How to get photos ready to print
steps to take before you print an image
1. Why are you printing?
The more important (or expensive) the print, the more of the steps in this post you should consider. For a quick run of 6x4s to share with your family, you don’t really need to do anything other than check the colour is OK. But if you’re investing in a big print, hoping for success in a camera club print competition, trying for a distinction or wanting to sell your prints, then think about everything on the list.
There are three places your colour can go wrong: when you take the shot, when you edit it, and when you print it. Colour management becomes especially critical if you are printing more than one shot to be displayed together. You must maintain a consistent colour temperature between shots.
White balance - when you take the shot
All light has a colour temperature — think cold blue light when it’s frosty, or warm orange light at sunset. Your camera doesn’t know whether you’re shooting a frosty scene or a sunset though. If you rely on the camera’s in-built auto white balance (“AWB”) then you have to hope it has estimated the colour temperature correctly. For more accurate colour representation at the time you take the shot, dial in the actual colour temperature using your camera’s manual controls.
Monitor calibration - when you edit the shot
Have you ever walked into a TV showroom and noticed all the TVs display the same image a bit differently — some are warmer, some are bluer. This is because the screens are all made differently. Also some may have been on longer than others, or may be very old. The fact is you can’t trust the colour on your TV or your computer monitor to be accurate straight out of the box.
If you are serious about accurate colour reproduction you’ll start to calibrate your monitor regularly (this basically sets the white balance back to neutral). Some screens and operating systems have a basic, free option. You can also buy a device that you hang on your monitor when you want to refresh the calibration, and it runs through a series of tests to perform the calibration. It doesn’t take long and it’s not difficult to do.
Once your monitor is calibrated you can also improve colour accuracy by never editing on a completely cold monitor (let it warm up for half an hour), and even by buying a monitor hood to cut out ambient light interference.
Print profiles - when you print the shot
Photographs look different when they are displayed on a monitor compared to when they are printed. A monitor or phone is back-lit — your shots will appear vibrant, and full of contrast. The image is made up of combining different colours of light together. But a printed image is made up of combinations of inks and the final print can appear dull and flat compared to the image projected on a your screen.
The best way to predict how your printed image is going to look is to use colour profiles in Photoshop, and then edit your image in that colour space. They will initially look flat, dull and low contrast, but your eye adapts, and you will end up with a less disappointing final print.
If you want to explore this further, do some research on digital colour spaces (eg. “RGB”) compared to print spaces (eg. “CMYK”), and how they differ.
In the meantime, ask your commercial printer for their print profile (or download the profile for your home printer), and install it in Photoshop.
If you are using a professional commercial printer, they will often colour correct your images for you on request as part of the printing service. But if you want to create an unusual or specific colour effect, or maintain consistency across different print runs, ask their advice on how to embed a profile to avoid any possibility of human error.
Read this post from Adobe for more information on working with colour profiles in Photoshop.
Do you know how to find out the resolution of your images? You’re looking for the information about how many pixels are along each side. It will be something like “1800px x 900px”.
If not, do a bit of online research and find out whether you can already view this information in your photo editor, by viewing individual file information, or whether you need to install some additional software to enable you to do this.
This is how the information displays in Apple’s Finder:
The number of pixels you have determines how big you can print your image and maintain acceptable sharpness. Screen display is 72 pixels per inch. Print resolution is between 200 and 300 pixels per inch (or dots per inch: “ppi” or “dpi”).
If you are printing at 300 dpi, you divide the number of pixels you have by 300 to find out the most number of inches that the image will print acceptably sharp. For example the image above with 4032 pixels on the long side will print up to 13.44 inches wide at 300 dpi (4032/300 = 13.44).
But you can also factor in how far away you will be viewing the image: most larger images are viewed from a few steps away (compared to a smaller photo book which is viewed at arms-length. So you can get away with printing a bit bigger or at a lower dpi, if your image is to be viewed from a distance.
You can also add pixels to your shot using Photoshop’s various interpolation options. This is more than simply “upsizing” the shot. Photoshop uses intelligent sampling algorithms to add appropriate colours in the right places. It’s never a perfect option, because the image always degrades slightly, but it’s worth trying if you need a bigger image than your pixels allow. Read more here: Adobe Photoshop interpolation techniques
Once you have your image correctly colour profiled, and at the optimum resolution to print, the last step you should take is to apply sharpening.
Sharpening is where you use a photo editor to increase the contrast between particular pixels, usually edges, to increase the apparent sharpness of your shot. The amount of sharpening you need to apply depends on what you are doing with your shot, so it should always be the last thing you do: sharpening for print is different to sharpening for online display. Be careful not to overdo it. Always work on a copy if you are doing non-destructive editing, and always step away from your shot for 15 minutes and come back to look at it to see if you have done too much.
If you use Lightroom you can use the Sharpening slider in the Develop module: click here for more details
If you use Photoshop you have more options: click here for more details
If you are using a commercial printer, discuss with them who will do the sharpening. If you have sharpened for print, make sure they know not to apply more sharpening.
Only RAW files need to be sharpened. If you only shoot JPEGs, your camera will sharpen your shots in-camera, and if you do more sharpening you will degrade the image further. You can sharpen JPEGs if you need to, but be very careful and use the absolute minimum.
5. Photographic prints vs digital vs litho
If you are printing photographs with a commercial photography printer, the print process will probably be “giclee” (a fancy word for inkjet). You can pay more to have C-type traditional prints at specialist printers.
Digital prints (or “print on demand”) is used more by graphic designers for print products like brochures than by photographers. However, if you want to sell greetings cards, you should investigate the quality of digital colour printing because of the very low up front cost (the minimum order will be in the 10s rather than the 1,000s). The alternative is traditional lithographic printing, but because of the setup costs, you cannot do short-run prints. You usually have to order products in a minimum quantity of 500+ for litho printing. But the quality of digital prints is not as good as litho, so test prints will be needed if you are planning on selling.
6. Where to print
The cheapest option is to print at home. When you are choosing a photo printer, make sure to check the cost of ink refills and photo paper before you pick up that suspiciously cheap printer. Bear in mind manufacturers tailor their inks to be used together with their own papers, so try not to mix eg. Epson paper with Canon ink.
Snapfish, Shutterfly, Costco — even major food supermarkets like Asda and Tesco have their own online photo printing service. Upload your photos, choose the size of print, and wait for the photos to arrive. Things to bear in mind: 1) the service will almost certainly warn you if your image file is too small to print at the size you have requested which is good, and 2) you have virtually no control over things like colour space or sharpening. These services are for cheap and cheerful printing, not exhibition printing.
For competitions and exhibitions, invest in excellent printing. Search for your local professional photographer’s printer, and explain what you are printing for. I use the following printers (all based in Europe, non have paid me to link here):
Loxley - for pro photographers but they welcome amateur customers. There’s an option to specify you are not professional when you make an account. I spoke to them and they said yes, don’t worry that their branding is all for professionals, you will be very welcome if you are not.
Metro Print - I use Metro for C-type, exhibition printing and black & white printing.
Whitewall - I use Whitewall for big framed prints
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