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Making Mega-Prints

By: Nick Rains

The Making of a 5 X 15 Foot Print

I would hazard a guess that 99% of all photographs never get printed much bigger than A3, and that includes high-end commercial work as well as holiday snaps. Commercially, a double page spread in a magazine or brochure would be the biggest normal use and for home digital darkrooms the biggest size you can easily print on a sub U.S. $1,000 printer is only slightly bigger than A3.

Now don't get me wrong here, A3 is a pretty decent size and is certainly big enough to look just fine when framed and hung on a wall — but sometimes the subject matter just cries out for BIG!

I shoot Australian landscapes and have done for many years. Mostly it was done for tourism brochures, books and calendars all of which were subject to my A3 comment above. Recently I have made a foray into the world of Limited Edition printing and there the sky is the limit regarding size, the bigger the better, as long as the quality is maintained and that is where it gets tricky dealing with really big prints.

There are really only 2 ways of making big prints in the world of digital printing; Lambda and Lightjet printing onto photographic papers like Duraflex, Crystal Archive or Ilfochrome — and wide format inkjet printers. They each have their advantages, but cost is the biggest issue when it comes to hardware. A Lambda set-up can cost upwards of US$300,000 so only big labs can afford to run these beasts. The quality of the prints off such machines is quite wonderful and my high-end Limited Editions are all printed this way.

Far more affordable, wide format inkjets have been making steady progress into the world of fine photographic output and one can credit the venerable IRIS as starting off this trend. Epson picked up the baton from IRIS maybe 3-4 years ago with the advent of the 9000 44" printer and today there are plenty of big inkjets to choose from ranging in price from U.S. $5,000 up to about U.S. $15,000 for my HP5000.

I don't propose to look at all the options here, I will just talk about how I make these big prints for my own sales. There are many different ways of achieving the same results and this is one of them.

HP 5000

I own a bunch of different printers, a couple of modified desktop Epsons, a 24" inkjet and at the top of the pile, the 60" Hewlett Packard 5000. The 5000 is lesser known than the big Epsons but once you have put UV inks into it to make sure the prints last, there is nothing to touch it with respect to speed and size. Sure the Epsons are technically a bit sharper, but hidden costs of running them are very high — they are slow and temperamental. Plus you gotta love that 60" size!

The 5' x 15' print featured in this article was printed on the HP 5000 onto HP Glossy UV media and took about 45 minutes to print. It was set up at 150dpi which is more than adequate for such a large print and even then the file size was a whopping 695 megabytes. Big prints equates to big file sizes so you had better have a decent computer to work with the files.

The scan for this 6x12 medium format (Ebony 4x5 camera) image was made on a Flextight Precision III scanner and ended up as a 275M file. This was then cropped to fit the 3:1 format requested by the client and then rezzed up in Photoshop 6.0.1 to fit the size required. The scanner is run off a Dual Processor 1Ghz G4 Mac with 1.5 Gb of RAM. I did the necessary tonal adjustments before enlarging the file so it was relatively easy to work with.

It would have been possible to simply scale up the file in the RIP which runs the printer, but since this resides on an old PIII/600 printer server box with only 200mg RAM in it, I decided it would take too long and so up-sized in PS first.

RIPs (Raster Image Processors) are just glorified printer drivers which work in CMYK and are derived from pre-press software used in proofing. I use Posterjet which has a nice dither pattern but more importantly it RIPs whilst actually printing and, even on such a low-end machine, it starts printing even 695meg files in 7 secs. Even a 600Mhz PIII is faster at processing than the printer is at printing so the net result is a printer which gets going right away. One of the drawbacks of printing on Epsons with the basic driver is that the image must be spooled first (RIP'ed) before the printer starts — this can take quite a while even for A3 prints.

Handling big prints also causes problems, investment in a proper takeup spool will pay off in terms of ease of handling. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting 90 minutes for a big print to come off an Epson 9000 and then buckling the print when picking it up. The HP5000 has a motorized automatic take up spool and it's worth its weight in gold.

A Confession

Which leads me to a small confession to round off this article.

The image you see of me holding the Whitehaven Beach print is what used to be called an Artist's Impression. The print was far too big to be unrolled, and was due in Houston, Tx in a week. The only person who should unroll prints like these is the framer/mounter so one should avoid the temptation to have a look. Obviously this print had to be shipped rolled up so I never actually saw the print in its full glory. It went straight into a 70" length of 4" PVC drainpipe for the FedEx man to take to the States.

The image here is a mock up — I used the panoramic stitching facility on my little Canon S30 to shoot 3 frames in the office with me holding another large mounted print. I then dropped in the Whitehaven Beach image and scaled it to the correct size. Add some perspective and a shadow behind and there is a pretty good Artist's Impression.

I believe in Truth in Photography — my images show what I saw, nothing more nothing less. I therefore feel compelled to specify when any shot I make has any element of digital trickery.

 © 2002 Nick Rains
Brisbane

Nick's Gallery and More of his Outstanding Photography Can be Found Here

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Concepts: Inkjet printer, Printing, Hewlett-Packard, Printmaking, Johannes Gutenberg, File size, Printer, Ink

Entities: Houston, HP, FedEx, Canon, Mac, U.S., Raster Image Processors, CMYK, Whitehaven Beach, Michael Reichmann, Epsons, Epson, Tx, RAM, Dual Processor

Tags: big print, images, wide format inkjets, printing, limited editions, Whitehaven Beach, Whitehaven Beach print, printer server box, whopping 695 megabytes, necessary tonal adjustments, Limited Edition printing, high-end commercial work, double page spread, home digital darkrooms, HP Glossy UV, large mounted print, high-end limited editions, format inkjet printers, Ebony 4x5 camera, nice dither pattern, proper takeup spool, Flextight Precision III, fine photographic output, big inkjets, panoramic stitching facility, Raster Image Processors, Whitehaven Beach image, big epsons, big labs, biggest size, A3 comment, decent size, big file, printer drivers, file size, large print, correct size, biggest issue, holiday snaps, Lightjet printing