View Your Camera and Computer as Part of One System

Once images are in the digital domain there is an infinite field of possibility open to you that can move your photography to new levels. It is time to stop thinking of your camera gear and computer gear as separate things.
Digital photography is as massive a paradigm shift in photography as the invention of photography was in the first place. The paradigm shift is one in the thinking of the photographer, and many of us haven’t yet caught up with this. Let me explain.
Let us create a hypothetical ‘normal’ photographer and a ‘new paradigm’ photographer for comparison.

The normal photographer shoots pretty much the same way they did with film, though they may shoot more. They have their camera gear and they have their computer gear. The computer gear replaces their old darkroom equipment and the trips off to drop off and pickup film and prints that they were not equipped to handle in their darkroom. Their thinking is inherently two-stage in nature. They go out and shoot with their gear, then later they get into their images on the computer. When they shoot they take some heed of what they may do on the computer, just as in their darkroom days they exposed so they could get a decent print without too much prestidigitation in the darkroom. A hangover from this thinking is an effort to handle as much with the camera as possible.

The new paradigm photographer has an inherently one-stage thinking. Everything is their photography and everything is their camera gear, even the computer. They think in terms of what is the best way, within their present means, to address a particular issue. They understand fully the effect of every decision on their workflow and structure things to get the maximum quality they can out of what they have, and have the most fun doing it. So they may have a workflow that uses the best camera and lenses they can afford and use appropriate software to reduce image noise, correct lens aberrations and achieve image modifications that allow them to do the photography they want to do in a way that suits them.

On the discussion lists too often you see photographers who are struggling with the camera gear they have and limiting what they shoot because of it. Yet computational photography, as it is becoming called, opens up so many possibilities. Rather than not doing night photography because they have a fairly noisy camera and cannot afford an update, a cheap software purchase may do the trick. Likewise a cheap lens with aberrations that make architectural photography difficult can be addressed with software. Panorama stitching does not need a special camera. Likewise using HDR techniques can extend a low dynamic range camera. Software can extend depth of field in macro work and even allow you to choose the focal point and depth of field after the shoot. And the list goes on.

Beyond technological solutions there are also solutions of perception. Not every image has to be sharp and perfect. Blur can be highly effective, a soft image can add atmosphere and burned out highlights and blocked shadows can be used in creative ways.

I sometimes think we like to be limited so we have something to complain about or have an excuse for not testing our creativity. Perhaps it is an avoidance mechanism so we do not have to risk failure. Whatever it is, it is worth blocking it away and taking the risk of changing your thinking. You just might like it.

Every Image Has a Story

When it comes to selling your photography and art there is one great aid. Make sure that you have a story about or involving each image. People love a story.
One of the things that those of us who are serious about making images forget, whether photography or art, is why other people buy images. We are focused on the beauty of the image, or its symbolic meaning or whatever.

So why do people buy art? Well there are, of course, many reasons. Some will buy purely for their own enjoyment, some from a collector’s mentality and others to enhance their surroundings.

No matter the personal motivation, most people who buy art will, in some way, share it with other people in their lives. It may be a conversation with a friend over coffee, down at the gym or while picking the kids up from school or at a dinner party. Describing images is a challenge for most people. But telling a story comes naturally to many. If the artwork has a story attached to it, it makes life much easier.

At gallery openings I have a tendency to watch the artist. I guess all photographers are voyeurs but I find it very enlightening. Many of the artists and photographers that I see doing very well from exhibition sales know how to spin a yarn. As they chat with potential buyers they have an interesting story about every image in the show, “You know, when I shot this…” or “I have to tell you this about this image, I had a proof hanging in my studio and …”. You can see the way it changes how the potential buyer views the work. Now I am sure few are directly thinking “Wow, if I buy this I will have a great story for my next dinner party”, though some will. For most I think that it draws them into a deeper engagement with the work, adds depth and interest and increases the feeling that they just must have that image, that their life will be the lesser if they have to let it go. This same idea holds in other venues than galleries: it is applicable at art fairs and markets, online and in a portrait or wedding studio (helped here by the buyer’s own stories about the images). Obviously the length of the story and how much time you have to tell it needs to be different in these varying contexts, but the idea is the same.

Selling is still selling and it is easy for artists and photographers to loose sight of this about their work. Sometimes people need just one more reason to buy. Make sure you give it to them.

Print In More Sizes

It is easy to become stuck on one or two sizes of print. Break out of the rut and try something different. Photographs and art work can look very different depending on the size.

There is no right size to print every image at. We tend to fall into habits with regard to everything, including our printing. Sure, we can work out what size print a given camera can produce at 300dpi. But this is really on the starting point. A print resolution of 300dpi (or 360dpi for Epsons) works well when you are up close and personal to the print. But with larger prints we don’t hold them in our hands up close, we look at them hanging on the wall, typically, and also from some distance so we can take in the whole image in one go. So you can lower the resolution you print at and thus print the image larger. Think of this as the packing density, how close the camera pixels are packed together on the page.

The other thing that affects what resolution you need to print at is the type of paper. High gloss, photo papers demand the highest resolution to produce a print that will look great up close. Matt papers can sometimes take a lower resolution and still look great. Non-digital art papers, especially the heavily textured watercolor papers can look great at even lower resolutions. For example, I have printed an image at as low as 25dpi (image resolution, not printer dot resolution) on a non-digital watercolor paper and the result has looked great. I have even used very low actual printer resolutions, such as 300dpi. This has partly been a result of the texture of the paper making the lower resolution image look more detailed and also because when you print on non-digital papers, the ink bleeds into the paper, spreading the dots out till they blend together, creating the illusion of a higher resolution than actually used. Particularly suitable to this approach are the non-digital watercolor textured papers and the Japanese, Korean and Nepalese handmade papers, often called Washi,  and especially those with inclusions, such as bark or flowers.

Some images work well when small and intimate. Many don’t. My observation is that probably a majority of people print their images smaller than is ideal for the image. This is perfectly natural because of issues of having suitable equipment and the cost of the gear and the consumables as you go up in size, but is still something to be worked on. You could argue that images have a natural size at which they work best that is determined by a combination of factors. The amount of detail in the piece and how important it is plays a part. As does the style of the work: is it intimate or bold and brassy? The desired impact on the viewer and what it is you are trying to say play a major part. When discussions of what size should I print my work comes up I am always reminded of a time soon after I had returned from a trip to Poland where I had done a lot of shooting at Auschwitz. I had been printing my images fairly large, approximately 24″ x 36″. There was an exhibition at a local photography gallery by a photographer who had also shot Auschwitz. His work was printed very small, in fact no larger than 8″ x 10″ and mostly noticeably smaller. With such small work the automatic response was to move in close. You were then confronted with the subject matter that had not been obvious from a distance. This drawing you in worked well with these very detailed, medium and large format images. My approach had been to play with the graphic elements, the shapes and textures, and I found this worked better for me large. Who was right? Frankly I don’t know and I suspect we both were because although our subject was the same, our photography was very different. I preferred my approach though I could see what the other photographer had done.

So how to you change your printing size or even judge what size works best? There are several approaches. The easiest is to make sure you can move well back from your computer screen so you can vary the viewing distance. Fill the screen with the image and then vary your viewing distance from close to far away and see how the image responds. Zoom right into the image and judge how dependent it is for success on the detail it contains. For those who can, a data project is a wonderful tool. It lets you explore the really large sizes before you have to print. Just remember the projected image will be much lower resolution than your print will be. Think about the psychology of your image and how you want to use it. Should the viewer have an intimate and thus close engagement with the image or will a huge, in your face sort of impact work better? You will generally find the same size will work well for most, if not all, images within a body of work. This certainly makes for a more cohesive look in an exhibition, though some variety can also work in your favor. It depends on what suits the work.

Overcoming equipment and cost issues can be a creative exercise in itself. What about tiling your prints together to make a larger one, taping them together even or mounting them as separate pieces that hung together form a whole? Do a trade with a friend with a larger printer so you do something for them that they need in exchange for some larger prints. If you want to, there are ways around most limitations.

Shoot Always

Finding ways to shoot whenever and wherever you are can greatly expand your shooting experience and also open up new opportunities for your photography.
Linking this with the first suggestion means that you don’t always have to use the same camera. In fact there are many times when carrying your normal camera gear would be a major problem. I would not always be willing to carry my normal dSLR camera with me on many occasions. Which is why I also have a number of other digital cameras in various sizes and capabilities, from my mobile or cell phone to a small 7 Megapixel compact digital that makes only a little bulge in my pocket. We sometimes get so over concerned with quality that we become blinded to other options.

There are many times when lugging our heavy dSLR gear and lens collections around are not practical. Yet we can always carry some sort of camera. Indeed there are major advantages to using other types of camera. A compact camera can fit into small spaces, allowing you to shoot subjects your big dSLR might not reach. Many compacts have much better macro capability than most common SLR lenses. Indeed some will focus to the surface of the front of the lens. Some offer built-in intervalvometer functions to allow you to take timed exposures in sequences over an extended time. With dSLRs this usually is only available with an optional extra. And how willing would you be to endanger your expensive dSLR in bad weather, at the beach or even underwater? A relatively inexpensive camera is more expendable and thus we can be more willing to experiment and also keep shooting in all the circumstances our life takes us into.

Having a camera with you all the time means that you always have something to do when you have to wait. You can not only scout out locations but document them too. There is no need to miss those great images you see when you do not have a camera with you.

Of course there is no reason to always leave your dSLR at home either. I commonly pick one lens and go out with my dSLR. Depending on the lens I put on, sometimes I will have to work really hard to find a way to shoot what I find. But isn’t that having to stretch a bonus?

Digital Art Studio

Techniques for Combining Inkjet Printing with Traditional Art Materials
Digital Art Studio

Techniques for Combining Inkjet Printing with Traditional Art Materials

By Karin Schminke, Dorothy Simpson Krause and Bonny Pierce Lhotka

Published by Watson-Guptill Publications, 2004

ISBN 0-8230-1342-1

Digital Art Studio is a book about extending digital printing, mainly inkjet, by working with unusual media, transferring the digital image and overworking the digital print with other artist’s materials. As
such, it reminds me of the wonderful books on alternative photographic processes, like gum bi-chromates and cyanotypes, that I used to love in my darkroom days.

This is a how to book for digital artists, illustrators, photographers and crafters who like to get their hands dirty. If you have become bored with the uniformity and repetitive perfection of the digital print, this is the book for you. Chapters include:

  • Tools and Materials
  • Choosing Printing Surfaces
  • Creating Customized Surfaces
  • Underprinting Digital Images as a Base for Other Media
  • Overprinting Digital Images on Other Media
  • Wet Transfers to Absorbent Surfaces
  • Dry Emulsion Transfers to Non-absorbent and Dimensional Surfaces
  • Gelatin Transfers
  • Layering Prints with Collage and Paint
  • Creating Three-Dimensional Work
  • Printing on Fabric

There is also a useful glossary and resources section.

Written by three artists who have well established reputations as digital artists and print makers, the book is lavishly illustrated with their work. Step by step sections take you through each process. I like the fact that the book is not just limited to this step-by-step approach but also helps you to understand the basis of the process. This is essential, as everyone finds their own working process, this mix of a proven step-by-step approach plus a deeper understanding helps you to achieve this.

There is a good variation in the book from pretty simple processes to quite complex ones. All are handled well. You can read the book from cover to cover, as I did, or browse and dive in at random.

Who should get this book? I actually think anyone who is serious about their digital art and who works in print should get this book as a way to unlock your thinking, whether you actually use any of the techniques or not. Digital art students, design and photography students, crafters, art and photography hobbyists and scrapbookers looking to do something different should all buy it. I use it with my undergraduate (college) art, photography and design students to get them experimenting and thinking about alternatives.

Can the book be improved? Well, if they do a second edition, apart from adding any other processes the authors have come up with since this was written, I would like to see a section after the processes have been discussed that examines the aesthetic and conceptual thinking of an artist in how to decide when and why to use these techniques. The book is great, as is, at telling you how to do these things. I would like to see a section that discusses why to use them.