Digital Printing 101
The basic steps to getting what you see on paper match what you saw on your screen.
By Chris Meyer | February 18, 2011
Q: Which one of these test swatches is correct? A: None of them.
An example of life before we learned how to follow a color managed workflow while printing.
One old theory of knowledge was that we were born knowing everything (having gained that knowledge in a previous life), and it was just a matter of "remembering" that which was obvious once explained. Well, with all due respect to the ancient Greeks, color managed print workflow - the best way to ensure what you print is as close as possible to the original image - is not obvious, and being a relatively recent development in the world of photography, we don't have knowledge from a prior life to draw on.
That said, neither is it unknowable - and you don't have to reinvent the wheel to learn it yourself. After watching fellow artists beat their heads against the wall or print endless tests hoping to land upon the magic combination that works for them (and having done that very thing myself several years ago), I thought it would be worth outlining the basic workflow to create repeatable, as-accurate-as-circumstances-will-allow printing. Yes, there will always be devilish details and inevitable exceptions, but this will give you a solid foundation to build on.
Forging Order From Chaos
To understand the need for a color-managed workflow, first you have to start by accepting:
- Every model of computer monitor may display your image differently.
- Every model of printer may spritz ink onto your paper differently.
- Every type of paper may receive your ink differently.
That's why a magic incantation that works for one artist may not work for you, and why you could go through a lot of paper, ink, aspirin and hair printing test swatches to find a spell that does work for you.
The good news is: Once you know enough about each of the above points, you'll no longer be dealing with infinite combinations; you'll be defining a simple workflow that will get you a lot closer to your goal with minimal effort.
The major points of this workflow are as follows:
- Use paper that is "coated" for inkjet printing.
- Get a "profile" that describes your printer/paper combination, and load that into your image editing software when getting ready to print.
- To make accurate changes while viewing your monitor before you print, tell your computer what type of monitor is has connected to it.
Sound easier than expected? Actually, it is that easy - as long as you execute each of those steps correctly.
To remove the aura of voodoo that surrounds digital printing, I'll explore what's going on underneath the hood for each of these steps. Since it's impossible for me to know what operating system, software, printer, and paper you happen to be using, I'm going to have to keep most of this advice fairly generic (sprinkled with examples using our most common combinations: Photoshop CS5 on a Mac, connected to either an Epson 2200 or HP Z3100 printer), although I promise none of it is too difficult to execute yourself.
Inkjet versus Laser; Dye versus Pigment
For the sake of this article, we're going to focus on inkjet printing, rather than toner-based laser printing. Laser certainly has its places - we have a color laser printer in addition to inkjet printers - but in general, most archival fine art printing is done with a variation of an ink jet printer.
And don't skip over that word "archival" - most inexpensive inkjet printers aren't. If the fine print says your inks are dye-based, they're probably not archival; if it says they're pigment-based (like fine art paints are), then they probably are archival.
So that's my first asterisk: If you haven't already, move up to a pigment-based inkjet printer as soon as possible. Just in case you create something that you don't want to fade away sooner rather than later.
Choosing Your Paper
Most paper is fine for writing on. Most is fine for heat-fusing toner onto (i.e. laser printing). A lot of it is even acceptable for drawing and painting. However, virtually no paper in its unaltered form is good at receiving tiny dots of colored ink and keeping them in their place. Those dots tend to blot out to the surrounding areas (softening the image as a result), or not get soaked up properly (resulting in problems with color, contrast, and saturation).
Because of this, you're much better off if the paper has an inkjet receptive coating applied to it. This absorbs the dots of ink more efficiently so that your colors, contrast, and saturation look as good as you could hope, and stops individual dots of ink from spreading so that the image remains sharp.
Copier paper doesn't have this coating. Fine art paper for drawing, painting, or traditional printmaking doesn't have this coating. Most handmade or decorative papers don't have this coating. If an accurate image is your goal, you need to get paper that explicitly says it is for inkjet printing - and preferably from a fine art paper or higher-end printer manufacturer, rather than an office supply vendor (because not all inkjet coatings are created equal).
Good paper can be expensive. Some resellers (such as InkJetArt.com) as well as paper manufacturers (such as Breathing Color) make sampler packs or "trial kits" available so you can try out a variety of papers and see which you like before you make a big investment. I like to collect paper samples and print test images I am familiar with on them, carefully noting both the paper and settings I used. I can then refer to these later when choosing a paper for a particular job.
Without a Coat
Time for our second asterisk: If the paper you really, really want to print to is not inkjet coated, you have three options:
1) Coat it yourself, using Inkaid or Golden Digital Ground. The result still probably won't take an image quite as nicely as commercially-formulated inkjet coated paper, but it will take it a lot better than if you didn't coat it. Coating will even allow you to print to surfaces not originally intended for fine art prints (more on that in a future article).
2) Failing that, get a custom color "profile" made for that paper (discussed next), and print anyway: Your image will still be lacking a degree of contrast and sharpness, but it will be a lot better than if you printed without a custom profile.
Having a custom profile created for an uncoated paper (lower left) will get you closer...but still nowhere near as good as professional, inkjet coated paper with a good profile (upper right - Arches Infinity with one of Bill Atkinson's profiles).
3) Failing that, crank up the saturation in your image processing program. See if your printer dialog has an option that allows you to adjust the "ink load" printed to paper - if so, crank that up as well. These steps will help you combat the inevitable lack of contrast that comes from printing to paper not coated to receive your printer's ink. But really - you're better off with coated paper, or at least a proper profile.
next page: using profiles to tell your software how to get the most out of your printer and paper
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