Print it right

Barrie Smith
20 December, 2007
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It’s lucky digital photography didn’t begin at the point where silver halide-based photography left the scene: as a negative image capture that needed to be printed as a positive image before you could recreate the scene as it was before the camera.

These days you shoot your digital pictures, download to the Mac and look at ’em — all positive images, without the funny orangey look and reversed colours that negative film has. What you took is what you see. And, in most respects, what you took is what you can reproduce in print.

But before you get too excited, there are quite a few things you can do to ensure the original camera image is faithfully transferred to hard copy.

There are four different types of printer out there and in common use to output digital images:

Dye-based inkjet printers. Far and away the most popular and, over recent years, has made remarkable advances in ease of use, quality and archival longevity. Even sub-$100 printers can do a fine job printing photos.

Pigment-ink printers. Racing up rapidly, both in terms of quality and longevity, as well as rapidly falling prices for models from Canon and Epson. Both pros and discerning amateurs head for this method.

Dye sublimation printers. These use a different method entirely and, until recently, their output was thought to possess extended archival life. But, as Henry Wilhelm’s research has revealed, this is no longer the case. They still look good and have arguably the closest resemblance to traditional silver halide prints.
Colour laser printers. In my opinion, rapidly improving in quality. The image quality in some recent models is startling but the question of longevity is yet to be fully explored.
However, it matters little what type of printer you use: the tips I’ll pass on to lift the quality of your prints apply to all.

Clear message. Whichever route you choose, there are some key issues you need to know about, knowledge of which will help you get the best results.

WYSIWYG. It’s been a long time since I’ve typed that acronym, but the message is still clear: for most, if not all Mac owners, the issue of what you see on the screen is not a big issue, thanks to Apple’s Colour Management routines built into every Mac. If you doubt me, just ask any Wind-owners about the hassles they encounter in order to get a reasonable facsimile of the monitor image out to print.

However, there are a few things you can do to make sure that you don’t fall into the cracks with colour management — even on a Mac.

First, check your monitor. Under the Apple menu go to System Preferences, then Displays. Once this is opened, tap the Color button and you have a multitude of choices. Select Adobe RGB (1998). At the base of the dialogue box is a slider for control of brightness: set it to mid point.

Then in Photoshop go to Edit>Color Settings and select Adobe RGB (1998) again; leave the other settings unless you know what you’re doing. That’s it.

Add and subtract. There are two basic principles you must grasp before you grapple with printing: Additive and Subtractive colour.

In additive colour (as used in monitors) the colours are added together to create the desired colour image — no colour means black, and combination of all colours in equal proportion equals white. In Subtractive colour (as used in most forms of printing) the colours are overlaid on a white background, subtracting from the reflectivity of the paper — no colour means white, and a combination of all colours in equal proportion equals black (more or less).

Your monitor display involves mixing portions of the three primary colours: red, green and blue. Equal amounts of two primaries create a secondary colour — equal amounts of red and blue create magenta; blue plus green creates cyan; green plus red creates yellow.

Mix unequal amounts of two of the three primaries for other colours — for example, two amounts of red plus one of green creates orange. It’s these odd mixes that cause the problem: red-blue mixes (purples and magentas) in particular often reproduce differently when printed.

Colour printing uses cyan, magenta and yellow. These complimentary colours have a direct relationship to the primaries: red, green and blue respectively. By combining various proportions of the three complimentary colours you can reproduce virtually all colours on the printed page. Black (described as K for Key) is also usually added because the CMY colours are inadequate to reproduce monochrome.

In the digital printing process the additive monitor colours of RGB must be converted by your printer to the subtractive colours of CMY to create a colour print. In professional printing this is a specialised skill — that home inkjet printers can do it at all, much less well, is quite miraculous.

Shoot it right. Many of the problems people encounter in digital printing originate in the initial shooting of your image.

If your camera offers the choice of JPEG, TIFF or RAW as the capture format, the optimum approach is to use RAW. Letting your camera write a JPEG effectively throws away some image data. Saving in RAW lets you fine-tune all the image parameters after the shoot — matters such as white balance and contrast. In RAW capture you don’t need to worry about the prevailing white balance: set it later and make the adjustments in fine increments.

All cameras offer a range of capture sizes. If needed, you can choose a small size to store more pics on the same memory card — but this route limits the size of your final output. Better to buy a bigger card!
The current slew of mid-priced digicams offer seven or eight megapixels on their CCDs. This can mean a final print size of up to 3264×2448 pixels or 28x21cm, so you have the choice of making a large A3-ish print or a very sharp A4 print — or you can even crop unwanted subject matter from the shot.

Looked at from the other end, if you have captured a space-saving series of shots 1600×1200 pixels in size you will only be able to squeeze a batch of 14×10 cm prints out of them. Always shoot at your camera’s highest pixel resolution.

Blame the media.
It’s imperative to choose the optimum paper to make your digital output. For me, premium high quality glossy paper is not my paper of choice 100 per cent of the time.

If I need to make up an album of shots taken on a holiday trip or perhaps a multiple image record of a special event, my paper of choice is a high quality coated paper of at least 90-120gsm weight that is semi matte in appearance. These pages, printed on one side, are then bound with a comb binder, complete with smart-looking cover sheet and clear acetate covers. All of these, some dating back ten years or more, are still in good nick, with full colour, no fading. I even have a few prints made on Mr REFLEX’s well-known 80gsm office paper hanging unprotected in my office that show no signs of fading after 12 years.

However, if you really want optimum quality and seriously need to enjoy the printer manufacturer’s claim of extended longevity you really need to follow their directives as far as using OEM inks and papers. The Epsons, Canons and HPs of this world have spent a lot of money and time getting the inks and papers to correlate — you can’t expect to get the same results in terms of quality and longevity if you use an ink made in a factory in China and papers made in Latin America. Cheaper, but not better.

Don’t be afraid to use different media: the main printer names also market high quality textured papers and some of the art papers are just fantastic to carry that special image. Top brands like Hahnemuhle, Crane and Innova are just three that market papers with archival properties, due to their manufacture from 100 per cent cotton rag material. With the rag-based papers you do of course forego the printer maker’s promise of extended print life.

The max. These days there are printers that offer a card slot so you can slip your SD, CF, Memory Stick or whatever into the printer as well as connect directly to your digicam.

For me, the best method to ensure top-quality prints is to preview the images on your Mac, tweak and twist the rendition with the help of Photoshop or similar, then output to the printer. Whilst the printers with card slots mostly have a preview LCD screen, the tweak options to brush up your images are pretty useless when it comes to extracting the max out of a picture.

Variations. A common error in polishing images is to take the corrections too far. You may need only subtle changes to make the picture sing and dance on the print. So take it easy.

Your monitor may display the alterations as major adjustments, whereas your printer is far more sensitive to subtle corrections. This is caused by the snail-like changes in the monitor’s phosphors.

An excellent approach when printing important images on expensive paper is to run a series of smaller test prints on the same type of paper; a batch of A6 (10.5×14.8 cm) images incorporating a range of alternative looks will quickly set you on the right road to a successful print.

Make a series of test prints without resampling and at the original 300dpi print setting. Then, when you’ve decided on the right style reset the image back to its original size and print away. You’ll not only enjoy a saving in ink, but get the print output closer to your final preferences.

Load your image from the flash memory card into the computer, fire up Photoshop and set the resolution of the image before you do anything else. In Photoshop go to Image>Image Size: the image will probably be described as having a resolution of 72dpi.

A resolution of 72dpi is fine for viewing on screen but useless for printing. So you should reset the resolution to 300dpi. Notice how the height and width shrinks to about a quarter. Now you’re assured of a sharp output.

You can also use a resolution setting of 200 or 225dpi, especially with larger prints that would be viewed at a greater distance.

Next, negotiate with your printer as to the page setup, the size of paper you want to use (A4, A3 etc) and its orientation (landscape or portrait). Then in the print dialogue box, select the paper type and be as specific as you can: photo quality gloss papers use a hell of a lot more ink than plain paper — that’s how high quality and expensive papers deliver such standout results. Use a gloss paper setting for plain paper printing and you’ll get ink laid on the paper as thickly as jam — plain paper just can’t absorb the extra ink.

So, out pops your print. Place it aside for an hour or so it can dry completely.

Fun ways.
There’s a lot of fun awaiting you at the printing stage: you can make panoramic prints, mini sticker prints or mosaic prints for starters as well as many other novel output methods. Printing onto t-shirts, mouse mats and similar are other options but, frankly, I’ve never got much of a buzz from these.

Here’s a novel tweak: transform part of a colour shot to B&W to isolate and emphasise a portion of the picture. Select a shot; in Layers duplicate the image; convert this layer to B&W (Image>Adjustments>Black & White); with the Eraser remove the areas you want in colour. Voila!

Photo mosaic prints are another fascinating avenue. A photo mosaic is a large print that’s made up of hundreds (or even thousands) of smaller images. Viewed from a distance, the tiny images merge to form the final picture — much in the manner that tiny mosaic tiles can form a composite picture.

One of the best and easiest ways to get into photo mosaic printing is to use the free MacOSaiX application. You simply tell it what picture you want to convert into a mosaic, define the type and size of the mosaic, and tell it where to get the pictures to use as “tiles” (it can even grab them from Google image searches). Then go make a sandwich. There are commercial mosaic applications with more features, but MacOSaiX is far and away the best in its price range.

The last word. These tips may not make you into a great photographer, but they probably will help you get a little more quality out of your home printer. A little knowledge can go a long way.

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