Fundamentals of Digital:
Introduction

26th June 2015

Introduction

Overview

This is an introductory course to Digital Imaging. Specifically - Digital Imaging Stuff Related to Really Fantastic Printing. We call this area Digital Fine Print. At the heart of it is a process known as Colour Management.

The goal of this book is to cover all the fundamentals of getting & making good digital image files so that you can get, or make yourself, great prints from those files.

To cover this, we're going to go right back to the basics of digital files and how computers represent colour. There will be some simplifications and rules of thumb along the way. To avoid getting bogged down in too much detail - which is very easy with colour, as it's an extraordinarily complex and tricky little domain to work in - we're going to focus on the basics of really understanding how a digital file is put together and what are the best decisions to make early on in the process so you have maximum potential for flexibility and quality later when you finally get to the point of putting ink on the page.

Your page may actually be paper, or fabric, or a banner, or glass, or metal etc. - it doesn't really matter what the physical material ultimately is - the principles of good file construction and colour management from end to end are always essentially the same.

The Digital Fine Print

This book is written from the perspective of our domain - that is the perspective of trying to achieve the best possible digital fine art prints.

It may be that your goal is humbler than this - indeed it usually is - but whatever your domain, this book will guide you towards achieving higher quality results. So whether you're an illustrator looking to sell prints of your work on Etsy, or a digital fabric designer looking to achieve an edge by designing your own fabric, or a graphic designer that works on food packaging - this book can help, as the principles of creating high quality digital master files, and moving from them to quality prints - are the same no matter what the domain.

To begin, you need to develop a solid understanding of the fundamentals of digital files and colour and from there you will find that understanding and controlling the downstream print processes becomes much easier - whether you are doing the printing yourself or your working with a print operator.

A course like this should be a standard part of all serious courses in the visual arts, but unfortunately this material is rarely taught.

Our Thoughts on the Digital Fine Print

To kick off, though, here's some thought on what we're all about at Image Science.

What is the Digital Fine Print?

Defining the 'digital' part is easy - it means, of course, a print made using modern digital tools (i.e. the computer), rather than a traditional analogue based process (i.e. chemistry based prints). Hybrid techniques are certainly included, for example prints made using a digital negative which is then printed traditionally.

Defining the fine print, however, proves quite a challenge.

Perhaps as a starting point, it is easier to define what a fine print is not.

One thing a Fine Art Photographic print is not is whatever grubby bit of lustre paper you get back from your local photo lab on a Thursday afternoon. Another thing a fine print isn’t is whatever your untamed, office-level inkjet printer spits out on a piece of paper designed to last ten minutes on a sunny day before it disappears in a puff of smoke.

An actual definition of a fine print may be impossible as it almost certainly means different things to different people. But there are some basic qualities I think a print must possess to be termed a Fine Art Print:

  • Clear thought about the goals/meaning/emotion of an image, from capture to print
  • (Which results in…) Fantastic content
  • Quality materials
  • Excellent printing technique beyond what is normally achievable

If a Fine Print has these qualities the result is a print that:

  • The eye is willing to look at for an extended period of time
  • People can enjoy having up on their wall, for years
  • Can command, and deserves, a substantial price
  • Is superbly decorative, or has great depth and meaning, and ideally (and rarely) achieves both of these things

My personal view is:

A Fine Print is your chance to respectfully request from other people the most valuable thing of all – some of their time.

This is a real privilege, not to be taken lightly, and shouldn’t be forgotten. You are asking someone to spend some of their short lives in contemplation of your work and it is your responsibility to create something that is worthy of that time. They don’t necessarily have to like it, they don’t have to agree with it, but it should be worth the time they spend looking at it. Anything less is an insult. Life is simply too short for bad, sloppy, poorly thought out art.

That’s how I separate a Fine Print from an everyday print, and it works for me.

Achieving the Fine Print

For me, I like to consider the print as whole. A print is much more than just the image itself. Obviously content is of paramount importance, and if you stuff that up, no amount of good printing technique will save you. Ansel Adams perhaps said it best when he said a sharp print of a fuzzy concept is still a fuzzy concept. So a Fine Print starts right at the beginning – with a clear concept, and with image creation technique to realise that concept.

Almost all print failures occur at this starting point - because the starting image is simply not good enough.

However, this book is not about that stage - improving your image creation abilities is of course a life long journey.

This book is about the secondary stages of taking a great image and making from it the best possible print.

Once you have the image content nailed, it is good craft (and also good business practice) to present that content in the best possible way. This is what can lift your work from merely competent workman-like images to Art, to Beauty, to Feeling - to all those wonderful things a great print can achieve. That is what this book is all about. Almost every print in the world can be improved upon in some way through the application of better and/or more appropriate printing technique and selection of materials – with the goal of creating a better, more beautiful, more meaningful image.

Clear thinking on their concepts, and mastery of their craft, are the two main things that make the great ones great.

I am a photographer by background - and it is one of the strange things about the photographers that, amongst all artists, they are the only ones who seem to consider the medium of delivery largely irrelevant. It’s either ‘lustre’ or ‘gloss’ and that is as far as most photographer's thinking goes. This is phenomenally short sighted – there is a world of materials out there suitable for photographic reproduction to be explored, and each different medium brings something different to the table. And in a world where photography is increasingly seen as an unskilled trade at worst, or a simple, Uncle-Joe-can-do-it craft at best, we as Photographers must explore anything we can use to make our images more expressive, more meaningful, and more beautiful, or we risk extinction. It’s as simple as that.

While artists in the more general sense are often more mindful of the medium of their message than photographers, especially with their originals, they are often fundamentally limited in their ability to make a living by their low volume output. Thus for artists, prints are also very very important as a means of multi-streaming their content. And thus, ultimately, they are doing something very similar to photography - taking an image and from it attempting to produce high quality reproduction prints.

While a few savant types can apparently break wind and achieve artistic greatness, the rest of us have only one realistic chance of fundamentally improving the art that we create. Above and beyond all the technical material that is to follow, there is a greater goal here – to get you thinking about HOW you make art - the craft of your art - so that you can make better art!

Contrary to popular myth, creativity does not well up from the inner psyche and burst forth in a fully completed, realised, and saleable form. It takes excellent craft to be able to create important, valuable, and expressive works of art. Good craft (and years and years of practice) is what separated Jimi Hendrix from that guy who won the air guitar competition. The point isn’t whether you like Jimi Hendrix, but there’s no denying he was exceptionally good at his craft, and he used that craft to get his message across successfully.

So for me, it works to think of the Fine Print as an extended journey from capture or creation, to output, with each stage of that journey requiring careful consideration.

It starts with an output driven approach to capture – In my case I will specifically light things, and alter my photographic technique, where possible, with an eye to achieving the best final print. The initial capture is just the first step on a much longer journey.

(And if I were an illustrator looking to sell reproduction prints, I would originate my works on clean, smooth relatively bright white paper, to ease the scanning and retouching process that would follow the creation of the original (and probably stick to A3 size as that's the typical limit of what is easily & affordably scannable!).

I then use careful editing, with accurate tools for visualising what I am working on and how the final output process will affect the final image. In determining that output process I give careful consideration of the best and most suitable output materials/forms for that specific image. Finally, I use the best possible output techniques available to produce the final print.

At all stages during the fine print process, I give consideration to both the initial impact AND the longevity of the image – that is, I try and keep my eye on both how my image initially effects the observer, and how the perception of that image changes over time. Obviously sacrificing initial impact is a disadvantage, but it is often worthwhile in achieving a print that stands up to extended and repeated viewing.

Much more on this later when we talk about how the eye works and what it wants, versus how the brain works and what it wants!

On the 'Rules' of Fine Printing

There are no rules. Well, actually there a lot of rules, but one rule rules them all. And that is:

If it looks good, it looks good.

Tautology, yes, but worth stating.

Everything else I talk about is all designed to help you make beautiful prints, prints that make people really want to look at (and potentially buy) your work. But there are no absolutes in this stuff when it comes finally to what you put on to paper (or even what you use as paper!). It’s your call.

But simply saying ‘I like it’ isn’t good enough.

Unless you take pictures for the sole purpose of putting them in your shoe box and occasionally peeking at them and giving yourself a little pat on your back, then you have to acknowledge the goal is to get other people to like/appreciate/understand your work.

So the other rules are really just rules of thumb that should be followed to make your work look good. Because there are some near universally agreed principles as to what works in a print, and what doesn’t. And those prints people nearly universally love and admire pretty much all follow a basic set of rules, almost all of the time. To be perfectly clear, I am talking here about the technical aspects of the print, and NOT the actual image content.

Of course don’t take everything I or anyone else says as gospel.

Part of what makes you the artist you are will be the decisions you make on the path to achieving a beautiful, expressive print – and sometimes that means, even necessitates, breaking the rules. But be prepared to argue your case – breaking the rules for an aesthetic purpose is great, doing it just because your technique was poor/you were lazy/you ran out of money - not so great.

Beautiful prints take time, technique, and quality materials.

That’s just the way it is.

Now, let's get started.