The Changing Landscape Of Printing

The digital print gives photographers more freedom and control in getting great images.

Wings of Spring

Printing possibilities offer so much for landscape photographers today. Digital photography along with inkjet prints give greater freedom for the photographer to truly capture what he or she saw. ABOVE LEFT: Fall color, Wasatch Mountains, Utah. ABOVE RIGHT: Cottonwood tree growing in a sandstone bowl, during a spring thunderstorm, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

For landscape photographers, the print has gone beyond a simple record that goes on the wall. With printing so accessible to all, photographers have the opportunity to create dramatic, large-format prints that demand attention.

As an outdoor photographer, I can honestly say that the advent of digital photography and printing technology now allows me greater freedom, both in the field and in the studio. Moreover, after the hard work in the field, there are few things as rewarding as seeing a beautiful print roll off the printer, taking you back to that special moment.

Much of my older work was done in large format, though for the past few years my images have been predominantly captured with D-SLRs. This latter fact often is greeted with surprise, especially at the sight of some larger prints. As a large-format photographer, I was as skeptical as anyone about the enlargement potential of digital capture—until I tried it myself. Depending on the print process, image resolution numbers in the 200 to 400 dpi range are generally required to produce a sharp print. To put this in context, in order to make an 8×10 print at 200 dpi, your file will need to be sized to 1600 x 2000 pixels (3.2 megapixels). This is still far below the native resolution of most modern digital cameras.

When you make your own prints, you gain control over every aspect of the image, allowing you to customize the results to your taste and style. Such control is all the more meaningful considering the ever-growing array of choices— from printers and inks to color management tools and digital imaging applications, all the way to the large variety of papers, each with its own unique look.

I like to approach the processing and printing of my work with the same mindset as I do capturing images in the field. I seek to create something that’s unique and expressive, something that communicates the sense of awe and discovery that I experienced myself when in the presence of great natural beauty.

My prints are visualized outdoors, on the trail, in the depths of canyons or on the slopes of mountains. As I frame and compose my images, I also consider how they might look on paper. The process involves more than just an appealing composition, but also examining areas of detail that may require attention.

When back at my studio, my imaging workstation is my light table, my development and processing darkroom, and my print lab all rolled into one. As I pull up newly made images, memories of each moment come alive. The ability to review multiple compositions side-by-side is invaluable in the process of editing and selecting which images to print. The digital process allows me to push the envelope and choose the one frame that’s just different enough to make it that much better than other similar ones.

Ink And Paper
Just as there’s no one right way to photograph a given subject, there’s no one right way to print a given image. Famed photographer Ernst Haas noted that “the best pictures differentiate themselves by nuances,” and the power of digital printing puts complete control of such nuances in your hands. While some images benefit from deep saturated blacks, others may rely on subtle pastels or high-key whites; others still may benefit from the glare-free surface of cotton rag papers or the luscious, saturated gloss finish of coated ones. The choices abound and readily plug into your workflow.

Inkjet printers fall into two main categories: those using pigment-based inks and those using dye-based inks. Pigment inks are more stable and archival since they’re more resistant to UV light, but they‚’re more expensive to produce. Dye inks have a broader color gamut, though generally aren’t as stable and will fade sooner when exposed to UV light. Modern inks, both pigment and dye, have come a long way toward improving both archival and color qualities.

When it comes to paper, the wide field of options falls into two main categories: coated papers (e.g., resin-coated, or RC), which offer more traditional glossy or textured surfaces, and fine-art papers (e.g., cotton rag), which have a matte surface and produce prints looking like something between a photograph and a highly detailed watercolor painting. Remember that dye inks, while having more favorable color gamut, look best on coated papers and generally aren’t suitable for fine-art papers. Pigment inks work very well on both types of paper, however.

Color Calibration
How can a printer know what red looks like on your monitor so it can reproduce it accurately? The solution is color calibration or profiling. A color profile maps colors to a device-specific way of producing those same colors, such as a printer.

Monitors are generally profiled (or calibrated) using a color-measuring device called a colorimeter. These are available from vendors like Datacolor, Pantone and others. Printer profiles are specific to each paper and ink combination. Most printer manufacturers provide a set of ICC profiles with their printers, and the same is true for many independent paper manufacturers.

Keep in mind that having a color-managed workflow and ICC profiles for your monitor and printer ensure consistency, but rarely result in a 100% match. Differences result from the fact that transmissive media (e.g., your screen) and reflective media (e.g., paper) have some inherent characteristics that can’t be fully overcome with profiles. Experimentation is needed for best results.

If you’re printing large, it’s more than likely you’ll have to deal with a lab. Most home printers don’t have large print capabilities, and labs can print big, really big, and they can do it on a variety of materials.

Wings of Spring

“We can print anything,” says Rich Seiling of West Coast Imaging. “It’s not really what we need that matters. It’s what expectations the photographer has. I’ve seen 30×40-inch prints made from 35mm film, photographs that are astounding. They don’t have the detail or resolution that we can make from 4×5 film, but the content of the scene is there.”

As with anything big, though, size matters. The more data you have, the higher the level of resolution you’ll get when printing. For a 13×19-inch image at 200 dpi, for example, you’d need about 2600 x 3800 pixels (13 x 19 x 200), which divides down to 9.9 MB.

“For most files, you need about 200 dpi of real resolution to keep the image optimum,” says Seiling. “We’ve seen really great prints from 150 dpi images, but at some point it just starts to lose the tactile qualities that you should expect from a print.”

Remember, too, that your print will end up a lot bigger than your LCD screen. Correct focus is paramount. You may get away with a slight blur at normal sizes, and even correct it a bit, but the larger the size of your print, the more the flaws will show. If you can, use the included features of your camera to check for correct focus and blown-out highlights. Some cameras even shoot exposure bracketing automatically.

“When you go big, every flaw and every mistake is magnified,” says Seiling. “If things are out of focus, you can get away with it in a small print. The same goes for depth of field, and any camera shake is really going to show up. Having clipped highlights becomes much more evident.”

When you’re spending money for prints this size, it’s a good idea to do test prints, as well. Labs can do any number of adjustments to color, density and contrast, and this is the time to experiment. Also, there’s a variety of reasons that images may not print correctly, from monitor calibration to human error, and it’s wise to have a physical preview.

“When I print my own photographs, I make multiple small proofs,” Seiling advises. “Once I get the small proofs the way I like it, I’ll make a final proof, at a final size, let’s say at 20 x 24 inches, and I’ll still consider that just a proof.

“The question is what’s pretty good? It’s not an easy thing to define with words. You have to look at prints that are at certain settings, make a baseline for yourself and then ask yourself if you like that or not. And then if you like this file that you made at 100 dpi, you know in the future you can print your stuff at whatever size you can get at 100 dpi. But if you say, boy, I hate it, then you have to add some more resolution, and print smaller essentially, so that you’re not spreading out the pixels so far and use that as your standard.”

Adds Seiling, “Printmaking in general is a lot more like cooking than it is a science. And we’re mixing different ingredients together to get the dish that tastes just the way the photographer wants it to. That’s what we’re here to do—we understand the ingredients, and if we talk to the photographer, then we can understand what the photographer wants it to taste like in the end, and we can mix up the right recipe that will get them that perfect five-star dinner that tastes exactly like they want.”

Here’s a list of some of the big-print labs to get you started:
Dalmatian Black & White Custom Lab | (800) 603-8107 |
Duggal | (212) 242-8100 |
Miller’s Professional Imaging | (800) 376-6121 |
Perfect Posters | (651) 687-9840 |
Poster Perfect | (863) 668-8770 |
West Coast Imaging | (800) 799-4576 |