Making Exhibition-Quality Prints: Tips from a Printer

July 3, 2012

© Tim Hetherington, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

 "Untitled, Liberia 2005" by Tim Hetherington. Shamus Clisset printed images by Hetherington for a recent exhibition at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York.

Printing your images is difficult, and getting them to look good as large-format, gallery-ready prints is even harder. Explaining to a printer how you want the prints to look takes a specialized vocabulary. There’s also the technical challenge of preparing digital files. We recently asked Shamus Clisset of Laumont Photographics, the printing and finishing lab in New York City, for his advice on how photographers can work with their printers to get the exhibition-quality prints they want. Clisset has been a printer for eight years, six of them with Laumont, and he has made digital C-prints for exhibitions by Pieter Hugo, Alessandra Sanguinetti and others. He has collaborated with photographer Joel Sternfeld for several years. He recently made the prints for an exhibition of work by the late Tim Hetherington which was shown at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York earlier this year. A former painter, he learned Adobe Photoshop in the mid-Nineties when he began making digital art.

PDN: Are there things you think photographers could do better in order to work with their printer on getting their fine-art prints to look the way they want?
It depends on whether they’re shooting digital or shooting film.  In both cases, the best thing is to get a really good scan or a really good capture. You can’t make a good print from a bad scan or a bad capture.

We still vastly prefer working from film. Getting a good drum scan gives you the quality to blow up an image to any size and there’s nothing in digital that compares to it, unless you’re going to spend $35,000 on the huge digital backs. Even in that case, I’ve done work with a photographer who was using the 80 megapixel Leaf, and we mixed 4×5 negatives and the digital images he had shot. The sharpness is pretty comparable, but you’re limited. The look of digital doesn’t compare to film. I know that digital is so popular, and we’re dealing with that more and more. People are bringing us all kinds of digital files, and the quality of the files is all over the place.

PDN: Is that due to the technology, or the photographers?
An image looks great on the screen or on their web site small, then they come to us and they don’t realize it’s only really big enough to do maybe an 8×10-inch print of decent quality or maybe a 20×30. Even [with] the Canon 5D Mark II which everybody has nowadays and we’re getting a lot of files from, the biggest print that I’ve done from one of those that I think looked decent is a 30 x40 inch print. Even then you’re res-ing up by 30 or 50 percent, depending on what their camera settings were. So we’re having to work to keep the quality and integrity of the file, by adjusting the texture to make it comparable to something film-like.

Whereas with film, even if you shoot 35 mm, we can do huge 60 x 72-inch prints that look great. You see grain, but [the prints] have that photographic integrity.

When shooting digital, it’s very crucial that photographers shoot RAW. That should be a given, but people bring us JPEGs or sometimes TIFF files. With RAW, you can go back and adjust your settings to get the file to a better starting point. When you shoot RAW, there’s a deeper bit depth. You’re capturing more of the exposure, so you can recover highlight detail, you can recover shadow detail, you can shift up or down the exposure range. Then you import it into Photoshop and you have a better starting point.

We’re especially geeky about this part of it because we do big exhibition prints. If you’re doing a book and your picture is never going to be bigger than that, digital works fine.

The most commonly asked question we get nowadays is: “If I show you my file, how big do you think we can print it?” They don’t know the resolution. I would recommend people find out what the full sensor capacity is in pixels, and then divide that by 200 dpi. That’s what your print size is usually.

For example we recently made some really nice prints from a 5D Mark II. The full native resolution on the long side (5661 pixels) translates to about 28″ at 200 dpi. That’s a 21-megapixel capture. We printed them at 30 x 40 so we bumped it up about 30 percent.  They looked great, but as you go larger and you are interpolating in Photoshop, you’re losing sharpness.

PDN: So that gets you a good print. But how does a photographer explain artistically what they want their prints to look like?
It helps to make test prints. If you have access to an inkjet printer,  any kind of visual reference we can look at together always helps. Otherwise, the vocabulary gets in the way. Even if the [test] isn’t great, you can say, “I like this, but I’d like this lighter or darker.” That makes it easier.

When describing what you want, the simpler the better. That comes down to basic terminology: lighter or darker, more or less contrast, more red or less. That way, there’s less potential for miscommunication.

PDN: What’s an example of less simple communication?
I find a lot of time people contradict themselves. Like, “I want darker highlights and lighter shadows, and I want more contrast.” You’re saying different things.

I had one woman say, “I just want it to be more powerful.” That doesn’t have a lot to do with what I’m doing.  

There are Photoshop terms that people familiar with the program will use, and some are very specific. They’ll say, “I want the hue shifted by three points in the red.” People familiar with the darkroom might refer to darkroom techniques, like: “Magenta filter  5.”

PDN: Does that work for you?
That’s as specific as you can get, but some people don’t know what that will do. So it’s about getting a feel for what clients want, and how they talk about it.

PDN: You did the printing for the Tim Hetherington show at the Yossi Milo Gallery. I think I would have described those prints as “powerful,” I’ll admit. The photographer is no longer with us to explain what he wanted. How did you handle that?
We worked really closely with

Yossi Milo and with [photographer] Chris Anderson who was a good friend of Tim’s. He came in when I was making proofs and gave me a lot of good feedback. That was crucial.

This was one of the first times I’d made prints for someone who had passed away and couldn’t be there to guide me. I approached it the same way I would any project. You see what is in the capture–in this case it was mostly digital capture. We also had the book [Long Story Bit by Bit, a collection of Hetherington’s images from the war in Liberia] as a guide. We tried to stay true to the essence of that [book] but also react to what we were seeing in the RAW file, and the potential for things that could be drawn out more, or things that could be made more subtle, or to play with the relative color palettes.

The RAW file shows a wider color range. There are technical ways that you can aim for a neutral color balance in any file. That’s not always what you want [in the final print], but if you can get that right color balance in the beginning, all the colors in the image will sort of fall into place. Then you can go warmer, cooler, more or less contrasty. But getting that color balance right gives the image more depth and vibrance.  People aren’t seeing if an image has a cast. It looks good on their screen, but when we open it up we can see that the neutral tones are very red or very cyan.  As soon as you clean that up, the image will just pop to life.

Another aspect of the printing was getting the prints to the right contrast. Some had been printed dark, some were more washed out. We knew they were going to hang together so we aimed for something not too contrasty but rich. In a book it’s different because you’re not seeing them side by side, but in a gallery all those differences become apparent. You’re aiming for consistency, but you’re working with what he actually shot. They were shot under different lighting situations.

PDN: So what’s your one final piece of advice for photographers who want fine-art, exhibition quality prints?
It’s worth investing a little more to get a really good drum scan. With a crummier scan, they’re going to end up putting in more time and effort. For example, if you get crunchy looking grain we have to smooth the grain in Photoshop.

PDN: Is it about getting better resolution?
In fact, you’re better off with a lower-resolution, high-quality scan than a huge low-quality scan. The differences are in the subtlety of the tonality. When we get a good quality scan from drum scanners, they give us all the information possible: all the shadow detail, all the highlight detail, everything. The scan looks really flat, but it gives us all the latitude we want to take it in any direction we want and to be able to preserve as much information as possible and keep it looking as smooth as possible. A lot of scans don’t have that, and you end up faking information in the highlights if the highlights are blown out, and if your blacks are too hard, there’s no way to get anything out of the blacks.

A lot of these machines have automated settings and auto-sharpening which messes with the image. A good scanner will know what settings to use to get a good neutral color balance and long tonal range.

Having a calibrated monitor is very important if you are making adjustments on your own before bringing us a file. Not all monitors are great for color work, but you can at least get your monitor’s calibration close, so that you’re not completely shocked when you see your first proof. 

Something that goes hand in hand with that is basic color management. Always make sure you embed a color profile when you save an image. If no profile is embedded with the file then your computer could be displaying the color of your image very differently than mine (even if your monitor is calibrated). There are different color spaces and each one displays the information of your image in a different way. Embedding the profile tells my computer how it should display that color information, so that’s very important.

Related article
PDN Photo of the Day: Tim Hetherington Retrospective

How to Print Big for Maximum Impact

What Does Limited Edition Really Mean?

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