Buying a printer can be a big decision and a significant investment. I’m posting these quick thoughts from an email with a client today to start your brain thinking about some of the decision points, and I hope to expand this into a full article in the future.
To buy a printer or not is a big question. It comes down to a couple things:
1. will it make you money?
2. will it really save you money?
3. Is the cost inconsequential compared to the convenience?
4. Will it give you control you can’t get with a lab?
5. Do you need the faster turnaround times.
A printer is like getting a dog, it has needs (ink, paper, maintenance, profile making/testing) that cost money and will always be there, and you need to take care of it. Unless you print a lot, the total cost of ownership is going to be close to just sending out, but if you want to print a lot, it makes those individual prints less expensive.
At the $400 price point, a printer can be more easily justified. Once you get to the $1,000 17×22 printers, you have to be printing enough to make it work out.
Printers should be viewed as consumable/disposable items, as painful as that sounds. They are made to work for a couple years, not forever, and the manufacturers expect you to upgrade. Do not look at it as a long term investment. It’s not like buying a car, it’s like buying tires, you expect them to wear out.
Thoughts or experiences? Share them in the comments!
Simple tools can be used to create very complicated results in Photoshop. This video shows how I use three of my primary tools in Photoshop. I’ve had some comments recently that viewers had not considered that multiple layers could be used like this, so it may be an interesting view into my problem solving approach with Photoshop.
My techniques are based upon what I learned in the darkroom in my early years in photography, and applying those techniques to Photoshop. My study of Ansel Adams’ Zone System and printing workshops I’ve taken with John Sexton, have been among the biggest influences of what I think a “fine print” should look like. My style is based very much in the West Coast / ƒ64 school of photography, and while I use digital tools, the look I strive for is in that tradition.
What’s the best DPI to print at? Breaking the rules led me to a discovery that can give you the best digital prints I’ve ever seen. Printing at resolutions higher than 300 dpi lead to a significant quality gain with the Canon PRO series printers. I lay it all out in this video.
Atkinson created an edge sharpening action script for Photoshop because of the grain in film scans. When you sharpen a film scan, you also sharpen the grain. Edges are more tolerant of heavy sharpening than flat even toned areas like sky. So Atkinson introduced people like Galen Rowell and a host of other well known landscape photographer to this technique, and it made it’s way into our toolbox. Atkinson’s tool has been an incredibly important contribution to the art of printmaking.
But fast forward to today. Is sharpen edges still the right technique? Low ISO digital images do not suffer from the grain problem of film. And edges are already sharp because of the nature of digital capture.
I still use a variation of Atkinson’s script today, but I use it inside out. I find that sharp edges in a good digital capture need little, if any, additional sharpening. It’s easy to make them halo and crunchy, and I don’t like that look. But smooth tonal areas often suffer from a lack of apparent sharpness. Part of this is because of the Bayer filter in our digital cameras. The pixels in our photos are only seen through one color filter, and the actual color is reconstructed by interpolating neighboring pixels viewed through different color filters. This does some stuff to non edge/smoother tone areas that degrades the apparent sharpness.
Here’s an edge mask I created from the red channel of the bonsai photo.
My approach with digital camera images is to use the sharpen only edges scrip to select the edges, and then I invert that selection so that I can sharpen only non-edge areas, which I find can take much more sharpening than the edges.
These gifs show a 100% actual pixels section of these images with no sharpening, edge sharpening, and non-edge sharpening using the settings below:
In the top photo, look at how the edges of the leaves and the texture of the tapestry on the right respond to different sharpening approaches. And in the bottom photo, again look at the leaves, as well as the woven grass mat and the edges and detail in the wood stand.
As you can see, the non-edge areas handle this amount of sharpening better than the edges. In fact, with edge sharpening, I find the edges of the leaves over-sharpened at this setting, and part of the wood stand is over-sharpened as well.
Do I sharpen every image this way? No. But I do use this technique a lot, and the understanding of how and why is what guides my choice of tools. How, and how much to sharpen is very much a preference. Everyone has a different flavor. Lately I find myself applying less sharpening than in the past, and trying to closely replicate the kind of image quality and appearance you see in large format prints by photographers like Ansel Adams. How you use the tool is up to you!
Prints are only a good as the file that made them, so the more we refine our files, the better our prints will become.
One of the ways to do this is to start making Target Files. Targeted Files are copies of the Master File that have been prepared for output or display on a specific device at a specific size.
I make a targeted file every time I make a print or post a file online.
My checklist for targeting goes like this:
1. Copy the Master File
2. Flatten all layers (Photoshop)
3. Size to height, width, and dpi as needed for the output / display device
4. Sharpen to taste
5. Dustbust at 100% magnification
6. Add border as necessary
7. Trim marks as necessary
8. Remove any alpha channels (Photoshop)
9. Save as copy with size in name. Use TIFF format when possible.
Once complete, the targeted file is the one that is printed, sent to the lab, or uploaded to the web.
Each one of these steps gives you an opportunity to take control of a parameter that can improve the final print.
Every software handles these steps a little differently, but it should be possible to follow this workflow with any well made imaging program.
It’s important to do these in order because weird things can happen if you don’t. For example, if you sharpen the image after adding borders, you’ll probably get a faint halo around the image instead of a nice clean line. They are in order for a reason that will become apparent as you learn the targeting process.
A lot of people ask me why I use Photoshop instead of Lightroom, so I made this video to try and answer that. This image is a great example because of it’s extensive use of masking and individual adjustments for each layer. Photoshop’s masks let me take control of any area with great precision and make it very easy to modify my masks should I change my mind. Being able to use a different curve with each mask lets me carefully control contrast. And it’s very easy to make layers and masks work together and not against each other. Once you learn how to do this, it’s a quick, easy, and fluid process. I find that important because the ease helps me express my creativity with less effort which makes it easier to be more creative. Do you know how to make changes like this in your photo software of choice? Tell me what you think!
Will your prints match the next time you print them? Can you take the same file and obtain the same results using a different printer, ink, and paper? I can, and so can you.
For twenty years, I’ve been printing client photos, and my own, over and over again with a very exact match, using different printers including LightJet, Chromira, multiple generations of Epson printers, Canon Printers, and even Metal…and on dozens of different papers. It is still a little mind-blowing for me to realize that this is even possible; That I’ve been printmaking for that long, and with so many different processes.
Accuracy, control, and repeatability are what first made digital printing interesting to film photographers, long before there were viable DSLRs. For a photographer who sells prints, having the print they deliver match the one the client saw on the wall, regardless of size, was (and still is) a huge deal. With darkroom printing using an enlarger, this kind of matching was virtually impossible and caused many frustrations. My earliest clients were mostly photographers with galleries who needed to be able to deliver prints that matched on demand, at any time, and at any size. They moved to digital to make that a reality.
That requirement, to match the original print at any point in the future, makes how I set up my printer the most important step in my workflow. I absolutely need to print the file as accurately as possible so it will match the previous print. My pro clients can see the smallest differences in color, density, and contrast. They know their subjects, and their photos, inside and out. They immediately see if something is off. Some of them can even explain the scientific process that produces a certain shade of color in an animal’s feathers; or a geologic feature; or the ocean in a certain part of the world. Achieving this exacting level of color matching is one of the reasons they keep working with me, and drives every step of my process.
The key to this is color management; using ICC profiles to characterize a paper/printer/ink combination. With an accurate ICC profile, if you do all of the printing steps the same, you will enjoy the same result, time after time, even if you change printers or papers.
That’s why I take profiling very seriously. Every profile I use has been carefully tested by printing a test image, and comparing it to my library of previous test prints to see if they match. These test prints let me evaluate accuracy, but they also let me evaluate differences between printers, inks, and papers. Obviously, not all printers, papers, and inks can produce the same aesthetic feel, and the definition of “match” needs to include these factors. It also lets me see improvements to the printing process. When a manufacturer makes a blacker black ink, you can see it in the test prints, and see how it affects the image.
Matching also means that what I see on my printer looks like what I see on my $1,000 reference-grade monitor. Being able to make a very good screen-to-print match on the first print not only makes me efficient when working on client files, but it also lets me work more intuitively on my own photos, which I believe lets me bring more out of the process. It allows me to be more expressive because I’m not fighting the file, but can work with it fluently and easily.
How accurate do you need to be?
That’s something only you can answer. While very high accuracy is a vital part of my personal expression, and of my business printing for other photographers, a photographer printing for themselves has more leeway to say “good enough.” The public-at-large viewing your photographs are not trained to see the small differences in color and density that a photographer is. They don’t know what you saw in your mind’s eye when you clicked the shutter. They only know what they see on the print, and whether they like it or not.
Even if you don’t have the world’s best profile, you can make prints that “match” themselves as long as you use the exact same file, printer, paper, and settings. Of course, if you change any of those factors, then your prints will no longer match. When (not if) that happens, your only solution is to decide that the difference between how it printed before, and how it prints now, is acceptable…or go back and make new adjustments to make a better match.
My personal expectations, and those of my clients, don’t give me this kind of leeway. But when you are the one doing the printing, you set the expectation for how well your prints will match the next time you print them. Your bar is going to be set by your needs, expectations, and how well your eye is trained. When getting the prints you want becomes frustrating; when you’ve spend hours working on a photo in image processing software to make it look exactly the way you want it, only to have it print differently; then it’s time to learn to become more accurate.
But I encourage you to seek that high bar of accuracy even before you need it. The ability to see, and control, small differences in color and density will help you make better decisions when processing your photos, and make you a better photographer. (Plus, your prints will look the same 20 years from now!)
Are you making prints on a regular basis? Why? Or why not?
I think printing should be a regular part of your photography. Nothing will test your photographs more, stretch your abilities, and force you to learn new photography skills, than the process of making prints.
I’ll go so far to say that, if you can consistently produce fine quality prints from your photographs, you will have successfully mastered key components of the craft of photography, and you will be equipped to explore even greater depths of the art.
First, you have to understand that prints are the ultimate expression of a photograph.
Stop thinking that what your monitor or device shows you is what your photo really looks like. The screen is not even close to the accuracy of a print.
Professional printing devices are capable of producing a much wider range of colors (color gamut) than a screen can. They are capable of higher resolution, greater detail, more delicate highlights, and delicate shades of gray in black & white. It’s the difference between a flawless live performance of your favorite music, versus a YouTube video of it from a crummy phone.
Because of this, the print is unforgiving. It will show every flaw and every error in judgement, exposure, focusing, color balance and processing. It’s not a 1500 pixel square on your phone; it’s the real thing, raw, fully laid bare for all to see. And that’s why it’s so powerful. It will test you, measure you, raise your expectations, challenge you, sharpen you, and make you a better photographer.
Don’t do it alone. You need someone who has already mastered the skill to guide and critique your progress; to tell you it’s too contrasty, your highlights are blown out, or you didn’t focus properly. This is an integral part of formal photography training that is lost if YouTube is your only teacher.
Take a class at a local college, go on workshops, and share your work at local photo clubs. Seek out people who make prints you admire, and beg, borrow, or buy time with them to be mentored. Some of the best photographers in the world are easily accessible through workshops. Take advantage of that.
Then find museums and galleries close to you, get on their mailing lists, and go look at prints regularly. Seek it out when you travel. Develop a mental impression of what you think a great print should be. See how artists handle shadows and highlights, color, focus, and paper choice to make their expression.
Lastly, make prints regularly. You’re going to learn more working on a fifty prints in a year than you will just ten. Don’t get caught up in what’s “print worthy” or not. If you think there is something there, print it and start working the process. Hang them on the wall, live with them, and see if they stand the test of time or need to be reworked, or abandoned. Start with 8×10 prints then work your favorites up to larger sizes. Fill your walls, and your friends! Give them as gifts, and let others enjoy them.
Making prints is the fast-track to improving your photography and refining your craft, making you into an even better photographer than you already are.