Getting a good print today has become the norm with the latest digital cameras and printers. While you still may have some challenges, printer manufacturers, in particular, have worked hard to give users the ability to create outstanding prints. Now it’s time to move beyond simply outputting a good print. I want to help you find ways to make your prints better express what you saw when you took the picture and how you felt about the subject.
There’s no question that having a properly calibrated monitor is critical to getting a good print, but to make a better print, you have to go beyond the monitor. A print is a different thing than an image on a monitor. A monitor gives a feeling of looking into an image, while a print has more of a feeling of looking at an image. Those are psychologically quite different impressions. We also tend to look at both from different distances. Keep this in mind when you work to make your print more expressive or even more accurate. So how do you make a better print?
Make A Work Print. Make a proof or work print as you make adjustments, as Ansel Adams did, even before you think you’re “finished” with the image. In The Print, Adams writes, “Arriving at a ‘fine print’ involves proceeding through various stages of ‘work prints’ until you arrive at a rendering that looks and feels right in all ways.”
See The Print. You need to have a print in hand while the image is a work in progress and examine it for its own sake, not compared to the image on the monitor. Is it a good reflection of your original intent?
Evaluate Overall Contrast. Does the work print look right in terms of contrast? Often, an image will look fine on the monitor, but lose something in contrast as a print because the media are different. In addition, for critical work, you need to let the print “dry down” (even if it comes out of the printer dry) for at least an hour, as this affects blacks.
Craft The Image. To get the most from your printing and to get a better print, we need to go back to the true craftsmen of photographic printing, like Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith. A good print comes from examining that work print and then crafting its enhancements, mastering the technology for your use, not letting technology master you. This means keeping the photo as most important, not Photoshop technique.
Check Your Size. The size of an image tremendously affects how you react to it. While you can print a test image at 4×6 inches for a quick color check, you can’t totally judge it at that size if you’re planning on an 11×14-inch print of the same subject. This is another reason why the monitor can be misleading, simply because it can’t display really big images. Make a print at the size of your final intended print for critical evaluation.
Examine Local Tonalities And Color. Local refers to small areas of the photo. You can have the whole photo looking great, but when it’s printed big, you see problems with details of the image being too dark or off-color.
Check Overall Balance. Many scenes have brightnesses or tonalities out of balance for the print. One side may be too bright or dark, for example, and needs to be balanced to the rest of the image.
Watch For Color Casts. When that work print is in hand, you may discover that it seems a little out of tune for color.
Look For Noise. Noise is a stubborn and stealthy problem. It can hide on the monitor, then appear all too well in the print. You go back to the screen, and sure enough, there it is, but it took the print for you to really see it.
Look For Distractions. It’s amazing how some distractions (such as dust on the sensor) can hide on the image displayed on the monitor, but show up all too well on the print.
You may have to make several work prints until your image looks its best. The hype of digital printing and color management implies perfect prints from the start. You can get good prints quickly, but better and best prints come from making multiple test prints. It’s actually far faster and cheaper to do several work prints with the digital darkroom than in the traditional wet darkroom, especially concerning color prints.
Sometimes, it takes a print to help you see an image for what it really is. Consider that for all the hype of e-books, people still like to read the physical book. A book in the hand is a very different experience than a book on a monitor. The same goes for photographs.