January 24th, 2017 by Zack Schnepf

My favorite way to experience photography is through print.  It’s hard to describe the tremendous satisfaction I get when viewing my own prints, or prints from a photographer I admire.  I’ve always enjoyed printing myself.  I learned to print in the darkroom in my college photography classes and when I moved to digital I taught myself how to make my own prints at home.  As my photography progressed people started to ask if they could buy prints of my images.  Eventually, I started doing art festivals and gallery shows to share my work and make more print sales.  Whether you plan to print yourself, or have prints made by a dedicated print shop it’s essential that you understand a few basic concepts about color management and preparing images for print.

We live in an increasingly screen based culture.  The majority of photography I see is on some sort of screen.  A lot of photographers I meet who are starting photography exist almost exclusively in the digital universe.  Eventually though, you, or someone you know might want a print made of your photos.  Photographic printing can be daunting at first, but it’s very satisfying to see your own images in print, and you will be a better photographer if you understand the fundamentals of color management and print preparation.  In this article, I’ll share five essential tips for getting you and your images ready to print.

Surrounded by my prints at the Sunriver Art Festival 2016

      It’s hard to stress how important this is.  There is no point spending hours processing your photos for print if you haven’t calibrated your monitor.  It’s the foundation of color management, and brings everyone into a common color standard.  I remember when I got started in photography many years ago, I read on some forums about the importance of calibrating my monitor.  At the time I was more concerned with acquiring more lenses and gear and didn’t see why it was a big deal.  When I started printing I learned a hard and expensive lesson.  The first prints I made were a huge disappointment.  They didn’t look like what I saw on my monitor at all, the colors were off and it came out really dark.  With a little more friendly advise I finally invested in a decent calibrations package.  Once I calibrated my monitor I realized two important things.  One, it’s really helpful when everyone is using the same color standards and profiles, otherwise what may look red on my screen could look orange, or purple on another.  Two, I had my monitor set way too bright.  Reflected light from a print will never look as bright as transmitted light from a screen.  Lowering screen brightness much better reflects how an image will print.  Here is a link to the colormunki screen calibrator I use now.  Very easy to use and profiles really accurately.  All of their products work really well, but I like the customization options with the colormunki display model: http://xritephoto.com/colormunki-display
      Whether you are printing yourself, sending your files to a dedicated print shop, or preparing an image for a publisher, you will get much better results if you understand the basics of color management.  There are two basic concepts to understand when managing color on your computer. The first is using the correct color space when exporting from Lightroom, or Adobe Camera Raw and the right color setting in Photoshop.  I always use the Pro Photo RGB color space as it has the widest color gamut, I prefer to start my editing with as many colors as possible especially if I will be printing the image.  The second concept is using the right printing profile.  If you’re having someone else print for you, it’s still important to understand printer profiles.  You can use a printer profile to soft proof your image and get a preview of how it will look when printed with the specific printer and paper they use.  Printer profiles are scripts used by the printer to adhere to color standards, they help the printer produce an image that looks as close to what you see on your screen as possible.  I’ll talk more about soft proofing in the next section.

      Export settings in Lightroom Preferences

      Soft proofing is using software such as Lightroom, or Photoshop to preview a printer profile.  Soft proofing attempts to simulate what the image will look like when printed on a specific print paper with a specific printer.  I think soft proofing is useful to get you in the right ballpark, but I don’t trust soft proofing completely. It is still pretty unreliable when trying preview exactly what a print will look like.  I use soft proofing to get me close and then I order a test print which is called a hard proof.  Once the test print is made, or arrives from a print shop, I can evaluate it and make any adjustments that I think it needs.  This method is what I rely on when making prints for customers, art shows and galleries.  The videos below help explain soft proofing in Lightroom and Photoshop.
      Great video on soft proofing in Lightroom:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M9B8ABOb9U
      Another video about basic soft proofing in Photoshop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y47uoKE_dAs
      Each print medium I use requires different levels of sharpening to look it’s best.  For instance, noise from over sharpening shows up easier on metal prints.  Both acrylic and traditional inkjet prints are more forgiving and hide minor noise and digital artifacts better.  Canvas is the most forgiving.  Print size is also something to consider.  What does this mean in practical terms for my workflow?  I’ve adopted a simple and flexible approach to sharpening.  I do normal output sharpening in Lightroom or ACR to correct for softness introduced by camera, lens, and the RAW format.  The amount varies for each image.  I continue with my workflow in photoshop to produce a master file with all layers and adjustments preserved if possible.  If I’m going to make a print, I save a flattened copy of the master file and sharpen it specifically for that print size and medium.  Sometimes it doesn’t need additional sharpening, but if it does it’s usually the last adjustment I make before sending it to print.  As a general guideline, I sharpen more for smaller prints, and less for larger prints.  The is counter intuitive for many people, but I’ve found that smaller prints need more because they lose sharpness when they are scaled down, and large prints tend to show any unwanted effects that might arise from over sharpening.  This is my personal preference and there are other factors to consider including the view distance.
      Each print medium has it’s own perceptual brightness and ambient reflectivity.  Like I described in the sharpening section, I save a flattened copy of my master file for each specific size and print medium I print on.  Aluminum prints and lumachrome acrylic prints have high ambient reflectivity and perceptual brightness, therefore they require very little, if any brightness adjustment. Traditional inkjet prints and canvas require a lot more brightness adjustments if you want to replicate the look you see on your screen.

I’ve been printing a long time, and I’ve learned several important lessons from printing over the years.  I’ve noticed that my processing workflow has evolved to accommodate printing.  I now tend to process with printing in mind first, and make specific changes to the file later when posting to the web.  I also have evolved to process in the most editable and non destructive way to preserve the image quality.  I think printing has made me a better photographer and has helped me improve my image quality.

Old video blog about basic printing from Photoshop:  http://www.photocascadia.com/blog/intro-to-photoshop-printing-video/#.WIT_MrGZMUE

Recommended printing companies:  These are the two print companies that I use.  I’ve tried a lot print shops, and these guys both produce incredible, quality prints.  I get my Aluminum prints from: http://www.hdaluminumprints.com and acrylic prints from http://www.nevadaartprinters.com

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  • Raphael Schnepf

    Great article Zack. I haven’t taken the time to check out all the links but I will.

  • A. Jackson Frishman

    Good article, Zack! Regarding items 4 and 5, do you have any suggestions for getting a handle on sharpening and luminosity for various media besides simply making a ton of test prints? Any way to flatten that learning curve a bit would be most welcome!

    • Zack Schnepf

      I hate to say it, but there really is no one formula for sharpening for print, each image is different. But, In general, I’m not usually adding too much sharpening. If you are processing well in Lightroom/Photoshop, doing good contrast adjustments, there is much less of a need to compensate with sharpening. I also tend to do pretty large prints, my most common size is 20×30, and those require less sharpening to optimize. Brightness is tough. I’m printing more and more on Metal and Acrylic, one of reasons is because they are so bright and more accurately reflect what I see on my monitor. I tend to have to brighten traditional inkjet prints quite a bit.

      • A. Jackson Frishman

        That’s still helpful, thank you!

  • ljkamlerphoto

    I started doing my own printing last summer on a P800. It seems no matter what I do with calibration and monitor brightness, getting the appropriate luminance is still difficult with certain images, and I often end up with multiple hard proofs before I’m satisfied. This is really only a problem with those darker/moody images that seem to have so much shadow detail on screen, but once they get to paper, all that shadow detail is muddy. By the time I’ve brightened the image enough to see detail in the print under normal lighting conditions, it can be a completely different image from what looked so cool on screen. I’m not sure if this is just a limitation of printing on certain mediums like photo paper, or if there is something more I can do with editing. Prints that I’ve had done on aluminum seem to have a higher luminance. I’ve only done one acrylic print of a well-lit day time scene, so I’m not sure how it would compare. Printing definitely has a learning curve, but it’s a rewarding process.

    • Zack Schnepf

      Yes indeed, dark images that look great on screens rarely print well on traditional print papers. This is definitely one of those lessons learned the hard way. Even on metal and acrylic, really dark images are hard to print well.

      • Pete L.

        I agree. One thing that often helps me is raising only the darkest part of the image. Printing seems to darken the darks disproportionately more than the rest of the luminance values. Practically speaking, this is a simple curves adjustment where you pull the lower left point straight up just a little. On screen is has that “gray blacks” look but often turns out good on print.

  • ljkamlerphoto

    I started calibrating with a ColorMunki Display and its packaged software a couple years ago. I now use the same ColorMunki colorimeter, but with DisplayCal+Argyll CMS (freeware, but a little more complicated to use). I feel my color accuracy is much improved since switching to DisplayCal+Argyll. It’s a longer, and I assume more thorough, calibration process. You can alter the length/accuracy of the calibration in the software, but I think it usually takes me over an hour. That’s somewhere in the middle of the length spectrum.

  • Hale Kell

    Nice concise post, thanks Zack. A question: when you use a particular print profile to soft proof an image, say in Lightroom – when you export that image out of Lightroom to send out to print, do you put the same print profile in the File Settings / Color space? Or do you have ProPhoto RGB, AdobeRGB or sRGB there?

    • Zack Schnepf

      No, you only use the print profiles when soft proofing, or if you are printing yourself, you tell the printer to use it to interpret the colors. The color space is always set to Pro Photo RBG.

      • ljkamlerphoto

        Do you print from a tiff file or jpg? Does it matter? I’ve been printing from jpgs in sRGB, so I’m wondering if I would get better results if I stayed in Pro Photo and/or tiff.

        • Zack Schnepf

          I normally print from a 16 bit Tiff using Pro Photo RGB. Some printers benefit from printing in 16 bit so you may get better results printing from a 16 bit Tiff rather than an 8 bit jpeg. Many printers can take also advantage of the larger color gamut provided by Pro Photo RGB.

  • I think vector files are better for printing. Raster files don’t give you the expected quality in printing.

  • CBWyatt

    Thanks for the ideas on printing. I have trouble with prints usually coming out too dark and have read that adjusting your final file by adding some brightness to the whole file will help. You said that most monitors are set too bright and you adjust your monitor’s brightness to a lower setting. Do you keep it at one setting for all printing or adjust it depending on print paper, etc.? I know there are many variables, but what monitor brightness setting do you use? I would like to get a metal print made for the first time. What steps do you go through when working with someone for the first time? Will a small print look the same as a larger print to see if adjustments need to be made? Thanks for any help you can give regarding metal prints.

    • Zack Schnepf

      I keep my monitor at a consistent brightness that I’ve found works best for most types of printing. That way it’s more reliable. When I’m printing on a particular medium, like metal for instance, I make luminosity adjustments based on my experience with that medium and then have a test print made. I would recommend contacting the metal printer and asking what they recommend first, and then order a small test print. You will be able to get a good idea of overall brightness and color accuracy this way. I highly recommend my metal printer http://www.hdaluminumprints.com, Randy and his crew are the best metal printers I’ve used and understand color management even better than I do.

    • Zack Schnepf

      I replied to this comment several days ago, but for some reason I don’t see my reply. Anyway, I’ll answer again. I always leave my monitor the same brightness for consistency. I use soft proofing to help simulate brightness differences and correct for them. My advice is to have a small test print made. You can evaluate the brightness and color on the test print and make any adjustments before you order full size.