Making photographs that stand the test of time requires equal parts magic and science, inspiration and technology.
Self-described “photography nerds” Jeff Hielsberg and Carolina Clark created iPrint Studio in February so anyone – professional shooter or passionate amateur – could get museum-quality prints of their work.
Their business fills the gap between what you’ll get at the local drugstore and large-scale firms that cater to pros.
Running it out of their home offices – his in Virginia-Highland; hers in Buckhead – and coffee shops, they say they’re determined to produce the best prints in town by proving that when it comes to making archival-grade photographs, no detail is too small to sweat.
Last year, before they branched out on their own, Clark made a high-profile convert to their philosophy.
Professional photographer Kevin Ames had contracted them to make a test print of a picture he’d shot at the High Museum of Art for a Sigma camera lens ad. He’d created a poster file by the time he called, but since he wanted 500 copies to autograph for fans, he wanted a test print first.
Clark wasn’t sure his original was good enough.
“I was very confident it could look better,” she said over coffee last week. So she showed Ames how one corner of his photograph was registering too red, and another wasn’t as crisp as it could be, and asked if he’d mind if she made some minute color-corrections to his work.
She laughs as she recalls the mix of nerves and elation she felt that day.
When they considered the prints side by side, his original and her adjusted version, she said, Ames was amazed.
“He said, ‘Well this proves it – I’m not a printer; I’m a photographer.’ ”
Hielsberg says those are the kinds of moments that make the long hours and lack of office space worth it.
“I can’t tell you how exciting it is,” he said, “Working with photographers is always fun. But working with an image to make it art? That’s really rewarding.”
Having logged countless hours behind cameras themselves and learned the art of picture-making at opposite ends of the business – he trained thousands at Kodak in the science and technology of photos and later sold equipment to printing labs; she studied fine art photography in her native Peru before moving to the U.S. four years ago to manage a lab that specialized in fine art printing – they decided their business would be small-scale by design.
“We wanted to be in front of customers as much as possible,” says Hielsberg. “We want to make sure everything is perfect – if not, we’ll do it over.”
More important than an office building of their own is making sure they can deliver that same quality to every client, whether she’s a pro or a parent who simply wants a great print of a beloved family photo for the wall of the den.
So his “office” most days is the branch of at the corner of Amsterdam and North Highland, mere blocks away from the home he shares with his wife and dog on Highland Terrace. He spends so much time at the coffee shop, he jokes, some days he leaves too pumped full of caffeine to sleep.
The actual printing end of the business happens at the Collier Hills home Clark shares with her husband and dog, where a 12-by-14-foot home office is packed with computers, printers, tables and shelves and part of the kitchen doubles as a studio for product shots. She constructs the canvas-wrapped frames onsite in her basement, on a table tucked in by the washer and dryer.
On a recent visit, Clark showed me before and after versions of a photo taken at a military reunion. Before she could make the 40 copies her client ordered, she had to retouch, clean and adjust the image to make it worth copying.
I admired a stack of landscape, wedding and family portraits spread out on a corner table, only to learn they’d been rejected for not being good enough.
Clark’s intricate knowledge of what she calls the “transitions” – what happens between the time a person captures an image with the click of a shutter, to the moment a finished product slides out of the printer – is key to what they do.
Hielsberg describes his partner’s standards as “insane” – but quickly adds, “that’s why I wanted to work with her.”
She will calibrate her hooded computer monitor – an Eizo, from Japan – “for the time of day,” he says, “what she’s wearing, even the kind of light bulbs.”
It’s all about understanding color, Clark says, and how it translates from the screen to the paper.
“I’m very very picky,” she says. “I’ve been in every role the customer has. Now that I’m on the other side, I want to make sure I meet their expectations.”
iPrint uses Hahnemuhle fine art paper in a couple of different finishes, but one of their biggest sellers is the canvas wrap, in which an image is printed on canvas, laminated and wrapped around a wooden frame, resulting in a piece of art that’s ready to hang on the wall, and made to last for 100 years. They only use acid free paper and archival inks, for “museum-quality” prints, which range from 6 inches across to 60. When finished, the picture is ready to hang, easy to clean off with a damp sponge and resistant to fading from UV rays. Prices range from $6 (for a 4-by-6 canvas print) to $360 (for a 36-by-48 canvas wrap on the thickest frame)
“Each of the surfaces we print on has a different personality,” Hielsberg says. “Carolina knows the difference between how it looks on the screen and how it will print.”
The texture of canvas can make up for a lack of crispness in an image, Hielsberg says – but that doesn’t mean they’ll turn any image snapped on your phone’s camera into a print big enough to fill a wall.
He pulls out his own phone for an example.
A client had emailed him snapshot of her black and white dog. It was a great picture, so she wanted a 16-by-20-inch canvas wrap, and didn’t care what it cost.
But Hielsberg talked her into a picture half that size, he says, because he wanted the finished product to be as good as possible.
“We talked them out of spending more money,” he says. “But they were so happy with how it looked, they came back and ordered three more.”