Note: This is part III of a series of blog posts describing my experience submitting images to the 2019 San Diego County Fair phtoography exhibit. You can read Part II here.
I have 9 images selected to advance to Tier 2. In this stage, the participating photographers submit physical prints. The judges then examine each print to make sure it meets image quality and presentation standards. The judges also determine class winners based on the print itself and not the initial digital submission.
Choosing a paper
The first decision I needed to make was deciding on a paper for my prints. I always knew that I was going to print the images myself as I’m a big fan of pigment prints and I have my own printer (Epson P800). I think inkjet prints provide the highest quality available today in terms of sharpness, color gamut, black levels, and permanence (resistance to fading). I also prefer the control and immediate feedback over sending it out to a lab.
I’ve been experimenting with different papers over the past year, however by the time I recieved my T1 notifications I still hadn’t decided on a paper for the exhibit. I did however narrow down my selection to three papers: Epson Exhibition Fiber, Canson Infinity Baryta, and Epson Luster (in a rather confusing fashion, Epson has two official names for this paper and you may find it called “Epson Premium Luster” or “Epson Ultra Premium Luster”).
To test these candidates, I printed out one color and one black & white photo on all three papers. I used the manufacturer provided ICC profiles.
From left to right, the prints are Epson Exhibition Fiber, Canson Baryta, and Epson Luster. Don’t try to conclude too much from the image, you really need to view the prints in person. I took each of the prints and examined them in a variety of different lighting conditions. Here are my observations:
Epson Exhibition Fiber
- excellent color gamut
- in sunlight the paper is really bright and bluish – this is due to the optical brightening agents in the paper which absorb UV light and fluoresce
- paper white is neutral and bright in fluorescent lighting
- medium amount of surface stipple
- soft surface and scratches easily
- excellent color gamut, indistinguishable from Epson Exhibition Fiber
- paper is a bit warmer and not as bright
- very smooth surface texture
- sometimes the stipple in the surface looks like a dust spot
- slighty warm tint in B&W from the paper white
- a bit blue in fluorescent lighting and is especially noticable in the B&W print
- slightly less dynamic range (brights to darks) compared to the other two papers
- the colors tended to be a bit blue or magenta
- most robust surface
The colors were very slightly off in the luster paper, so I eliminated that from consideration. Between the exhibition fiber and canson baryta, both images looked quite good and very similar in terms of colors and gamut. Ultimately, I decided on the exhibition fiber for two reasons: first the paper white is a bit brighter and more neutral, second, I liked the surface texture better than the relatively smooth baryta.
Note: it’s possible that some of the differences between papers are due to using a generic profile instead of a custom one made for my specific printer.
Printing my images
Having decided on the exhibition fiber, I ordered a box of 17x22 cut sheets. Unfortunately it came in a gigantic shipping box which I thought was a bit wasteful. In the future, I’ll try to source it locally.
My plan was to print the images on the 17x22 paper and then trim it down to 16x20 leaving a small white border. I would then mount the images on self-adhesive foam core.
I have a specific process for printing my images:
- Examine my master file and check my processing at 100% resolution. Specifically, I look for
- dust spots that I might have missed
- appropriate image brightness (often images can be appear too dark on paper)
- any additional processing needed for print such as noise reduction, saturation adjustments due to paper gamut limitations, or sharpening
- Print a small proof on 8.5x11 paper.
- Look at the proofs under different light conditions such outdoor shade, window light, led lights, etc.
- Decide if I need any further editing. at this point I might make a few proofs if I want to test out different versions for brightness or saturation. I will view the images side by side.
- Once I’m happy with the proof, I make a full size print on 17x22” paper.
- Images in 4:5 ratio are printed at 17x13.6” leaving 1.5” and 1.2” inch borders
- Images in 3:2 ratio are printed at 17.5x11.7” leaving 1.25” and 2.15” inch borders
- Let the prints dry for a few days with a sheet of paper over it to protect it from dust and other contaminants.
I had two images where I wanted to do some additional editing, in particular, applying more noise reduction. The first was my bioluminescence photograph. I had taken this at extremely high ISO and then pushed the exposure another stop or two in post-processing.
The second picture was my moon shot in Balboa Park. When I initially processed this image, I thought the noise levels were fine. But when I made my first large print I realized there was more noise in the sky than I was happy with.
For noise reduction, I used Topaz Denoise AI. It’s beyond the scope of this post to do a review of the program but I’ll note that while Topaz generally worked well, it can produce artifacts. In particular there were abrupt transitions where Topaz applies NR and yields a very clean image and then immediately switches to applying no noise reduction.
I ended up processing multiple versions of my image at different noise reduction strengths. I layered them in PS and manually painted in the cleaner images on different layers to avoid artifacts. I then balanced the very clean version of the image with the original by adjusting the opacity.
Finally, I’ll note that Topaz suggests applying their noise reduction as early as possible in the process. I found that didn’t work particularly well and instead applied it at the end.
Mounting my images
Traditionally, most images in the fair are mounted on to 16x20 foam core with an overmat. However this year I wanted to try a different presentation – I mounted my prints on foam core without a mat and with a paper border instead.
I ordered pre-cut self-adhesive board in size 16x20” from mountingboard.com. According to their specifications the boards should be within 1⁄16” of the stated dimension, although in general I found the boards to be more accurately cut than that.
Generally my process for mounting went as follows:
- Measure the self-adhesive board and note the dimensions (boards can be off in size by small amounts)
- Measure the margins on the print as sometimes the print may not be completely centered.
- Trim the edges of the print so that the image is centered and the paper is same dimensions as the self-adhesive board. I have a Rotatrim paper cutter and that makes this very easy.
- I then follow the steps in this video for mounting the photo to the self-adhesive board.
Note: in the video presenter adds two pieces of wood on the back to make the piece float away from the wall. DO NOT DO THIS FOR THE SAN DIEGO FAIR. They need a flat back surface to put velcro all around the outside edge in order to hang prints. I also made my own print weights by putting approximately 1 lb of coins in an old sock.
Mistakes & Reprinting
Even though I double and triple check my files and make smaller proof prints, mistakes happen. I ended up reprinting my full size images a number of times for the following reasons:
- The print had a white dust spot that I couldn’t spot well enough with markers (see this post for how to prevent and deal with dust spots).
- I cut the paper a bit too short and you could see the foam core behind it.
- I scratched the print surface leaving visible marks.
- The paper had a black fleck in the margins that I didn’t notice before printing.
- There was a natural object that looked like dust spot in the full sized print so I cloned it out.
- I realized after printing the image that I needed to do noise reduction.
I’ll be delivering my prints tomorrow and then I’m done. You can read Part IV here.