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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.

Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.


Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Review

For some time now, I have been considering an “upgrade” to my Epson Photo Sylus 1280 printer.  In December, I purchased a refurbished Epson R1900 Inkjet Printer.

Why did I buy this Product?

Since my fascination with photography began in the early 1970’s, I have coveted a color darkroom.   I was a typical college student with more debt than I should have had, and the cost of purchasing color darkroom equipment was out of the question.  I had all I could do to pay for film and development.  When I graduated from Law School in 1986, I soon found myself with a house payment, children, and payoff of college debt.  By the time I was finally able to purchase darkroom equipment, traditional chemical darkrooms had become essentially obsolete.  The Digital age had dawned.  And suddenly, I already had the color “darkroom” I had always wanted — and maybe more!  A computer and some software gave me access, for the first time ever, to my own ability to “work”  and make my own color prints.

My taste leans (always has) to a traditional photographic paper look and to color.  When photo-quality inkjet printers first came out, they were usually either dye-based, or dye-sublimation type printers.  Their biggest weakness was their lack of longevity.  I still have a print I made on an early Epson Photo Stylus Printer that faded.  When I removed the print from behind the mat, I was astounded at the amount of fading.

Before long, pigment based inks were being touted as having much better print life.  But they just didn’t have the traditional photographic look many of us wanted.  Indeed, the early ones didn’t print well on glossy substrates at all.  While over time, this improved, at the time I purchased the 1280, there were still some issues.  The R1800 had come out, but was reputed to have some issues on glossy prints, including “bronzing.”  I opted for a used 1280 because I wanted to print on glossy photo paper.  The 1280 is a dye based printer and prints very well on glossy papers, but still has the fade/longevity problem.  Over time, Epson (as have the other manufacturers) developed better papers.  I took to printing on their Lustre Paper, which has greater print longevity when matched with the 1280 Epson inks.

The 1280 was not without its warts.  There are no individual ink carts for the color inks.  Just a color cart and a black and white cart.  The color matching capability, even with a calibrated system, is dicey.  I found that a fair amount of trial and error was necessary to get good color results.  Epson does not offer paper specific profiles for the newer papers.  I tried a custom profile and did not feel that the result was better than taking my chances with Epson’s “canned” profile for the Epson Premium Glossy paper (which was recommended even for the Lustre papers).

I had some photographs made to hang in a gallery back in 2007.  The only way the owner would hang them for sale was for me to have them printed with “archival” ink (his definition was pigment based ink like the R1800).  These experiences convinced me it was time to look seriously at a change.

Cost and Availability

Epson advertises the R1900, new, for $550.  From time to time, they offer rebates which can reduce the price to as low as $400.  My refurbished unit was around $350.  These printers are available at Epson authorized retailers and authorized on-line retailers.  They can also be found on eBay (but I wasn’t able to find any selling for less than the refurbished price).  Because of a known issue with ink cart recognition (more later), I opted to purchase directly from Epson. For those who still prefer dye-based ink printer systems, the R1400 is the upgrade of the 1280, and uses longer print-life Claria, dye-based ink.  The R1400 sells for around $200.  The least expensive “photo quality” printer Epson sells is limited to 8 1/2 inch wide paper and sells for just under $100.

The 1280 (discontinued), R1400, R1800 (discontinued), R1900 and R2880 are all capable of 13 inch wide papers and print up to 13 x 19 inches.  Some of them accept roll papers for longer than 19 inches.  the R1900 is roll paper capable.  Epson also has its “Professional Imaging” series of (currently) 8 different printers which range from just over $1,000 to as much as $30,000.

Setup, Operation, and Technical Stuff

In the case of the Epson R1900, I was disappointed find very little conclusive useful information available to enable me to make a final decision.  Consumer Reports didn’t review it.  I did find a comprehensive technical review on Photo-i.  The review gives a detailed idea of how the Printer will render colors, and how it works.  For technical specifications and information, I highly recommend you read Vincent’s review.

Amazon, and some other retail seller sites revealed consumer review comments.  As I have suggested on the Gear Reviews page, these sites illustrate that there is a “love it” or “hate it” tenor to those reviews.  So, my question still unanswered, ultimately, I did what any self-respecting, red-blooded American guy would do.  I took a flyer and bought it!

Do an internet search for information on the R1900, you will learn that the printer has a significant problem!  It is temperamental about how it reads and accepts Epson’s individually-chipped ink carts. Each cart has a computer chip embedded which the printer reads for its on-screen ink level monitor.  Reviews suggested that consumers were having problems getting some of these printers to to work at all.  Many consumers have simply given up on this model and replaced it with something different.  My subsequent conversations with Espon service revealed that they were aware of the problem and it was with the ink cart chips and not the printer.  However, there seems to be experiential evidence that it may be some of both.

My problem was that I have become “married” to the Epson System.  Inkjet Printer inks are generally matched to papers produced by the manufacturer.  There have been great strides made in the past years by third party manufacturers of paper and of inks to make them compatible.  But I have found very good results using Epson’s Premium Luster and Premium Glossy Papers, and to change to another manufacturer meant searching, experimenting with and finding new paper(s).  I wasn’t sure I was up to the task (plus, I had a number of sheets of rather expensive, 13 x 19 inch Epson paper).

For those patient enough to bear with Epson, I believe the reward is worth it.  I purchased a refurbished unit directly from Epson.  To my disappointment, my first unit did just as advertised by the negative consumer reviews.  It simply refused to recognize one of the ink carts (orange in my case).  I ran through all of Epson’s trouble-shooting suggestions to no avail.  I ultimately, called them.  They sent me a couple new orange ink carts.  I tried them both, to no success.  Eventually, Epson shipped me another unit.  This one fired up and I was in business!

A couple of points about how Epson handles this are worth mentioning.  First, it is my understanding that if the unit you receive doesn’t work, they will only ship you a refurbished unit to replace it.  While I think this as an unwise and short-sighted business practice, my workaround was to purchase a refurb in the first place (I have had good success with refurbished and gently used products in the past and there was a small savings in doing so).  They shipped the replacement unit along with a Federal Express ground shipping label.  If you ship from a place of business, they will pick up.  That part went without a hitch.  I received the replacement unit and had it operational before I had to ship the old unit back.  Other than my time, it didn’t cost me anything to do this exchange.  They do, however, put a “hold” on your charge card for the cost of the printer until they receive the old one back.  They also instruct you to remove all the ink carts from the defective unit and keep them (a small repayment for your inconvenience). They indicate (contrary to their literature) that they can be re-used for a period of time.

Is it worth all this hassle?  Maybe.  I had the time and patience to work with Epson and wait for the new unit to arrive.  It made a difference of about a week and I was able to easily do that.  Epson was courteous and prompt in taking steps to satisfy me.

But What about the Prints?

The result, once you get the printer running, is in my view well worth the journey.  I re-calibrated my monitor to have a “fresh start.”  I pulled out a sheet of Epson Premium Glossy paper and made my first print, using the “printer manages color” settings with the Epson “canned” profile for Premium Glossy paper.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  The print came out with very nice color and the glossy finish was superior even to my 1280 prints on glossy paper.  One of the innovations to the R1900 is its extra cart which contains a “gloss optimizer.”  While this appears to have the advertised effect, be forewarned that it gets used a nearly twice the rate as the other inks (at least according to the ink monitor).

The R1900 also has an couple of additional new colors (orange and a second blue, as well as separate black inks for glossy and mat finishes), with 7 ink carts in all.  I am hoping that the separate color carts will make the printer less expensive to operate overall.  The R1900 uses Epson’s Ultrachrome, pigment based inks, which are dry to the touch by the time the print is finished printing!  And because of the newer print head technology, smaller pigment particle size and overall technology in the printer, there is no visible sign of bronzing and metamerism is not noticeable.  I have now made a number of prints of different nature subjects and have yet to have one of them vary unacceptably in color from what I expect based on what I see on the monitor (of course, experienced printers know, you simply cannot exactly duplicate the color and look illustrate on an electronic monitor with ink on paper).  I had so much fun printing that I ran out of paper and am awaiting a shipment.  I made one monotone print and though I am satisfied with it, I do primarily color work.  I understand that the considerably more expensive, R2800, with even more ink color variations, makes superior Black and White Images.

Admitting I was still printing with the 1280 probably dates me.  But one other major pleasant surprise was the speed of printing.  I would usually start the 1280 printing and then walk away, to come back 15 – 20 minutes later.  The R1900 takes just a few minutes to make a 13 x 19 print.  I have read that for those who already own the R1800, the benefit may not be enough.  We can be sure that the major inkjet photo printer manufacturers will continue to innovate and there will likely be a successor to the R1800 – 1900 “family” that will do even more.

I am a hobbyist photographer/printer who does not make hundreds of prints for sale or other distribution.  I make the occasional sale and also prints for my own enjoyment and this printer is a very good choice and fit for these uses.  I recommend this unit for the advanced hobbyist photographer/printer.  If you need to make a significant number of retail prints for sale or distribution, you may want to consider one of Epson’s Professional Imagining” series (R3800 – GS6000), which range in size from 17 to 64 inches wide and in price from $1,200 to $30,000.