and feels to viewers?

Let’s say I print a landscape or architectural image at 6″ x 4″ and at 30″ x 20″.

The larger one is on my office wall, whilst the small 6×4 I’ll pick up to look at.

If I’m standing six feet or so from the print on the wall, I can hold the small one at a particular distance in front of me and it precisely covers the large one.

Now I move the 6×4 print downwards so that I can see both – they should look the same?

If you get a chance, try this and see for yourself – I find that they do not look the same. The larger more distant print has a distinctly different feeling of depth and scale.

Why might this be? For one thing, my eyes are converging more with the closer print, and my eyes are focusing closer. This tells my brain that I’m looking at something close and small.

As an aside, it also helps explain why I find watching a movie on a phone or tablet fundamentally inferior to a larger more distant screen – if you wear glasses, then there are other complications but I feel the principle probably holds true.

How does this help make big prints

First of all, I realised that there is no basic workflow that ‘works’ for very large prints – each needs to be approached as an individual, going right back to the original RAW camera file, even if you have made modest sized (A3+ 13″ x 19″) prints of the image before.

If you are someone who likes to follow ‘recipes’, then I’m afraid the adaptability, experimentation and flexibility required may cause difficulties – there is no A-> B -> C -> PRINT process.

Large prints need planning and thinking about – each is an individual. The good thing is that the more you do this, the more you get to think about what the print feels and looks like as opposed to the processes needed to achieve the result you want.

I use Photoshop for my work, for the flexibility it gives me in deciding the workflow for that print – I could work just as well, for most images, with an old copy of Photoshop CS3, although this might limit some of the plugins I -may- want to use.

From my own POV, Adobe Lightroom just doesn’t cut it for very large prints, other than for initial conversion of the RAW files (even then I don’t like its catalogue based approach – YMMV, but that’s another story…)

Most of my large prints are of the built or natural world and benefit from the scale of the print.

Real detail does help with some large prints – just because I’ve been able to make some great looking prints from 11MP images doesn’t mean I choose to take the 1Ds out with me very often (it is still a superb camera BTW).

Would I want a 150MP version of my 5Ds in a few years when it’s getting on a bit – of course I would (mainly for my architectural work), but the number of prints where it would make a genuinely noticeable difference would be few.

From a business POV, what about a move to medium format?

I’m afraid there just isn’t the demand for many very high resolution 40″ x 60″ fine art prints in my part of the UK. Anyway, I can already make extremely high resolution images with my Gigapan [14m print] or ~80MP ones with a simple up/down stitched pair of shots with a shift lens [Whitby harbour pier below].

The cost of medium format (and lenses) is prohibitive compared to any business benefits I can see.

whitby harbour

I’m lucky that testing large printers and paper gives me an excuse to make large prints and experiment. I’ve found that the larger the print, the more you have to consider about how the viewer will navigate the image, both from an initial view at a distance, looking round the image, and then with enough detail to allow the viewer to benefit from moving closer.

People can notice real detail, since it gives the feeling that you can walk closer to see more detail (as in real life).

This was true even with the 2m x 3 m print from the 1Ds, where I ensured that there was the appearance of fine detail in parts, that contrasted with the smoothness of other parts (no sharpening at all for clear sky areas).

Once you get to very big prints, such as the 14 metre one I mentioned earlier, you can also allow for people walking along the length of a print.

Images that work as huge prints may feel over-cluttered as small ones, but in general I find that as your print size goes up, the proportion of your images that will work at that size diminishes (technical issues obviously intrude as well).

More than anything, with large prints I’ve learned to trust my feeling that a potential source image works, and grabs the attention in some way.

This is a rapid and emotionally led reaction – learn to trust it.

Practice helps. Sometimes I just flip through books of photos and stop at ones that grab my attention – the tricky bit is noticing why.

Later I can look at if the image I’m thinking of printing has technical problems such as camera shake or poor focus, or sub-optimal exposure. Of course, I try to minimise these issues (just as well since it’s my job) but what works as an image on a web site at 1000 pixels wide may just not be good enough for a big print – for that subject.

As I noted when I did the large sunset print of the view from my loft – the technical side is the easy bit these days…

Comments/Questions? See below…

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