Introduction to Fine Art Printing for Photographers - a Tale of Love, Heartbreak, Redemption, and Science
This story is like a romantic movie: love at first sight, agonizing heartbreak in the middle, then it all comes together in the end. You got feeling all romantic and bought an inkjet printer. Maybe you did a lot of research, maybe you fell for the seductive marketing speak, or maybe you listened to someone like they were setting you up on a blind date.
You unboxed it to find a single page “Quickstart” guide. Then the feeling of discomfort started to creep in. You suffer hours of frustration. By the time you press “Print” the futility of the situation is evident. Your print comes out too ______ (fill in the blank, it’s usually DARK but it could be yellow, green, or a dozen other problems). Hours of internet videos and reading Ph.D. style dissertations on printing left you feeling confused and damaged.
You dissolved into feelings of regret and self-loathing. “What is wrong with me?” Your tears steamed into a quart of Häagen-Dazs, that you eat with a fork.
You failed at printing.
Welcome to the club.
Your mistake? The same mistake we all make. You thought that you could buy a new inkjet printer, set it up and use it successfully to make beautiful fine art prints. Why is such a simple, innocent, optimistic act a mistake?
While it’s possible to have success, first we need to talk about how we got here in the first place. Where did it all go wrong?
It’s safe to say that the industry hasn’t done the best job setting us up for successful printing. The amount of misinformation available on the internet is mind-boggling. Marketing speak is very seductive but doesn't answer the questions that you don't even know you are going to have.
The printer and paper companies, like Canon, Epson, Hahnemühle and Canson Infinity, have done an outstanding job of making exceptional products. They do offer some education but it really isn't their job to educate us on how to use their products to their fullest potential. Realistically, if you stop and think about it, that can be said of most of the products we use in digital photography.
When you purchase a digital camera it comes with a manual on how to use the camera, but not on how to be a photographer. Photoshop and Lightroom have some tutorials to get us started, but they don't teach us how to master the programs specifically for our own work. There is nothing intuitive about photography so it makes sense that there is nothing intuitive about digital inkjet printing.
Expecting to buy an inkjet printer, plug it in and make a beautiful fine art print without the proper education is like expecting to be a great photographer just because you bought a camera.
I’ll spare you the details of my long and frustration filled story but it involves 12 years of searching for answers to my fine art printing problems, hard work, determination and lots of failures. But it all paid off in my fairytale ending 4 years ago when I finally found the motherload of information and started to learn the secrets of fine art printing success.
Since then I’ve dedicated my life to learning everything I can about digital inkjet printing. My photography has gone from existing as pretty pictures on Facebook to being beautiful prints living in the homes of people who appreciate my work. Now my goal is to share this wealth of knowledge with you, my community of photographers.
I truly believe that photographers printing their own work is the most important topic in digital photography today. We are taking more photographs today than ever and yet printing fewer than ever. The photographic world has largely turned into a consumer electronics industry. Discussions revolve around the latest technology in digital camera processors, DSLR sensors and mirrorless bodies.
The noise is meant to convince you that you need to buy a new camera every few years. In reality cameras from the past 5 years more than meet our needs. Our sensors are large enough, our lenses are better than they have ever been, our computers are fast, the software is excellent.
So why aren’t we printing our own work?
A photographer makes a photograph, and a photograph is a print on paper.
I hear it over and over again, ”Everyone is a photographer now, how am I supposed to compete?” By handcrafting your own photographs.
With literally hundreds of different inkjet papers, you can create prints that express your unique artistic vision. You can make prints that are as good, if not better, than a professional lab. Film photographers get to handcraft their own prints in the darkroom. As digital photographers, we can do that with inkjet printers now too.
Digital images are wonderful but there is nothing like a beautifully printed image on a heavyweight, high quality, fine art paper, feeling it in your hands and seeing the high-resolution detail that we can’t see on a screen.
There is nothing like the feel and look of Canson Infinity’s Edition Etching Cotton Rag for a slightly textured matte paper, or Platine Fibre Rag with its 100% cotton base and subtle luster finish that holds the deepest, darkest blacks, subtle detail in the shadows and large color gamut. Or Hahnemühle’s Photo Rag® Metallic that makes just the right image look like an iridescent vision. And Awagami’s handmade Shiramine postcards are perfect little gifts in the hand.
I’m not suggesting that you look at someone else's work in print, you need to see and hold your own printed photograph. It’s a truly powerful experience.
Printing our own photographs makes us better photographers. We know that for sure. You will see things in your fine art prints that you will never notice on a digital screen. We can’t control how anyone else sees our work on their digital screens but physical prints allow us to control our final piece of artwork and give us tangible proof of our abilities.
I believe that you deserve the opportunity to successfully print your own high-quality photographs, allowing you to experience your greatness. You deserve that. And if I could learn to create consistently beautiful and exceptional fine art prints on my Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-4000 every single time I print, you certainly can too.
The first thing we have to do is change your mindset. I’m not talking about your self-esteem. You deserve success and we know that you know that or you wouldn't have bought the printer in the first place.
How we think about printing, how we approach it and ultimately how successful we haven’t been has a lot to do with how we innately think as photographers, especially digital photographers.
Our digital cameras are a sophisticated piece of technology and when used properly can make a perfectly exposed really boring, meaningless photograph. This has created, rightfully, the mindset that we are using technology, a camera, in an artistic way to create art. The mentality is understandable but it’s certainly not true at all for inkjet printing.
In the darkroom, there is a certain amount of creative process that can be used to create a print. By mixing chemicals, varying time and using light to dodge and burn we can create a print that expresses one’s unique perspective. There was a certain romance to that process that digital photographers haven’t experienced first hand. Those hand made prints are prized as special in great part for the effort that went into them.
I think it’s time to accept that a digital inkjet print can be prized and special regardless of the specific type of effort that goes into making the physical print.
Yes, it’s our creativity and artistic input along with who we are as individuals that make a magical image. However, it is still a technology, our printer, that we are using in the way it’s intended to be used. That matters.
With digital inkjet printing, because it results in our final piece of fine artwork, we think of it as an artistic process. It is not. And it’s that mistaken mindset that helps set us up for failure.
Inkjet fine art printing can result in a beautiful, heartfelt, emotional, romantic piece of artwork but the process itself is a scientific, technological, digital process. Being artistic with the steps involved in digital printing will NOT make for a more artistic print.
There is only one step in the inkjet printing process that is creative and that’s paper choice. And which paper we print on will have a greater effect on our final print than any other factor. But aside from paper choice, the rest is all absolute science.
I know it isn’t romantic. Not at all. The steps in digital printing are mathematical and result in consistent, repeatable successful results.
Capturing an image in the camera, developing it in Lightroom or Photoshop to create your artistic digital image all takes place before the printing process. Once we start to print the process is strictly science.
Follow the science and you will get a perfect print. Make loose artistic choices and you won't.
I want us to give ourselves permission to think about the inkjet printing process in this totally scientific and non-artistic, uncreative way.
I’m currently working on a website, PerfectPrintClub.com, that will house everything you need to know about inkjet printing. 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. But it’s not done yet. (Cut me some slack, it’s A LOT of information!)
In the meantime, I will be writing articles about printing for PRO EDU. I think it’s time we changed the discussion about printing and made it completely accessible to all of us. This isn’t marketing speak. I’m not here to sell you anything, and I’m not owned or influenced by any individual company.
I make my own decisions based on my experiences. Not just one or two experiences, but years worth, and I’ve surrounded myself with experts in the industry. I want you to know that there is no such thing as a stupid question and that together we will make perfect prints. Your success is important.
There are 6 steps to making a perfect print every time. In the coming weeks, I will have articles on these steps for you. As photographers, we are generally visual people. Give me a complicated Custom ICC profile lesson in the most advanced terms and it’s hard for me to follow. Give me an analogy that I can visualize in my head and I will understand.
The articles include dreaded words like “color management,” but I promise you that it can be understandable and easy to follow. There will be fun topics like paper choice and what the descriptions on a box of paper really mean. And I will be explaining in real-world terms which printer models do what and how so you can make the best choices for you, your art and your lifestyle.