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Photographic Technique

March 15th, 2011

Technical Information

6x17cm Transparency images shown to scale

617 transparencies on a lightbox with my hand for scale

All my images are printed using leading edge digital technology; the original image however is shot on film, at least for now. For this I use a selection of large format panoramic cameras, mainly the Fuji GX617 (see a review of the Fuji GX617 here). The 6×17 denotes the negative (positive actually) size in cm, 6cm high x 17cm long, that’s dramatically bigger than a standard 35mm negative, in fact 11 times the area. That greatly enlarged image area combined with a fine grain high colour saturation film (Fuji Velvia) creates an image of superb detail that can be enlarged to enormous proportions without going soft or blurry.

So why Digital, and is there a difference between digital printing and digital manipulation?

Fuji GX617 camera with 35mm film canister for size comparison

Fuji GX617 with a 35mm film canister to show the size

Photographic Printing

Digital printing is making use of advancing technology, it now offers a quality surpassing older traditional techniques with many added advantages.

Traditional Process

With a traditional process the photographic image is projected with an Enlarger onto light sensitive paper by shining a light through the transparency and focusing it with a lens, in fact a camera in reverse. The printer, a highly skilled technician, then adjusts various aspects of the image such as contrast, colour balance and density using a combination of lens tuning, coloured filters and exposure time. He/She also lightens areas that are too dark and darkens highlights that are too bright to bring the image into balance, this is the traditional printing method,  not digital, and I spent many years working in printing labs doing exactly this. These procedures are to compensate for the fact that film has a much shorter contrast scale than your eye and the printing paper has one even shorter still, so some manual manipulation is required to bring the shadows and highlights back into balance.  There is nothing worse than an image with all the shadows running to black and all the highlights burning out to paper white.


One of the essential problems with this kind of printing is the repeatability of the printed images. The results are very much subject to how much sleep the printing lab technician had the night before, what kind of day they’re having and the mood they are in. The results can vary to such a degree that it’s sometimes difficult to pick them as the same photo!  This really becomes a problem when somebody sees an image on the wall and orders a print a different size or on a different media type, sometimes it takes 4 or 6 print attempts to get the image right.  This is further exacerbated the bigger the image gets, due to the difficulty in handling huge pieces of photographic paper in the dark, and the light fall off as the distance between the enlarger and the paper platform grows.  Printing huge images in a traditional darkroom with light sensitive paper really is a nightmare, in fact, prior to the advent of digital printers it was very rare indeed to see a 2m photograph, whereas i regularly print images that big and often much bigger.

Imacon 848 scanner, Eizo calibrated monitor and mac pro computer workstation

A 617 transparency being scanned on the 848 scanner

Digital Printing

The difference for me with digital printing is to add a step in-between the film  and the paper image by scanning the 6×17 transparency into a very high-resolution digital file (980mb to begin with, a finished image will end up about 2.9Gb) on a high end Imacon 848 film scanner.  All colour balancing contrast and densities are then handled digitally,  the same processes as the manual darkroom but done using Photoshop and a high end computer (a Mac of course) with a colour-calibrated screen. Once the file is complete to my my satisfaction, i would then save the layered image into an archive and then flatten, resize and sharpen a version to be sent to the printer, usually as a smaller test print first for a hard copy confirmation.  I have had various large format digital printers over the years, from an Epson 4000, to an Epson 7600, an Epson 9600 and now the latest model Epson 9900 (as of December 2010).  These  are technically inkjet printers, though that is a bit like calling a formula One race car simply “a car”.  The Epson 9900 uses an inkset of 11 colours, including 3 varying shades of black (grey really), each ink cartridge contains 750Ml of pure pigment based ink and a full set of inks currently costs AU$4,000.

Epson 9900 large format printer in action printing 2.5m canvas

Epson 9900 in action. Image is 1m wide

Contrary to a popular belief, the process of colour correcting an image digitally is not easy, nor is it fake. The job of digital technician is easily as skilled and demanding as a darkroom technician. In fact I would say considerably more so, speaking from the experience of having done both extensively.

I do all the digital colour correction of  my own images and when out shooting I will spend many hours, sometimes days, waiting for the perfect light. I spend many months every year getting to these beautiful places  and I spend many hours and many miles of walking finding just the right spot that conveys just the right feel so that the final photo will carry just the right impact. When I return I will then spend many more hours in front of the computer to ensure that what you see is exactly as it should be, every time.

Digital Manipulation?

So how then does this differ from digital manipulation? Definitions can be a little tricky, but lets say digital manipulation is the fundamental altering of a photographic image such that the final result does not truly reflect the original state, i think thats a pretty fair summary. We’ve all seen it or read about it in one form or another. An easy example is the fashion industry where models can be made to look slimmer, curvier, longer legs, bigger breasts even different coloured eyes! Yes that is all possible, but is it necessary or even desirable?

Thankfully I need to do none of that, nature is amazing enough just as it is. You just have to stop and look sometimes, look a different way. Stick around a bit longer wait for that special time of day, take a deep breath and open your eyes a bit wider. Get up earlier when it’s still cold and a little bit dark. Or stay till after the sun has set for the magic of twilight, the magic of the pre-dawn. At these times of day the light is soft, it allows the subtle colours to come through, the colours that are normally swept away by the intensity of sunlight. Then all you have to do is stand in the right place, point the camera the right way,  don’t forget to focus- and push the button. Let God do the rest, whatever God you believe in, you want to see proof, watch a sunset in the Kimberley!

Sunrise over the Pentecost river in the North Kimberley region of WA

Sunrise on the Pentecost River in the Kimberley

I don’t create the scenes you see here, I only record them. I couldn’t possibly take the credit for something so awesome and overpoweringly amazing. Something that has been millions of years in the making, that would be ridiculous. The art of photography, my job, is to be able to see the infinite of nature and translate it to the finite of a photograph and still transmit the splendour of the original, to create a window out of a fragment that contains the essence of the whole.

Long Exposure Techniques

Many of my images are made using long exposure photography. That is leaving the shutter open for long periods sometimes hours at a time. I’ve been told on several occasions that this in fact is image manipulation because the result doesn’t truly reflect the original! I would argue that this is not the case; in fact the opposite is true. Long exposure photography more truly reflects the reality than an instant snapshot. These are not still life images, bowls of fruit on a table. Nature is fundamentally dynamic, it is constantly moving. Wind blows through the branches of the trees rustling the leaves, clouds skate across the sky, water flows ever downwards, oceans are never still even on the most tranquil day. I would say that an image that stops all this is more of a manipulation than the one that allows the flow of nature to be visible. Perhaps it’s not the way you are used to seeing it? Take another look, if I can help you see things a different way, a new way then I’ve achieved my goal.

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