Your Best Prints Ever

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best printsNothing gives a photograph more impact than a high-quality print. Printing today is easier than ever, with a number of options available for lab-quality prints on a wide variety of media types, but selecting the right printer, paper and ink type for your needs is more complicated. The good news is that it’s hard to go wrong with any of the major printers as long as you choose the one that’s most suited for your type of work.

Printer Considerations
Your first task is to select the right printer for you. The most popular printers today are the 13×19-inch models (see the sidebar for some of the best choices). Small enough to fit on most desks, but large enough to print an 11×14 or larger print, these can be considered the “sweet spot” in inkjet printing.

Photo inkjet printers offer two kinds of ink systems: dye-based and pigment-based. Dye inks tend to print more vibrant and saturated colors, better than a pigment printer (although this gap is closing with the latest pigment inks), and lend themselves well to traditional RC (resin-coated) photo papers like gloss and satin. Pigment ink printers can print to almost anything you can feed through the printer, including fine-art papers like watercolor, canvas, backlit film and even cloth.

your best prints ever
HP Photosmart Pro B9180.
your best prints ever
Epson R1900.
Create stunning 13×19-inch display prints on demand in your digital darkroom with the latest wide-format printers. Sophisticated ink sets deliver rich colors and dramatic black-and-whites with life spans of 100 years and more!

Your ink and paper choices also affect the archival life of your prints. The numbers you’ll see listed indicate how long you can expect your print to last before it begins to show noticeable fading. Dye inks have a typical life of 40 to 100 years, depending on the paper used and how the print is displayed. You’ll get the longest life by storing in a dark location, but that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Pigment inks typically last longer, with most offering a life of well over 100 years and often more than 200 years. Given the much longer archival life and wider range of compatible media, why wouldn’t everyone choose a pigment printer? Dye ink still wins the contest for the most saturated colors. The bottom line is that before you buy a printer, ask your retailer for print samples and compare them to see which you prefer. There’s no substitute for making a firsthand comparison.

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 your best prints ever Hahnemühle FineArt Papers.
For consistently perfect prints with optimum longevity, your printer maker’s inks and papers are the simplest choice. Don’t let that stop you from experimenting with third-party offerings, though, as there are many terrific options to add an artistic texture to your trophy shots with specialty papers.

Paper Choices
The types of paper you choose have a strong impact on the look of your prints. After deciding on your printer, you need to choose your papers. The safe path is to stay with papers sold by your printer manufacturer. These papers all have been tested with that printer and normally have profiles installed for them to get the best possible output. If you’re not inclined to experiment, we recommend sticking with the manufacturer’s media for consistently good prints.

your best prints ever
Printer drivers offer many options, including color controls. Here, we’ve turned off color management, to allow our photo software to handle it.

When you’re ready to try something new, though, you have some great options available. Everything from 100% cotton rag to traditional baryta-coated papers to handmade Japanese Washi papers to everything in between are being sold in sizes designed for inkjet printing. Most of these companies have profiles available on their websites to help you get the best possible results from your printer (more on using profiles in a bit), which also gives you a good indication of compatibility with the different printers.

Some of the more exotic papers can be expensive, so we recommend buying in small quantities and making test prints until you find some that you really like. You can cut a large sheet into halves or quarters to get more mileage out of your test packs.

Preparing Your Image for Print
A good print starts with a properly adjusted image, so the prep work you do in your imaging program will pay off with a top-quality print. The key things to consider are color adjustments and sharpening. Prints often can look a bit less saturated on paper, so an increase in saturation, depending on your image type, can be a useful adjustment.

your best prints ever
Every image needs a little sharpening; for best results, do this as the final step
before printing.

In Photoshop, you can do this by selecting Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Saturation (if you’re using Photoshop CS4, the new Vibrance adjustment is a better option). Using an adjustment layer lets you make changes to your images that don’t modify the original. You can turn the adjustment off, or delete it if you change your mind. Small increases are the key to success here. Most images work best with only a few points of increased saturation before the image starts to get an artificial look to it.

Sharpening is best done as the last step in your workflow, after resizing the image for output and doing all other adjustments. The settings you use are based on what’s in the image and on what type of media you’ll be printing.

For example, a landscape with fine details will handle more sharpening than a portrait where you want to keep skin tones smooth. The same is true with glossy papers versus textured surfaces. The glossy media can handle higher sharpness settings than the textured media.

The key to your sharpening is in the Unsharp Mask filter (Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask). Unsharp Mask works by enhancing the contrast along edges in your image. There are three controls: Amount controls how strong the effect is; Radius controls how wide the adjustment is; and Threshold controls how much difference there must be between pixels in order to be considered an edge. For fine details, a higher Amount and lower Threshold are appropriate, while portraits and areas with lots of smooth tones will work better with a lower Amount and a higher Threshold.

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your best prints ever
Photoshop’s Black and White adjustment gives you wide latitude in controlling how colors are converted to gray tones.

Black & White Prints
The last time black-and-white was this popular, it was the only option available. In my workshops, how to print quality black-and-white photos is one of the most frequently requested subjects. A simple Convert to Grayscale usually will leave your images flat and lifeless. This used to mean learning to master the Channel Mixer in Photoshop, something that intim-idated many users. The newer versions of Photoshop have a Black and White adjustment that gives you complete control over how each color channel is reproduced, much like shooting with black-and-white film and using a color filter.

Once again, we suggest using an adjustment layer for this work. Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White. You’ll now have control over every color channel if you choose. There’s also an Auto option that often makes for a good starting point. After coming up with just the right set of adjustments, you also can click on the Tint button to apply an overall color tone for the image, giving you sepia, platinum, selenium and other options. If you’re really into black-and-white, you might consider one of the plug-ins available just for this, like Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro.

Choosing The Right Settings
Nothing will ruin a good image and good sheet of paper faster than printing with the wrong settings. This is the area that trips up most people, and one of the most common complaints is “my print doesn’t match my screen.” Assuming that you’ve calibrated your display (visit to learn how), getting a print-to-screen match isn’t difficult, once you know the basics.

You have two options for controlling color in your prints. You can choose to have your imaging application manage your color or let the printer driver handle it for you. For highest quality, application-managed is normally the best choice if you have the proper paper profile installed.

In Photoshop, select File > Print. Under Color Handling, select Photoshop Manages Colors, and under Printer Profile, select the paper profile that matches your printer and paper. I normally print with Relative Colorimetric as the Rendering Intent, and you should leave Black Point Compensation checked.

your best prints ever If you choose to use Photoshop (or another
imaging application) to manage your color, don’t forget to both enable this
in Photoshop, as well as disable color management
in your printer driver.

Now, click Print to display the printer dialog. Here, you’ll need to do two things. First, select the type of paper you’re using. If you’re printing with the manufacturer’s brand of paper, this will be easy, since they’re all listed in the paper types. If you’re using a third-party paper, select the type that matches most closely. For example, if you’re printing on Hahnemühle Smooth Pearl, you’d select the Luster or Satin paper type in the printer driver. The other setting, and this is perhaps the most critical, is to turn color management off in the printer. The wording varies from one company to the next: Canon calls it “Off,” Epson uses “Off (No Color Adjustment),” and HP uses “Application Managed.” Failing to do this will almost certainly guarantee a print that looks nothing like your screen.

The second option is to let the printer handle color. This is the best choice if you don’t have paper profiles. In this case, you’ll select Printer Manages Colors. This disables the Printer Profile list. In the printer driver, you’ll now select the appropriate paper type like the first example, but select the type of color handling in the driver. Canon uses “Standard,” while Epson and HP both offer the choice of sRGB or Adobe RGB. You should use the same color setting as your image (which can be found by looking at the Document setting in the Photoshop Print dialog).

Jon Canfield’s latest book is Photodex ProShow: Visual QuickStart Guide. Visit his website at

2 thoughts on “Your Best Prints Ever

  1. I purchased an HP B8850 printer and discovered that Application Managed Colors print out as mud. An HP rep told me they don’t have a plug-in for Photoshop Elements.

    Is there a solution to this problem?

  2. I must say that I am somewhat annoyed. Neither the article in the magazine nor this online version included the sidebar that is referenced in paragraph two of the article. A little substandard from a magazine that I have come to respect.

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