Piezography - Not for the faint of heart

Piezography Pro inksI've been spending the past few weeks converting my old Epson Stylus 9900 printer to an OEM inkset, Piezography Pro, made by Jon Cone in Vermont. When I purchased my new Surecolor P9000 a few months ago, I debated whether to give my old printer away, sell it, or convert it to a B&W only printer. My interest in the Piezography inks started many years ago when I learned about the story of Jon Cone and his pursuit of quality prints from inkjet printers. I believe that one should understand as thoroughly as possible one's own choices for medium. We are all interested in achieving the highest quality output for our work and this I believe is the current state of the art for inkjet black and white printing. If you are interested in more information about Piezography, download the Manual in the Community Edition. Piezography Pro is a new version of the inkset that contains 10 inks and a gloss optimizer. You can produce an infinite variety of tone variations for highlights, midtones, and shadows using the warm toned and cool toned inks (4 of each). My previous B&W workflow used the Epson Advanced B&W Mode, which bypasses the ink profile system and manages the printing through a series of user selectable values for color toning and brightness. When Epson provided a 3 B&W ink tones (Black, Light Black, Light Light Black) this was touted as a revolutionary advancement, and indeed it is capable of producing impressive B&W prints. But there was always that inkjet look to them, something that hinted as a compromise, but you could not put your finger on it.

With the Piezography Pro inkset, there are basically 5 tones (HD Black, Dark Gray, Medium Gray, Light Gray, Very Light Gray) in a Warm and Cool variation, making a total of 10 inks. Then there is a one pass Gloss optimizer that removes any gloss differentiation due to unprinted paper showing. Only after looking at several of my prints with any areas of "white" did I see how prevalent (and distracting) this is.

I decided to flush my printer first with PiezoFlush which required a second set of refillable cartridges ($560). I had a stubborn Green channel and hoped that the flush would clear it up, which it did. Then I installed the Piezography Pro inks ($840 for the 250ml set) in another set of cartridges (btw, a set of 11 empty carts is $325). During the flush and installation, I'm sure another $150 worth of ink went into the maintenance tank, which filled up ($40). Piezography requires Quadtone RIP (QTR) software to send your file to the printer. QTR is shareware with a $50 donation. Printing is not as convenient as going directly to your Epson via Lightroom. Another learning curve. Speaking of curves, to get the most out of calibrating your system, you can "linearize" your output using a spectrophotometer (I have an i1Profiler). Lots of work. Is it worth it?

My preliminary tests using a "Proof of Piezography" test file shows dramatic improvements in the printing of dark shadow areas when compared to Epson's ABW mode. Where ABW prints as all black, I get a visible 10-level gradation. Impressive. How this translates to an improvement in print quality I will need more experience. Almost time to buy more ink.


What are you going to do with it?

IMG_2080 The latest addition to our creative toolset is a CNC router. I've been thinking about this technology for a long time. Back in my AutoCAD dealership days, I wrote some programs to create the NC codes (G codes) from drawing files to produce sprockets and drive a punch tool. I'm fascinated by the ability to control precision machinery, much in the same way I have a keen interest in computer programming. In fact, this is just another type of programming, with a different output device. More information about CNC routers can be found here. After some research and a recommendation from a trusted friend, I placed an order for a kit from CNCrouterparts and my brother and I started assembly on January 5th. The entire machine was delivered by UPS in 14 boxes. Assembly was fairly straightforward and we made steady progress. No special tools were needed, just some careful interpretation of drawings and reading of the online "tips". Part of the reward is knowing that you assembled something yourself. Rarely do we have to put anything together anymore except for the occasional bookcase from Ikea. We were thrilled when we were able to get the machine to move. Then we wrote our first program to welcome the machine to the world.

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When I made my post to Facebook announcing the arrival of our new tool I received a lot of inquiries on what I was going to do with it. Honestly I don't have any specific plans other than a gut feeling that this may change the direction of my art. I didn't need to know anything other than that. Sometimes you just go with an instinct, especially if the stakes are high. First step is to acquire some basic skills. There is a steep learning curve, but then the possibilities open. I think we are given these moments of inspirational opportunity, and we need to learn how to take them. I'll see how successful this move becomes. Worst case I'll have a big piece of equipment for sale on Craig's List. Best case...well maybe my life will change. I'll take those odds.

Initially I'll be exploring what I can do with various materials. Wood, acrylic, Sentra (expanded PVC board), Dibond (aluminum bonded acrylic), and corrugated cardboard are all materials that can be easily handled by this machine. The bed is 4 x 8 ft, so I can handle some big pieces. I don't know exactly what I will be printing but I'll try some simple textures and outlines all derived from photographs. I'm going to be looking at this as another type of printer. In order to create a piece, you start with a "vector" representation of the object. Everything is 3D and objects derived from photographs need thickness. Then you define the toolpaths and tools to make the specific cuts. This is the "programming" step. After that another program creates the actual codes that are fed to the machine. Stay tuned for progress reports.

What are you going to do with what you have?

CNC Adventure 1 - It's Breathing from Doug Eng on Vimeo.

01/09/2015 - My brother and I finally got the CNC router table to come alive. Still lots to figure out but we're over the hump. Looking forward to making something!


CNC Adventure 2 - Hello World from Doug Eng on Vimeo.

01/10/2015 - Our first "Sharpie" mode, we programmed our first toolpath using VCarvePro. Yay! Actual runtime is 2.5 minutes so you're getting a fast forward version.

New directions

It's a nebulous title for a post but I'm on to something new. A few months ago I bought a kayak. Enough said. In fact there is so much to say I started a new blog called Streaming South. Why another blog? I wanted a new platform to talk exclusively about my photography on the boat. I thought that this new conversation may distract from what I have going on here. Sounds like a strange reason, but head on over to see some new images and cool places to go.

Deep Creek on a kayak

Fine Art Print Workflow

Fine Art Workflow

Here is something to try if you want to test your skills as a photographer and printer:

  1. Obtain a painting from your favorite watercolor artist. In my case, it's my studio mate Robert Leedy.
  2. Photograph the painting.
  3. Make any adjustments in your favorite software.
  4. Make a print of the painting, same size as the original, on fine art paper, and show it to the artist.
  5. Ask the artist if they feel the print matches the original. If not, repeat Step 3-4. Continue until you run out of paper or the artist is satisfied, whichever comes first.

I was asked to photograph and print 5 paintings for Robert last week for his upcoming show, Beach Access. I eagerly agreed, not knowing what lay ahead. How hard could this be? I have a good camera, daylight balanced continuous lights, a calibrated NEC 2690 monitor, printing to an Epson 9900. Just take the shot, make the print, right?...not so fast. The first test print on 8.5x11 enhanced matte paper (a lot cheaper than the Hahnemuhle William Turner paper selected for the finals) was close. I started out in Lightroom and felt it was just a matter of getting the white balance and saturation tweaked. After about 4 test prints I started to get that sinking feeling. The blues were extremely problematic, and these paintings had lots of blues, different shades and hues. In fact, I don't even know how to describe them. And lots of subtle transitions to yellows and oranges. Robert describes them as "complex." Watercolors are particularly problematic. The colors are created through transparency, that is the only "white" is what is left of the paper that shows through. Much like the colors on your computer monitor. Which means the white balance is actually not white, but the color of the paper. In addition, the paper I'm printing on has a different white balance. Ok, so I'm sorta screwed on this. And yes, although they say a calibrated monitor matches the print exactly, well, it just ain't so. Either my eyes haven't developed the sensitivity to "see" a color match from a monitor to a print, or my system is still off somewhere. Admittedly, the conditions in my studio are not optimal... fluorescent lights, dirty lens covering the lights, some natural light from a window, no shade on the monitor, no balanced light for viewing the print. Horrors!

At some point I through in the towel on Lightroom. It seemed like some of the colors were ok. The reds, greens, and darker shades seemed to be more tolerant of my bad white balance. But those blues and yellows were off. It was on to Photoshop, and masking areas so that I could keep intact what looked good. It seemed like I was going around in circles. Plenty of adjustment layers...Levels, Curves, Hue/Saturation, and White Balance. There's always more than one way to skin a cat in Photoshop. Robert was always helpful in the process. He could tell me, "Doug, this color is way off...add some red here, take out yellow there." Without his clues I would be stuck. For me the blue just needed to be "more blue," whatever that meant!

The next big realization was that an 8.5x11 (really a 9x6) print may look fine, but not all things scale up to 26x18. In fact as we all know, a lot of glaring details start to appear, and the perception of color is no exception. I was in shock to see that what I though was pretty good was actually pretty bad, and I had the large print to prove it. So I went to printing test strips at full size just to get close. After blowing through about $300 worth of paper and ink, I got through each painting. The results are good, not great. If I expect to be doing fine art print services on an ongoing business, I need to go back to school on this. My goal is to arrive at a 90 minute process. If not, then it's something I can't afford to do, or a typical artist can't afford to pay.

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July 4th - Family, fun, and fireworks

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July 4th is always a good holiday to divide up the year and reflect on what has happened and what is yet to come. I was fortunate to leave the heat and humidity of Jacksonville to spend a few days with Diana's in-laws and Dorian's brother in Ohio. We enjoyed fireworks on July 1 (an early tradition up here) and 3 days of continuous feasting. Being with family always has it's benefits.

Fireworks photography is always fun if you can find a decent spot and the weather cooperates. I regret all those summers I spent in Montreal and never photographed the International Fireworks Festival competitions...oh how I wished I was there for the summer. I experienced the fireworks at Buckeye Lake which is about 40 miles west of Columbus. They say the show is one of the best in the area and it did not disappoint. Almost 30 minutes of explosions. We were able to view them from a house on the lake, no long wait for a spot. After some dismal results with my 24-70 lens, I switched over to my 70-200 and went for some closer shots and details. Not having a clear view of the lake posed some challenges and I wasn't able to get many shots with the reflections in the water.

There are lots of articles on camera setup for fireworks (just Google "fireworks photography"). My settings were ISO 400, f/10, with an average 2 sec exposure. Cable release and tripod are essential. You want to be careful of not blowing out the highlights, so these settings depend somewhat on the distance you are from the show and the number of explosions happening at one time. Be prepared to adjust the ISO and aperture to account for this (check your histogram or flashing overexposure warning). Another convenient setting is to use your "B" mode and just count down the seconds. This gives you more control over when you want to stop the exposure, especially when you see another firework starting to enter the frame. I actually forgot about using "B" and many of my shots ended up with a new firework entering the frame, something to remember. I'm paranoid about focus, and since everything is pitch black you wonder what you should be focused on. You can pretty much go to infinity and just back off a tad. Shooting at f/8 or above will ensure that the lights will be in sharp focus.

While waiting for the show you can always play around with moving your camera on the surrounding lights. This will help you warm up and to get an idea of the exposure.

Buckeye Lake Fireworks - Shorelights

I post-processed all images in Lightroom and needed to increase the Blacks and Vibrance. Of course some cropping helps to isolate the patterns. I was thankful for the resolution on the 5D2, zooming in on some of the light trails revealed some very interesting patterns. Shooting tight with the telephoto gives a different perspective on the scene. I know that we get caught up in the grandeur of the big circular clouds, but try to isolate for a different look. The half hour show went by quickly. It's nice to have images to relive the moment.

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A wedding lesson in the Real World School of Photography

The weddingOn Saturday Dorian and I shot our first solo wedding. Yes you heard that correctly, and no, I'm not heading down this path. It was for some good friends, Steve and Lisa, and believe me Steve twisted my arm pretty hard for me to accept this project. I think "fear of weddings" ranks up there with public speaking, cold calling, and interviews with the IRS, at least for photographers. I must say that after I got over my general incompetence and equipment failures, time passed rather quickly and I had a good time. The service was wonderful and I never saw a happier bride and groom. To know that I contributed to the memories of a lovely day made it all worthwhile. So, how was the experience? Overall the feelings of being rushed were overwhelming. Weddings go according to a schedule and things just happen whether you're ready or not. And people don't wait for the photographer to fiddle and fuss with things, they want you to just do your thing while they do theirs. We arrived late (not going to get into that) about 1.5 hours before the service. The wedding was being held at a reception hall, which was more like a dark cave, with heavy drapes closing out 70% of the natural light and a "stage" about 4 ft high that the ceremony was to take place. We had scoped out the site a few weeks ago so we knew what we were dealing with. I set up 2 bounce umbrellas with speedlights at both ends of the stage and I had my on-camera speedlight. This I knew was going to be my biggest challenge, getting enough light to the stage and shooting up at a 30 degree angle.

The dressI wanted to get some initial shots of the bride getting dressed so I was able to set up quickly, test the lights, and get over to the dressing room. There always seems to be an element of chance when using my Pocket Wizards and the speedlights. Things just happen...or don't. But my strategy was to take enough images in RAW so that I could come up with30-50 decent shots. That's all I needed. The other thing to realize is that a camera setup for indoor flash is very different from natural light shooting. With 2 bodies it's a bit mind-boggling for me to reset everything correctly when you go between the two.

For indoors I was able to toggle between a single on-camera flash and the umbrellas using the 2 Pocket Wizard channels.  Another thing to remember, and you know where my memory is going these days. It looked like everything was set up ok in the main hall, so we took some shots in the dressing area. People were arriving, so I knew this was it. The clock had started. As we finished the dressing shots the bridal party was ready to walk. I entered first to position myself for the walk in shots...ok mount the PW and speedlight, switch to C2 on the PW, turn on speedlight, switch ISO, switch to Manual, set f5.6, set 1/60, oh and don't forget the white balance, test fire PW, and here they come! First shot was dark, no firing of my on camera flash, second shot dark, so what the f* was going on? As they approached the stage I switched over to C1 to activate the umbrellas, fired the test shot, second shot...yes I had light! So I was happy until about the 4th shot things started to go dark again. It seemed like my on-camera flash was highly intermittent. All I could do was to keep shooting and hope that things fired.

The ceremony  The kiss  Steve_Lisa_2010-0206_096

During a slow spot in the ceremony I switched over to my body with my 70-200. I moved the PW and speedlight over and started shooting again, with about 50% of the images getting any light. The end of the ceremony was coming and I knew there were 4 money shots I had to get, the ring exchange, the kissing of the bride, the introduction of Mr. and Mrs., and the descent into the crowd. I was sweating now. The place was so dark that any attempt to do this w/o a flash was out of the question. Time to say some prayers. I switched back over to my wider lens and hoped for the best. I lucked out until the end, when the bride and groom descended down the steps, followed by the best man and the bridesmaids. Nice silhouette shots. I was upset. There is NO excuse for equipment failure or user error during an event. You must be prepared and your stuff has got to work. Shame, shame!

I wanted to do the formals inside where I knew I had control of the lighting. We reset the umbrellas near the stair and the speedlight on #1 decided not to fire. Was it the flash, the PW on the flash, the transmitter, wrong channel, interference, one or more of the above, who knows? In frustration we headed outside. It was windy, cold, and bright sun. Ok, so I had to reset the camera for outdoor, get out the diffusers and reflectors. We did a few poses with the family and then people started getting cold, so we headed back inside. I think I could have been much better prepared to shoot outdoors if this was part of the plan.

First toast  First dance

Back inside people were getting ready for dinner. Ah, a break for the first time. My brain was fried. And it doesn't help when your assistant (who happens to be your wife) keeps asking you why your stuff doesn't work..."well dear if I knew I would just fix it." In some stoke of genius I decided to change the batteries out of the speedlights. I had the smarts to grab a box of AAs on the way out. Residing in the speedlights were rechargeable Radio Shack AAs, you know those green batteries that take 4 hours to charge. Some of them were probably 3-4 years old. Hummm, things started to work again after the battery change.  Now why didn't I think of that before? I really worked these flash units. I mean hundreds of times in 1-2 hours. So with fresh batteries we proceeded to do the table shots with the bride andThe culprits (I hope!) groom. Dorian held the small softbox with a speedlight, I had another speedlight on camera. 8 tables, flawless. Then we did the bride and groom doing a toast...perfect. Then time for the first dance, and the family dance. So far so good. Then the garter, the bouquet, and cake cutting. No more failures. My guess it was the batteries....arrgh! I was cheap, I didn't want to get some decent batteries or a high capacity power pack. I spend all this money on equipment and workshops and I was brought down by $10 worth of batteries. Now I know better. It will never happen again. Hard lessons in the Real World School of Photography!


 The cake  The garter  The bouquet

Steve_Lisa_2010-0206_341  A happy camper

I took 619 images and discarded 255. I tagged 108 as images I will provide to the bride and groom as selections. Thank goodness for RAW and the Lighroom Brightness and Fill sliders. These enabled me to literally rescue 50% of my keepers. It was a lot of work, and one day I will be able to minimize the use of these corrections but for now, I'm so happy they exist.

My best goes out to Steve and Lisa. Thanks for having faith in me to document your special day.

Epson 9900 is up and running!

9900JeeroWith some help from a friend, I finally got the inks loaded, the paper holder assembled, firmware updated, and everything hooked up. Last night my first 8.5 x 11 print came off the printer. Of course I forgot to set the color profile and paper type correctly and it looked like crap. Panic! By paying attention to what you are doing some things work themselves out. The print was awesome. Which goes to show the importance of monitor calibration and proper printer profiles in your workflow. There are lots of articles and workshops on these topics. In fact books are written on this. There IS a way to get your screen and print to match. But remember, you are viewing on screen images through a backlit monitor, you are viewing prints through front lit lighting, big difference. So in some respects, you will never get things to look "exact".

Lab Test PageIf you need some good test prints to run through your printer, go to Bill Atkinson's Download page and grab the Profile Test Image. This covers both color and B&W situations and will give you a good idea of how your printer is doing. If your monitor is properly calibrated, the image should look good right out of the box. A print with the proper paper settings and profile should give you an idea of what is off. You can also run the Grays Test Image which is a B&W gradient at different settings in the Epson Advanced B&W Mode. This will give you a good preview at various tonal ranges.


  LAB Grays Test Image