Saturday, July 31, 2010

Golden® Polymer Varnish Redux

Road Test #4 entitled 'Golden Chrysopoeia' gave Golden® Polymer Varnish with UVLS a good rating except for the usage cost. However, I promised then to revisit the product and further test it's qualifications as a 'golden opportunity' for those who coat giclée prints. Road Test #4 therefore went into extra innings.

The extended Road Test involved 10 giclée prints being prepared for a show of Kirk Beeler's work at Café Luna on Vashon Island. Beeler's show will premier on Friday, August 6th as part of the Vashon Island Art Cruise. On the first Friday of every month the whole town stays open until 9:00pm (21:00) and all the galleries put up new shows.

Beeler's show entails 9 selections raging in size from 12 X 8 inches (30 X 20 cm) to 30 X 20 inches (75 X 50 cm) and a 10th piece described below. His subjects are often moody and dark with full rich tones.

Kirk sometimes shoots with a Noblex® camera. It's a camera you might see on Antiques Roadshow but it shoots a hell of a good panorama. The ratio is 1:3, a very popular format. The film negs and trannies are huge so there's plenty of resolution. This show has a print made from one of those Novoflex® images entitled 'Mount Ranier from Maury Island', pictured below.

At Vashon Island Imaging we print for many artists and photographers but Kirk Beeler is a special client having been one of the first Island photographers to present their work as giclée prints instead of paper-prints which are traditionally favored for photos. But times have been a changin'...

Prepressing Kirk Beeler's pictures is like printing for Ansel Adams... prints of both photographers' works require full rich dark tones that don't clog up and light tones that aren't burned out... the subject of an upcoming blog. But back to Golden...

Work that we had previously coated for Kirk had been coated with either Golden® MSP Varnish (a solvent coating) or Clear Shield. Of the two, Kirk preferred three coats of Clear Shield on Epson® Premier Canvas Matte, which produces a nice leathery finish. Now it was time to create that look with Golden® Polymer Varnish.

The first six giclée prints were given four coats of a 3:1 blend. Three coats almost created the desired leathery-finish look, but a fourth made all the difference (even if it did drive up the costs of an already expensive coating product by 33%).

Here are the stats: 1.5 pints (710 ml) of stock Golden® Polymer Varnish were split 3:1 with water to make 1 quart (.95 liter) of working solution. The quart covered 2800 square inches or 19.44 sq. ft. (18,064 sq. cm or 1.81 sq. meters) and cost $30.00 (no shipping costs). That works out to $1.54 per square foot (.09 sq meters) compared to 66¢ for my next favorite coating, Clear Shield ( That makes Golden® Polymer Varnish With UVLS 2.3 times more expensive to use than Clear Shield.

Normally I run from products that cost so much more to use but this time I am prepared to live with it even though I may have to pass on some of the cost increase, which I hate to do right now. You see, I have few alternatives because Clear Shield is hard for us to get. The company has few dealers and doesn't respond to emails or calls in any meaningful way. That means we buy online and ship from far away. That is so way less convenient than picking up a product at the local art or camera store.

They are going about marketing the wrong way. It may be convenient and cheap for them but it isn't for the customer. I am a good example: I love the Clear Star® product but it's too hard to get and just as expensive as the Golden® Polymer Varnish product when you add in shipping etceteras.

If I were a Clear Shield distributor I would go around to every art and camera store in the neighborhood and preach the gospel according to Clear Star®. In the Seattle area you can easily get MOAB® coatings (which we don't use) at camera stores like Glazer's Camera and you can buy Golden® Polymer Varnish With UVLS at either Daniel Smith® Art Supplies or Utrecht® Art Supplies.

Golden® Polymer Varnish is not without sin. It is more subject to cracking than Clear Shield, as can be seen in the two pictures above and below.

You can really see the cracking problem in the corner folds.

Cracking problems are usually solved by rounding the leading edges of the stretcher bars. Jack Richeson & Company (800-233-2404) makes the ones we use. They are the best we've used so far except they tend to have sharp edges and sometimes the wood is so hard that the staples don't penetrate all the way. (That is a blessing in disguise actually because it makes staple removal easier if required at a later time. Anyone who's had to re-stretch a giclée print knows how hard it is to remove well-seated staples without damaging the giclée canvas.)

To prepare the stretcher bar edges for giclée prints coated with Golden® Polymer Varnish we lightly plane them using a rasp.

Round off the sharp edge (blue arrow) by coming in at several angles.

Finish the rounded edges with a light sanding with medium-coarse sandpaper.

One could argue that the extra step wouldn't be necessary if we were using Clear Shield (or Premier® ECO Print Shield) but I would replay that taking the sharp edge off a Richeson® stretcher bar is probably a good thing to do anyway. As I explain in my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée (, the rule of thumb is to use your thumb... press it into the edge and if it hurts the edge is too sharp.

At this point you'd expect that I'd say 'case closed' with the verdict going in Golden® 's favor. But the jury is out by default because the ball is still in Clear Star®'s court. Will they wake up? Or will they go the way of Betamax®, a superior video technology that was out-marketed by the folks who brought us VHS®.?

Stay tuned for the next adventure in the giclée coating 'Star' wars.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

De-Screening Dilemma

At Vashon Island Imaging we are occasionally brought image files that have problems. Some problems are easy to spot, others aren't. Such was the case with this illustration brought to us for prepress work.

We will not be printing the image... that will be done overseas. The distances involved made our client nervous. What made her more nervous was that the file was sent to her by a clerk trying to be helpful. However, anyone could see from the pale and ghostly file that something was wrong.

So she brought us the picture for prepress and to see whether it was an image capture of the original (as requested) or a scan of a printed poster of the picture. If it was a scan, raster issues like moire patterns would render the file useless.

When I opened the .tif I discovered that the file carried a Chroma TX profile... a new one for me. Turns out the picture is a scan made by a Chroma TX wide-format scanner. Aha!

The scanner had made a good sized file and so I figured that since there was more than enough resolution for the client's project we had a good chance of fixing things.

There are many ways to avoid moiré patterns and de-screen files made from previously printed pictures. They are described in my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée. But in this case I didn't need to worry about that because there was no visible screen pattern when I examined the picture at a moderate magnification.

The paleness problem was solved by adjusting Levels to 0.44 in PhotoShop®... a pretty heavy adjustment. Actually, that adjustment overcompensated for another problem... white outlining. Usually this kind of outlining is the result of extreme sharpening so I went in to have a closer look and discovered the work of an amazing algorithm that blends together parts of burred and sharpened versions of the (printed) picture.

The sharpened file is used for selective outlining that is overlaid onto the blurred version in a 'jpg'-like way but with great precision. It fooled me until I went in really deep and finally saw the screen, as seen below.

There's not much we can do to 'fix' this file. It's actually a terrific scan and could be used. Maybe the levels change will be a satisfactory solution... beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.

The best solution would be to start over with a new capture of the original poster. (How to make a good capture can be discovered in a previous blog or in greater detail in my book.) Whether it is worth it to re-shoot the original art is our client's dilemma, not ours... for the moment.

To be continued...

Golden Chrysopoeia

Lustrous finish coats of varnish or liquid laminate can be the chrysopoeia you need to improve your fortune.

Chrysopoeia is something that art and alchemy have in common. Translated literally, chrysopoeia is the transmutation of an object into gold. Add a dash of magic and it can be a golden opportunity to turn pictures into profits.

Profits have been hard to come by during the last little while, especially for artists. Therefore anything that can be done to increase the likelihood of an artwork's sale is to the benefit of everyone. Adding value to the giclée prints we make has been our method at Vashon Island Imaging. Instead of discounting things (which makes them seem cheap in the minds of customers) we add value, making our work -- and our customers' -- worth more than what the competition delivers.

(Actually, we don't have any competitors because we are the only shop in town that offers a complete giclée art production service from file creation through prepress and printing all the way to coating, stretching and mounting. Normally an artist would have to go to two or three suppliers to get that range of services. But we do it all under one roof.)

One way we add value to our giclée printing is to coat them with a protective finish at no extra cost to the customer. Although some of our artist clients prefer no coating or protect their giclées under glass, most appreciate this added value.

A protective coating is needed for giclées because they are more fragile than images printed photographically or by traditional printing methods such as lithography. They are more fragile because the inks are sprayed on and adhere to a 'ground' medium on the paper or canvas being printed. The sprayed pigments are more easily abraded or marred because they sit right on top of the media. Coatings of varnish or laminate protect the pigments from UV and airborne pollutants as well as from marring.

Followers of this blog know that we previously used Golden® MSP Varnish almost exclusively for our canvas giclées but have lately switched to aqueous liquid laminates for the most part. The switch led to an investigation of all the different types of water-based coatings out there... which in turn led to the 'road test' series of blogs about aqueous coatings. At Vashon Island Imaging we now prefer aqueous coating systems over the traditional solvent types not only because they are 'greener' but because they 'cure' instead of drying. That means your pictures won't stick together (solvent varnishes never completely dry). This fourth road test is about Golden® Polymer Varnish with UVLS.

Golden® Polymer Varnish is water soluble and comes in gloss, satin and matte finishes. It is quite different from any of the other three aqueous liquid laminate coating systems tested so far.

All coatings have odors that give you a sense of what they are made from. Golden® Polymer Varnish smells strongly of ammonia. The manufacturer says that the varnish is removable at a later date using ammonia, which is why it is classified as a 'varnish' as opposed to a 'laminate'. The fact that it can be stripped off later may be significant in the eyes of purists and archivists but for the average artist it probably unimportant.

Straight out of the bottle Golden® Polymer Varnish is thicker than the liquid laminates we tested previously. The company recommends splitting it with water by up to 100% (a 1:1 mixture) for spray applications... so I started with a 3:1 split. That is, 3 parts varnish to one part of water. The solution passed the 'shake the bottle' test with flying colors... no particulates could be seen and the solution slid down the insides of the glass container smooth, clean and clear, just the way you like.

Four test strips were selected (shown above) to be sprayed with the gloss finish varnish. Two were printed on Outré® Gloss Canvas (the center two) and two were on Epson® Premium Canvas Matte (at the left and right). I chose test strips with both pastel and strong colors to see the effect of this new coating on the hues and saturation levels. What particularly interested me was the look that would come from gloss varnish on matte canvas. I like to use coatings creatively and have written extensively about that in my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée.

Using the 3:1 mixture I applied the first coating. It went on well then a funny thing happened, it showed distinct bubbling (see pix below). Bubbles? I never encountered bubbles when spraying. I've encountered bubbling using rollers, but never spraying. It looked like there was a chemical reaction going on and I thought to myself 'Egad... the chrysopoeia has begun!'. Right.

Actually, those bubbles made me think that my fortunes had changed for the worse. If this were liquid lam the bubbles would be a disaster because the stuff cures so fast you'd nevel have a chance to level them out.

Quickly I grabbed a dry brush like the one pictured below, moistened it just slightly and gently smoothed out the bubbles... then more appeared... and still more. I smoothed them out thrice and stopped because it was useless and because the varnish was getting dry and wasn't leveling, so I was getting brush strokes (a possible 'new look' for future giclées).

Thinking that perhaps I hadn't the right split I added enough water to make it a 2:1 mixture. A second application was made and... more bubbles! This time I got right on them. The thinner solution leveled better and allowed more of the bubbles to pop of their own accord... and also took a lot longer to dry. As it was getting late, I decided to pick-it up the next morning.

Then I thinned the working solution to a 1:1 mixture and made a third application. This time the mixture was too thin and the varnish pooled (see pix below), requiring brushwork to smooth it out... but there were no bubbles.

When it was dry the Golden® Polymer Varnish added a real shine to Outré® Gloss Canvas and it gave a satin-like finish on Epson® matte canvas. Significantly, the varnish dried crystal clear with no loss of dmax in the dark tones. Dark colors on the matte canvas test strip were actually improved by the contrast kick that the gloss varnish provided.

Satisfied that things were under control, I reverted to a 2:1 mixture and sprayed a 48 X 36-inch piece printed on Epson® matte canvas entitled 'Glass Eye'. I chose this piece because it has enough strength to survive any loss of dmax that might be encountered (remembering what happened to the piece I coated with Moab® Desert Varnish).

The first thing I noticed was that no bubbles appeared. That seemed odd after so many during the spray session yesterday. The only thing I can attribute them to now is the temperature. Yesterday it was in the high 70's and this morning it is in the 60's. Yesterday I shot in sunshine, this morning in shade.

I lost count as to how many coats I sprayed... at least 10. The stuff was so thin that a couple of times I had to rescue the finish from runs with the dry brush. I have since adjusted my application speed to reduce the build-up of the thin solution. Fortunately, the varnish sets up a bit slower than liquid laminates so you have more time to do emergency repair work. Even though there were a lot of layers, the Golden® Polymer Varnish blends nicely with fewer 'wet edge' problems than faster curing liquid lams. In the end I used nearly the entire pint on the one 12-square-foot piece.

Next I sprayed satin finish varnish onto a 28 X 35-inch piece that was also printed on Epson® matte canvas. First I gave it a double base coat of the gloss, then three more coats of satin. The result was a nice 'leathery' look and feel with no significant loss of dmax. Although I was hoping for a little kick to the contrast there was little change at all. The clarity of Golden® Polymer Varnish is an important distinction when working with matte canvases which already have low dmax. Compared to gloss and satin canvas the matte versions have no real black, therefore any coating that reduces dmax further can be a problem as we saw with Moab® Desert Varnish (see earlier blog).

Golden® Polymer Varnish runs much cleaner than liquid laminates. There is no partial curing in the paint pot so that no 'strings' or bits of gunk spoil the spray. The gloss has no precipitates whatsoever and the spray gun nozzle stayed clean throughout. Here is where the ability to remove dried varnish with ammonia comes in handly because if the gun nozzle did clog, you could dissolve away the gunk using an ammonia solution (don't forget to wear gloves and work in a very well ventilated space when using ammonia).

Golden® Polymer Varnish with UVLS is slightly more costly. I reckon I got 16 square feet of coverage for the pint, which cost $20 or $1.25 per square foot. or nearly 14¢ per square inch. At that rate we cannot afford to give it away as our base rate for canvas printing is already a low 13¢ per square inch. Clear Shield by Clear Star® costs half that much to use on a square-foot basis, although it is a liquid laminate, not a varnish and is therefore permanent and un-removable. Premier® ECO Print Shield is also 20% less expensive to use. That said, I may have over-coated the big piece and in all fairness will try another pint of gloss to see how far it goes before calling this case closed because I like the results I am getting and the 'cleanliness'.

Perhaps even more persuasive is the manufacturer's reputation which is, well... 'golden'. The Golden® paint company has been around for a long time and their products are available in just about every major art supply store. On the other hand, Clear Shield and Premier® ECO Print Shield are hard to find items requiring shipping the product to us from far away, an added inconvenience. Moab® Desert Varnish is more readily available but we'll never use it again so that doesn't matter.

For now it's a close race between Clear Shield and Golden® Polymer Varnish. If Clear Shield becomes easier to obtain, we'll probably select that product to be our 'house' coating at Vashon Island Imaging. If not, Golden® Polymer Varnish will be a 'clear' choice for a coating that adds the 'Midas touch'.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Busy giclée printers who burn the candle at both ends had better keep their sleepy eyes open for things that go bump in the night, like print heads and art papers. This can be what happens when you don't...

This nasty accident could have been an expensive one requiring the replacement of the print head, but I was lucky. It happened when I started printing on an 11 X 17 inch sheet or Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, a 305 gram art paper requested by one of our artist customers at Vashon Island Imaging.

I never suspected that I would have a problem with Hahnemuhle paper hanging up in the printer, I mean they have such a great reputation. So I loaded the new stock and was out of the printing room when I heard some odd noises coming from the Epson 9880. By the time I got there the paper was crumpled up inside the printer and the machine had quit printing (thank goodness).

This was hardly the first heavy weight art paper we had run through the trusty Epson. At Vashon Island Imaging we try to stay in Epson's range whenever possible to avoid precisely this kind of problem. The closest Epson equivalent is their Ultra Smooth Fine Arts Paper which is slightly heavier at 325 grams. Actually it is more like a light card stock than 'paper'. However USFAP sheets lie flat and Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth sheets do not.

The Hahnemuhle sheets curl up at the ends by about 1/4 inch which is enough for them to hang up on the Epson 9880 post-print guide assembly instead of passing under and through it. As a result the paper started to 'accordion fold' and the print head crashed into it.

Part of the fix is to reverse the curl so that it is downward instead of upward. That allows the paper to pass under the guide correctly. Use your fingertips to do the curl reversal. Start in the center with a very flat, wide curl and a light touch. Gradually tighten the diameter of the curve's arc as you sweep your fingertips back and forth. Be careful not to bend to much to fast which could make a fold instead of a curl. Work the paper gently and smoothly and you'll feel it get limp and start to relax. Ahhhhhhh.

The paper doesn't have to reverse curl that much but the curl should be distinct and noticeable, as pictured below.

The second part is to adjust the platen gap of the printer manually. I know, the software is supposed to do that. But remember, this is Hahnemuhle that we are talking about here, not Epson. It may be that the Hahnemuhle profile doesn't trigger the platen gap adjustment in an Epson 9880... or it could be voodoo. In either case, it doesn't hurt to make sure that the platen gap is set correctly, eh?

Here are the platen gap settings for the Epson 9880:

Here's hoping you never bump into this problem.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Color Matching 101: Viewing Masks Add Accuracy

Color correction is part of a day's work for a giclée prepress artist. Clients bring you all sorts of files with all sorts of intentions. Some files can be printed almost 'as is' but others may require a bit more work. Such was the case when Brian Fisher ( brought us Helen II for a giclée... but not just any giclée.

This giclée had to match a 'Monotype' print original as closely as possible because the collector purchasing the giclée of Helen II also had another original from the same series. Not only that,, he was acquiring the giclée as a memento for a loved one who had recently passed away.

"The monotype print, (“single print“, “1/1“) although regarded as a form of printmaking yields only one strong impression and a weak second, (or “ghost”)", explains Brian. Basically, a the image is painted onto a smooth plate then the ink painting then is squeezed into the paper using a simple roller press.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the inks used in the Monotype print are totally different than giclée inks. The best we can do with a giclée is to match the original colors as closely as possible. Given enough tweaking and testing that can be very close indeed because the giclée printing process gives you the widest dynamic tone range of any printing process.

Vashon Island Imaging prides itself on custom work and the best prepress in town. But the fact that the giclée's future owner also had an original of the series really put the pressure on to get the colors right. The client showed us a giclée previously printed elsewhere as an example of what he didn't want ... off colors. So now it was my giclée against 'theirs' (whoever 'they' are).

The challenge continued when I discovered that Hahnemuhle had slightly changed their stocks and that the paper that the first giclée was printed on was no longer available. We selected the closest match, Photo Rag Ultra Smooth and got results that the client is pleased with.

At the studio we use daylight for viewing art whenever possible. 'Possible' means overcast, and we get a lot of that in the Seattle area where Vashon Island is located. The color of the light should be between 5200° and 5500° Kelvin and on a cloudy day on Vashon Island we get a nominal 5600°. (There is much more about viewing photographing art in my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée.)

Mid-way through the color correction process I realized that I had forgotten to 'equalize' the color perception experience. It's an easy thing to overlook but it can make your color corrections more difficult and less accurate if you forget to isolate the section being color-matched with white or a neutral color.

Peter's original is surrounded with a beautifully cut mat and backing board, both of which are 'cream colored' not white. On my monitor I was seeing the colors against neutral and white backgrounds. The difference in backgrounds was enough to throw off my judgement. That might have been what happened when the first giclée was made... its bluish cast in particular greens would explain an over-correction for 'creaminess'.

A test strip from two sections of Helen II revealed that an adjustment was needed to one specific shade of greens. We print the test strip along one edge of the same sheet that will later be used for the 1st proof print. The proof shows the result of the changes made from the test strip. You may need to make several test strips before printing a proof of the whole image. We were lucky with this one... or maybe the extra accuracy of using white masks throughout the color evaluation process helped a little, eh?

To make the adjustment all those particular greens were separated onto their own layer so they could be individually controlled.

The resulting correction was the addition of 30 points of red to the mid tones of those greens... duly noted in the Layer Properties.

For more precise color adjustments use white paper masks for the original artwork and a white background in PhotoShop®. Neutral gray or black masking is also OK, especially for dark pictures. Whichever you choose, use the same mask color at every stage of your color matching.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

'Face Time' Beats Facebook

There's nothing like a face-to-face meeting to generate new business, and nothing like a self-liquidating promotion to stretch your promotional dollars.

For many businesses, Web-based 'social networking' has all but replaced real 'face time' as a way of 'meeting' and persuading prospective customers. I too found myself believing that the power of the Internet is the be-all and end-all for business communications. Last weekend proved otherwise when Pam and I participated in the Vashon Strawberry Festival with a stand promoting our printing company, Vashon Island Imaging.

The Strawberry Festival stand turned out to be the best thing that we've ever done in terms of PR and promotion. Better than the Vashon Art Studio Tour... better than the thousand-plus dollars spent last year advertising in the local papers... better even than 6-months of high-exposure display time at a local bank and a 48X48-inch sign at Vashon Print & Design. Why? Simple. We were able to reach most of the community with a high-impact presentation.

Only community events like fairs and festivals offer a chance to meet everyone all at once. Other communications media and methods are not nearly as broad spectrum as community events. For example, not everyone reads the local papers, or uses the internet. All other advertising techniques reach only small segments of the total community... whereas the whole town turns out for a big event like Vashon's annual Strawberry Festival.

When you advertise using traditional media and methods your impact is limited to the size and position of your ad as well as the audience segment of the media. Signs are mostly ignored by people, so they are of little help really. And internet promotions are like the new direct mail... quickly deleted. In the end it's really about 'word-of-mouth' and as it turns out 'face time' beats Facebook without question because there is no substitute for personal contact.

From my earlier blogs you know that I am a big proponent of art shows. We participate in the Vashon Island Art Studio Tour every December and May because it is a great opportunity to do market research. We use the Tour to test our pricing, promote Vashon Island Imaging, and gauge customer reactions to my new illustrations. As it turns out the Strawberry Festival was an even better market research tool because it provided a broader audience. The Vashon Art Studio Tour and art shows in galleries only draw people already interested in art and who are more interested in originals than giclée prints. Shows in restaurants and other non-gallery locations tend to be ignored because people are focused on eating or shopping, not on art.

Since the whole town turns out at events like strawberry festivals and country fairs your work gets seen by the widest spectrum of people. What we discovered was that there was a huge segment of the Vashon Island community that didn't know we existed despite all those other promotional efforts... but there they were, at our stand learning all about our giclée and laser printing services.

Our entire stand was trimmed with giclée work... the signs, the pictures, even the raffle-ticket box. Pamela Swanson showed her new 'Shadow Boxes by Pam' which combine giclée and laser prints of her pictures with origami work.

We decided not to sell anything. Instead we made our stand into a display of what can be done with giclée. Brochures described our range of services and for those especially interested we had 'value coupons' which offered a 20% discount. The coupons featured 'my' likeness as a smiling President on the face on a $50 bill.

To discover who likes my illustrations I decided to have a good old-fashioned raffle. We sold chances for just $1.00 and sold more than a hundred tickets which covered the costs of the 20 X 30 prize giclée.

Glen Bishop (left), a psychic who is part of Vashon Intuitive Arts helped us out by reaching into the raffle box to choose the winner. (The VIA studio was right across the street from our stand and 20 of my illustrations were on display there, so it was a good tie-in.)

In the raffle, my latest piece entitled 'Evening Light' (left) was pitted against a known winner called 'Vashon Christmas Tree' (right). The Christmas tree piece had earlier sold out its first edition so it made a good foil for the new piece in this test. When as many people chose the illustration of Point Robinson Lighthouse (a Vashon Island landmark), my confidence in the new piece to sell well in the future was boosted.

As an interesting aside, the raffle once again proved that 'new media' art is only accepted by people under 45 years of age. People over 50 generally shun new media in favor of traditional media like oils, pastels and watercolors. That is why my own illustrations are aimed at 'kids'.

The raffle gave us a chance to do some post-event follow-up PR and publicity sending pictures of the drawing and an announcement of the winner to the local press. Plus, now we have the contact information for about 100 people that we know like those pictures... how great is that?

Speaking of costs, we did the whole thing on a shoestring budget of about $400. We built the stand from parts gotten at Home Depot... a canopy reinforced with a frame of 2X2's from which we hung the art and signs. The frame was connected with U-bolts. Pam and I got the thing up in less than 3 hours (including two trips to-and-from the studio hauling the stuff). It packed out even faster.

'Good, cheap, fast...choose any two' is how it usually goes but this promotional event was total win on all counts from the git-go. Next year we'll be back at the Vashon Strawberry Festival with a stand that's twice as big and a smile on our face that's twice as wide.

Facebook may reach millions, but I prefer face time with just a few.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

ASMP Misses the Point

Photographers may be sharp shooters individually, but collectively their point of view is out of focus. That said, be forewarned that this blog is a bit of a rant.

I don't take kindly to those who obstruct the very mission they claim to be on whether intentionally or inadvertently. Although that may seem off target for this blog, it isn't at all when it comes to the 'Zen' of education about digital imaging and pixel perfect printing, which is what this blog is all about.

The back-story is that an ASMP'er broadcast a request for help over the ASMP email network. The shooter wanted to know about stitching software because the one he was using wasn't working in his opinion. His back-up was a 4X5 camera, so I knew that this was a 'real' photographer. That meant he probably didn't live in PhotoShop®, as I do. Fair enough... I have no first-hand knowledge of 4X5 swing-and-tilt cameras either and have huge respect for those who do. I conjure images of Ansel Adams trooping a big rig over hill and dale. Anyway...

His assignment required him to shoot a large group of people from a very short distance. Normally you would use a wide angle lens to do the job, but extremely wide angle lenses on 4X5 cameras distort people in an unflattering way... and there is nothing quite like a large group of distorted people, eh? So he thought about shooting the group in sections and stitching together the results... that would enable him to use a longer lens as you normally would photographing portraiture and small groups. The problem was that his current digital darkroom skills for assembling the sections weren't up to snuff and he was looking for a software solution.

Usually what happens in the ASMP network is that one member poses a question or issue and then others chime in. The discussion is moderated by an editor who approves the content to be broadcast through the system. It works pretty well and in the past I've picked up some useful tips, tools and teachers. But I was in store for a counter-intuitive surprise.

I first joined ASMP back in the 1960's when the organization's roots found fertile soil at Life Magazine and look-alike pictorial magazines like 'Look'. The market for photography was vibrant then and ASMP accomplished a lot for its editorial-photographer membership by negotiating terms with publishers and helping set in place uniform standards and practices. The Association's large membership gave it strength of a 'guild' in terms of setting higher rates. All was good until technology made professional photographers largely irrelevant.

There is still tremendous value in what ASMP, ADC (the Art Directors Club) and the Graphic Artists Guild do but they all have gotten 'slower' as they get larger... slower to react to changes in a world that moves faster all the time. The time lag diminishes the relevancy of what they do. Operating in a time warp how can you effectively respond to the 'here and now' needs of members? Other times people just don't seem to 'get it' and maybe this is one of those situations.

I decided to respond because I had a valid answer to this man's question. Also, I knew that he would get a lot of leads from colleagues about their various software preferences, creating a further conundrum for the poor fellow who couldn't possibly try them all... he's a photographer after all. More importantly, all the suggestions in the world wouldn't change the fact that there is no perfect stitching program. In my opinion, most don't even come close to what can be done manually.

At Vashon Island Imaging, my fine-arts giclée printing and publishing company, we pride ourselves on delivering the finest printing that money can buy because we understand prepress. Additionally, I have been a photo-illustrator for five decades (yikes) and have done 'stitching' since before there were sewing machines.

'Stitching' as we know it today has its roots in the 'Virtual Reality' (VR) shots of 360-degree environments that became popular in the 1990's as software wizards developed '.gui' interfaces for assembling panoramas from overlapping individual frames. Those VR shots were done using very specific lenses and super-precision tripod mounts set to provide the correct amount of frame overlap to facilitate accurate software stitching.

Stitching software has improved as it evolved during the last 20 years. Nonetheless, a fair amount of precision is still needed and basic optical rules must be followed because even if the stitching is perfect the picture may look weird anyway.

Most people forget about the 'rules' of optics. More specifically the ones concerning perspective. The reason the ASMP'er wasn't succeeding may be the result of multiple center points. This problem is accentuated with wide-angle lenses and can make stitching software behave badly. If you have ever tried to line-up multiple projectors on a single screen to create a panoramic image, you know all about these kinds of problems.

Every picture has a unique center point upon which pivots the perspective within the frame. The wider the lens the sharper the angles in the lines of perspective.

If the group photograph is shot with a wide angle lens there is one central point with all perspective points radiating out from it.

If it is shot in sections then each section has it's own center point.

Trying to overlap frames with multiple center points creates a 'wavy' effect which is accentuated in relation to the depth of the scene in the frame. The wider the shooting lens, the 'deeper' the waves. Short lenses give results with shallow waves... but even 'flat field' lenses wave somewhat when the frames are overlapped.

The wavy effect creates areas of 'confusion' where the perspective lines in two or more frames conflict with one another instead of meshing together. In those areas something's gotta give. Forcing the join is always possible but the resulting look still has more than one center point giving it the perspective of an 'altered reality'. Is that good? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

2-dimensional art shot in sections remains relatively undistorted and looks 'right' whereas a 3-dimensional scene will look wrong in relation to the length of the lens used to shoot the frames. The longer the lens the better.

When I am shooting landscape panoramas I try to use my old Nikkor AF-S VR 70-200mm 1:2.8G. It is as good as a flat field lens with little barrel and pincushion distortion. Optical distortions always make stitching more difficult. For shorter distances I try to stay with prime lenses because zoom lenses always have more of those distortion problems. The old, glass 55mm 'Micro' Nikkor is a favorite as is the original, glass 105mm 'Medical' Micro-Nikkor, which is hard to find these days but a great lens when rectilinear capture counts.

The point I wanted to make for the inquisitive lensman was that instead of simply 'stitching' together 'slices' think more in 'jig-saw puzzle' terms. Trying to make slices fit together is a Procrustean approach for the reasons outlined above... the multiple center-points problem prevents the pieces from a perfect fit because their perspectives don't match.

To see a four-section shot 'correctly' you'd need four eyes ... one for each section... with each eye looking for its own center point.

Thinking in jigsaw puzzle terms frees you from the laws of perspective to the extent that you get away from things rectilinear. To shoot and stitch the group shot in this example, use a flat-field lens like a Micro-Nikkor 55mm or 105mm lens.

First, shoot the group in a single frame using a wide-angle lens. That wide-angle shot is your reference frame and background upon which to assemble your jigsaw puzzle... it shows what the jigsaw puzzle will look like when done.

It doesn't matter that a wide angle shot has a different pixel density than the puzzle pieces because that difference can be used to advantage, creating a 'selective' focus effect that actually makes people in groups look better. Anyway... the primary purpose of the wide angle shot is to provide the master matrix for the perspective in the shot... a 'schematic'.

Switch lenses and shoot each group member individually. Later, using the software of your choice, cut out these individuals and put them in place over the matrix master, blending them in appropriately. What is appropriate? That is way to lengthy to go into here but it's fully described in my book (Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée).

The 'jigsaw' approach is also the key to successful prepress work, which is so important for pixel perfect printing. The whole idea in prepress is to cut out the parts that need fixing, fix them, and put them back into the matrix.

But my email'd advice was rejected by the ASMP list moderator because I am not an active member. Huh? Hang on... what does that matter if I have something valid to contribute?

I am a member of the Graphic Artists Guild, however that may not count in the eyes of ASMP or at least the Seattle Chapter. Funny because that is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do at the Guild. In a recent Board meeting of the Seattle chapter of the Graphic Arts Guild the very subject of 'reaching out to ASMP' was discussed in detail. It was decided unanimously that it was in everyone's best interests to co-mingle, that in this so-called 'New Economy' our common interests now overlap and make it a good mix. We don't have moderators and I hope we never do.

The world is so changed. People don't work for companies anymore. They work for themselves. They are like the survivors of a ship that has sunk, bobbing about in life jackets, a few in lifeboats. Help is needed in two sizes, large and small. Both benefit from a CO-OP approach. Big ticket items like health care get better as the group size increases. Small ticket stuff like the kind of advice I had to offer is pushed into the information pipeline instead of being rejected. Give me one reason, please, to reject helpful information.

Maybe this advice will somehow get to the photographer who posted his query. If I am stricken from the ASMP list that would be a clue that someone in the group read this and passed it up the chain of command. But I hope for the opposite effect.

ASMP still casts a long shadow of influence so it is my hope that this blog gets read by someone at ASMP who agrees that it doesn't make sense to bar members from receiving valuable information and that a policy of cooperation among brother and sister trade organizations makes more sense than the current paradigm of being a 'secret society'.

Closed societies are the result of closed mindedness... a kind of blindness. Hardly what you would expect from people supposed to be visionaries, or at least the creators of visionary images.

So that's my rant. I am satisfied for now and will get back to the real subject of this blog -- how to print better -- real soon. Until then, consider that blogs are more than information, they are editorial as well. You get a sense of the writer as much as the information. Blogs, like their creators, have 'personalities'. (I wouldn't be surprised if in the near future we don't see a TV show like 'American Blogger' wherein superstar bloggers vie for 'analytics'.)

If you follow this blog you know that I am a big promoter of education about giclée printing and publication. At my giclée art production company, Vashon Island Imaging, I give seminars for $5 an hour. People think I am crazy but I explain that my mission is to help people get better looking printing results. As the world class hairdresser Vidal Sassoon once said, 'If you don't look good, I don't look good.'

The seminars and my experiences teaching PhotoShop® briefly at BCIT in Vancouver are what led to writing the book (Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée)... and the book is what led to this blog.

The blog provides an opportunity to constantly update the book, and also proves a soapbox function that a book cannot. Since I am in the giclée art production business I work with all aspects of giclée printing and finishing all day long every day. You could say I know a thing or two about printing and especially prepress, the art of adjusting pictures to look their best when printed. That is what I do and what I teach. If people get better printing results they will print more. If they are dissatisfied they will print less. Pavlov was right on target. ASMP (or at least their moderator) misses the point.