I think we’ve covered the bases for general preparations, so now it’s time to start making that print! This is really the first step in producing a fine art print, but it’s not any more or less important than the other steps. If I could give just one piece of advice in this article, it would be to make the final print at the highest quality humanly possible.
Before we jump in, I should make my own printing situation very clear so there are no misconceptions. I use a local professional printer to produce my digital prints: Oscar Medina of San Diego Pictures. He’s the real brains behind the whole printing thing, and he provides me with a top notch service. I don’t handle any of the technical aspects of printing — I just bring him the files and give him the thumbs-up to press the go-button. So any technical information I provide here may be somewhat or completely wrong. As for darkroom prints… I do those myself, so I can speak to it with more confidence.
And again, we’re just skimming the surface of this topic in this article — please ask specific questions and discuss technical stuff in the comments below.
The following tips mostly apply to digital printing rather than traditional darkroom printing.
PREPPING YOUR DIGITAL PHOTOS
Fine art photos are all about “high quality” — and that starts before you even see the image. Make sure that you’re shooting at the highest quality available with your equipment. Shoot RAW, AdobeRGB, no downsizing, no compression, etc. Use high quality glass if you can, and avoid camera shake by shooting at a fast enough shutter speed, etc, etc.
When you process the image, workflow is important. Use 16-bit color depth and a high quality color space (I use AdobeRGB for color and Gray Gamma 2.2 for b/w). Watch your histograms while processing, and don’t let your colors, blacks, or whites jump off the scale — you’ll be throwing away good information. Obviously, make the photo look how you want, but don’t go crazy on the adjustments if you’re trying for a “natural” photo.
Calibrate your monitor so that you see a true representation of your image as you process it. Whether you print yourself or if you have somebody else do it for you, the printer will assume that your photo was processed with a properly calibrated monitor. When I take my digital files to Oscar, they look perfect on his monitor and they look perfect when they come out of the printer. We both use a color managed workflow [pdf 4.5MB].
My typical image prep involves processing RAW files via Adobe Camera Raw (same thing as Lightroom), and occasionally some Photoshop work if needed. I’ll work with the colors, highlights, shadows, and midtone contrasts to get the image looking the way I want. I also put on a very small amount of sharpening and noise correction — just enough to make any artifacts go away.
In the last article, Andrew Ferguson asked “I don’t know what needs to be done to prepare them for print, workflow wise. I’m reasonably sure I need to convert to CMYK, but I don’t know how else to optimize my files (both b&w and colour) to ensure that what I see on the monitor is what I see on the final print.”
Maybe we can touch on this more in the comments, but I always shoot, process, and print using AdobeRGB for color images (I process and print black and white images with gray gamma 2.2). From what I understand, printers will do their own conversion from RGB to CMYK or grayscale. The important thing is to have a calibrated monitor and a calibrated printer — I know Oscar spends a good deal of time keeping up with this stuff to ensure that what we see on his screen is what we see coming out of the printer.
I could probably go on and on about this stuff in more detail, but we need to talk about other things! Chat-it-up in the comments.
PRINTER, PAPER, AND INK
After your digital file is prepped, you’ll need to decide on a printer. There are so many different types of printers and inks out there, I’m not even going to try speaking to the technical side of this. Just do your homework and find a system or method that suits your artistic needs. Chances are, you’ll either have your own printer or you’ll need to find a printing service (including PODs) or a local professional with the right equipment. With the current technology, any professional printer should be using top-notch equipment capable of producing archival prints ready for any gallery wall.
Paper, on the other hand, is more of the artist’s decision than the printer or the ink. There are a lot of different papers out there, and each of them has a unique visual quality suited for different applications. You’ll need to decide between gloss, semi-gloss, matte, metallic, canvas, watercolor, and other fine art papers with varying textures and colors. Even with all the choices available, keep the quality and archival life in mind — fine art prints are supposed to last a long time. Oscar actually has a book of the same image printed on various papers so you can see the different effects and outcomes. This is super-handy when deciding on papers!
I usually go for the glossy paper because I like my prints shiny, but it’s an easy paper to damage and scratch. I’m considering trying out a few canvas prints at the suggestion of Oscar… I just need to find the right photos for it.
SIZING, SHARPENING, AND NOISE REDUCTION
Print size is a big decision — don’t underestimate it! If you want to go really big, you’ll need the pixels to back it up. As a rule of thumb, I try to keep my stuff above 100 pixels per inch. So a 12MP digital photo can be printed up to about 20″ x 30″ without a huge loss of quality.
Once you get at or below 150 pixels per inch, you’ll want to consider upsizing the image on the computer so you can get a better quality on the printer. So for that same 12MP photo, once I go above 20″ wide on the long dimension I’ll probably resize the image to larger dimensions to avoid printing artifacts. This can be done with Photoshop (or other post processing software), but something like Genuine Fractals will do a better job for you.
If you need to up-res your photo in order to print at the size you require, it’s best to do your sharpening and noise reduction at the very end. If you’re printing from the original (not resized) photo, just make sure to apply these things at the very end of your processing. And don’t go overboard… make sure you view your digital file at 100% before finalizing the sharpening settings. Over-sharpening will definitely show up on the print.
[UPDATE] Gary Crabbe left a good comment below: it might be a bit clearer if it read, “You should *Always* do your output sharpening *After* the image has been (re-)sized to the final output measurements.” I think it might also be good to squeeze in a comment warning of over sharpening, and checking for sharpening artifacts at both “Print Size” and at “Actual Pixels”. Agreed! Thanks Gary!
One last thing on print size — know what size you want to print and WHY you want to print at that size. Take into account things like viewing distance, intended border, where you’ll be signing the print (if at all), how it will be matted and framed, and how you’re planning on transporting the print to the final owner. Most of these things will make more sense to some of you as we proceed through this series — so stay tuned for the next couple of articles.
PRINTING, HANDLING, AND SHIPPING
When you finally get to the point of printing, most of your prep-work should be done. If you’ve done you job right, you shouldn’t have any problems. But no matter how much preparation you’ve done, it’s always a good idea to print a test strip in order to evaluate the quality. Choose a section of your photo that contains critical information such as deep shadows, bright highlights, important colors, or people’s faces. Print that section and make sure everything looks right. If it does, go for it. If it doesn’t, go fix stuff. You’ll save a lot of time and material cost if you work with test strips before making the final print.
After the final print comes rolling off the printer, make sure you handle it like a newborn baby. There’s nothing worse than putting all that effort into a print only to bend it, crease it, or put a fingerprint on an otherwise perfect print. Use lint-free gloves to handle the print. Lay it out on acid-free paper. And don’t force it into any position that it won’t go naturally.
Larger prints can be rolled without damaging them — they can be flattened later. For anything larger than 11×14, I lay them face-down on acid-free paper and roll them into a 2″-3″ tube. Before rolling these prints, be sure that they’ve had time to properly dry so the ink doesn’t smudge. Other than that, use common sense!
When it comes to shipping, be careful how you package things. If the print is fairly small, you can use photo mailers available for 8×10 or 11×14 prints. Anything larger and you’ll probably want to send it in a tube. Even with tubes, some extra precaution should be taken. I actually had a print damaged recently because the Post Office just doesn’t care that you’re sending sensitive material. After talking with Oscar, he mentioned that he likes to roll his prints about 1″ smaller than the diameter of the shipping tube and float it in the center by placing extra packing paper at the ends. So even if the tube gets crushed or bent (which mine did just recently — sorry Mom), the print will likely survive due to that extra buffer of airspace.
FOR THE ANALOG FREAKS
Probably not the most popular topic, but I know at least one or two of you are interested in my darkroom workflow. First of all, I use high quality enlarger lenses and easels. Enlargers are no different than cameras, only opposite — so use good stuff. Also, for signed prints, I use fiber base paper and I tone with selenium for archival longevity. Proper fix and wash are also key in the quality of the print. I don’t have actual data points to back up my suspicions, but I’d expect my darkroom prints to last at least 100 years, probably more.
At any rate: print on fiber, don’t skimp on the fix and wash, and tone your prints. These things take FOREVER to print and finish, but it’s totally worth it. If you analog printers have any specific questions, hit me up in the comments — I could talk for days on this stuff.
SO WHAT DID I MISS?
The topic of printing requires a huge series of article on it’s own, so I’m sure we didn’t cover everything here. If you have specific questions about printing methods, techniques, and theories — do ask!!! I spoke with Oscar (my professional printer and fellow artist) about this article and asked him to chime in on the technical stuff. He’s more than willing to answer our questions and take part in the discussion. This guy is a fountain of knowledge on the topic, so don’t pass up the opportunity to tap into him!