Over in the APUG forum, David Goldberg asked a question to Merg Ross (whose work appears in LensWork #93) that I thought was a very good one. Here is his question and my response.
As a contributor, how accurate do you think the reproductions are in LensWork? They always look good, but they also look kind of uniform in terms of tonality and contrast range (leaving aside the question of print color, which he's acknowledged can't be reproduced without significantly increasing the complexity of process, using different inks for each portfolio). It could be that Brooks Jensen favors images that have a certain look, or it could be that he's adjusting all the images to his taste or maybe to a range that he knows will reproduce well in the magazine, but may not be what the prints look like--which wouldn't be an unreasonable thing to do, but it would be interesting to know what his priorities are in this regard.
Thanks for asking. As you can probably understand intuitively, reproducing work is a bit of a tricky business. Our goal is always to match density for density. (In fact, we measure this with reflection densitometers both when scanning -- in the case of Merg's prints -- and on press.) It is important, however, to understand precisely what this means.
The problem is in the quantitative measurement of black. Absolute density numbers are pretty meaningless when measuring across various media -- say ink-on-press to toned gelatin silver prints. The key is to maintain the correct relative tonalities. That is to say, those tones that are 50% in the gelatin silver print need to be 50% in the ink print off the press, but these absolute densities might measure differently. In Merg's original prints, the deepest blacks were generally in the 1.98 to 2.02 range. In LensWork, we typically get 2.02 to 2.05. (All measured with the same densitometer. So, some of the tones in his prints are slightly darker (visually and sensitometrically) when compared side by side, but only slightly so. Comparatively to their respective blacks, they measure up well as a percentage of black.
Be sure, however, that there are some variances that simply are beyond control. Tolerances are not pin point precise in the offset printing world. First, the densitometers only measure to an accuracy of +/- 1%, so even in the best of worlds a 50% patch could measure somewhere between 49 and 51%. In the best of worlds. In the real world +/- 3% is more likely to be observed on a really good press like the ones we use at Hemlock.
The hardest tones to reproduce and control are at the ends -- the subtlety between 95% and 98% or between 5% and 2% are really tough. We sweat bullets over these and that's precisely why I personally do every press check. Merg didn't mention which print he was disappointed in, but if I had to guess I would speculate the image on page 63 -- Cracked Linoleum. (I hope I'm right about this!) Those subtle whites have to be exactly right or they run the risk of becoming gray rather than a vibrant but slightly dark white. In this case, I think they are a little darker than I would have liked and then the dark images on the next spread depress those highlights a bit more. The whites in this image measure about 11% in LensWork and I would have been much happier to see them about 5-8%. The bleed-through is the kind of on-press effect that is impossible to predict and which I'd have stopped the presses and corrected if we were printing a $100 art book. Sometimes, however, the real world does force compromises. When we did Huntington Witherill's book, for example, we had a few very high key images and we designed the book so that only high key images where on the back side. Even so, we still had to run several tests before we nailed the 1% and 2% highlights perfectly.
So, bottom line, accuracy is of tonal reproduction is our goal, not some uniform "look" that we like.
There is one subset of images that does need to be mentioned in this discussion and that is platinum/palladium prints or matte paper inkjet prints. These media will typically achieve a maximum density of only 1.55 or so. This is quite light for a solid black tone. Off the press, this density would be about an 85% tone. If we were to print these types of prints with accurate densities, the psychological impression would be that they are weakly printed -- they'd look like a mistake. In these cases, we have no choice but to push the darkest blacks in the print to full black (2.05 density in our case) so they look right in relative tonalities and to all the other images in the magazine. In these cases, they are clearly not accurate reproductions, but they "read" right in print. Make sense?
As to the warm tone, this is a different matter. It is theoretically possible for us to print in any tone -- warm, cool, neutral -- as long as we choose inks that can do this. In a magazine that prints in CMYK, they can do this at will, but there is often considerable drift in color shifting and in density. By using only duotones, we can achieve better maximum density and more consistent results -- but at the cost of loss of flexibility. Some photographer's work that comes to us in cool or neutral tones does get shifted to warm tones -- possibly not to their preference. Unfortunately, the added cost of printing in a third ink would so increase the cost of production that it would probably add at least $10-20 a year to the subscription price. Even if we did so, there would also be the problem of trying to calibrate the second duotone without messing up the first one. It's a circle that goes round and round and would be a never-ending process that would inevitably lead to some compromises in quality and risk color shifts within a portfolio.
One example of why we've elected to use a single duotone. LensWork is printed "perfecta" -- that is, both sides of the sheet are printed on a single pass through the press. Imagine the problems that would be introduced if one side of the sheet needed an ink adjustment to get the cool duotones right but there were warm-tone images on that side too. Then on the other side of the sheet, a warm-tome adjustment might be necessary that might alter the cool-tone images on that side. Consistency could be a real problem that would be bothersome -- imagine a single portfolio with tonal shifts half way through. Yikes.
So, warm-tone it is and thankfully photographers like Merg have been understanding that their cool/neutral tone work will be in the magazine as a warm-tone they may never print in their own darkroom.
BTW, here is an email I received from Jimmy Williams that I am delighted to share here. Printing is more art than science and getting it right is not always as straightforward as we'd like, but receiving these kinds of emails from the photographers we publish does have its own rewards.
Brooks & Maureen,
Yesterday we received our copies of LensWork.
The cover immediately captured me. It's perfect. I don't know how you do it. Then I flipped through. The "feelings" I had when seeing the work were exactly the "feelings" I try to capture when I'm shooting. It's exactly the feelings I want for the viewers of my work.
Never have I been so please with the reproduction of my work or the editorial & commentary as I am with this one. You've made my work look the best that I could hope for and you've even managed to make my comments sound intelligent and well thought out. No easy task.
You are both masters at what you do and I thank you.
Sorry for the long-winded response, but I thought your questions, David, was a good one worthy of a full discussion.
Editor, LensWork Publishing