Printing photographs well is both an art and a science. The science of printing involves all of the technology made for inks, papers and printers. It also includes monitor calibration, color profiles and other printing technology built into your software and computer.
The art of printing is based on how you look at a print and how you tweak that image to make the best print possible. It’s not about simply matching a print to your monitor—that’s the science part. A good print needs to be truly good as a print and not simply trying to replicate a monitor. The good news for photographers is that any photo printer can give you great results.
Printer Technology Today
Ink is a critical component of any printer. Traditionally, dye-based inks had a greater range of color or gamut but a shorter life. Pigment-based inks had less gamut with incredibly long lives but were more likely to clog printer heads. Life of the inks refers to how long they retain original colors before they start to fade when the print is displayed in the light. Check out print and ink life for all manufacturers at Wilhelm Imaging Research, www.wilhelm-research.com.
Today, pigment-based inks have a very good range of color, and new formulations of the inks make them less likely to clog. Dye-based inks now have a much longer life. Still, if you’re not printing frequently and you don’t need 200-year print life, a dye-based printer may be a better choice because you won’t have the frustrations of head clogging. Pigment ink printers need to be used constantly.
Canon uses its ChromaLife100+ system for its dye-based inks, with an album life of up to hundreds of years. Print life is about 20 to 30 years when displayed. LUCIA inks are a 12-color pigment ink system that includes gray, black and matte black inks and offers a projected life of more than 200 years.
Epson has been a leader in pigment-based inks with its DURABrite 4-color inks, its UltraChrome Hi-Gloss 2 large-format inks and its UltraChrome K3 9-color inks that include three levels of “black” (K is for black) and what it calls Vivid Magenta inkjet technology. Projected life is more than 200 years. You may have noticed that both Canon and Epson offer multiple “blacks” (black and grays)—this can help you get a better black-and-white print. Epson also offers its Claria Hi-Definition 6-color, dye-based inks with a projected life of more than 60 years.
Hewlett-Packard has three Vivera named inks. Vivera photo-versatile inks are dye-based with a life of up to 100 years. Vivera professional inks are pigment inks with expected lives of more than 200 years. Vivera office inks are dye-based inks oriented toward standard printing and quick drying, although you still can expect life of over 20 to 30 years.
Printer resolution refers to how densely the ink droplets are laid down on the paper. The big numbers are more marketing hype than being really useful unfortunately. Once you get beyond about 1200 dpi, visual differences in the resulting print can be hard to see, although your printing times will increase dramatically. You can see a slight difference with glossy papers at about 2800, but beyond that, not so much. In addition, the really high resolutions typically don’t use the best photo-printing algorithms.
The choice of paper affects the final look of your print, as well as its life. Cheap papers, especially when used with dye-based inks, can shorten the life of a print considerably.
Paper surface is an important, yet personal choice. Coated papers (glossy, matte, pearl, semi-gloss and so forth) make colors vibrant and images look their sharpest. Uncoated fine-art papers give a mellower look, but many photographers prefer that look for displaying photos. If you aren’t sure what you like, buy a sampler pack of different surfaces and print out an image on them.
All printers are optimized for printing photos that are at a printing resolution between 200 and 300 ppi (printing resolution isn’t the same as printer resolution) at the size printed. You can set this when processing RAW. You generally have to change JPEG files (often at an unusable 72 ppi). Slight differences in prints from resolutions between 200 and 300 ppi can be hard to see without a magnifying glass, but outside of that range, differences can be obvious.
Also, size your photos properly for the print when using Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. These programs automatically resize the image to match what the printer needs, but they may not do it as optimally as you would. Lightroom and Aperture size your photos appropriately as needed when you print.
RAW files need more sharpening than JPEG files because they’re not sharpened in the camera, whereas JPEGs usually are. In addition, you may need to sharpen photos for glossy prints differently than for matte prints. Sharpening is a whole skill beyond a short article like this. Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro can simplify the sharpening process, plus its sharpening algorithms are very good.
To make a print, you need to set up both
your image-processing software and your printer software (called the printer driver). You need to let both know what size to print your image, how to handle proportions and how to deal with color.
Dealing with color is critical. You have two choices—the printer can manage color or the program can manage color using profiles. There’s a lot of misinformation about this because photographers think that every printer acts like theirs. Printers act very differently, and you may need to do some of your own tests. In general, high-end Epson printers need to work with program-managed color, while most Hewlett-Packard printers do fine with the printer driver managing color.
No matter which option you choose, be sure both the program and printer driver are set appropriately.
• If the program is managing color, then color management in the printer driver must be turned off.
• If the printer is managing color, then color management in the printer driver must be turned on.
Windows Print Propertires
For refined results, especially with art papers, you may gain more control if you let the software manage colors using profiles. Profiles for your printer manufacturer’s papers were installed with your printer driver, and you simply scroll down a list to find the one that matches your paper. You often can use these profiles for other brands of papers (for example, glossy is often quite similar), but most paper manufacturers include paper profiles on their website, along with instructions on how to install them.
Next, you must set the printer driver properly. This uses the operating system’s print dialog boxes for the Mac and a separate dialog box (Properties) for PCs. However, both have the color management option somewhere; I wish I could be more specific, but there are no standards here. Additionally, you must tell the printer the size of the paper you’re using, the type of paper surface (or “media type”—glossy, matte, etc.) and the quality of printing to employ (or resolution). It’s important that you tell the printer what kind of paper surface because it will lay down ink differently for different surfaces.
Mac OS X Properties
Test or Work Print
A good print is a good print, not necessarily something that matches the monitor (which it never can do completely). Printing should be about the print. No one will ever ask to see the monitor to see how well you matched it. Ansel Adams used to stress the importance of the “work print,” i.e., the first print, a test print that you look at to determine what it needs to become a better print.
Often, photographers want to get everything “perfect” on the monitor, then press a button and get one print that’s perfect. There are many reasons why a print must be seen differently than a monitor, from the way both display color to how we psychologically perceive a print compared to a monitor. Lightroom and Aperture make it easy to adjust a print and still keep your original file by doing a new virtual copy (Lightroom) or version (Aperture) and adjusting them for the print.
Rob Sheppard’s new blog can be found at natureandphotography.com.