Plugged In: Want quality? Don’t skimp when you print

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

It’s been awhile since we’ve discussed making fine photographic prints for exhibition and display at your home or at any number of businesses throughout the area, not to mention the Redoubt Reporter’s annual exhibition of photo contest winners.

Although most digital photos now end up solely on Facebook and other electronic media, most people feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment about printing and displaying an attractive photographic exhibition. However, there’s a critical intermediate step between your computer screen and an exhibit wall.

High-quality photo printing is a serious craft, balancing colors and getting from black to white as elegantly as possible. This week, let’s look at one possible method of zeroing in on the best possible print from a digital image. It’s much easier with modern digital photography tools and far more controllable than in film and chemical days.

I’ve seen many people spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to buy top cameras and lenses yet try to scrape by with cheap printers and monitors. This makes little sense. When posting images at the coarse, 72-dot-per-inch resolution of most computer monitors, even a three- to five-megapixel camera has more resolution than most computer monitors can display. Any additional resolution is basically discarded by the computer system displaying the images.

High-resolution cameras and lenses are needed principally when making enlarged images, whether for publication or direct exhibit. So if you’re sufficiently serious about photography to buy high-end gear, your next major purchase probably should be a high-end printer, rather than another lens or camera body. Suitable high-end printers are much less expensive than most people imagine and ink costs per square inch tend to be much lower, as well, due to the cost-effective large ink cartridges used by such printers.

I believe that the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 is probably the best current printer for serious amateur photographers. It easily handles a wide variety of media in sizes up to 17-by-25 inches, big enough for any local exhibit space. The 3880 lists for about $1,300, about the price of one or two serious lenses. In the long term, a top-end printer will likely be one of your best investments.

You’ll also want a good monitor that accurately displays colors and tone. I’ve used several that have sufficed, but Dell’s 2711 series stands out. It can display a wider range of colors than most monitors, including the AdobeRGB color set, and includes a 2560-by-1440 super-high resolution. I recently bought the older version for about $800 at a closeout sale. It seems more consistent than my prior monitor and is the least-expensive monitor I’ve found that can display the expanded AdobeRGB color set rather than the usual low-end sRGB color set. It nicely matches the Epson 3880’s expanded color and tonal range.

Inks are specific to each printer model. You really should use nothing but the printer manufacturer’s own inks, even if they seem expensive. Third-party inks will likely be less consistent and might damage your printer while voiding your warranty.

People endlessly argue about which photo printing paper is the “best.” The short answer is that no one paper is best for everything. Experiment a bit and see what works for the various sorts of photos you typically make.

Having said that, I find that I prefer inexpensive Kirkland glossy paper for casual, 8.5-by-11-inch letter-size prints. This paper is bright with clean colors. Three Bears sells 150-sheet boxes of letter-size paper for less than $30, an excellent deal.

For larger prints, I tend to favor papers from Red River, an independent source. Unlike most papers supplied by printer manufacturers, Red River also makes larger, 17-by-25-inch sheets, a format that I believe works very well for images produced by digital SLR cameras. I particularly like the cool white 75-lb. Arctic Polar Luster ($67.50 for a box of 20 17-by-25-inch sheets), and also the new San Gabriel Baryta paper ($92 for a box of 20 17-by-25-inch sheets).

San Gabriel is a nice, stiff archival paper with a warmer white base color and traditional gelatin coating. Because traditional paper coatings are softer and more easily scratched while wet, you’ll need to slow down your printing speed to avoid scratches.

  • Don’t forget — you’ll need to calibrate your computer monitor, camera and printer to a single standard so what you see really is what you get. Xrite’s ColorMunki and Color Checker Passport products are the least-expensive calibration tools that work reliably. In the long run, good initial calibration will save you a great deal of time, expensive materials and frustration.
  • You’ll want a bit of pure black in the darkest shadows of most photographic prints, but typically not too much. Dark tones give your prints a sense of solidity and strength. You’ll also want a touch of pure paper base white in the highlights so there’s sparkle and life to your prints but, again, not too much. Shadow and highlight areas usually should have texture and show fine detail, rather than blanking out into large areas of pure black and pure white, which are distracting and usually visually unpleasant.
  • Before adjusting exposure, be sure that you’ve corrected any problems with the overall color balance of the image. Color balance can affect proper exposure, and vice versa, so it’s wise to make rough color balance corrections prior to adjusting exposure and contrast. Be sure that you do this with a calibrated system where “what you see is what you get.” Otherwise, any changes will be hit or miss.  After you’ve made your initial corrections to exposure and contrast, go back and fine-tune color balance to eliminate any overall color casts. For example, if you make a snow scene a bit darker, then bluish colors may become more pronounced and require additional correction.
  • Overall printing exposure should be just right, so that the intermediate tones are neither too dark overall nor too light. The “right” exposure depends on the subject and how you want to treat it, so there’s no hard and fast rule. Even a small exposure change, on the order of .33 more or less, can make a big difference in the appearance of your final print.

Instead of simply guessing and wasting expensive materials, I suggest that you first make smaller proof prints using the same computer, printer and photo paper, but at varying exposures. Make notes of what exposure you’ve used for each test print. Be sure that you examine your test prints in the place were they’ll be displayed and under the same lights that will illuminate your final prints.

After deciding which test print looks best for that photograph, check your notes and re-set your exposure darker or lighter as needed. Then make a second set of prints to verify that you’ve correctly adjusted for the display area’s lighting.

  • Assuming that exposure looks about right, then it’s time to adjust the contrast, which determines how quickly intermediate tones change from dark to light. Incorrect contrast is probably the biggest single problem with photographic prints.

It’s generally easy to spot when contrast is set too high — the print appears stark, with strong areas of featureless black and white but little in between. There are occasions when higher contrast results in very striking images, but you’ll need to recognize when you’ve gone over the top when increasing contrast.

Prints that lack sufficient contrast look gray, weak and generally lifeless. There’s no other way to describe it. Make a few test prints at different contrast, saturation and “curve” settings to see what seems to work best for your image.

  • In addition to overall contrast, a well-made digital print has good micro-contrast that provides cleaner tonal separation between immediately adjacent parts of the image. Micro-contrast is separately controlled by the “clarity” slider in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.

“Clarity” does not change the overall contrast of the extreme darks and lights of your image but does improve the tonal separation among adjacent image areas. This control can also be used to control the appearance of midtones. It increases the separation of adjacent tones in a manner that often improves the “presence” of important parts of your subject, making them stand out in an almost three-dimensional way against the background.

When used carefully, the clarity control can make a very noticeable improvement in your final print, improving apparent sharpness without significantly increasing digital noise. Lightroom’s clarity control can also be used to decrease apparent sharpness, if desired. The touch-up brush and neutral gradient tools can be used with a negative clarity setting to soften areas as desired.

We’re looking forward to seeing many excellent prints hanging at locations around the central Kenai Peninsula.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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