Almost as important as the creative process of making prints is the practical procedure. Chris and I were first exposed to this process in darkened rooms, working with trays of chemicals and watching images appear seemingly out of nothing on glossy sheets of Ilford, barely visible in the dim-red glow. Obviously this has changed and evolved over the course of our experience and careers. The stop and fixer have been replaced by usb cables and countless cartridge of expensive inks. The technology has changed in a way that lets us print at a level of detail and volume that was not possible before – and let’s be honest here, if we were printing as much as we do now with a darkroom setup, I would never get a chance to see the light of day.
Following the mantra of the post-it note: “WE MAKE PRINTS” means that we make prints - a lot of prints. There is hardly a day that goes by when we are in the studio where one of the printers is not running something. It might be a quick page or two to update the portfolios, or a large format print of our most recent work to add to our ever-evolving wallpaper of the studio, but our printers are constantly running and therefore require a certain amount of constant attention, love and care.
To further complicate matters, having two inkjet printers creates a situation where you need to achieve consistency across multiple devices. In order to do this, we approach the problem from a few ways. The first is to eliminate variables. Currently in-house, we have two laptops, an iMac, and two Mac Pro workstations that an image could make it’s way across before even being put on paper. It’s necessary to keep all of these screens profiled so we have a benchmark to match our printed images to. To achieve this, we profile our screens monthly using X-rite software and hardware.
Once we’re ready to put ink on paper, we have two printers – they are both Epson and use very similar ink sets. We also use a consistent paper, Red River Aurora Art Natural; the Epson 3800 is sheet fed and we run rolls of the exact same media on the 7900. Thankfully we do keep these factors consistent and that helps to eliminate the inevitable problems that may crop up.
We use ColorByte’s ImagePrint software as our RIP (raster image processor for those who want to get extra geeky). The advantage of using a dedicated piece of software for printing as opposed to the build in modules in Photoshop or Lightroom is that we get to fine-tune our settings and tweak the way the two printers work together to ensure an even more accurate result. For example (I’m out to dive in here, so feel free to gloss over the next paragraph unless you really want to tech-out with me): when we brought the Epson 7900 into the mix, we knew that since it was a newer printer and used an expanded set of inks it would have a greater gamut than our 3800 and therefore be able to reproduce a wider range of tones and colors. At first glance, this is awesome news – bigger is always better – but we soon discovered that a wider gamut meant that even with the same paper, same images, and same target profile, our prints weren’t matching. The 7900 was simply putting too much ink on the page since it had a wider ink set to offer and that was causing our images to appear darker. Thanks to our RIP software, we were able to match the gamut of 7900 to the gamut of the 3800 (shrinking the range of tones and colors) but allowing for us to achieve a perfect match. This level of tweaking and adjustment just isn’t possible without using a RIP.
Last but not least, the process relies on continual observation and testing to make sure everything looks the same. As with any piece of equipment, printers are prone to error and require maintenance to keep them in-check. Nozzles get clogged, inks need to be replaced, paper jams, and sometimes you just need to pull the plug and restart the whole damn process. Sure, it’s a lot of work – especially so if you don’t already have a system in place and you’re looking to get started. It may seem a daunting process, but the time invested in the front end pays for itself once you have a reliable, consistent, workflow that produces high quality prints.
Also keep in mind that I’m speaking specifically about the process we’re using in our studio. It’s complicated because we have so many different devices to factor in. If you’re just getting setup, your variables are eliminated by default; it’s a helluva lot easier to match one printer with one type of paper to one computer. Just remember, get your profiles set and troubleshoot by only changing one variable at a time. If you don’t believe me, set aside an afternoon and give it a try.
So what’s the takeaway from all this muddling with technology and process? Why bother? For me it comes down to the idea that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. Printing is an essential part of the creative process and when you invest the time and energy into perfecting the workflow, your final product looks that much better. It may not be the inherent magic of an image appearing on paper in a tray of developer, but there is a certain unique beauty to watching a bunch of ones-and-zeroes get translated to ink on paper.
Inspiring? Confusing? Let us know – drop a line in the comments with any questions or thoughts you might have, or reach out to us @crismanphoto and @robertluessen on twitter.