How Award-Winning Photographer Gordon Kreplin Makes Inkjet Printing Pay

Printing and mounting photos
Black-and-white gallery mount printed on Sunset Photo eSatin Paper by Ascencion Photography.

The last time we spoke with Gordon Kreplin, award-winning PPA photographer and owner of Ascencion Photography in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, he told us how important being able to print his own work was to his advertising and promotion.

As noted in that blog post, the ability to produce large, eye-catching banners that draw in traffic from the busy thoroughfare nearby is a big plus. The bigger plus, according to Kreplin, is in his daily photography work. A high-quality inkjet print produced in-house is incredibly effective word-of-mouth advertising.

“We’ve had the experience where someone who’s seen one of our prints somewhere and calls because they have seen their neighbor’s prints. The word of mouth from the quality of the print hanging up is very strong advertising. “You can’t get that quality and ability to control the process any other way; it’s less time, energy and money for me to do it myself,” says Kreplin. “The only way the photography business as a whole can survive is if we offer high-end imaging and printing, and that’s what’s separated our business. We tell our clients that they’ll get a classical portrait printed in a very refined manner using the same care with which I print my own competition prints and competition prints for other photographers.”

Printing canvas gallery wraps
Gallery wrap by Ascencion Photography printed on Sunset Select Matte Canvas.

Kreplin reports that one of Ascencion Photography’s best sellers this past year has been Sunset Fibre Elite, which has been a nice complement to his other standard photo print media: Sunset Photo eSatin Paper, Sunset Select Matte Canvas and Sunset Photo Gloss Paper.

“Printing on any of the Sunset Fibre-based papers is a great seller because the Dmax is so much greater: your darks are richer, your lights are more detailed and you get the sense of more of a three-dimensional image when it’s displayed,” says Kreplin. “Sunset Photo eSatin Paper is the paper I use the most. When someone gets a regular 8×10 on that, it’s beautiful. Plus, we use gallery mounts we get from Pacific Mount, apply the eSatin and coat it with Hahnemuhle Protective Spray. The eSatin is great for that application because it’s a nice, thick paper that holds up well. Those gallery mounts fly out the door.”

The power and importance of print will be part of a workshop Kreplin will teach at the Virginia Professional Photographers Association annual conference in February. The pre-conference workshop is planned for Feb. 22 (the event in Roanoke is scheduled to run Feb. 22-26), the proceeds of which will help raise money for scholarships. Be sure to check back here for more information about the event and Kreplin’s workshop.

Printing photo albums
Ascencion Photography offers albums printed on Sunset Fibre Elite. The albums are sent to a botique album company for assembly.

Entitled Walk into the Light, the focus is on making environmental lighting work in your favor, from capture to print, or, as Kreplin puts it, “It’s about how to make lemons into lemonade if you don’t have the perfect lighting on location.”

“We’ll also talk a lot about image capture and how using the information from the capture will help you understand what can be produced: how you look at your dynamic range and how that will relate to a print,” adds Kreplin. “If you keep printing in mind throughout the process, you’ll know how to present a great image electronically as well.”

The Next Dimension of Fine Art Reproduction at Bellevue Fine Art

Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction got its start as a way to solve a problem. For the company’s owner, Scott Moore, the problem was finding a way to reproduce his watercolor and pen-and-ink fine art. The solution was to do it himself, perfect the process and provide the service to artists and photographers in the Seattle/Bellevue area of Washington.

Spraying and coating canvas“At the time I was traveling a lot internationally and I tried places that did giclee printing in Japan, China, Canada and Paris. I wasn’t getting the color I wanted, and with the pen-and-ink I wasn’t getting the extreme detail I needed. Using my own artwork as a beta test I ended up making my own reproductions, and the more I looked around the more I saw that the Seattle area needed a business like this. There was a need for it, and there still is,” says Moore.

Moore opened the doors of Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction in April 2007, starting with a BetterLight scan-back system to scan and capture artwork, two Epson Stylus Pro 9800s and a software RIP for processing the files for print.

Fine art and photography reproductionSince that time, Moore has updated his BetterLight System, upgraded to two Epson Stylus Pro 9900s, moved his RIP workflow to ImagePrint and most recently added a 24″ x 36″ laser engraver table. Moore says that about 90 percent of his business is fine-art reproduction; the other 10 percent is photo reproduction.

Moore serves a narrow niche, but is expanding the options and opportunities of his client base. Moore sees himself as far more than simply an art reproduction company; his job is to help his clients find a wider market for their work.

Laser etching fine art“We look at each artist’s artwork as intellectual property that can be productized in different ways, from limited edition prints to cutting vector designs of their work into various materials,” explains Moore. “We want to take people’s existing assets and help them do interesting things with them.”

What that has translated to with the addition of the laser engraver is products like etching artwork into leather for purses, cutting patterns into Masonite that the artist then paints and has Bellevue Fine Art reproduce, die-cutting Photo Tex Repositionable Fabric for walls and other surfaces, and even etching urns for a local funeral home.

Reproducing fine art on canvasThe addition of the laser engraver is a perfect fit for Moore’s customer service philosophy. As he puts it: “Providing good service is more than calling back and being on the ball. We’re very well connected with the art community so we provide a lot of services to people you wouldn’t normally think of, like gallery introductions, suggestions on where to show their work, and advice on ways to display and sell their work. Service is a lot more than giving someone a cup of coffee while they wait for their print. We try to be connected and active in the art world so we can complement our services in other ways, such as introductions and industry knowledge. It’s symbiotic; the more we do for them to help them be successful the more they come back to us because they are successful. Service is all about that ecosystem around the artist; anything I can do to help them be successful makes me more successful.”

Of course it’s all for naught if Moore isn’t producing the output to the exacting needs of his client base, which is why he keeps up with the latest workflow and printing technology and spends additional time educating his clients and setting expectations.

Scanning artwork with the BetterLight system“When we evolved to the Epson 9900s we also went with the ImagePrint RIP. If you’re in the business of printing art all day long, you don’t want to think about how to get it out the other end. When you drag and drop those images into the interface and select the correct profile, that’s all you have to think about. It makes our workflow that much faster; anyone who values their time should be willing to spend their money on that,” explains Moore. “Printing is just like painting. One of the successful traits of painter is knowing when you’re done. You could re-do it forever, but you’ll probably be the only one to notice. When you’re trying to reproduce a masterpiece for sale you have to strike a balance. We’re working with aqueous inks, where the originals are sometimes made with ground gems or minerals, creating iridescents, fluorescents and metallics. The challenge is helping them understand the limitations of the technology and how to best utilize it. Some people don’t want the reproduction unless it’s perfect. The prints are as close as we can get them, but if it’s that important, buy the original, which is why an original costs so much more. There’s only one perfect copy of an original, and that’s the original. We spend a lot of time setting expectations, and we won’t just write an order and take their money unless we think they will be happy with it.”

Toward that end, Moore employs a variety of inkjet materials from LexJet, including Sunset and Hahnemuhle brand fine art and photo papers. Moore says the material choice is usually based on what comes closest to replicating the original. For instance, he’ll typically use Sunset Textured Fine Art Paper for watercolor art, Hahnemuhle Bamboo for “warmer” originals, and FineArt Baryta for acrylic originals.

“My personal favorites are Sunset Fibre Elite, Sunset Photo eSatin Paper, LexJet Premium Archival Matte and Hahnemuhle FineArt papers. Sunset Fibre Elite for black-and-white printing is stellar; it looks and feels a lot like the old metal halide papers. It’s a special, unique paper that, when placed next to other photo papers, really stands out; the color jumps out at you,” says Moore. “Our staple papers are Sunset Photo eSatin and Premium Archival Matte, which we use for proofing as well.”

Producing fine art in multiple=Though Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction has only been in business for about five years, the company is attracting and retaining business beyond its borders, especially from those looking for high-quality scanning services.

“We’ve invested heavily in making sure our image scanning and output is the best it can be. We pick quality materials and equipment, and we don’t worry about cost that much. How we do that and compete in today’s world is that we’ve captured a niche that is high margin and low volume. We’ll take the jobs other printers don’t want; we’ll do 10 watercolors, for instance, that a commercial print company would prefer not to bother with,” says Moore. “So rather than compete with larger print shops, we actually complement them. There are a number of print shops in the area that come to us for scanning, and they do things we don’t do, so we have a good complementary business with our would-be competition in the area.”

Print your Fibre: The Evolution of Gallery Quality Photographic Inkjet Printing

When photo printing first began moving toward inkjet, the only gloss or satin products available were RC (resin coated) photo papers. These papers were by far the biggest selling traditional photo papers and were typically used for portraits and consumer-oriented photographic output. But high-end professional photographers never used RC papers for gallery output and did not accept RC papers as a viable alternative to their coveted fibre papers.

Gallery quality work by Clyde Butcher on a Sunset Fibre paper for the launch of his book, America the Beautiful: The Monumental Landscape.

What’s an RC Paper?
Paper, being porous and susceptible to absorbing moisture, does not provide a stable surface for the “wet” processing of silver halide photo emulsions. For over 100 years papers have been treated with materials to seal the surface and create a stable platform for silver halide.

In the 1970s, the process of sandwiching a paper base between layers of extruded resin was perfected and RC papers were born. This combination of materials provided an excellent base for a photo emulsion that was super-smooth and very economical to produce. The industry soon shifted away from baryta-based fibre papers, choosing to standardize on less expensive RC papers.

What’s a Baryta Paper?
Baryta is an industry term that applies to base papers that are coated with barium sulfate, which provided a stable base for photo emulsions, made the paper whiter, and created a very smooth surface.

These materials were available in a range of color tones and surfaces, providing the artist with a wide assortment of choices. Everyone learned to print “air dried” fibre papers in photo schools and could vary the finished surface from a semi-matte to a high gloss depending on the process they used in the darkroom.

What’s so Bad about RC Paper?
The quick answer is nothing, but the pro photographer who shoots for gallery and exhibition prints has a problem with the “plastic” feel and look of the material itself. It lacks character and is only available in a limited number of color tones and surfaces… gloss, satin and pearl.

The original fibre papers were available in a wide range of surfaces and color tones. There was an art associated with printing this way and it was greatly appreciated as highest standard for photo output.

While most photo companies concentrated on reducing costs and increasing efficiencies, the “gallery” output stayed with the fibre-based papers and darkroom processing.

What’s up with Inkjet?
When inkjet printing entered the photo field, the printer OEMs looked at the photo market and studied the consumer market. All consumer prints were made using RC papers, so they quickly developed RC inkjet papers using the exact same base materials as Kodak, Ilford, Agfa, and other manufacturers.

While these papers addressed the consumer and graphic arts markets, the gallery-quality photographers stayed away because they did not consider RC output “gallery quality”.

Ahead of inkjet photo printing, fine art was being printed on inkjet technology by a small but growing segment of the market. Inkjet was replacing various traditional printing methods for limited edition prints.

At first, the printers used traditional art materials. Soon, the specialty paper companies started coating the traditional art papers to optimize the materials for inkjet printing.

As the inkjet printer quality improved to photo quality, gallery photographers looked for a “non-plastic” photo paper to replace baryta base papers. With nothing available, they turned to the only other option available: high-quality cotton and art papers with matte coatings. Photographers that never made matte prints in their lives were now hooked on the look and feel of art papers.

LexJet, printer OEMs, and paper manufacturers convinced gallery photographers that matte art papers were the only inkjet solution to their problem. As they adapted to the digital capture technology and workflow, they also gravitated to inkjet printing because they had more control and flexibility with their work. Printing on matte art papers was part of this evolution.

After years of convincing photographers to use matte art papers, the air dried gloss and satin products finally became available a few years ago. Photographers can now achieve better print quality at a lower cost than using the traditional materials and processing.

To test the theory at a trade show, we had a 20 in. x 30 in. silver print made on Ilford Multigrade. The file was sent to a New York lab on a rush basis. Total cost for the print was $475.

A comparable print on Sunset Fibre Elite had a paper cost of approximately $8, with ink costing an equal amount. The total material cost was $16, and the print was available within an hour. Given this, if you make one print per month the ROI for a new printer is less than six months, and something tells me you’ll make more than one print per month.

When placed side by side with LexJet’s Sunset Fibre Elite, professional photographers at the trade show could only tell the difference because the shadow detail and Dmax were better on the inkjet print. The pros knew they could never get that level of detail in the darkroom.

The question then to ask yourself is, “Do I really love the matte papers or did I just become accustomed to printing with them?” As tastes and styles change over the years, trends toward different print techniques and looks will come and go. The classic look and feel of fibre-based papers will withstand the test of time.

The LexJet Sunset series of fibre papers provides a wide variety of surfaces, taking photographers back to the choices they had in the darkroom days. This is much more than simple nostalgia as both photographers who grew up in a darkroom with fibre-based paper and photographers who have only seen a darkroom in a museum will both benefit from the stunning look and feel that cannot be replicated by an amateur. It simply elevates the value of your work.

Sunset Fibre Elite is a second generation fibre-based gloss inkjet printable material that is ultra smooth and ultra glossy. The Elite surface was developed in response to requests from photographers for a smoother, glossier surface than that of the Sunset Fibre Gloss. Here’s a quick synopsis of the basic qualities of the Sunset Fibre line: