The alchemy of printing a portfolio and is a printed book still relevant

Book, folio, portfolio – whatever it’s called, it is still seen as an essential tool for most, if not all, serious photographers. And then it’s what to fill it with, what shall I focus on? Do I specialise? And how am I going to create awareness of my work and myself? Although the digital file can look great on a properly calibrated screen in a studio, none of us knows what type of screen it will be seen on once it is viewed from our website or as an email attachment. And so enter the good old-fashioned print and the ‘dark art’ of digital printing. I say ‘dark art’ because even some of my friends who have been in this business for decades still battle with the digital printing process. They tweak and perfect the technologies in an effort to find the holy grail of the perfect digital print. After all, there is still nothing quite like holding a beautiful print.


Who am I? What makes me different? They are simple questions, but ones that deserve a considered answer. I used to be a designer and now I shoot pictures. This is at the root of my approach to picture taking. I often say I am a designer with a camera, and this affects the way I shoot pictures. Finding and creating the right light and atmosphere, emotion and intimacy between the subject and the camera is really important to me. At best, I aim to attempt to cross the boundary between picture and painting with the emphasis on almost feeling as if we are sharing a person’s intimate personal space, thoughts and feelings. So why should anyone want to work with me as opposed to a million other capable photographers? Obviously, your work should speak for itself, and it’s what wins the initial commission, but I don’t think we should underestimate how we behave and how easy we are to work with, which may play a part in that same client coming back to us again and again. When not shooting commercially, I immerse myself in shooting landscapes and still life at home in Derbyshire. I love and live this job just as I did as a designer, but unlike with my design career, I feel I can really impress my own stamp on my work as a photographer, and that is at the core of what makes us different.


I sometimes feel print is like an alchemy. I am the first to admit that there are many photographers out there who are better qualified than me to speak about what screen, software, printer, paper, folio etc to use, and yet I feel my voice may in some way speak for the masses as I cut a path through this thick and challenging forest of complex technologies.


One of the biggest challenges I have faced is not the capturing of pictures, but the editing. It’s a hard skill to master, but it gets better the more I practice. In fact, I would say that, unlike the shooting, my editing techniques seem to evolve month by month. Software has made the editing process a lot easier. I am a solid supporter of Aperture along with a multitude of Nik plugins, and will make anything up to five edits in smart albums before I get to a point at which I feel comfortable enough to start post producing the work. Like most things, the edit is a matter of confidence, and with hard work and a willingness to make mistakes, I continue to push forward with far more pressure on the delete key than the return!


Okay, so I’ve decided on what I think makes me different, and after several painstaking weeks, the final edit is complete. All I need to do now is make the prints. If only it were that simple… Actually I have to admit that I love being tied to my computer post producing my work just as long as I have the time. I sit for hours, days and weeks between shoots doing just this, and it never seems to end. With Brian Eno, Illy coffee, and usually a burning candle surrounded by glowing screens in the eaves of our 360- year-old cottage, I am totally at home and love it! I know and have known many excellent photographers and almost all have a deep understanding of this very process. It’s very personal and it still amazes me that I can shoot the pictures, edit, post produce and then print under one roof, so to speak. I have complete control. Sometimes I need to work with specialists in post production and pre-press, but mostly, it’s all me. I’ve tried to edit and post produce when on shoots and I’ve ended up getting an early flight home just so I can work where I feel most comfortable. I sometimes feel that print is like an alchemy. I am the first to admit that there are many photographers out there who are far better qualified than me to speak about what screen, software, printer, paper, folio etc to use, and yet I feel that my voice may in some way speak for the masses as I cut a path through this thick and challenging forest of complex technologies and ideas. Do I print on gloss or matt paper? I choose matt as I never seem to completely get rid of the metamerism on the gloss papers, and even when they said that the baryta papers wouldn’t curl, they did. Having tried several manufacturers’ products from Innova, Ilford and Harmon I finally chose Hahnemühle photo rag 308. I am certain most who read this will be aware of this paper, and to some extent it’s a predictable choice, but for me, it brings out the very best in my work. I have always loved Apple computers and all associated hardware and software. This extends to Apple’s LCD screens, and while they don’t have the features of EIZO or LaCie, they are workhorses, and when properly calibrated, my 30in cinema LCD is a great screen to work on. I have to admit to a growing desire for an EIZO with all the additional RGB calibration, but for now at least, I’ll keep working on the 30in at home and the 20in on shoots.


I think calibration and profile are the two words that, more than any others, force us to run and hide behind the sofa. I use the X-rite i1, avoiding the colour monkey on the basis that its custom calibration system seemed a little crude. My priority is making sure the screen is calibrated to my specific requirements. Of course, you can use the manufacturer’s profile or have one made, the latter being by far the most accurate. None of this will be worth a damn without a daylight simulation system! I have to be honest and say that, when I see CCT, CRI and CIE, it may as well be ICI to me. You can buy an X-rite viewing system with various viewing temperatures, or you can make a box and add the tubes. I decided to use my 1 x 1 LED litepanel with a constant colour temperature of 5,200 K flood at 1.2m above the printer. It seems to work best. It has a 100,000-hour lamp life, which will almost take me through to completing my next folio. So with this viewing system I set the monitor’s colour temperature to match, and Bob’s your uncle. Well, not quite – more like aunty’s friend. The Apple monitor was showing too much red. But with a little tweaking and weekly calibration, my printing seems to be more about sharpening than ‘it’s too warm, too cold, dark or light’. Yet, with all of this technology, how come I sometimes still manage to make five prints before I’m happy enough for the sixth to go in the folio?


The answer is probably not so surprising. When making large prints – I mean A3 and above – the capture becomes really important. Sometimes from necessity we have to shoot at higher sensitivities, say 400, 800, 1,600 and above. But it seems that, no matter what the camera, the magic 100 ISO is still the benchmark for making really great prints at larger sizes. This has become so important to me that I now try hard to shoot at the lower ISOs when the job permits. It’s not the end of the world if the data has more noise, as we can always post produce i I like to at least try to keep it as close to the capture as possible and I somehow feel it looks better for it. Of course, there are times when you really don’t want to lose the emotion that a noisy file may contain. There’s another important point to mention here, and that’s the right side of the histogram, or in the terms that I best understand, overexposing the digital capture. It seems that over-, rather than underexposing the capture is preferable due to the fact that current sensors retain more detail in the highlight as a result. The decision of which brand of printer to use is, in my opinion, as important as that of which brand of camera, and deserves just as much research. I have always used Canon cameras and love them. Now after a lot of research, I am doing the same with my printer. I feel there are several advantages to using the Canon and I’m not alone. Firstly, and most importantly, there’s the quality. When you sit back and read the reviews, even the most critical eyes find it a struggle to see the differences between Canon, Epson or HP at this level. Sixteen-bit printing with the Photoshop plug is now my standard procedure. I feel that the Canon has improved colour and this may be due to the fact that it has 12 colours (11 working at any one time, as it switches automatically from matt to gloss paper without the lengthy process of changing inks).


This brings me to the second important reason for using the Canon. On average, it uses anything between 40% and 60% less ink and, whether you’re producing fine art prints or a 40-page folio, this is going to make significant savings. It also has the capability to show you exactly how much ink has been used per print. Also the print heads are replaceable and it uses a self-diagnostic system which tells you if they need to be purged using a lot less ink in the process. The final benefit is the remote user interface which allows your print specialist to dial into your Mac or PC and run diagnostic software and help make custom printer profiles. Seeing my prints appear at sizes up to A1 borderless is the next best thing to the excitement of capturing a great shot. RIP or no RIP? For me it’s no at the moment, and this is yet another benefit of the Canon, as its very clever interpolation software really does seem to smooth out the tone at the larger sizes, especially 16 bit. There is a very inexpensive EFI rip, which is more about managing files than quality, but if I did decide to get one, my friends seem to favour ImagePrint from ColorByte. Having spent the last month editing, calibrating, profiling and printing, what do I put the work in? This can’t be underestimated, and there are many places to buy ready-made folios or more preferable custom-made ones. Two people who bring a little magic to many photographers’ work in and around London are Joyce Pinto (Plastic Sandwich) and Cathy Robert (Delta Design Studio). They are both excellent personalities in their own right. Joyce was once a successful model back in the fifties and sixties and has been making portfolios for the last 22 years. Cathy, charming, passionate and French, produces all manner of incredible custom-made creations. In my opinion, it must always be custom made – how else can you best show your work?


The finished folio? In my case, there’s no such thing. Mark George (my agent) and I recently made an edit based on three years of fairly intense shooting. Beginning backstage at London and New York Fashion Weeks over several seasons, I progressed to more commissioned work in London, New York and Milan. I put my skills as a graphic designer to use and created a template for Mark to add my pictures to. Then, once we were happy, he sent personalised emails to 50 of the most senior art buyers in London. We were thrilled to receive 15 requests for my folio, and after many weeks of editing, post production and printing, a beautiful leather bound folio was biked to one of London’s most respected art buyers. The response was quick to come back: “We like his work, but he is a beauty photographer.” This may sound great, but it would exclude me from all types of commissions that I would be appropriate for, and more importantly, love to do. Mark and I then re-edited the work, trawling through the growing number of portraits and still lifes. After another month the new folio was completed with nearly 50 painstakingly produced prints bound and ready to go. For me, the folio is always evolving and sometimes it is structured to a particular client and potential project. 2010 looks promising, and as I can’t accompany my work to every agency or potential client, in my absence the folio is going to have to work very hard indeed.