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Digital Negatives: Getting very long in the shadow

by
Jon Cone
published on 03/08/2011 19:00:00

Piezography Digital Negative number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine… Number thirty actually. Thirty different major curve architectures, or software methodologies have now passed since I last wrote about this subject. I think #30 is the charm.

Last week I created a new software that makes curves directly for the silver paper, rather than indirectly through the negative film. This created a quantum leap in print quality.

I am a little hampered by not having access to a vacuum frame. The 13×19 negatives I am making just will not hold tight enough against the paper’s emulsion. The contact frame I am using holds tight to the edges, but the center has no effective means of having pressure applied to it. Still, I am quite happy with my new approach which is producing a very long and smooth tone. And it’s quite nifty now that simply printing a positive image results in a pre-masked negative on the Pictorico film.

I am not certain where I will end up with this digital negative. But, it is interesting where I have been with it and where I am now. If you’ve been following along, Piezography Digital Negative originated as a subset of a very high dynamic range film positive system I made the year before last to print backlit Piezography and to make film positives for alt process.

Piezography Digital Negatives outside the darkroom

Two weeks ago when I entered the darkroom, I began to reduce the dynamic range of the film from 3.0 to a more useful range for making a digital negative – something around .13 to 1.70. Although my original curves process can be easily adapted to making a digital negative, I wanted to devise something that was perfectly suited for making a replacement of a silver negative. I wanted it to behave the same as a silver negative. I wanted it to even look the same as a silver negative.

I wanted to try and see if it was possible for me to do to digital negatives what I did to quad black printing with the Piezography system. My goal is to have a positive  image print directly through QTR onto Pictorico Ultra OHP as a film negative and then be processed in the darkroom as a silver print in a way that was masterful, yet easy.

To make curves for film, I work in the same manner as I do when making curves for printmaking papers. However, I use a transmission densitometer rather than a reflective densitometer. But, to make curves for silver paper I had to think in a total new paradigm shift. I would have to construct curves that go from full density towards lightness – the total opposite way of making a media curve. And I would have to devise a system that measured the inverse reaction to the curve because the process is a negative process – not a positive one. Finally, a new linearization system had to be built.

With the traditional curve I had already made for film, it would be up to the user to decide whether to print a positive to it or a negative to it. This new curve was going to take a positive image and invert it into a negative in just the right tonal scale in order to match up to the dMin and dMax of the paper.

It took two full days to wrap my head around making light curves that printed dark. I had to essentially work backwards while at the same time thinking backwards. Another way to say it is working backwards in reverse while inverted.  I have spent more than ten years making curves that increase in density, not start with darkness and get lighter. One of the days was incredibly long and I was not getting any warm fuzzy feeling for my work. The software came quicker to me than did the actual making of a successful curve system.

So, last Tuesday I began to develop a brand new curves designer and linearization system to help me work from dark to light while taking measurements off the silver print rather than the actual media on which the curves produce ink. It makes silver paper curves totally ignoring what is happening on the film. I am sure it could make a curve for any process I have access to. I found I could construct the initial curves architecture quickly and accurately. The linearization went flawlessly.

Push button Piezography Digital Negative

I initially worked on Ilford RC paper. On Wednesday I switched to Ilford Fiber Base and made a linearization that worked flawlessly. So the curves designing is now like second nature (finally) even though I am working in the opposite inverted backwards manner than I do with designing curves for paper (or film). I am happy to report that my 53 year old brain can reverse reverse while inverting an inversion backwards forwards. I think with a little practice it might even be able to accomplish something like this. Because that is what it felt like I was doing. I felt like I was singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

When I switched the target from the film to the paper, I down-graded the profiler from 256 to 128 patches. I actually downgraded to 64. But, I found as I began to smooth out the curve that I could measure more gray separations in the silver paper and settled on 128. Now, I am able to differentiate between 256.

With this new QTR curve methodology I am able to print negatives that make silver prints that I am very pleased with. I am using a particularly difficult digital image I shot at Chungde Beach in Taiwan. The sky is gray, the beach is black, and there is a huge pile of gray valued stones. There is detail in the black sand, the dark foliage near the stones. It’s a very demanding grayscale file that has endlessly long shadows and highlights. It’s a perfect candidate for Piezography printing, but I would have considered it a bit difficult for silver printing if it had been exposed as a negative. I don’t believe I would have been skilled enough to expose and develop this range of tone. I studied both the chemistry and densitometry of the Zone System. I don’t believe it is possible. And were it, the silver paper is always more challenging.

I had a silver print made of my digital file using the latest in photographic laser technology. While the print is amazing, it did close up on the shadows in comparison to my digital negative. It actually looks more like a traditional toe/shoulder result. Whereas my new Digital Negative curve linearizes this region. And the comparison of my digital negative print to the sharpness of the photographic laser print made me realize how much a vacuum frame is needed for making tack sharp contact prints with digital negatives. Pushing down against the glass just does not cut it! Do I really want to buy a vacuum frame? Do I really want to go back to the darkroom? So what is it about silver print?

I am making darkroom prints that I could never have imagined making from silver negatives. It’s almost as if the heart of the paper is a grade 2, but the shadows and highlights are being printed on 000 (if they made such a grade). A friend commented on them making me think that one would have to do some crazy masking, working simultaneously with multigrade filters in order to accomplish something like this.

The other task last week was to further increase the resolution of the digital negative process. That was challenging as a certain amount of ink is needed to get rid of visible dots (with a loupe on the silver print). But, resolution is enhanced with less ink and I went from six shades right down to only four shades. I wanted the silver print to be detailed even upon close inspection. I did not want anyone to be satisfied by looking from arm’s length. Well of course I did. What I meant to type is that I wanted the most critical observer with a loupe to be wowed and swayed and influenced and feel pandered to by the seduction of what a digital negative can offer.

And finally, I gave it a sweet push button appeal. Instead of inverting the image to a negative in Photoshop and saving it for printing through the curve. I can now start with a positive image. I simply Open it or Print it direct from QTR and select the curve for the silver paper I am printing. It automatically produces a negative on the Pictorico Ultra OHP film. The curve inverts the image from positive to negative when it is printed. The curve even produce a handy mask that can be used to make sure the paper margin is white. These will be contacted printed! If I print a 4×5 image on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of Pictorico. The entire sheet of Pictorico becomes a mask with a negative in the middle. To use a portion of the sheet, I just set a custom sheet size.

Does it reverse the image so it does not print backwards? No. One really needs to reverse the film so that the ink is against the silver paper. So the image has to be reversed in Photoshop still. But, it is somewhat convenient to be able to print out directly as a negative from the positive.

On Friday, I printed a Joel Pickford image in silver for the portfolio I am preparing to take to SPE to show every example of Piezography ink on a variety of papers. Might as well include a Piezography digital negative printed on Ilford fiber base. I also prepare 10 silver prints of my Chungde Beach image for the Printmakers Gathering Portfiolio “Tastes Like Chicken”. I will have two prints in that portfolio. One is an Old Tyme Feeling print and the other the Chungde digital silver print. I would have thought that I would have offered a more traditional Piezography print to represent Piezography in the portfolio. But, some excellent Piezographers are involved. So I thought what the heck – I’ll do the unexpected – both a little rough and tumble, but nonetheless pushing on the edges of what is possible in black & white inkjet.

Come to Atlanta this week to SPE (Society for Photographic Education) and see us at booth #55 (next to Besseler). Come see the prints.   Cone Editions Press / InkjetMall  Booth #55 (March 11 – 12 trade exhibition). The SPE Conference is March 10-13, 2011 @ Sheraton Atlanta Hotel Atlanta, GA

Lots to see at our booth….including invisible inks combined with Piezography that you need a black light to enjoy. The invisible inkjet system has an interesting appeal to anyone planning an exhibition that they would like to be a little “different”. We’re showing invisible prints, as well as inkjet prints overprinted with the invisible inks. Imagine Piezography that glows in the dark…and a gallery full of spectators with hand held black lights! Well that is what I would do with it! I will have some Old Tyme Feeling and lots of digital silver prints and the negatives from which they were printed.

As for the new curves for Ilford Multigrade IV RC and Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber Base – here it is!

QTR Curve = 31-l-rev.quad
31-l-rev.quad