#397. Ctein on thinking like a master printer

By pascaljappy | Interview

Sep 04

My resolution for this end of year is to become a better, more prolific printer. It’s my sad premise that most of our photographs collect dust in hard drives and social media and never make it to the the physical object stage that used to be the end goal of any photography some decades ago. To help us all become better at the craft, printer extraordinaire Ctein has agreed to answer a few questions and share a few precious tips. As you will see, not only does he disagree with my premise, but his point of view is far more positive. As for the tips, run, don’t walk, to read them. Thanks very much Ctein.

Lotus pond (c) Ctein - Dye Transfer

Lotus pond (c) Ctein – Dye Transfer

[Pascal] These days, the vast majority of photographs see their final state on the screen, whether on someone’s computer or shared on a social newtwork. Why do you think people have lost their interest in the print and is there a cure?

[Ctein] I actually don’t think of this as something new. It was the same before digital. Most people never printed. They had their printing done by others. They also collected large folders full of negatives, very few of which ever made it to a darkroom.

Technology has actually made our lives better. At the time, there was no other option. Now, our gear is excellent and has eliminated most of the technical hassles. And the websites such as Instagram have freed us from slideshows

Birches and fallen leaves (c) Ctein

Birches and fallen leaves (c) Ctein

[Pascal] But prints are still great to view and handle. Why aren’t we more adept at that?

[Ctein] It’s mainly a problem of expectations.

And bear in mind that even in the darkroom, most amateurs never made a good print, at least not in a repeatable fashion.

These days, our expectations have gone up. First of all, we tend to expect that because a printer is a sophisticated machine, it will always create great prints. It just doesn’t work that way. So disappointment sets in rapidly. And secondly, there’s a powerful inhibiting effect of seeing so much great work online. It’s easy to think “why bother, I’ll never create anything as good as that”.

And the image you see on the screen is often more spectacular than the final print. Photoshop is dye transfer on steroids. Very few people ever mastered dye transfer, there are just too many variable to explore before you can achieve repeatable success. And a great dye transfer print is really beautiful to look at. But the slide is always more spectacular. Photoshop (and the like) gives us an astounding palette of tools to produce a really great-looking digital file. And no matter how good you are, the print is never going to look as spectacular.

Overcast cornfield (c) Ctein

Overcast cornfield (c) Ctein

[Pascal] That’s interesting. Focusing on me: I’m OK in LightRoom but can’t make a decent print, even though my printer is very highly regarded. What’s wrong ?

[Ctein] You need to pay less attention to what you see on the screen.

Optimising for the screen and optimising for the print are two very different processes. The colour spaces of a slide and of a print are quite different. What you see on the screen is not what you will see on your print, even using soft proofing. You need to process your files in a way that doesn’t always look good on screen but will be optimal in the print.

In a printer mindset, the screen is an intermediate tool. Never get invested in what you see on the screen.


Frosted field (c) Ctein

[Pascal] Intellectually, I can understand that. But it still feels a little counter intuitive. What’s the correct process here?

[Ctein] It’s a learning process. In time, you can skip the repetitive part but you need to educate your eye and mind to the print space.

I recommend you simply pull up an image you like on your screen, straight out of camera, and make basic edits and corrections. Just get the tone and colour roughly correct, don’t try make it look perfect on screen.

Print that photograph in A4/letter and let it lie a little. When you come back to it, note what you don’t like about it. Is the contrast wrong ? Too dark ? Too light ? Does it need dodging or burning it? Write notes on the print, use it as a learning tool.

Go back to the computer and correct what doesn’t feel right on the print. Then print again, let it lie and re-evaluate it.

After you’ve printed 3 or 4 of these, the picture won’t look good on screen but the print should be much better than the first version. As I said, with time and experience, you will be able to make perfect adjustments in just one or two iterations.

Fiery clouds

Fiery clouds and blue arcs (c) Ctein

[Pascal] Brilliant. That seems repeatable. And it seems simple. I notice you don’t mention profiling or any other paintful step.

[Ctein] When you process a few of your files, you’ll need to profile if you find a consistent shift in tone and colour. If your adjustments are all over the place, profiling won’t be the cure. It’s an artistic profile you really need. Without that, printer profiling is just a tool for creating consistently poor work.

Yellow purple (c) Ctein

Yellow purple (c) Ctein

[Pascal] All this is digital, but there seems to be a revival in alternative processes. What’s your take on that ?

[Ctein] I can’t explain it, but the darkroom still commands premium attention. Here’s an example. I printed Jim Marshall’s photographs for many years, both digital and dye transfer. In blind tests, the digital files are invariably judged as better, yet everyone wants to buy the dye transfers.

The great news it that you can buy excellent darkroom gear for less than an thid of what it cost new, so there’s never been a better time to try your hand in the darkroom.

(banner image: Brass Horn (c) Ctein)

About Ctein

Ctein is a professional photographer and writer, best known for his photographs of eclipses, aurora, natural and unnatural scenics, and space launches and his hand-printed fine-art books. His work can be seen at ctein.com and photo-repair.com

Ctein is the co-author, with John Sandford, of the new thriller “Saturn Run”, coming from Putnam in October.

Ctein’s also the Technical Editor for The Online Photographer and is the author of DIGITAL RESTORATION FROM START TO FINISH.

Ctein’s been an industrial consultant on computer displays, a technical writer of computer manuals, has degrees in English and Physics from Caltech, and has engaged in pollution research, astronomy, photocopy research, and world designing for CONTACT. If he grows up, he wants to be a dilettante.

Ctein lives in Daly City with technical writer Paula Butler, three demented psittacines, a half dozen more-or-less normal computers, and twenty kilobooks.


Email: subscribed: 4
  • Martin says:

    This is terrific. Best thing I’ve ever read on printing. Like you site a lot.

  • Stephen McCullough says:

    Incredibly useful interview.

    This bit, “You need to pay less attention to what you see on the screen.”, is invaluable..

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks. That part gave me hope again. I feel like a total beginner when it comes to printing. I have asked other printers to share their know-how with us. If they do, we should be able to build up an interesting body of knowledge. Fingers crossed.

  • >