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.
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.
Highlights are crucial to most images, with a few notable exceptions. If highlights are too dull, the whole image feels flat and suppressed. So, many people try to make them as bright as possible without losing detail. (This is a classic practice that’s part of a style, but some photographers prefer even fuller highlights. Edward Weston and Minor White were two such photographers.) In an attempt to make their images glow more, some people go so far as to make images overly bright, washing out midtone contrast, saturation, and clipping highlights, removing detail at the very top of the tonal scale and producing flat white areas. This is a graphic style more than a photographic style – or at best lo-fi rather than hi-fi solution that often requires additional compromises to image quality to feel convincing. Plus, it renders the frame no longer rectangular.
Don't take ETTR to an extreme.
Do make your exposures light without clipping.
Process your files darker.
If you've got clipping in both shadows and highlights, use HDR bracketing.
Good highlight detail starts with exposure. Get it. You have to have it to optimize it. This is one of the two reasons to monitor your histograms during exposure; the other is shadow detail. As long as you don’t “hit the wall” on the right-hand side of the histogram, your file will be fine. Remember, the histogram on your camera is based on the JPEG your camera would produce, while the as yet unrendered Raw file has even more data in the highlights. Don’t take ETTR (expose to the right) to an extreme. At some point, data will be clipped, and just before the point data starts to clip, it will start to lose gradation and shift in color.
Parametric Curve and Point Curve
You’ll get more contrast by having something to contrast with; in this case, highlights contrast with shadows. Set them first. The darker shadows are, the more contrast you’ll get. (Losing shadow detail is avoided in a classic style but may be done intentionally for more graphic, gothic, or grunge styles.) Similarly, if you weigh midtones lower, highlights will appear brighter. Every range of tones (shadows, midtones, and highlights) can have its own kind of contrast. To produce more separation in highlights, focus on setting the point where they transition into midtones as low as possible without making the image look too dark. What’s too dark? Subjective. Trust your gut and do it your way.
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.
Almost everyday, we make, collect, sequence, process, and share our photographs on digital devices with screen. When was the last time you made a print? If you haven’t made prints recently, you’re missing out. Making prints does many things for you.
How many things? Let me count the ways …
When you’re having a hard time believing something, you want to confirm what you see by touching it. Once you touch it, it’s hard to deny – and you learn more about it. Touch is an essential part of a doctor’s diagnosis and healing practice. When you touch and are touched by something you make a special connection. When you make your images physical, you can touch them and they will touch you. This works for other people who get to experience your prints too.
You Look More Carefully
When you make a print you consider your images more carefully. Along the way, you’ll find many ways to improve your images. This adds up. You learn not only what to look for but also what’s possible. You train yourself to look closer and deeper. If you make this a regular practice you’ll find your vision as a whole will improve.
You Develop A Relationship
When you make prints you look at your images more often. While you’re printing them you look at them very carefully, so carefully that sometimes you need to take a break to find perspective. After you print them, you still look at them more carefully at first, but this tends to diminish over time, even though it’s always an option. Because a print persists in your environment you’ll find you also look at your images casually too, sometimes you just see them out of the corner of your eye … and your subconscious registers this. Prints create an accumulation of perception, which deepens your understanding of images on many levels. Once again, this happens for people who view your prints too.
You Decide What’s Most Important
You make a lot of photographs. How many get printed? One percent? Only the best and the most important images are worth printing. Print an image and it makes a statement, simply because it’s printed.
Inevitably, when making a print some things are gained and others are lost. The sacrifices you are willing to make offer still more opportunities for you to clarify your vision. What are you willing to compromise on? What aren’t you willing to compromise? When you make these choices you make a statement, to yourself and others.
You Choose How You’d Like Your Images To Be Received
The many new opportunities making prints presents will challenge you to clarify and declare your creative goals. The way you choose to print (or not to print) your images will encourage people to look at, interact with, share, and value them in entirely different ways. How would you like your images to look? How would you like others to look at your images? How do you want people to interact with your images? Do you want to present your images as casual, every day, highly accessible, utilitarian artifacts or scarce, highly refined, collectibles? If your goal is to make a historic record you may be content with making a few, perhaps only one, possibly quite small, highly durable print that is stored and preserved very carefully for the future appreciation of only a few. On the other hand, if your goal is to expose the largest number of people possible to your imagery, you may want to consider creating an international billboard campaign. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. There is your answer – if you make a print.
You Learn About Yourself
You learn a lot about your images and yourself when you make a print. Realizing your vision in print means more than just making it real, it also means making many realizations along the way. To make a print you have to make a number of decisions. The choices you make reflect your personal likes and dislikes. Go beyond simply saying “I like it.” or “I don’t like it.” Next, ask “Why?” Answering this all-important question will make your personal vision and style clearer. It will make it clearer to people you share your prints with too.
You Share Your Journey
The things you make your images into will guide your audience through a reenactment of your journey of discovery – selecting your subject, composing it, exposing it, processing it, printing it, and sharing it. Prints offer invitations for others to carefully consider not only what you’ve seen, but also the way you’ve see it, and the ways you’ve chosen to share it.
Sure, you can let others make prints for you. Sometimes you have to. But, when you do, you’ll be missing out on many of the opportunities printing presents to further clarify, refine, strengthen, and fulfill your vision. So will your viewers. Even if you print, really print, just once, you’ll learn a lot.
Most of us carry and share albums of our photographs with our phones every day. When was the last time you carried prints of your images with you? When was the last time you made a print? If you haven’t made prints recently, you’re missing out. So are your images. Making prints does many things for your images.
How many things? Let me count the ways …
Prints make your images tangible. Prints enhance your images with material qualities and the associations they bring with them. Synthetic or organic? Reflective or non-reflective? Smooth or textured? Uniform or irregular? Sharp or soft? White or cream? Transparent or metallic? These and many other factors will have an impact on the technical quality of your images (color, detail, gradation, etc) and on the reactions they produce within their viewers (“It feels like or reminds me of …”).
Prints define the scale of your images. What is the appropriate scale for an image – miniature, life-sized, or larger-than-life? Do you want people to walk up to a building-sized mountain or hold it in their hands? Scale changes the physical and psychological reactions people have to images. They draw close to small prints and sometimes hold them or even carry them with them wherever they go; large prints immerse people in images that may fill their entire visual field until they pull back to view them from a distance. You can change a space or even create new space with prints.
Printing makes your images more durable. So far, it’s prints that have stood the test of time. Historically, it’s the images that were printed that survived. Putting new technology disaster stories aside, there’s never been a precedent to help us determine how long digital files will last if properly cared for. In theory, they should never degrade and can be copied indefinitely without reducing their quality. Whether people, first you and later the inheritors of your images, will perform the required maintenance to ensure this is the real question. One day in the future, media and format migration may become automated, but it’s not now. Consider prints your ultimate form of backup. Though they can deteriorate on their own, if properly produced and stored, prints need little or no additional care and no know how to retrieve and use them.
Because they’re physical, prints are easily bought and sold. It’s hard to command a high price for intangible things and harder still for them to hold their value or appreciate. In recent years, there have been unprecedented escalations in the value of photographic prints. Photographic prints have sold for as much as major paintings.
Images in print are more rare as well as less accessible. (Often, this contributes to both their market and personal value.) Prints take up physical space and why would you let something do that if it wasn’t important? Of all the images you look at in a day, how many of them are prints? No one carries thousands of prints in their pockets or on their cell phones. No one makes millions of prints. How many prints do you make? Most of us don’t make enough prints. Making a print is a statement.
Traditionally, to be viewed at all photographs needed to be printed. Today, that’s no longer true. Still, prints encourage images to be viewed in different ways. If you’re like most people, only the most important images to you have been printed and only a few of those are displayed at one time or for long periods of time. We look at images that are printed differently than images that are not. Do you look more frequently and longer at images that have been printed or images that haven’t? Prints persist. They remain in our environment consistently and require little or no conscious effort for us to consider and reconsider them yet often they demand that we do look at them more consciously. Making prints can become a part of the decision-making process to focus more attention on a select few images. When images are printed they are no longer lost amid so many other less important images. When printed your images become more significant.
In short, printing your images can work wonders for them. It can also work wonders for you.
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.