A robust explanation of how to photograph and print the high dynamic range image.
This three part series on HDR Photography is incredibly thorough. If you’d prefer to download them all in a single document for viewing later or printing at home.
Producing HDR Prints
We’ve come a long way in ensuring our HDR image files have been generated and processed to give us the greatest possible dynamic range and color gamut, with the least amount of noise and artifacts. We have applied proper color management principles and post-processed and stylized our images to give the look that we want in a way that is non-destructive to our image pixels. Finally, we are ready to begin the printing process. In the past, printer and paper technology would have limited our HDR vision in print. But with incredible advances in the art and science of these technologies, the choices are nearly endless. As an unabashed paper fiend, I am thrilled at the vast array of amazing papers available on the market today that produce wide color gamuts, deep rich blacks, smooth color gradations and tonal transitions, highly-refined shadow details, and great longevity. These include fine art matte papers made from cotton, sugar cane, and bamboo, to the newer glossy baryta and metallic papers. The perfect union of advanced inkjet printer technology and paper manufacturing has made this possible. Things have come a long way since I made my 2005 foray into digital printing with an Epson Stylus Photo 2200.
In the final section of this article, I will be demonstrating the entire printing workflow using a Mac computer running OS 10.6 Snow Leopard, an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer, and Photoshop CS5. The sheer number of printer makes and models, computer operating systems, and versions of various image editing programs make the task of demonstrating each scenario impossible. So apologies upfront for not being able to include screen captures appropriate to your particular hardware/software combination. However, the principles still remain the same and workflows that cover these scenarios are readily available online. I have chosen to use an Epson printer in this demonstration not only because they still garner the most market share in the photographic printing market, but also because they are pioneers in inkjet technology and, in my humble opinion, still produce the best quality prints.
Printer & Ink Types
For our purposes here, there are two main types of inkjet printers on the market today: those that utilize dyes, and those that have pigment-based inks. Note that although dye-based inks have traditionally been known for their very wide color gamuts, pigment ink technology has greatly improved, narrowing the advantage. More importantly, dye-based inks fade much more quickly than their pigment counterparts; thus any benefit they may have at the outset is eventually erased. The three major manufacturers of inkjet printers today are Epson, Canon, and HP. Numerous reviews of various makes and models can be found on the web, but here are some general considerations to keep in mind when shopping for a printer:
- Printers using dye versus pigment inks – pigment is preferred for longevity purposes.
- How many dilutions of black ink are installed? High-end printers usually have at least three: Black, Light Black, and Light Light Black. Epson refers to this as their K3 inks (K stands for black, a term that originated in the printing industry that refers to the ‘key’ or black printing plate). This is especially useful when making black and white prints. Canon also offers three levels of black inks called Black, Gray and Photo Gray.
- How many inks in total are installed? For example, Epson’s Ultrachrome K3 inks with Vivid Magenta come with nine total: four blacks (including matte black); cyan; vivid magenta; light cyan; light vivid magenta; and yellow. The new Ultrachrome HDR inks add green and orange to the mix. Canon’s newer 12-color LUCIA EX inks also include three levels of blacks (plus matte black) and similar cyans and magentas, but also add red, green, and blue inks to the mix. These inks are capable of producing very wide color gamuts never before achievable.
Stylus Pro 3880 with Ultrachrome k3 inkset (9 color)
- Do you often print on both photo and matte papers? If so, consider purchasing a printer with both types of black ink installed onboard to avoid the need to swap out inks each time you need to print on photo versus matte papers. Some makes and models of printers offer automatic ink switching, while others have dedicated lines for both matte and photo inks, the ideal situation to avoid wasting ink and time.
- How wide do you need to print? For casual printmakers, a 13″ wide printer may be adequate, while those who are more advanced and print in larger volumes may be better off purchasing a 17″ or wider printer. Commercial printers and those who earn their living printing for artists and other photographers most likely own a 24″ or 44″ printer.
- How many ml (milliliters) does each ink cartridge hold? If you intend to print a lot and want to keep your costs down, go for a printer that has larger ink tanks installed, not the small cartridges found on 13″ or smaller printers. The cost per print will be much less. These are usually installed on the 17″ and higher printers and range anywhere from 80 to 220 ml per tank. You may be surprised to find out that a 17″ printer may end up costing less than a 13″ printer since it ships with a full set of much larger ink tanks. When taking into consideration the cost of these inks, 17″ may be the way to go.
- What length do you need to print? Do you intend to print panoramas? If you print many panoramas, choose a printer that accepts roll paper. Also be sure to check the printer manufacturer’s specifications on the maximum achievable paper length the printer driver can handle. For instance, on the Epson 3880 – which does not utilize roll paper – the maximum paper length you can print is 37.4 inches, not 22 inches as many believe. Although the printer accepts sheet paper up to 17×22, setting a custom paper length out to 37 inches can be achieved. This has been confirmed by Epson. In addition, the investment in separate RIP (raster image processor) software will allow you many more options in terms of paper length and much more. Simply put, a RIP is third party software that can be used instead of the standard printer driver that ships with your printer. Discussion of RIPs is beyond the scope of this article, however.
- What is the size of the ink droplets and how are they sprayed onto the paper? The smaller, the better, for smooth color gradations and tonal transitions – today’s high-end printers spray droplets as small as 3.5 picoliters, resulting in extremely minute detail. Some printer models use a thermal head to spray ink onto the paper, which certain experts find objectionable. Do your research on this.
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay ©Renee Besta
Can I Print in 16-Bit?
Since I have emphasized the importance of keeping your HDR image file in 16-bit mode, a discussion of this issue is relevant. The answer is yes and no, depending on your setup. The ability to output a 16-bit image to print is dependent upon many things: your specific operating system; whether you use a Mac or PC; the version of Photoshop or Lightroom you are using; the make and model of your printer; and, specifically, what your printer driver can handle.
For example, Macs have been able to output 16-bit data since OS 10.5 Leopard, two OS versions ago. Both Photoshop CS4 & 5 and Lightroom 2 & 3 can send off 16-bit images to print, but only the Mac OS is able to take advantage of this feature. Unfortunately, Windows-based computers cannot yet handle 16-bit printing. This is an operating system problem that has not yet been addressed by Microsoft, despite rumors to the contrary. Epson Pro Imaging and Adobe technical support have confirmed this.
Because I am using a Mac running Snow Leopard, Photoshop CS5, and Lightroom 3, the driver for my Epson 3880 printer allows me to choose to send 16 bits of data per channel when printing. Note that not all makes and models of printers may support this option. Nonetheless, even if you can’t produce a 16-bit print, this does not mean there aren’t advantages to keeping your image in 16-bit mode until you hit the print button. As mentioned before, editing images in a high bit mode is much less destructive, reduces banding and posterization, and results in smoother tonal transitions. And keep in mind that there will come a time in the future when Windows users will be able to utilize this feature, so it is still best for so many reasons to start out with and maintain 16-bit image files. Note that if your image is in 16-bit, the printer driver will normally automatically convert it to 8-bit for printing.
Another controversy revolves around whether printing in 16-bit mode makes a visible difference. Many photographers and experts claim that they cannot see a difference, while others do. Of course this will depend on the quality of your particular image, printer, and paper, how large a print you are making (bigger prints are more apt to benefit from 16-bit printing as artifacts are more visible), and what colors and tonal values are present in the image. Personally I have run tests and can see a difference with some images. In addition, since I often upsize my images to obtain the necessary resolution for large prints, I feel printing in 16-bit can be an advantage. As with everything else, run some tests and do what is right for your situation.
If you would like to test a 16-bit image on your printer and see how it performs, I would highly recommend master printer/photographer Bill Atkinson’s Twenty-Eight Balls test image. This page has many ICC profiles you can download for free, in addition to test images and profile making targets.
Note that this Twenty-Eight Balls test image is a large TIFF file in the ProPhoto RGB color space and 16-bit mode, and sized at 14.125 x 23.5 inches at 360 ppi, resolution ready for print. Note that this is a layered file and contains a type layer for you to make notes on your printing conditions. Below are two screen captures of what this image looks like: the first is in the ProPhoto RGB color space – not optimal for web viewing, but I wanted to demonstrate the differences; the second is the same image in the sRGB color space for viewing on the web. When printing the test file, be sure it stays in its original condition. Do not alter the color space, bit mode, or file type. Simply print it out using the appropriate ICC color profile for your printer, ink, and paper combination, and view the results. These balls contain gradients which will test your printer and profiles for smoothness, linearity, and gamut. The file is certainly a challenging one to print and you will want to compare it to the original in Photoshop.
The Importance of ICC Profiles
One of the most critical elements of the printing workflow is the proper use of ICC color profiles (we will go through the application of these profiles in the printing workflow section). ICC stands for International Color Consortium, a group of industry vendors/color experts who first established the standardization of an open, cross-platform, color management system. Every printer needs specific directions on how to spray ink on various types of paper in order to achieve accurate colors. An ICC profile helps accomplish just that. In simple terms, ICC profiles are small text files containing instructions on how a given make and model of printer should lay down ink on a particular paper and inkset. For instance, photo papers (glossy, semi-glossy, satin, luster, pearl) and matte papers (cotton, canvas, bamboo, alpha-cellulose) have much different surfaces – a cotton paper will absorb ink much more readily than a glossy paper. Even within a given category (photo or matte), paper coatings vary widely as does the surface texture, or tooth, of the paper. For example, some cotton papers are very smooth (hot press papers), while others have much more texture (cold press papers). Thus the need for individual ICC profiles for each printer, paper, and ink combination. Matte black inks render images very differently than photo black inks on various papers, so be sure you are using the correct black ink (matte or photo) that is appropriate for a particular paper. For example, you do not want to print using photo black ink on a matte surface paper – the print will look very dull and washed out. Similarly, use photo black ink to print on glossy papers. Sometimes you will find profiles on paper manufacturers’ websites that allow for printing with either matte or photo black inks on certain papers. Be sure, whatever your choice, that you choose the correct ICC profile.
When you purchase a photo inkjet printer, the manufacturer will usually supply you with a set of ICC profiles for the papers they make. These are referred to as generic or ‘canned’ profiles, as they are not optimized for your particular hardware and software. If you wish to test third party papers from another manufacturer such as Breathing Color, you will need to either download the appropriate ICC profiles from the manufacturer’s website (if available), or make your own custom ICC profiles. Keep in mind when using third party papers that you need to download and install the ICC profiles specific to the printer, paper, and ink combination you will be using. Nearly all paper manufacturers provide these on their websites; however, not all makes and models of printers are supported, especially older ones. Instructions are usually provided on how to download and install these profiles. Be sure that the profiles are installed in the correct folders before launching your image editing program.
For the very best results, many photographers make their own custom ICC profiles with devices such as the i1 series or ColorMunki Photo by X-Rite, or the Spyder products by Datacolor. In years past, generic profiles were scoffed at for producing prints with less than optimal color accuracy; however, this is no longer true and most will give you good results to start with. Note that if you are familiar with the Monaco and GretagMacbeth brands, they are now under the X-Rite umbrella and have either been discontinued, or revamped into X-Rite-branded products. So in essence there are now two major manufacturers of color measurement devices: X-Rite (now part of Pantone) and Datacolor.
As mentioned before, I personally use the ColorMunki Photo device to make my own custom ICC profiles, with excellent results. Datacolor makes a Spyder device at a similar price point. Are there better and more expensive devices on the market? Absolutely! Is it necessary to purchase such an expensive device (many thousands of dollars) in my particular situation? No. Many self-proclaimed color experts scoff at the idea of using a device that costs less than $500 to make custom ICC profiles. Perhaps this is because they have not tested these devices or analyzed the resulting profiles. I would like to point out that the ColorMunki contains a spectrophotometer, a high-end, very accurate apparatus for measuring various wavelengths of light previously found only in devices that cost well over a thousand dollars. Previously, one could only purchase a colorimeter at this price point. Again, I have no affiliation with X-Rite, but can attest to the fact that the ColorMunki makes great profiles for my Mac Pro, laptop, printer, and projector. Datacolor devices have also received favorable reviews, so do some research to determine if such a device is right for you. Since I have owned and used Monaco devices and software in the past, it was a no-brainer for me to purchase an X-Rite device.
One of the features I like best about the ColorMunki is its ability to improve upon an existing profile by loading an image I intend to print, then letting the device analyze that image and generate a new test target to measure. I then print out another series of color patches specific to that image and scan them with the device. Each time this is done, the profile is made more accurate – thus it is called an iterative process. There is no question that the more color patches measured, the more accurate the ICC profile will be. The most expensive devices require you to print and scan hundreds or thousands of color patches to generate a single ICC profile. The question is, how much time and money are you willing to invest to chase down that extra 5 or 10 percent improvement, which you may or may not notice. The screen capture below demonstrates the ColorMunki dialog box for optimizing an existing profile:
Color Profile Visualization
For those of you who are interested (if not, feel free to skip this section), I will discuss a method to visualize your ICC profiles by use of 3D color plots. I honestly find this method much more useful in determining how an image may print on a particular paper than traditional soft-proofing in Photoshop (more on soft-proofing later). On the Mac, there is a wonderful built-in utility called ColorSync which allows you to analyze and compare profiles to determine their specific color gamuts. It also includes a feature called Profile First Aid which will repair profiles so they meet certain ICC specifications. Color-Sync can be found inside your Mac’s Utilities folder. On PCs, there is an applet called MS Color Control Panel that can be downloaded and installed. These comparisons are useful in determining which paper may be best suited to print a particular image on a particular printer. Another more comprehensive, professional tool is ColorThink, a program by Chromix which helps evaluate, graph, and repair your ICC profiles and much more. ColorThink also allows you to visualize your images via a 3D graph and overlay them with the ICC profile you intend to use for printing – a very useful feature. You can then see which colors may be out of gamut when printing.
Since color spaces are three-dimensional and consist of three variables (L for luminance and two color components, a and b – also known as L*a*b* or LAB), these graphs show the following: luminance values from dark to light along the L* axis; magenta to cyan along the a* axis; and yellow to blue along the b* axis. Note that the proper designation of these components includes the star (*) symbol.
An important caveat is necessary here before we proceed: please remember that these plots are only one tool in deciding which paper is appropriate for a particular image. Just because a certain paper may appear to have a huge color gamut does not mean it is the best paper choice to print a particular image on. As with all things in this life, bigger does not mean better. Choosing a paper is a very personal choice laden with certain emotional and spiritual aesthetics. There are no wrong choices, only a lack of experimentation.
For instance, the feeling you may want to convey to your print viewer/buyer may be best expressed on a textured matte paper with a smaller color gamut than a bright, shiny, ‘in-your-face’ photo paper with a huge color gamut. Again, these choices are more emotional than physical, and all the 3D color charts in the world only serve as tools to guide you in making a decision. In addition, please remember that the color gamuts are only appropriate if they are present in the image you are going to print. And still, certain subjects may be more suited for some papers than others. This is another reason HDR photography has altered the face of printing due to challenges posed by its huge dynamic range and color gamut. However, each image is different and may or may not reflect a particular range of colors. My advice is to experiment with a wide variety of papers by making test prints of the same image on multiple papers, both matte and photo. More on making test prints later.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s get started with the color graphs of various ICC profiles. To begin with, I would like to show differences using the same paper on two Epson printers. The color graph below compares ICC profiles for the same Epson photo paper – Exhibition Fiber Paper (EFP) – on two different models of Epson printers, the 3880 and 7900. Since the newer 7900 printer has better technology and includes green and orange inks, one would expect the 7900 profile for the EFP paper to have a much wider color gamut than the 3880 profile, especially in the green and orange areas. And indeed this is confirmed in the graph below. The 7900 profile (which nearly swallows the 3880 profile) is represented by the grayish-white wireframe, while the 3880 profile is shown as the colored cube. To keep things even, I compared profiles provided by Epson for the EFP. Now you know why I am salivating to purchase an Epson 7900 or 9900 printer. See the screen capture below:
The next set of color plots below compare custom ICC profiles I made using X-Rite’s ColorMunki Photo for the Epson 3880 printer on Breathing Color’s Elegance Velvet and Optica One fine art cotton matte papers. The grayish-white wireframe area represents the Elegance Velvet profile, while the colored cube the Optica One profile. Note that there are two different views of the graph that show how various colors and lightness values are affected (accomplished by rotating the cubes). Since we are comparing cotton matte to cotton matte papers, the differences seen are mainly due to the fact that the Elegance Velvet has a textured surface with a lot of tooth, while the Optica One has a very smooth surface. It is apparent, at least on the Epson 3880, that both papers have advantages and disadvantages in rendering particular colors when compared to one another. This is the case with most all papers.
The second set of color plots below compare custom ICC color profiles (also made using the Color-Munki) for the Epson 3880 printer on Breathing Color’s Vibrance Rag (a thick fine art cotton-baryta paper) and Vibrance Luster (a thinner photo paper). Both papers require the use of photo black ink. The grayish-white wireframe area represents the Vibrance Rag profile, while the colored cube the Vibrance Luster profile. Again, note that there are two different views of the graph that show how various colors and lightness values are affected. Since we are comparing two photo papers, the differences seen are mainly due to the fact that the Vibrance Rag is a baryta paper with a slightly textured surface, while the Vibrance Luster has a smoother finish and is meant to be a substitute for Epson’s Premium Luster Photo Paper. Once again it is apparent, at least on the Epson 3880, that both papers have advantages and disadvantages in rendering particular colors when compared to one another; however, the Vibrance Luster has an overall greater color gamut due to its surface characteristics. The glossier the paper surface, the wider the color gamut in most cases.
The third and final set of color plots below compare custom ICC color profiles (again made using the ColorMunki) for the Epson 3880 printer on Breathing Color’s Vibrance Rag and Elegance Velvet, both high quality fine art papers with cotton bases. Vibrance Rag requires the use of photo black ink, while Elegance Velvet requires matte black ink. The grayish-white wireframe area represents the Vibrance Rag profile, while the colored cube the Elegance Velvet profile. Again, note that there are two different views of the graph that show how various colors and lightness values are affected. Since we are now comparing a photo paper to a matte paper, the differences are much more pronounced. As expected, the Vibrance Rag exhibits a wider overall color gamut since it has a glossier surface. Your particular image and the feeling you are trying to convey will determine your paper choice. I suggest you make some test prints on various papers to give you an idea how your image will look on different substrates. The outcomes may surprise you.
Soft-Proofing & Test Prints
Most color experts have long-since advocated the use of soft-proofing your images in Photoshop prior to making a print. This is done by having Photoshop try to simulate the application of a particular ICC profile on your image, using your monitor to judge the results. The idea is to avoid wasting paper and ink by applying corrections to the image prior to output such as Curves, Hue/Saturation, and other adjustments. However, Photoshop does not make the best use of this feature, which has not been updated in many years. More importantly though, since the soft proof largely depends upon the quality of your monitor, and because printers can render colors and tonal values a monitor can’t display (and vice versa), it is largely a very tricky simulation that may or may not be put to accurate and efficient use.
For all practical purposes, I’ve found that the best method is to simply make a small test print using the correct ICC profile and paper of my choice. A hard proof, so to speak. Epson’s Professional Imaging Marketing Manager, Dan ‘Dano’ Steinhardt – a Brooks Institute graduate and photographer, as well as a color and printing expert – seems to agree with the latter: just make a small test print. Mr. Steinhardt has rendered this opinion in online printing classes I have taken, and is certainly highly experienced in the art and science of printmaking.
While I am not advocating you should never attempt to soft-proof your images in Photoshop, I am merely offering an opinion on what has worked best for me. Nothing will give you a better idea on how an image will print on a particular paper than simply making a hard proof and holding it in your hands under proper lighting conditions. This also saves a lot of time and frustration. For more on problems with soft-proofing, refer to the excellent article “The Hard Truth About Soft Proofs” by Melanie Crutchfield of West Coast Imaging by clicking HERE.
Whenever I purchase paper, I always buy a couple of boxes of letter-size paper in addition to larger sizes. This is because I use 8.5×11 paper to make test prints as well as my custom ICC profiles. I find I can get two reasonably sized images out of one sheet of letter-size paper by printing a scaled-down image close to one edge of the paper, then simply turning the paper around and printing another. If you are using double-sided paper, then it’s four times the merrier! To do this, the image needs to be scaled down in Photoshop’s print dialog box (not in Image > Image Size) and moved to the proper area on the paper.
Some photographers are unaware this can be done by simply unchecking both the Center Image and Scale to Fit Media boxes (be sure the Bounding Box is checked first), then using the cursor to simply drag the image proxy to the top (or left) side of the paper, depending on whether you are printing in portrait or landscape mode. After making the first test print, simply turn the paper upside down (not over) and repeat this process with another image you want to test, or the same image with any needed corrections applied. The screen capture below demonstrates an image that is 7.2×10.7 inches at 360 ppi, scaled down (in the print dialog box) to around 65% for making a 4.7×7 test print on 8.5×11 paper (note the subsequent increase in print resolution to 552 ppi).
Will My Prints Match My Monitor?
While the principle behind consistent color management practices is to attempt to have the final print match as closely as possible to your original edited image, it is not practical or possible to ever have an exact match between your monitor and print. This is due to several reasons: a monitor emits light while a print reflects light (two different processes); a print will always look different depending on the light it is viewed under (incandescent, halogen, or fluorescent bulbs, indirect sunlight, etc.); a monitor can display certain colors and tones that a printer can’t render; and a printer can render certain colors and tones that a monitor can’t display. These are but a few reasons your print will never be an exact match to the image displayed on your monitor. But of course the goal is to achieve a print that is worthy of your vision and faithful to the feeling you had when capturing the image.
Printer Evaluation Images
An excellent way to test your printer and avoid problems is to download and print a so-called printer evaluation or test chart. Readily available for download on the websites of many professional photographers, these test images attempt to detect problems ahead of time by including highly saturated, hard to render colors; various skin tones; gray ramps to test for banding or color casts; smooth color gradations and tonal transitions; and deep shadow details. I would recommend a test image developed by Bill Atkinson and improved upon by Uwe Steinmueller and Jack Flesher, all experts in this area. You can find the file on Mr. Steinmueller’s superb Outback Photo website along with an explanation on what to look for when analyzing the print test chart. The image looks like this:
Viewing Your Prints
Before we cover the printing workflow, a brief word about how to view and evaluate prints is appropriate. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of proper lighting conditions when analyzing your prints. Each time you place your print under a different light source, it will appear different. If you are working in a room using standard incandescent light bulbs, or halogen or fluorescent lights (either standard or CFL), the print simply will not look optimal, since each of these light sources emits different wavelengths of light (greens, oranges, etc.) that will be reflected off the print. It is necessary to invest in a D50-compliant light source to properly view and evaluate your print. Period. That means a light source balanced for 5,000 degrees Kelvin, about the same as that of mid-day sunlight. Graphics professionals have used this standard for decades. But fear not, as these need not be expensive investments.
There are many solutions on the market today, ranging from very inexpensive to cost-prohibitive for most. I personally use the very affordable OttLite lamp, which is balanced at a temperature of 5,300 degrees Kelvin, a close enough match. The OttLite comes in many shapes, sizes, and types; smaller ones can be purchased for as little as $40 at art supply stores such as Michael’s or Aaron Brothers. Going up in price, size, and subsequent D50 compliance are task lamps and bulbs from Solux and viewing booths from GTI Graphic Technology. At the very least, buy natural daylight-balanced light bulbs that fit into standard lamp sockets. Just be sure that the lamp color is white or neutral inside so it won’t reflect a color cast onto your print. You may find that the use of a lamp such as an OttLite or Solux will also help you see and read better in your home or work environment. These lamps are very popular as they emit daylight-balanced light, much easier on the eyes than the ugly yellow or green casts put out by standard light bulbs and fluorescent tubes.
For advanced users, there is a protocol that will help you determine whether your lighting conditions are D50 compliant – the use of GATF RHEM light indicator strips. These adhesive strips can be attached to your print and, when viewed under proper D50-compliant light, will appear to be a single magenta color with no stripes present. If the lighting is not D50 compliant, stripes will be seen on the strip. Below is an example of what the strips look like under compliant versus non-compliant viewing conditions (solid color means compliant; stripes mean non-compliant):
The Printing Workflow
Finally, I will walk you through the printing process on a Mac using Photoshop CS5 with an Epson 3880 Stylus Pro printer. I am choosing Photoshop simply because this is the software most people choose to print from (although many now print directly from Lightroom). Due to the numerous combinations of printer makes and models, operating systems, and software, it is impossible to demonstrate all scenarios. However, the basic principles are the same in outputting a high quality print.
The first step will be to determine what size image you want to print on which paper, and whether you have sufficient image resolution (pixels per inch or ppi) to produce a quality print. In general, 300 to 360 ppi is a good target range, although some photographers print as low as 240 ppi which I don’t recommend. I prefer 360 ppi since the native resolution of Epson Professional printers such as the 3880 is 360 ppi; if the printer is fed an image at a lower resolution, it will apply an interpolation to match the printer’s native resolution. I prefer to upsize my images ahead of time if necessary using special software dedicated to this task to be sure my images are at 360 ppi before printing. More on this below.
There is also much confusion when the term resolution is discussed. Please keep in mind that when printing, ppi (pixels per inch) means something completely different than dpi (dots per inch). PPI refers to the resolution of your image and how close together the total number of available pixels are spread out over a given area. Since the total pixel count is something native to your camera (i.e. how many megapixels your sensor has), it cannot be changed. The density of those pixels (how close those pixels are placed together) when printing, however, can be altered by changing the ppi in Photoshop. Since printers do not output pixels but rather place dots on paper, dpi, on the other hand, refers to how many dots (both large and small) the printer lays down and in what pattern. More on this later.
In terms of which specific image file resolution to use for printing, I always use 360 ppi. You may or may not be able to tell the difference depending on your specific printer, the paper you use, the quality of the ICC profile, your printer’s driver, and the final image size. Let’s take a look at resolution. In Photoshop, go to Image > Image Size and view the image data. We have a fixed number of pixels in width and height, which is dependent upon the megapixel count of our camera, along with a Document Size specified in inches (or other units).
Below that is the Resolution box, with the current value displayed in pixels per inch. The sample texture-blended image below (Path to Grace) of a private chapel high upon a hill was shot with an older 10.2 MP Nikon, so if I want a resolution of 360 ppi, I can only print an image that is about 7.2×10.7 inches. Therefore if I want to make a 12×18 print on 13×19 paper, I will need to upsize it using special software. The subsequent screen capture shows how low the resolution would drop if I set the document size to 12×18 without upsizing: 215 ppi, much too low for a quality print. Please be sure to deselect the Resample Image checkbox when testing dimensions.
In order to resolve this dilemma, I use the current industry standard for upsizing images, Perfect Resize (formerly known as Genuine Fractals) by onOne Software. It does a much better job than Photoshop, and also gives you the option to specify your intended substrate such as matte paper, glossy, canvas, etc. In fact, it will even calculate and add on the needed size for canvas gallery wraps.
After I have upsized my image to 12×18 at 360 ppi, I am ready to print on the 13×19 paper of my choice. In the following sample print dialog boxes, I will be demonstrating the proper settings on the Epson 3880 printer for Breathing Color’s Vibrance Rag, a 100% cotton photo paper with a fine surface texture and a baryta gloss finish. (Baryta means barium sulphate, a clay-like material applied to inkjet papers that provides a smooth, reflective coating. Baryta was used in traditional darkroom papers to whiten the paper, add reflectivity, and provide a base for the emulsion.) This paper combines the best of both worlds: the luxurious weight, thickness, and feel of a fine art matte paper with the advantages of a high Dmax and wide color gamut afforded by the use of photo papers (those which utilize the photo black ink). But first, here are some tips before printing that will make your life much easier:
- Always be sure to get the latest updates for your printer driver firmware and image editing software (such as Photoshop or Lightroom) and install them before printing.
- Make sure the correct black ink is installed and active, depending on whether you are printing on glossy or matte paper. This will depend on what brand and model of printer you are using, and whether the black ink channel is shared. In some printers, it is necessary to physically swap out the black ink cartridge for the matte black one. Other printers like my Epson 3880 automatically choose the correct black ink depending on the type of paper selected, and have both matte and photo black inks simultaneously installed.
- Be sure to run a nozzle check first on your printer to be certain there are no clogs. If there are, you need to run a cleaning cycle.
- Check the ink levels to be sure there is more than enough to produce a print at the intended size, and that the inks are not expired. If you have not used your printer in a while, remove each ink cartridge and gently shake it with a slight back and forth motion.
- Use a drafting brush to wipe down the paper before loading it into the printer. This will remove any loose small particles left from the manufacturing process, such as cotton, dust, or, in my case, cat hairs! My cats love to watch me print, so hair is always in the air as they turn their heads back and forth as the printhead moves from left to right, quite a sight.Carefully handle all papers by the edges with cotton gloves to prevent oils from your skin being absorbed. Do not remove paper from the box until it is time to print.
- This sounds obvious, but be certain to load the correct side of the paper (the coated and printable side) into the printer. While this is easy to differentiate with glossy papers, it can be difficult with some fine art matte papers. Paper manufacturers normally package their papers so that the printable side is face up in the box when opened; however, check the instructions provided to verify this.
- Before you send your image to print, be sure to write down all the settings you used for the printer and paper, including the black ink used, ICC profile, rendering intent, dpi (i.e. 1440 or 2880), platen gap setting, paper thickness, whether bi- or unidirectional printing was enabled, if high speed printing was turned on or off, etc. I maintain a print log book that contains all the settings I used to make each print. While it may seem like a hassle, it will save you a lot of time and headaches in the future and streamline your workflow.
Again, this demonstration shows the use an Epson 3880 printer with a Mac running Snow Leopard (OS 10.6) and Photoshop CS5. The available options are the same on Windows, but the print dialog box looks a bit different and some options are located under various tabs. Consult the user’s manual for details for your specific printer and operating system.
In Photoshop CS5, go to File >Print and the main Photoshop (not the printer’s) print dialog box will open. Note that there is no longer a separate Print Settings menu, as that has now been incorporated into the new print dialog box in CS5. The first task is to specify what printer you are using; in my case, this is the Epson Stylus Pro 3880. Be sure it is powered on and connected to your computer. Next, in the right column, be certain the Color Management drop-down menu is visible (not the Output menu) and that the Document button is selected (not proof). You should see the current image color space listed here, which is ProPhoto RGB. Working our way down, set the Color Handling to Photoshop Manages Colors (not the printer), then choose the appropriate ICC color profile for the paper, ink, and printer combination you are using. In this case, I am printing with Breathing Color’s Vibrance Rag, so I have selected that profile from the drop-down menu for the Epson 3880 PK ink (PK stands for photo black ink; MK stands for matte black ink). Note that since I have made a custom ICC profile, I have given it a name that begins with ‘CMunki’ to note that I used the ColorMunki device to make the profile:
Next, specify your preferred Rendering Intent, either Perceptual or Relative Colorimetric. I choose Relative in most cases (rendering intents were defined in Part 2 of this series). Be sure Black Point Compensation is always selected so that the blacks in the source file will be properly mapped to the destination print file. Note that I have checked the box to enable 16-bit printing (available on the Mac only) and to center the 12×18 image on the 13×19 paper. I have deselected ‘Scale to Fit Media’ since I want to print at 100% of the image size and no more. This will give me a print at 360 ppi as intended when I upsized the print using Perfect Resize by onOne Software. You can change the orientation of your print (landscape or portrait mode) by selecting the proxy icon located just to the right of the Print Settings button.
Proceed to the left column and click on the Print Settings button. This will now open your printer driver’s dialog box (refer to the screen capture below). You should see your printer selected at the top. Under Paper Size, choose both the correct size as well as the paper path. Some thicker papers need to be manually fed through the rear of the printer, while thinner papers such as Breathing Color’s Vibrance Luster can be placed in the automatic sheet feeder. In this case, I am using a 13×19 sheet of Breathing Color’s Vibrance Rag paper, which at a weight of 325 gsm (grams per square meter) and a caliper rating of 18 mils, is thick and requires manual feeding through the rear feed slot. Note that Super A3, also known as Super B, corresponds to 13×19 inches. For a handy paper size conversion chart (U.S. sizes and metric equivalents), see print guru Harald Johnson’s excellent DP&I (Digital Printing and Imaging) Yes, that is Harald with a second ‘a’ not an ‘o.’
In the next drop-down menu, click to choose Print Settings. In the Basic tab, choose the proper Media Type. Since we are using a third party paper and not one manufactured by Epson, there is no corresponding setting for Vibrance Rag. Epson wants you to only use Epson papers, of course. The closest Media Type match according to Breathing Color is Epson’s Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster (formerly called Premium Luster Photo Paper or PLPP). Note that selecting the correct Media Type here is crucial, as this setting instructs the printhead how to lay down ink based on the type of inkjet receptive coating present on the paper – it has nothing to do with the paper weight or thickness, which must be set in the Paper Configuration menu. Third party paper manufacturers will provide you with this information along with the generic ICC profile, since the profile was generated using specific media type settings.
Below that, you will see that Photo Black Ink is dimmed out since we are printing on a glossy paper; the printer driver automatically selects either Photo or Matte Black depending on the chosen paper type. Next, the Color drop-down menu should be set for Color, of course, unless you intend to do black and white printing. The other option here is to use Epson’s ABW (advanced black and white) printing driver, which has massively improved the quality of black and white prints due to the use of three dilutions of black ink (photo or matte black, light black, and light light black, also known as K3) and a new, built-in RIP specifically tailored for black and white printing.
Next, and most importantly, the Color Settings drop-down menu should be set to Off (No Color Adjustment). In the newer Epson drivers, this is automatically selected when ICC profiles are used. If Off (No Color Adjustment) is not chosen, double color management will be done by both Photoshop and the printer, resulting in terrible prints. Mistakes with this setting have single-handedly been the cause of most poor prints. So be certain this is turned off when using an ICC profile and choosing to have Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture handle colors.
Below the Color Settings, choose the desired Print Quality, usually 1440 or 2880 dpi (dots per inch). Many people remark that there is only a marginal improvement in quality (or none at all) when choosing 2880 dpi and that much ink is wasted in the process. However, according to Dan Steinhardt of Epson as well as Epson Pro Imaging Technical Support, there is little additional ink used, approximately 10%, although printing will certainly take longer when printing at 2880 dpi. The ink consumption difference is substantially less than what urban legend would lead us to believe – that twice as much ink is used. Simply not true. This is because when printing at 1440 dpi, the printer lays down both large and small dots (otherwise known as a dithering pattern), whereas in 2880 dpi mode, only small dots are laid down, therefore improving the print. When you think about this, it makes sense because larger dots use more ink than smaller dots. It is the dot size, not just the number of dots, that account for ink consumption. Yes, it takes longer when printing at 2880 dpi, but with certain images output on certain papers, you may see a difference in tonal gradations, especially when making large prints. Again, make some test prints to find out what works best for you.
Getting back to the print dialog box, note that I have enabled 16 bits per channel, since I want the most out of my HDR image (again a Mac-only feature). I have also chosen to select High Speed. This is a personal choice, and refers to whether the print head lays down ink in both directions as it passes back and forth (right to left and left to right) over the paper. High speed is known as bidirectional mode; when this box is not checked, the print head will operate in unidirectional mode and only lay down ink as it passes over the paper in one direction. Although High Speed mode results in faster printing times, I have sometimes found the need with thicker papers to deselect this. Deselecting High Speed also increases the paper drying time between head passes (since this results in unidirectional printing), and may reduce head strikes on some thicker papers. Head strikes occur when the print head comes into contact with the edges of the paper, and may result in severe and costly damage. Unidirectional printing is most likely unnecessary when printing on very thin papers. If you notice any ink smearing on your prints, however, you may want to forego High Speed. Again, this is an entirely personal choice.
Last but not least, I click once again on the Print Settings drop-down menu near the top, and select Paper Configuration. This reveals advanced options available on professional printers that allow you to set the Platen Gap (distance between the print head and surface of the paper) and paper thickness, and to make other adjustments. Since the Breathing Color paper I am using is heavy (325g/m2) and thick (18 mils), I need to widen the Platen Gap so the paper will feed properly and not jam. Naturally this setting will be determined by the thickness of your paper. There are paper thickness calculators available online that will help you translate this information. Note that when using third party papers, it is critical to change these two adjustments because the Media Type you chose may not be appropriate for the paper you are printing on. In this case, I chose Epson’s Premium Luster Photo Paper as the media type, which is thin and can be fed through the main automatic sheet feeder. If I did not go into the Paper Configuration menu and change the Platen Gap and Paper Thickness settings, it would default to a thickness of 3 for thinner papers and set the Platen Gap to automatic, not what we want for this thicker paper.
Finally, I recommend you save the settings for a particular paper as a Preset as I have done here with the Breathing Color Vibrance Rag. This makes things much easier when printing with the same paper in the future as all your settings will be saved, thus avoiding the need to go into each menu and choose the proper settings as we have just done. This can be done by holding down the Presets button and using the drop-down menu to select Save, then giving the Preset a name that makes sense and reflects the proper print settings for that particular paper. See the example below. Note that I gave this Preset a name of “BC Vibrance Rag-PLPP-PK-2880dpi,” which is short for Breathing Color Vibrance Rag, using a Media Type of Premium Luster Photo Paper (PLPP), PK (photo black) ink, at a print resolution of 2880 dpi (dots per inch). The additional settings for the Platen Gap, Paper Thickness, and other parameters are recorded in my print log book. Don’t forget to hit the OK button to save the Preset.
Getting back to the prior print dialog box, we can then click the Save button, which will take us back to the Photoshop print dialog box. As previously mentioned, I then verify that ‘Send 16-bit Data’ is selected, as well as ‘Center Image.’ Be sure the proper paper orientation is selected, then hit Print (at long last love has arrived).
Although the entire HDR workflow has probably seemed like a lot of work, once you put best practices into place, the process will flow automatically. The only thing left to do is to go have fun making a lot of prints on various papers. One of my favorite paper types for HDR is metallic (inkjet); these newer papers have very wide color gamuts, create a near 3D look, and really pop, especially with images containing metal objects (cars or trains). As mentioned, the plethora of excellent papers available today has truly established digital printing King over the traditional darkroom.
One issue to be aware of when choosing papers, however, is the possible presence of OBAs (Optical Brightening Additives or Agents). OBAs are fluorescent compounds that give off a blue cast in the presence of UV light, thus making papers appear more white. However, OBAs have the disadvantage of breaking down over time, thus affecting the look of the print as the paper turns more yellow. You may notice certain paper brands offer a choice between bright and natural. This refers to the presence or absence of OBAs. Breathing Color is well-aware of this issue and offers many excellent fine art papers that are OBA-free.
A final word about papers, stability, and longevity: for detailed information, visit Henry and Carol Wilhelm’s Wilhelm Imaging Research website, where you will find accelerated testing information on the majority of printers and papers. In the past, there were printing issues such as bronzing (the shifting of certain colors depending on the viewing and lighting angle – often producing a metallic sheen – on PK papers), metamerism (color shifts under different lighting conditions), and gloss differential (difference in paper sheen caused by highlight areas where less ink is laid down). But with today’s superb technology, these issues have nearly vanished.
I would like to end this series of articles with one of my favorite quotes by Ansel Adams: “The best photographer’s are always the best printers. But the best printers are not necessarily the best photographers.”
Now go forth and make some knockout prints. May the pixels be with you!
want to learn more from Renee?
Former Central Coast Photographic Society President and digital imaging instructor Renée Besta will be teaching classes at Studios on the Park in downtown Paso Robles, located along the spectacular California Central Coast. This scenic area is the perfect location for photography, from windswept dunes to ocean vistas. The classes include Introduction to Fine Art Printing: How to Achieve Exhibition Quality Prints From Your Images, and Introduction to HDR (High Dynamic Range) Photography. The dates have not yet been finalized. For more information, contact Renée at email@example.com or visit renmarphoto.com and fill out the contact form.