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.
Making a good print starts with making a good file. Your digital files control what a printer produces, so if what you want is not in the file, it’s not going to be in the print.
The printer, paper, and profile/color management all play a role as well, but if those are done properly, your file should print the same on any printer anywhere in the world.
To paraphrase Ansel Adams, the file is the score, the print is the performance!
When we edit a photo, we are the composer. Our editing is the same as a composer putting down notes on sheet music for the orchestra to perform. As long as they orchestra is in tune and playing what is on the page, it should sound the way we wrote it.
So the core skill of making better prints is making better files. We need to learn how to build into the file the things we want to see in the print, and this comes down to the decisions you make in Photoshop/Lightroom/ON1/etc.
It’s very easy with these tools to make things too contrasty, to make shadows and highlights that are too dark or too light, to create oversaturated colors or unrealistic hues and color balances.
Just as a musician has to learn to produce notes that are on key, printmakers need to learn to make edits that produce the results they want.
Part of this is learning a new precision. We need to train our eye to be sensitive to small differences just as a musician needs to learn to hear notes precisely. Learning to see the difference in slider moves of +1 or -1 instead of +10 and -10 will produce more refinement.
How to produce better files is beyond the scope of a single post. But knowing that making better files is the key to making better prints lets you start working on that goal
I'll be teaching a Mini-Clinic for Brentwood Photo Group members on March 14. This clinic is a members only even and free to BPG members.
Musicals expect that middle C will sound the same on any piano in the world. Photographer should have a similar expectation of a properly tuned instrument when they make prints. This is achieved through color management. I’ll talk about what color management is, and how to use it properly. A key part of this clinic will be looking at prints to see what is correct calibration, and learning to see what is in-tune and out-of-tune. We'll look at how to evaluate canned profiles as well as prints from labs. I’ll have samples of "in-tune" prints, and will encourage participants to print my test file to bring and evaluate their printer or lab. Participants will leave with a new understanding of the level of accuracy and repeatability possible with color management that will make their prints "sound" their best.
Check out my Blog Post Will your prints match the next time you print them?
for a peek at some of what we'll be covering.
If you’ve been asked this about your photos, you are not alone. It’s a common question people have because for most of the history of photography, there has been an assumed veracity attached to the medium. While I think that illusion has been largely shattered, the question still remains, and in the realm of landscape and wildlife photography, there are still expectations of a sort of truthfulness. It is still a career ender to manipulate news photos, and for scientific publications as well as many magazines like National Geographic, there are still strict rules regarding what can, and can’t, be done to a photograph.
But at it’s simplest, when a viewer is before a landscape photograph and asks this question, I think what they are trying to connect with is the experience. They want to know “Is this something that really happened? Is this something I could see with my eye? Or is this a ‘trick’ of processing?” I use landscapes as an example because I think this genre is particularly linked to this question. People are drawn to nature in part because of it’s realness. There is a desire for authentic experiences, and therefore, photographs that capture that authenticity.
I was taking about this the other day with a friend who texted a passage from Looking at Ansel Adams by Andrea Stillman where Ansel describes his making of “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”
“I felt I had accomplished something, but did not realize its significance until I had developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization! I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. The sky had actually been a light, slightly hazy blue and the sunlit areas of Half Dome were moderately dark gray in value. The red filter dramatically darkened the sky and the shadows of the great cliff.”
For my friend, saying “I don’t try to capture what I see, but what I felt” is a way for him to answer the numerous times he’s asked “did you enhance this?!?!” when showing his work.
I agree with that statement, as it is what I seek to do in my own photography, but I think it warrants further discussion. And as much as I wanted to discuss it further with him over beer and tacos at our local taqueria hangout spot, writing about it will have to suffice.
I find I have very different lines for acceptability in the changes I make to a B&W photo versus a color photo. In B&W, I do not feel constrained at all because it is naturally abstracted from reality once color is removed. Large changes in tonality and contrast can be applied without the viewer noticing that something was done, because we don’t see in black and white.
However, we do see in color. We know what things are supposed to look like, and we have a lifetime of experiences built up to inform us. Because of that, in my photographs, I feel there needs to be a certain relationship to reality to be believable, or at least be beautiful.
Software can be our enemy here. Oversaturated colors or strange hues are just a slider adjustment away. Anyone can make fluorescent green aspen leaves or a sunset so colorful it never could happen. Having the trained eye to use those sliders to make a natural result takes study, time, and patience. It’s so easy to get seduced by the "wow" factor of rich saturated colors, which often denies the inherent beauty of the subject as it really is.
Like most things, loud is easy, but subtlety is hard. It’s true of any art from music to cooking, to craft beer. Making a IPA that is so bitter it makes you cringe is easier than making a beer with complexity and subtle notes of all the ingredients. That subtlety and complexity is my goal in making a color print because it’s the integrity of the subject and the experience it created that most interests me. My color photographs are capturing experiences, things seen that I want to re-experience and enjoy over and over.
I think that also speaks to the why of the question. When people ask “did you manipulate this?”, they are really asking “can I actually see this, or is the wow you are creating in me a falsehood?” It’s speaking to their personal connection to nature, to the world around them. The question is a very human reaction, a desire for truthfulness. They would never ask that of a Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, because they understand it’s a painting. But a photograph brings along with it a certain expectation of capturing reality, and that pre-programed viewer expectation is something that the photographer always has to consider and deal with in their photo. I feel that departure from reality needs to be done in such a clear artistic style that the question becomes moot.
So much more could be said, which makes great conversation over beer & tacos, or in the comments below. What is your take on “Is it real?”
What process and papers should you make your prints on? Most prints you’ll order from a photo lab are made on darkroom paper that is exposed with light and processed in chemistry called RA-4. It’s a fast and cost effective way to make a good print, but it’s no longer the best way. The latest technology inkjet prints offer many advantage over darkroom prints.
Here’s the top 5 ways inkjet printing bests RA-4 lab prints.
Inkjet prints look sharper and appear to resolve more detail. This is a result of how they are produced, with millions of nearly microscopic dots of ink.
2. More Colorful
Using up to 12 inks, current inkjet printers offer a much wider color gamut than darkroom papers. You’ll see this in more saturated colors as well as being able to produce colors more accurately thanks to dedicated red, green, and blue inks on some printers.
Darkroom lab prints are currently rated for a life of 40 years. The best inkjet prints double or triple that, and may even last longer if properly cared for. While all prints can fade with exposure to light, RA-4 darkroom prints will develop a amber stain even if stored in the dark. But there is good reason to believe that inkjet prints made on cotton papers and stored in the dark can last hundreds of years.
4. Paper options
Because inkjet prints don’t need to be processed through high temperature chemistry, you can print on a variety of papers and finishes. These include hot and cold press artist’s papers made from 100% cotton, baryta papers (my personal favorite), delicate Japanese papers, canvas, as well as traditional matte, gloss, and luster papers.
5. Black & White
Most professional inkjet prints have multiple shades of gray ink they use when printing in B&W. RA-4 darkroom prints make up the image from Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow dyes in the paper. It is very difficult to adjust these CMY dyes to make a neutral gray, which often adds unpleasing tints to black & white photographs. (Traditional black & white prints made with silver gelatin papers still offer the ultimate in quality when used by master photographers and printmakers, but are a very speciality product.)
What do I base this on?
I’ve printed somewhere around 200,000 prints for over 20,000 clients on Fuji RA-4 papers over the years. I’ve also owned two $100,000 Chromira printers as I’ve chased the best in printing for photographers who sell their work in galleries. And I've produced tens of thousands of inkjet prints on several generations of printers.
Inkjet printing has now advanced to the point that it more clearly expresses my vision and gives me a more beautiful print. At it’s best, it produces qualities I’ve never seen in color printing, and makes me more excited about printing than ever.
What is an RA-4 print?
Digitally exposed RA-4 prints were the first technology able to mass produce fine art quality photographic prints, and for over twenty years has been a primary way of printing digital photographs.
RA-4 refers to the chemistry used to process light sensitive color photograph papers. This is the same kind of paper used to print snapshots on since about 1990, and most of your family memories are probably printed on it.
For digital printing, RA-4 papers are exposed to light in a digital enlarger, then processed in high temperature chemistry. Fuji and Kodak are the most well known producers of RA-4 papers, and prints on RA-4 are often referred to by names such a LightJet, Chromira, Lambda, RA-4, Digital-C, Chromogenic, or E-surface prints.
Some recent tests on my Canon PRO-4000 printer revealed that I get prints with finer detail, blacker backs (better D-Max) and richer color on Canon Photo Paper Pro Luster than I do with Epson Premium Luster Photo Paper.
I made this discovery when profiling my new Canon PRO-4000. When I profile a paper, I make test prints to confirm the profile is working correctly. Since I had some Canon Luster on hand, I decided to profile that and compare it to the Epson Luster, and honestly I was a bit shocked to see that there was a difference in detail and sharpness. The Epson luster looked slightly out of focus compared to the Canon paper. The Epson print was still acceptable, but why not get the sharpest print i can? And as I further examined the prints, I found that the Canon paper was better in every area.
I already knew that the Canon Pro-4000 inks produces the blackest blacks I’ve seen. But the different between two luster papers was surprising. It was obvious to the naked eye that the Canon luster paper produced a blacker black that Epson luster. This is important to print quality, because the darker your black, the wider the dynamic range, which makes a print more brilliant and more dimensional.
This deeper black has a impact on even the color areas of the photograph. Most subjects contain a multitude of small shadow areas. When these small shadow areas print darker, they create local contrast which makes the colors next to them look richer and deeper, which creates a better print. This isn’t something you can create in a editing program, it is wholly dependent on the printer/paper/ink combination.
Color performance was a little harder to discern. There were some areas of saturated color where it appeared better on the Canon paper, some areas where the local contrast from darker blacks made the colors appear richer, and the image sharpness also made the Canon paper appear better. Regardless, the final overall effect was a richer print on Canon luster. .
What I saw convinced me to make Canon Photo Paper Pro Luster my luster paper of choice for my personal work and for customers. It’s a clear winner when compared side by side in carefully controlled tests with images I am very familiar with.
This test made me curious to see how other brand luster surfaces papers perform, so I plan on doing more testing as time allows.
I also compared these prints to Fuji Luster RA-4 paper exposed with a Chromira. RA-4 papers are a light sensitive paper and one of the most commonly used papers by photo labs. The results were interesting enough to deserve their own article at a later date.
Questions or comments? Use the comments section below, and I’d love to hear your experiences.
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!)
There is a big difference between good color and accurate color. Good color can be simply color that you like. If you like the prints coming off your printer, you can deem them “good” using just your opinion. There are definitely some circumstances where that is enough for a photographer...but the problem comes when you want to print the same file on a different paper, or a different printer. If you want prints to look the same when changing printers and papers, you need to have accurate color.
I define accurate color as being able to reproduce colors to a known standard. Accurate color requires testing; comparing prints from the device and/or paper you want to use, to a known, quality reference print.
My known reference prints are a pair of test sheets with several of my photographs on them that I know extremely well, from printing over many years on many devices and papers. The test sheets also include some color and gray charts, which are used as diagnostic tools, and for comparing one profile to another.
When I want to print on a new paper, I print my test sheets so I can visually compare them to known and approved reference prints I’ve made in the past. With an accurate ICC profile, it is possible to produce prints that are extremely accurate, and for all intents and purposes, the same as prints made on other devices and papers.
This precision in color is what I require before I approve a profile for production. The value of using this approval process has been proven to me, again and again over the years in my work as fine art printmaker. I’ve applied this process to approving dozens and dozens of profiles for different papers on fine art printing devices including inkjet printers, Chromiras, Lightjets, and even metal prints.
Creating my reference chart the first time was the hardest part. It required knowing what the photos should look like to a very high degree of precision, as well as being able to print it on several different papers and devices to validate that the master reference print was indeed accurate.
Time and time again in my teaching and workshops, I run into photographers who haven’t measured their prints against a known reference print, and don’t even have a known reference print. The easiest way for me to solve that is to offer approved and validated prints of my test sheet, and allowing photographers to print the same file on their printers, with their profiles, so they can compare their prints against my known and approved reference print.
I use two reference prints, one for color, and one for black-and-white. I’m offering copies of my reference prints for $30 for one, or $50 for both the color and black-and-white when ordered as a package. Each print has been printed on my Canon PRO-1000 printer, has been carefully checked against my master reference print, and signed by me as a mark that I’ve approved the color accuracy.
These prints are a valuable tool that will help you save time and frustration, as well as valuable paper and ink. They will help you gain confidence in your printing process, while showing you areas that need a little more work. And the prints themselves are pretty nice to look at, too!
Photographer, educator, and fine art printmaker Rich Seiling works to push the limits of printing technology to create beautiful Museum quality photographic prints for his clients and himself.