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Photo display

Storm over Tryfan. This image displays well on screen or print as the colours are all in gamut for both media. 
The print just loses a little shadow detail under the bridge compared to the screen image.

Do you give much thought as to how your photos are going to be seen by others?

This is a question that has vexed me of late, not least because I've been wanting to refresh the photographic art on display around my house and, obviously, I want to enjoy it to the full and give my visitors a good impression of my photographic skills as well.

But how best to go about this?

At the start of my efforts to display photographs, some years ago now, I made some fundamental mistakes that I didn't want to repeat again so I decided, with my engineers head engaged, to contrast and compare different ways of presenting photos around the home to see which would work best for me at this point in time.

Of course, what I decide today may well change in the future as technology marches on. (Apple iBrain implant anyone?!). So here are my thoughts at the end of 2010 on the pros and cons of displaying photos around the home.

1. Screens

By this I mean largish viewing screens, of ipad size and upwards, not mobile phones.

Displaying photos on screens, whether they be computer monitors, TVs, ipads or digital photo frames seems at first glance to be a really sensible thing to do, with a number of advantages over more traditional printed media.

For instance you can instantly refresh your chosen artwork without cost, or you can have photos that change automatically on a regular basis.

Another advantage, and a biggie for me, is that I construct and optimise my images on a screen in an rgb colour space, getting all the colours and sharpening right for how the image looks on my monitor (calibrated of course!). If I then want to print the image I have to engage in another round of optimising and adjusting colours, contrast, sharpness and so on, in order to get the final print to look as good as possible, and as close to how the original image looked on my monitor as I can.

Bridge at Betws-y-coed. On the screen you can see all the different shades of green, but in print some of these shades are out of gamut for my printer, 
and appear as single colour green splotches. I have to make quite heavy adjustments to the green saturation and colour balance to print the details.

Even with good printer profiles and soft proofing in Photoshop this exersize costs a fortune in ink and paper, and I've never been able to achieve a perfect match between an image on paper and on screen, losing detail and tone in the shadow areas and not being able to match certain rgb colours in the nominal cmyk colour space of my eight ink colour printer.

So this is a 'no brainer', or so you might think. Simply invest in the required number of screens and position them strategically around your house, or hijack every TV and computer monitor you can get your hands on for the same effect.

Unfortunately it's at this implementation stage of the great idea that the problems start to rear their ugly heads. To see photos properly requires decent high resolution screens with extended colour gamuts, and have you seen how much they cost! I can't even afford one, let alone the dozen or so I would require to populate my house with artwork.

I know David Hockney has filled an art gallery with ipads which display an ever changing plethora of his artwork, but I live in the real world.

Then there's the problem of power usage and supplying data to all these screens. That's a lot of juice and a lot of ugly cables everwhere.

I guess for me, the only real screen display I could use would be our family TV, but I don't think that idea would go down well with my daughter Allie, even though she is an artist in her own right, and I don't think lugging the telly to various display points in the house would please the missus very much either!

Another problem with screens is their limited resolution. I print at 240-300dpi (dots per inch) to get a lovely crisp non-pixellated image at normal viewing distances. However, my reasonably decent computer monitor is only 120dpi so if I've got an image with fine detail I can only really appreciate it as a print.

But what about the dedicated digital photo frames that are springing up all over the place? Ideal you might think - too small and expensive is what I say. I want something cheap enough to buy a dozen of, and big enough to hang on walls rather than put on a desk. I'm hoping for great things in the future from dedicated screens, but for the present it looks like I'm stuck with some form of printed media if I want to populate my walls with photographic art.

2. Home printing

Llandudno jetty. This photo was entered in the first ever 'Take a View' UK landscapes competition, and made it through to be included in the competition book.
However, when printed there is a lot of detail in the shadows under the jetty that is lost.

Trying to print photographs at home can be an exercise in futility and frustration. Unless you know what you're doing, what comes out of your printer will look nothing like what is on your screen. However, with a little application and understanding you can increase your chances of getting it right first time, although I have to admit I've never yet achieved this personally!

The problem is that what you see on your computer screen is formed by glowing dots of red, green and blue light (RGB), while what gets squirted out of your printer is blobs of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink (CMYK). Because of this, it's almost impossible for the printer to be able to match the colours on the screen. Then there's the issue of the colour of your printer paper. You think it's white? Think again.

So how do you overcome the problems inherent in home printing? Well I haven't overcome them all to the point where I can confidently press 'print' and expect the image on paper to be a perfect match to the image on screen, but I can get reasonably close on the first attempt, and get it pretty much bang on on the second attempt. This saves me a small fortune in wasted paper and ink, so what's my workflow?

My workflow starts with my computer monitor. I calibrate it regularly using a hardware calibration device (Spyder2 in my case), because unless my monitor is displaying true colours and correct brightness I have no reference from which to judge my print. If you think monitor calibration is unnecessary then just look at a row of monitors on display in a shop, are any two the same? And what about brightness? If your monitor is adjusted too bright, the image might look nice on screen, but the true brightness of the image, when printed, will be much darker than what you saw on the screen and you'll wonder why.

Next comes the printer. I currently use an Epson R1800, which is by no means a top of the range device but is does have eight ink cartridges instead of the usual four, and importantly, one of them is a gloss optimser. The extra ink colours allow the printer to print a wider range of colours than can be achieved with the normal four, more closely matching the colours seen on the monitor, while the gloss optimser prevents a condition known as 'bronzing', where the darker areas of a print reflect the light in an unusual way that gives the appearance of a bronze sheen on the surface of the image.

The downside to this is the cost of ink. The last time I bought a set of cartridges it cost me £150 - ho hum. I don't want to waste ink producing prints that are no good then!

Talking of ink, I will only use Epson ink in my Epson printer so I can guarantee consistency of colour and density between cartridges. I have another printer that I use for normal printing of documents and so on, and I quite happily put non-branded ink in that, but my Epson R1800 is only used for 'top quality' photo printing and only gets Epson ink.

The other printer consumeable to consider is, of course, the paper, and the usual mantra of 'quality in - quality out' very much applies here as well.

You cannot print photos onto cheap photocopier paper and expect a fine art result, it just won't happen. Even using cheap 'photo quality' paper is a mistake, as the paper is unable to accept the ink in a way that displays all the colours possible.

There are many fine brands of high quality paper around that will give the best possible printing result. I personally use Ilford papers, not just because they are good quality but also because Ilford provide ICC profiles for their papers which I find work very well on my Epson (more on this in a minute). The downside? Cost, of course. The last pack of Ilford paper I bought cost £40 for ten sheets - ouch! Another reason to try and get your printing right first time.

So, you've got a calibrated monitor, a decent printer filled with the manufacturer's own ink and a fresh pack of highly expensive branded paper. Time to press the 'Print' button you might think - but hold on - if you press 'Print' now all you'll be doing is opening your wallet and throwing money through your printer to no avail, as what you'll end up printing will not match what you see on the screen.

Everything we've done so far has only sorted out the hardware. Now it's time to sort out the software as well.

Puffin Island. This is one of my favourite images, but I've been disappointed with how it looks in print. This is because I've printed it on glossy paper and framed it behind glass, and the reflections prevent me 
from enjoying the colours and details to the full. Maybe I'll try it on matt paper or canvas in the future.

The most comprehensive way to control what your printer does is by using Raster Image Print (RIP) software. This acts as an interface bewteen your computer and printer, translating the computer's instructions so the printer can understand them but with you able to tweak the settings so the printer is outputting the highest possible quality print.

I don't do this. My own approach is one step below this in terms of complexity and cost, but still gives a good result.

What I do is download the paper manufacturer's ICC profile and use that to control the print output. Ilford (in my case) provide downloadable ICC profiles for specific printers, inksets and paper types which can be called up via Photoshop and used to control the printer output instead of using the printer's own control options which are found in the printer's control panel.

These specific ICC profiles are more accurate in terms of colour and density reproduction than the ones supplied with the printer software, and I've proved to myself that I get a better print by using them.

But the usefulness of a good ICC profile doesn't end there, because once you've got this profile loaded into your computer you can use it in PhotoShop to do what is called 'Soft Proofing'

Soft proofing allows you to start with your original image on the computer monitor and then, with the soft proofing option on, see how it will look when printed using your specific printer, paper and ink.

This can be quite depressing, as the colours become muted, the blacks go wishy washy and the whites are no longer white. There's also an option to highlight areas of the image where the poor old printer can't actually reproduce the colours in the image, which can depress you even more!

However, if you make a copy of the image and have both on the screen at once, one with soft proofing on and the other with it off, you can then make adjustments to the 'soft proofed' image using the usual PhotoShop trickery to make it look as close as possible to the original 'non-soft proofed' image.

Hopefully then you can print the proof adjusted image using your spiffy ICC profile and the printed image won't be a million miles away from your original on-screen rendition.

From personal experience I find following this workflow gets me reasonably close with my first print attempt. I'll then make some more PhotoShop adjustments based on how the print looks compared with the image on screen and give it another go, repeating the process until I've squeezed out the last ounce of quality that I can get for that particular image.

One final tip on home printing. When you want to print a big image, do the test prints at a small size until you're happy before lashing out on a gallon of ink just to find you have to re-print to get the final look that you want.

All that sounds like a great deal of trouble and expense, why not just sub-contract the printing of your photos to a lab? We'll be taking a look at that option next.

3. Using labs

Rainbow over Lough Derg. I've had this photo printed onto canvas by Snapmad.com and was very pleased with the result. The rough surface of the canvas print kills all reflections, and allows the 
colours and details to be seen from any angle.

Back in the dark(room) ages, before digital, almost everyone had their photos developed and printed by labs, rather than at home. A few chemical afficionados would have a home darkroom for black and white, but for colour everyone used labs.

So what's changed? Nothing much. I still use labs, or to be more precise, automated supermarket print machines, to knock out multiple copies of snapshots taken at Auntie Mabel's birthday party as this is far cheaper and easier than printing them at home. The thing is, I don't care about cropping, colour gamut, density and all the other nuances of a fine art print for this type of photo. I certainly won't be displaying them anywhere or signing them.

But what about photos that are destined to be displayed, or even sold, as artwork?

To me, my art is a personal expression of who I am and, as such, I have to have input and control into and over every aspect of the production of a fine art photograph, and that includes the printing.

Alain Briot has written an essay on this that goes much deeper than I intend to here, which you can read on the Nature Photographers.net website.

So are there occasions when I would use a lab to print an image that I wanted to hang on my wall?

Well, the only reason I would use a lab to print my own artwork is if what I required exceeded the capability of my printer to produce it.

My Epson maxes out at A3+ paper in single sheet feed, so if I wanted to print an image on A2 paper I would have to go to a lab. However, I would choose my lab very carefully and certainly not on the basis of price alone.

Another restraint is that of printing on different media, such as canvas, which I can't easily do at home. In fact I've just taken delivery of one of my photos printed onto a 16"x20" canvas by Snapmad.com which I'm very pleased with. It's currently hanging on my kitchen wall and I'm wondering if this is maybe the way to go for me in the future, as the canvas print holds some distinct advantages for home display that I wasn't fully aware of until I actually got one.

With that in mind we'll be discussing the actual displaying of photos on walls next.

4. Displaying your photos

Arizona Petroglyph. This is one image from a series of three that I've displayed by printing onto photo paper, then mounting onto canvas without glass. They look good, with fine detail preserved and a minimum 
of reflections to spoil the enjoyment.

When I first started printing and displaying my own photos, some years ago now, I would look for the cheapest possible way to get them on the wall.

For me that involved buying clip together glass frames of A4 or A3 size, then printing my images using 100% of the paper area (borderless) and simply putting the printed sheet into the frame.

As you can imagine, this looked horrible and didn't show my pictures off well at all. Also, as the print wasn't matted the inked side of the paper ended up sticking to the inside of the glass and discolouring badly.

Needless to say I didn't stick with that technique for very long, but what I tried next wasn't much better. Still trying to do things as cheaply as possible, I unpeeled my wrecked prints from the inside of my glass frames and cleaned the glass. Then I printed some new images, this time smaller than the frame size, and mounted them in mats cut from old off-white cardboard with a craft knife. These matted pictures then went back into the all glass frames for re-hanging on the wall. This was slightly better than my first attempt, but the cheap all glass frames still looked terrible, and completely out of character with the photos I was trying to display behind them.

I'm afraid it was time to spend some money. I knew I was on the right track with the matting, so I invested in a proper mat cutter that would give me the classic bevelled edge mat opening. I also got a sheet of proper mat board instead of the discarded cardboard I had been using and, wonder of wonders, a proper frame which cost a small fortune (£16 I think).

Thus armed I set to to print, frame and hang my first masterpiece. Everything went very well and the finished piece looked very professional and I hung it proudly on my kitchen wall where everyone could see it in all its glory. The only problem was that everyone couldn't see it in all its glory at all, as reflections from the windows were always visible on the glass and although the print and framing were first rate, the reflections prevented the photo from being seen properly. I reckon that unless you have a controlled lighting environment, such as an art gallery, reflections off glass (even the 'non-reflective' stuff) are unavoidable and can make a mockery of your best attempts at printing and displaying your images.

What to do? While my wife Liz and I were holidaying in Arizona we visited a number of galleries and I was struck by how many photos were being displayed just stuck onto foam mounting board and over matted, with no framing or glass in sight. I suppose these mounted and matted photos were supposed to be framed later, but I was struck by how good they looked without the glass to get in the way.

That gave me an idea, I would combine canvas and printed photos in a way so they could be hung and displayed so that the image would appear to be framed, but without a frame or glass to distract from the picture itself.

I started by printing up a series of three photos of petroglyphs taken in the Painted Desert onto A3 photo paper. The photos were all cropped to a 5x4 aspect ratio, and all printed the same size.

Next I applied sheets of double sided adhesive to the backs of the three printed photos and left them to degas overnight.

While the photos were degassing I got three blank 16"x20" canvasses and painted them all over with household paint, coloured to compliment the colour of the wall where I was going to hang the finished works.

West Fork of Oak Creek, Arizona. I'm very keen to try my new photo paper, Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, on some of my photos from Arizona, using the technique where I mount the print onto canvas without glass. 
I'm hoping the eggshell finish paper and lack of glass with give the ultimate viewing quality.

The next step was to stick the A3 prints to 5mm thick black foam mounting board and then, very carefully using my mat board cutter, to cut out the photos and pieces of mounting board to their final size, using an inverse bevel cut so that the black mounting board couldn't be seen when looking straight at the hung pieces.

Finally, I stuck the mounted photos to the painted canvasses using hot melt glue, signed the canvasses in the bottom right hand corner and hung them in an evenly spaced line on my wall.

These look great, quite unusual and eye catching, and without the glare and reflections caused by a conventional glass fronted frame.

There was a slight problem though, but easily fixed. I printed the photos onto glossy photo paper, which has been my standard media for ages, but I've found that the glossy surface, even though there's no glass present, will still reflect a little of the window light and prevent the images from being seen clearly. So next I'm going to try the same technique but with a semi-matt paper, Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, to see if that kills any remaining reflections. I have great hopes!

5. Canvas wraps

As I mentioned earlier in this article, I've also experimented with getting one of my photos put onto canvas and I was very pleased with the result.

Because the canvas is a heavily textured surface there are no reflections at all to spoil the view of the artwork, and you can actually run your fingers over it without ruining it. Strange, but I do enjoy works of art you can touch as well as look at.

I'm thinking of getting a few more of my photos put onto canvas, to compliment my other attempts to display artwork, but there are some things to be careful of when doing this that may limit what type of photo I can display this way.

Driftwood on Talacre Beach. I think this simple composiiton would look great on canvas. Unfortunately however, the non-standard (16:9) aspect ratio means I can't get it printed by an outside lab.

For instance, commercially available canvas prints are only available in standard photographic ratios, so any image has to be cropped to one of these formats before being printed. I favour square or 5x4 ratios myself.

Another thing to watch out for is that most commercial canvasses are produced using a gallery wrap, where the picture extends around the side of the wooden frame, so if you have any details close to the edge of your photo they may well be only partially visible on the front face of the canvas.

A further consideration needs to be given to the type of image you want to display. If you have an image that depends for its impact on the viewer's ability to see fine detail then a canvas might not be the way to go, as the coarse surface texture of the canvas precludes the reproduction of fine details.

So, so long as you bear in mind its limitations, I think photos on canvas can look great, and I'll certainly be exporing this media further.

6. Conclusions

I'm reasonably sure that in ten year's time we'll be displaying photos in our homes using screens rather than prints, as the size and quality of what's available goes up and the price comes down.

Until then though, the print still rules as far as I'm concerned, with the quality of the viewing experience being directly proportional to the amount of time, money and effort that's put into their production.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this article and got something useful out of it. No doubt you'll have opinions and ways of displaying your own photos that are different to mine, and I'd love to hear about them.

As ever, you can contact me by email at howie@gohowie.com.

Thanks for reading.