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Christmas Card 2003

Winter Tree, Livingston

About the Image

So-called contre jour photography is always a bit of a hit and miss affair, as the series of negatives this image comes from can testify. From two rolls of 35mm negatives (abut 70 pictures in total) taken on a day in the winter of 1990–91, two negatives of this view are the only interesting ones. At least, that’s true as long as you don’t count some more conventional photographs of concrete elephants and hippopotami with a light dusting of snow.

Winter Tree, Livingston is certainly the only one of the set that manages to at least partly capture some of the quality of winter light, and in particular picks out some of the foreground texture as well as leaving some detail in the clouds. The trick, of course, was to photograph with the sun blocked out by the trunk of the central tree. Even so, several other similar attempts from the same set were pretty bad failures, mainly I think because of the difficulty of guessing the right exposure values.

As to the image itself, what can I say other than that I find bright sunlight on snow on a crisp day in the middle of winter strangely uplifting?

About the Cards

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. The presence of multiple shades of black instead of the single one used in the conventional “CMYK” ink set allows a full range of tones to be produced with a nearly “dotless” result.

Technical Information

The original negative was made on Kodak TMX TMAX-100 35mm film, which is quite good at retaining a wide range of values in the negative. The camera used was a Nikon SLR of some kind, probably either a Nikon F-801 or an F3HP. Both of these cameras have “high eyepoint” viewfinders so that I can see the full frame while wearing eyeglasses.

A full-depth 2700dpi monochrome scan of this negative yields a Photoshop file size of around 17MB. The amount of information in the image is obviously more than enough for use on the cards; it would probably make a decent print up to around 16x12 inches or a very good one up to around 10x8 or so.

The first processing steps on the image were initial contrast correction and a little retouching in 16-bit grayscale mode, then conversion to an 8-bit grayscale mode for subsequent work. I added a single Curves layer to allow the foreground to be altered so that it stands out a little more. I did try various versions of the image with different kinds of emphasis on the central “glow” behind the tree, but in the end settled for the image without any of these. Everything is done at full resolution just in case I want to reprint this at a larger size. Only when I was happy with the image did I sharpen a copy slightly to compensate for the blurring that occurs in the scanning and printing process. All imaging work was done in Adobe Photoshop 7.0 (still waiting for my “CS” version upgrade) under Windows 2000 Professional. I’ve found Photoshop’s healing brush to be particularly useful for retouching dust from scans and that is particularly important with scans from 35mm negatives.

As usual, the cards were printed on an Epson Stylus Color 1160 desktop inkjet printer. In previous years I have used MIS Associates quad black inks and various combinations of software and finger-crossing to generate output for the printer. This year for the first time I have switched to a system called Piezography from Jon Cone’s Inkjet Mall. There have been three generations of this system: with the original inks, I found the print tones to have a greenish tinge I disliked. The second generation of inks, called Piezotone, are all much nicer and are available in several tints; I find the “Selenium Tone” version with the “Portfolio” black to be ideal. The version of Piezgraphy I am using at present provides a Photoshop plug-in through which printing is performed; the latest PiezographyBW ICC system dispenses with this so that Photoshop’s standard printing dialogs are available. The Piezography system isn’t cheap in capital terms, but the inks are available in bulk so that the cost per print isn’t as scary as you might initially think. I acquired my setup from MWORDS Ltd in the UK.

Each card goes through the printer three times; the first pass prints the inside of the card, the second the text on the back of the card and the third pass employs the Piezography system to print the main image. It takes a couple of minutes to print each card. The text on the back is in Microsoft’s “Comic Sans” font; the font used inside the card is called “Coronet”.

The paper used this year is Hahnemühle Torchon, a 285g/m² product made by Schleicher & Schuell. This is a little heavier than last year’s cards and in fact very similar to the Hahnemühle German Etching board I used for my first cards back in 2000 except for an overall texturing that I find adds to the feel of the card. Because the card stock is a little lighter than the German Etching, it is easier to fold and is now made available pre-creased. My supplier for both the paper and the rather nice envelopes was Chris Burslem at on-line.p@per.co.uk.