James asked me a few weeks if I would like to write an article on printing. “Sure!” I said, confident that it wouldn’t take long. Silly me, I know it’s a complicated subject – there’s different software, printers, papers, aims for the end photo (home snaps vs. competition printing) plus all the variables of how we see and what our brains adapt to and so on when we look at things. I thought it wouldn’t be too hard- but the truth is it’s difficult to effectively cover such a large area. So, apologies if this article doesn’t work for you, its hard to cover all the potential audience! I am thinking of writing a second article with more specific detailed information on aspects like paper, colour management to complement this.
Of course, at the simplest level ‘home printing’ can really be easy: put your SD card in the home printer and select ‘Print’. No interventions, home printing- done! It’s fully automated, but I think many of us want to take things further and try to get better results than Direct Memory card or the equivalent process at Office Works or Harvey Norman.
For instance, I recently printed a black and white nature scene of a hike in NZ for my daughter. I spent a lot of time editing it on the screen, then a similar time tweaking tint and contrast, trying different papers and fiddling with the settings. Trying to reproduce a high contrast (800:1) mountain scene onto inherently low contrast paper (200:1) flattens the light and loses shadow detail – but am really happy with the result. I don’t believe I could have got the same print from a lab but it took lots of proof prints to get there! So it’s fun and satisfying but you might get the family annoyed and spend a lot of money!
I find the process intellectually stimulating- more than just proving to the family that your hobby can be useful! If you’re a bit nerdy & science orientated – like a lot of photographers are I suspect – then learning about the underlying scientific concepts can be really interesting. The whole business is a bit of a ‘black art’ really, and experimenting is part of fun and excitement. I am not an expert and I’ve only really printed a handful of photos since I started last year but have read and experimented a lot. So below are just some interesting points. If you want to explore this subject then I can recommend a really good book:
Fine Art Printing for Photographers – Exhibition Quality prints with Inkjet printers. 3rd edition. 2013. SteinMuller and Gubins.
This book runs to 340 pages – about 120,000 words, over 80 chapters/subchapters. its $50 from ‘Book Depository’ (a great web site and international posting is free.) – This might seem expensive but cost is equivalent to 1 or 2 inkjet cartridge refills! This book has everything and encompasses all the internet hints and tips, articles, web sites you could ever read, distilled into 1 volume and written by 2 experts. Topics covered include: printers, paper selection, inks, colour workflow management, printing work flow, B & W printing, detailed advice on using software, optimal framing, illuminations issues, etc. It is basically an ultimate reference. Also, it has really good text explanations- not just screen shots like some books/guides.
I find it really interesting that the quality of the print can change so much, due to factors like viewing conditions and eye and brain adaptions. On the internet the advice seems to be fairly simple ‘get the colour work flow right’ and you can end up printing what’s on the monitor, but its actually quite hard. Tweaking a monitor to get things to display well is not difficult, but the light-reflecting nature of a print complicates things further. One needs to select the right paper gloss level to suit the scene and shadow detail – but you might need to also compensate in the printing for the brightness and colour spectrum of the illuminating light. It not just the printer or paper that determines what you see. The colour spectrum of some illuminating light is incomplete: it’s not just ‘tinted’ warm or cool) but some lights are actually missing some of the colour spectrum, so some photo’s colours will look fine and others wrong. (Have you been clothes shopping and had trouble with colours looking different when you got home?). Also some colour and black and white have optical brightners in them that absorb UV light and radiate it back as visible light. Under some lighting conditions, the actual tints of black and white papers can change.
Printing in colour is challenging and I am still learning. My early prints often looked bad and were hard to get right but I was viewing them under poor lighting conditions at night in rooms with off white/yellow walls. This really affected whether a print looked right or not. I was using my iPhone flash light to view them thinking this was a good white light source and the colour looked better and brighter but there was a colour tint in that as well and so colours were still inaccurate. The other day I printed a photo with a deliberate colour shift of more blue tint to make up for room viewing conditions and also printed the same image for optimal ‘daylight’ conditions. They look different side by side but almost the same when they are in their respective rooms under the different lighting. So basically if you are printing to hang on you’re a particular wall you might have to print differently (colour balance adjustment) if your displaying in odd light. This is an interesting point – I have seen museums display photographs and art in poor lighting and it has looked so much worse than in the catalogue or book that they then try to sell you from the gift shop!
I have 2 printers. I started with a cheap Multifunction Epson TX 710W Office $299 which I got for general home use – This has 3 colours + black. I got frustrated printing with this for black and white as I couldn’t get the graduations in shadows so I now have a new EPSON EP 600 A 3+ printer – this had 4 black inks and 6 colours. Interestingly for some photos my
old TX 710 $299 multifunction printer produces nice high gloss deeply saturated
colour prints which the $1400 P600 can’t do! The reason is my P600 doesn’t have the Gloss Optimiser so saturation levels are less with the same paper. This is something which you don’t read about in the reviews, but the advantage is reflections are much less and Black and White is better. Whether that matters or not to you depends on your end use. I have one photo which I have printed and framed that just looks much better from the older printer!
High gloss doesn’t matter for hand prints/snapshots as one can hold the print and move it around so the reflections don’t bother and, if you frame it behind glass there are more dominant reflections from the glass anyway; so more saturation is better all round. I also think that most of the time for with family photos, the subject matter dominates anyway. Interestingly, when I compare the 3D colour space maps of these 2 printers, the cheaper printer has slightly better Reds and Yellows and the expensive one P600 has better Green and Blues (better overall for nature). The P600 has finer printing, smoother graduations in colours and does really good Black and White.
So if you don’t have a printer and are looking to buy, maybe you need don’t need the expensive one! I know some of our club photographers have given up on home printing and have their competition prints printed by higher end commercial services; $1300 gets you a lot of commercial prints! And that just the start up cost not counting the consumables. Photoco/Camera house is apparently good and if your wealthy you can go to Atkins Colour but, for the moment, I am very happy with what I am learning to do at home and as I get better at it, the whole process is speeding up and becoming less wasteful. I also have everything I need to explore and experiment.
So thanks for reading this article. it was originally a lot longer with more material on colour issues but I have edited it down a lot and suggest you have a look at the book mentioned above instead. Below are a few internet sites references that I have found useful.
http://digitaldog.net/files/Printer%20Test%20file.jpg – colour test pattern.
http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/article_pages/test_images.html – Black and White test pattern and general information.
http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/color-management-printing.htm – info on colour spaces.
Thanks to my daughter Natalie for resurrecting my shocking grammar and the original ponderously wordy draft!
Editorial Note: Black and White/Monochrome printing at home is not as simple as it appears. Many colour printers will print in monochrome, but when seen under bright lighting the image has a colour cast. With my Epson 6 colour printer this is often purple or blue. This is the first thing I notice when I see the image at competition and the judges often comment on it. How to fix this problem? It’s not a photoshop thing – it’s the printer. The intense black is created by using all the inks (not just the black cartridge). A more expensive printer with 3 to 4 grey and black tone inks would fix the problem. A cheaper solution is to take it to a photo lab for printing. I do the later.