A while ago I posted a photo from a series I did a long time ago – started in the early ’80s and finished up by ’87, documenting many of the buildings in the Town of Harvard that we felt were soon to disappear.  Here is the complete set:

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Let’s work from a basic premise: a painting, and even a drawing, is not a 2-dimensional subject.  It has depth and texture.

If you accept that premise, you can only conclude that to reproduce it well, you have to light it and photograph it like any other 3-dimensional subject.  Most Fine Art reproduction is using traditional copy-board lighting technique, which places light sources on either side of the work, at equal distance, at 45º.  This introduces some familiar effects, such as specular glare and highlights, as well as fairly uneven lighting.  Learning correct methods for copy lighting is the process of learning how to correct these effects.  Techniques involve precise aiming and flare of the lights, polarizing the lights as well as the camera lens and other practices. As the original work gets larger, the technical issues multiply.

Here’s a standard copystand:


For absolutely flat, featureless artwork, this method is practical.  For any subject with texture of any sort, it produces a lighting effect completely different from what we see when we view the work. Virtually no artwork on public display, or in the artist’s studio  is viewed with this type of lighting.

Does it really make a difference in how a painting is reproduced, how it appears to the viewer, and it’s fidelity to the original work?  Yes.  Profoundly.

Here’s a very simple demonstration.  This is a detail of the painting above, photographed with the lighting that the artist uses in his studio:


(Please click on any of the posted images for full-sized versions.)

The light is as the artist prefers it.  It is predominately from above, but with some soft “North Light” fill from the side, as well as behind the camera. The texture of the canvas is evident, yet simple and clean, and readable.  More importantly, the brush stroke is also readable, and is rendered in exactly the same way as the artist saw, and intended it.  It also is very similar to the environments in which the work is ultimately to be displayed- in a gallery, museum, or residence.

This detail is taken from a photograph of the same painting with conventional “copy-board” lighting:


The texture of the canvas is now confused – we don’t know how to read it.  There are specular highlights all through this highly-varnished piece, and again, more importantly, the stroke is now rendered in a completely different way than what the artist saw in his studio.

What also becomes painfully clear is that the tone and color of the copy-board photograph suffers as well.  Color hue and saturation is intimately related to the quality and wavelength of the viewing light.  Standard copy-board lighting changes how we see not only texture, but the subtle relationships of the very essence of the work: the palette.

The tradition of photographing artwork using copy-board techniques is firmly rooted in film-based photography.  Many of the issues we faced when shooting with film are simply no longer issues when using digital tools.  We can, for the first time, see, and reproduce the work as the artist intended the work to be seen.

We can be faithful to the vision of the artist.

Visit The Atelier Print to learn more.

To read more on the techniques and practices of Fine Art reproduction, see “On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong)

Why I Love My Job…

June 16, 2012

Over the years, every job becomes, well, work.  I don’t care what those “if you love what you do…” people say.  Last night, I got reminded what it is that I find the most rewarding thing about taking pictures.  And it’s not taking pictures.

Antoine Proulx celebrated 20 years of making amazing furniture and, more importantly, seeing their design vision realized as a strong, vibrant company.

Twenty years ago, Mark Minter, the Creative Director for my client, The Donovan Group, called me and asked if I’d be interested in talking to a talented young designer with an impressive line of furniture he was trying to launch.  Beyond loving the work, and it being a great fit with my experience shooting architecture with Nick Wheeler, I instantly connected with Marc Desplaines and his brother Rich, who manufactured the designs.

We settled on a lighting strategy, a look for the line, that I thought we could get some life out of.  It’s always a challenge developing a method of lighting and shooting a product line that is compelling, works with the products and shows the features, but also won’t look dated or contrived within the life of the product.  In this case, unbeknownst to us both, Marc and I were setting the stage for the next 20 years.

To give credit where due, I’ve always been strongly influenced by two people – Irving Penn, whose work with Clinique in the early ’80s I adapted to everything from electronic connectors to, well, furniture, and Blue Poitras, (AKA Patricia Jellenick Hallowell) who, as a young goldsmith and friend taught me to trust “Classic” over “Trendy”.  Classic lasts.

The lighting evolved, yet even our first shots are still being used.  Marc has developed six Collections now, and we’ve added room sets within the last 5 years, for editorial pages and catalog spreads augmenting the product vignettes.

I’ve shot Antoine Proulx with everything from our first 4×5 view camera work, to 120 film, and on to virtually every instance of high-end digital back available.  Throughout my career with Calumet and EP Levine, the joke became, “OK, what camera that you don’t own are you shooting with today?” as I borrowed or rented what was the camera of the day, throughout what was the most dramatic period of digital capture development in history.

Yet, the work had to remain consistent.

I heard several times last night that I was responsible for the “Antoine Proulx look”.  Of course I wasn’t…  I was simply facilitating the vision Marc had.   But as such, Marc Desplaines is a client who understands the meaning of a creative team.  He always asked for my help and ideas, and was forthright about whether we were on-target or missing the mark, in a way that makes me always strive for more.

Sometimes you have to step back out of the trees and look at the forest, and last night was that kind of evening for me.  I love working with Antoine Proulx, not because I love my photographs, but because I feel I’ve helped build something – a team of brilliant, hard working people who’ve created something that has, in it’s own small way, changed it’s corner of the world. Design, manufacturing, creating a product is about “making stuff”…  valuable, beautiful stuff from raw materials, ideas, and hard work.

It’s easy to think that the “stuff” you’re making as a photographer are pictures.   It’s easy to feel like images are ephemeral, fleeting, without substance.  It’s easy to think your work is only worth the few seconds that most people look at a photograph, but that’s not it.

Not at all…

Thanks Marc, Ritchie, Patty and the whole team at Antoine Proulx for a great 20 years!

I talk about this photograph in class constantly, when discussing angle of light. Bullock presented it like this:

The “normal” view of it is this:

Your eye, and mind, wants light to come from the top of the frame- you will perceive depth based on that assumption, and, well, force an image to fit. In the first example you perceive what are really puddles as little raised “mesas” of water, because that’s the perception that makes sense assuming the light is coming from the top. It’s easier to “see” the depth reversed, than to “see” the light coming from the bottom.

This photograph is reproduced from “Wynn Bullock, Photography: A Way of Life”. It is called “Point Lobos, 1972”.

Thought I’d posted this a long time ago… but guess not. …here you go:

Art, for all arguments and discussions, is about expression. Artistic expression throughout history is as linked to the medium as it is to the artist. Even if we look back to prehistoric artists, making images of animals on caves in Lascaux, the work we see is a melding of the artist’s vision and the tools at hand. The beauty found in these primitive cave paintings is not only about the colors and forms—it is about the ability of the artist to express these forms, feelings, and sense of the subject using the simplest tools and pigments.

I have a favorite story about Pablo Picasso. The story goes that he was living in Paris, and for a while was short on money. He had developed a following, and he could sit down in a café and pay for his meal by dashing off a simple drawing with a pencil on a scrap of paper. Picasso was, among other things, a master of line. I can only imagine those sketches—I’m not sure if any survived, but I have been fortunate enough to see (and photograph for the collector) Henri Matisse’s personal collection, including some very personal drawings by Picasso, almost nothing more than doodles on the back of a finished work. They were beautiful in their innocence and simplicity, but also their expression. These works possess an undeniable mystery precisely because they are so compelling and expressive. Four simple lines on a piece of paper can elicit the beauty and mystery of the human form.

The black-and-white medium was the essence of photography for a very long time. It may be surprising to learn that the first known permanent color photograph was taken by James Clerk Maxwell as early as 1861—a mere 40 years after Joseph Niépce created the first photographs. It wasn’t until 1935—and the introduction of Kodachrome—that color became a viable, popular medium.

Black-and-white photographs as fine art are often distinguished as “expressive,” “sensitive,” and “creative.” Why is this? It is the limits of the medium and the photographer’s ability to work within those limitations to express a vision. Much of the power of a black-and-white image lies not in its representation of reality, but in its interpretation of reality at the hands of the artist.

And here is the first rub in photography: Photography, especially color photography, is commonly described as realistic. Colors are said to be “lifelike,” “true,” and “real.” An image is often trusted—and, I would argue, mistrusted—to be a representation of reality. Right there is the issue with photography as fine art: If a medium is reality, then how can it also be an expression of the artist’s vision?

By its very nature, black-and-white photography neatly skirts this issue. The fact that a black-and-white photograph represents colors with shades of gray makes it an interpretation, rather than a mirroring, of what the artist sees. It is the simplification of the palette and the limitations of the medium that give the image its power of expression. Take this one more step, into the world of digital photography. We now have a tool—Adobe Photoshop—that has almost unlimited power in producing images and effects that mimic and recreate “reality.” We are able to create photographs with as much color depth as our eyes can perceive and print them with a larger range of colors (or gamut), more than we ever could achieve in the traditional darkroom. We can record the world with astounding fidelity.

One of the beautiful things about digital photography, and the RAW file in particular, is that our creative process has shifted more to the act of combining pieces of an image rather than capturing the image, the negative, and working with what you’ve captured. I can make a digital photograph in color and reproduce it in color, black and white, or any other interpretation of that original image by manipulating the RAW file. Throughout this discussion of the various techniques and processes of digital black-and white photography, you’re going to have to decide exactly how much you want the medium to limit you, and how you’ll use that limitation to fulfill your vision. Whether you shoot in full color and control the image throughout the RAW process and subsequent image adjustments, or you use a camera that can only shoot in black and white (a “dedicated grayscale” camera), you will learn to harness its limitations.

It’s a decision you have to be aware of, learn about, and make for yourself.

Here’s an interesting story of applying processing standards to streamline production:

Ross-Simons, one of the country’s most successful fine jewelry retailers, faced a staggering challenge. They support 14 retail locations, an online store (named a “Top 500” site by Internet Retailer Magazine in 2005), and a quarterly catalog, first mailed in 1981, that now tops 60 million catalogs mailed all over the world every year.

With all of this size and scale, they are selling the highest quality jewelry. Color, size, cut and polish are all critical to the customer, and Ross-Simons needs their photography to show it all, accurately.

While some companies can have in-house photo studios, the sheer number of products in the Ross-Simons catalog and limited time-frame means that multiple photographers all over the country are all working on various stages of the projects. Jay Dunn, as VP of Creative, was seeing a huge degree of variation in the photography coming in from the studios. Considering each studio was using different cameras and different practices in processing and delivering the files, it’s no wonder. In an industry where the difference between a fine gem and an average stone can be a few points of color, the images had to be spot-on, regardless of their source.

“In our last catalog run we spent over 600 hours for post-production Photoshop time in color adjusting file standardization and retouching. We really felt that we could cut that in half if we could somehow standardize the Color Management and processing…It’s not that we’re unhappy with the photographers’ work. In fact, we feel we’re partially to blame. We just have never been able to tell them what we want.” – Jay Dunn, VP of Creative at Ross-Simons

Jay had worked with Michael Oh and the Tech Superpowers team for help deploying a new hi-res design workflow in Jay’s previous position at Brookstone, but this time the project was even more complex, and an entire series of catalogs depended on results.

Huge Challenges

This was a huge problem that had many challenges. The first one was simply to isolate each of the factors that was causing variations in output.

First, the photographers used different cameras – a Leaf Aptus75, a Valeo 22, a Sinar 54, and even a Nikon D200, with software that was just as varied. Since there were over six different makes and models of cameras, lenses and lighting, Ted Dillard, head of TSP Imaging Services, had to synchronize the color rendering of each camera to match the others. In this case, it wasn’t so much an attempt to match the cameras to any “industry standard”, more that they needed to match each other.

Second, Dillard and the Ross-Simons teams recognized that the problem wasn’t simply the photographers: a complete end-to-end, or “Capture-to-Press” solution, was needed. So collaboration and agreed standards were key. In this case, the best way to make sure that this was reasonable and understood was to bring all of the vendors together – 24 people in all – at Tech Superpowers to review process, standards, and best practices in a full-day meeting… to form a consensus.

Third, once this consensus was reached, Ross-Simons needed to give the entire team a set of guidelines – from exposure, capture and processing settings to scaling, sizing and color management standards – right out to prepress and proofing, including a communication “loop” from the press back to the photographers. Ted was able to create a capture, RAW-processing and color management workflow that worked from end to end, and establish lines of communication to reinforce, and correct, the process, during the process.

“Ross Simons’ problem was very common, but we had an unusual opportunity to create a new solution. Rather than apply a fix after the fact, by trying to profile the cameras – a notoriously inaccurate and ineffective approach – we elected to go to the RAW files and standardize the processing at the capture level. Each studio had a set of guidelines for file delivery, as well as individualized processing settings to assure one camera would look like the next, regardless of the make, model, lens or lighting used.” – Ted Dillard, Imaging Services Manager

Huge Results

Using our experience and training in RAW file processing as well as our considerable experience with the individual digital camera systems, TSPIS was able to minimize the differences in color, contrast, and look between all of the cameras, and a standard of file quality and specifications between all the studios.

“When I reached out to Tech Superpowers, what I needed was the insight of a professional photographer, fused with the knowledge of the digital and technological advances, to create a cost-effective, efficient, multi-user, multi-city, photography and asset management workflow.

They far surpassed any expectations I had… [and] engineered a strategy that allowed photographers and color houses in seven different cities to align to standards and protocol that created speed-to-market and cost advantages worth large dollars to our organization.” – Jay Dunn

Given the cost of a trained Photoshop artist, cutting 300 hours for each one of four catalog runs per year… well, that’s a solution that you can take to the bank.