There’s nothing like a beautifully printed photograph. Whether it’s a portrait of a loved one or a fine art piece, holding a perfectly crafted print in the hand and seeing it up close is impactful. While film photographers did that in the darkroom, digital photographers have struggled with the inkjet printing process.
Photography has largely become a consumer electronics industry. Digital cameras today, or even from the last 5 years, are far superior to anything we have ever had before. In fact, they are so good that I regularly hear professional photographers complaining that “everyone is a photographer now.”
What Can We Do To Set Ourselves Apart?
We can go back to what photographers use to do: we can print our own photographs!
I’m not referring to a cheap print that anyone can get from a one-hour photo mini-lab but a personally crafted fine art print. Something of the highest quality, that looks and feels luxurious and has longevity.
The inkjet printing process is entirely scientific and all we have been lacking is the proper education. Understand the settings, follow the steps and get consistent, repeatable excellent results.
These steps are all about having control over the process, from seeing our digital files to getting that image onto a piece of paper. Since everything related to photography can be expensive I’ve included the areas where I chose to invest wisely and those where I opted to be frugal and save money.
Step 1: Monitor - Adobe RGB 1998
For fine art digital inkjet printing we are working in the Adobe RGB (1998) color space. It's the optimal color space for the combination of our cameras, computers, printers, and inkjet papers.
Most computer screens are not able to project in that color space. A typical computer monitor is generally in the sRGB color space and newer Mac monitors are a P3 color space which is meant for digital video, not photography.
Our optimal work monitor would have a matte screen, a viewing hood and Adobe RGB (1998) color. The matte screen cuts out reflections and the hood focuses our eyes on our screen.
There are a handful of companies that make these monitors so we do have a number of choices. When it comes to investing in my photography equipment I often make choices about where to spend and where to be frugal. This is one area where frugality wins out for me.
After much research, I am very happy that I decided on the BenQ monitors. I have the BenQ 27 inch SW2700PT for $599.00, the BenQ SW270C with USB-C connectivity for newer computers for $799.00, and the BenQ SW321 as an affordable 32-inch Wide Gamut monitor for $1,999.00.
They are solid and sturdy with all the specifications I was looking for and, as an extra added convenience, they come with a little door at the top of the hood for a calibration device. This makes calibrating my monitors all the easier.
Step 2: Calibrate Your Monitor
I know you want to skip this part but trust me, it’s worth it.
Calibrating your monitor properly takes 11 minutes, during which you can check social media or play a game on your phone. Remember that printing is a science and we need to control this whole process. The most common complaint I hear is “my print came out too dark.” This is almost always because their monitor isn’t calibrated.
Monitors generally come out of the box too bright and are not color corrected. To calibrate a monitor you need a calibration device. This includes a colorimeter and software that will measure the brightness, black point, how the colors are showing on the screen and correct them to a standard.
That standard is ICC, which stands for International Color Consortium. They set the standard for what a color is. In the digital world, it is a precise mathematical equivalency. We are dealing with a digital environment so it is imperative to give a color an absolute value.
There are a number of different colorimeter devices and software on the market. This is not the place to save a few dollars. We want an accurate device with software that will show us if our screen calibration passed within a narrow margin according to the ICC standard. We don't want a participation award, we want to win!
The X-Rite i1Display Pro is accurate and can be personalized for optimal results. I’m currently working on a website, PerfectPrintClub.com, that will have very specific step-by-step instructions to make the calibration process simple and straightforward.
Step 3: Inkjet Paper
There are hundreds of different inkjet papers made by dozens of companies. While it’s wonderful that we have a lot of choices, it's also absolutely overwhelming how many different papers there are. I have written an entire ProEdu blog post on inkjet papers which you can read here.
At PerfectPrintClub.com we will be offering a service to print one of your images on multiple different papers using custom ICC paper profiles so we get the best results. We will mail the prints to you, then have a video conference call so we can discuss the different papers, explain them to you, and see which you like best.
Step 4: Custom ICC printer/paper profile
Using a custom ICC profile is the most critical yet most frequently overlooked step in this process. An ICC profile utilizes your paper and printer combination to create the best possible results. While paper companies offer free generic profiles, they are not a match for your exact printer.
The best analogy I have ever heard is that a custom ICC paper profile is like a pair of prescription glasses for your printer, while a generic profile is like +1 readers from the drug store. While this is not the place to skimp on, it’s also not the place to overspend. My experience has been that most photographers use just a few different papers.
You can spend a couple of thousand dollars getting an X-Rite i1Photo Pro 3 Plus Kit. It will make profiles but you don't need to make that kind of investment. PerfectPrintClub.com will offer custom profiles from a professional commercial device. Our profiles are $99 each and well worth the investment for guaranteed perfect prints.
Step 5: Pigment Ink Printer
When purchasing an inkjet printer you need to make some decisions based on your personal needs and lifestyle. Think about how long you want your prints to last, what size prints you want to make, how easy you want the printing process to be, and ultimately how often you are going to print.
Always think of buying a printer as buying ink and getting the printer for free. How much money you spend on ink can vary a lot from printer to printer and that is an important factor to keep in mind.
For printing photographs, the best option is a pigment ink printer. Dye based ink does not have the professional qualities we are looking for. Pigment inks are our best chance for longevity.
While both Epson and Canon printers make beautiful prints, we need to consider the history of mechanical issues such as print head clogs and paper feed problems. After a lot of research I decided to go with Canon and have been very happy with my decision.
Desktop printers are small, relatively inexpensive, and are great for print sizes up to 17 inches wide. I recommend and use the Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-1000 which I love for making small prints.
However, with a goal to make the largest prints I could, the best value for my money was to purchase a large format printer. I chose the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4100 so I can print on rolls of paper 44 inches wide. With Canon’s print utility I can create presets for my papers so printing is very efficient, fast, and easy.
The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4100 and PRO-2100 are the same printers that can be found at major print labs. I’m saving a lot of money by printing myself. The convenience of printing on demand and having complete control over the print process was a game changer for me.
Step 6 - Proper Lighting
It’s important to have at least one place with appropriate lighting to view your prints. If there isn't enough light then your print will look too dark. Your print has to look good consistently in at least one place so let’s make a space with that purpose in mind.
While it’s tempting to view your prints while held up next to your screen this is actually one of the worst places to view them. In photography, the standard for viewing photographs is 120 lumens at 5000k. This is the color temp of the sun at high noon on a clear day. While you can get a GTI lightbox, they take up a fair amount of space and are quite expensive.
This is an area I decided to go for the budget solution. I have Philip Hue bulbs in regular track lighting and used my light meter to dial in the brightness. I can look at the prints when they come out of my printer and know that I’m looking at them in the optimal light.
Follow The Steps And Get Perfect Prints Every Time!
This is just a quick rundown of these steps, and of course there is a lot more information. At least this gets you started thinking about how to tackle printing.
I’m currently working on a website, PerfectPrintClub.com, that will house everything you need to know about inkjet printing. Follow the link, sign up and we will let you know when it’s ready. It covers everything from the technical details of individual operating systems integration with specific print drivers to the art of picking the right fine art paper for your work.
It’s time we changed the discussion about inkjet printing and made it completely accessible to all of us.
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