Introduction and Color Management Overview
Over the last several years, I have progressed through a number of Epson large format printers including the Stylus Pro 4000 (seventeen inch carriage), the Stylus Pro 7800 (twenty-four inch carriage) and currently the Stylus Pro 7900 (twenty-four inch carriage), which I have reviewed for this article. I have included the following brief overview of color management because I believe that anyone getting into large format printing needs to commit the time necessary to develop a personal color management philosophy, work flow, and operational procedures if they are to produce optimum results.
Some digital photographers report great success with large prints produced at local laboratories, camera stores and other sites that will accept camera memory cards, CDs, and thumb drives, and return finished prints in an hour or so. Other users of these services are less than enthusiastic. The joy of producing that first large format print on your own system that motivates people to gasp when they see it cannot be matched.
In spite of the rapid and continuing advancements in large format printing technologies, the process has not yet been reduced to the point and click state. It still requires user involvement and understanding at several levels, and a fairly solid grasp of color management fundamentals, which will not be developed overnight.
My approach to color management is based primarily on my work with digital photography, beginning several years ago with my transition from a pair of Nikon F3 cameras through a Nikon D100, a pair of D70's, to the Nikon D2X, D3 and D3X models I now use. It has evolved considerably over intervening years and continues to change in response to evolutionary and revolutionary advances in digital camera, image processing software, printer hardware, paper, and ink technologies. The dynamics of these technologies are far from static, and the only absolute that I see for several years in color management and large format printing is that there are no absolutes.
There are many paths to successful large format color and black and white printing, influenced by individual preferences and desired goals. Any number of books, workshops, seminars, web sites, and educational programs are available for those motivated to experience the joys of large format printing. While these tools will provide insight and guidance to large format printing, users must still be willing to dedicate the time and exhibit the patience necessary for success.
One of the keys to developing a successful color management workflow is an awareness of light and its role in digital photography and large format printing. This awareness extends to the quantity of light, its quality, direction, color temperature and other factors. The difference between an ordinary and an exceptional print often revolves around an understanding of light and related illumination factors.
The light illuminating a subject or a scene can be bright and harsh, or soft and diffuse. It can range from the crisp, cool, blue of noon daylight in the shade, to the warm yellow/red glow of tungsten lamps or candles. It can be ambient sunlight, streetlights, moonlight, interior room lights, etc., or supplemental hot, always-on studio lights, studio strobes, portable speedlights and others.
|Hal Becker - Grand Canyon Arizona 2010|
Other key factors include the various perceptions and interpretations of the original scene or image, throughout the color management process, that is to be printed and ultimately hung on a wall somewhere for viewing. Many of these interpretations are produced by various hardware systems involved, beginning with a digital camera, progressing through a computer with its color monitor, eventually to a color printer with a specific paper and ink set, and hence to a wall in a home or gallery under the ambient lighting. Throughout the process, several perceptions of these interpretations are produce in the eye/brain system of the color printer user.
For many users, the ultimate goal of sound color management workflow and practice is to reproduce an initial scene as perceived by the photographer with as much realism and fidelity as possible on a finished print hanging on a wall, under the available illumination. The interpretations and perceptions encountered along the way include the following list. Note that the final print may, or may not, be produced by the photographer. One or more graphic artists may be involved in the sequence, and their eye/brain perception of color may be different that the photographer's.
- Initial scene as perceived by the photographer.
- The scene as interpreted by the sensor and related hardware/software technologies in a digital camera.
- The image as interpreted by a computer monitor, prior to software manipulation and perceived by the photographer or graphic artist.
- The image as interpreted by a computer monitor following software manipulation, and perceived by the photographer or graphic artist.
- The image as interpreted by a specific printer using a specific ink set on a specific paper and perceived by the photographer or graphic artist.
- The image as perceived by the photographer or graphic artist immediately following printing and under the ambient illumination of the printing studio.
- The image as perceived by the photographer or graphic artist following the required drying time for the print, under ambient studio illumination.
- The image as perceived by the photographer and others when hung on a wall under the intended illumination, which may, or may not, be close to the illumination of the scene as initially perceived by the photographer in step 1), above.
As noted above, several stages of the production process involve the photographer's and/or graphic artist's perception of images interpreted and presented by various technologies. At each stage, the original image is modified either by the various hardware/software systems, and/or by the photographer or graphic artist processing it.
Color management practitioners should be aware that the human eye/brain system performs considerable "processing" of perceived scenes, colors and images. For example, to the human eye/brain system, a white shirt appears white regardless of the color temperature of the illumination source; bright blue sunlight to reddish/yellow tungsten lamps. Digital cameras and color printers have no such innate ability and the photographer's or graphic artist's perceptions and image manipulations are required to achieve the desired color fidelity. With practice, large format color printer users will become aware of these often subtle differences, and make the appropriate adjustments in their color management workflow.
Photographers and graphic artists should also be aware that each of the interpretations presented by the various technologies in the above eight stages is slightly different than the others. The digital camera interpretation is recorded in a semiconductor sensor and displayed on a very small, relatively low resolution LCD screen on the back. The computer monitor interpretation is a much higher resolution, more faithful image generated with projected light produced by small red, green and blue pixels. The color image produced on a sheet of paper by a printer is illuminated by reflected ambient illumination, which is usually quite different than that produced and perceived at the original site, or by a computer monitor. The printer user's goal is to be aware of these differences and apply the procedures necessary to retain the image's resolution and color fidelity throughout the color management process and workflow.
From another perspective, the human eye/brain system has a much greater dynamic range than current generation digital cameras can capture, current computer monitors can display, and current generation color printers can reproduce. These differences also contribute to the differing interpretations and perceptions that occur during the color management interval and sequence. In time, camera, computer and printer technologies may overcome these limitations. For now, numerous color management techniques, including High Dynamic Range (HDR) software applications and printer ink sets can be applied to the task.
In time, and with practice, as their color management philosophy and workflow evolve, digital photographers and large format color printer users will develop a much more discerning eye with respect to scene illumination, color temperatures, white balances and other related parameters. It will take time to learn the many parameters involved and their interrelationships. It may be frustrating and discouraging in the early stages, but with patience and persistence, the end result will be well worth the effort.