Printing your own digital images.
In the course of my work-week I’m frequently asked how I print my images. Most of my readers and students know that I also work for Douglas Photographic Imaging (DPI), in addition to my own studio and teaching photography. So, it’s easy for me to answer; I send them through DPI. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t buy my own printer and do my own printing, of course I could. Anyone can print their own images with the technology that is currently available, but it may or may not be cost-effective for you. My choice has been to leave it to the lab, and spend my time on my other areas of interest. All of that being said: if you are going to print your own images, it’s important that you develop the knowledge needed to get the results you desire. We’ll work on a little bit of that in this article.
When you look at an image on your computer monitor, what you see is not necessarily what you get on the printer. The reasons for this are numerous and it may take some extensive training to overcome them. To get a basic knowledge of where I’m going with this, let’s talk about the image I’ve included here. This is a grayscale that we might commonly use in the lab while calibrating our printers. Depending on the printer, we print very complex color calibration scales that are then read by a densitometer to ensure extreme accuracy. That is a little too complex for most home printing operations, so let’s talk about how this grayscale can be useful to you. (By the way; I will upload a grayscale on http://www.douglasphoto.com for you to download and use with your printer.)
The grayscale I’ve included here is not extensive enough to use for editing your images, it’s just an example to give you an idea of how the process works. First of all, the scale runs from 0 up to 255, with 0 representing black, and 255 representing white. Each step in-between is a shade of gray. You will notice that there is no border around this image, and therefore the white block seems to blend right out into the rest of the page. In fact, when you print this grayscale, your printer does not print anything at all in the white block, except for the black number “255”. An important note about that: if the printer does not put ink and any portion of the paper, it also does not apply the acrylic coating that is the part of the ink responsible for protecting the print. What that means is that you should never print the whites in your photos at a value of “255” or you will have bare spots on the paper, rendering your print “non-archival”. It doesn’t matter if you buy archival ink and paper, unless you put ink on the entire page. When we talk about these steps and the numbers representing them, it’s important to note that we work with RGB (Red, Green, Blue) images most of the time. If red, green, and blue are all equal values, the resulting color is a shade of gray. When those values are at 0 that shade of gray is what we commonly call “black”. On the other end of the scale, when the values are at 255 the shade of gray is what we commonly call “white”. The numbers you see on this grayscale are representative of those values.
The first step to calibrating your printer could be to print a grayscale. Before you print, make sure the printer is setup to print a photo and that you print the grayscale on the same paper you will use for printing your photos (do not edit the grayscale). Depending on your printer you may have to wait for the print to dry before you evaluate the results. It is also important that you calibrate every different type (and batch) of paper that you use. Your print should result in steps of gray that are easily discernable from one to the next, and are truly gray. If you have any color other than shades of gray, your printer needs to be cleaned / aligned / calibrated (depending on your printer). This could also mean that you are low on one or more ink. Consult your printer manual to get detailed instructions on how to output correctly to your printer, and to ensure that you are making the right selections for the paper and inks you are using.
Once you have a good print of the grayscale, you can view the grayscale on your monitor and see how much difference there may be between your monitor and your print. In some cases; you can adjust your monitor to correct for these differences, in others, you may have to view the grayscale onscreen, while you edit your images to use it as a guide for making your images ready to print. This does NOT mean that your images will print the same on every printer, but it gives you a much better chance of getting consistent results. By using the various shades of gray you can compare the grayscale to your images and adjust the image to match densities in the image as necessary to create the desired print. If you know how to use Photoshop and sample colors, it is amazing how easy these adjustments can become. The best practice is to make sure you have photos that are well-exposed and color-correct to begin with. Then using the grayscale you can set the density as needed for quick easy printing.
2010 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com