What goes into a print
What goes into a great photo print
Why learning to print is about all of your photography
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Keith has printed some of his photos since first getting into photography at school in the 1970’s. The biggest change came about though when he gave up the darkroom and shifted to a fully digital approach in 2003.
Over the years, he’s worked with Canon, Epson, X-Rite and a number of paper suppliers, testing printers and making prints. As a result of this there are hundreds of related articles and reviews on this site.
Many of his ideas for articles come from readers’ questions and his talks at photography shows. A lot of the questions he’s asked are about the technical side of printing, but in a way those are the easy ones to answer…
In this article he looks at some of the broader concerns about what goes into making a great print that he is happy to put on the wall, exhibit or sell.
There are lots of links to more detailed articles and reviews and as ever, questions are welcome…
What’s in a print?
In recent weeks I’ve had a couple of papers to test for reviews. That’s always an excuse to look for some photos I’ve not printed and see how they look. For some reviews, such as the Metallic Titanium Gloss, I’m looking for images that work particularly well with a type of paper.
This one is from my recent series of articles about focus stacking and macro photography.
That’s fine, I’m looking for bold images with features that may look good with this paper.
What about a more ‘normal’ paper, such as FB Pearl 300 – a lustre finish baryta style paper. Here I’m looking to see how it looks with a more typical image I might print. This lustre style paper is much more the sort I’d use if someone wanted one of my landscape or architectural prints for an office or reception area.
Here I’ll look for images that reflect ones I might want to print for some reason, but it’s rather more difficult to say that a particular paper is best for a particular image. I’ll come back to this later, but experience tells me that a print that looks wrong on one paper isn’t going to miraculously improve by using a ‘better’ paper.
It was this searching for an image to print that led me to reflect more on just why I want to make prints.
The process and what to look for
I’ll start with an example where I’m being paid to produce some prints. Why? – the constraints on what I’m doing are easier to illustrate.
I’m often asked to go to a site, to look at some buildings and take some photos that would make interesting prints for an architectural design office. It’s the sort of job I enjoy from a technical and creative point of view.
- Firstly, I need to take some technically competent images that will have the detail and tonality to be printed as moderate to large prints (A3 up to A0 in this instance).
- Secondly, I need to take the photos on a suitable day, with optimal lighting. That’s based on my experience of how buildings look under different lighting, along with knowing that my personal choice of stormy skies in monochrome is probably not what they are looking for. Few architects want their work in an apocalyptic setting…
- Thirdly, I need to decide what’s a good angle to take the photos – this is where my own preferences for the clouds/sky and general composition come in. I’m constrained in that I can’t really say ‘I don’t like this view’ and go away without taking any photos. [BTW to me, this is the key difference between amateur/professional photography. I’ve met many amateurs who are far better photographers than some so-called ‘pros’ I’ve come across ;-) ]
- Fourthly, I need to process the images, knowing that they are for printing.
- Lastly, the paper goes into the printer and I’ll print them (oh and get paid!).
I might not put this one up on my wall, but then again I don’t design houses and groundwater runoff management systems…
The process is pretty much the same for any of my photography where I’ve decided I might want to make a print. Constraints may be self imposed ones where, for example, there is some thought or emotion I want to convey through an image.
The problem I’ve seen is that many people decide they want to get into printing their work and think it’s only really about the very last step, since they assume that the first four steps are already covered.
Well, in many cases they are not.
The good news and the bad news
There has never been a better range of printers available, both in terms of reliability and ultimate print quality.
We have a superb range of high quality papers to try. From cotton rag art papers to glossy and lustre photo papers exhibiting real depth and range of colour or black and white tonality.
In fact there’s not a new printer I’ve reviewed over the last few years where I couldn’t produce absolutely stunning prints.
However, the converse of this is that if you’re not satisfied with how your photos look, it’s almost certainly your fault.
Granted there are a few technical skills to fine tune, and basic colour management to consider, but if I produce a print that just doesn’t work, it is very rarely I can blame some aspect of printer or paper performance.
Printing images is something I enjoy, but I know I’ve all the technical side pretty much covered. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop testing new papers and printers, since you can always improve your basic skills. It does mean that I’m paying more attention to my whole workflow, going back to choosing what to photograph.
In current times, like many, I can’t just go out and take photos because I feel like it. This is where I’m really glad I have a full archive of my digital work for the last twenty years. I’ve gone back through some of my trips to the US where I was shooting with an 11MP camera (Canon 1Ds). The fact that I kept my RAW files and the big advances in image editing software mean that if the image is worth it, I can print easily at A2 size.
A deeper look at printing starts with a pretty basic question.
Why am I printing?
Printing, like many aspects of photography can be an interesting skill to acquire. There is something very different about a printed image that you just don’t get with a view on a screen.
Sure, you don’t get it emitting light, and the tonal range is much reduced compared to a screen, but a printed image just seems more of an achievement.
For myself it’s a way of showing my work to others in a very different way to a screen. I also have complete control over how it looks and the size you see it – absolutely not true for a photo in this article for example. I deeply dislike using small screens. Images that work well with instagram and a phone sized screen can fail miserably in terms of composition and ease of viewing when moved to a good print size.
The size aspect is an underestimated one in printing photos – for myself it was getting my first large format printer in 2004 and realising that big prints took a lot more work than just getting a larger printer (I’ll return to this).
So there’s an aspect of my printing that’s just for my own enjoyment and expression. There’s also the part of my printing that’s for other people.
Who are they for?
As a commercial photographer I produce prints of my work for other people. This can be friends and family or more directly as part of our business. I don’t do wedding/portrait photos at all, so that aspect of print sales isn’t one I know well, but photographing uninspiring buildings for architects might well have a parallel in photographing everyone at a wedding…
The essence of this is that whether you give them away or sell them, they have to be prints that people want.
One way you can get round this is to have an exhibition. Of course, if you were hoping to sell some work, then someone still has to want them. Experience tells me that exhibitions can be great to do, but are a lot of work and very rarely a great revenue generator. Just remember that ‘exposure’ pays very few bills.
An alternative audience might be competitions. My personal difficulty with this is the way that it drives your photography in a direction of producing work that wins competitions, but I accept that some people enjoy this source of motivation.
The key is thinking more about what and who your prints are for.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of “If only I had XYZ to use, my prints would be better”
Yes, this is what the dead hand of marketing wants you to think…
Whilst equipment and software has advanced tremendously, you’re less likely to visibly see much of an improvement between generations of products. Different aspects of hardware/software age at different rates.
It’s 2020 and I’m writing this on a Mac Pro from 2010. It has a lot more RAM, a much better graphics card and two large high res, wide gamut monitors. A USB 3.1 card in the back connects things up very nicely and gigabit ethernet makes for efficient connection to our servers. I’m still using Photoshop CS6 and DxO PhotoLab, running on MacOS 13. Some would say it’s ancient kit – I would note that it works well for our business, and the likelihood of it being replaced any time soon is not big (there is a ‘donate’ button at the right though… ;-) :-) )
Let’s say I did win the lottery and updated to the latest Mac – would more RAM, faster graphics, Photoshop CC and other trinkets actually make any significant difference to my print quality – nope, probably not.
One area where more recent hardware does make a difference is using a good monitor like the SW320 shown here. [SW320 review]
This applies in some other areas too.
Cameras and lenses
At the moment, my main camera is the 2015 50MP Canon 5Ds with my 2007 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 as a backup and for dusty/damp environments (mines/foundries/quarries). I have the mirrorless 26MP Canon EOS RP for testing and ‘non work’ use [RP Review]. I use what works for what I need. I won’t be buying a Canon R5 (~45MP mirrorless [R5 info]) since it’s not enough of a jump in performance over my 5Ds in areas that matter to me (I’m waiting for the higher MP ‘photo not video’ mirrorless [R5s?]).
How does this affect my prints?
Well, it’s easy to think that those extra few MP or that forum favourite ‘dynamic range’ will give your shots from a new camera some form of advantage. In truth, most photographers won’t push the capabilities of new kit and much like printing, any deficiencies frequently come from a lack of attention to basic photographic skills.
When I first got the 5Ds I did a print based comparison of images taken with an 11MP Canon 1Ds, a 21MP 1Ds3 and the 50MP 5Ds. The results clearly showed that with careful processing, most people really didn’t see much difference. Before you dismiss ‘most people’ think again about who your prints are for?
Lenses have also improved significantly in recent years. It’s true that an all new lens may give some aspects of your photography a chance to progress. However it’s rarer that a lens is so different, so as to allow a whole new way of shooting.
For myself the 2009 Canon TS-E17mm F4L and updated TS-E24mm F3.5L II tilt/shift lenses distinctly improved my architectural work for large prints and pushed forward my interest in tilt/shift lenses. So much so that there’s and entire index page for my 50+ articles/reviews (and I was asked to write a book about using them).
However I still use some older lenses, such as the 1991 TS-E90mm F2.8 tilt/shift lens and have recently been exploring the use of 1980’s Mamiya medium format lenses with adapters. Indeed, modern mirrorless cameras make it much easier to experiment with old lenses.
Improvements in specialist software have made it even easier to use old lenses and old images, even for quite large prints. It’s this area that I probably keep the closest eye on new developments. My current favourites would be Sharpen AI and Gigapixel AI from Topaz.
Once again though, the hardware and software still depend on what you take the image of in the first place.
Colour management – consistency
Colour management in photography has become more mainstream in its use and ease of use over the years.
It’s still a key element for my print workflow, not because of any illusory desire for ‘perfection’ but knowing that colour management lets me get things ‘right first time’ more often. Yes, I waste less paper/ink and lets me think more about what’s ‘in’ the print.
Monitor calibration is as important as it was 15 years ago. The out of the box image quality for displays has greatly improved, so your calibrated monitor is less likely to look significantly different than an uncalibrated one. This is definitely so for more expensive monitors, but you still need to get it right.
One area that still needs attention is that modern monitors can display at much higher brightness levels. This bright monitor problem leads to prints coming out too dark. Indeed, it’s the most common answer to the ‘Why are my prints too dark‘ problem I’ve mentioned here for years…
More and more paper suppliers now offer custom profiling if you buy their paper. The more consistent performance of modern printers means that ‘canned’ profiles to go with a particular paper/printer are now much more reliable. I make my profiles for testing purposes, and in many instances they do give a noticeable improvement. It’s an element in my print quality, but I would have to note that 15 years ago, making your own profiles was a really useful capability, today less so. Watch out though that it doesn’t just become a skill to perfect rather than going out and taking more photos ;-)
- Testing an unknown fine art paper – profiling and setup for colour and B&W
An image for print needs to be considered as an image that’s being edited for print, right from the time you open your camera RAW file. For myself it’s paying attention to clipping and keeping as much usable data in the image file as possible. It also means editing in a larger colour space than the sRGB I use for stuff on the web. Storage is cheap – there’s no need to work at 8 bit or save images in JPEG format.
For older images from my archives, it means going back to the RAW files with new software. Where noise and lens aberrations might have been an issue before, they can now be trivial to fix. Another good reason to keep your old files.
Editing images for print is easier, but it’s still the case that optimising the image your camera produces is a good way to minimise the amount of work needed.
For myself, the key to print editing is a proper appreciation of sharpening, both when and how much to do it and when not to. The larger the print, the more important this becomes. The classic approach to sharpening puts it into three stages
- Capture sharpening
- Creative sharpening
- Print Sharpening
Now as a guide for smaller generic prints I’ve no problems with this, but to me, all sharpening is creative. For a large landscape print, there are parts of the image that need absolutely no sharpening at all. To someone trying to tell me that you ‘always’ need some sharpening for digital images I just say ‘clear blue sky’. I’ve lots more info related to this:
- Why I sharpen images 
- Making a giant print from a small image 
- How software changes your approach to sharpening 
I’ve put dates on the links to show how whilst the mechanics may change, the ultimate aims stay the same.
A printer for you?
Printers use up ink. I know this may seem blindingly obvious, but from some of the complaints I see about the cost of printing, it still seems to catch some people unaware.
All printers use some ink to print and some ink to keep themselves working. Essentially, the more you print, the higher the proportion of ink that ends up on paper. So, printers have an ongoing cost of ownership.
In general, the more expensive the printer, the cheaper the ink works out at in cost per volume. The more expensive printers are usually capable of making bigger prints, and quite often have features related to a more capable ink-set.
More inks tend to produce smoother tones and a wider range of colours (gamut) too.
All good stuff, but bigger printers tend to want more regular use (preventing clogging/drying out) as well as being larger (or much larger).
This leads to the tricky choice of what printer is best for a particular photographer?
I’ve been lucky enough to test a lot of printers, and I generally don’t have an answer I’m afraid. My printer reviews are designed to help show what different printers can do, but the real decision is partly based on why you want to print.
Yes, those two questions earlier ‘Why am I printing’ and ‘Who are your prints for’ are vital, but so rarely considered in any detail. They inform considerations of how much paper and ink you will get through.
If you have a perfectly good working printer, then the ‘next model’ is unlikely to show any significant improvement in your prints. Unless a new model offers some feature you really need, then a working printer is almost always worth keeping. Remember that new printer specifications are written to entice you to buy ;-)
Yes, there may come a time that your old one needs a head clean a bit too often, or you’re finding the small ink carts becoming awkward to source, but in general you will have some solid reasons for any update.
A better paper?
There is nowhere near the variation in print quality between papers that even a cursory reading of some forums, or supplier’s web sites might suggest.
For photos there are two basic types of paper, matt and glossy. There are then surface variations on top of that, such as gloss/lustre textured/smooth. There is also the colour of the paper which varies from bright white to a warmer white. You can add in thickness and what the paper is made of to this, but these are only obvious when you handle the print.
Most photo/art papers work well with the current/recent types of ink available. Print with a good profile or use the black and white print mode that some printer drivers offer, and you can expect good results.
However, printing photos adds a new element to how we see an image. The differences between a print on canvas, a print on a matt art paper and a print on a lustre finish photo paper are readily apparent.
As well as the obvious differences in surface texture and how light is reflected off the print, there are changes in the range of tones available (light to dark) and to the range of colours that can be reproduced.
This means that some images look better on some types of media.
Which is ‘best’?
I’ve looked at a lot of papers and I still can’t answer the question as to which paper works best for which images. When I had the Canon PRO-2000 printer here for testing I had a range of papers from one supplier to test, and took the opportunity to compare similar images on different papers.
Here’s a B&W image (Wells Cathedral) printed on 5 different papers
You can see slight differences in paper colour, but as to what looks ‘best’?
Well, I’ve my preferences, and they may match yours. There’s no general rule though, apart from strong bright colours looking better on glossier photo papers with deeper blacks and a wider colour gamut.
Of course that’s until I find a colour image that looks good on a matt art paper…
The thing is to trust your own judgement. That means spending time perfecting your printing from a technical point of view, so that differences you see are due to the paper, not your printing skill. This is the main reason that I always suggest people starting their printing with perfecting the printing of a known good test image. I also suggest starting with one or two papers from the printer manufacturer. These should work well with a printer, and will likely come with good printer profiles.
Once you’re fine with a test image, go on to some of your own photos.
The temptation is to jump right in with your own photos. I avoid this since for initial testing I want images that I’m not emotionally connected to, and that I know are sufficiently varied so as to show potential problems. I test a lot of printers and papers and always start with the test images above.
Once you’re comfortable with accurately making prints on the basic papers, by all means explore – you should now have enough experience of how the printer reproduces images, so as to be able to make useful comparisons.
- All my paper reviews/tests
- Printing some brightly coloured flowers
- Printer test images
- B&W printer test images
Handling, specifications and selling paper
How to decide on papers to try? I’m very wary of following the wisdom of forums about what paper is ‘really good’. I’m in the UK and can’t get many US papers, and they can’t get some of the great papers I get to test from over here. I also know that what looks good on a paper is very much a matter of personal taste.
When I mentioned the characteristics of papers earlier I left thickness and what the paper is made of to the end. To some extent these are things that someone looking at one of your prints isn’t going to see. They fall into the category of things that only you know about the print.
A very knowledgeable friend in the photo industry once pointed out to me the importance of paper ‘feel’ whilst selling photo papers to photographers at a show. It seems that many of us quickly assign quality/cheapness labels to a paper just through picking up a sheet of it. Add to this the choice of sample images used and you can see that what’s being sold is a quick way to improve the ‘quality’ of your work… yes, it’s a variation on the ‘better camera=better photos’ marketing line.
Paper specifications are also the realm for precise measurement data. You will see discussion of Dmax and gamut volumes, along with charts and graphs. These often illustrate the fallacy that precise data is equivalent to meaningful data. For example, Dmax is an indicator of just how black a black can be reproduced by a particular printer on a particular paper. It doesn’t tell you anything about whether this blackness is usable for an image, or how it looks with light reflecting off the print. If I have two glossy finish papers one with a Dmax of 2.6 and one with 2.7 does it tell me anything about what an image will look like printed on each one? Such data can be useful, but needs context – it is not so meaningful when in the marketing blurb for a paper.
Another area that sells papers and printers is their archival properties. There are places (museums for example) where archival properties really do matter. However, the whole area is largely a sales/marketing pitch, whereby using ‘archival’ materials contributes to a feeling that your work is deserving of a life after you are gone. It’s also a useful marketing tool for photographers wanting to sell their work at a higher (aka more expensive) level – but if it matters, you already knew that from answering the earlier ‘Who are they for’ question…
Take care when you feel that a ‘better’ paper is the answer to a particular print problem – there are a lot of papers out there.
Continually looking for a better paper is a sign you may be missing more basic issues in your photography
There comes a time when after making prints on A4 or similar sized papers, it’s reasonable to think about what some particular image would look like at a larger size?
I remember the thrill of making some of my first truly large prints in 2004, with my Epson SP9600 44″ printer. I quickly learned that there were a lot more things to think about than just having a big printer.
Composition is different and you need to think about fine detail in a different way. There’s also sharpening and editing to consider.
Not to be forgotten is the costs of larger paper and more ink used, although larger printers tend to be more economical in ink costs. Don’t forget the cost of mounting/framing large prints either.
Oh, and what are you going to do with those large prints? I’ve long since run out of wall space, and any friend who wanted a large print has one.
A big print for me? 47 feet for this one.
The screen is not the print
Once you’re comfortable with the mechanics of making a print, there comes the question of is this the best print I can get from the image? It’s tempting to look at an image on the screen and think that if only the printer/paper/ink worked ‘correctly’ then you should be able to press ‘print’ and the print would match what you see.
‘My prints don’t match my screen’ is the second most common question I get after them being too dark.
Apart from the obvious technical differences between the two, I take the view that this is actually the wrong question.
For myself it needs rephrasing as ‘How do I get a great looking print when the screen can’t show what a print looks like’
The view on the screen is just an intermediate stage in producing a print. The skill and experience that you gain in perfecting a test print (which of course won’t look the same as the screen) allows you to visualise what your final printed image will look like.
The screen -will- show what’s sharp/soft and the overall composition. It will show the general tonality/colour of the image.
Where it can fail is in how intense colours may appear or the look of the finished print on a wall. This is an area where soft proofing can help, but remember it’s still a screen view.
Experience allows you to get a feel for how the screen/print differs whilst making good use of areas they match more strongly. Such experience allows you to know for example that a particular style of print may need a specific colour boost for looking good as a print. This may look worse on screen.
The best version of an image for printing may not be the best looking one on the screen
This experience is easier to gain if you don’t keep chopping and changing your paper choices every other week.
Learning to see
It almost feels trite to end on something so fundamental, but if your photos are not up to it, then all the printing skill in the world probably won’t help.
In my testing, I get to print a lot of images that I wouldn’t normally get round to printing. I find it really helps decide on the stronger/weaker ones. That helps refine my overall photography and makes me think more about what my photos are for when I’m taking them.
Some, like the houses at the start, are commercial photos taken for specific reasons for a client. In these, it’s not my opinion that matters so much. I still need to know though, when my ideas of what works doesn’t agree with others – especially important if you intend to earn a living through your work.
As photographers we can become too attached to our own view of what’s best. I’m not saying that your own taste and style needs hiding, just that we can learn a lot from how others see our work. One of the best bits of advice I ever received about exhibitions was that photographers tend to make awful curators of their own work – find someone you trust.
The effort of making a good print can make it really rewarding. Along the way though, you will make a lot of dud and not so great prints – I have…
I’ve many articles/reviews about printing here on the site. At the moment (May 2020) it’s one photographic activity we can still work on. If you’ve question/comments please feel free to email me or comment below.
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