Do yuou have a color balance?

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Do You Have a Color Balance?

Book, Newsletter, SMP Getting an Overhaul

When most publications say "NOW MONTHLY"! It’s usually a good thing. Ordinarily, it means they’re increasing their frequency from quarterly or bi-monthly, and they’ll be coming to you more often. But I know I’m going to hear some wailing and the proverbial gnashing of teeth (how exactlydoyou gnash your teeth, anyway?) when I make the following announcement (gulp): beginning two weeks from now,The Sunday Morning Photographeris going monthly. You’ll be able to find it right here, wherever you’re reading it now, on the first Sunday of every month. That’s not to say that there will only be twelve a year, however; I’ve gotten permission to add an unscheduled column or three throughout the year, in case I’ve got something particularly pressing to say. Or in case I find myself in an acerbically curmudgeonly mood.

For anyone who has pre-ordered my book,The Empirical Photographer, I just don’t know whether this next item is good news or not. Several readers in the publishing field have consoled me by saying that all first books take much longer than expected to make it into print. Which is all well and good. But I’ve finally lost patience anyway. I’m now officially in the process of trying to get my money back from the printer. If and when I do, I’ve got another printer all lined up and ready to go. This one appears to actually want my business, if you can believe that. I’ll count my chickens when they hatch. (You think the wait has been frustrating foryou….)

In the meantime, I’m preparing a .pdf file of the book as an alternative for people who would rather not wait any longer. It will be ready to go in two weeks. The contents of the .pdf are exactly the same as the contents of the book, except there are a few illustrations in the .pdf. Nothing major, since the book wasn’t originally designed to be illustrated. I won’t be able to convert your order if you contact me now, so please wait until I’ve made the announcement that the .pdf is available.

And speaking of .pdf, Adobe’s redoubtable standard for electronic documents, I’ve just started switching my formerly semi-moribund newsletter,The 37th Frame, over to .pdf format for delivery via e-mail. Issue #6, with the answers to the Photo-Culture Pop Quiz and the second half of the 35mm lens reviews, will "send" on the 1st of June. It won’t exist in print form. Sadly, no matter how I crunched the numbers, procrastinated, and crunched the numbers again, there was just no way the newsletter in paper form was ever going to have high-quality illustrations. And what’s a photography rag without photographs? Like a rainy English afternoon without tea, that’s what.

There are a number of other benefits to .pdf delivery, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. Production and delivery are cheaper and faster, the newsletter can include live links, and there will no longer be that frustrating length limitation on content (uh-oh! Watch out).

I’m planning to be generous about "fair use," too. You’ll be able to copy the file to other computers and make high-resolution printouts if that’s the way you prefer to read it.

I’ve been contacting people gradually to set up the changeover, overseas and Canadian subscribers first. Some people whose e-mail addresses I don’t have (especially people who paid by check originally) I will need to contact by snail-mail. If you are a subscriber to the newsletter, you may want to contact me between now and June 1st if you would like to receive Issue #6 at the earliest possible time. You don’t have to, though. I’ll contact you eventually.

If you doe-mailme about the newsletter, two things: I will definitely need your last name, so be sure to include it somewhere in your e-mail. Also, please let me know if you would like a .pdf of Issue #5.

Your Own (Internal) Color Balance

I was asked this past week about one of the several "analyzer" devices made for using under the enlarger. These are sophisticated optical-electronic controllers, some with sensors or dedicated heads, for determining contrast and printing time automatically. A number of them are quite well designed, and work as advertised.

Generally, these devices (like color analyzers) are good for two things: for commercial printers to get close to the optimum result very quickly, or for helping amateur printers who wouldn’t otherwise know what their prints need. Because, unfortunately, at the higher levels of darkroom craft, what it really comes down to is judgment. Even with an analyzer such as the Durst Multigraph or Heiland Splitgrade, you’re still only going to get close to what you want; you still have to do the fine-tuning yourself to get it exactly.

In color, it works exactly the same way. The analyzer is to get you close quickly, or to use as an approximate substitute for judgment, in case you’re at a loss as to what color pack to apply.

What this brought to mind was something that every old darkroom dawg knows: that most virtuoso color printers have their own "color balance." That is, many of the color printers I’ve known have had a slight tendency to lean towards one color or another. Ctein, who is one of the last great dye transfer printers, favors cyan just a touch, whereas, although I’m far from an expert color printer, I’ve always had a preference for prints that are balanced a few points more red than neutral.

It’s true I’m partial to red, but I didn’t do that to his hair!

You’d be surprised at the range of interpretations that people will accept. Generally, viewers are most sensitive to magenta, and least sensitive to yellow. It’s amazing just how yellow a color print can be without exciting comment. To most, it just makes the picture look "warm."

So what’s the point? It’s that, as new digital photographers familiarize themselves with photoshop and inkjet printing, it’s a great idea to use the "Color Variations" menu command in Photoshop Elements, or the equivalent in your image-management program, to help you identify your own taste in color prints. What used to take ten minutes from dry to dry can now be done in a flicker of electrons. Take a few digital files with lots of color in them, and futz with them. Try each one a little blue, a little green, a little yellow. You can leave the
room and come back in a while later and see how it looks to you without a recent comparison. Don’t be afraid to go overboard, either — on the monitor, it costs nothing.

One of the major improvements wrought by digital is in convenience, but we seldom stop to think that it even makes it easier to hone our judgment and our tastes. Because once you get past being a slave to the analyzer, you’ll realize that most of us have our own color balance.

— Mike Johnston

See Mike Johnston’s website Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

Want to read more? Go to the SMP Archives

Please support this column by subscribing toThe 37th Frame,Mike Johnston’s print newsletter for photographers.

Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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