Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

The Matte Aesthetic

One of the nice attributes of digital photography is that it allows for one to do their own printing. Of course, this can get out of hand, as I described in my post about being a perfectionist. Nonetheless, the advent of high quality inkjet printers and image editing software has now given us unprecedented control over the appearance of our images, perhaps even more so than the wet darkroom.

Once an image has reached the stage where it is ready to be printed, the first decision that has to be made is….printed on what. Assuming that the answer, as it will likely be in 99% of cases, is printed on paper, then the obvious question is……what paper? And that is where the fun begins.

First, let me back up a bit. I print with an Epson 7600 Ultrachrome printer. The 7600 uses separate types of black ink for optimal printing on matte paper on the one hand and semi-gloss to glossy paper on the other. Unfortunately, at any one time, the printer can only be loaded with one of these two types of black ink. While it is theoretically possible to change over from one to the other, it is quite a hassle to do so, and also results in wasting a significant volume of rather expensive ink. For all intents and purposes, from a practical standpoint, when I got the printer I needed to make a decision as to whether I wanted the vast majority of my prints to be on matte or glossy paper.

I chose matte. I like the matte aesthetic. Without question, the semi-gloss to glossy paper alternative is equally valid. But matte paper has, for me, very appealing attributes. The image tends to take on a very ‘painterly’ appearance that looks quite unlike a traditional photograph. Of course, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a traditional photograph; after all, we are ‘photographers’. However, to me, the aesthetic of matte paper seems to give the image a rather unique quality that sets it apart, in a positive way, from the images we are used to seeing on a daily basis.

There are a whole host of different types of matte papers available, ranging from bright white (using optical brighteners) to more natural colored rag papers and even papers with a slightly creamy underlying tint. Personally, I tend to use a slightly creamy paper for images where I want to impart a bit of a warm tone, such as images involving autumn color. In images where I want to maximize contrast I will use either a natural toned or very white paper, as the picture’s whitest white can only be as bright as the underlying paper the image is printed on.

Beyond the visual, however, there is something else even more ephemeral. Tactile sensation. A factor that I find as important as the paper color and brightness is the paper’s thickness and texture. There is something very satisfying about holding a photograph printed on heavyweight paper in one’s hands. There is a certain feeling of ‘permanence’ it seems to impart to the image. The choice of smooth versus textured paper also effects the tactile sensation of viewing the print. In effect, looking at the print starts to move beyond a purely visual experience and becomes one that also involves the sense of feel. It is unfortunate that a good deal of this aspect of the image is lost when the print is matted and framed under glass. Even then, though, the paper texture still has an effect on the visual appearance of the image.

To be sure, there are some downsides to printing on matte paper. Because of the way ink is absorbed onto the paper, images on matte paper, while sharp, are generally not as ‘razor’ sharp as those on glossy paper. Likewise, the saturation, or, for lack of a better word, the brilliance or contrast of an image is higher on glossy paper. Because of the lower contrast appearance on matte paper I do find it somewhat more difficult to get an optimal softproofing in image editing software and often have to use curves to increase the contrast more than I had anticipated. However, I personally feel that the gain in contrast tends to benefit the image more than a very slight loss in highlight or shadow detail, at least in most images. Finally, I do very little ‘people photography’, but do tend to like the appearance of portraits a bit more on semi-gloss or glossy paper.

It is certainly a matter of personal opinion, but I find that the aesthetic of matte paper is one that has a great deal of appeal to me.

When Size Matters

There are some images that seem to cry out to be displayed as a large sized print. Skyscrapers and mountains come to mind. However, it has also been said, and I am paraphrasing as I can’t seem to remember to whom the quote should be attributed, that “if you can’t take a great image at least print it big and maybe no one will notice”.

"Three Trees"
Copyright Howard Grill

Recently, I made an interesting discovery when I was working with this image. I wasn’t really sure how it would look as a print. Evaluating it on the computer monitor, as you are now, I thought it was, well, so-so. Certainly pleasant enough to look at, but really nothing special. I didn’t simply pass it by at the time because I had been considering including it in the project that came about from my New Year’s resolution (see Part 2 of my Jan 21st blog entry). For this reason, I decided to see what it would look like when printed at the same size as the other images in that group, which are matted to 22 x 28 inches.

Looking at the finished print, I was amazed. The image looked fantastic, but not simply because it was large. During my post-processing, I had selectively sharpened the tree in the foreground more than the others and that effect was not visible either at monitor viewing size or on the 8x10 inch test prints that I had been working with. But once printed large, the selective sharpening gave the image a marvelous three dimensional quality that could not otherwise be appreciated. Looking at the image (and I realize that you are stuck with the monitor view), it almost feels as if you could walk right into it.

My purpose is not to wax on about what a great image I can produce. On the contrary, as a small image I think it is fairly bland. I do, however, find it quite interesting that the photograph takes on a very different quality when printed large, and I don’t think that quality is merely related to the ‘wow’ effect of seeing a large print in the way that the opening quote suggests. Rather, the large size of the print was able to bring out an aspect of the image that could not be previously recognized or appreciated.

I am in no way suggesting that one should take mediocre images and blow them up as a method of improving them. On the other hand, it just might be that some images don’t reach their full potential until seen in a large format presentation.