The New Velvia

I recently attended a talk on colour management and image resolution by digital printer Jack Lowe, whose talks are always an education.

He made me realise that some of the steps in my own workflow were “wrong”, and thankfully the room was dark as I scribbled down my notes. But looking around I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one whose methods were being challenged.

During the talk Jack made the observation that Fuji Velvia transparencies looked their best when held up to the light or viewed backlit on a light box, and that no print could ever do justice to that look. This comment stuck in my mind and I have spent a few days mulling it over.

I used to love opening up a delivery of 6x7xm colour transparencies and holding the sheets up to the light, full of anticipation. I still get the same thrill from black and white negatives, but those super-saturated pieces of Velvia shone like jewels, and to me that moment of revelation remains a unique part of the photographic experience. But I never had a print that could replicate the intensity, colour palette, or the brightness.

Photography is awash with digital photographers who try to emulate the “Velvia look”; using ultra high contrast, “vivid” camera settings, Velvia plug-ins, and making blocks of colours that look like they’ve been painted with enamels! There may be several reasons for this saturation frenzy.

DSLR’s are now so common, that they have become the new “Christmas Jumper”, a must have present and stocking filler for many. Everyone is a “photographer” now. But pulling on a Christmas jumper was easy, just check the label and off you go, and it’s the same with DSLR’s, which have cheapened and dumbed-down photographic craft (although it can be argued that in some ways this is a positive thing). And it seems that many people don’t bother to find out how to work their new toys, and especially their processing software. Turning it up to eleven and aiming for loud, bold, and bright at any cost, often masks both a lack of knowledge and average pictures.

At the same time that DSLRs have become must have accessories, the understanding of what goes into making a good print also seems to be fading. The whole process of profiling and colour management can seem daunting to begin with, but it is essential; sadly though many people don’t have the integrity to make the effort, and assume that their printer (just like their camera) will do it all for them. Relying on oversaturation or gimmicks like HDR to try and rescue dull or flat pictures is just one response to this skill (or integrity) gap.

Also pictures are now often only viewed on a screen, and are rarely turned into objects to hold or to hang on a wall. Consequentially the vast majority of contemporary photography is destined to vanish into piles of obsolete hard drives that are incompatible with the technology of the day; mercifully consigned to a digital scrapheap. I digress from my soapbox slightly.

Another more important reason why I think it is tempting and easier not to print, is that “images” look at their very best on a computer monitor, and in many ways that is no different to the Velvia analogy. It strikes me that bright LCD screens are the new Velvia, and are the normal place to view photography (and their backlit burning intensity is certainly both compelling and unique). A screen is not only a portal through which many “live” large parts of their lives, but it is THE place for instant gratification; and what is more seductive and gratifying to a photographer than someone else saying how beautiful your pictures look. “Oooh, look at those colours”, (often followed by “Is that real?”). So, is there any wonder that any printed output is off the scale as we strive to match that “LCD look”?

Just as analogue printers struggled to replicate the beauty they saw in their transparencies, now digital printers face a similar problem, as their equipment can rarely replicate exactly what they see on the screen. Yes, we can profile and calibrate monitors and printers, use correct colour management, and make quality files on which to base to all of this, but can it ever be an exact copy of what you see on that glowing “Velvia” screen? After all, digital pictures are created by computers, so perhaps that is their natural home?

With a master printer and technician such as Jack Lowe, you are going to get the very best result that can be wrung from modern equipment, and the digital print can be a beautiful object. But how you see and experience that picture on paper will be very different to how you see it on your monitor. That is not wrong, it is just different.

Now where’s that old pile of 2002 dated Velvia?

Part of my Velvia stash as viewed on my Eizo ColorEdge CE210W Monitor

Colour Management

Fuji Velvia

Eizo Monitors

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