It’s kind of like birthing a child. You see the paper just starting to emerge from the printer, the white of the margin first, and there’s that expectant hold-your-breath moment while you wait to see ink. When you do, when the first lines of darkness appear, abstract and amorphous, there’s that instant of relief.
Then there’s the longer pause while you wait for the image to gather itself, to gain coherency. It’s very much cousin to that earlier way, when you’d hold the sheet in a tray of liquid.
When it drops, you reach for it tentatively. You hold it gingerly, by the edge, because the ink is only just dry. The paper is ever so slightly tired, with a tinge of dampness in its core, still awakening to its new partner.
There’s the first quick glance, taking in the whole. First impression, a feeling of relief, or exultation, or disappointment. Then your eye sweeps back around, begins to penetrate the details. Your conclusion hardens.
Sometimes it’s a mix. That’s the way it is now. It’s an image chosen quickly, at random, a picture taken a couple days ago. Just to try the new inks.
Even at letter-size the tonal richness is apparent. I see details I didn’t before. In the water. In the tree. In the bricks of the hundred-year-old building.
The elation of that overall impression is tempered by the corner. The few inches where the sky is hot. A faint hue of yellow streaks through the highlights like a meteor.
It takes me a second. Of course.
Back in Lightroom, searching quickly. Something high-key, forcing the faint, wispy light gray Shade 7 to flow through the old used-to-be-yellow channel.
Back at the printer, another print. Another power clean.
Finally the yellow stain is gone. Pure white and black and gray. Lots of grays.
Now, holding this second image – now, pure monochrome – in my hands, there’s a tangible moment.
Like the first picture, there are details I hadn’t noticed before. The barn just pops, in an understated, elegant way.
But there’s something more. Something almost intangible. This picture is full of fog, the blankness of the sky merging with the simple landscape. Except that, in the print I now hold in my hands, that rolling white isn’t blank at all. It’s touched with hints, barest hints, of what lies within it. There’s a… delicacy to the image. It holds the mood I had felt that day when I saw the scene and pulled the truck over.
When walking the city I usually let the light guide me. How it falls. The way it shapes the buildings and the street and the people. Often as not one side of the street is in sunlight while the other is in shade, and I want one or the other.
Today, though, while not really in a hurry, I do have a destination in mind. I let the pedestrian walk signs direct my route.
So it’s pure serendipity when, having crossed down Tenth Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, I see the motorcycle cop slow, due a U-turn, and then halt, blocking traffic. A moment later another joins him.
My first thought is motorcade. President Obama, perhaps. Or maybe Biden. Motorcades are not that uncommon around here.
But then I notice the small group of people across the street.
By the time the white hearse pulls around, stopping right in front of me, I have it figured out.
The crowd walks slowly across the street. The back of the hearse is opened and the coffin is removed. The pallbearers slowly begin walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, in the direction of the White House, surrounded by and trailed by the chanting crowd of people.
I hadn’t expected to be doing any documentary photography today. But, going with the flow, I join the small queue of news photographers walking backwards in front of the procession.
I’m glad I chose the 35 this morning, rather than my usual 50. Still, manually focusing the Leica while both myself and what I’m shooting are moving is challenging. As is the constantly re-organizing geometry within my frame lines.
But one of the bits of photographic wisdom I’ve gained over the years is to take what the world gives you. I’m delighted to have been presented this little vignette of local history, a counterpoint to my more conventional street photography. Marion Barry, former mayor of DC, infamous for both his politics and his personal peccadillos, loved and hated in equal measure, is having his send-off.
After several blocks, deciding that I have enough, I take one last shot with the Monochrom and then pull my iPhone from my pocket. Not everyone appreciates the texture and beauty of black and white. Might as well get a color snapshot.
An hour later I emerge from the salon. “You sure were in there for a long time,” the guard outside offers with a smile. “Are you a professional?”
Usually I find the guards at DC’s various museums to be a humorless bunch. Afraid, I’m sure, I’m going to take a picture with the camera inevitably slung over my shoulder in their No Photography Allowed exhibits.
They’d be right. Sometimes I do.
We chat for a bit and I try and explain what I found so compelling about the small exhibit in the room behind us. Nodding at my Leica, he asks about film.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I still shoot film sometimes, but this is digital.”
Struggling to explain the contorted, now-more-than-a-decade-old question, my mind circles around the exhibit I’ve just left.
“Those pictures were all made from large-format negatives, then printed with one of the most beautiful processes ever invented. Digital gives you much of the same kind of quality, in a much more accessible format.”
Turning to leave, I glance one last time at the placard: A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Prints from the Collection. The exhibit will be open for another month.
“I’ll come back again before it closes,” I smile.
“I hope you do,” he replies.
It had begun innocently enough. An online query about whether a RIP – shorthand for a small, arcane bit of software called a Raster Image Processor – might elevate print quality.
There was lots of discussion about that.
I never considered different inks. I had subscribed to Digital Silver Black and White, The Print the internet meeting ground for those early inkjet pioneers, back in the day, when alternative ink sets were first being developed. The epic stories of clogs and other mini-disasters were legion.
No thank you.
Beyond the tortured history, the first pillar that I circled was that Epson’s ABW – advanced black and white mode – did an excellent job. I’ve had a number of prints exhibited and have never felt particularly constrained by the limitations of ABW.
The second was a reluctance to disturb the Maytag-like reliability of my 3880. I’m an episodic printer – I’ll often go weeks or months between bouts of printing (which then tend to be intense) and have never had the clogging problems that have plagued some of Epson’s other professional pigment printers.
Still, in the end it’s all about the print. You go to the National Gallery of Art or the National Portrait Gallery or the Corcoran or any of the others and you see the great work of great masters. Most of that genius you take in lives within the canvas or the paper – the idea and the composition and the color and the tonality that the artist wrought. But part of it – a necessary part of it – is in the execution, the craft itself. How the artist transformed what was in their heart into a physical object.
The very best of them can be magic. They have a luminous other-world quality that transcends simply being a picture hung on a wall. You look at them and you catch your breath.
And so you’re left wondering. And, sometimes, trying something you didn’t expect.
The first disappointment didn’t take long. The obvious question anyone contemplating a 3rd-party inkset wants answered is how do they compare with what I’m currently using? And with Piezography it’s even a little more complicated, as Jon Cone sells five different inksets – Neutral, Warm Neutral, Selenium, Carbon, and Special Edition.
The good news is that Cone sells a sample pack of five prints, of the same image, using each of his inks. A pretty straightforward way of comparing the inksets while also letting one examine an actual Piezography print in hand.
The bad news is… the prints are the size of a postcard. Frankly, I am shocked. For forty bucks I expected at least letter-size prints. What you get is just sufficient to see how the inks differ. The prints are too small to make any kind of judgment about Piezography itself.
The good news for him – and for me, I suppose – is that I decide to give his inks a try in spite of that disaster of marketing.
The strengths of Epson’s OEM professional inks are well known. Pigment-based inks are now a mature product, with outstanding qualities. Color gamut is very good. Fade resistance is excellent. And pigment encapsulation has made piezo head clogging a (mostly) manageable issue. Most of the metamerism, bronzing, and gloss differential problems that plagued earlier generations of inks have been solved. Printing directly out of Photoshop or Lightroom are very straightforward. And the ABW mode produces excellent results while at the same time reducing to a minimum the amount of non-black ink used, further enhancing long-term fade resistance.
It’s a very good product.
It’s singular downside is ink cost. The nine 80ml carts in my 3880 each cost a bit over $50 apiece to replace. After shipping, you’re close to five hundred bucks – half the typical street price of that 3880 printer – to replace the full set. And if you do any amount of serious printing, you’ll be replacing them with some frequency. It’s made worse by the design of Epson’s printers themselves, which use ink every time a cleaning cycle is run or when one changes between matte and glossy papers. I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes every time I switch papers. Finally, Epson’s chipped carts will cease sending ink well before they actually run out. Out of that 80ml of ink that you paid fifty bucks for, you’ll actually only ever get to use around 60ml.
In fairness, the larger pro models do include separate ink channels for matte and photo inks. And they have larger ink cart capacities, which brings the unit cost down.
Still, there’s no way around the cost of OEM ink. Epson has very much bought into the we’ll-give-you-the-razor-but-charge-you-up-the-ass-for-blades business model.
Having said all that, I’ll be honest. Cost is a distant factor in my consideration of a 3rd-party inkset. The thing I’m interested in answering – the only thing I’m interested in answering – is can I get better pictures?
While waiting for the inks to arrive I busy myself with printing a bunch of recent images. I have a spare set of Epson carts sitting in my printer stand, ready to get me back square, should that be indicated.
Sperryville is a tiny little hamlet snugged up tight under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve run through it a million times on my motorcycle, headed towards or coming back from the rolling, dizzying curves of the gap just west of the town. I’ve stopped a bunch of times for a break, or to enjoy a quick meal. But until two weeks ago I had never walked the town, with a photographer’s eye.
Wouldn’t you know it, I do street photography in DC and Arlington and Alexandria and New York, and lots of other places. Hundreds of hours. Thousands of pictures. Rarely do I get challenged.
The guy at the apple stand in Sperryville was not happy.
As I steer the truck westward, I keep glancing over at the print. The shot itself is pedestrian. Little more than a snapshot. But the picture holds a fascination for me that belies its unremarkable origin. Its subject and obvious rural setting and slight hint of sepia are reminiscent of a picture one might have seen from the Great Depression. The baskets of fruit in the soft sunlight have a depth and a dimensionality to them. The deep shadows of the shed hold subtle detail. It’s an ordinary photograph on the one hand. And yet…
Finally it comes to me what it reminds me of. Walker Evans. Using a large format camera.
After printing the barn, I quickly began printing a whole bunch of other things. Portraits. Landscapes. Street scenes. Documentary. Daytime. Nighttime. Low key. High key. The whole eclectic range of imagery that has always attracted me. Mostly, shots that I already had printed using ABW.
I made a lot of pictures. After two days, I had to fill up my ink carts again.
I used lots of different papers, both matte and glossy. Epson’s Hot and Cold Press Natural and Exhibition Fiber. Canson’s Baryta Photographique and Rag Photographique and Platine Fibre Rag. Jon Cone’s Studio Type 5. Hahnemuhle’s Museum Etching.
My starting point, my baseline, is Epson’s ABW. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a very good product. It’s easy to use. And it produces excellent results. I like it very much.
If I was going to make a change, I wanted it to be a turn-key product, similar to ABW.
Jone Cone touts Piezography as just that. And it is, mostly. You can go to his retail website (inkjetmall.com) and buy a set of refillable carts and a set of inks and pretty quickly be in business. The task of removing your chips from your used set of Epson OEM carts and inserting them into your new refillable carts – something you’ll need to do only once – is easy. And the process of filling carts with ink from bottles is about as straightforward as it sounds.
Alas, it’s not perfectly turn-key.
Both Cone’s retail website and his more technically oriented piezography.com blog and forum site are rich with information. Everything you need to know to become a successful Piezography printer is there. But organizationally they are something of a mess. You’re going to have to work a bit to pull together all the pieces of information you’ll need. Mostly, it’s little things.
Like when ordering a set of refillable carts with syringes – the syringes being used to fill and prime the carts – for a 3880, you’ll receive, as expected, nine carts. But, curiously, you’ll only get eight syringes. Huh?
A little digging reveals that you can use the same syringe for both Neutral Shade 1 and Opaque Photo Black (analogues to the OEM matte and photo black inks). It would be nice to have that little tidbit more prominently communicated.
Or, for the process for the one-time chipping and first filling of ink in your new carts, there is a wonderfully helpful 5-minute video on the website. Helpful, at least, until you get to the last, priming step, where you find it simply doesn’t work. Turns out that priming with the newer carts is done differently.
Or that there are a number of references to the Master Printmaking System (‘MPS’ – Cone’s label for a system comprised of both matte and glossy-compatible inks) being available only for the Selenium and Warm Neutral inksets, when in fact they are now available for all five.
The workflow is also slightly more difficult than the lovely, seamless printing from Lightroom through to Epson’s ABW. At least if you’re on a Mac. Apple, intent on saving us from ourselves, has screwed up color management. You have to export out of Lightroom, make a quick trip into Photoshop to convert the color space, and then print your file from QTR’s Print Tool.
Probably the largest set of questions revolve around the profiles – ‘curves’ in Piezography parlance – that are available. When using Epson’s OEM inks obtaining profiles is simply a non-issue. Epson is the fine art elephant in the room and a paper manufacturer would be crazy not to provide easy-to-download profiles for all of Epson’s printer models whenever they introduce a new paper. The question of Piezography curves is not nearly so clear. For a product which has evolved and matured over a number of years, you would expect, similarly, a large library of curves to be available. Not so. Compared to the number of printer models and inkjet papers sold today, there is a relative dearth of Piezography curves. That dearth is mediated by the ability to use a curve that is ‘close.’ I routinely use curves labeled ’SEL’ (obviously for ‘Selenium’), for my Warm Neutral inkset. Or a curve labeled ‘7880’ in my Epson 3880 printer model.
When I inquired, Jon Cone affirmed that they did not feel it was necessary to create curves for each of their K7 inks, that one curve perfectly handles each of their five inksets. That seems to be borne out in my own experience.
Still, if Jon Cone were asking my advice – something he most emphatically is not – the thing I’d suggest above all others is that he clarify the use of curves. Which ones are generic (i.e. are intended to be used with multiple inksets or printer models) versus which are more specific? Fix the labeling accordingly. Ultimately, make sure curves are available for all mainstream papers. Suggesting that folks simply try a curve to see if it suits them seems, at first, odd for a printing system whose entire raison d’être is about maximizing output quality. Particularly since Cone’s natural constituency are those already well-versed in conventional OEM printing, where very precise and specific profiles are the rule, not the exception.
Reading all this might suggest that Piezography is plagued with issues. Not true. These are simply nits. Irritations to those new to the process. If Piezography fails at being as perfectly turn-key as Epson’s own ABW, it doesn’t do so by much. In practice it is a very straightforward system to use. The workflow is quite simple.
I’ll also point out that the support provided by Cone and his team is outstanding. Spend some time on the Piezography forums and you’ll see that Dana Ceccarelli, Cone’s technical support manager, goes significantly out of her way to help people – even when their issue is clearly not a Piezography failing. Cone frequently steps in himself to help customers. And Wells Smith, who runs Cone’s shipping warehouse, gets stuff out very promptly – typically hours – and packed with great care. Cone has an excellent team. A lot of much larger companies could learn a thing or two from his operation.
More importantly – the reason I came down this road in the first place – the results truly do make a difference. Piezography prints are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
W. Eugene Smith, when once asked about his process for printing, famously replied “I go into the darkroom in the morning with a gallon of Dektol in one hand, a package of 11×14 Polycontrast J under my arm, and a fifth of scotch in the other hand, and come out twelve hours later with a print.”
Ask John Sexton about printing and he’ll tell you to make a proof print early and often.
What both of these gentlemen allude to, of course, is that the process of making an outstanding print is an iterative and elusive one. It has always been so.
The tools that we have today in the digital lightroom are more refined, more granular, and certainly more comfortable – if no less easy – than those that preceded them in the wet darkroom. But what hasn’t changed is the road that we must travel.
There are a fair number of excellent photographers out there. The number who can then translate one of those very good images into a fine, master print are quite a bit scarcer. The visual literacy required for capturing an image is not exactly the same as for making that image into a print. Certainly the process literacy – how one uses the tools at one’s disposal – when making an image versus making a print, is vastly different. And that holds just as much whether one is dodging and burning under an enlarger and then dunking that contains-all-hope piece of paper in a tray of chemicals or whether one is sitting in front of a monitor, wondering which Photoshop tool might solve the problem that stares back at you.
It’s always been hard.
All of which is to say, there has never been a silver bullet. And there doesn’t exist one now. It’s important to understand that becoming a master printer requires every bit as much commitment as does becoming a great photographer.
For those willing to make that commitment, Jon Cone’s Piezography is a gift. It does something that no other digital printing process I’ve ever seen, does. It gives you everything – literally everything – in your file.
When I first started shooting with my Leica Monochrom two years ago, the conclusion I quickly arrived at was that the camera brought a nuanced improvement in luminance values and tonal gradation. It wasn’t earth shattering compared to my other cameras – Leica M9, Nikon D3, and (now) Leica M-240. But it was consistently, notably there, in every shot.
It was subtlety, writ large.
After a hundred-odd prints using Piezography’s K7 Warm Neutral inkset, on a half-dozen different papers, in different sizes, on both matte and glossy, I’ve come to the very same conclusion. Cone’s product doesn’t bring a world-shattering improvement. But in comparing K7 prints to ABW prints, using the same source files and the same papers, what’s there is a consistent, nuanced improvement. It’s not an in-your-face thing, but the Piezography prints are nearly always better. And the larger one prints, the greater that advantage shows itself.
That subtlety thing again.
Notably, some prints actually look worse with Piezography. Until you delve into them and understand what is going on. The singular thing Cone’s inks give you is this incredibly rich, long tonal scale. If you have a print that depends, instead, on deep blacks, high contrast, and pop to give it its effect, you may find the initial Piezography version to be flatter than you like. What’s happening is the Cone inks are giving you exactly what’s in your file. If you have a pixel that is mapped to tonal values of 1 or 2 or 3, you’ll actually get detail from that pixel. Only zero will give you true black.
Same thing on the highlight end. Piezography’s inks will differentiate the entire tonal scale. Most other printing systems, including Epson’s ABW, can’t do that.
Which is to say, if you want that deep black, high contrast image, you have to edit for it with Piezography. You have to do it knowingly, not just arriving at it as a byproduct of your printer’s limitations.
The flip side is that images that benefit from a long tonal range are absolutely to die for. Dimensionality in a photograph is created by tonal separation. And most tonal values, in most of the photographic processes we’ve ever developed, going all the way back to those first daguerreotypes, are perfectly fine. They live on the linear part of the densitometry curve. Tonal separation is easy to achieve there. But there’s always been this shoulder and toe on either end of that curve. Where the values get compressed. Where there’s less tonal differentiation. Where photographers have always struggled to get detail. It’s the whole reason for the old black and white film “expose for the shadows” and its close cousin “over-expose and under-develop” mantras. It’s the reason Zone System practitioners have long sought to get shadows in zone IV.
Last spring I had a 16 x 20 print exhibited of a girl walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain. It was difficult image to get – I got very cold and very wet. But I always liked the image and I very much liked the print that ABW produced.
A few days ago I re-printed that image using Piezography. Comparing the two, I was astonished at the amount of additional detail that the new print exhibited. The improved highlights were subtle, but there. What wasn’t subtle were the shadows. The Piezography print showed detail that simply didn’t exist in the original print. It was a revelation.
It’s not as simple as just re-printing your old files. You can do that, of course. But I’m finding that the expanded tonal range that Piezography offers is usually best served by re-editing those files with that longer tonal scale in mind.
There are more downsides… I’m finding that Piezography will reveal every other weakness in your workflow. That calibrated monitor that seemed to soft-proof perfectly fine with ABW? Not so much anymore. If you can’t see pretty much the entire Adobe 1998 gamut, you’re flying blind. Making a print to see what’s in that black-as-night shadow seems ass backwards. And it is.
Yes, you’ll need that Eizo after all. And a GTI viewing station.
It’s not entirely painless, in other words. But the results, for me, early on in this grand adventure, speak for themselves. I like what I’m seeing. I haven’t enjoyed printing this much in a long time.
And then, in the midst of all this latter-day fun… The RAID enclosure where I store all my digital images went kaput. That triggered several days of high anxiety while I wondered if tens of thousands of images – and years of work – might have disappeared. The good news is I was eventually able to recover everything from backups (a second RAID device) except for a number of soft proofs. Cue up… huge sigh of relief.
But that near disaster reminded me of something.
Used to be, photography was represented by physical, tangible objects. Now, with the advent of ubiquitous electronic devices and social media and all the rest, only a tiny percentage of images ever make it to paper. The vast majority exist only as transient images on a screen.
When we’re gone, no one is going to go through our disk drives looking to see what neat pictures might be there. The film guys don’t get a pass either – no one is going to browse through those old binders of contact sheets and negatives sitting on the shelf.
And so as we roll towards the New Year, my joined-at-the-hip resolutions are to print more often; and to do a better job of it when I do.
Piezography will be a part of that.
Barn in Fog
Girl on Brooklyn Bridge