How To Produce Competition Winning Prints

By Editor Graham Daly


A Photographer who knows how to produce competition winning prints!

Brian Hopper

 

Brian Hopper  is an internationally renowned and multi award-winning Photographer based in County Louth, Ireland and has been involved in various aspects of photography for over forty years.

As well as the numerous competition awards and accolades that Brian has amassed over the years, he also currently holds the following Photographic Distinctions: Excellence FIAP Platinum (EFIAP/P), Fellowship of The Irish Photographic Federation (FIPF) and an Associateship of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (ARPS).

Having been involved in a number of camera clubs over the years the drive to compete and improve was a constant one. Always seeking to challenge himself, Brian turned to involvement in the international photographic competition scene (or salons as they are better known). These salons are run under the patronage of photographic bodies such as The Federation Internationale de l’Art Photographique (FIAP) and The Photographic Society of America (PSA).  To date Brian has amassed over 3000 acceptances and over 400 awards in international competition and has been awarded the FIAP Blue Badge (Best author in a FIAP salon) nineteen times – a national record here in Ireland and one that he is particularly proud of and understandably so!

 

Aingeal (Godess of Light)

 
Out of all the photographic competitions he has entered, Brian treasures those he has entered with printed images the most. A printed image is presented to judges exactly as the author wished it printed. Brian has been awarded the “Top Print” in nearly twenty international competitions – from FIAP salons and biennials to the very pinnacle of the PSA’s print competition, “The Image of the Year”.

Brian has managed to have prints awarded in first, second and third places in both colour and monochrome sections in this PSA competition where the entry criteria requires the eligible print to have been already awarded a gold medal in an international competition.
More recently, Brian has been invited to judge in international competitions and has completed twenty two judging appointments including been appointed as Chairman of the Salon Jury twice – a singular honour.

As you can see, Brian Hopper is clearly a Photographer who has plenty of winning experience and knows a thing or two about producing prints that can win compete against the best photographers and come out on top!

In this article, I spend time with the man himself in order to determine what it takes to produce great prints and how I can improve my own printing to match the high standards that Brian has set and achieved.

 

John Burrows in action


How can I produce prints worthy of winning a competition?
There are so many aspects to printing and indeed to producing the perfect print. I will attempt to provide a logical approach here.

Most photographers like to retain control over their prints for competition, whether that is the paper used for the print or the way it is finally presented, because when a judge examines a print there can be no excuses offered.

 


When it comes to selecting between prints for awards the smallest detail can make the difference. The judge will hold the print in their hands exactly as you entered it – each detail will indicate to the judge exactly what the author thought of his / her image. Any marks, dust spots or imperfections will indicate that the author didn’t really care too much about the final product and this will affect the way the print is judged. Because of international postage and handling, it is normal practice to forgive minor scratch marks and slight transit damage caused to prints – it would be unfair to penalise the entrant for slight damage caused outside their direct control.

There are a few very important steps to producing the perfect print which I will attempt to cover, and these recommendations are specifically for those photographers who prepare and print their own images on their own printers and not those whom are outsourcing the print tasks to a Print Lab.

Let’s look at these very important steps or “Printing Prerequisites”.

Step 1 - Screen Calibration / Printer Profiling 

 

The single most important aspect to producing any digital image is calibration. We all want the adjustments we employ in post production to be reflected accurately in the final image. We then want those adjustments to transfer to the final print and be produced accurately. Most photographers make a fatal mistake in these two fundamental steps and indeed some never really seem to embrace the process of calibration.

In the calibration of photographic equipment, we measure and set the output of devices to a colour standard. We calibrate each piece of equipment to that standard in order to have some semblance of continuity in the post production process . The fatal mistake most photographers make is thinking they will “get the printer to match the screen” – this never happens.  In calibrating different devices we “tune” them to a colour standard and help them to produce the colours to the best of their capabilities.

Much like a guitar and cello in an orchestra - we can tune the instruments and get the musicians to play in harmony from the same sheet of music but each instrument will retain its individual sound and will contribute in an orchestra to the final musical sound. Regardless of how well a musician tunes the cello and guitar they would never expect to get the two instruments to produce the exact same sound. The same logic applies to our display and printer – each will reproduce colours to the calibrated standard but each will retain their individual characteristics. With proper calibration we will have success in our digital workflow. Without calibration, it is a minefield! Screen calibration is vital even if we choose to outsource the printing process. Those printing cannot second-guess what a particular image should look like.

 

Step 2 - File Preparation
I cannot stress the importance of proper file preparation in printing a digital image. Time and again I have listened to lecturers gloss over and fudge this very important aspect of digital printing.

 

 

If you use an Epson printer your files have to be prepared at 360 DPI (or direct Multiples of 180, 360, 720, 1440, 2880…) . If you send a digital file to an Epson printer with any other image resolution the printer software will interpolate the image and work within the resolutions as stated. This interpolation is performed “on the fly” or outside our control and as photographers know, the algorithm for interpolating an image while enlarging is very important – a huge factor in image quality. When printing images at larger dimensions, print problems like “jaggies” can occur (where stair like lines can occur on edges which should be smooth and straight) and printed images may appear “soft” or less sharp

To my knowledge most other printer systems, such as those manufactured and supplied by Canon require file resolutions of 300 dpi.

 

Step 3 – Selecting the Paper

 

 

There are so many paper options available for the photographer to choose from but yet so many make the wrong choice and the final printed image can suffer immeasurably from the paper on which the print was made.

Most photographers who print their own images will “test” a number of papers and, in general, choose their “favourite paper” primarily on cost. They get used to preparing for and printing on this paper and are in the main reluctant to change unless problems arise. Generally it takes another pair of eyes to spot any print problem and if this happens to be a judge in competition the print will suffer and loose its “ranking” because of poor print quality.

I have heard of a number of photographers who have had their work rejected because of “blown highlights” and they struggle to recognize the basis of their problem. In attempts to rectify this particular problem histograms are re-checked, the white point reset and some even adjust levels or curves to “bring back the whites”. All of these routes to rectify the problem tend to affect the overall tonality of the image. The resultant “fix” compromises the image and never quite seems to properly rectify the problem.

Few photographers truly understand that a print problem with “blown” highlights or indeed a problem in transitioning between printed and unprinted sections in an image can be the fault of the specific paper that was selected by the photographer. Most papers use some form of brightening agents known as OBAs (Optical Brightening Agents) to improve the D-max (deep blacks) and extend the overall tonality of the print.

The vast majority of consumer papers are made from wood pulp or alpha-cellulose base and would have a yellow to brown base if some form of bleaching or whitening was not employed. When the paper base is made the further use of optical brighteners are employed because the demand for bright white papers forces manufacturers to add optical brighteners. Before you jump up and say “the paper I use does not use OBA’s” just remember that manufacturers use OBA’s in most inkjet media in order to supply the demand for bright white papers.

In my experience the use of bright white papers for photographic printing leads to many problems printing highlights or indeed the transitioning between mid-tones and highlights, problems like “bronzing” appear on these papers too. I’m not going to labour on about the problems with print longevity/archival quality as this problem has more to do with the bleaching of the paper pulp used as the base.

The use of OBA’s is, at this stage, a refined technology but should be avoided. The choice of a photographic paper with low or no OBA’s is preferable for the printing and longevity of photographic images. Some papers are defined as warm-tone but the use of proper ICC profiles for particular papers eliminates the shifts in colour or tonality associated with these modern papers.

The next time you print, open your mind to your choice of paper – the choice of paper alone could change your print results for the better!

 

Specific Considerations Regarding Printing for Competitions.

Now that we have covered the Printing Prerequisites that apply to printing any digital image, let’s focus on some of the printing specifics that are normally required by the various Print Competitions.

 

 

Most international salons, such as those under the patronage of FIAP or the PSA, have a standard sizing criteria for print submissions. This is mainly because many of these salons/competitions mount and frame the prints for exhibition purposes.  A3 (un-mounted) is considered “standard” but just be careful because some salons may state a maximum size of 30cm x 40cm.  I recommend that the long edge of the image is printed roughly around 35cm with a margin/border between 30mm – 40mm. This will allow any judge to comfortably pick up the print and examine the paper base. Also it allows for comfortable viewing at arms length. A generous paper weight (320 gsm) will also help as the printed image will be more rigid and will stand up to more intense examination where prints may be taken for viewing under various sources of light. A light or thin “stroke” on the image is sufficient to define the outline of the print.

Brian’s Personal Recipe to Print Success – Print on Canson Infinity Paper! Now that I have covered most of the thorny subject matters associated with print faults, let me provide you with a final thought and personal recommendation as to what paper you should use.

Firstly, let me start off by stating that there are many superb fine art papers available in the marketplace today. In general, fine art papers are made from cotton fibers and do not contain optical brighteners. The base colour of the cotton depends on where the cotton is sourced – some cotton is naturally whiter than others.

 


The ink receiving layers with which the papers are coated have evolved and many now use barium sulphate as a natural brightener. This inorganic compound can now be found in most of the family of modern Baryta Papers. The combination of modern inks, papers and giclée printing techniques can now directly emulate the much admired and adorned quality of yesteryear’s darkroom prints. 

Back in 2009 I became involved with a French paper manufacturer, Canson Infinity and am now an Ambassador for them. In my constant drive for perfection an opportunity arose to test some papers from Canson Infinity and I have not used any other paper for my own printing since!

Having been introduced to Canson Infinity Digital Fine Art and Photo papers around 2009, I quickly became convinced of the quality of their range. I have used Canson Infinity papers for all my printing and have garnered many awards in international photographic exhibitions including top monochrome and colour print awards in over fifteen exhibitions. Some of my favourite Canson papers include their Platine Fibre Rag, Baryta Photographique, PrintMaking Rag and Aquarelle Rag. 

I would highly recommend Canson Infinity Digital Fine Art and Photo papers without hesitation to every photographer who is looking to achieve brilliant print results and also stand a chance of winning international photographic print competitions.

I am asked regularly to recommend my favourite paper and, to be honest, that is a difficult one. I do have favourites – Platine Fiber Rag and Aquarelle Rag rank near the top but there is “a new kid on the block” – Baryta Prestige (340 gsm).  This is, without doubt, the best inkjet paper I have ever tested and it is bound to make its mark internationally. It is comprised of an acid free alpha-cellulose and cotton white paper base with a true barium sulphate coating – it evokes the look and aesthetic feel of traditional darkroom papers.

Baryta Prestige provides excellent surface durability, outstanding black optical density (D-Max) and superb image sharpness.  This paper has good lay-flat qualities, excellent surface cohesion as well as very low gloss differential between printed and non-printed areas. It offers an extraordinary wide gamut, which improves colour reproduction and increases visual impact.

Hopefully now you are beginning to get a feel for what comprises a good inkjet paper and all the facets which combine to make a paper special - and indeed it is a case of not all papers being equal!

 

 

If you were to settle on only one paper for colour or monochrome printing, choosing Canson Infinity Baryta Prestige 340 gsm would not disappoint you! 

More About Brian Hopper
If you are interested in seeing more of Brian’s work, check out his website 

 

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