And How We Make Our Photographs
A history of how we have made our photographs over the years.
The changing times of landscape photography
My original 2004 article with updates begins below.
What has always interested me most about photography is something I call image quality.
Even though I have been taking photographs all of my life, I first became seriously, professionally interested in photography in the early 1980's. I had always loved the black and white photographs of Ansel Adams. When his three volume book on black and white photography came out in 1980, I read it all avidly. I bought a 4x5 camera, built a black and white darkroom and became a black and white photographer. I quickly learned that what I really liked about Ansel's photographs was the incredible sharpness, richness, and depth of his prints, in other words, his image quality.
So I spent my first ten years as a photographer struggling to make the best black and white prints I could. In 1990, when I decided to make at least part of my living as a photographer, I became a color photographer. I quickly found that all my training in making quality black and white prints transferred directly to making color photographs. So, when I make photographs today, the main thing Distill concentrate on is image quality.
Image Capture (Shooting)
Photographic quality begins with capturing a quality image. I shoot most of our images with film; currently I'm experimenting with digital cameras and I suspect that in a few years all or our images will be shot on very high end digital cameras.
None of our images are made with 35mm cameras. These cameras are often called small format cameras. Given the size of our images, 35mm film just doesn't have enough size to create sharp, clean images. Over the years I have used both medium and large format cameras for my landscape photographs.
The medium format camera I have used the most is a 6x7cm Pentax. The negatives and chromes (slides) produced by this camera are 6 cm high and 7cm wide. The picture of Mesa Arch above was made on this camera. This camera is legendary for the sharpness and overall quality of its lenses. I wouldn't trade this camera for any other medium format camera. Joan is to the right photographing with her Pentax 6x7 medium format camera. She is on McDonald Lake in Glacier National Park.
I own two large format cameras: one is a Cambo 4x5 made by Calumet Photographic. The other is a Wista. Both of these cameras make negatives and chromes 4" high and 5" wide. The Wista is a type of 4x5 called a field camera and the Cambo is a studio camera. Even though I never work in the studio, I much prefer the Cambo over the Wista, which is more limited in several ways. For one thing I can't use long telephoto lenses on the Wista. For another, the Cambo gives me more perspective control. In the picture below, I am using the Cambo.
There are advantages to both medium format and large format. The medium format camera is much easier to use and thus the photographer can be much more spontaneous in capturing light and colors that tend to shift and change amazingly quickly. Medium format is good for shooting in dim light and inclement conditions. It is great for capturing close up detail in wildflowers and aspen leaves.
On the other hand the large format camera is much larger and more cumbersome. Once I get set up someplace, I tend to stay there for a while. Focusing is difficult as it is necessary to focus the image on a piece of ground glass under a dark cloth. This image is upside down, backwards and often very dim. All of this becomes much worse when a large depth of field is involved. When the photographer wants to keep everything from the extreme foreground to the distant background in sharp focus, things become much more difficult in 4x5. However, the rewards of large format photography are large also. The extreme sharpness of a 4x5 chrome is truly wonderful. Also, the tonalities (the transitions between lights and darks) are much smoother; even the colors seem richer and more vibrant. It's all a trade-off. I use both cameras and I love them both.
No matter what kind of camera I am using, when I shoot, the first things I look for are light and color. For me, these are the things that really interest me in photography. Good light almost always happens early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Light like this does magical things to images. After good light, the next thing I'm always looking for great color. This might be the reds and purples and golds and blues of wildflowers or the deeps greens of Pine and Juniper against the brilliant reds and oranges of the cliffs and canyons of the Southwest. For me light and color are absolutely essential for great photographs.
Film is an extremely important factor in capturing quality photographic images. I am currently using two films, both by Fuji, both positive (slide) films. The first is Velvia, long a standard of landscape photographers. Since Velvia is a high contrast film I use it in flat light and low contrast situations. The second film I use is Provia. This is a low contrast film and great in the hard, contrasty light that is often found high in the Rockies.
I haven't not always used Fuji positive films. For most of the 1990's I used an Agfa negative film called Optima. This was great film, especially for printing in a traditional darkroom. In those days I had a huge professional darkroom in my basement where I printed pictures as large as 40x50 on a traditional enlarger and developed with traditional chemicals. As a matter of fact, I think I am still suffering from all the years of breathing those corrosive fumes..
Getting the color right has always been a huge problem
One question all photographers are always asked is, "Do you use filters." The implication is, "Do you cheat and somehow change the color of the natural world."
I have to explain a little bit about the basics of photography before I can answer this question. In the first place, all photography and photographic printing is based on filters; without filters, photography as we know it is impossible.
Here's what happens when I print a simple picture on an enlarger in a traditional darkroom: I take the negative or chrome and put it in the enlarger. The enlarger projects the picture on a piece of photographic paper. Right away there are problems, none of the colors are right. Not only that, different kinds of film used to photograph the same scene at the same moment all create pictures that look different. And there is more, the colors are different with each kind of film, each kind of paper, each enlarger lamp, each set of chemicals, etc., etc, etc.
This is the basic problem of photography: how to transfer a scene in the real world onto a piece of paper and have it look right, no matter what the film, paper, chemicals, etc are. This is where filters come in. Every enlarger, whether traditional, digital or whatever is equipped with a set of three filters that together are capable of producing every known color in the universe; and there are millions and millions of them that photographers can possibly reproduce. Any of the colors in that one piece of film can be changed to any other colors you want. This is more of a problem than a great thing. If the exactly right colors showed up all the time it would be easy; the problem is, it's up to the photographer to sort out just the exactly right colors.
The same thing happens when you shoot a picture on your digital camera and print it in your ink jet printer. It's just that all the filtering is now happening automatically; the filters are now called color profiles and there are several of them all acting together to automatically get the color right for you. Or at least more or less right, most of the time, in ideal conditions, until something goes wrong, which it always does. One of the most important parts of my job is to adjust all these filters, one at a time, individually, by hand to create a beautiful, meaningful, realistic, accurate picture out of a piece of the natural world.
However, when people ask, "Do you use filters," they usually don't understand all of this. When they say filters, what they mean is camera filters. Camera filters are pretty simple. There are camera filters for warming the blue light in shadows on clear days, filters for putting a little red or magenta or whatever into a picture. All these filters really do is put a wash of some kind of color, usually rather garish color, over the entire picture. Photographers that use these kinds of filters generally don't do their own printing. These guys are called "shooters." They tend to see the slide that comes back from the lab as their final product. And so, naturally, they want their slide to look as good as it possible can and so they use camera filters. Shooters are generally stock photographers who sell slides and never make prints themselves.
There is another kind of photographer though, the "printer." The printer doesn't care what the slide that comes back from the film development lab looks like. He doesn't care if it looks a little washed out or a little blue. What he wants is not a slide that looks great now, but a slide that contains all the data he needs to make a truly great print. The shooter's slide doesn't always make good prints; for instance he may have warmed it using an orange warming filter and in the process lost the crisp, cool blues and greens forever. This slide will make a muddy, too warm print that can never be corrected.
I'm a printer, not a shooter. I don't use any camera filters. I do my color correction in the printing process. I have always taken a lot of pride in correcting color to the exact degree that I want in the traditional or digital darkroom. Here, I have every shade of every color in the universe at my control. The shooter has only two or three colors he can wash over his entire picture. The printer can correct with an infinite number of colors and direct them into whatever tiny individual parts of the pictures he wants. Absolutely I use filters, I use them to make the finished image look as much like the image I saw with my eyes when I stood behind my camera.
There is one other kind of filter that is not a color correcting filter. This is a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter is used to remove reflections and glare from any scene. It will often, though not always, make a scene much richer and more colorful by filtering out all the little tiny glints of glare that kill the color in most scenes. One of the best uses of a polarizing filter is to take the glare off of all the tiny dust particles in the sky. When you do this, a pale washed out sky returns to it's natural deep blue color. And yes, I do often use this kind of filter.
Another important part of shooting is composition. A landscape photographer doesn't just point his camera at a pretty scene and shoot. I continually find it tempting to do this, and even succumb to the temptation once in a while, but it never works and the resulting film always gets tossed out. The real world is always a visual chaos; it's the photographers job to make order out of this chaos, just like this is the job of any artist, whether he is a painter or sculptor or whatever.
If you really look at a scene in the ordinary world, you quickly realize just how chaotic it is. Say you want to make a picture of a flower-filled meadow in front of a great looking mountain. When you first look at the scene, your all-to-human eyes pick out just what you want to see, the flowers right in front of you and the center of the mountain. However, the camera sees everything , and I mean everything: the tangle of little sticks off to the left, the unsightly limb right in front of the best part of the mountain, the empty coors can and the the little orange volkswagen in the far right corner of the picture. I'm sure you've had this problem before; when people photograph a scene, they see what they want to see, not what's actually there.
So, the first thing I do when I shoot a picture is to try and capture just that part of the picture that will make it a great picture, not all the distracting details. I fill the frame completely with the one or two things that make the picture work. This means using the correct lens and cropping the scene exactly correctly.
And this is just the beginning of composition. The picture has to have balance and order, the main subject has to be in just the right place, dark distracting shadows and burned out over-bright spots have to be avoided.
There are so-called rules of composition for doing all this, but I don't really find them very helpful. In the final analysis, I always trust my instincts. I fool around with a picture, look at it this way and then that way until it feels right. I'm never really sure why it looks right, but when it's wrong I instinctually know it, and when it's right I know it.
This instinctive approach to picture making is usually called "having a good eye" and I guess I agree with that. I think a person either has that eye or he doesn't. Partially, I think you can train yourself to have a good eye; I find that when I haven't been out in the field for a long time, I lose my eye and have to work for quite a while to get it back.
Also, trial and error is, for me, an important part of this process. I tend to shoot a lot of film in the field. I try this and I try that. I'll spend hours working a scene that looks promising and shoot maybe fifty shots; at least if I'm shooting medium format I may shoot this much, with large format I have to be a little more frugal or I would have been in the poorhouse long ago. At the end of all of this I may end up with one or two good shots or I may toss it all in the trash. As the old joke goes, the real difference between an amateur and a professional photography is simply that the professional has a much larger trash can. There is a lot of truth there.
Printing is the process whereby negatives or chromes or digital images are turned into photographs printed on paper. Printing has become a lost art. It is at least half of making a photograph and yet many would-be photographers seldom consider it. They go out and take pictures, send the film to the one-hour lab where the negative is run willy-nilly through the printing machine with no reference to what is on the negative. Then they look at the results and wonder why the pictures are so bad. Or these photographers download their digital images from their digital camera directly to their inkjet printers and after looking at the results, despair that they will never be photographers. This was supposed to be a great camera, right? It was certainly expensive enough, right? What happened? What happened is that these photographers forgot, or never knew, that printing is just as much an art as shooting the picture. Long ago Ansel Adams, one of the all-time great landscape photographers, said that the photographic negative is a lot like the score of a piece of music and the print is comparable to the performance of that score. There is, I think, a lot of truth in that. A great score is no good at all if it is played by an orchestra that has no idea of how to play their instruments.
As I mentioned above, there are two kinds of photographers, shooters and printers. I am definitely a printer. Sure, shooting is important. But for me the real artistry is in the printing. I look at shooting as a way of getting the best raw material possible. Therefore, I shoot lots of film. I try to get negatives or chromes that have lots of shadow detail, lots of highlight detail, accurate color, great sharpness, etc. Then it is my job to pick the best negative of the bunch and turn it into a great print. And believe me, there are millions of things that can go wrong. It's amazing how the slightest error in lightness/darkness/contrast/saturation/cropping/color balance can totally ruin the whole image.
Let me try to explain how I try to create the best possible print by going thru the steps I follow.
I'm just back from a two week long photo shoot and I have 45 rolls of medium format film and 60 sheets of 4x5 film. First, the film has to go to the developer, but not just any film developer, certainly not the local one-hour lab. I send all my film to a professional lab in Albuquerque that I have been using for the last 25 years. This lab doesn't do any printing at all. All they do is develop film and they do it right. I know their developer isn't out of date or over-used and that it's the right temperature. I know they know how to handle delicate film and that none of my film will get lost.
When the film comes back, the next job is to turn it into a digital file. That's right, I no longer print in my traditional darkroom using a visual light enlarger, but on digital printer. More on this printer later. I spread all the film out on my four foot long viewing-table and chose the best of the best of the chromes. And sometimes this isn't much. Rarely do I select more than thirty or forty shots out of the hundreds or thousands of shots I have taken to actually print.
For my first close look at the film I scan it in my own Linocolor Scanner which does a very acceptable job for what it is: a very good scanner but not good enough for a 40x50 print. After I see the images on my large monitor and print them on my proofing printer, I choose just the best. By now, I'm probably down to just a few images.
Next, I send those four or five pieces of film off to California to be scanned on a Heidelberg Tango Drum scanner. This is the best film scanner in the world and comes with the compatible price tag of about $50,000. Needless to say, these are not cheap scans. But they are worth every penny. Tango scans are not only incredibly sharp but details in the shadows and highlights of the picture, that other scanners are incapable of picking up, are all beautifully captured by the Tango. Also the digital image files that the Tango produces are free of any kind of digital artifact and they contain all of the millions of colors of the original scene without "clipping" any of them in the process.
When the Tango scan gets back to me, it is a digital file of anywhere from 300 to 500 mb. The first thing I do is open the file on my Mac computer. This computer has a special monitor that I have exactly calibrated to the same standards used by the lab which will eventually print the file. This monitor calibration is supposed to be an easy job, ha! After spending a year finding the right software and then another two years learning how to use it really correctly, it was an easy job. Now-a-days I recalibrate my monitors weekly to insure I am seeing exactly the same image that will be on the final print. Using a calibrated monitor of this kind is absolutely essential to ending up with a really good photograph. It means that when I see the picture on my monitor, it looks exactly like the final print will turn out. And I mean exact; one tiny error of any of the six million colors that I have under my control and the picture just doesn't look right.
My goal in correcting the picture in the computer is to get it to look exactly the way I saw the original image in nature. Going back to my previous comment on filters, I am using digital filters, and other more sophisticated tools, to return the colors and tonalities to as close to what I saw standing behind the camera in the real world as I possibly can.
One of the reasons this has to be done is because cameras and film simply do not see the real world the same way as humans do. For one thing people see an enormously greater range of light than a camera and film sees. Humans see over 100 stops of light. (Photographers measure light in stops; two stops of light is twice as much as one stop, three stops of light is twice as much as two stops, etc.) Velvia film sees about 3 stops of light and Provia film sees about five stops of light. The result is that a scene that the human eye sees easily, results in a photograph in which the brightest parts of the photograph burn out to blank white and the darkest parts become pure black. This is a contrast problem that needs to be and can be corrected in the computer. I am simply bringing the image back to what I saw with my human eye.
Another problem is with color. Cameras see color much differently than the human eye.
When you and I look at a snowy scene in the woods on a clear day with blue sky overhead, we see the snow in shadow areas as white. Cameras and film, on the other hand see snow in these shadows as blue, and I mean bright blue. This is because the camera is picking up the light reflected off the blue sky onto the snow.
The camera sees the snow as blue because it actually is blue. Our eyes don't see the snow as blue because our brains know snow is white and they see it as white. Even when you know this is happening you can't force your brain and eye to see snow in shadows as blue, as it actually is. If you have ever taken a picture of snow, in the shadows, under a blue sky, you will know what I mean. It is hard to believe this happens, but it is absolutely true. Try it sometime, it's amazing.
And, snow is not the only thing that turns blue in the shade; everything in the shade, when the sky is blue, has a blue cast. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes this is major, but it's always there. And this blue cast is very icky; it can ruin the whole picture. When our human eyes see the same scene in the real world, they see none of this blue cast, only the warm colors they expect to see. Photographers who are "shooters" carry a special camera filter to fix this specific situation. This is one of the problems that I correct when I color correct the film in the computer, I return everything in the shadows to the way our human eyes see the scene.
So, when I get the picture onto my calibrated monitor I try to fix all these things. I remove the blue cast and return the scene to the original warm colors I saw with my human eyes. I adjust the contrast so there is as much detail in the dark and bright areas of the picture as I saw in the original scene. I adjust the color saturation so the colors match the intensity of the colors I originally saw.
And all this has to be done very, very carefully with the correct tools. If this process is done incorrectly the whole integrity of the digital file can be destroyed. For example, digital images exist in various kinds of color spaces. Each color space has a different gamut or range of colors. There are short gamut spaces with a very limited number of colors and large gamut spaces with a large number of colors. If the wrong color space is used, or if colors are "clipped" off by using incorrect color correcting techniques, then the resulting pictures will have a short gamut and they will look flat and dull or even completely wrong.
When a picture is properly color corrected it will have a brilliance and inner glow that is wonderful. What you are seeing in a properly printed color image is actually very close to what you would have seen in the real world had you been in the same spot and at the same time as the photographer.
However, people often look at my images and ask if they are enhanced. The answer in an emphatic "No."
I think several things are happening in this situation. First, all of us have been looking at non-digital photographs all of our lives. For years we have been looking at rather dingy, flat photographs that don't capture any where near all the brilliant color of the real world. We are so used to seeing pictures like this, that an image which represents how the real world actually looks surprises us.
Second, my pictures are not taken in just any old place at any old time, but in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. The right places are some of the most beautiful places in the world and the right time is often dawn, sunset or the twilight of early morning or late afternoon. In addition, the weather has to be exactly right for the picture I have in mind. I spend an enormous amount of energy and time getting to these right places at exactly the right second in exactly the right weather. Most people have simply never done this and so they seldom see the beauty of which nature is capable.
Third, most of us don't really look at the world carefully and we never see just how brilliant and colorful and beautiful the natural world really is. And, I am sorry to say, this often includes me. When I am fighting traffic, hurrying to meet a deadline, there is so much other stuff soaking up my attention I just don't see what's out there to see. The next time you see a bed of bright flowers in the sun or some deep green pines against a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds, stop a second and look carefully, maybe even cup your hands around your eyes to limit distractions, and really look at them. When you really look, it is astounding how bright, brilliant, intense, and beautiful the colors of the real world actually are.
When some people hear the word digital photography they have an immediate negative reaction. This is usually because they don't really understand what digital photography is all about. The first thing they think of is pictures that are shot with a digital camera. When professional landscape photographers talk about digital photography, they seldom, if ever, mean images captured with a digital camera. Digital capture for landscape photography is definitely coming.
The second thing that people who object to digital photography think about is the dreaded E word, enhancement. They think digital photographers are somehow enhancing the colors of the real world to be much more intense than anything in the real world actually is. However, as I have pointed in the above paragraphs, the exact opposite is actually true; digital photographers are finally able to portray the real world in all it's real colors for the first time ever; digitally printed color, when properly used, is far more accurate than the color of traditional photographic printing.
Two of the best photographers in America, Eddie Soloway and Don Ament, both of whom have been long involved with the prestigious National Association of Independent Artists (NSIA) have written a really fine paper about digital art, digital photography and American Fine-Art shows. For anyone interested in buying fine art at American art shows this is very much worth reading. Here is what they have to say about digital photography in the fine-art show world.
OK, I've got the image on my monitor corrected to my satisfaction. Now it's time to actually print the image on a piece of paper. At this point I record the image file on a CD. By this time the image file has grown to quite a large size; the finished digital image file can be as large as 600 mb or 700 mb. I then Fedex the image to my lab in California. Here it is printed onto regular photographic paper by a huge, very expensive machine called a Light Jet 5000. The Light Jet exposes the photographic paper using laser light rather than the optical light that is used by a traditional photographic enlarger. The photographic paper is then developed in chemicals just like the ones used in a traditional lab. So, I end up with a photograph printed on traditional photographic paper and developed with traditional chemicals. Except this photograph has far better sharpness and far greater color accuracy than any photograph printed using film and a traditional enlarger. When the lab prints my picture they don't even look at it, either before or after printing. All the creative work of correcting and preparing the image for printing has already been done by me in my computer. The lab merely transfers my digital image accurately onto photographic paper.
No matter how good a photographic print looks, it's no good unless it is permanent. Our prints are all exceedingly permanent mostly because of the medium they are printed on.
Most of our photographs are printed on a Light Jet Printer using Fuji Crystal Archive Photographic Paper. Prints on this photographic paper will not fade or discolor in standard lighting, if they are framed under glass or laminated, for at least 65 years. This is the finest photographic paper available. Our photographs are printed on this paper using a half million dollar digital laser printer which exposes the paper with digital laser light rather than with analog light. There are several kinds of these printers: the most popular are the Light Jet 5000, the Lambda and the Chromira printers. After the photographic paper is exposed by this machine, it is developed in regular photographic chemicals just like a regular photographic print.
In 2005 we began printing some of our smaller photographs on Epson Semimat Paper using an Epson 7600 printer.
The Semimat Photo Paper and UltraChrome ink combination has been specifically chosen for both exceptional beauty and for the very long archival life of the photograph. How long will inkjet images on this paper last? Well, tests on this paper/ink combination show that images on this paper will last sixty five years for sure and possibly much more. The number one expert in the area, Henry Wilhelm, is now confirming that this paper and ink combination lasts for 65 years when framed behind glass and displayed in average lighting conditions. You can check out his data on http://www.wilhelm-research.com/epson/9600.html.
Not only are photographs printed on large Epson Inkjet printers using Semi Paper exceptionally long lived, they are also exceptionally beautiful. The quality of these prints is very close to that of light jet prints on Fuji Crystal Archive and the more I use inkjet printers and semimat paper the more I like them. Epson inkjet prints are extraordinarily and rich and smooth and bright. Some even seem superior to lightjet prints on Crystal Archive.
Also, the fact that I can process my own prints on my own printing machine, at my own studio appeals to me greatly. I can make a print, see it immediately, revaluate it, reprint it, evaluate it again, and again and again, all in a few hours. This multiple re-evaluation, re-printing process is really the secret of great prints. It results in a perfection that just cannot be accomplished when printing is done in a lab a thousand miles away. The more I think about it, ink jet printing on the right fine-art paper with the right ink may be the wave of the future. Now that both archival permanence and print quality seem to have been perfected, ink jet printing may well be a superior way of printing fine art photography.
How do we know how long photographic prints will last?
We know how long the papers we use last, mostly because of the testing of Henry Wilhelm. HIs Wilhelm Imaging Research is the most respected firm that tests photographic materials for archival life. He subjects images on various papers to intense UV illumination and does accelerated aging tests that are very accurate. Wilhelm's results for the papers we use can be seen at www.wilhelm-research.com.
It is only recently that photographs could be printed with this kind of archival life. This is due almost entirely to the big breakthroughs in photographic papers by Fuji about ten years ago and by Epson in the last five years.
However, a word of caution. Care is still necessary in buying prints on both photographic paper and ink jet paper as there are many, many papers used that last only a few years before they begin fading and discoloring. This is true of both photographs printed on photographic paper and photographs printed on inkjet paper with ink.
Fuji Crystal Archive is currently the only photographic paper I know of that has an archival life of longer than twenty years; the rest of them all begin fading and discoloring at twenty years or sooner. There used to be Ilfochomes (previously called Cibachromes) that had an archival life of 35 years but they are rare these days and I'm not even sure the paper is made anymore.
Also, there are inkjet prints that are very archival; probably the best are these are being printed on Epson printers using Epson paper with Epson inks. On the other hand, there are also many inkjet prints sold that are printed on ordinary paper with dye based inks. Some of these prints won't last even a year. It's always important to ask exactly what kind of paper an image is printed on and what kind of inks (if it is an inkjet) were used before buying it.
Fred Hanselmann, March 2004