More photographers and snap shooters are printing! Hooray! A photograph is not finished until it is printed. With an increasing number of folks realizing that pictures go to die on your smartphone, on your computer and on social media, the volume of prints is going up. And that has raised some concerns not experienced in the on screen only world. In this article, we will look at a few issues and propose some solutions for them.
Before we dive into common problems, remember that editing is an act of precision. You aren’t likely to get good colour if you do not control the location where the editing is done. Ideally it is a dim location with no light hitting the screen directly and no light other than the display directly coming into the eye. So don’t put your screen in front of a window. Or anything that is going to be bright directly behind it. If you can, maintain the conditions in the location to be constant from editing session to editing session.
Number One : My Prints Are Too Dark
This is literally the number one complaint about photo prints. It is followed immediately by complaints about the crappy lab, or the stupid kiosk or that dumb printer that I was convinced to buy. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with the print. It pretty much EXACTLY matches the file that was used to create it except in very rare cases. By rare, I mean less than 4% of the time.
The problem lies in your display. Whether this is a monitor, smartphone screen, laptop display or television screen, it is always the fault of the display where you do your editing. You see, in order to convince you that their displays are awesome, the maker’s default settings are set too bright, too contrasty and have too much saturation. You’ve experienced this whenever you see a wall of TVs at your local retailer. They are set so nuclear that extended observation will give you a very serious headache coupled with nasty eyestrain.
Here is a simple logic statement to help you out. IF print = “too dark” THEN screen = “too bright”
Turn the brightness down on the display to about 30%. While you are in there, look for a profile of flat or standard. This will flatten contrast and saturation and may also balance out sharpening if the display has that inherent. You want all of these settings in the middle of their scale at maximum. You may have to set each individually, or discover that your display doesn’t offer you any control over these things. Such is life. You should also disable Automatic Brightness controls on any screen that you will be using for editing.
Now try another print. If still too dark, the screen is still too bright. Keep at it until you are close. Understand that they will NEVER match. A display is firing photons directly at your eyes, while a print is reflecting photons towards your eyes, and those photons are affected by paper surface, native paper colour, the medium used to make the print as well as the light itself that illuminates the print.
This simple prescription solves a lot of problems.
Number Two : The Colours in my Prints are Wrong
Guess what? The print is correct, within the caveats of paper type, surface type, reflectivity, medium used, age of the print, storage method and the light that is falling on the print when you make the judgement.
Your display is wrong. This is easily solved with computer monitors, to a lesser extent with tablets, even lesser with televisions and generally not at all with phones. Let’s presume for a moment that you actually are trying to do useful edits so your display is probably not something with a 4 inch diagonal display. If it is, sorry, cannot help you.
I noted earlier that displays come from the factory set to nuclear afterglow. Very often the colour profiles are completely wrong. Your computer may offer an in operating system calibration tool. This will depend on your eyesight to work. Considering that your eye adjusts to colour temperature shifts in milliseconds, mark these tools as mostly useless.
You need to calibrate your display. Not just once, but regularly, at minimum every three to four weeks. Display colours shift. A just turned on display will be substantially different after it has been operating for an hour. Your eye is incapable of judging colour properly. This means buying a display calibration device. The two major makers are XRite and Datacolor. XRite has the popular Colormunki lineup and Datacolor does the popular Spyder lineup. They each use proprietary software to do their jobs and most of the time do a terrific job. If a calibration produces completely wonky results, check for external influences like light through a window on the screen, or overheads hitting the screen or a really bright table lamp in your field of view, correct any such influences and recalibrate. Make sure that your display has been on for at least 30 minutes before calibrating and not gone to sleep.
I have met a lot of people who think that they can see colour better than the scientific calibrator. Sad to say that this is not true. Human colour vision shifts consistently, and your brain is constantly shifting perception to achieve what it has evolved to deliver as daylight colour to the best of its ability. If you think that your display is too orange and you’ve calibrated it a few times, guess which component of the situation is wrong. That’s right, it’s you, 95% of the time.
The higher end calibrators will take into account room brightness and make recommendations on screen brightness, white point and gamma. Some of the entry level units will not do this. You get less precision when you spend less money. which sounds a lot like you get what you pay for. When it comes to calibration, this is true.
If you have fixed the screen brightness and have a properly calibrated display, your prints and your display should be very close within the considerations that I already covered in the prints too dark section. If you are going to be printing with any kind of seriousness, display calibration is not optional and will save you lots of money and frustration in the long term.
Number Three : The Print IS Actually Bad
You’ve done steps one and two and the prints you are getting are still coming out looking lousy. If you are printing yourself, have a couple done by a quality online lab. Do they match your home printed prints? If not and they do match your display pretty closely, there is something wrong in your printer, or printing process. More on this later.
If you are getting your prints done at a lab, try a different lab and compare. Even very good labs will produce markedly different prints from the very same file. If you are using one of those instant kiosks, you may be expecting too much. They are hardly precision printers and most often used dye sublimation films on special paper. Good for snapshots and designed specifically to work with JPEGs off a smartphone, anything else has a diminishing probability of success. If this is your only printing option, do all your editing on the screen of the kiosk. While this makes you a real nuisance to other customers, it’s your best chance of getting a print that looks vaguely like the image on your phone. In general, Kiosk prints are the LOWEST quality and massively inconsistent.
It used to be that camera stores had relationships with professional labs. Some still do, but many of them are doing printing in the back and do not properly train the operators. So you get massive inconsistency in results. You may have a local Costco where you can get some test prints done by different operators and find the person or persons who are well trained and know their business. In the United States, Costco Printshop employees used to have to earn the Certified Photographic Counselor designation. I don’t know if that is still a requirement as it is a sadly diminished recognition. Most retail printer operators or camera store staff have no training and wouldn’t be able to tell a bad print from a horseshoe. Sorry to all those offended, but seriously, what training have you got?
Professional online labs have highly trained staff, and their default operation is to do minor fixes on incoming files to best match the display file with their printers and their paper dependent upon your order. Some will allow you to specify that your files are already edited and not to touch them, but to be blunt, unless you have been given a very specific ICC profile for a particular paper and print by the online lab, let their pros do their jobs. I have done an experiment with many online labs where I sent the same file in two different orders. In the first order, I just ordered the prints. In the second I specified not to do any edits. Both sets of prints looked fine, but the ones where I let the pros do their jobs came out better and closer to what I expected based on prints that I made in my own studio using my printing workflow.
Many online or storefront labs specify only JPEGs in the sRGB colour space and do not offer any ICC profiles. They will do somewhere between an ok job and excellent work, but you will have to spend some money to find out which one is right for you. A good lab will also do a gamut check for the paper surface that you have chosen and let you know if things are going to get lousy really fast. While you do not necessarily have to learn to edit for print, doing so will result in better prints when you send the file off to the lab.
If you do want to use an online lab, my first recommendation continues to be WhiteWall at https://www.whitewall.ca They have urls for different countries. The prints are made in Germany and the quality is superb. Pricing is very competitive and they offer lots of lovely mounting options. In North America, I have found the best results from MPIX Pro at https://www.mpixpro.com Neither company are generic labs and both benefit from building a profile with you. Are there others? Certainly. Do I use them? No I do not.
Now let’s circle back to making your own prints at home. There are a number of considerations before you invest in a printer and paper that you really do need to think about.
How often will you be printing? If not at least every two weeks, you need to think about whether you should be printing at home at all
Will you be willing to run a printer test every week without fail?
Do you need / want paper surfaces other than gloss, matte or lustre? No? Hmm, printing at home may be more trouble than you want.
How much printing will you do? If the answer is lots, you are going to be looking at a larger, heavier and more expensive printer solely so you can buy your ink in larger capacity ink cartridges. Most home printers provide less than 9mL of ink per cartridge making printer ink the most expensive general liquid around. If the answer is not too much, your cost still goes up because ink goes bad and cartridges stop flowing. Your plan should be to empty your ink tanks within six months of installation and never more than a year. A printer with three or four year old ink is more than likely going to deliver prints that NEVER match your display because the inks have gone bad or oxidized or destabilized in some other way.
If your printer has four or less ink tanks, it is not going to good for quality photo prints. These “photo” capable printers aren’t because they will burn through lots of inks trying to mix colours using print engines not capable of doing a decent job. A minimum is six tanks for home printing, and one of those shouldn’t be a gloss optimizer or other surface treatment.
Don’t get me wrong. I love making my own prints and I spent money on a lovely printer that can print up to 17” wide and I rarely make prints smaller than that. If I could afford the printer, the ink and the space, I would happily look for one that could do 44” wide. Printing is an art, independent of photography.
Let me say that again. Printing is an art independent of photography. When you use a professional lab, you voluntarily give up that level of artistic commitment. But if your use cases do not justify a home printer, perhaps going through the work to learn to edit for print is not worthwhile for you. You see, a file edited for the screen that looks great, is not ready for printing properly. In the best case, you will have a specific ICC profile for the printer and paper that will be used, whether you own the printer or you do not. Then you will use it, in conjunction with a new edit that uses your screen ready image as the starting point for a print ready edit for that specific paper, printer and its ink. The process of editing for print involves not only ICC profiles but also learning how to soft proof as well as a fair bit of experimentation. It’s not uncommon for a fine art printer to make over a half dozen test prints before getting to the one he or she is happy with. That’s a cost in paper, ink and time. I love it. You may not. Even if I am sending a file out for a size that I cannot do or a surface deliverable that I cannot do, I always go through the edit for print process. This allows me to check for paper and ink simulations as well as evaluate if my edited version is out of gamut on my screen or in the print file. The more that I can do to deliver the best quality file either to my printer or my preferred lab, the better the result will be. Again, I am a fine art printer and this stuff does matter to me. You may just want a nice print for the hall, and not need to go to this level of depth.
Learning to Edit for Print
I’d love to direct you to a book or online class for this stuff. I have found some resources that are helpful and a great mentor in Daniel J. Gregory. You can find him at https://www.danieljgregory.com Daniel has become a friend over time, and I heartily recommend his printing workshops and training options. You should also get yourself a book, called The Digital Print by Jeff Schewe. I will not tell you that this is light and easy read because it is not. It is however the most effective text that you are likely to find on the subject. https://amzn.to/2JDvxnR It has over 90% positive reviews on Amazon Canada if that sort of thing matters to you. I also offer training on editing for print using Lightroom Classic CC or Photoshop CC as components to customer mentoring programs. Contact me by email if you are interested via the link below.
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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, watching and listening and until next time, peace.