Back in January, Chris came to my studio in Oak Park, Illinois to help cull the thousands of images in our Virtuoso archive down to the several hundred-or-so that are featured in the book. It took several days, but at the end of that process we had the scaffolding in place for Wesley Tanner to begin designing the book, and I had a pile of selected photographs (“picks”) to begin preparing for print. Though photographs are standard fare for any print publication, they play a significant role in Virtuoso. I thought I’d provide a behind-the-scenes look at how we approached the final stages of image processing.
First, I’ll say that properly preparing a photograph for print publication is much more involved than tapping on a filter and posting to Instagram. The challenge in preparing digital photographs for print is that every device in the imaging chain – cameras, lighting equipment, monitors, printers and finally the inks and paper used on press – handle color differently. This is why when some of you print your vacation photographs on your home inkjet or color laser printer, your family and friends look like relatives of Gollum.
Getting a decent reproduction of a digital photograph on any physical media – be it a book, a projector screen, or a pair of boxer shorts – ideally (but not always) begins with the photography. Here is a shot of Mr. Williams holding a color chart, donning (sorry) a gray card in his dapper Studley suspenders, clearly at the end of a long day of blinding strobes in a dark room.
The color chart / white balance prop stand in the photo above is available at donsbarn.com and I highly recommend it, though availability may be limited.
Photographing these charts allows me to easily calibrate white balance and color for a given lighting setup. Production outfits (such as catalogs) create studio environments that are highly controlled, and with enough time, they can really dial in processes and settings that work well repeatedly. Due to the nature of this project, however, not every photo sequence or lighting setup has a corresponding shot with a color chart or gray card, and due to the nature of the chest, a gray card or color chart is at best only a good starting point.
More precisely, a gray card or color chart provides a good technical starting point, but for many of the photographs in Virtuoso (documentary or otherwise), technically precise color was neither aesthetically acceptable nor always “correct” from a documentation standpoint. In general, I tried to strike a careful balance between the role the photograph assumed in the text (i.e. was it pointing out a specific detail, speaking more broadly about the cabinet or Studley’s skill set, used in conjunction with other images, or was the image just decorative?), the characteristics of the particular photograph (i.e. was it documentary or dramatic?), and the “facts” of the Studley ensemble. Though the Studley tool cabinet is constructed from a fairly limited palette of materials, components made from the same material differ quite a bit from one another. For example, the mahogany parts of the cabinet can range from burgundy to plum to brown to orange.
The production challenge for me was to get was to get Virtuoso’s photographs, particularly ones that were in some way thematically grouped in the text or layout, consistent in terms of color, luminosity and, for lack of a better term, texture. Doing this on a screen will only go so far, even though I have color-calibrated monitors and can simulate press colors on screen via a color profile provided by the press. To really do this, you must check for detail and consistency on actual prints. This is what my studio looked like about halfway through the process.
Every image in the book was printed on 24″-wide gallery sheets, with full-page or full-spread images reproduced at their actual size using the press’ color profile. For the tool inventory chapter (the phrase “Chapter 5” now makes everyone on the Virtuoso team curl up into a fetal position), I wanted to ensure that the salient details on various tools were coming through clearly and that photographs were within an acceptable range for consistent color and brightness. Images on each sheet and image sequences across sheets were compared and marked up for adjustments. In the photo of the gallery sheet below (keep in mind it’s a photograph of a print of photographs), you can see quite a bit of variance in background tone, particularly in the tools across the top row.
After adjustments were made for a given gallery, I printed it again, repeating this process until the images met my standards. Even though my photo printer uses 12 inks, achieving reasonable consistency across images in this proofing stage would ensure that when the book goes to press (which uses four inks and different paper), any necessary color adjustments can be made globally (i.e., across all images).
Work on these photographs began in earnest in February, took place on nights and weekends, continuing more-or-less right up to the minute we sent the book to press (this is always the case, and if we had another week, I’d probably use every bit of it as well). In the end, images that need to be consistent are reasonably so and page spreads that contain such images flow very nicely (Wesley’s expert design does much of the heavy lifting).
And images that need to be more impactful do so in ways that fit well with the rest of the book.
When I was done, I overnighted my hefty stack of proofs to Chris to get a second opinion on them from someone who has both seen the Studley ensemble in person and who knows more than a thing or two about print publication. Apparently they were good enough to almost make him cry (sorry, man). I think he’s planning on bringing some of the proofs to Handworks so that anyone interested can see them in person.
Virtuoso is now in production, and we have faith that the final adjustments made on press will respect the work that has been done to date. I’ll write a few more posts on the photography in Virtuoso over the coming months. And I’ll be available at both Handworks and at the Studley Exhibit to sign books and take questions.
Right now, I’m carbo-loading for an imminent production run of limited-edition signed art prints for sale at Handworks and the Studley Exhibit in Amana, Iowa, on May 15–17. All I can say at this point that one of the prints will be sold exclusively at the Studley Exhibit, so get your tickets now while they are still available.