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An Interview with Ming Thein on His High-Definition “Ultraprint”

See also A conversation with Ming Thein on the Pentax 645Z and Nikon D810 and More.

Ming Thein of MingThein.com is a professional photographer half way around the world (from me) whose work is first class. Ming and I enjoyed a shoot together in early September 2014 at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve.

Ming sent me one of his stunning Ultraprints from that shoot. This Q/A interview is all about his approach to what I’d term “hi-def printing”, which he terms The Ultraprint.

Purisima Creek Redwoods ©2014 Ming Thein

LC: Ming, I received the Ultraprint you sent me, taken during our outing together at the redwoods. Examining it in daylight (my preference) I took in a first impression which for me means an overall gander (visual impact) followed by looking at fine details, color and contrast and so on.

The word “ultra” implies a high level of excellence, so I was intrigued to have that opportunity using an image you shot while not far from me in those redwoods that day so I had some frame of reference (rather than some place I had never been). My first impressions was “dang!" - since I had been there a number of times and the scene you shot really captured the creek and overhanging branches and so on—something I’ve found really hard to do. So as far as I’m concerned it is/was a very successful image consistent with the impressive quality of your other work in other ‘parts. That’s the artistic angle, well done.

Technically, there were several subtle things that emerged as I engaged with the image. I first notice a critical sharpness “beyond my eyes” meaning unless I had visual aid there was no point in saying more about sharpness! But beyond sharpness I noted a natural look to the details, a freedom from any harsh edges, transitions, etc, all of which add to the sharpness in ways that make the result really enjoyable. Paper quality is really excellent, too. In addition, the color rendition I know is very hard to get right in that venue, and it was nailed.

My only “complaint” is that as I age I more and more prefer larger prints because in less bright light my eyes cannot focus as close. So for me, something around 30 X 20 is much more comfortable. But in this case I was outside and the bright light allows me to view at close range.

So let’s talk about what an Ultraprint is, meaning what is the photographic goal, general approach, what discipline and care is required and what you hope to achieve by making what is a very high grade print which might be summarized as “like a contact print of old” - only better!

MT: Thank you. We've tried our best - and continue to do so - to make the Ultraprints the *best* prints we know how, in every way - color accuracy, resolution, continuity of tone - all for one reason: to lead to a sense of immersion and transparency.

Looking through the print and at a scene, instead of looking at a representation of the scene, in other words. I chose that image precisely because you had a frame of reference of the actual scene, so you could assess it on its technical merits and fidelity to the feeling of being there. I'm glad it passed - there was a high bar, as I know Purisima Creek is very familiar to you - and it was my first time there. I admit I was probably not firing on all cylinders either; it'd been a very heavy two weeks leading up to that day.

The initial goal of the Ultraprint was to condense all of the information from these high megapixel cameras into something that you could actually appreciate at a reasonable scale, and at a single glance - much like the real world. (You can see a detailed comparison between a normal print and an Ultraprint here.)

My print buyers didn't have the space to store or hang larger images - nor do I. We don't have quite as much space in Asian homes. However, the goal has subsequently morphed from that into a question of bringing the experience of being there to the viewer in the form of a print.

Resolution is not the objective, though it is an important cornerstone of the Ultraprint: it enables very fine tonal gradations, which is what represents both spatial detail as well as continuity of tone. I could print the same image at a lower resolution - Ultraprints are now 720 PPI - and probably not compromise much on the level of detail *your eyes* can resolve, but it would not have the same perceived continuity of tone.

We have to go beyond what the eyes can resolve in order to do that. 720 PPI is at the threshold for most people with perfect vision, at their nearest focusing distance. At this point, we are actually resolution limited by the *paper*; even with the finest grained matte fiber paper with smooth non-expanding coatings, this is about as good as it gets. Which is really not bad, since we can resolve details about 1/3-1/2 the width of a human hair.

In a digital context, it's much like the difference between a normal screen and one of Apple's 'retina' displays - night and day, though you do get used to it. Except the best Retina displays are at 453ppi, and look positively coarse under high magnification compared to an Ultraprint. Back to your comment about size - the only way to go bigger is to have more pixels. And pixel quality is very important too, for both color accuracy and edge resolution - the 12x16" print you have was made from a D810 stitch of three images, for a total of about 80MP. I am working on a series that goes much larger, and has incredible visual *punch* - but we're talking about stitching 50+ images to make a 24x60".

LC: Might it be fair to call this an attempt at “immersive” photography by make the viewing experience as free from the limits of recording (capture and print both)?

MT: Absolutely. Ultraprinting is a convenient name for an entire idea and workflow: knowing what you can accurately represent in print; then finding appropriate subjects; capturing them with the highest possible image quality and shot discipline, then ensuring that translation to paper is faithful. It necessitates the photographer to sit through endless proofs to tweak color by minute amounts to a (hopefully) accurate memory.

The problem I have is that this never translates online: a web jpeg of the image looks terrible because you've got perhaps 1% of the information, or less. The irony of course is that in trying to free yourself from the limits, you come across some very prosaic ones - like wind ruining your 60-image stitch…or the fact that you can only use the centre 50% area of your lenses because of corner issues.

LC: If I understand correctly, you are adding to the “resolution” (information content) with another kind of “resolution”: tonal transition quality, gradient quality of smooth tones and so on.

MT: Yes. Tonal quality is also very much linked to resolving power of your output medium: if you have a line, and only two pixels, you can represent that edge with no information. But if you have that same edge crossing say 100 pixels, it's easy to resolve roughness (texture) contrast (reflections, perhaps highlights) and (irregularity) spatial information. Imagine this now with color information, too. Information is conveyed by spatial frequency, which is really alternation in tone. Resolving power and tonality are not separable, and I think at the core of what changes the experience from 'looking at a print' to 'looking at the scene'. Reality is not single- or posterized-tone; it's beautifully continuous.

LC: These stitches employ shift lenses I presume so as to avoid parallax issues, since the Purisima Creek Image had severe challenges that rotational stitching would be very difficult to work with (precise rotation about entrance pupil). But with so many images, perhaps not shift lenses?

MT: Your particular image was made with a shift lens. But most of the time, I don't get enough shift range to exceed the 80MP / 12x16" equivalent size; I've got to do a spherical stitch. And the reality is that most shift lenses are not up to scratch optically.

LC: For these reason, the best lenses like Zeiss Otus contribute to some of the ’transparency’ by preserving as much tonal subtlety as possible?

MT: Absolutely. The largest stitches - the Forest series - are made with Otii or the 2/135 APO, which is pretty close. Capturing as much information as possible and as accurately as possible is very important; that's both color information and resolution. Our subconscious is very sensitive to color; it will register something as being 'off' if the balance isn't right. This is especially critical with natural subjects as we have a very strong concept of what color grass or sky should be, for instance.

LC: There you have it over me—I’ve done the color tests and I rank quite high (in a percentile sense, 99.9😜 but as my eyes age they are less good. Back to the artistic side, many coveted prints are technically not so great. But they succeed because of ‘message’. What is your message?

MT: On the artistic side, it's not so much a message (that can be down to an individual project; e.g. 'Verticality' is about the smallness and insignificance of the creator in the world he has created') - as an experience. The prints are about the experience of being there - or as close to it as we can get. And if I can take you to places that aren't so easily accessible, but which perhaps convey a nice sense of calm (forests, for instance) then it becomes a unique little portal of escape you can hang in your home or office. It isn't about an image anymore: it's about using the image to convey a feeling and transport you to another place in an immersive way. In the long run, it probably means I have to go even bigger. Right now we have some computing challenges (and printer buffer challenges) - but I'm working on a stitch at present that would cover a normal ceiling at 240PPI :)

LC: Let me play devil’s advocate: “immersive” to me means something around six feet wide. But I only have wall space for 3 or so such prints! Call it “like life” or “larger than life”, I have trouble getting into prints smaller than about 3 feet wide, regardless of the artist. Which is partly physical (eyes), but otherwise just what I like most. Photographs are successful for many different reasons: historical or famous, subject alone (place, time, celebrity), but some photographs lack such references and thus have to stand on their own, and that mean artistic excellence and ideally, technical excellence. So the “portal” you speak of seems to aim for the latter, it being a bit harder to round up famous people or historical events! So by what metrics of success do you judge your work, given the above (or other)?

MT: I'm going to ask you a question in return before I address your other points: did you get immersed in the Ultraprint I sent?

LC: No, because it is too small, and the place is large and cathedral like. I respond very strongly to large outdoor spaces (see all my mountain shooting). At relatively small sizes (16 inches for that print), the print is excellent, but I cannot “be in the scene” at a small size. This is true in general for me and not a comment on that print. I want to feel like I’m there, and I don’t feel that with smaller prints.

I should explain a bit more— when I’m in one of these “cathedral space” outdoors (redwoods, wide open mountains, etc), I have an almost 3D sense of the place, and it is multi-factorial: sight, sounds, touch and so on that all wire me in. In a way I visualize the place *while there* and when I’m zoned into it I am conscious of the place as a whole. It is very hard to get close to that even in a large superb print. After all, this is a 2D medium. So the best approximation of the feeling of a place needs to get to some wider visual field of view (I am strongly visual dominant), and for that I (*I*) feel the need for large prints.

MT: That is an eyesight challenge; a larger print simply occupies more of your field of view. The same thing happens with a smaller print, except your eyes tend to run out of focus distance first and prints tend to run out of steam at an absolute resolving power level. I'm seriously going to suggest you try it again with reading glasses :)

Remember that the original gestation of the Ultraprint was because large prints are not practical for cost and space reasons. That, and it's also really difficult to pick one image you could live with for a long time to the potential exclusion of others. But it is one of the reasons I'm going larger with the next series of Ultraprints - I hold that level of detail out to much larger sizes; Forest III was the first of these at 40x15", and I plan to go as large as about 40x40". Most of them will be panoramics precisely to give you this sense of exceeding your visual field of view, intended to be viewed from about a foot or foot and a half way. But this of course reduces the potential audience because of size and cost…and makes it very expensive to even proof properly. I'm confident you'll get your immersiveness at this size, but with significant other compromises.

To answer your question about standing alone and judging work - I have to go back to the original objective. Does it feel immersive? Do I feel like I'm there? If not, then it doesn't work. This of course assumes that the scene is one that I want to be present at in the first place - a smelly garbage-filled alleyway in the middle of the night is probably *not* something you want to be immersed in. But realizing the size conundrum, I agree that I need to go bigger. 20x30", at least. This of course limits subjects too since I have to stitch. A life-size wave would be awesome, but impossible because I'd need a single capture array of at least several hundred megapixels.

LC: I’d agree that reading glasses would help just to be able to get closer to a smaller print (field of view). Can also work in very bright light. Well, this would not be an issue at a younger age and I do not say it is how others might react. I certainly was drawn to the clarity and real-ness of the image! I think in a way it is “user interface“: how much viewer effort is needed. Another example: going to a museum, I love the large late 1800’s painting that are huge wall size things. I walk on by the 1-2 foot images because they just seem to require too much effort, useless the museum allows close inspection, which helps a lot (some don’t).

MT: You can get as close as you like to these. Even the large ones. And the large ones are very surreal when examined like that - they work both at conventional viewing distances and with a loupe. I honestly wish I had the museum problem with these, though - then we'd just calculate what the resolving power of the eye is at minimum 'velvet rope' distance, exceed it slightly, and see how big we can go!

LC: Well, the print is terrific. And big is wrong for some small places. Posing a “future” question: what if we had digital wallpaper of print quality? The same quality metrics ought to come to bear and distinguish between the Ultraprint grade and ordinary.

MT: Hah! I'd be the first in line, and I think it probably isn't that far off, actually. I'd also like a 'white' setting so I can use it to construct light for still life work. But it does say to me that since I missed the mark on immersiveness for you (albeit due to ageing eyesight), there's still room for improvement. Next time we meet I'll bring a large Forest. Interestingly, as good as the iMac 5k is, it's still only 218PPI.

LC: But 218ppi at 2 feet is pretty darn hard to see pixels. So to bring it back to the print and setting aside my own eyes - the Ultraprint captures a level of detail that is pretty incredible and influences my perception of it significantly. Also, when I studied it at closer range, yes it was immersive in the sense of bringing a smile to my face in seeing all the details there and to be explored. I confess I am looking forward to the NEC 32” 4K display just because I love such details.

So let me call it “highly engaging”, because I took the word “immersive” more literally. Readers who have not viewed an Ultraprint ought to—and I might be remiss in this regard in being too out of band as per the medium itself. Yet ordinary prints show limits that just are not there in the Ultraprint. Setting aside professional excellence and pride in making the best possible print (kudos), do you think most people appreciate the degree of effort that goes into the prints? Might it not take 5 or 10 or 20 years for the core concept to really break into its own form?

MT: I'm sure we'll get to immersive, even for the long sighted - it's a matter of size. But I wouldn't want to compromise in any way because *I know it can be done* - and anything less would just defeat the point of attempting to push the boundaries of perception in print.

You're probably right: most people have no idea how much work goes into making a finished print - from the 60-image stitches with thousands of manual control points to the dozens of proofs to the modifications to the printer. And because I cannot translate or even begin to convey the physical viewing experience digitally, I am sure it's being dismissed summarily by a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy such a print. It's very difficult to imagine if you've never seen one in person, and physical limitations mean it's obviously not practical to send these things around as samples. Plus the paper surface is of course delicate and doesn't respond well to excessive handling, much like any print.

There are plans for an exhibition in Chicago in October next year at the Rangefinder Gallery, and another one tentatively on the cards for Hong Kong in November; hopefully I can get a few more places interested. Funny thing is most of the skeptics have become very vocal converts after seeing the prints in person. The good news is that as display pixel density increases, I think people are going to find it easier to imagine and visualize what 720PPI looks like.

LC: Corollary: your compositions are always very strong. And that is the first thing that makes the image. Would you print an image not at Ultraprint resolution grade and really worry in any way about it, given the right composition? Photography has plenty of not so sharp images coveted by collectors.

MT: Would I print strong images that don't make Ultraprint grade? Sure - either as smaller Ultraprints, or with very clear caveats that it is not an Ultraprint. Sometimes the idea and the moment outweigh all, and you only get a single capture. Stitching for ultimate resolution is nothing new, of course - so it should be that hard to understand. The difficult part to understand is the consistency of vision/ idea that goes into the workflow to make the most of the medium, and the fact that we can really put down all of that information into a sensible-sized print.

LC: The Ultraprint quality goal intrigues me, because I’ve long felt that if I’m going to make an image, I want to capture it at maximal quality (resolution, color, dynamic range, etc). That dynamic seems at work for you too. But today cameras are “good enough” meaning that the whole Ultraprint goal is not a priority for many shooters. They’re not stitching and they’re shooting, say, 16 megapixels. What say you?

MT: Here's my question: if you have all that resolution, what are you doing with it if not printing? There's actually no way to view even the output in full. This, plus the size and cost limitations of large prints are why we have Ultraprints at all. It felt like something was missing from the prints - at all sizes. I could *see* through them, in a way, and that sort of ruined the experience for me and made me unhappy with the output. Finding a print master who will also support you through this is another challenge entirely, of course.

LC: Who is your printer?

MT: I use Wesley Wong at Giclee Art in Kuala Lumpur - I actually interviewed him here a little while ago. We both decided we could go further with the output - and he is my indispensable partner in the creation of both the Ultraprint process and the prints themselves, and a very close friend.

LC: Any advice for those looking to aim for Ultraprint quality?

MT: As for making Ultraprints - it isn't just about the output hardware or the capture or the number of pixels. You can make a high resolution image of something that is boring, have a lot of poor pixels and then totally mess up the color - or not have enough resolution to satisfy the printer. And none of those will be an Ultraprint. It is important to know what you're trying to achieve with the output so that every creative choice you have - which lens, what color balance, how much contrast etc. - can be made with the end in mind, even if the end goal is as simple as something like 'the feeling of looking up in a forest'. Simple is actually hard…

LC: How can someone buy an Ultraprint?

MT: I offer a selection of prints via my gallery site and the main site, or you can request any of my images from here or the flickr page as an Ultraprint here - note that not all images are Ultraprintable because of technical limitations, and sizes are may be restricted. As for the editions on the gallery and main site, I strictly limit the number I print - simply because I believe in exclusivity, and because I also believe that I'll also make different and better images in future - it's an evolution. Smaller sizes also mean better accessibility price-wise.

LC: You do teaching and workshops, are you offering one that dovetails with the Ultraprint goal?

MT: Back to translation of idea into capture, and capture via workflow into the highest image quality possible with your equipment - and all of the intermediate steps. I generally bring some prints because students are curious to see them; once I show the workflow then they have an understanding of just how much effort goes into creating one of these images. But it all still goes back to the photographer: a poor idea is going to make a mediocre image regardless of the capture and output. So I tend to focus on the conceptual and compositional parts before output.

LC: Thank you Ming, for sharing your insights and clarity of purpose.

MT: Thank you!

A selection of limited edition Ultraprint images is available from The Gallery; in addition I am planning future large format editions in the Forest series, which will be announced here. The next image will be Forest IV, shown below and available in early January as a 57x22" Ultraprint. Further reading on the Ultraprint can be found here, in the rationale behind the pursuit of clarity.

Image ©2014 Ming Thein

Postscript

Years ago I also did some shift-lens stitching, see Equipment for shift lens stitching. Today, Really Right Stuff sells specialty brackets for multi-row rotational stitching.

I have a hunch that the NEC PA322W UHD will get me to the first stage of the “immersive” level, by dint of size and pixel density. Moreover a transmissive medium is highly attractive for its contrast range and gamut (assuming a top notch display). A print being reflective has inherent limitations, barring some nifty new quantum Baryta paper development. It is akin to a very large transparency versus a large print. And I always did like 4 X 5 chromes and/or projected slides.

What I really love about digital display is that the medium itself lets me zoom in—no eye limitations, no resolution top end (source is the only limit)—if I see an area that interests me, I can zoom in. No print can do this. I am looking forward to 8K and 16K displays (108 and 256 megapixels). At that point, I am not sure a print can compete except for what it is: a print. But can a digital display ever compete with the collectible nature of a tangible print? That’s hard in the art world, but perhaps this can happen as some sort of crypto-image future tech where one sells/buys “right to display” digital immersions.

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