Better photography by printing your work
Printing – 5 steps to better photography
Why learning to print your work benefits all your photography
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Keith is firmly of the belief that being able to create great looking prints from your photos is a skill that will benefit all of your photography.
The problem is that it’s easy to rush into printing, without the necessary groundwork. This quickly leads to poor results and dismissing the whole thing as too difficult. Taking your time and mastering a few basics can quickly improve print quality, reduce waste, and boost confidence.
Keith’s ‘5 Steps to better photography’ outlines simple measures that directly affect consistency and quality of printing.
There is a short (10m) video that supplements this article.
- Setting things up
Solid foundations – colour management
- Why test images matter
When your own photos just won’t do
- When a better paper helps
Not nearly as often as you hoped
- The screen is NOT the print
Prints look different – get over it
- Sorry, it’s your fault
When it’s the original photo that’s not up to it
Why prints matter?
It’s never been easier to make high quality prints from your photographs. Cameras are producing images of a technical quality that easily surpasses professional kit of a decade ago. Printers are more reliable and offer ranges of colour and fine detail previously difficult and expensive to produce. The latest papers give a tremendous variety of finishes and looks for your prints.
So why is printing difficult?
It’s not really – it’s just there are lots of ways of not quite doing it quite right. Working your way through this takes a bit of work, but the results can be rewarding in ways that a print on a screen just never can match. It benefits my photography, even the 90% of my own professional work that is only delivered as digital files.
I’ll use that term a few times here, so just a quick diversion to what I mean by it. A workflow covers the series of steps you take from initially capturing the image, getting it onto a computer, any editing you need and sending the image to your printer. These steps can be simple or complicated, but the idea is that there is a flow from one step to the next, whether you choose software like Photoshop, Affinity Photo, Elements or Lightroom. Many of the stages I’ll mention are almost independent of your precise workflow.
This article is an expanded version of one I first wrote for the X-Rite blog in 2018. It includes references to other articles and information on the Northlight Images site that I hope are of some help.
Great printing comes from consistency in your workflow, right through from capturing the image.
The workflow can be thought of as a chain, and it’s the weaker links that can cause issues. One of the problems though is that when things go wrong, it may not be immediately obvious where or what the cause is.
The classic example is a question I’ve been asked so often, I’ve written articles about it.
Why are my prints too dark?
It turns out that the most frequent problem is that your monitor is too bright. So, we have a problem in monitor setup manifesting itself in prints.
Why? Well if your screen is too bright, then you edit/adjust the picture to look OK on that screen. However, as I’ll look at in more detail in a bit, prints are very different to a brightly glowing screen. They have a smaller range of contrast and tend to be looked at in darker conditions.
What looks to be clearly visible shadow detail on the screen is lost in darker parts of the print, giving a dull feel to the print in comparison. These bright red cactus flowers could easily disappoint as a print.
The photography and printing of such intense colours on different papers is discussed in an article about printing bright colours I wrote, after testing a new monitor [BenQ SW240] and some new papers.
The fix is a fairly simple one – calibrate your monitor and set the brightness to a reasonable level.
Over the years I’ve looked at a range of different solutions to this:
- X-Rite i1Display Pro
- Datacolor Spyder 5 Elite
- There’s a category of articles (50+) on the site specifically related to Monitor calibration
Sometimes I’m also asked, what to do if the screen then looks too dim?
Simple, work in a darker room.
Colour management can be a complex subject, but at its heart it’s about consistency and predictability. With a colour managed workflow I’m interested, not in some illusory perfection, but a consistent and reliable workflow.
Colour management lets me get things ‘Right first time’ more often
Similarly, for your choice of printer and paper, you should perfect printing with an appropriate ICC printer profile. A well made profile will better match the colours in your image to what the printer/paper can reproduce.
Sometimes it’s forgotten though that there are a number of ways a profile can affect your print output. You may see differing ‘Rendering Intents’ listed, which can affect different images in different ways. I’ll not go into this in detail here, see the bright flowers article for more.
Do note that using an ICC printer profile is not just a simple ‘Done that’ choice. It helps to appreciate the differences and when (or if) they matter for your images. Once again best tried at first with a known test image.
With a new printer, it’s easy to just install the driver software, open up one of your favourite images and ‘just’ click print.
Unfortunately this is a great way produce a print that just doesn’t look how you felt it should. This can sow doubt, whether in the printer, the paper or your own abilities.
This image you’re printing:
- Does it have some personal meaning to you?
- You’ve also likely edited it to look good on some monitor? Was that calibrated and set to a good brightness?
- Was it an optimally exposed image in the camera, or have you been tweaking and adjusting things to look right?
- Worse still, was it an HDR image or with a filter of some sort?
When I’m testing a new printer I deliberately pick a known good test image. It’s bereft of emotional meaning and I know it’s composed of component parts that specifically show up potential problems in printing.
Test images to try
My own collection is on this site [Printer test images]. Choose one (or more) you like and read any notes supplied with it. See for example, the notes covering the parts of this Datacolor test image – they are a vital part of using it.
Don’t expect the print to exactly match your monitor – it won’t. It should look pretty similar though.
I’ll come back to this mismatch in a bit, but you’re using the test image to find things that might be wrong or not optimally set. The simplest check is to look for missing colours or banding. This often signifies a printer problem. A bit of cleaning and the printer’s nozzle check pattern should help. I’ll assume here though that you’r printer is working well and it’s more subtle features we’re looking at…
I’ve printed this image on many different printers on many different paper brands and types. A quick glance at the print can give me a feel for how prints are going to look for other images.
I’m not just interested in the colours being ‘right’, I want to see how they relate to each other and whether there are obvious steps in colour where there should be a smooth gradation. I’ll look at the difference between areas of the print with and without ink, and how the different colours look under different lighting conditions.
Black and White
If like me you want to print black and white photos, then a bit more care is needed. The test image above has a section that will show problems with B&W printing, whether it’s crushed up shadows, or just an overall colour cast to the B&W area. However, for B&W printing I’ve also developed a specific B&W test image
There’s an article explaining how to use the B&W test image, with a free download link. It includes many specific tests of relevance to fine tuning your B&W print workflow. In some ways making a good B&W print is harder than colour, but the quality of B&W photo printing has risen dramatically in recent years.
But Keith, this is tedious/expensive/time wasting – I just want to print…
Ok, but be prepared to waste time/money/effort on prints that ‘don’t look right’ and not have any clue as to why.
The whole idea is that a bit of effort in getting your print workflow optimised, will pay off in the long run many times over. By ‘Print workflow’ I’m referring just to the bit where you open an image, set print options, load paper in the printer and hit the ‘Print’ button.
If your test print looks wrong, then there are only a few areas where the problem can lie. It could be printer driver options, colour profile setting, or even loading the paper backwards (yes, I’ve done it). Once perfected, you can look at your own images. If they look wrong, then you know it’s not your print workflow where the problem lies.
OK, you’re happy with the test image, but your favourite photo just doesn’t have the impact you were hoping for…
However, this assumes that you have some idea in what way the previous paper was ‘deficient’.
So many times on forums I see people asking for suggestions for ‘Better papers’ without even the slightest mention of what sorts of photos they print, or even what printer they have.
This immediately suggests a lack of basic print experience to me. The reason I always test new printers or papers with test images is that I need some form of base reference to give me a clue. In fact, the more printers and papers I test, the more important this grounding becomes.
See also my article (and video) about choosing papers for more.
Being sold a vision…
There’s a problem with camera and paper marketing that comes to the fore here. No manufacturer wants to advertise their product with poor looking images. What their ad agencies want is for you to make some form of association along the lines of:
“Camera/Paper X shows a fabulous image from photographer Z,
…so if I use X, my photos will be better”
Complete nonsense of course, but we’re all prone to falling for it sometimes.
With a new printer I first like to try a few basic papers from the printer manufacturer.
This is not because I assume they are better in any way. It’s just that a manufacturer will have put real effort into making sure the printer works fine with these papers.
A basic gloss or lustre photo paper and a basic matt ‘art paper’ will give me a good feel for how the printer and ink set performs of different papers. I’ll also use any ICC profiles supplied by the manufacturer (often installed when you install the printer driver software).
These black and white prints come from the Impressora range I tested a while back. I’m using one of my own photos for these tests since I’ve already checked with the B&W test image, and now am much more interested in how the print ‘feels’ to me on a particular paper, using the Canon PRO-2000 printer I was testing.
You don’t need huge packs of such paper, a few sheets of each should let you print enough to get a feel for the paper and printer. When I’m testing new papers, I also create my own printer profiles and test that the media settings suggested for the paper are correct, but that’s for my reviews.
Testing your own photos
Once you’ve perfected your test image prints (it should be very easy given your previous testing) you’re quickly in the position of being able to make a few test prints of your own images and compare them with others.
Note I still don’t say compare them with the screen, since it’s prints we’re making, not screen images.
A few of my own images, produced while testing a new paper (Fotospeed Metallic Lustre). You don’t need this many to get a feel for a paper, but it’s one part of printer and paper testing I enjoy – even if I long ago ran low on friends wanting free pictures for their walls.
Don’t forget to compare prints under different lighting conditions too – prints can look very different in different locations. Be especially careful if you’ve any fluorescent lighting or older (cheaper) LED lighting, since it can easily throw off the colour balance of a print.
Learn to trust your judgement
Try and form your own opinions about whether a paper suits your photography, it’s very easy fall into the trap of wondering if some new paper will be the one for you, especially if the manufacturer has found some excellent photos to show it off…
A personal observation: You may find print competitions at camera clubs fun to do, but be very careful about criticism that that is aimed at meeting arbitrary judging criteria rather than what works as a great print. Use such competitions to perfect your technical skills, just don’t put too much faith in their ability to define much more than ‘what wins competitions’.
If you’re stuck and can’t decide whether one paper looks better, just ask someone else which picture they prefer.
Chances are that they won’t notice any of the differences you’ve been obsessing over – I’m minded to suggest that nobody who actually decides to put one of your prints on a wall is ever likely to get the magnifying glass out and quiz you over whether you used ‘ABC Baryta’ or ‘Baryta XYZ’ for the print.
Remember, people primarily like prints because of what they show, not how you made them
As I’ve said before, the quality of most modern printers readily exceeds the expertise of people using them – I quite often include myself in that.
It’s perfectly possible to find a paper that is an absolutely superb match for an image you’re printing and adds just that element you were looking for.
The problem is that without mastering the basics and having some idea of just what works well for you in a printed image, then the search is likely to be long, expensive and ultimately fruitless.
But I hear people say… ‘if only I could match what I see on screen’
Prints don’t ever match screens – sorry, time to get over it.
A search for some supposed match, in the erroneous belief that it will magically aid printing has led more people up blind alleys and disappointment with their printing than almost any other factor.
Sure, the screen can (in some circumstances) give you a good idea of what the print is going to look like, but you need to accept that with two very different technologies, you’re simply not going to get a complete match.
But, as people ask me, if you can’t get a match, how can you ever get good prints?
The print is what matters
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 includes really looking at how test images look as prints compared to how they look on the screen. Things like the different tonal range and how colours stand out (or not) help you appreciate the print for what it is.
If it’s a print you want, then the print is what counts, not the screen
Once my print setup/workflow 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.
Prints and screens
One way of getting a feel for how a print will look is to reduce the brightness of your screen still further. This gets the tonal balance more ‘print like’ but you still need to allow for differences in colour rendition. Whilst this may be fine for quick checks, doing much work on a very dim screen in a very dimly lit office quickly becomes annoying (well, to me anyway ;-) )
This photo shows an image on my laptop and on a print viewing stand (PDV-3E – review) The photo is white balanced on the print (around D50). Note how much cooler the image looks on the screen, which was calibrated to a D65 white-point. The white border of the print can also make the print seem a bit darker compared to a dark surround on the screen, so take care with your screen viewing setup (note the light grey surround on the laptop).
This also illustrates the folly of putting a screen and a print directly side by side to compare.
If the screen was in front of me and the stand off to one side, then I’d have to turn my head to see it. This motion is enough for my visual system to adapt from the white-point of the screen to the white-point of the print.
You just have to make sure that both items are the brightest you’re looking at in the room (so no open curtains behind the laptop for example).
In this second example, the screen has been set to a lower colour temperature, to match the print, but now the smaller colour gamut of the laptop screen isn’t matching what the printer/paper/ink combination can manage. See more about this in my article about printing the bright red cactus flowers.
Soft proofing – use with care
Some editing packages offer the chance to ‘Soft Proof’ images, supposedly giving a display of what the image will look like printed. This can be a useful tool to spot any problems with particular colours and give you a feel for how the print will differ.
I used it in the range of sunset photo prints, shown here from my testing of the Epson P7000 printer.
Each of the five sunset photos has had its colour tweaked a little bit before printing – accuracy was not the issue, just how much the images matched my recollections of that evening on the Pacific coast in Oregon.
However, soft proofing is a tool to be used with care and understanding. You’re still looking at an image on a screen.
At its best, Soft Proofing lets me spot parts of my image that may cause problems – I may need to selectively change brightness/saturation of parts of the image to get the look I’m after, or it may suggest a different paper might look better.
At its worst, Soft Proofing becomes a crutch, used to avoid actually looking at prints too carefully, and leading to a different version of the ‘Why don’t my prints look like my screen’ problem.
The print is right
When it comes down to it, the print is the finished product and it’s what the print looks like that matters.
The best looking version of a photo on a screen may not be the one that makes the best looking print.
If to get a great print, you have to bump up the image vibrance in areas to what simply looks too much on screen, then the version of the file that makes the best looking print is the ‘correct’ one.
This is why I often have master image/print files that have multiple layers. At the base is the edited version that looks good on screen. Above that are layers with sharpening and adjustments to make a particular size print on a particular printer and paper. Sometimes these adjustments are quite light, but other times they are quite specific to a set of prints. So, for example, the colour adjustments for the sunset pictures would be different if I printed the photos on a Canon PRO-2000 as opposed to the Epson P7000 – even if I was using the same paper.
However, sometimes no amount of editing or ‘better paper’ seems to work…
Photography as a hobby can be immensely rewarding. Some of those rewards come from mastering new technical skills, and learning to print is definitely technical enough that it counts.
After a while though comes the difficult bit…
I’ve calibrated my monitor, carefully edited my image file and printed with a good printer and paper. I’m using all the best settings and still the print doesn’t look how I wanted it. What am I not doing right?
Much of getting a good digital print photography workflow is procedural. You can fine tune and perfect it with a bit of effort and expense.
OK you’ve done that. You’ve piles of test prints and are happy with how prints and screens differ – but still it doesn’t look right.
Maybe it just won’t make a good print
Sometimes an image may look fine on a screen, but the tonal range of a print just doesn’t suit it. Maybe a different paper choice will help, but sometimes you just have to accept it and move on.
This can be a problem for people moving upwards in print size. What makes a good print at A4 may look weak at A3+ (13″ x 19″) and distinctly unimpressive at A1 (~24″ x 33″).
This works the other way too – confidence in your basic print skills will help you here (and keep the costs down).
This ~80MP photo of the end of the harbour pier at Whitby works a treat at 60″ square, where the viewing perspective (and detail) is very different to the 740 pixel width version here (click to enlarge). I envisaged this as a huge print, even at the time I took the photo.
There are numerous technical skills to hone and refine once you start making bigger prints, but the fundamental limit will always come back and hit you at some point.
Remember – Dismal photos will probably make dismal prints no matter how well you print
The hardest bit of photography for many is going back to the fundamentals of what you are taking photos of and why.
From my point of view, learning to print well is an integral part of my photography.
The practice and experimentation has benefited all of my photographic work. From composition, focus and exposure, to editing my commercial work, where images are rarely printed at any significant size (if at all).
Seeing the print as a final step in parts of your photography and learning to do it well is worth the effort if you get the chance.
More info on the site that may be of help
- So, you want a bigger printer – moving up in print size from A3+.
- The art of the BIG landscape print – thoughts about making really big prints.
- So, you want a large format printer – moving up to a very big printer.
- Our printing and paper articles/reviews index page.
- Our Colour management articles/reviews index page.
Some of Keith’s prints from his talks at TPS2017 [More details]
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