“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Christmas Card 2000

"Frozen Leaves, Hermitage of Braid"

About the Image

Sometime back in 1989, I realised that the way I made photographs (rather slowly and normally on a tripod) suited larger format cameras as much as it did smaller ones. After all, if one is going to carry a great sack full of equipment around, one might as well make a big negative with it. The immediate result was that I bought a roll-film technical view camera and slowed down even more.

Frozen Leaves, Hermitage of Braid was one of the earliest images I made using a larger format camera. It was taken in the winter of 1989 on a day so cold that I could hear the ice cracking on the trees as I made my photographs. These are rare conditions in the mild climate around Edinburgh, so it was a memorable experience.

This particular image is hard to make into a good photographic print because it relies on the frosted leaves standing out from what is really a rather cluttered background. The version of the image used on the cards is a lot closer to my original visualisation of the scene than I’ve ever been able to get in a conventional darkroom.

About the Cards

For the last couple of years, I have been winding down my “wet” darkroom in favour of the digital equivalent based on scanners, a home PC and inkjet printers. These cards represent my first successful foray into digital imaging with monochrome images.

It turns out that, at least from the point of view of a traditional monochrome photographer and printer, digital monochrome is a lot harder to do well than digital colour. One of the reasons desktop colour printers do a mediocre job of monochrome printing is that balancing the colour inks to produce a neutral tone is almost impossible: even if you seem to have got it right, the balance will change in a few weeks or in different lighting; the results can be downright ugly. The technique I have used here is to replace the standard 4-colour ink set with a so-called “quad black” set: there are still four inks, but now all of them are shades of black and this means that the result has a more stable and acceptable colour. This is combined with special custom printing software to produce a nearly “dotless” result.

One of the advantages of ink jet printing over conventional “wet” photographic printing is that a wide variety of materials can be printed on. The cards are printed on a heavy mould-made paper manufactured in Germany. Although this has the feel of a heavy art paper, it is specially coated on one side to receive inkjet ink: without this coating, the print would be very blurred, which wouldn’t suit this image very well.

Technical Information

The original negative was made on Kodak T-Max 100 roll film using a Linhof Super Technica IV 2¼ x 3¼ camera with a Schneider-Kreuznach 100mm Symmar lens; this is the standard focal length for the 6x7cm format this camera uses. Linhof still manufacture this camera; my camera, on the other hand, is probably older than I am. You can see a picture of it at the top of my home page.

[Update 2018-01-17: Linhof no longer manufacture medium format field cameras. If you’re interested in them, this page has some great images and information. I still own mine, although I don’t use it any more. Linhof do still manufacture a 6x9 cm rail camera, the M 679cs, and also the Master Technika classic, which is a large format 4″ x 5″ field camera and the “big brother” of the 6x9s.]

The exposure was one second at f/11, which included a bellows factor of x1.5 because the subject was less than two feet from the camera.

A 1600dpi, 12-bit-depth scan of this negative yields a Photoshop file size of around 30MB; this is obviously plenty for use on the cards, and would likely suffice for an excellent print at around 12x10 inches, or a moderately good one at anything up to 20x16 inches.

The first processing steps on the image were initial contrast correction, a little retouching and then cropping to the final image size and shape. Next, I isolated the different parts of the image — the two groups of foreground leaves, another group of leaves I wanted to make less prominent and of course “everything else” — as selections on the image, and built a separate “curves” adjustment layer for each with an associated layer mask. This allowed me to control the appearance of each of the areas very much more tightly than would have been possible in a conventional print. More layers add an “edge burn” and a black border to hold the image in; these are both conventional photographic techniques which get a lot easier (and certainly more repeatable) in the digital world.

The text on the back is in Microsoft’s “Comic Sans” font; the font used inside the card is called “Coronet”. If you look really closely at “Season’s Greetings”, you can see the blurring caused by the lack of an inkjet-receptive coating on the back of the paper.

The cards were printed on an Epson Stylus Color 1160 desktop inkjet printer using MIS Associates quad black inks. It takes just over ten minutes to print each card. The paper is Hahnemühle German Etching Board (“Kupferdruckkarton”), a 310g/m² product made by Schleicher & Schuell. This is thick enough that each sheet has to be hand-fed into the printer. My supplier, Chris Burslem at on-line.p@per.co.uk, was kind enough to experiment with pre-creasing this paper for me at no additional charge. This turned out to be enough of a nightmare for them (and even now, you will have found that the cards don’t quite close properly) that I will have to find another solution to this part of the problem next year, perhaps by using a thinner card.

Although all other work was done in Adobe Photoshop 6.0 under Windows 2000 Professional, the actual printing process was done under Red Hat Linux 7.0 using a version of the Open Source Gimp Print software modified (partly by myself, partly by Doug Kelly) to understand quad black printing. This is something of an ongoing project, to say the least. Commercial software called Piezography does the same thing (probably slightly better, but for a lot more money) as a Photoshop plug-in; it is available from Inkjet Mall.