Answering the Call of the Wild

Prestige Graphics helps produce the Nature's Best Photography exhibit.

The basic premise of Nature’s Best Photography magazine is: It’s the next best thing to being there. And it’s hard to argue with that statement-the magazine is jam packed with vivid photographs of animals in the wild as well as landscapes, all appearing so real that you can practically feel the monkey’s fur in one of the images and the desert sun warming your face in another.

When the magazine opted to turn the winners of its annual photo competition into wide-format prints for an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, it called on Mark McCall, president of Prestige Graphics, to make the fur even furrier and the sun even warmer.

This was not a new project for McCall, whose company is based in Reston, VA. He’d tackled the annual exhibit three times previously, and he regularly takes on the color proofing for the magazine itself. This year, however, brought some notable changes to the project, including new printing equipment, new media and inks, new software, and a new partnership with one of the world’s best-known conservation organizations-all of which would serve to not only move the competition to the next level, but push the output itself to new heights as well.

Inspiring a stewardship of nature
Since 2003, Nature’s Best has put out a yearly call to the world’s best nature photographers in its Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards photo competition, asking them to submit their best work. For the 2006 awards, the magazine received more than 12,000 images from photographers representing nearly 30 different countries.

The grand-prize winner along with the winners of 15 categories-such as "Endangered Species," "Landscapes," and "Animal Antics"-would have their work published in the fall issue of the magazine. In addition, as in previous years, the winning entries would be output as wide-format inkjet prints and displayed in an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian.

Steve Freligh, owner of Nature’s Best Photography magazine, says he chose the Smithsonian location for the wide-format exhibit because it’s a location he’s always admired: "It reaches millions of people. The Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular natural history museums in the world. And so in order to reach out and communicate and inspire stewardship of nature through the art of photography, we felt the Smithsonian was the best location to work with. The Smithsonian is truly a museum that crosses all areas of language and culture."

But that wasn’t the end of the project, not this year. This time around, the magazine also partnered with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to help it commemorate 70 years of conservation action with the federation’s own photography competition-the 2006 National Wildlife Photography Awards. "We were helping them make their own contest and build it into a bigger competition than it’s been in the past," says Freligh, who was involved in managing, judging, and promoting the federation’s competition.

For the NWF competition, approximately 18,000 images were submitted in eight categories focusing on North America-each with a professional and amateur division. In addition to being included in a special section in Nature’s Best winter 2007 issue, the winning NWF images also would be output as wide-format inkjet prints and put on display with the Nature’s Best award winners at the Museum of Natural History.

In all, then, approximately 30,000 images were whittled down to less than 100 award winners by the two groups. Of these, 84-64 for the Nature’s Best awards and 20 for the NWF awards-would be turned into wide-format prints to be displayed at the Smithsonian.

Printing with prestige
McCall has nearly 20 years of hands-on experience in prepress, with an emphasis on color correction and in color management. He and his sister, Michelle McCall-who has experience as a prepress supervisor with R.R. Donnelley & Sons-own Prestige Graphics (www.prestigegraphicsinc.com). In addition to his work with Nature’s Best, McCall has taken on catalog prepress and proofing work as well as wide-format output and high-end digital photography.

As this year’s Nature’s Best competition approached, McCall decided he wanted to utilize a new and different printer for the Smithsonian exhibition. He had seen advertisements for the newly introduced Canon imageProGraf iPF9000 12-color printer, did his research, and made the decision that he would purchase one in time to produce the prints. "I needed at least a 60-inch printer," says McCall, "and gaining 11 colors in the process-you’re using either the matte or the photo black-would give me a wider color gamut to work with," he says.

As McCall proceeded with his diligent research, the non-digital winning images had to be sent out for high-resolution drum scanning. Most of these were 35mm transparencies and were outsourced to ColorCraft (www.colorcraft-va.com) in Sterling, VA. Only about 10% of the 84 featured images needed to be scanned, McCall estimates; the rest had been submitted digitally. "Photographers are moving quickly to digital photography-for the previous year’s competition, I scanned between 40 or 60 scans."

ColorCraft received the images in a single batch. Using its Screen 8060 professional drum scanner, it digitized the images and returned them to Prestige, which completed proofing for the fall 2006 issue of Nature’s Best magazine. Although McCall had a drum scanner at his previous business, he doesn’t see himself investing in another, preferring instead to outsource scanning from now on. "As more photographers go digital, the need for investing in a drum scanner has really gone down. As a small business, we find it better to outsource the scanning and invest in newer technology."

In order to take the images that were sized for printing in the magazine and size them for wide-format output, McCall implemented a couple of very important steps into the process. First, he took the images and, utilizing onOne Software’s Genuine Fractals, scaled the images up to large-format size. Then, if there was a lot of image noise or fluctuation in image pixels, he turned to the Neat Image filter plug-in for Photoshop, which reduces visible noise and grain in photographic images. "We didn’t begin using Neat until this year-it has helped me out a lot when I blow some of these digital-camera images up to 4 x 6 ft."

Most of his up-front work is done in RGB, explains McCall. "I use a very wide color space as my profile when I’m working in Photoshop. We do all our color correcting in RGB, save in RGB, send to the RIP, then let the RIP break it apart to send it to the Canon."

It wasn’t until he had brought the Canon iPF9000 printer inhouse, however, that he realized that it is essentially a 7-color printer. "In working with color consultant Dan Reid and RPImaging in Tucson, I discovered that everything in this printer except red, green, and blue will be treated like CMYK. So I had to be able to generate a seven-color profile." Already familiar with EFI’s Colorproof XF RIP, McCall purchased the optional color module for XF when he purchased the Canon because of its ability to generate the necessary profile. "Utilizing 7 colors gave me more color in certain images, so we were able to go from CMYK to RGB and work the color a little bit to produce a better image," he explains.

Printed proofs for the wide-format output were not necessary due to his careful color management up front, says McCall. "I have a monitor-to-print match that is very accurate. I printed out a color test form and put it under my GTI SOFV-1e light box, which was tuned to my monitor. If I liked what I saw, we went with it."

Final output included 50 24 x 36-in. pieces, 11 4 x 6-ft pieces, and pieces of various sizes ranging from 18 x 24 in. to 4 x 5 ft. McCall used Canon’s Bright White Premium Photo Satin as the substrate for all of the prints. "I decided on Satin because the face mount was going to be behind acrylic anyway, so why add any more gloss? I don’t know if that would’ve mattered once you add the optically clear adhesive, but I figured Satin was erring on the right side."

In addition, Prestige printed caption plaques that were 5 x 8 in. or 81/2 x 11 in. and mounted onto Alcan Composites’ Fomecor with a luster laminate over it. Each plaque told the story of how the photograph came to be, as well as provided a bio of the photographer and the photo’s title. In all, printing time for the project took 2 weeks.

A floating finish
Once McCall had about 30% of the output complete, he began sending prints over to the project’s designated mounting provider: CSI/Infinite Photo (www.infinitephoto.com), based in Falls Church, VA. Infinite Photo used its AGL 6400 laminator to apply MacTac PermaTrans 2100 Series optically clear adhesive to the face of the wide-format prints and then second-surface mounted them to 1/4-in. clear Acrylite acrylic by running them through the laminator again and peeling back the liner on the adhesive.

Next, CSI/Infinite Photo built and installed bevel or "floater" mounts that were mounted to the back of the prints, making them stand a few inches off the wall. "It’s a frame that is tucked away inside the back so you don’t see the edges," says McCall. "The print looks like it’s floating when you hang it on the wall."

Finishing time for the project took approximately a month, after which Steve Freligh and his team from Nature’s Best-along with an outside team of hired hands-installed the large-format displays in the 5000-sq ft Windland Smith Rice exhibition gallery at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian.

Boosting credibility
This final exhibit was put on display in November 2006 and is scheduled to remain up through the end of March 2007.

"Prestige Graphics did a great job at every level in prepress, quality control, and printing," says Freligh. "It’s obvious that they’re compelled to reach the same level of excellence in printing that these photographers are attempting to capture in the field."

For McCann and Prestige, the benefits to working on this project are twofold. "First and foremost, I enjoy producing this exhibit," he says. "It’s a joy to work with such talented people who are so keenly interested in nature."

In addition, the job brings with it another advantage: "Since the photography competition is exhibited at the Smithsonian, I have the opportunity to produce work for one of the country’s most prestigious museums. And I’m able to direct current as well as prospective clients to the exhibit. Having such a high-profile client such as Nature’s Best gives us immense credibility."

Next year, when the competition again comes around, there seems to be little doubt that Mark McCall and Prestige Graphics will once more be asked to answer the call of the wild, and bring us all a little bit closer to nature.

Kacey King is associate editor of The Big Picture magazine.

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