Frequently Asked Questions
Answers to the most frequently asked questions about either my work or the field of fine art imaging are below. As additional questions arise, I will add to the list. A table of contents is provided to make it easier to find your question.
Table of Contents
Questions & Answers
Q. What is different or unique about Michael Fox Photography?
A. In a word - quality. Every step of the image making process, from the choice of film and camera type, to the taking and preparation of the image, to the choice of printing and finishing materials is done with the objective of delivering the highest quality, longest lasting photographic product possible. The result is a quality of print and presentation that is as stunning as the beautiful image it contains.
Q. Is your work guaranteed?
A. Absolutely. My mounted fine art prints are 100% satisfaction guaranteed. For complete information on the guarantee, see the Guarantee page of this website.
Q. How do you get such sharp images?
A. Image sharpness is determined by many factors which must be carefully planned and executed throughout the entire, end-to-end photographic process. I'll summarize just a few points here to give you an idea of how the many different parts of the process contributed to the end result:
- Film or digital sensor size is important. For a hypothetical 16" x 20" print, a 4" x 5" large format image must be enlarged only 4 times. A 2-1/4" x 2-1/4" medium format image must be enlarged almost nine (9) times. A 1" x 1-1/2" 35mm image must be enlarged about 16 times. A 5-6 megapixel digital image must be enlarged even more than that! The larger the image you start with, the sharper the final image will be.
- Careful selection of depth of field is important. I calculate depth of field tables for each of my lenses and camera formats. This allows me to know exactly what will and will not appear to be in focus for different enlargement sizes. It also allows me to avoid the fuzzy appearance that is created by diffraction when the lens is stopped down to the smallest opening.
- Proper shooting technique is key. Proper shutter speed selection, using mirror lock-up (35mm/DSLR and medium format), a heavy tripod, proper long lens technique, and other professional techniques are important for the ultimate in image sharpness, especially in adverse weather conditions.
- When shooting film, high resolution drum scanning is essential. Drum scanners provide the highest resolution scans and allow the aperture (dot size) to be set according to the film grain size. This lets the photographer or scanner operator optimize the scan for resolution without emphasizing the film grain.
- Picking the right output size is critical. Each image must be evaluated to determine how much detail is important for that particular image. Based on this evaluation, and based on the size of the original piece of film or digital file, a maximum enlargement size can be chosen. Once selected and tested, I simply won't print an image larger if I feel that it will detract from the quality that I demand.
Q. How do you achieve such a smooth range of tonalities?
A. Once again, rich tonality is the result of a carefully constructed and executed photographic process. I'll summarize just a few points here to give you an idea of how many different parts of the process contribute to the end result:
- Exposure meters are calibrated and checked regularly. I typically use a spot meter and sometimes an incident light meter, even when shooting 35mm, since exposure errors as small as 1/3 stop can cause critical image detail to be lost in transparency film.
- For digital shooting, I carefully test and evaluate the dynamic range of the sensor. This is key to determining the tonal response in all brightness levels of the image.
- Film selection is important. I perform many film tests before I ever use a particular film for making images. These tests determine the exact response of the film to different lighting conditions. Different films are used for different lighting conditions. Anyone who always shoots a particular film, no matter the lighting, isn't capturing as much as they could. The resulting image will be less than ideal.
- Film processing is important. I check and recheck my lab regularly to make sure I'm getting consistent results.
- Drum scanning using custom film characterizations is important. Film has a non-linear response to changes in light levels. Proper characterization of each film's particular characteristics allows the scanner to get the most out of each film.
- Careful image editing and proper matching of the image tonalities and color with the capabilities of the final output process is critical. Adjustments for a RC-type photo paper exposed by a digital enlarger are different than adjustments for an ink jet printer on water color paper or a 4-color offset press on magazine paper or a web page viewed on a laptop.
Q. What should I look for when evaluating image quality?
A. In professional print evaluation, there are many aspects to an image which are critically evaluated. Following are just a few suggestions to help you evaluate an image for quality.
- The first thing I usually look for is focus and sharpness. Is the image in focus and are the details sharp? Even though an image may be in focus, it may have a slight fuzzy appearance in the smallest details due to the photographer choosing too small an aperture or making too large of an enlargement for the original film size. Check edges, such as where the mountain intersects with the sky. Is it a clean and natural edge or are there color halos, digital pixelation or other errors.
- The next thing I usually look at are the highlights and the shadows. Check highlight areas such as clouds, snow, the white water of a water fall or other bright areas. Do the brightest areas of the image contain interesting details or are they solid white? Is there a full range of light tones in the image or are there chunky areas that are very, very light or just plain white. Next, check the shadows. Is there a nice distribution of tonality from medium to dark, to darker, to very dark to black? Or are large sections blocked up in shadow with no detail? Do the darkest parts of the image contain rich, inky blacks or are they dull, muddy blacks?
- Finally, look at the overall color of the image. Is the color correct or do you see strange colors in the sky or snow or leaves? Do the colors look smooth and natural or do they look overly saturated and "florescent" like a neon sign or perhaps even dull and muted?
Q. What should I look for when evaluating presentation quality?
A. First, as you unwrap the image, check that the packaging is carefully done and properly protects your fine art print. Next, if the image is mounted, check the edges to make sure that the mounting process did not leave any edges with gaps or other problems. Critically examine the surface by looking across it at a low angle to determine if any small dimples are visible. If so, a speck of dust was probably trapped under the print during mounting and this could cause a problem down the road. Next, check the mount board and mat board. Are they properly cut with clean edges? Are the inside corners of the mat board clean or do you see visible cut marks?
Q. How long have you been shooting?
A. About 30 years. I began shooting a fully manual 35mm camera in my teens. I've been a serious amateur for about 15 years and a professional for about 4 years.
Q. Do you have any professional credentials?
A. Yes. I am Certified by the Professional Photographer's of America. The PPA is the largest and most respected professional photography organization in the country. PPA certification involves both a lengthy written test and a print review. The written test covers a variety of aspects of photographic, such as: artistry, exposure, lighting, film processing, development and other subjects. The print review covers twenty prints which are reviewed by the certification committee to insure that the quality is professional and consistent with the best practices of the PPA.
Q. Do you do portraits?
A. On occasion, yes. But currently only on a limited basis for certain clients. For the best results, you should use a professional with specific experience in the particular type of portraiture you need. Call me and we can discuss your needs. If I'm not the best fit, then check the PPA website (www.ppa.com) for links to professionals in your area.
Q. Do you do commercial work?
A. On occasion, yes. But currently only on a limited basis for certain clients. For the best results, you should use a professional with specific experience in the particular type of work you need done. Call me and we can discuss your needs. If I'm not the best fit, then check the PPA website (www.ppa.com) for links to professionals in your area.
Film vs. Digital
Q. How do you select film vs. digital capture?
A. For any particular location, I select film vs. digital capture according to a few different criteria, including:
- Size of final print/image. If the end result will be a large print, I go with large format film if possible. Digital continues to get better. But, with the exception of large format scanning backs, it still can't match the detail in a drum scanned 4" x 5" transparency.
- Dynamic range. If the location or scene will have a wide dynamic range (difference between the brightest and darkest areas), I go with digital or negative film. Most digital backs and cameras have a dynamic range that is wider than transparency (slide) film but still less than negative film.
- Color Accuracy: For nature photography, where the color of light changes throughout the day, color is often an interpretation. That is, there is no one right answer. In commercial work, especially for catalogs, absolute color accuracy is critical. Where absolute color accuracy is required, digital capture is the way to go because it's faster/easier to calibrate and much more repeatable.
- Ease of use or fast turn-around. Digital is certainly easier to use and can produce finished images faster that waiting for film to be processed and scanned.
Q. How do you select the films that you use?
A. Testing, testing and more testing. I conduct film tests to determine the film's characteristic response to different lighting conditions. I conduct tests to determine how the film will perform when scanned. Finally I consult the manufacturer's data sheets. I check reciprocity failure times, grain size and other characteristics. Ultimately I select both a transparency and a negative film. I carry both to a given location and use the one that is most appropriate for the dynamic range of the scene and the overall contrast and tonality I'm trying to achieve in the final image.
Q. How do you select which type of camera to use?
A. Each situation is different,. My general rule of thumb is to use the largest format that is practical for the particular situation. Some general guidelines are as follows:
- Grand landscapes: I use a large format view camera. Today, I shoot large format film in that camera. As digital sensors get better, I hope to eventually switch to a view camera with a digital back. Sometimes, it's just not practical to have the big camera with me so I'll use medium format or 35mm/DSLR.
- Intimate landscapes and macro: I'll use medium format whenever possible in order to get a larger piece of film or digital capture. But 35mm/DSLR can also produce magnificant macro shots and has better depth of field options for tight areas.
- Animals: 35mm/DSLR is the best choice. It's faster to work with and has better long lens and flash options. This makes it ideal for capturing animals on the move or at a distance.
Q. What about <insert manufacturer name here> cameras?
A. Camera brands are largely a matter of personal choice based on how important a particular set of features are. The particular cameras and brands I use are listed in About > Cameras but there are many other fine camera brands. Ultimately, the quality of the end result is dependent on the photographer's skill, not on the brand of the tool they use.
Q. Why drum scanning instead of CCD or flatbed scanning?
A. Quite simply, drum scanning is the best method of scanning. Drum scanners use a PMT (photo multiplier tube) instead of a CCD (charge coupled device). This technology gives drum scanners the ability to see much deeper into the shadows of an image and reproduce fine detail in these dark areas with much less digital noise. Drum scanners have much higher resolution than any CCD scanner available on the market. Drum scanners have the ability to set the aperture (or dot size) to match the film grain size. This lets the operator make selections between finer detail with more grain or smoother detail with less grain. The particular drum scanner I use also allows the operator to control the scanner's density response. This allows the scanner to be set to match the exact density curve of the film being scanned and results in a much more accurate representation of what is on the film.
Q. What about so-called "virtual drum" scanners?
A. "Virtual drum" scanners are not drum scanners, they are CCD scanners. The term "virtual drum" is a marketing term promoted by one particular CCD scanner manufacturer. The idea is to bend the film around a cylinder so that it is flatter in the scanning direction (along the length of the cylinder). It is an excellent idea for achieving film flatness. But these scanners are still limited by the fact that they are based on CCD technology.
Q. Does that mean that CCD scanners are bad?
A. No. Not at all. In fact, I have two other CCD scanners from two different manufacturers (one is the "virtual drum" type) that I use for lower resolution, less critical tasks such as making "contact sheets" and for putting images on the website. But, it is clear from my own years of experience as well as from independent testing that the best CCD scanners have lower resolution and lower maximum density ratings than even medium-grade drum scanners.
Q. What about <insert manufacturer name here> scanners?
A. Everyone has their own preferences and needs. Therefore, it doesn't make sense for me to comment on various scanner manufacturers. I chose my Aztek drum scanner because my focus on quality required the highest resolution, highest Dmax, most accurate scanner and I required the ability to customize the scanner's response to each individual scan. Other people may not have such tight constraints. Therefore, if the scanner does what the user needs, then that's all it needs to do.
Q. Isn't digital photography "fake?" Doesn't it somehow alter reality?
A. In a word, NO. Here's the scoop: Every step of making a photograph somehow alters or interprets the actual subject. If you've ever taken a picture using a wide angle or a zoom lens, you've altered reality. If you've ever used B&W film, you've altered reality. If you've ever put a filter on your camera - even a polarizing filter, you've altered reality. Any film or digital sensor you choose will alter reality because it is a man-made product with limited color and tonal capture ability. When you print the image, you alter reality because the paper and chemicals or inks are man-made and have their own limitations. Throughout history, man has sought better and better means to capture images. Early photographers used gelatin on a glass plate. Then came film. Now there is the digital sensor. Each technology had it's own set of limitations. Digital is no different. Digital imaging is not perfect and has it's own set of advantages and disadvantages. But, in many ways, when used properly, digital photography can produce images which are closer to reality than any technology preceeding it.
Q. O.K. But isn't digital editing (after taking the picture) somehow "fake" or "cheating"?
A. As with most things, I guess that depends on your point of view. Most photography professionals no longer argue about this, just like accountants no longer argue about using a pocket calculator instead of an adding machine or doing long division by hand. The practical reality is that the lenses we use are not perfect. The film and/or digital sensors we use are not perfect. The paper we print on is not perfect. The computer monitors we use to view web images are not perfect. So image editing can be used to adjust the captured image so that it prints well or displays well. These adjustments can be made to try to overcome some of the limitations of the capture device or the printing device, thereby producing a result that agrees more closely with what we actually saw in the real world. Or, these adjustments can be used to "interpret" the image, thereby producing a result that agrees more closely with what the artist imagined (not unlike the impressionist painters did). Bottom line, any fine art print generally has some manipulation of color, contrast, saturation and some selective lightening and darkening (dodging and burning), regardless of whether it is printed in a traditional wet darkroom or in the new digital darkroom.
Q. O.K. So what did traditional (wet darkroom) printers do?
A. Traditional or wet darkroom printers used masks and different types of papers and different enlarger filters to manipulate color, contrast and tonality. Ansel Adams was able to produce such magnificent prints because he was a master at manipulating exposure, development time and printing conditions. In fact, over his long career, he printed the same negative with very different manipulations resulting is dramatically different prints. What was once a light and airy scene became a dark and forboding scene. The masks and filters and other techniques which were used in the wet darkroom are now possible to achieve through software in the new digital darkroom.
Q. How are those traditional techniques done digitally?
A. For the most part, the same types of adjustments that were once done with chemicals and optical filters are now done with software. Color, contrast and saturation can be changed for the whole image or masks can be used to limit the change to only certain parts of the image.
Q. Don't some photographers cut-and-paste pictures together?
A. Sure. There are many very talented artists who add elements to a photographic images or combine multiple images into a montage. Some combine this with painting and illustration effects to produce truly remarkable results. The only thing that is important is that you know what you are buying. Is it wrong to add a sky or take out a telephone pole? Only if you're not honest about how the image was created.
Q. Why digital printing?
A. Most high-end printing today is done digitally. It provides a way to create an image with much more exacting quality than was previously possible. Most of the former wet darkroom printing masters have already made the transition to digital and are much happier with the result.
Q. What are ink jet prints?
A. An ink jet printer lays down extremely fine dots of ink so accurately that the results can be as good or better than the best RC photo paper prints. Ink jet prints such as those from Epson, HP, Roland and others provide stunningly beautiful output on a wider variety of media than is possible with the digital enlarger. Ink jet printers don't use photographic paper so they can print on fine art paper, canvas, or special papers that look very much like traditional photographic paper. The new UltraChrome K3 pigmented inks from Epson are the current state of the art for the richest colors, deepest blacks and excellent longevity. Prints made with Epson's K3 inks have longer longevity than traditional RC photo paper prints made on the LightJet. Depending on the type of print and the paper used, independent testing has shown that Epson K3 ink prints should last upwards of 200 years.
Q. What about giclee?
A. Giclee is a french word meaning to spray with ink. In other words, giclee is a fancy way of saying ink jet. Giclee prints are ink jet prints.
Q. What is a LightJet?
A. The LightJet is a digital enlarger manufactured by Cymbolic Sciences. The LightJet is located in a darkroom and loaded with RC color photographic paper. This paper is exposed using Red, Green and Blue lasers and then developed using traditional color printing chemistry. The result is stunning detail and sharpness in even the largest prints -- assuming, of course, that you start with a sharp digital image file! The LightJet costs several hundred thousand dollars and is the size of a small room so it is typically located at a commercial digital lab. Independent testing has shown that LightJet prints made on the most modern RC color photographic paper should last upwards of 70 years.
Q. What about other digital enlargers (Durst Lambda, Chromira, ...)?
A. The Durst Lambda is very similar in capability to the LightJet. The Chromira uses LEDs instead of lasers. Some argue that lasers provide better sharpness than LEDs but I haven't tried the Chromira so I won't comment on that. The most important aspect of using any of these digital enlargers is finding a lab with highly skilled operators.
Q. So which is better -- LightJet or Ink Jet?
A. Unfortunately, the answer is "it depends on what you want." If you want a print made on traditional RC photographic paper and developed in photographic chemicals, then a LightJet print is best. But for the best over all print, including the richest colors and the deepest blacks and for a print that will last longer than photographic prints, then a print made with Epson K3 inks is the ulimate in quality.
Presentation & Finishing
Q. Why is having a print mounted so important?
A. Unmounted prints are much too susceptible to accidental damage. Even picking up the print the wrong way can create crescent-shaped dimples in the paper. Larger prints are even more susceptable to damage because the weight of the paper itself causes it to sag more. For a fine art print investment, it is best to have it mounted.
Q. Why is framing and glass so important?
A. Proper framing with glass or UV-filtered plexiglass protects the print from harmful contaminants such as smoke, food fumes, dust and scratches and humidity which all tend to reduce the longevity of the print.
Care & Preservation
Q. How long will color photographic prints last?
A. Each type of print has its own characteristics. Longevity is one of the reasons we have selected Fuji Crystal Archive type RC paper for our photographic prints made on the LightJet. According to accelerated light stability testing conducted at Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc., Fuji Crystal Archive photographic prints should last about 60 to 70 years before noticeable fading begins to occur. For further reference, see "How Long Will They Last? An Overview of the Light Fading Stability of Inkjet Prints and Traditional Color Photographs" by Henry Wilhelm, February 2002.
Q. How long will Ink Jet prints last?
A. Depending on the ink set and paper used, ink jet prints can outlast photographic prints by decades. The Epson K3 inkset has been tested by Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc. to last upwards of 100 years for color prints and 200 years for black and white prints.