Rekindling the Romance of Black and White, Part One.

There is a renewed interest in the romance of black and white photography for several good reasons. First, hyped color is becoming boringly predictable. Second, automated software provides a predictable variety of predigested looks that can be applied to any image. Just as Hollywood movies seem to fall into the same predictable themes, digital photography has lost its creativity. As you noticed, the common trap is predictability. Serious photographers want to do serious work and that means cranking up the power of black and white.

But before you set your camera to capture Black and White (aka Monochrome and Grayscale) pictures, you should understand why digital cameras capture and record spectral data differently than film cameras did decades ago. If your recent experience with digital B/W has resulted in disappointing results,  I have good news. If you (like me) loved B/W film, you’re gonna love digital even more.

Tybee Window S-S

You can make a stronger statement with black and white than you can with color. Nothing “pops” like good black and white.

The dynamic range of black and white film is fundamentally different than the range captured by today’s digital cameras. A simple conversion to grayscale is about as exciting as oatmeal. There’s something missing and I think I know what it is. I shot film and produced marvelously rich prints for a decade before digital took over and I intend to pick up where I left off. It took a while to figure it out, but now, watch out!

The truth is, your digital camera’s color settings significantly influence the way additive primary (see The Visible Spectrum: RGB Color Voodoo) colored light transitions into monochrome captures. While the brand of your digital may describe these controls differently, the essence of these settings will be similar. More on this in the follow-up post.

Hawaii Lava Rocks

This original RGB capture of the lava pools in Hawaii presented a challenge. How to capture and delineate detail in the extreme shadows and highlights. Tough enough for color but almost impossible for monochrome.

Hawaii Lava Rocks +

The RGB image above provided over 4 billion colors that could be pushed and shaped. This monochrome shot provided only 256 tones to do the same job. With film, this would be nearly impossible but with digital…

Black and white photography transports your mind into a playground of creative thought; a semi-guided tour into your imagination. Black and white photography doesn’t enclose you inside the bookends of a specific color scheme; it sets your imagination free to discover a place full of emotion. Black and white photos deliver moods, not just pictures.

Color literally captures your mind, but not always in a good way. Here’s what I mean. Once you see a color picture, the die is cast. You can no longer imagine the scene your way. Before you know it, you find your mind subconsciously critiquing the color rather than interpreting the subject. Black and white gifts you with the freedom to dream.

Both film and digital cameras capture color information and transpose it into black and white images. But when photographic film is in the hands of an old-school darkroom artist, he can produce prints that are absolutely captivating. Here’s why.

Film cameras make use of the light-response attributes of silver-halide and black and white films and papers are composed of various formulations of silver and bromide (and other coatings) that record light frequencies of color that influence its visual transition from color to black and white. I know it’s weird to speak of chemical compounds and romance in the same sentence, but that’s the difference.

Digital cameras follow a purely analytical recording process based on electrical current. Now if chemistry left you numb, electrical current should absolutely paralyze your brain, and it does… that’s the problem! Photo cells in your camera’s circuitry simply count photons (the atomic level of light measurement), and use electrical current to set the gray levels (based on the camera’s ISO settings). Digital cameras simply use math to convert colors to grayscale. Pretty sexy. Digital images are by nature very calculated and sterile, unless you understand how to put your personal fingerprint on the process and use colors to shape the mood of monochrome images.


This is the original RGB image shot in San Juan Puerto Rico

Here’s the problem. When a digital image is captured in monochrome (Black and White) mode and JPEG format, the camera discards all RGB information and retains a very sparse number of gray tones. While this sounds like a logical way to arrive at black and white values, it negates the nuances of spectrally-weighted color transformation. Quite simply, it neuters the image. Each camera manufacturer determines how each color of light gets parsed as a gray value. Emotional content designed by mathematician computer scientists. Hmm-m. The same sensitive folks that developed JPEG.


This is a simple conversion from RGB to BW with no adjustments

When you capture images in black and white (monochrome or grayscale) mode, you are literally at the mercy of the engineers who wrote your camera’s algorithms. While some very interesting color/monochrome translations are provided by some camera manufacturers, you are still locked into someone else’s interpretation. So what to do?


This is the conversion from RGB to Grayscale using Camera Raw’s HSL Grayscale tools. The intensity and saturation of eight different colors determine the internal contrast of the gray tones.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem. First, record all images in both B/W JPEG and RAW formats. 1) Great results can be achieved when grayscale images (usually referred to as “monochrome”) are captured in your camera’s “scene” variations when certain other of your camera’s color settings are in place. 2) When digital images are captured in RAW format, all spectral (color) information can be accessed and used to influence the tonal values. When these controls (provided by a number of post-processing tools) are involved in shaping the spectral information into B/W, some absolute magic results take place.

When either of these processes is put to work, you, the photographer become creatively involved in converting colors into gray tones and the magic of silver halide interpretation gets replicated in the digital process. And here’s the kicker… using digital controls, you can surpass the mile markers established by the black and white masters of the past. This is scary good stuff. Ansel would have loved this control.

If I got your attention with this challenge, subscribe to this blog (upper right hand corner) and I’ll tell you the secret ingredients for these powerful imaging recipes. Only if you are signed up individually will you see Parts 2 and 3. You don’t want to miss this! Join me for this series and together we’ll rekindle this amazing art form. I’ll want to hear your feedback and see examples of your own conversions in future posts.

If you shoot digital, this is a subject that you should understand. That’s the way I sees it. Let me know what you think.

Speaking Promo

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to and get Bright About Light!

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Don’t Show Me Your Tricks, Show Me Your Skills

eyes-see-it-logo.jpgThe automated features and tricks built into cameras and software can actually stunt your photographic growth. Are you relying on auto settings, pre-sets, and effects to make your shots look better? Do you run your photos through software that pushes your shots through pre-fab cookie cutter interpretations? Perhaps it’s time to take off the training wheels and develop a solid understanding of the real photographic process. There’s an artist inside you who yearns to learn. Let your pride be in your work, not someone else’s.

Stop being predictable.

Those pre-digested interpretations offered by the trendy camera pre-sets and post-processing software packages are way too easy to spot. Yes, they look spiffy, but they can also look a bit like a paint-by-numbers painting. They all look like someone else’s stuff! This kind of treatment looks good once in a while- I even use them myself (but sparingly). I want people to see my skills, not someone else’s tricks.

Be the individual, not the trend.

I grew up in the hippie years and to some degree, I bought into the trend. I wanted to be taken seriously as an individual, a non-conformist who didn’t just follow the masses and do what everybody else did. But it didn’t take long to realize that all those non-conformists all dressed alike, talked alike, acted alike, and smelled alike while proclaiming their individuality. They conformed to their non-conformity. It didn’t make sense back then and it doesn’t make sense now. If you want to express yourself, do just that… express yourself!

Determine today to see life through your own lens and interpret what you see with a clear understanding of how to command the medium of photography. Don’t see life through the lens of popular automation and trick treatments, learn the fundamentals of light and color the way your camera sees them. Capture what your mind sees, don’t try to force your shots into someone else’s pre-fab mold. Be an artist who understands the medium and is in command of their art.

Enough of the grunge, the saturation, the borders, and the pre-fab crap. Show us your message as expressed by your skills!

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, here’s a suggestion. I’ve created an easy-to-understand video series that will teach you the fundamentals of light and color and help you to capture and produce amazing photos. Go to and get Bright About Light!


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The Visible Spectrum: Color As Frequencies & Light Waves

Hang on, in this final installment in this series, I’m about to get geeky about the emotion and romance aspect of color photography. Your eyes don’t actually see colors at all. Color is more of a perception than a reality; a neural response to light frequency.

Here’s the sterile truth. Both the fovea area of your retina and the image sensor in your camera are receptive to specific wavelengths of light energy, not colors. Once these collective signals are transferred to your camera’s image processor and your brain’s visual cortex, they are interpreted as visual sensations that we humans perceive as color.


Everything that we perceive as color is actually a specific wavelength or vibration of light energy that oscillates between the 380 and 780 nanometers in the visual portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.


Colors correspond to set frequencies in both these visual devices. It is the job of the camera’s image processor to parse these numbers into colors. How accurately these colors are identified and recorded has a lot to do with the color space and file type specified in your camera settings.

Your camera probably allows you to choose either sRGB or Adobe RGB color space. While both color spaces capture pretty much the same colors, Adobe RGB provides a wider range of saturated colors and is preferable for printed photos. sRGB is the more widely accepted color space and is more suited for social media and Internet use.

Of more critical importance is the file type selected to save and transfer your images. Almost all digital cameras offer to record images in JPEG or RAW format. This file type has nothing to do with your camera’s range (the difference between solid color and no color) of the images, it does have a major impact on the bit depth (the number of shades and tones of color between solid color and no color) of the images.

Green Plants-JPG-RAW

This image was captured in both JPEG (left) and RAW (right). The RAW file allowed me to reclaim the highlights.

As you probably know, JPEG images only record 254 levels of color between the darkest and lightest colors in each channel while RAW images provide billions of levels. But even more important is the little known fact that JPEG images are quite indiscriminate about the internal contrast of the images captured. This matters most when the lighting in the scene is more dramatic.

Higher contrast scenes like high-key or low-key JPEG images contain very limited latitude for shaping the shadows and recovering highlights. Whenever possible, I seriously recommend that you set your camera to save both JPEG and RAW files. It’s much easier to discard the RAW file than to recover lost detail.

Color affects all of us emotionally, though it is simply science to your camera. How accurately you record those numbers is critical. Just thought you’d like to know. Let me know if this makes sense to you.

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, here’s a suggestion. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you the fundamentals of light and color and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go to and get Bright About Light!


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The Visible Spectrum: RGB Color Voodoo

Session three continues the magical mystery tour through the land of color. Now that we know that the camera actually sees color in black and white (see the two prior posts) and that RGB colors produce CMY(K) colors, we move into the voodoo behind combined colors of transmitted light.

If you were to enter a dimly lit room and shine a red light on a blank wall, it would naturally produce a red spot. Makes sense. If you shine a green light that partially overlapped the red light, part of the wall will be green, but where the green light overlapped the red light, yellow would appear. You might think that makes no sense! But wait, there’s more. If you were to shine a blue light on the wall, where the blue light overlapped the red light, a magenta color (a strange mix between hot pink and purple) would appear. And in the area where the blue, green colors overlapped, the color cyan would show up. How strange is that?


Now here’s the amazing part. The area where all these three colors overlap turns white. Who would have thought that red+green+blue=white? Welcome to the wacky voodoo world of color science. RGB Light CirclesTransmitted color light is called additive primary light, and involves frequencies, intensities, wave lengths and other geeky stuff; the magic heart and soul of the science behind the photography you are shooting.

This amazing light show happens behind the scenes every time you shoot a photo with your camera. You don’t have to understand it all, but you can’t deny that photography is both an art and a science.

Volleyball CMYK

The colors of reflected light. Overlaying these colors on a printer/printing press delivers CMYK color.

We learned last time that when the three primary RGB channels of color are sent to the printer, each color is transposed into its complimentary color (the color that opposes it) on the color wheel, producing the secondary CMY colors. The red channel produces cyan ink, the green channel produces magenta ink, and  the blue channel produces yellow ink.

Now it’s time to look at those RGB channels again, but this time as colors of light.

Volleyball RGB Light

The colors of transmitted light. Projecting light through these three color channels produces RGB color.

When these primary additive channels of transmitted light overlap (on any projected light system… projectors, televisions, and monitors), they project the combined RGB colors. Remember, in the RGB color model, blue light on green light produces cyan (rear wall) while red, green, and a bit of blue light produce tanned skin, and when equal amounts of all three colors of light are combined, they produce neutral white (Olympic rings and sand)

In its simplest form, this is the heart of color separation. The separating of RGB composite images into their individual components. The positive (RGB) version serves the photographic and video side of the industry while the negative (CMYK) version serves the print and lithographic side.

While this may seem like voodoo, it’s simply color science at work. Just thought you’d like to know. Let me know if this makes sense to you.

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, here’s a suggestion. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you the fundamentals of light and color and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go to and get Bright About Light!


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The Visible Spectrum: RGB Channels Explained

On my last post, I displayed this color photo of an Olympic Volleyball game. Surrounding the picture are the individual RGB channels that make up the color photo. If you really look at these individual channels, something probably doesn’t make sense. If you didn’t look closely before, look again.

The color picture shows a blue background but the Red channel’s background is the one that appears the darkest. Ask yourself how solid red makes sense in a blue background? Then ask why the Blue channel has very little tone in the background? If you haven’t figured it out yet, put your thinking cap on and keep reading.


Red, Green, and Blue are the “additive” primary colors that the camera captures and your eyes see on your computer monitor. These primary colors are the colors of transmitted light. They are known as additive colors because when these colors of light are combined in various proportions, they portray the colors of the visible spectrum. They are known as primary colors because they are the purist, most basic colors visible to the human eye.

When these RGB colors of light are combined, they form the additive secondary colors of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. These secondary colors are also known as the subtractive primary colors; the colors of inks used in the printing process. The eye sees these inks as reflected light when printed on paper. When various amounts of subtractive primary colors are combined on paper, they produce (roughly) those same colors of the visible spectrum.


When these primary and secondary colors are viewed on the color wheel, the additive primary colors are located directly opposite the additive secondary colors; Cyan-Red, Magenta-Green, and Yellow-Blue.

By the way, even though you send RGB images to your inkjet printer, the printer converts those colors into CMYK (and usually a few additional) colors. Only photographic printers use RGB light to expose photographic paper.


This brings us to the answer to the original question. In the additive color mode, the Red channel actually represents the ink color Cyan, the Green channel represents the ink color Magenta, and the Blue channel represents the ink color Yellow. When you grasp this principle, you’ll understand why the Red channel in the picture below is actually the color Cyan, which makes more sense since the back wall of the court is pure Cyan with a little Magenta, and a touch of Yellow thrown in. In the printing process, a small amount of black is added to the image for contrast and color depth.

Volleyball-CMYK  Volleyball CMYK

If you have to think real hard to sort through all this, just be thankful that color science is alive and well in the photo-reproduction process and takes care of the color conversion from transmitted light (camera/monitor) to reflected light (printed material). This certainly doesn’t explain whole the color separation process, but it addresses the basics.

Just thought you’d like to know. Let me know if this makes sense to you.

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, here’s a suggestion. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you the fundamentals of light and color and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go to and get Bright About Light!

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The Visible Spectrum: What Your Camera Sees

I’ve had a number of requests to explain (in layman’s terms) some of the principles of color science as they apply to photography. The more you understand about the science of light and color behind the art of photography, the more you will know how to use that light to your best advantage when shooting with your camera. This post will be the first in a series of short lessons that will help you understand what’s happening behind the lens. This brief session will be introduced by a short clip from the GottaKnow Light series of videos.

As you just heard, your eyes can only “see” the colors of the visible spectrum; the same colors that are visible in rainbows. Rainbows are actually refracted white light. When we place a prism in front of a white beam of light, the components of white light are split into individual colors.


The truth is, your camera doesn’t actually capture color images at all. It captures three images of monochromatic light as seen through individual Red, Green, and Blue filters. These three colors are projected onto millions of microscopic sensors behind the lens of your camera. These sensors (called photosites) are located on a microchip called an image sensor. Each sensor records either a red, green, or blue portion of the scene’s light. The strength of light recorded on each R, G, or B sensor is measured in lumens; the smallest metric of light measurement.

Image Travel-CameraEach photosite on this sensor then sends its information to the camera’s image processor which interprets the signals as a grid of colored pixels known as a bitmap. The color of each pixel in this bitmap is defined as one of millions (or even trillions) of colors, depending on whether the image was recorded as an 8-bit JPEG image or 14-bit RAW data file (the difference between 256 and 14,000). The file is then saved onto the camera’s memory card. If the file was saved in RAW format, a generic interpretation of this color information is displayed as a JPEG image when the image is opened in a RAW interpreter like Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. A more full explanation of JPEG vs RAW captures will be presented in a later post.

Now you’ll probably understand better what the RGB initials stand for. This all started with the camera lens spreading the light of the scene over the surface of the image sensor. And now it will be clear why your camera’s sharp focus is so important. If the subject isn’t in clear focus, the pixels in your image will record fuzzy. And you can’t sharpen fuzzy! I’ll cover more of the science in following posts. This should give you an appreciation for the magic of digital camera technology.

Just thought you’d like to know. Let me know if this makes sense to you.

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, here’s a suggestion. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you the fundamentals of light and color and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go to and get Bright About Light!

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SOOC vs Post-Production

There is an argument coming from photo purists that “honest” photography must come straight out of the camera… with no post production. Post-production is looked at like a crutch. I’ve even heard the comment that “I capture the image in the camera and don’t rely on Photoshop to make it look good. I just get it right in the camera.”

For anyone who has their feet wet in both film and digital photography, this statement is well-intended but silly; and it seems to emanate from two camps: the new breed of digital photographers shooting with the latest technology, and seasoned professionals who have always enjoyed the luxury of movie sets, broadcast studios, photo studios, and other controlled lighting environments. The intent of the statement is well-meaning but idealistic and even a bit snobbish. The real truth is honest photography is developed outside of the camera. Very few times is the lighting perfectly balanced and the exposure ideally dialed-in to produce spot-on perfect images right out of the camera.

All of the great film photographers relied heavily on post-production for all of their prints. It was simply known as darkroom work. You see, simply exposing film with a camera doesn’t produce a viewable image. Only when that exposed film is developed (using one of a number of unique development solutions and varying times) does a tangible negative appear. And until that processed negative is put in an enlarger and exposed onto paper (using a variety of differing lens settings, filters, hand ballets and exposure times) and then bathed and rocked in developer (for an unspecified time) is the image even viewable. Even then, most initial prints are evaluated and then reprinted at least once. I personally have built and owned three professional darkrooms over fifteen years and know this to be true. Digital image post-processing is simply the digital darkroom.

Even in the digital world, where many “cameras” are like computers with lenses, do I rarely allow an image to be seen without tweaking the exposure (including the ones below). I’ve been studying how light affects photographic images for four decades and have finally concluded that light is rarely controlled, it must be coaxed and cajoled to replicate what we see with our imagination.

Smith-AdamsW. Eugene Smith considered darkroom work to be 90% of a photo’s creation process and Ansel Adams stated that “only half the photograph is produced in the camera, the other half is created in the darkroom.” I side with them.

That’s the way I sees it, let me know what you think.

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White Balance Can Destroy Color

When it comes to setting the color temperature in a scene, make an intelligent choice. Sometimes taking a neutral position on things isn’t really the safe thing to do – sometimes it’s actually downright destructive!

Redefining Intelligence. Regardless of what the packaging says, your camera is not really smart, it is just efficient and obedient. It will obey anything you tell it to do. It’s a machine, it is not a volitional entity. It will never be “intelligent” in the way that humans are intelligent; it can be programmed to follow a logical sequence, but it cannot “make decisions.”Alaska NiteLight
I used AWB in this snow scene example, I gave the camera permission to shift all colors and it obeyed my command and produced bad color; all in the name of Auto White Balance. That wasn’t smart on the camera’s part, it was ignorance on my part. The correct choice on this shot was to capture the shot in Daylight setting. The snow would have remained bluish. By setting the scene lighting to Auto White Balance, the camera forced the bluish snow to a neutral gray color, ruining the mood of the shot.

Camera manufacturers claim that their cameras are “intelligent,” but the intelligence is merely scripted logic. You are the only one with actual intelligence. You must tell the camera what to do- NOT the other way around.

Learn About Color Modes. Take control of the situation, learn about basic color settings on your camera and then set your camera’s white balance setting accordingly. Your camera’s color modes include pre-sets for all typical lighting situations: Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Florescent, Flash, as well as a couple of custom setups. The wording of these settings is straightforward.

white-balance-settingsAWB Can Be a Crutch. Nothing in life is automatic. Cruise control is only good in automobiles. Assuming that your camera will automatically correct all your problems by using Auto White Balance is a very risky assumption. At very best, AWB will keep you in the ball game outdoors under normal weather conditions, but it will not ever correctly display colors the way your eyes see them in all situations. Get bright about light. Learn how color behaves so you can set your camera to capture light the way your eyes perceive it. This same knowledge will enable you to use your editing software more intuitively.

When the scene contains “emotional” light- candle light, sunrise/sunset, late afternoon or early morning light, nightlife/neon, AWB is the wrong choice. If the scene to be captured contains this kind of emotional (or mood) lighting, the very mood that made you want to take the picture to begin with can effectively be neutered by Auto White Balance.

18% Gray CardGray Balance Cards. Using a gray balance tool can save your life in many lighting situations, especially in a mixed lighting situation. If you do choose to use a gray card in a reference shot, you need to understand what it is and what it does.

First, the card should be gray, not white. The term may be white balance, but you must use a gray card for the reference. White is wrong simply because it is colorless and will most likely confuse the camera more than properly set it.

Second, the proper gray card is an 18% gray, and for good reason. Your camera’s light meter sets the exposure to capture the middle of the tonal range; a typical tone of human skin and the average of good lighting. When you use a gray card, both the color setting and the exposure are dialed in.

lightroom- Gray Balance

Third, set the camera to spot metering so that the gray card will be the only item read by the camera. Scene metering will read all the light in the scene and average the colors. A gray balance tool (gray card, X-rite Passport, or Color Checker placed in the scene (for an initial test shot) will serve as the gray balance reference for correcting any color imbalance in all images captured in that scene.

But there is a time to use an 18% gray card (or similar commercial product) to reference a true neutral gray color and set the gray balance in your photos, and a time to keep that card in your camera bag. The truth is, neutralizing every lighting situation can literally suck the natural color right out of a scene.

The Smartest Color Setting is No Setting at All. The way to avoid bad lighting is to not force the camera to truncate the lighting at all. Shoot and capture your images in RAW format. When you do this, you get to dial in the correct color after the shot is captured. The best idea of all is to use the gray card as a reference shot and then remove the card and shoot all your shots without a worry.

Color Correction in Post Production. This correction takes place after the image is captured in RAW format. When the gray card reference image is opened in Adobe Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any RAW interpreter software, and the White Balance tool is applied to the reference gray in the test image, all photos open at the time can be color corrected automatically. This is truly a great way to accurately set the lighting balance within a series of photos taken during a single session…

That’s the way I sees it. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

If you really want to understand what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to push light around to make your images look better, I can help. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and help you to capture and produce amazing color.

Go online and get this video series. Get Bright About Light!

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Print Publication Quality Control

A lot has changed with the quality of print publications over the last fifteen years, and not all of it for the good. I have ink in my blood from working publications inside and out for decades. I’ve shot and edited photos, worked in the color separation trade and I’ve logged years as a color pressman. I get it.

Back in an earlier time, this was a different industry and it was served by a different trade. Professional photographers went on assignment for 85% of the photos. Photo labs produced transparencies and photo-retouchers took care of any problems. Color trade shops made the separations and produced color-corrected litho films. Prepress Journeymen assembled films and produced printing plates. When the magazine went to press, the First Pressman, Pressroom Supervisor, Account Manager, and the Art Director all attended the press check and OK’d the signatures after the make-readys were complete. Quality control was a professional process from top to bottom.


But that’s not the way the process works anymore. Budgets are slim, less than 50% of the photos are assigned to photographers and the rest are either submitted by customers, shot with cell phones, or purchased from stock photo houses. Many photographers adjust their own images though they know little about the printing process. Photos are submitted in all forms, color modes and formats, some are edited in Photoshop, others are not. Most arrive as JPEGs in a mix of RGB and CMYK formats. Magazines are assembled and pictures are placed in InDesign files that are then converted to PDF by the magazine staff. 

The printer gets the PDF and checks the links and resolution before paginating it and sending the files to the platesetter. Most printing signatures are approved remotely by a variety of individuals viewing it on a variety of color monitors. Sometimes hard proofs are produced, though not always. The pressman checks the color against a color monitor at the press table. Makeready is quick and schedules are tight.

While digital publishing opened many doors of opportunity, it also opened the industry to relaxed standards and reduced professional skills.

You’d think with all the advanced systems and processes today that the quality would be greatly improved over what it was fifteen years ago. But this isn’t always the case, as you know. So what’s missing? A lot. And we can thank progress and technology for much of it! Technology and automation have taken the place of trade knowledge and human experience in our industry. Moving forward has moved us backwards in some ways, and it shows. Here’s what I mean.


Several years ago I noticed the cover of a regional city magazine had printed lifeless and dull. The design was nice but the color was disappointing. I met with the publisher of several city magazines and was made aware that this dull cover wasn’t a one-time problem. He thought the cover looked pretty good since great photography just wasn’t in the budget anymore. It seemed “good enough” had become the new normal. I told him I could prepare his next cover to print bright and colorful for a small fee. He agreed to give me a shot and the next cover saw a significant improvement. He now realized how little it took to produce great color again.

I also noticed that some of the book’s internal images showed typical JPEG traits of banding, blown highlights and plugged shadows; some beyond my ability to repair. I came to realize that while all photographers are artists and they care about their photos, but few have a working knowledge of digital imaging, tone curves or color reproduction (preparing images for press). Color science isn’t always the photographer’s high suit. In days past, it didn’t have to know all this, but now they do.

I approached the publisher about me meeting with the magazine’s printing company to understand the file submission standards for their particular presses and paper stocks (no, publication standards are not all the same). The publisher commissioned the investigation.

Printing companies work very hard to identify and control the behavior of their presses. They know the limitations of what they can and cannot print. They maintain a regimen of “control systems and best practices” to maintain all equipment and presses to produce very consistent results. Each printing company produces a production spec; a rule book of how to submit files for their system. It is critically important that their clients submit their files in complete accordance with this spec. And, publishers need to understand that printers are not allowed to “improve” the customer’s pictures.

As a former retoucher, pre-press operator and pressman, I wanted to know the details of this specification so I could fine tune a set of submission standards for the magazines.

Skye DR-O  Skye DR-A copy

After a series of meetings with the printing company, I met with the magazine’s photographers and developed a Submission Specification for Publication Photographers. This photo specification included tonal range limitations, a specific camera color mode, mandatory gray card test shots for all interior scenes, and finally, that they were to submit all photos to me in RAW format. I then gave them access to my ( video series to familiarize them with basic color science for photography.

I finally put together a color managed production workflow for the magazine. I’m now on contract as intercessor between the photographers, the magazine publisher and the publication printer. I edit the images and supply the Editor with color-managed files on a very tight production schedule. A single day has been added to the monthly schedule to accommodate my QC process. I coach-up the photographers as needed and oversee the print quality of the publications. The photographers are happy, the printer is happy, and the magazine is looking snappy. We now have disciplined and informed photographers, a color-managed and efficient workflow, and we’re realizing consistent improvement.

If this scenario strikes a familiar chord with you and you’d like to see improvement in your print publications, drop me a line ( and let’s set up a time to talk. I can and will make a difference.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

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Hiding in the Shadows

There is usually a lot of detail lost in the darkest parts of an image. This happens simply because your camera can’t see in the dark. There is simply more dynamic light range in the scene than the camera can capture and display in one shot. This does not mean that the camera cannot capture the detail, because it almost always does. The problem is that unless we dig the detail out of the shadows, it remains hidden. Here’s an example.

Skye LR-OThis photo was captured by a good professional photographer and submitted to a city magazine for which I prepare the pictures for print. The dark bricks on the wall actually absorbed most of the studio lighting set up in the room. When a subject is much darker than the other objects in the room, it naturally shows up darker. Normally, the photographer dials up more light to compensate for the dark object, but in doing so the lighter objects in the room can receive too much light.

In this example, the photographer increased the overall lighting and it affected the color saturation in the middle tones. Amplifying an overall light to illuminate a problem area can create problems elsewhere. This is a typical problem with location lighting.

Skye LRThe solution? Edit the image in post-production to even out the lighting. The trick is to boost the lighting in only the three-quarter tones, that part of the tone structure between the very darkest color and the middle tones. At the same time, the saturation in the middle tones needed to be increased and the highlight detail out the window needed to be brought back. All the detail was there in the original photo, it just needed fine tuning.

This is best accomplished by 1) capturing the image in RAW format, and 2) editing the individual tonal areas and boosting the saturation in the warm middle tones.

Skye DR-OThis is another shot from the same photo assignment that created a similar problem. The darker wall, along with the black dining room furniture, soaked up all the light in the room. Any additional light would have completely bleached out the light tile on the floor.

Skye DR-A copyOnce again, the solution was in post-processing. Editing shadow detail is a delicate operation because detail and definition need to be brought out in the shadow tones without making the near-black furniture appear too light.

Images intended for publication must walk a tight balance between definition and lighting range. The dot-based half toning process requires more separation in the shadow tones to reproduce well. When this is accomplished, the publication house has a much easier chore in printing the full range of tones.

That’s the way I sees it. Let me know what you think.

If you really want to understand what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to push light around to make your images look better, I can help. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and help you to capture and produce amazing color. Go online and get this video series at Get Bright About Light!

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