5 steps to better prints and photography – Coloratti Keith Cooper
by Dave Mobbs – December 12th, 2018
Why spending time getting your prints right can benefit all of your photography
1. Setting things up
Great printing comes from having a consistent workflow right from capturing your shot. Any weak links in the chain will show in your final results. The snag is that some problems don’t immediately jump out at you. Problems with your monitor or basic print settings can show up in your prints in non-obvious ways. So, for example, the common problem of prints looking too dark can usually be traced to having your monitor set up too bright. Too bright? Editing your photos on a bright screen gives a false feeling for the amount of contrast in the shadow areas of your image. These get crunched up when printing, giving rise to the ‘dark prints’ problem.
Setting your monitor brightness is a key element of profiling and calibrating it (I use the i1Display Pro to calibrate mine) – this helps introduce some consistency in your workflow. Similarly, for printing, it helps to have good ICC printer profiles for the printer/ink/paper choices you make.
2. Practice with a known test image
It’s easy to jump into printing with some of your favourite photos and ones you’ve always thought of hanging on your walls. The problem is that these images have been edited to your own taste, using whatever software and monitor setup you had at the time. Favourite images also have an emotional content – they mean something to you. That makes them less than ideal for critical evaluation of a new printer or paper. It may seem dull, but when starting out on one of my printer reviews I always begin with a known test image. I’d also suggest starting with a basic good paper from the printer manufacturer. I keep my own favourite images on our web site at http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/printer-test-images/. There is no one ‘best’ image; pick one you like and give it a go. I’ve even produced specialist images for testing black and white printing.
So, how do you know if things are OK? Well, assuming that your monitor is set up correctly, there should be a fair reproduction of what’s on the screen. Don’t expect any form of ‘exact match’ though (I’ll explain why in a bit).
Looking at the screen it will show gross errors, such as one of your printer inks not working properly. However, once you’re familiar with the test image, you don’t even need to see it on the screen. Learn to get a feel for what a good print looks like. The aim is to learn to trust your judgement and along with that, your print workflow. From my point of view, there is no attempt at any notion of a ‘correct’ looking prints, it’s great looking prints I want. Once you can produce a good test print on a standard paper, it tells you that the print side of your workflow is working well. If you then print a favourite image and it doesn’t meet your expectations, you know something else is amiss.
3. Avoid the paper chase
It’s all too easy to be led astray by adverts for new papers or the dreaded ‘forum wisdom’ about what papers are particularly good. The problem is that you’ve no idea just how paper X differs from paper Y, yet alone how it will perform on your printer with your photos. Much as camera manufacturers pick great photos for publicity, paper suppliers pick great images that really work with a particular paper type. They desire some association of the sort: “Camera/Paper X shows a fabulous image from photographer Z, so if I use X my photos will be better”. Utter nonsense, but we still fall for it.
Different papers suit different image styles, content, and your personal taste. There are so many papers, how should we go about choosing? I believe the absolute worst approach is to buy a new printer and some specific paper that ‘everyone says’ is particularly good. I’d suggest you buy the printer first and master printing on a basic paper type or two. Then, once you can be sure you’re getting the best results from those papers you can think about other paper types. My preference (from testing a lot of printers) is to start with a basic lustre finish paper and a matte art paper. I prefer to choose ones supplied by the printer maker (even if just a small A4 pack).
You may quickly decide that one suits your preferences a lot more but persist and take time to be sure you have mastered printing to these papers. It’s all too easy to feel not quite happy about your prints and wonder if some new ‘better’ paper will be the answer to your problems. Experience tells me it almost certainly won’t be. Modern printers are superb and with the larger ones (13″ and above) I’ll say that the capabilities of the printer almost always exceed the abilities of the user (myself included). There are many excellent papers out there but master the basics first.
4. The screen is not the print
“My prints don’t match my screen” – something I was asked so often I wrote an article explaining it. I’ve already mentioned the most common answer, and indeed reducing screen brightness often works wonders. At a deeper level, my answer is “Why should they”. Screens and prints are fundamentally different technologies – one reflects light, one emits it. The hope that you can edit an image on a screen, press print, and get an exact match is a forlorn one. However, calibrating your workflow definitely helps getting these to match as closely as possible. For example, I use the i1Profiler software for profiling and calibration in my workflow. Add to that the fact that the range of tonality on a screen far exceeds what you get in a print and you might wonder how you ever get a print looking right.
My own approach is to remember that what I’m seeing on the screen is only an intermediate stage in creating a print. The print will look different, but I’m prepared for that. This comes from experience and looking at how test images look as prints compared to how they look on the screen. Once my print setup is OK I know there’s no problems in printing and I can concentrate on the image I’m working on. Many aspects of the photograph such as its composition and balance are perfectly clear on the screen. Others need an understanding of how prints look.
Paper choices are much more subjective. The ‘right’ paper can give the edge to a great photo but won’t save a bad one any more than masses of filters and HDR techniques.
Seeing the print as an end in itself, rather than a print of the image on the screen takes some work, but really pays off in the long run.
5. Are your photos up to it?
This last tip is perhaps the hardest one to implement.
If I’ve calibrated my monitor and printer; used the right paper settings and profile; along with a good solid editing workflow and the print still doesn’t work, where is the problem? The technical exercise of going from camera image to print is something you can fine tune and perfect relatively easily. Sure, it takes some effort to print loads of test images and really look at them, but much of it is procedural.
But, what of pictures that just don’t work…
Occasionally a photo may look fine on the screen but the tonality of a print doesn’t suit it. Maybe a different paper choice will help, but sometimes you just have to accept it and move on. Composition and image structure may work really well for an A4 sized print, but simply not hold the viewer’s interest as a larger 24″ x 36″ print. Sometimes a print may look so-so on a bit of A4 paper but stops people in their tracks at 60” square. The confidence to try comes from experience.
Now, the hardest thing to do is look at your basic photographic and creative skills and see if they are good enough to let you make prints that people will enjoy looking at and maybe even put on their own walls. Remember – a dismal photo will probably make a dismal print no matter how well you print it. The good bit is that all my printing work has consistently helped improve many other aspects of my own photography. Take a consistent approach towards mastering printing and it will pay off.
About Keith Cooper
Keith Cooper is a professional photographer and X-Rite Coloratti based in Leicester, UK. His commercial work specialises in architecture and interiors, large scale industrial products and macro-photography. He also has a passion for landscape fine art photography and a deep interest in the latest technological developments in digital imaging and printing.
Keith teaches, writes and lectures on photography and modern photographic techniques to individuals and companies. He specialises in bringing an appreciation of the latest technology to all areas of photography.