One of the great joys resulting from the change to digital compared to shooting film is the ability to get great photo prints optimized for the subject and photographer. Everyone who used to try to get a good, custom print from a slide or negative knows what a challenge that used to be. There were multiple visits to the lab when an image didn’t print right and had to be reprinted. Or often, you’d just accept the print as is because it was “good enough,” and any changes weren’t worth the back-and-forth with the lab. You probably know what I’m talking about.
Digital photography and high-quality inkjet printers have changed this. Photographers now get digital photo prints that surpass what was possible with film. Not everyone does, though. Plus, the idea that digital can solve all photo problems has led to disappointment with digital prints when they didn’t quite measure up.
Follow the photo printing tips here so you can get prints that surpass your expectations.
If you have regular contact with other photographers, you’ll quickly discover that digital photo printing choices can be a bit variable, even to the point of argument over which techniques are truly “best.” My feeling is that the best settings are those that give you the results you want, regardless of how any other photographer might make prints. However, there are some photo printing tips that you might find useful:
1. Select an image from your files for printing. I like using cataloging/viewing programs such as ACDSee, iView MediaPro or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for this purpose.
2. Adjust your image for the best blacks, whites and midtones.
3. Correct and fine-tune color appropriate to the scene and subject.
4. Fix local problems of color and contrast (areas that can be selected and adjusted separately from the rest of the image). Also, use cloning and healing tools to get rid of unwanted spots and other blemishes.
5. Adjust the size of the photo to a printing size that you desire, using a resolution between 200 and 300 ppi.
6. Sharpen the image for its size using Unsharp Mask.
7. Set up the printer driver for the right photo paper.
8. Print the photo.
9. Evaluate the image as a print (not just how it compares to the monitor).
10. Make adjustments to tonalities and color based on that evaluation, then print again.
Be sure your monitor is calibrated. Calibration systems like Datacolor Spyder2PRO or GretagMacbeth Eye-One Display 2 use hardware and software to examine the color characteristics of your monitor, then create a profile that controls the monitor’s color response. These systems are easy to use with software that steps you through the process quite simply.
Monitor calibration won’t guarantee you’ll have a great print. There’s a lot more to a good print than an accurate monitor. On the other hand, calibration does make colors more predictable throughout the process, which will give you better prints in the end.
Choosing Print Resolution
Print resolution is the resolution of your image as it’s sent to the printer. It’s important to understand that this isn’t the printer resolution and has nothing to do with printer resolution. Choose a setting between 200 and 300 ppi, and you’ll be fine.
Photographers will often use ppi and dpi interchangeably, which can make the printer’s dpi seem like something you need to pay attention to when working on a photo. Your photo deals with pixels, while a printer’s dpi tells you how ink is laid down on the printing paper. They’re not related in a practical way.
You may have heard that you should use an image resolution that’s a fraction of the printer resolution, for example, that you should use 360 ppi with an Epson printer because Epson prints at 720, 1440, 2880 ppi and so on.
Logically, that might seem to make sense. After all, shouldn’t the pixels in a photo somehow line up with the dots of an inkjet printer?
However, there are several problems with that theory. Modern printers print at variable resolutions up to the maximum set. In other words, they might print a light area at a different resolution than a dark area, plus they may lay down different colors at different resolutions. So, if you want to work with an image resolution that’s a fraction of the printing resolution, what fraction will you get with something that changes?
Related to this, inkjet printers lay down ink with highly evolved patterns for color and tonality. These are so secret and such prized possessions of printer companies that very few people actually have access to the algorithms that control this. From what I understand, these sophisticated algorithms pay more attention to tonalities and color changes than they do to the actual pixels in an image. Plus, these patterns overlap ink dots in unique ways that don’t always match pixels either.
For all practical purposes, you can use an image resolution of 200 to 300 ppi and get excellent results. I use the lower number for larger print sizes and the higher number for smaller sizes because less interpolation is needed and smaller files c
an be used.
Working With Color Management
Whole books have been written about color management through the printing process. I recommend that you ignore any advice that makes you feel incompetent because you don’t fully understand color management. You don’t have to. Color management in printing is simply the way an image-processing program such as Photoshop communicates how it sends an image to the printer.
There are two ways to use color settings for printing your images:
1. Print with Photoshop or other software controlling the process.
2. Print with the printer controlling the process.
You’ll hear a lot of recommendations to do only the first, but these are typically from photographers who are familiar with only one printer type. Both of these methods will work, sometimes one better than the other, depending on the printer, but the only way to find out for sure is to do your own tests.
If you print with Photoshop, you have to follow several steps: choose a paper profile while still in the printing options of Photoshop, select a print quality for the printer, choose a paper in the printer driver and turn off any color management in the printer driver (the printer driver is the embedded software that comes up when you go to print, and it controls the printer).
A paper profile defines how colors are translated from the computer space to a specific paper. In most programs, you’ll find a whole set of profiles specific to your printer and/or paper used by it somewhere in the print options. Pick a profile that matches your paper. These profiles have been carefully developed by the printer or paper manufacturer. They come with your printer when you install it and can be added later by downloading profiles from a paper or printer company website.
If you print with the printer in charge, you simply tell Photoshop that’s what you’re doing, select a print quality for the printer, choose a paper in the printer driver and be sure color management is on in the printer driver. Printer manufacturers want you to have a good experience printing. It’s to their benefit when the printer software handles the paper profile automatically—if the resulting prints are good. I’ve found, when working with a lot of photographers, that sometimes no matter what they do, they can’t get the results they want with a paper profile. Yet if they select this choice and let the printer take control, they often do. It can be worth trying a sheet of paper to see how it goes.
You also may find that you have another option to choose: Rendering Intent. With it, you have two choices, Perceptual and Relative. Both work, but it’s my experience that photographers generally prefer Perceptual. I’d recommend you use it. Try Relative if you want to experiment.
Ready To Print
Once you’ve made all of your adjustments and you’re ready to print, you need to set up your printer and print. This is one area where Mac and Windows operating systems differ completely. The Mac OS incorporates the printer driver (the printer’s software) into its own graphics and separates the options into different sections of a single Print dialog box. The Windows OS accesses a unique printer driver dialog through the Properties button in the Windows Print dialog box.
Regardless, the choices you make for a print are essentially the same in both systems. Here are the options you must confirm:
Number Of Copies To Print. This is a standard part of all computer printing programs.
Color Management. This goes right back to Color Management in Photoshop. If you chose to have the printing managed by the printer, then select ColorSync for Mac and ICM for Windows. If you chose a paper profile, you must choose No Color Adjustment. This is important because you don’t want the printer trying to readjust colors already adjusted for a paper profile by Photoshop.
Print Settings. Another important setting, this makes a huge difference, and if you miss it, you can totally change the look of a photo. You must tell the printer what paper you’re using so it knows how to put ink on the paper. Another important choice is the print quality. You must tell the printer what you’re printing so it uses the proper printing resolution. You’ll usually find that the default resolution for this print quality will give excellent results and that higher resolutions usually do little other than slow down the printer.
Other Settings. These generally tend to be unique to printers, such as the ability to print a borderless print, or are used with other programs, such as printing in a certain page order. For these, you’ll need to check your printer’s manual.
Once the choices are made, click on Print and sit back while Photoshop and your printer make the print for you.
Working With A Digital Lab
While we’d never give up our inkjet photo printer, for some projects, we’d rather leave the printing to professionals. For extra-large output or big-volume print jobs, it’s hard to match the capabilities and speed of a professional lab at home.
Online labs like Miller’s Mpix (www.mpix.com) make it easy to order digital prints at standard sizes all the way up to 20×30 inches at very affordable prices. Online labs typically give you a discount when you order lots of reprints. Try getting a discount from your home inkjet printer.
In addition to standard prints, though, you can order all kinds of creative photo gifts without having to spend time in front of the computer designing them. Mpix, for example, can turn your photos into a deck of playing cards, a magazine cover or baseball trading cards, in addition to the typical photo gifts like calendars, books and greeting cards.
Your local photo lab likely offers many of these same services. The advantage of working with an online lab is that everything can be done from the comfort of your desktop darkroom. Just upload your images to the lab, place your order, and your creations are shipped to your home. It doesn’t get any easier.