Most people evaluate a combination of elements to assess print quality. Find out what they are, how to get them, and how to avoid common mistakes in this new video.
Most people evaluate a combination of elements to assess print quality. Find out what they are, how to get them, and how to avoid common mistakes in this new video.
9 Ways To Tell If Your Photographs Are Over Cooked
Have you ever taken an image so far it gets completely out of control? I know that feeling well. It happens to all of us. It’s not all bad. We have to step over the line to find it. It is better to work hot and then to cool down than play it so safe we never get where we really want to go.
If you find yourself in so deep that you’re not sure where you got off track and you don’t know what to do, use this check list to identify the issue. Then fix it. Even one thing can make a big difference.
Here are some common pitfalls to avoid. (Most of these moves help images; this is just a matter of taking them too far.)
You want your highlights to glow, right? But you want them to have detail too. That’s the limit. Paper white is for poets not photographers.
Have you ever felt like viewing an image would be easier with sunglasses on? It’s common to make images brighter while trying to get them to glow. The key lies in midtone contrast. Place it in the most important image areas and darken and/or reduce the contrast of surrounding areas to support it further.
Unless you’re going for gothic or graphic, hold that shadow detail. Areas of dark do make midtones and highlights appear brighter. Better still, handled sensitively these dark areas can hold a unique light at the same time.
Too Much Contrast
Contrast glows, until it makes you squint. More’s not always better. Think of Goldilocks; one of them was just right.
Yes, we tend to think of focussed sharp images as signs of good equipment and good technique. Blurry photographs are a real drag unless the blur in them is intentional. Nevertheless, it’s easy to overcompensate and make images too sharp, completely forgetting about the sensual possibilities of texture. Let those be your guide as to how far to go and not go. (Remember, angels have halos, not horizons.)
A little bit of noise is not the end of the world. But try not to add more during processing. Guard against it when applying extreme contrast like Clarity and Dehaze as well as when sharpening. It’s not hard to reduce during post-processing but here again don’t overdo it; don’t make your subjects look like they’re made out of plastic wrap.
Posterization is nobody’s friend except Andy Warhol. Not working in high-bit color modes and applying strong contrast and/or saturation adjustments quickly causes posterization. Use extra care when you’re working on JPEGs. (Don’t confuse this with a graphics card being challenged to display an image when zoomed in or out; if you don’t see posterization at 100% screen magnification it’s not in your file and won’t print.)
Don’t fool yourself. If you don’t believe it, neither will anyone else. Often just one or two colors will seem off. When this happens adjust them separately from the others. There’s no reason to limit one color because of another.
Vignetting can be a great way to strengthen the frame and to direct and keep attention in it. As with all things, it can be overdone, calling attention to itself and reducing the contrast of the areas it affects adversely. Monitor lens corrections as the ant-vignetting they apply often goes too far and you end up with corners that are so light they become distracting.
Using preflight checklists is a standard practice for pilots and doctors. Though the stakes aren’t as high, they’re a good idea for photographers too. Use this checklist before you share or print images and you’ll completely eliminate Homer Simpson moments. (Doh!) Checking these things will quickly become second nature for you, but don’t let that lead to sloppiness; be thorough. There are enough items to check that it’s easy to forget one or two. But there are so few that you can count them off with your fingers. It’s probably taken you longer to read this than it will to do it on your next image or print. Just scan the bullet points.
Classic prints exhibit sharp focus, extended depth of field, high dynamic range, pronounced contrast, and idealized color.
Reduced dynamic range, often with greatly reduced saturation, sometimes with reduced sharpness, occasionally with vignetting, and infrequently material process artifacts, printed on matte surfaces at small scales classically connotes historic photographic processes.
Half of the battle is knowing how to do something. The other half is knowing what to do. So when it comes to making fine photographic prints, it helps to know what to look for. A combination of elements (and their relationships with one another) is often evaluated when assessing print quality. When you depart from these standards you call attention to those elements, for better (intentional) or worse (accidental). Stack up too many exceptions and technique becomes a deal-breaker. Stack up enough well-crafted elements and technique becomes a deal maker. Speaking very broadly, you could say the goal is to clearly reproduce detail and minimize distractions from it. Let me get more specific.
The default stance of a photograph is for everything to be in focus; critical focus is achieved (focal plane placed on the most important subject), depth of field is deep (aperture stopped down), motion blur is non-existent (high shutter speed). Blur is seen as an unfortunate product of poor tools and/or technique.
When exceptions are made, to work they need to appear obvious, deliberate, and be repeated in more than one image. Motion blur (from the subject or the camera) may be used to enhance gesture. (See Ernst Haas or Alexey Titarenko.) Selective focus may be used to direct attention away from less important elements toward more important elements. (See Keith Carter.) Soft focus may be used to reduce distracting detail and/or create impressionistic effects. (See Julia Margaret Cameron or Edward Steichen.)
Sharpening (analog and digital) can be used to enhance focus by making lines and textures more pronounced. Push sharpening too far and an image begins to look graphic rather than photographic. Contours (bright halos and dark lines) may be accentuated unnaturally. Noise may become apparent. Texture may become overly crisp or even brittle.
So how crisp is too crip? That’s a matter of style, which follows intention. There’s a great gulf between Richard Avedon’s (extremely sharp) and Joyce Tenneson’s (soft) photographs. Both use more or less than standard sharpness expressively.
3 Low Noise
Noise is typically minimized. It can be reduced during capture (Use lower ISOs.), editing (Avoid aggressive contrast and/or sharpening.), or output (Use fine printer resolution and ink limits appropriate for the substrate used.).
Different types of images will present different limits. Noise becomes more apparent in smooth subjects and is often hidden in highly textured subjects. You may even elect to reduce noise during post-processing more in smooth areas than textured areas. A lot of noise becomes distracting. A little noise isn’t bad; it often makes an image appear sharper.
Photographers like Sheila Metzner and (early) Michael Kenna have used extreme noise to emphasize medium and create compelling atmospheres.
Gradation, or the ability to reproduce smooth tonal transitions continuously without posterization, is prized. Harsh tonal transitions quickly make an image appear graphic and sometimes even abstract, reducing the illusion of volume /space and calling attention to contours.
Photographers who have been successful with high contrast photography, like Anton Corbijn and Mario Giacomelli, take it to an extreme.
Prints are produced by not one but many things – a system. You can make better prints if you understand how each of the tools you use to make them influences quality. In addition, you’ll be able to identify and come up with solutions for problems you run into, now or in the future.
I’ve written whole articles on each one of these components (Follow this article with the individual ones you’d like more clarity on.), nevertheless, rather than having to piece all of that information together, I find it’s also useful to have a broad overview of how the whole system works.
Here’s a quick survey of why each element of a printing system matters.
Camera resolution – dynamic range – bit depth
Lens sharpness – low distortion – few artifacts
Editing Space saturation
Bit Depth gradation
Software color – detail – composition
Monitor accurate preview – saturation – brightness of white
Printer ink – size
Ink black – saturation – longevity
Paper whites – materials
Printer Profile accurate color – graybalance
Light how well you can see
I’m currently testing the Fuji GFX 100
100 mp / 14 bit / ISO 12,800 expandable to 102,400
resolution – dynamic range – bit depth
A camera’s chip determines how much detail it can render with three primary characteristics – resolution (sharpness), dynamic range (shadows and highlights), and bit depth (gradation). More is better. It’s easier to throw away what you don’t need than create it.
Among several lenses, I favor the Fuji 32-64mm
sharpness – low distortion – few artifacts
Good lenses are sharper, better lenses maintain that sharpness edge to edge, while the best lenses also produce beautiful bokeh (depth of field blur). Good lenses are also free of distortion and artifacts like chromatic aberration. Fixing these things in post-production can sometimes be arduous and at a certain point impossible.
Prophoto is bigger than Adobe RGB and sRGB
I edit in ProPhoto RGB
Pro-Photo RGB can hold all of the saturation your camera can capture while other standard editing spaces cannot. If you use one of the smaller spaces (like Adobe RGB or sRGB) you may lose and not be able to produce that saturation.
I edit in 16-bit
16 bit’s thousands of shades of gray don’t give you more separation in prints. Printers can take 16-bit data but they can only print 256 shades of gray. Editing in16-bit eliminates the possibility of producing posterization (which can produce harsh graphic transitions and/or noise).
I use Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop together.
color – detail – composition
You can pretty much change anything about the way your images look … for better or worse.
Good software lets you be more precise and go further. Better software does it more easily without cutting corners.
For traditionalists, it’s shadow and highlight detail, midtone contrast, color clarity, sharpness and reduced noise.
For non-traditionalists, it’s the ability to produce unique color palettes, special effects, and composites.
I use an NEC PA311D
accurate preview – saturation – brightness of white
What could be more important than seeing your images accurately while you’re editing them? Good monitors can be calibrated to a device neutral standard that shows you what your images truly look like now and in the future (when you replace your current monitor).
Better monitors render more saturation. (Currently, the best monitors can show you almost all of the values in Adobe RGB.)
The best monitors can be tuned to show you the white of your print more accurately.
I use Epson’s P900 and 9000
ink – size
A printers manufacturer determines which ink set you’ll use.
A printer’s series determines which of the manufacturer’s inkset you’ll use.
A printer’s model determines how big you can print.
Additionally, a printer’s head also impacts speed.
I use Epson’s Ultrachrome HDX ink
black – saturation – longevity
The ink you use has a huge impact on print quality and longevity … but to see what it can do you need paper.
Ink & Paper
black – saturation – longevity
Together, ink and paper determine …
The black of the ink and the white of the paper set the limits of a print’s contrast ratio.
No matter how much ink you put down on some substrates you won’t get a blacker black and each substrate has an ink limit, which is the maximum amount of ink that can be put down before detail starts being lost.
Good inks and paper coatings produce more saturation in all colors.
Longevity & Durability
Some are more archival than others. (Visit Wilhelm Research for reliable data.)
I use Epson’s Legacy Fibre and Legacy Platine papers
Paper or Substrate
whites – materials
Substrates determine an image’s white (where the ink doesn’t go) and so contrast ratio. A brighter, bluer white is more versatile, but may or may not be as archival.
Only paper (or substrate if it’s canvas, plastic, metal, wood, etc) can give your images a look and feel. It’s first and foremost about the physical characteristics of materials including things like reflectivity and texture.
Photo papers have greater gamuts than matte because of their blacker blacks.
I use Epson’s profiles
accurate color – graybalance – gradation – shadow and highlight detail
A good profile can be more than getting a good match with your screen. But it can be more. Poor profiles can cause color shifts, reduce saturation, produce posterization, and even lose shadow and highlight detail.
If you’re using Epson profiles for Epson papers, you’re in good shape. Epson makes great profiles for their papers. But if you’re using a third-party or hand-made substrate you need a good profile. Don’t assume that the profiles you download from websites are good. Test them. If they’re not great, get a professional to build one for you. Or, build your own.
I use Solux 3500K lights
how well you can see good results
Event the best print can’t be seen in the dark. To be seen well, good prints need good light.
Think about three things …
1 Use a generous amount of light. Not so much light that it creates eye strain but use a lot. Good prints glow when they reflect light but they need enough light to create that glow.
2 Use the right color temperature. If you can’t control the light people view your prints in, assume it’s warmer than 5000K (most people prefer warmer light, like 3500K) and make your prints look good in a similar light.
3 If you really want to dial in the color for your exhibits (or your clients) recommend a full spectrum light source (like Solux) that doesn’t make one color look more saturated than another and so preserves the color relationships you produced in your prints.
It takes some initial research and testing to find the tools that are best for you but once you settle on a system of your own you only occasionally have to repeat this and only for specific components. It gets easier because you have a baseline. All you have to do is ask how much better can the new gear do and is it worth the cost and effort?
Meanwhile, if you run into issues (like my blacks aren’t black enough or my colors aren’t saturated enough or I’m losing detail) you’ll know which pieces of your system to tweak to get better results.
Plus 7 Extra Go To Printing Resources To Help You
Face it, we’ve all done it, that is overdone it, when we’re trying to make great prints. As important as it is to learn what you can do and how far you can go, it’s also important to learn how far not to go and why. You learn what to look for as well as what to look out for. These trials of error can be beneficial. You’re sure to learn a lot when you make mistakes. And we can learn from each other’s mistakes as well as our own. One of the many benefits of teaching printing for over twenty-five years is that I get to learn from my mistakes and from many other people’s too. There are some classic printing mistakes I see made time and time again because the approach is correct but the practice has just gone too far. If you’ve never made some of these mistakes, I recommend you make them – once.
Here are some classic mistakes I see so many people make when they’re printing – and the cures.
It’s Too Light
You want your print to be more luminous so brighter’s better right? But your image ends up looking washed out. The solution is to lighten the highlights more than the midtones and shadows. It’s a specific kind of contrast you won’t get with a Contrast slider but you will get with a Highlights slider or even better with Curves. You might also darkens shadows slightly. It’s the apparent contrast between highlights and shadows and in the midtones that will make your images glow. Most prints on average are weighted darker than middle gray so that their highlights will pop.
Whites Without Detail
So once again you’re chasing lightness and you push your highlights too far eliminating detail. There is a limit to how far you want to go and you just stepped over the line. Pull back. You can move in that general direction just don’t go so far. Don’t push the Whites slider so hard and pull your Highlights slider down a little, plus remember that you can get a second pass of Highlights and their neighbors Lights with Curves. You want highlights to have full detail and to be bright but not so bright you feel like you have to squint to see the picture better.
Whites Touch The Frame
Sometimes you have exposure that don’t have much (or any) detail in very bright areas. This is particularly problematic when they touch and break the rectangle of the frame. If you’re not going to clone detail into those areas, go old school and “fog” those areas, that is print them slightly gray. Using a brush lower the Whites slider (maybe the Highlights too) to build up some density without texture and restore the frame. You don’t need a lot, just enough to make the frame coherent, keeping the eye from wandering out of it and minimizing the distraction. Alternately, in Photoshop you can use a Curves adjustment layer and lower the white point slightly, then readjust the rest of the Curve to keep all the other tones glowing; paint on the mask to isolate this effect.
A little testing upfront can ensure that you get the finest results possible.
Use these test files to confirm color management is working properly.
1. Using Gray Gradient Test Files | Coming
2. Test File – Gray Gradient Smooth | Download
3. Test File – Gray Gradient 10% Steps | Download
4. Test File – Gray Gradient 5% Steps | Download
5. Test File – Gray Gradient 1% Steps | Download
6. Test File – Spectrum Gradients | Download
7. Test File – RGBCMY | Download
8. Test File – RGBCMY to Black Smooth | Download
9. Test File – RGBCMY to Black Posterized | Download
10. Test File – RGBCMY to White Smooth | Download
11. Test File – RGBCMY to White Posterized | Download
12. Test File – Line Pairs | Coming Soon
The little things can make a big difference, never more so than with printing.
Get the best print quality possible with these proofing techniques.
Proof – The Art of Proofing
Refinine your proofing process to achieve the best print quality efficiently.
Proof – BAT
BAT (bon a tiré) it’s the final proof print.
Proof – Bracket Proofing
Bracket proof and get one hundred proofs in one.
Proof – Compensate for Scale
Larger images appear lighter than smaller images. It’s an optical effect that affects your prints.
Proof – Correcting for Viewing Light
Compensate for discrepancies in profiles and viewing light temperatures.
Proof – Full Scale
Proof at full scale to check noise and sharpness.
Proof – Light Temperature
Light temperature has a significant effect on exposure, calibration, printing, and display.
Proof – Notes
Take good notes so you can retrace your steps precisely.
Proof – Prevent Overinking
Set proper ink limit for a substrate and reduce overinking.
Print your images to achieve new levels of mastery and personal expression.
How To Map Out A Strategy To Develop Your Photographs | Coming
How To Key Your Prints Expressively – Go High Medium Or Low | Coming
How To Create Lively Midtone Contrast In Your Prints | Coming
Why Your Tools Matter When Printing
This big overview gives you the bottom line – and links for more depth.
Choose media wisely.
Paper / Substrate
Your choice of materials has a profound impact on your prints.
Make New Film | .99
Printing digital negatives with Adobe Photoshop (all versions) – 6 pages
Longevity Free to Members
How long do inkjet prints last? What should you do to protect them? Find out here.
Printer Points of Control Free to Members
You have a number of points of control with digital printers.
How do you make a printer profile? When do you need to?
Resolution Free to Members
Learn how resolution can ensure fine detail and smooth transition.
Paper Sizes – Standard Free to Members
Paper Size – Custom Free to Members
Outgassing Free to Members
Cure your prints before framing them.
Metamerism is the tendency of an object to change its appearance under different light sources.
Bronzing is an iridescent flash of color when viewing prints under varying angles of light.
Gloss differential is an uneven reflectance of the surface of a print.
Banding Free to Members
Use these simple methods to cure banding.
Printer Maintenance Free to Members
A little maintenance can go a long way!
Preflight Checklist Free to Members
Create a preflight checklist designed to help you avoid common mistakes.
Epson Driver – Ink Limit Free to Members
Delete and Reload Printer Driver Free to Members
Epson – Print / File Size Chart Free to Members
The relationship between print size, file resolution and bit depth for Epson printers.
Scale Free to Members
Size matters. Consider the size of your prints with care.
Notation Free to Members
The notations you make on your prints add value to them.
Mounting Free to Members
Ensure that your prints are protected and beautifully displayed.
Matting Free to Members
Make sure your images are protected and presented properly.
Framing Free to Members
The frames you choose will enhance the quality of your artwork.
Exhibiting Free to Members
Make your experience more successful by knowing what is required.
Limited Editions Free to Members
Edition structures disclose the number of prints that will be made of an image.
Use the best tools to ensure your signature lasts.
Masterworks In My Collection
One of the keys to making a great print is great shadow detail.
Shadow detail is something to be mindful of during exposure, processing, and printing. Curiously, even if you see shadow detail in your file on a calibrated monitor you may not see all of the details in your print. What can you do about this? Many things!
First Check Your Color Management
Before you start editing your files based on your proofs, check your color management system.
Recalibrate Your Monitor
Make sure you’ve calibrated your monitor with hardware. Set a brightness value of 90-100 lux, instead of using the default brightness target of 120 lux. If your monitor is too bright, your prints will look dark overall, especially in your shadows.
Give Your Prints Enough Time To Dry
Inkjet prints come out of the printer almost dry, but not quite fully dry. When they’re fully dry, they’ll appear slightly lighter, especially in the shadows where there’s a lot of ink. So before you evaluate prints critically, give them a few minutes to dry. This affects absorbent matte surfaces even more than glossy surfaces.
Look At Your Prints In Good Light
Look at your prints in good light. You need the right amount of light (a CRI of 90 or higher), you need the right color temperature light (5000K is the standard but many viewers prefer the warmer 3600K), and it helps to use full-spectrum light (Many manufacturers now make full spectrum bulbs.)
Media Type sets the amount of ink that's used.
Set Your Media Type Correctly
Your printer driver will allow you to set your media type, which controls ink the amount of ink that is sprayed on your paper. Use too much ink and you’ll lose shadow detail. Use too little and your blacks and midtones will appear weak. If you’re using a paper not made by the manufacturer, choose the nearest media type and then adjust its settings with the printer driver’s advanced utilities. (You’ll find this under Advanced Media Control with Epson printers.)
Print test patches to determine when maximum black is achieved and when separation is lost.
Print A Target To Determine How Much To Lighten Shadows
Before you adjust your files for printing precisely determine how much you need to lighten your deep shadows by printing a target. While they vary a little, most media settings lose shadow detail around a value of 96% on a grayscale. If you print patches of values between 100% and 90% you’ll see exactly where you lose shadow detail. Printed results will vary slightly with each different media setting, so you’ll need to adjust files slightly differently for different media.
Next Adjust Your File