Printing your pictures

November 15, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Eventually, you get to the point where Walmart and Ritz simply cannot match the quality you expect in your photographic prints.  The quandry then is what to do?  The first step I took was to go to an online photographic lab.  They allow you to upload your photos and will promptly ship them back to you.  Prices and quality will vary greatly, but there are many great labs available.  I have used MPIX (http://www.mpix.com/) for my mail order printing needs for many years with great success. 

If you have a special photo that you need printed to hang in a musem, or are a wedding photographer that does not want to mess with the details of printing, I reccomnend going to PPS (http://www.photoproduction.com/) in South Charleston if you are in the neighborhood.  Clayton and his associates will take very good care of you.  It is what I do when I need to make a print larger than my printer can handle, and where I used to go for all of my fine art printing needs.  There are many other high end printers out there, but I believe in supporting local businesses when I can. 

This summer, I got a great deal on an incredible printer (Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mk II). After the rebates, the price of my wide format printer was free! Now that can be a dangerous thing for a photographer! Why? Well, since getting my printer, I have been experimenting, learning the differences in papers and what the different settings will do. The cost of paper and ink will add up!  OK ... I know that I am not most people when it comes to photography; most people will simply use thier home printer to crank out a bunch of small prints and be very happy with the results. Of course, most people would not be spending $500 on a printer either, but like I said, I am not most people, and most who read this blog know that!! Come to think of it, if you have read this far, you aren't like most people either!

At this point, I have to confess that I am still very new to printing photographs, and there is much to learn.  But I also believe that the process of getting here is similar to that of most photographers.  As you grow in this craft, you learn that the more control you have over each step of the process, the better the end result.  First, its a point and shoot where we learn to press the shutter button, then we learn the details of exposure and composition.  After that we move on to developing our pictures and posting them for others to see.  Finally, we delve into the art of print making, matting, and framing. 

It is an art, and I know people who have earned advanced academic degrees in this one discipline.  I am not there yet!  But, here is a short list of the things that I have learned about printing over the last couple months:

  1. Prints are prints.  Sounds simple enough, eh?  but here is the reality:  we are mostly accustomed to looking at our digital photographs on an electronic display of some sort.  Whether it is a computer screen, HDTV, or the latest hi-res mobile touch-screen, they are still screens.  When we put those pixels on paper, something magical happens.  They take on a feel (literally an figuratively!) that is not on the screen.  I have also found that details of the picture are reproduced differently on paper too.  Some of that has to do with the brightness of our displays as compared to paper, but other things can also jump out too.  Distracting details become the center of atttention and essential elements disappear.  When we were satisfied with glossy prints from someone else's printer, those things never really mattered because it took days to get the picture back.  Now, I see it in minutes and can quickly determine if it was teh result I wanted.
  2. Color Management is essential and complicated.  It is not enough to calibrate your monitor, there is also profiling your printer and paper if you want the colors to be precise.  Learning to use the complex tool that is your printer actually has a steep learning curve, and the printer driver alone will make your head spin.  There is the "easy" button, but you will not have fine control unless you go through the painstaking process of learning the details.  In the end, you can produce the same result every time only by learning the nitty gritty details.   
  3. Papers matter.  If all you have ever seen is a Ritz print, you will never know the joy of a great photograph.  Every paper reproduces your picture in a slightly different way, and the hunt for the perfect paper is a challenge in itself.  Fine art papers produce stunning results (if you have a good photo to start with!).  4x6 glossy becomes a thing of the past.  The paper can add life by the subtleties of its texture and the way it disperses ink on the page.  Let's face it, we're not talking about newsprint or copy paper here! 
  4. Different sharpening needs to be applied to your print depending on output size and paper type.  I have known this for a long time; I read Bruce Frazier's book several years ago.   I even used the theory when sending out prints to the lab.  Now that I am printing myself, I can see it in action and decide PRECISELY how much sharpening to apply. 
  5. As a practical tip, buy or make 4x6 sheets of each paper that you use.  I use these for test prints to see how close I am to getting the results I want. 
  6. Every printer has its strengths.  I love my color laser printer, but would not even dream of using it to make a photographic print!  Conversely, I would not dream of using my Pro 9000 for printing documents, the ink cost would kill me!  It does excellent work, but I know that it is not the best at black and white prints, Epson does much better there.  The point is this:  make sure you know what your needs are before you spend big money on a new toy just to find out it is not right for you. 

If you are interested in learning more about the art of fine art printing, I suggest the Rocky Nook book "Fine Art Printing for Photographers."  It is a couple years old (2008), but presents excellent and detailed information that is timeless.  The other book I mentioned is Bruce Frazier and Jeff Schewe's "Real World Image Sharpening."  both are excellent resources that will guide you to making the most out of the already excellent photographs you have waiting to be put to paper!


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