Jeremy Cowart

Gregory Crewdson

Loise Greenfield

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When you’re evaluating print quality, knowing what to look for is almost as important as knowing how to achieve it. Many technical factors contribute to print quality. Here’s a list of things to look for when you’re evaluating print quality – yours and others’.

It’s not that every one of these factors has to be optimal to achieve great print quality. It is that every factor you optimize enhances print quality further.

Well Focused

No Motion Blur

No Sharpening Artifacts

Extended Depth Of Field

Extended Dynamic Range

Appropriate Lightness

Highlight Detail / Separation In Values

Shadow Detail / Separation In Values

Mid-tone Contrast


No Posterization

Low Noise

No Noise Reduction Artifacts


Believable Color … or … Color Transformed With Intent

Color Without Artificial Color Casts

Variation In Single Colors

Saturated Color


Appropriate Materials

Appropriate Scale

Appropriate Presentation Materials

Appropriate Contextualization

Appropriate Price

So what’s ‘appropriate’? That all depends on the statement being made. The real question is, “What is the artist trying to do? And how well did they achieve that?” You can successfully break the rules if you break them for a reason.


There’s no mystery to what it takes to make great prints. There are just many things to consider before making them and many steps to take while making them. Set clear objectives, map the process out clearly, master the skills in each step (or collaborate with people who have mastered specific skills) and you too will be able to produce great prints.

Here’ an overview of what it takes.

1       Know What To Look For

More than half the battle is learning to know what to look for. While there are many things to look for, and many exceptions that can be made, the guiding principle can be simply stated as reproduce fine detail without process artifacts. Focus, depth of field, shadow and highlight detail, smooth gradation, minimal noise, and flawless surfaces are all prized. Exceptions are useful if they are made for a reason. Find out how great prints can be by looking at some of the best prints produced in galleries and museums. Nothing is quite like the real thing

2       Choose A Versatile Inkset

All inks are not created equally. To make the best prints, choose the best ink sets. The best ink sets produce rich blacks, neutral neutrals, good gray balance, and saturated colors. They offer substantially reduced gloss differential and metamerism. They’re fast drying and permanent; both light fast and water resistant.

3       Choose An Expressive Substrate  

Take a little time to explore your options. There are many great papers to choose from. And you can print on other substrates like wood, metal, and plastic. Each material brings unique expressive dimensions to your images. Experiment and evaluate before you commit. Make it a point to continue exploring your options in this fast evolving field.

4       Use Color Management Correctly

Take these six steps. One, make profiled conversions into a wide-gamut, device neutral editing space, like ProPhoto RGB. Two, calibrate your monitor using hardware. Three, set good Photoshop Color Settings that alert you when color management operations are about to happen and give you choices for how they will be handled. Four, softproof before you print to choose a rendering intent and make output specific adjustments. Five, navigate your printer driver correctly, choosing high quality profiles and one kind of color management not two. Six, control your environment, editing and evaluating proofs and prints in neutral well-lit surroundings.

5       Proof Before You Print

Color management get you 90% of the way there, but to get the last 10% you need to proof before you make your final prints. To get the best prints possible, you often need to take extra steps like restoring deep shadow detail, sharpening for substrate and size, compensating for scale and viewing light temperature to name a few. It’s this last 10% that often separates good from great prints.

6       Frame a Sense of Destination

They say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” But will you be happy with where you ended up? Before you start out, take a little time to decide where you want to go and how you want to get there and you’ll avoid wandering aimlessly and taking fruitless sidetracks. You won’t waste time and you’ll be much less likely to abandon your quest out of frustration. So, look before you leap. With a clear idea of what you want to achieve, the steps you need to take will become clear and you’ll be far more likely to achieve your goal.

7       Adopt A Flexible Workflow

Practice a workflow that will ensure that you get the highest quality precisely and efficiently; one that will allow you to modify your work in the future in the least amount of time, should new tools arise, new techniques be developed, or your vision changes. Stay flexible; use and know the difference between editing with metadata, smart objects, layers, and adjustment layers. Adjust luminosity first, hue second, and saturation third. Work globally before working locally. Memorize the steps you take and the order you take them in. Proceed in a logical fashion. Optimize. Softproof. Proof. Print. Make exceptions for good reasons.

8       Use A Preflight Checklist

Pilots and doctors use checklists. You should too. No matter how smart or practiced you are, you will forget something. A simple checklist will keep you on track and make sure that important details don’t get overlooked. Using a checklist will help ensure optimum quality while saving you time and money.

9       Optimize the Data In Your File

Your print will only be as good as the data in your digital file. Printers will reproduce not only the great work you’ve done but also the flaws you’ve left unaddressed. Learn to optimally process digital files. Set good black and white points. Optimize midtone contrast. Clear color casts. Enhance saturation. Avoid introducing posterization, and excessive noise. Sharpen your images appropriately. Using brushing, selections and masking you’ll find you can enhance your images in many ways, including and even far exceeding traditional methods of dodging and burning. Learn to not only to do your images justice but to breathe new life into them.

10      Prepare Your File For Output

A monitor is different than a print. So data that looks good on a monitor needs to be adjusted to look good in print. Softproofing will help you choose a rendering intent and make output specific adjustments for your choice of paper, ink, driver, profile, and rendering intent. Proofing will help you compensate for the rest; overinking, output sharpening, adjusting for scale and viewing light.

11      Sharpen Appropriately

Sharpen in a logical three step process; capture, creative, and output. During raw conversion, sharpen for input (lenses), avoiding artifacting. During image optimization, sharpen creatively for effect (often selectively). Before printing, sharpen for output conditions, taking into account printer, paper, and size.

12      Print At An Appropriate Scale

You can’t make a poster out of a postage stamp. Don’t print images so large that flaws become distracting to the viewing experience. Choose an appropriate scale. Portraits in miniature offer very different experiences than life size representations or larger than life murals. Choose a scale that enhances the statement of your images. Bigger isn’t always better.

13      Maintain Your Printer

Today’s inkjet printers need a surprisingly little maintenance, but they still need a little. Learn to align heads and clear nozzle clogs. Ensure the data stream to your printer is fast and uninterrupted. Keep your printer clean of ink and lint. Maintain an average temperature and humidity. Do this occasionally and color shifts and banding will become rarities for you.

14      View Your Proofs and Prints In Good Light

For photographers, light matters; at the point of capture, while editing, and when viewing proofs and prints. Choose lighting that is bright and of the right color temperature. While industrial and commercial applications favor 5000K, most displays for public viewing favor 3600K. Use full spectrum bulbs, like Solux, when you can. Your prints will look better under better light. All your hard work will go unrecognized if your prints are presented in the dark.

15      Handle With Care

Take care in the way you handle substrates before, during, and after production. Store them in dry environments in snug, sealed, unbendable containers that are dust and detritus resistant. Once produced, use slip sheets to reduce abrasion Avoid bending, scratching, scuffing, and burnishing.

16      Annotate Accurately

Sign them. Number them, even if they’re not part of a limited edition. Note them with provenance or production history; date printed, paper, ink, and coating used. Use pencil for matte surfaces or pigmented ink for glossy surfaces. “Permanent” pens are waterproof but not lightfast. Do this either on the front or the back of the print, but do it on the print, outside the image area, so that if support / presentation materials are damaged the print won’t be.

17      Polish Your Presentation

Even the best prints will go under appreciated if they are not presented with care. There are many ways to enhance the presentation of your images; portfolios, binding, mounting, framing, etc. Be creative. Set a tone that compliments your work. But, don’t let the presentation compete for attention with your work.

With the mystery of the process of making great prints dispelled, the real mystery will quickly reveal itself – the expression of your unique ideas and voice. The choices you make during the process are what makes your work interesting, not the process itself. This is where the real work of art begins and where its real rewards are found. Ideally, you’ll find this to be a path of discovery and self-realization. If, at the end of the process, you arrive with a changed view of yourself and the world you live in, then you’ve truly made a journey worth making, a journey we’ll all want to revisit by viewing your prints, time and time again,

Read more on digital printing tips here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

John Paul Caponigro

Jeremy Cowart

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Top photographers celebrate printing and talk about what drew them to photography, the inspiration that drives their work, the stories behind their most famous images.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Read more with my online Printing Resources.

View more with my Printing DVD.


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