Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Test Print - Step 4 Toward Quality Prints

Over the last several weeks I've been sharing what I've learned as I set out to tackle the art of printing while my journey down the photography highway continues.  If you've missed the prior posts, you can quickly get caught up with the links below:

As the intro suggests, I'm by no means an expert printer.  I do, however, have a strong desire to understand how I can optimize my post processing techniques to be able to output the best quality prints possible.  With that goal in mind, why not jump in and learn how to make quality prints on our own equipment and share my findings along the way?  To that end, I hope these posts can help you in some way or solicit additional knowledge transfer from the readership.  If you're reading this and have tips, tricks or resources you've found helpful, please use the comments section below to benefit the rest of us. Thank you.  Now on with the show...

After implementing each of the above steps, I've come to appreciate that while my prints were getting better, I was still suffering from what turns out to be a very common problem - dark prints.  The finished product hits the paper tray, the colors look good, the image is nice and crisp, but when you compare it to what you see on screen you're left underwhelmed.  This may be a reiteration of the obvious, but it warrants pointing out none-the-less.  The image on your nice bright display is back lit while the printed output is not.  This is a very important concept to tattoo onto your brain.  The intended media for your output will play a critical part in how you process the image, particularly when it comes to brightness.

Upon researching the cure for the "dark print" issue, I've found two common threads of advice:
  1. Reduce the brightness of your display.  Most manufacturers have the default brightness levels set far brighter than they really need to be.  As a result, you will tend to set the brightness levels of your processed images lower than optimal for printing.  If you opt to invest in a set of more advanced calibration tools, such as X-Rite's ColorMunki, you'll be able to identify and adjust for brightness issues between your display and your printer.  If you're "eyeballing" it, simply experiment with turning down the brightness on the display until the adjustments you're making in post processing are more accurately represented in print.
  2. Make a test print showing your image with multiple brightness settings and then pick the one that looks best for your final print.  This is a tip I read over on Adobe PhotoShop Lightroom Killer Tips by Matt Kloskowski.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll just share what he's already done in a nice video tutorial.  The actual tutorial begins around the 1 minute mark.
The image above is a screen shot of my test print based on Matt's advice from the video tutorial.  THIS is why I recommended buying smaller sheets of the paper stock you will use for your final output.  I'd much rather burn up 1 sheet of 8.5 x 11 with my 4 test prints than to go through as many as 4 sheets (and ink) of a larger, more expensive sheet to accomplish the same thing.

As you may have already come to realize, I've adopted the 2x2 print template method into my printing workflow.  I've also dialed down the brightness on my main display some, but not to the level that would match my print and here's why.  The "Print" is not my usual intended output.  If I dim down my display to the point that it matches my printed output, now all of the images I publish online (to an audience of users with bright, back lit displays) will likely look washed out!

To illustrate the point, take a look at the screen shot of the test print above.  Keeping in mind that our displays are very likely not calibrated to the same specifications or share the same brightness, I'm guessing that the best looking image on your screen would be the one in the top right.  With the label of "Brightness = 0", this is the image as I've processed it to look best on my display without any adjustment for printing.  On the printed test page, however, the image labeled "Brightness=+20" (bottom right) proved to be the most attractive option. 

This post ended up being a little longer than most, but hopefully it will help you to save you ink, a few trees AND your sanity.  Remember that tattoo we put on your brain if you remember nothing else.  The intended media for your output will play a critical part in how you process your image.  Stop back next week and I'll add to Matt's "2x2" tip by telling you how I got those brightness labels to appear next to each image in my test print.

Until next time, keep on click'n.


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