Is what you see what you get? Sometimes.

Elizabeth Graves remarks on the perils of digital reproduction of analog media in a un-color-calibrated age.

Writing and Photography / Elizabeth Graves

Wet collodion ferrotype image detail of reflective CD Roms
In this collodion ferrotype detail, the right half has been darkened 100% to accommodate a bright monitor; the left half shows the brightness level the scanner chose, which is more print-realistic.

Shiny New Digital Color

Sometime between the invention of the Internet and the advent of the highly visual World Wide Web, I worked in a design profession. Accurate color was an obsession of ours, but there was no easy way to show far away business partners what color we picked for our buildings: the was no instantaneous way to share that kind of information visually. Bereft of instantaneous digital technologies, we had an elegant solution: everyone we worked with had Pantone guides, which were precisely produced, numbered, color chip index books. You told your remote colleagues that the spandrel glass and window blinds must be Pantone Matching System 3385, they referred to their perfectly matching PMS 3385 chip, and they ensured on their end that the manufactured material would be exactly that color.

The world of instantaneous digital communications has solved many problems, but the display devices we use now are not as precise as those Pantone sets that took up so much shelf space in my youth. Our screens are so bright and shiny that I forget this, however, and sometimes trust the technology to correct itself too much.

Here are three examples of my missteps resulting from having too much faith in display technology.

Scenario 1: I admired some wet collodion images with some unusual color tones. Some had rich hints of burgundy red in the darkest areas, others had almost icy highlights. I asked the members of the collodion forum for tips on how I could change my chemistry to create the remarkable tones I had seen in the community image pool. The community was quick to reply with answers of ‘oh, that’s just the scanner [or camera] I used. The plates don’t really look like those images do.’ Also: ‘those images were scanned before they were varnished: they look different in real life.’

Scenario 2: I fired up my office computer, turned on my external monitor, looked at scans of my collodion plates that I’d used to update my gallery here at, and was appalled. APPALLED. They looked nothing like they had on my new monitor at home. Dark and gloomy, the scans of my collodion plates looked like I’d photographed them under a dim bulb at night in the bottom of a dirty well. At home, the scans had been too BRIGHT, too shiny, too creamy. I had reduced the brightness setting in my photo editing software by a full 100% to bring them back to some semblance of reality. But that “reality” was specific to my home monitor.

Scenario 3: After painstakingly adjusting my images using photo editing software, I printed my scanned wet plate images out on a dye printer at home. They came out alarmingly red.

Be aware of the benefits and limitations of digital technology

Even if you are a former color-correction obsessive like me, don’t panic! Just be aware that our digital devices don’t all see or display alike. Your awareness of this situation can minimize the color mayhem.

Keep these issues in mind:

Be aware of ambient light. You already know your prints look different in incandescent light than in florescent light, and different outdoors on sunny days than on rainy ones. What you may not realize is that your monitor, digital camera screen, and other display devices look different in those lighting conditions also! Your smartphone may remind of you of this by changing its intensity when you go into a dark or bright room with the screen on, but your perception changes, too. I know I edit photos a bit differently at night, in my dark office, than I do when the room is sunlit. I need to adjust for this.

Be aware of quirky capture conditions. Some flatbed scanners struggle to scan shiny collodion plates, so many people resort to photographing those plates instead. Be aware that the ambient light, color of the room, and reflections will have a big impact on the final image. I suspect those violets I admired on the collodion forum gallery resulted from photographing the plates in a red room. (Somewhere on-line is an image of one of my plates with the reflection of an event organizer behind his camera photographing that plate. 🙂 ) Digital cameras also often have “white balance” problems, depending on the nature of ambient light, which can adversely affect your image.

Be sure you are using scanning software that captures your work accurately. My current flatbed scanner is better at scanning plates than my old one was, but sometimes the software doesn’t work properly, so I use a different program to run it. The other program uses different capture settings, and so the images come out differently than I would expect (brighter, paler, and lower in contrast). I’m working on a set of automated “actions” to correct for this, which I can apply whenever this software is used.

Scan your images in their final form. I’m sure we’ve all been so excited by an image that we have photographed it before it was complete: it was still wet, or hadn’t yet been varnished. Resist! Unless the point of your work is the in-process image, wait until the work is complete, so what people see on-line will match what they see in real life as closely as possible.

Calibrate your monitor. If you are going to invest time in sprucing up your images for the web or for digital entry into contests, it’s best you do so on a monitor that has been adjusted to be as accurate as possible. Art show judges are reviewing your work on calibrated monitors! Even if your friends aren’t viewing your images on calibrated monitors, you’ll be eliminating quirks that might otherwise show up on some, if not most, of those other displays.

Monitor calibration will balance out problems like I experienced in Scenario 3. My new monitor is VERY bright, and VERY blue: people are drawn to brighter, bluer monitors in shops, and retailers know this. However, if my monitor was better adjusted, my prints on my factory-settings-based printer would be more accurate, because I could have adjusted the high red levels in my scans. My monitor hid these reds from me.

Use other people’s calibrated equipment. It is often possible to rent color-calibrated equipment at commercial darkrooms, public art facilities, or educational institutions where you may be enrolled. After editing out dust and scratches at home, I have gone to rental photography studios to use their calibrated monitors and fast computers to make final adjustments to my images. I can rent time on those computers by the hour.

Make the most of the technology to show off your alt proc art!

As fine artists working in alternative photographic processes that we share on digital devices, we face many technical perils. The digital appearance of our analog images is impacted by ambient light, the scanner or camera we use to capture our prints with, and the display and output devices we use to show or print them. If we do our best to manage those variables we can control, our work will be shown in its best possible digital light to the maximum extent possible.

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3 thoughts on “Is what you see what you get? Sometimes.”

  1. I can’t get any cyanotype image to scan as anything other than ugly. That’s not a surprise-I’ve seen original Curtis platinotypes, and no scan or reproduction even gets close to their tones and luminosity.

    I look forward to the days we go back to print exchanges, which were common in earlier eras. That way, there’s no blaming the image chain from scanner, to file format, to online image compression to software to firmware to monitor.

  2. Agree with Scott. Members of our Art Association have many horror stories of trying to get prints made of their work that look even close to the origina. Trying to match colors seems to be a real nightmare. All you can do is, as Elizabeth says, it use the best calibrated equipment you can find.

  3. Good article. Long over due for this community.
    One thing that I would add is that even calibrated monitors will have some added brightness. It’s worth pursuing, for sure, but at some point we must recognize that a monitor is transmitting light and the prints we are making are reflecting light,thus they can be made to closely match, but not exactly.
    Again, very very good article. Thanks for writing it.

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