Holiday 2012: Producing Prints

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With much of photography’s attention being devoted to the sole creation of the image, and more recently the virtual and instant sharing of those images, the art and practice of physically producing prints is becoming less of a requirement than in the past. This scarcity of physical prints does have immense benefits, though, as it is still the best and most revered method of actually owning a photograph. Printing photographs also grounds your work and allows for a bit more separation from the image itself, since it is being turned into an object. Prints bring value to your work and are also a more special means for sharing your images with others than viewing them on an LCD screen.

Software

While the premise of this article is the physical development of imagery, there are numerous steps that must occur first in regard to handling and preparing your imagery prior to final output on a paper medium. At the beginning of the post production digital workflow is the editing, sorting and retouching of imagery. Now that the bulk of imagery is created using a digital camera, this process begins with importing your files to your computer and editing them down to a select few. One of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of this process is the real-time sorting through imagery and creating this edit. Depending on your own situation, it is likely you will be importing hundreds, if not thousands, of images into your computer at once. When doing this, it is crucial to develop a file structure to keep your files organized. There is no set standard for doing this, but it is something you should decide upon and stick to in order to have the most efficient means for printing, sharing and retrieving images from a hard drive.

Tools such as Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom 4 and Bridge (as part of Photoshop CS6) help to expedite the creation of these file structures and greatly help in maintaining conformity within them. One of the most simple tools either of these software packages has available is the option to perform bulk editing, ranging from simply modifying the file names of hundreds of images to performing batch resizing or other retouching tweaks to numerous images. Beside the keeping of orderly files, these programs also give you open space to perform simple editing tasks such as rating files and sorting images to help you narrow your options regarding which images you eventually print. This open sorting space gives you free reign to place images next to others and bookmark or hide certain images that catch your eye.

Besides editing and sorting your work, these software tools are also the means for you to fine-tune the look of imagery so it is suitable for printing. Most photographers will rarely have an image that is ready to print straight out of the camera; you will likely need to resize it, change the color balance, crop and possibly even retouch subjects’ features so they appear their best. These general editing features can be performed in either program, but more advanced and intensive editing is best suited for the full version of Photoshop, as the breadth of editing tools and functions greatly surpasses those of Lightroom. However, working within the environments of both programs simultaneously is often the most preferred method, as you can have the speed and efficiency of Lightroom and use Photoshop for its editing power on select images. Both programs are also highly suitable environments from which to conduct your printing; either locally or if you outsourcing your printing.

Monitors

Preceding the software workflow slightly, a monitor to use with your computer is also an invaluable tool and something that should be invested in if you are looking to print or share your work with others. Since photographs are almost entirely reliant on their appearance, a good monitor is essential to help you achieve the certain look you desire in your imagery. When looking for a monitor, there are a handful of features you should be aware of that separate a photo-editing-worthy monitor versus something that is simply designed for basic computer usage. First, you should begin looking for an IPS (in-plane switching) monitor. These monitors provide the best color rendition, deepest blacks and wide viewing angles, which are all necessary when working with larger image files for printing.

Your monitor should be able to faithfully reproduce the rich imagery created by your camera, especially the deep blacks and a wide color gamut.

Additionally, monitors should be able to support a very wide range of colors visually; preferably covering most of the Adobe RGB color space. This is required because the images your digital camera will produce, even if working in a standard JPEG format, will have a range of colors suited to this or a similar color space. If your monitor is not capable of displaying the full range of colors, “clipping” will occur and you will not have as accurate a portrayal of your files as possible. The third criterion you should look for in a monitor is size, with large as possible being the best, while keeping the previous points in consideration. Physical size of monitors is one thing to note, but equally as important is the native resolution of the monitor. There is no added benefit in working from an overly large monitor if it can only display a resolution of 1920 x 1080 when you can gain much more detail working with a resolution around 2560 x 1440 on a smaller monitor.

Calibration

Having a good monitor is only half the battle when trying to achieve the desired look for editing photographs. The second, and decidedly more important factor, is keeping this monitor calibrated. Having a calibrated monitor means that it is displaying colors and tones in a consistent and correct manner that is determined through the use of calibration aids or techniques. Similar to the way our eyes compensate for color temperature (and once accustomed to being in certain lighting, we cannot decipher the actual color of the light) you cannot accurately calibrate a monitor simply by sight.

The benefits of working with a calibrated monitor include more accurate color rendition when sharing imagery online (however this is dependent on others also using a calibrated monitor) and, more importantly, a significantly more efficient printing workflow. There is a wide variety of calbration tools available to help adjust your monitor, and most function similarly in that they use a colorimeter and software together to achieve as close to objective calibration as possible. Using these calibration systems is usually a straightforward process that involves placing the colorimeter on your monitor, connecting it to your computer through a USB or similar connection and running the software in order to create a custom monitor profile.

Uncalibrated monitor (Left), and calibrated monitor (Right). For illustrative purposes.

For certain circumstances or if working in abnormal conditions, you can fine-tune these profiles to suit the environment you’ll be working in or the media with which you are working. You should regularly calibrate your monitor, too, because as time passes a monitor's colors can shift and require recalibration to ensure consistency. If color is of the utmost importance to your imagery, the combination of a calibrated monitor and a color checker or gray card when shooting is an ideal match. The consistency in both tools will pay off and result in the greatest color accuracy.

The second component of calibration is in relation to your printer, and keeping it, too, calibrated to produce accurate colors. Maintaining a color-calibrated printer is somewhat more complex than a monitor due to a greater number of variables among the entire photography process. Paper types, ink types, file types, monitor calibration, and other factors affect how your printer outputs an image; these variables are constantly changing to suit different purposes, whereas a monitor’s calibration is a more static measure with fewer inconsistencies relating to its duties.

Printers and their specific printer drivers are the first means to test for color accuracy. These drivers usually facilitate the running of basic tasks to check ink levels, how the print heads are running, and overall cleanliness of the printer. This simple maintenance is the most essential type of printer calibration, since it can generally account for most faults you might incur while printing. The second means of keeping a consistent method of communication between your monitor and printer is to use a calibration software that will work with both machines, giving them a standard base-set of color terms on which to agree. The third method of ensuring color correctness when printing is through the use of specific ICC profiles, depending on the type of media on which you are printing.

Profiles and File Types

Certain profiles are used during printing that essentially tell the printer certain characteristics about the printing medium so the print output can be adjusted correctly. These profiles, called ICC profiles, are available for many standard paper types, as well as other certain standards established by the International Color Consortium (ICC). These profiles are also used as color standards for electronic viewing, too; however, the leeway in which they can be used is far less than when printing. These profiles can also be used as simulated color spaces when working in photo-editing programs like Photoshop to help you visualize the colors of your images with the specified restrictions of your final output.

One of the most notable color-profiling issues photographers should be aware of when sharing their imagery online, versus almost any other medium, is that the sRGB profile is the de facto standard for use with Web browsers (among other digital platforms). sRGB is a fairly narrow color profile—not nearly as wide as Adobe RGB 1998, Apple RGB, or many others—and because of this it is easily handled across a wide variety of monitors. This idea of a “narrow color space” means that the color space itself is not capable of producing some of the more minute tones of certain colors, and as such cannot render photographs with the same long-color range they might possess. However, by compensating for this color profile when editing, your photos will still be the most accurate representation of what they are when seen online on a calibrated monitor. If your images are saved in a wider color profile, such as Adobe RGB, they will appear a bit duller, darker, or just generally “off” compared to the original, because the platform (i.e. browser) cannot fully render all of the color information the file possesses.

Just as sRGB is a constraint for the Web, printing papers also have their own inherent constraints that must be met in order to achieve an image resembling your intentions. This is where paper- and printer-specific ICC profiles are used to modify the overall color and tonal appearance to suit the printing medium. Because printers are capable of only printing within a certain color gamut, due to their ink set and inherent technology, and papers are only able to register colors in a certain way, due to their base color, material and surface texture, the image files must be altered to fit within these constraints. These specific ICC profiles can usually be downloaded from the paper manufacturer’s website and then installed through the program you are using to control the print output. The profiles often match both the paper type and printer type to best ensure calibration with the latter two ends of the printing workflow.

While all of these profiling concerns are geared specifically for instances in which you should modify your image files to suit the medium in which they are being showcased, you should be working in a method in which those files are saved as copies from the most wide-ranging, data-rich file type possible, i.e., your originals. These files are essentially the master files from which you make different specified versions to suit different applications. The reason you should keep a master file in the best formatting possible is because it is always best to take away information from a file versus having to interpolate information in order to make up for data that is not inherently present.

Certain facets of a master file you should consider are keeping it in its native, highest resolution; at the highest bit depth possible; in the broadest, or native, color space; and in a lossless file format such as a TIFF. If a file possesses all of these qualities, you will easily be able to convert it to suit any further application possible. Additionally, if shooting RAW files, it is also good to save those original, unprocessed files on an external hard drive once they have been converted to a TIFF file. From this master file, it is common to save the needed variety of versions by simply changing the file name and having all types of the same image reside within the same folder for easy access. This can include a small JPEG saved in the sRGB format for Web applications, a resized TIFF file at 300 dpi in the printing ICC profile for printing purposes, and of course, the master file from which the other two stemmed. Other measures that should be considered when making derivative files for printing and web-based means include:

  • Web-browsers and monitors support files up to 72 ppi (pixels per inch, commonly, but incorrectly referred to as dpi); files with a greater pixel density (such as 96, 100, 240, 300 ppi, etc.) will not appear any sharper than the same-sized file with a 72 ppi pixel density.
  • Printers support files with a dot resolution that typically ranges between 240 and 300 dpi. 300 dpi is the most common figure for printing as it provides enough resolution for printers without creating an overbearing file size.
  • Web browsers typically only support JPEG file types, and as such files should be resized to 72 ppi JPEGs for Web use.
  • Printers can often handle almost any file type, but in order to gain the fastest print times, it is often preferred to save your final printing file as a JPEG just before printing to expedite the printing process, especially if printing larger sizes. At the same time, if you are making a copy for future printing of the same image, a TIFF file should also be saved since a JPEG is a lossy file compression and will lessen in quality each time it is opened and saved.

Printers and Printing

Now that the front end of the printing process has been taken care of, the actual printing of images can occur in a much more efficient and simple manner. Having your files sized and saved correctly prior to printing not only improves the quality of the prints, it also saves in time since the printer itself isn’t forced to do more work than necessary. Typically, the best way to produce prints in your home or studio is through the use of an inkjet printer. These printers utilize a system of ink cartridges on a moving print head to disperse ink onto a sheet of paper as it is fed through the machine. This amount of ink is incredibly thin and is the result of multiple colors of ink being carefully blended to produce the colors of the image.

Canon Pixma Pro-1. For illustration only.

Printers require a certain number of ink cartridges to function; printers that use more ink cartridges are often able to produce images with a wider color gamut and greater dynamic range than those with only a few cartridges. This is because when the color spectrum is broken down into more steps, more finite and minute nuances of colors can be achieved, including richer blacks and smoother tonal gradations. Additionally, many printers with greater numbers of ink cartridges contain several steps of blacks, often ranging from a faint grey to a deep black. This combination of different tonal values enables greater black-and-white printing possibilities, which is something inkjet printing has only recently been able to achieve at a level somewhat comparable to traditional darkroom-based printing processes.

The 12 LUCIA Pigment Ink System by Canon: it expands the color gamut with improved saturation of colors and darker, deeper blacks. This system allows the professional photographer to achieve new levels of skin tone reproduction, accuracy and quality, so your prints exhibit stunning detail.

When looking for a printer, besides the number of ink cartridges it uses, other features to look for are the maximum width it is able to print, the types of media it can handle, and its maximum printable resolution. It is sometimes quite impractical to have a 40” wide or larger printer at home, but at the same time something that can accept paper up to 17” wide may be required if printing, for certain artistic purposes. If you are mostly printing 8 x 10” images or smaller, then an 11”- or 13”-wide printer may be best in order to save space in your working environment. After determining your ideal maximum width, you should also consider if printing to cut-sheet paper is sufficient or if you require using roll paper for longer panoramic imagery, or as a more economical means to printing greater amounts of imagery.

Canon Pixma Pro-1.

When printing to an inkjet printer that is either physically connected to your computer or remotely connected over Wi-Fi, it is best to work within the environment of your photo-editing program rather than in the printer’s included software or driver. You will gain much more control over your output in regard to sizing, paper handling and color handling if working in a more robust printer dialogue. Once you have selected the image to print, open the printer dialogue and assess all of the commands available. Depending on the printer you are working with, you will have an assortment of choices ranging from selecting color profiles, media profiles, size options, and so on. Just like with color profiling and file structure as discussed before, it is preferred to have your image sized to its final dimensions and color-corrected prior to the printer dialogue. A printer’s ability to manage these complex tasks is far inferior to what a program like Photoshop can do, and because of this it is best to remove as many variables from the printing steps as possible to leave a straightforward process. With this in mind, you will be either deactivating or making sure the printer doesn’t take control of any of options given for print handling. Instead, make sure to select to allow the image-editing software to do color handling. This, paired with selecting the appropriate ICC profile for both your printer and paper, will lead to the most consistent and reliable process for achieving the most control over printing.

To begin printing, it is advisable to print using a test strip method or only printing a small version of your image on a piece of the same paper with which you plan on making your final print. Rather than potentially wasting ink and a whole sheet of paper, if you reuse the same sheet of paper and print multiple small images on it to test for color balance, you will save in resources. This test strip method of printing is very similar to darkroom-based printing methods as a quick and easy way to check how you can expect your final prints to appear before committing to a larger size. Once you have checked the overall appearance of the print, you then make the final print using the same settings and color, but at 100% size to fit an entire sheet of paper.

In the unfortunate case of your print not looking the way you envisioned it, there could be a number of issues causing the print to appear differently than it does on the monitor. Monitor calibration is certainly one issue which can go awry; printer calibration or some other minor issue with the printer could keep it from performing its best; or there can be some kind of a connection issue or print-handling issue that is affecting the information between your computer and printer. Troubleshooting needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, but one of these general situations is likely to be the cause of any off-looking prints. If calibration is the issue, you can either go through the process of recalibrating your tools, or if the print only requires a small change, then you can compensate for it in the image-editing program. An example of this would be a print appearing slightly too dark; in order to fix it you make the print a bit lighter than it should be by about the same amount it is too dark. Attaining the final print is rarely an exact science and the more used to your specific equipment, and assuming you use a consistent workflow, the more efficient over time your printing process will become.

These methodologies carry true for almost any printing situation you are likely to encounter using an inkjet printer; however, if printing large format, there are some additional steps to take into consideration simply due to the physical nature of printing at such a size. Large format inkjet printers are capable of producing prints at a width of 17” wide up to the current largest width of 64”. Almost all of these printers also accept the use of roll paper, and with the larger printers, will only accept roll paper. When producing prints of this size, image files begin to get incredibly large, and subsequently the prints themselves take considerably longer to produce.

One of the most helpful tools for maintaining a manageable workflow, if printing large scale, is a RIP (Raster Image Processor) program. These programs function similarly to the way your image-editing program or a printer driver handles printing, except that it is even more efficient and enables you to multitask and queue printing with printers that can take almost an hour to produce a single photograph. RIP programs are dedicated to managing the print handling, which therefore leaves room for you to utilize your image-editing program at the same time prints are being queued up. Many RIP programs also have helpful imaging features within them that will automatically rotate imagery or combine jobs to fit on the same print, or can even enable you to print to separate printers at the same time to significantly increase your efficiency.

Paper Types

Just as you can add personality to an image by exposing it in a certain way or editing it during post production, printing on different paper types can add additional layer of character to your image to further help you realize the overall look and feel of your photograph. There is a huge variety of different paper types available, in both sheet and roll sizes, to help achieve looks ranging from a slick, glossy image to a more craft-inspired, watercolor texture print. These different surface textures all have a range of connotations and can be used accordingly to suit specific types of imagery. Some paper types, such as luster, satin, pearl, or semi-gloss, are best used in instances where you want the printing medium to not compete with the image itself. These surface types give a good range of tones with enough gloss to provide a deep black, but still have minimal reflective qualities to not create surface reflections. A matte or smooth surface can lend itself well to more artistic imagery without encroaching on the image in a textural manner. There are also papers now that feature a baryta base, reminiscent of traditional darkroom fiber-based prints that provide very rich blacks and an appealing, but not overbearing, glossy surface. Surface textures are highly subjective and truly depend on the user’s preference and type of work being made. Due to the wide variety of options available, a sample pack is also a highly viable way to begin your search for the ideal paper type to suit your photography.

Below the surface, not all printer papers are built the same. An illustrated cross-section of one paper’s construction. (Showing Pro Platinum from Canon).

One characteristic many papers have, and something that should be heavily considered when printing, is to use an acid-free, or archival, paper type. Archival papers are made using materials that will not fade for a long time, assuming they are used in conjunction with archival inks. The combination of both archival products will yield prints that will hold up to the test of time with little fading or other anomalies that can occur if displaying or storing work.

As mentioned before, too, when selecting a paper type, it is a good idea to download and install the proper ICC profiles for the given paper in order to prepare before printing.

After Printing

Once you have finished printing your work, depending on how you intend on using it, you should take the necessary measures to ensure that the print stays in the best condition possible to allow for framing, sharing, mailing or simply storing for later use. One of the most traditional means for storing prints is in an archival museum box. These boxes are created from acid-free material to ensure that a print’s archival qualities remain intact, while providing general protection to the shape of the print. Another means for storing your work, but in a manner that can be easily shown to others, is by using a presentation case. These cases also offer an archival means for holding your work, but do so in a book form containing clear pages to insert your prints for display.

If you are printing for others and need to transport your work in some way, then you also need to consider the best way to allow your work to travel without it being damaged. Similar to storing it in boxes or in a presentation folder, you will first want to utilize archival means as the first layer ofprotection your prints receive. These can include simple clear envelopes or thicker paper envelopes that will provide protection to the surface of your print before you construct a more durable layer of protection. After the surface of the print is protected, the next layer of protection can come through the use of two layers of mat or mounting board to sandwich the envelope containing the print. These boards offer a smooth, flat and firm surface to give stability to your print, and will not impress the print itself with any markings (such would be the case if using corrugated cardboard or other materials with texture).

If you are simply hand-delivering a print, you already have sufficient protection. However, if mailing a print, you will want to consider firm substrates that will not bend when mailed; such as thin pieces of wood, thick cardboard, or other rigid materials. It is worth mentioning here, too, that it is highly preferred to keep your work flat (i.e. uncurled or unrolled) at all times, if possible. While tubes have been designed to mail photographs, they are less than preferred due to the inherent possibility of damage to the print surface. By rolling your prints, you are introducing a new shape to the paper from which it can often not recover, and can even lead to the surface of the print cracking or crinkling, in extreme cases. If your print size permits, flat-packing work is the best means for maintaining a clean appearance, and if packed well, should pose no problem in regard to damage during shipping.

The exception to this is when working with extremely large print sizes, about 20 x 24” and larger, in which the costs to flat-pack become more and more substantial. If working and traveling with prints of this size, the best way to roll prints into a tube is through the use of a two-tube system. The first, and smaller-in-diameter tube, will be used as a rigid guide with which you should cleanly wrap your print around and secure using a piece of paper taped into a fitted ring. With the print rolled around the first tube, it can then be inserted into the larger-diameter tube and suspended in the middle through the use of bubble-wrap or another soft packing material to hold the smaller tube in the center of the larger tube. This method of packing will provide the most protection to a large print short of flat-packing and shipping in a large wooden crate.

Printing and Editioning

The idea of printing photographs in regard to making them art objects is a complex issue at best; however, it can easily be said that the fewer prints of a certain image exist, the greater their value due to the simple idea of scarcity. If your goal in printing your photographs is to have them as salable objects, then certain precautions and measures must be taken into consideration to maintain value and preciousness. Unlike other forms of artwork, such as painting or traditional sculpture, photography is not limited by uniqueness. Especially in the age of digital photography, truly limitless copies of a print can be made, whereas with a painting, there can only be one. If you plan on making an edition of prints to be sold, it is most important to decide on an edition size—the number of prints that will ever exist of a certain image in a certain size—and stick to it.

Limiting an image of yours to a certain number of prints is a way of imbuing it with a specified value. If this number changes, the value of all prints will subsequently diminish. If you are working in this manner, value can also be ascribed through the signature and notation you provide on the back of the print itself. Edition numbers, dates and your own signature offer proof of where the print is originating. In case of an instance where you would need to make a print of an image that is already in an edition, you should mark any subsequent prints with either “Artist Proof” or “Not for Sale” to clearly communicate that any of these prints has no monetary value. Editioning and ascribing value to your photographs is a highly complex process that takes into account much more than simple rules of economics as other, non-monetary-based details can have a substantial effect on how your work is seen and priced.

Printing photographs is one of the most traditional methods in photography and was the original means by which people were able to view an image recorded by a camera. This simple novelty still exists and, even with the overwhelming notion of digital galleries and online sharing of imagery, the print is still a thriving measure for showcasing your work in a special manner. Through proper technique and careful process, the photographic print can be achieved and employed to help separate you from others, due to its tactility and physical value.

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Whoever produced this piece should be complemented for a quite concise and information-rich overview of photo printing. I've downloaded and stored this document for future reference; and will be checking the B&H website for other informative articles.
Thanks,
Briggs Gettys

I agree. The article is well-organized and a good introduction to printing today.

I wish more photographers would invest some effort and interest in the print. It can be rewarding, and it lends itself to learning better how to use your camera.

I think the process to a photographic print is richer and broader in range than display on unknown monitors.

If one has a "special image" and a "special person", the combination can make photography worth it.

Thanks for the topic, and the clear writing.