Do your prints have depth?

How do you describe your prints?

Or, more to the point, how do I know what you mean?

Wine glass and blurred reflection

Wine glass on a glass table in a bar …shooting at f/1.2 very little is going to be sharp

The other day on a discussion list, there was a discussion about some aspects of black and white printing and it was suggested that prints made using a particular process showed more depth or a more ‘three dimensional’ look

I thought about this and realised that I didn’t actually know what they meant.  ‘Depth’ in this context doesn’t have any well defined meaning for me.

What does the phrase mean to you?

Does it have enough of a solid meaning that you could explain it to someone else, without physically showing them features of the print?, or perhaps comparing two prints?

Something new

When looking at new papers and print techniques I much prefer to look at a known test image, such as the one to the right I created a few years ago.

With such an image I can disconnect some aspects of the print maker’s skill from the content of the image and the choices that went into its creation.

Black and white printer test image

Black and white printer test image

Why do I want to divorce the emotional impact from the technical performance of the printer/paper/ink combination?

Consider the photos that camera manufacturers use to promote their wares. Take a Canon or Nikon glossy camera brochure – full of great looking photos. Who seriously thinks that the photos in the Canon brochure couldn’t have been taken on a Nikon, or vice versa? The brochure designers want to sell you a concept, which has not that much to do with the technical image capture capabilities of the camera – what you see is more about the image content (and brochure reproduction quality).

Back to prints… when looking at a new paper/printer/inks for my own print use I want some objective means of comparing aspects of the process.

Do note that this does not have to go to the level of taking vast amounts of readings and measurements (you can, but I get bored easily). There is always a danger here that sheer quantity of data is used as a tool to bludgeon the reader, such as in some paper reviews I’ve seen. Any numeric data really needs to be backed up with explanations as to why it is there and what it means. Of course I know that just like those wanting to buy (expensive) gadgets to improve their photography, there is another group, driven by specifications, rankings and lists.

After I’ve compared papers in this (somewhat) detached way, then I’ll see how a print ‘looks and feels’ with a particular image and see whether I think it works for me as a print.

Now I feel I’m in  much more subjective territory, since it’s largely about what works for me in making the print.

Any feeling of ‘depth’ is as much based on my creation/interpretation/editing of the image (tonal ranges, depth of blacks, local contrast enhancement etc) as it is on paper/printer properties (dmax, ink colour, lighting levels, lighting type, angles of lighting, paper colour, paper finish type, surface texture, surface gloss, ink gloss, physical depth of ink)

This is fine for my own use, but how do I communicate this?

paper surface reflection on print

One way of showing the finish of a paper

My difficulty comes when we use terms such as depth, which have a number of meanings. Does this mean the ink has sunk into the paper more (almost certainly not) or that the content of the image has a deep meaning to us (maybe not, but how am I to know?)

If we add to this mix, the international audience for my articles on this site, then if I say a print shows ‘depth’, do you really know what I meant? In truth, I can have very little confidence that the meaning of the word ‘depth’ in other people’s heads will really match mine.

Part of this comes from my technical background involving measurement (geology/electronics) and part from my later MSc research which was concerned with who sees what when people from different backgrounds in an organisation look at design requirements (yes I’ve done a lot of different things before taking up photography).

Although my technical and research background influences things, when it comes down to it though, my best prints have a strong emotional impact, so are viewed by most people based on image content rather than process/materials.  Indeed, I know that anyone who goes up to one of my prints with a magnifying glass is unlikely to buy one… sales come from people standing back to just look.

For a bit more on this see my article ‘will it sell?’

The fact that I’ve chosen a particular print process stems initially from its performance in an environment where I try to remove a few of the more subjective aspects.

I have these difficulties every time someone sends me some paper to test and I consider if/how to report what it’s like.

Strongly textured paper - Innova IFA-13

Strongly textured paper – Innova IFA-13

Consider for example, the heavy textured paper from Innova (IFA 13 Rough Textured Natural White) I recently looked at on our Canon iPF8300.

It’s a really nice paper – with a few profiling idiosyncrasies, and a very distinct surface texture. However it just isn’t what I’d probably choose for many of my images, where I don’t want the paper texture barging into the viewers experience in quite such an obvious manner.

Never mind the width…

I find the people who take lots of measurements tend to give an arbitrary ranking to what in the end is an experience that has a large subjective component.

For example, take two identical paper surfaces and top layers, but one is on a thicker/heavier base. Make two identical sets of prints and hand them out. I’d put money on it, that the heavier paper is preferred by more people. Never mind the fact that the papers are likely to be framed behind glass, where the difference won’t be felt.

As you might of guessed, I’m never quite sure how to approach paper ‘reviews’.  Do let me know what you think!

Putting it all together

As with a lot of aspects of photography, I find that I can look at things from a mechanical skills/process/materials level or at an emotional level where I’m aiming to produce work that has a particular ‘meaning’ or desired influence.

My personal approach is to try and nail down the technical aspects, so that all the tools I’m using become almost invisible when I’m thinking of the work I’m creating.

Many of my articles on this site come from trying to understand a technical aspect of photography. If I can explain it in an article, it usually means I think I understand it…

Much like driving somewhere and not having to consciously think about how I’m moving the steering wheel :-)

  • http://www.timparkin.co.uk Tim Parkin

    Ah OK – I was thinking the goal was to get some sort of reference quality in terms of the ‘depth’ that was talked about. I immediately thought of whose prints have the most ‘depth’ :-)

    Having worked peripherally to a market testing environment, the way they would approach it is buy developing a test methodology, a a target audience and, providing the questions raised have quantitative answers, the results can be statistically analysed for meaningful data.

    i.e. if a group of 40 representative people are given an a/b test of two papers across a sample of differnt picture types and asked ‘which has more depth’, then the answer will be as close to an quantitative result as you will get from such a qualitative question.

    Anything else will be subject to observer bias (unless the observer is the only person that counts).

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Yes, I’d agree – since it’s photographers we’re talking about here. I suspect we’ll just have to put up with the degree of impreciseness :-)

      Every time I get sent a paper to look at I realise the difficulty of saying much more than – “yes I felt some of my prints would look nice on this”, or “Not really a finish I’d go for”.

      As printers and paper have got better over the last few years, it’s getting increasingly difficult to say that printer X is vastly superior to printer Y.

      It then comes much more down to the sort of quality you’re seeing in prints from the real experts

  • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

    Not a route I’m at all inclined to go down personally, since apart from the expense, I’m looking more at print quality from a printer/paper combination, not the artistic and technical ability of the person doing the printing or taking the original photograph.

    Such prints might look superb (if the photo was any good of course) but they would hardly be reference materials, given as they have considerable creative input from the person doing the printing.

    This approach has too many parallels with looking at a glossy Canon catalogue and saying what a wonderful camera, the 1Ds Mk3 is (or equally substitute Nikon and D3x)

    Not of course that I would begrudge talking to such a skilled printer… :-)

    My whole point is to separate the subjective quality from what the printer/paper/ink is capable of and -then- to see how I’d apply that to my own images.

  • http://www.timparkin.co.uk Tim Parkin

    Having just spent a weekend talking to someone who is widely acclaimed as the best printer in the UK (some who have experience say the world but UK sounds good enough for me) I left speechless at the quality of printing. I would say a good way to assess prints would be to buy a couple of prints from him (at very reasonable costs, £3-400 and then buy an inkjet print from Jack Lowe and use these prints as a references.. Even better – spend a day with him. His name is John Blakemore and I left the experience a wiser man in many ways..

    • Simon King

      you spent the weekend with John Blakemore? !!!
      (jealous or what?)