This seminar by Japanese book designer Hitoshi Suzuki is aimed at photographers and other creatives interested in how photobooks are created. Suzuki believes the photobook to be an ideal way of publishing photography, and that a certain level of understanding of printmaking and bookbinding processes is indispensable knowledge for any photographer.
In the seminar, Suzuki argues why his conviction that “the Foveon sensor is necessary if you want the best results for your prints”; he touches on techniques used to ensure correct color balances and talks about the technologies and techniques required to ensure the best quality for what he considers the ultimate vehicle for photographic works: the photobook.
After SIGMA participated in the 2017 edition of Kyotographie by exhibiting our photobook library, we decided to take a further step and join this year’s KG+ event as a main sponsor. We see it as one of our goals to support deeper examinations of photography and artistic expression and the role of our products for both. The slogan “photobooks and photo technology from the eyes of a photographer” as the guiding theme, we developed a three-part relay talk event that lasted two days and served as one of the highlights of the KG+ exhibitor program.
The first of these talks is Hitoshi Suzuki’s “seminar for photographers (nicknamed the ‘Theory Talk’)”, in which Suzuki talks about the processes and techniques used to create photobooks and how the Foveon sensor in SIGMA’s cameras could be a revolutionary asset.
In the second talk, Hitoshi Suzuki meets Go Itami, a photographer who relies on SIGMA cameras and lenses for almost all of his works, for a “discussion about photography and artistic expression (nicknamed the ‘Practice Talk’)”. Go Itami was introduced to SIGMA’s cameras by Hitoshi Suzuki. Since then, the SIGMA sd Quattro H has become an essential asset in his life as a photographer. In their conversation, Suzuki and Itami try to discuss the essence of photography and creative expression.
In the third talk, held the following day, photography researcher Mika Kobayashi joins her friend Go Itami to continue the discussion about photographic expression and “the acts of photographing and looking”. This talk was organized as part of Kyotographie’s main program in order to expand the audience beyond dedicated SIGMA and camera enthusiasts.
1. Two different types of image sensors
In this first talk, I’d like to talk about fundamental aspects of making photobooks and the significance of SIGMA’s sensor technology regarding their creation. Now, I am aware it may seem I’m only here to advertise for SIGMA but I am not actually employed by them (laughs). I guess you could call me a voluntary evangelist. There have been many instances of brilliant products disappearing from the market despite their technological superiority. I’d simply like to shine a light on SIGMA and their sensor technology and hope they’ll be received favorably by the customers.
SIGMA is the only company worldwide that uses the Foveon’s sensor technology. Allow me to sum up the unique advantage of the Foveon sensor in a few words: it captures each color of the RGB color spectrum in three vertically aligned layers. All other cameras are built with image sensors that work by a different principle. The so-called Bayer sensor uses a single layer only to capture RGB colors. But how is it able to capture three different colors in a single layer? It employs filters that separate the three different colors. Let’s take red (R) as an example – both green (G) and blue (B) are filtered out; from the ‘eyes’ of the red filter, they appear as white. The same is true for green and blue, respectively. They see the remaining two colors as white only, and when the data is process, these white spaces are supplemented. In other words, the color grades of the final image are determined by calculating differences and similarities in light and shade information on a monochrome spectrum, from three perspectives (using the filters). A disadvantage of this method and its filters is the possibility of image noise such as the moiré effect.
All image sensors, except SIGMA’s, operate on a horizontal principle. The image sensors in SIGMA’s cameras are the only ones in the world that operate vertically. They are the only company to develop a unique sensor technology in a global market in which all large-scale makers have adopted the same common standard.
I would like to talk about the unique advantages of this particular technology and their importance for photographic printing while also sharing some of my experiences regarding the creation of photobooks.
2. The photobook as a vehicle for photographic expression
When I mention the word “Kansai” (the region surrounding Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe etc.) to a Japanese audience, they will think of the Naniwa Photography club or names such as Nakaji Yasui. The Kansai region was the first area in Japan where the art of photography took any roots, and photography is still regarded with passion there. A vast number of very high quality photographs are bound to have been taken there and still be taken. But what do you do with the photograph, once you’ve taken them? You could submit them to one of the many contests run by magazines, but most of them are only out for single photographs; at best, you’re allowed to submit a small bundle of images together. If you want to achieve something more complicated with your photography ― convey a larger message or share your own particular worldview ― there are two options open to you: you can either hold a solo exhibition or you can create a photobook.
Renting a gallery space for a week to hold your exhibition in is quite costly, and then there’s additional costs like the framing, printing postcards (and distributing them) for marketing, the opening party and so on.
And then, even if the exhibition was documented in articles and photographs, the exhibition itself will simply disappear from the face of this earth once it is finished.
Photobooks, on the other hand, will remain in this world as physical objects almost indefinitely (barring fire hazards or water damage). The printed page is a relatively durable medium. Manuals for jet planes – and even for the Apollo spaceship – are legally required to be printed on paper, I’ve once been told. Published books, with a registered ISBN code, are collected and archived in national libraries, meaning they will be available virtually forever. Society may disintegrate before the books do. The numbers differ per print run, but if 800 to 1000 copies of a book end up distributed to various organizations, agencies and, of course, readers, it is almost inconceivable that an entire book run could perish without at least one copy surviving.
The photobook is the perfect medium to publish – and preserve – photographs. Of course, a collection of photographs does not simply turn into a photobook by magic. Photobooks are created by selecting, arranging and laying out each image. In the process, the photographs acquire a new level of expression.
Daido Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi, Nobuyoshi Araki, Hiroo Kikai, the late Kiyoshi Suzuki… for these people, the “ultimate destination of the photograph is the photobook”. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Araki on many photobooks. Araki would tell me, “here are the photographs in the order I took them, you do the rest”, but he was already thinking about the photobook when he decided on which order to shoot the photos in. Following a few pictures of the ground, he would think, “and here I’d want a picture of the sky” and shoot that. He was composing the photobook while still outside photographing.
Photobooks speak directly of the technology available at the time and in the country they were created in. They are an attempt to find the best combination of the photographic technology, book making, printing, paper, ink, even the lettering and design available. Inadvertently, photobooks remain as acute documents of the technology and intellectual know-how used to make them. The act of creating a photobook means participating in this long-term conversation.
But how expensive is it to create a photobook? Books generally consist of page bundles of eight pages per unit bound together. What would it cost to create 800 copies of an A4-size, 80-page photobook with black-and-white prints? After a quick search on the internet, the number of 140.000 Yen (about $1300) comes up for books with a simple cover. Even if we chose to print in color, that number only rises to about 170.000 Yen ($1.500). Adding designers and editors and more complicated bookbinding results in higher costs, of course, but I hope you understand that creating a proper photobook is a surprisingly affordable endeavor. Even the Kansai region with its already rich and varied photobook culture might still have a few hidden masterpieces waiting to be created.
3. Halftone: line numbers and dot density
Generally, photographs are detailed images that feature very fine differences (gradations) in color and brightness. In order to create prints for such images, these fine gradations need to be replaced by a pattern of dots – the halftone. By adjusting density and size of the dots, brighter and darker shades can be created. The brightness of a given shade is expressed in percent, ‘zero percent’ being white and ‘100%’ being pitch black.
Another important parameter of this technique is called ‘lines per inch’ (or ‘lpi’) and refers to the resolution of the halftone screen. As you may have guessed, this measurement tells us how many lines there are in one inch of the screen. The more lines, the finer the gradation. Sharpness and detail of the print depend on the number of lines: high-quality printing requires smaller dots and therefor a higher number of lines. Over the years, halftone screens have become ever finer and more detailed (after all, readers will generally prefer a higher level of detail). Whereas newspaper pages were once printed at about 60 lines per inch, nowadays the matter-of-fact standard is 133 lines per inch – more than double the fineness. If the printing quality isn’t detailed enough, it becomes rather difficult to book advertisements.
Photobooks were once printed with a resolution of 175 lines per inch. These days, the standard has risen to 230 lines per inch, a relatively high level of detail. Some extremely high resolutions can even reach 700 lpi. The choice of the paper also has a huge influence on the quality of the print.
The shape and placement of the dots in a screen is calculated based on the number and density of the lines. Each of the dots itself is made up of even smaller dots created by the (laser) printer. What I am trying to say is that the entire act of printing dots is made using digital technology. The process of converting gradations into dots and creating data to be printed is called ‘digitizing’.
4. Digitizing the photobook
Now, we can choose from three different sources to create the images in our photobook.
Firstly, we can use ① color reversal film, also known as positive film. Next, we have ② physical prints made on photographic paper, either in color or black-and-white. And lastly, we can use ③ photographs taken with a digital camera.
This is where my talk finally connects to SIGMA.
In the past, color reversal film was turned into ready-to-print RGB data using huge, complicated machines called drum scanners. The film was placed into a transparent cylinder inside the drum scanner. The cylinder was then spun around while internal sensors scanned the negative in very high detail. But these drum scanners have not been produced in over twenty years. You may think that flatbed scanners would be good enough to fill the void left behind by drum scanners, but the truth is that their resolution and level of detail are far inferior to that of the drum scanners.
The ordinary 35mm color positive film, used en masse by photographers, actually is the most difficult to scan. Photographic films of larger sizes, such as 6×7 or 8×10, are big enough to be scanned despite the flatbed scanner’s low rate of resolution. But enlarging the small 35mm film for use in a photobook or on a poster is practically impossible without the help of a drum scanner.
Is there really no digitizing system that rivals the extinct drum scanners? You guessed it,; it is time for the Foveon sensor to make its appearance.
Could SIGMA’s cameras with their brilliant photographic capabilities function as a replacement of the drum scanner? I have to give credit for this idea to my friend, the photographer and photographic print technician Shigeru Nishikawa. Thinking of the digitizing process as an act of photography instead of scanning is a fundamentally different approach, isn’t it?
Compared to scanning, the efficiency is dramatically increased, since you only need to press the shutter once everything is set up. I have prepared a few photobooks that are the result of this digitizing process. You should have a look for yourself, but I think they turned out brilliantly.
5. Digitizing with SIGMA
The Foveon sensor is capable of digitizing both ① color positives and ② photographic prints (color and monochrome). What is absolutely remarkable about this method: it provides a much higher resolution than previously possible with drum scanners. Let’s take a closer look at ② photographic prints. A photographic print implies that there must also exist a film negative of the respective image. Thanks to the Foveon sensor, we are able to digitize the image straight from the negative, without having to bother creating a photographic print first.
There is a problem with this method that arises when using color negative film. While digitizing from the negative is technically possible, the images tend to have a slight orange tint that needs to be fixed by hand. The tinge is slightly different for each individual film, based on brand and time of production, and as of today there is no efficient, reliable process to deal with this problem automatically. Digitizing from color negatives is still in its early stages, and I expect advances to be made as demand increases.
Regarding ③ photographs taken with a digital camera, let me refer Talk #2 in which photographer Go Itami will share his experiences with the Foveon sensor’s capabilities at length.
To summarize, the process of digitizing images is a necessary step for the creation of photobooks, and I think we are entering an age when SIGMA’s Foveon sensor becomes an indispensable tool for this process.
Buying a drum scanner once came at a cost of about 30 million Yen (about $270.000). In contrast, a Foveon-equipped SIGMA camera plus suitable macro lens will only set you back a few hundred dollars. There already are printing companies that use SIGMA cameras for their digitizing needs.
The idea that “thanks to SIGMA, photobooks can be created with ease no matter the medium of the original medium” is good news for photobooks, of course, but it also means seeing an entirely new value in SIGMA’s products from the uncompromising eyes of photobook creation.
6. The importance of the digitizing process
Whether it is SIGMA or any other camera maker, the color information of photographs taken with digital cameras is saved as RGB data. When trying to print such photographs, that data needs to be converted from RGB to the CMYK color model. CMYK is a subtractive process, meaning that colors become darker as they are mixed with each other. RGB, however, is an additive process: when colors are mixed with each other, they approach white. Converting from one color model to another requires fundamental changes.
When you look at a photograph on a monitor, you are looking at the result of RGB’s additive model – the ‘data before it is being digitized’. It is quite difficult to convert what you see on the screen into a print without ruining the color balance of the image. Printing companies and technicians rely on in-depth knowhow to convert RGB to CMYK.
When you digitize an image with a SIGMA camera, you are technically using the camera to duplicate an image, yet what you are creating is not actually a duplicate. During the surprisingly intricate process, the original image is rasterized (remember the halftone screen) and its colors are converted from RGB to CMYK. The simple word ‘digitizing’ encompasses a number of rather complicated tasks.
While the spectrum of light visible to the human eye is quite limited, we are still capable of discerning a vast amount of color information. But that information is reduced with each medium it has to pass – photographing a scene on color film captures only a certain degree of the available visual information; viewing the photograph on a monitor further decreases that amount of information; and printing your image means another decrease in available visual information.
Printing is the art of producing images with rich, lifelike colors similar to the original photograph despite obstacles such as converting from an additive color model to a subtractive one. It is easy to mistake printing for a mostly automated process, akin to Photoshop, which will provide the same results no matter who is in charge. But the truth is that prints can change dramatically depending on the print technician’s interpretation of the image and the technology used.
The color printing process is based on the four colors; Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black/Key (K). There is a reason Black is part of the equation: in theory, if you add C, M and Y together often enough, eventually you would reach a clean black, yet in practice you only end up with a dirty brown tone. Black is necessary to ensure clean color tones. Despite best efforts of ink-makers, it is presently not possible to create inks of pure yellow, magenta and cyan color. It is the purpose of the black ink to ensure a proper black color, but it also helps reduce ink consumption. Instead of having to find a way to create black by mixing ink again and again, the K (black) tone guarantees a clean black right from the start. This also reduces potential problems that may arise during the printing process.
From expressing gradations with digital halftone screens to the conversion from RGB to CMYK, SIGMA’s Foveon sensor holds the key to the process of digitization. In the next step, I’ll outline the Foveon sensor’s unique capabilities while we take a closer look at a photobook that was digitized using SIGMA gear.
Born in Tokyo in 1950. Edited the critical design magazine d/SIGN together with Tsutomu Toda (2001-2011). Visiting scholar at the Kobe Design University. Book publications include “Gamen no Tanjou (‘The Birth of Images’)” (2002), “Pe-ji to Chikara (‘Page and Power’)” (2002), “Juuryoku no dezain (‘The Design of Gravity’)” (2007), “Dezain no Tane (‘The Seeds of Design’)” (together with Tsutomu Toda, Japanese, 2015), “Zettai Heimentoshi (Plane City)” (together with Daido Moriyama, 2016), “The Life and Views of Book Designer Hitoshi Suzuki” (Japanese, 2017) and more.