Big Prints, Old Glass, Etc.

Remember the day when I went a bit nuts with the itty-bitty prints? We’ll it’s not out of my system yet. For some strange reason I made more little prints on different paper. Astute print aficionados may have noticed that when discussing the Nikon tips the other day. I’m not done yet. I’ve still got a hankering to make prints.

While blathering on about how wonderful photographs on actual paper — the physical manifestation, the real tangible thing — a notion crossed my mind which I shared with a fellow print junkie over on twitter. How about I print one of those Mary images so that Mary is life sized. In other words so that she stands about as tall as she is in person. That’s a frigging huge print. In all likelihood a bigger print than most photographers will ever make. I wanted to share a bit of that process here along with some thoughts to consider regarding all of this image quality shit everyone is obsessing over all the time.

While I extolled the virtues of making something, anything, no matter what the ultimate theoretical quality of your current capabilities are, I love what might be considered awesome quality prints. I relish subtle tones, gradation, textures, and colors. I go nuts over luscious textures of expensive fine-art printing materials. I obsess over minor differences in two different papers that are so close in characteristics nobody but me would ever know. Especially if not side by side. When I bring the life sized Mary print into existence it will be of superb print quality. The difference between my free 9 year old Canon I used for all of those 4x6’s on shitty card stock and the Epson 9900 on great paper is night and day. Especially for black and white prints. Instead of 8-bit black and white tonality and gradation the biggest thing we get is 16-bit black and white gradation. Far more like a real black and white print than any 8-bit grayscale screen or printer representation. The list of night/day improvements goes on from there.

I’m no stranger to making extremely large prints. I even make idiotically large prints in multiple sections — I could be considered an expert at that. Both in pre-shooting planning, specification, as well as actual production. For the Mary life-sized print I’m going to stick to one piece of 44” wide paper. The first thing I did to pursue this ill-conceived endeavor is to make a proof print. For something life-sized (a little over six feet in total length of print) I decided not to skimp. I made a proof print yesterday that was about half life-sized. Even that’s a bigger print than most people will ever make. Even all the high megapixel yo-yo’s out there. Yep, lots of D800e shooters that have never made any prints let along anything bigger than 13’x19”. I hope you’re not one of those guys. If so I would love to know why you would want to lug around giant RAW files not to mention a huge camera. Not super important in the giant print game but I’ll get to that in a second.

First things first, even before I made that proof print I had to select an image. That’s the tough part. I made them a mere week ago. They’ve had no time to sit. More accurately I’ve had not nearly enough time and distance to evaluate which ones I like. At this point there’s more than two dozen I love. Next month it might be a completely different set with no intersection for my current favorites. More importantly I’ve not really looked at any particular rendering. They all have the same VSCO Neopan 400- preset slapped on them with fake grain and all. I don’t think I’ll veer wildly off a strait forward black and white 35mm look. It’s more a matter of refinement that hasn’t had time to bake or be implemented. Consider the particular image choice semi-random.

I mention that semi-random choice because the most important criteria is I happened to like that image. Also of note is what was not considered as criteria. I shot both 16 megapixel as well as 24 megapixel cameras during that short play session. The camera megapixel count was not even considered in selection of which image I’m going to print life sized. In fact it turns out my semi-random selection happened to be something I shot with the Nikon Df. The glass I used was decent glass but the lens on the 24 megapixel camera at the aperture I was shooting at was technically superior. The glass on the Df was good — maybe even great — just not as good as my more modern lens on the other high-megapixel camera. It happened to be my ancient 28mm f/2 AiS. That’s theoretically inferior to other 28mm optics I own. Nope, not a factor.

Are there images I like just as much from the higher pixel count camera with better optics? Sure there are. Doesn’t matter nobody will ever see a difference. I know this and it has nothing to do with any strange notion of I shot better images aesthetically with one camera or the other. When you’re talking huge prints the difference between 16 and 24 megapixels is a nit. Same goes for the glass if it’s even on the same side of the tracks optically.

Let’s do some math. I know, math is boring but in this case illustrative and illuminating. When I print from the Df to a bit over six feet on the long side of this life-sized print what’s the linear DPI? Let’s see… Holy low-rez Batman, it’s a mere 68 DPI. That’s like 1980’s shitty VGA monitor dot pitch right? Certainly we’ll need a bigger, badder-assed camera right? Let’s go with the 24 megapixel camera instead that must certainly be better right? Assuming my 4th grade math holds up that would give us a whopping linear resolution of 83 DPI. Hooray, we’ve accomplished exactly nothing with that seemingly huge dose of resolution up-gradage in camera gear. Still the same neighborhood of shitty screen resolution. Not even box stock normal resolution of 100DPI let alone retina resolution, let alone print resolution if you go by the standard 300DPI. Certainly nowhere near super quality 600DPI.

What camera will get us to ”print resolution”? Hell we’ll even give this theoretical digi-monster some slack. We’ll go for 240DPI instead of 300DPI, that must be a good number — Adobe likes that number. So where are we now? If my advanced 5th grade math holds up — semi-algrebra — we’re going to need 200 mega-pixels. Hate to say this but 6-ish feet on the long side isn’t even close to ”billboard sized prints”.

Let’s just cut to the chase. Cameras within a generation or two of each other have about the same capabilities when it comes to making giant prints. If you want real “print resolution” prints to examine closely from less than a foot away you really don’t get that far with tweaks in resolution. You get files that are more cumbersome on the same generation of computer junk. What makes a great print is not just some linear resolution number. There are a lot of things that are more important factors by a wide margin. There are certain subjects and scenes that make great giant prints and other ones that don’t.

I’ve made 35 foot prints that are retina resolution on the wall. Upon close inspection they are amazing. Not amazing as a picture but as whiz-bang wow factor to demonstrate a commercial capability “we” (A photographer I make prints for). Does it matter? Nope. I’ve made huge prints from single D700/D3 images that look better. They have better scene characteristics that make them look better. If you can make small prints that hold up on close inspection — the kind people get intimate with you can make huge prints that look great at any reasonable viewing distance. Nobody but photo-geeks, as in the person that made the print holds 6 foot high prints in their hands and looks at them under a foot. What’s important? You’re technique, the scene, dynamic range, lighting, good color, good gradation, etc.

Let’s take a look at my semi-random image selection for the life-sized Mary print.

How does that play at about 6 feet and what are some factors? Hard to illustrate for a wide internet audience. I’ll try though. Here’s a section of life-sized Mary that will be about the size of the final print if and only if you open it in a different window and look at all the pixels and happen to have a screen that’s 100DPI…

Meh… it’s okay. It definitely will work at life-sized. I hate the fake Lightroom grain at this size. Need to fix that. I’ll probably use Exposure 6 and more of a Plus-X grain treatment. Exposure 6 does a fantastic job making it look real. Even I have a hard time picking out the fake vs the real thing. Silver EFEX Pro2 does a good job too. I did choose this particular section to illustrate something. First off I had to upres this by about 2x so that it would show up about life-sized on your garden variety 100DPI LCD screen. No special technique was utilized. I’ll probably use something a bit better for the actual print. More importantly consider the way more relevant factors. The lens I used was a great lens in the 80’s. It’s not as good as the best that can be had in Nikkor 28mm by a large stretch. It’s also not at it’s optimum aperture. I shot at f/4, ISO 800, 1/125s. First off f/4 doesn’t give me the DOF I need to get utimate detail in the entire depth of even the subject. Who cares. The shutter speed is more critical in this case. In every case for that matter.

I was hand holding and shooting a moving subject. Not moving wildly but take a look what’s going on here. See the motion? My technique handheld shooting people in normal motion is probably better than most. Wanna make big prints. Good chance you will have to up your game. Subject, camera motion, vibration, shutter/mirror slap, etc are far bigger factors in most cases than nits about optics. I’m probably better than most under these conditions. Up your game if you’re not satisfied with your “sharpness”. Forget rules of thumb, 1/125s is iffy even with 28mm and human subjects moving normally once you enter the realm of crazy big which means crazy magnification. It is if you want “sharp” Me, I actually like bit’s and pieces that show motion blur and other pieces that show stasis in big prints. I play with that a lot. If the wrong pieces are in motion it’s epic fail but when you get it right it can be sublime and conveys life, dynamics, gesture, moment, even grace. Vibrations, steadiness issues, etc — ummm, not so much.

Up close and in person, the half life-sized Mary print (about 3 feet) at the top looks frigging fantastical. I printed it on an unforgiving paper I happen to have lying around. I’m iffy on it’s appropriateness for this image but I geek out on some of it’s properties at the moment. Fuji inkjet Pearl Metallic. It looks just like the C-Print real photo paper Crystal Archive color paper it’s meant to look like. It just has an inkjet receptive coating. It’s ability to differentiate tonal gradation and it’s capability to render subtle highlight separation is amazing. It’s crazy sharp too. The metallic thing plays nicely with black and white under a few viewing conditions but is probably too much for this print.

The final life-sized Mary will probably have refined (real looking) grain. A print specific tweak to the highlight separation, and most likely I’ll print it on a paper thats not that sharp and has a medium surface texture that will play well with the low-res rendition and grain.

I’ll keep you up to date. Maybe next week I’ll make the real thing.


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