Professional-quality photo printers and paper are expensive. It can be difficult to justify the steep price of the machine and upkeep for most photographers who shoot as a hobbyist or even a starting professional. Outsourcing your printing needs to a pro photo lab alleviates the cost, but there are some inherent complications in not being able to print from home. These four helpful steps will minimize the disconnect when sending out your images to the lab.
1. Calibrate Your Display
You hear others say this one all the time, and hopefully you haven’t been sloughing it off: While a quality photo printer may be out of your budget, you should seriously consider investing in a monitor calibration device. In order to achieve matching tonality from screen to print with your printing vendor, not to mention with the rest of photo professionals viewing your work online, this tool will make the entire process much more pleasant.
Calibrating your display is a process that simply cannot be replicated without using the proper instrument. You may be tempted to skip the expense and just compare a print to your screen and try to fiddle with your monitor until things look the same. Do not do this. Beside the fact that some degree of color blindness affects 1 out of 12 males and 1 out of 255 females, the inconsistencies through a whole range of variables using this method are going to hurt you more than help you. Here is an interesting online color test by X-Rite that challenges you to place a palette of colors in the correct hue order. Don’t feel bad if you aren’t getting back a perfect score; just realize that you should let a calibration device do the job for you.
2. Soft Proof Using Your Lab’s Printing Profiles
Once you have your display properly calibrated, the next step you should take is to find and download your chosen lab’s ICC printing profile for soft proofing. Most professional labs, such as BayPhoto or WHCC, supply their customers with these files through their website. If you are printing locally, check with an employee to see about obtaining their printing profile. With the output profile loaded in to your post processing program, you can now check your image through soft proofing.
A soft proof will attempt to predict what your image will look like as a physical print. One of the ways it accomplishes this is by mapping the white point of the display’s image to the paper’s “white”, and the black point to the printer ink’s “black”. With soft proofing enabled, you can adjust the image’s brightness, contrast, and colors to best match the digital photograph.
While adjusting the print file in soft proofing, I suggest taking a look at any possible gamut warnings. Colors that are outside of the output’s color gamut will print inaccurately. That’s because the colors are slamming against the wall of color capabilities for the printer, and so it can only print the closest possible color. To toggle the warning on/off in Photoshop, use the menu option under View>Gamut Warning.
One optional tip I offer to Photoshop users is to set the workspace background color to your printer profile’s paper white color. This will enhance the emulation of your soft proof, because your image looks to be surrounded by the actual paper you will print on (which usually has a slight blue tint due to optical brightening agents). To do this, open a third party color picker (on a Mac you can use the built-in application DigitalColor Meter). Create a new blank white document of any size, then turn soft proofing on for your photo lab's profile. Use your color picker to select the “white” that your Photoshop document is displaying. Then input the color values into the workspace background custom color option. Viola!
3. Adjust The ‘Print Size’ Zoom In Photoshop
By default, when you choose the View>Print Size option in Photoshop you will see that your document isn’t actually resized to what the outputted print will be sized at. What’s happening here then? Photoshop is set to assume that your screen resolution is 72 PPI. But in reality, screen resolutions soar above 72 PPI these days with a diverse selection of display sizes and resolutions. The math is being computed wrongly and you end up with an incorrect zoom when choosing Print Size. Let’s fix that.
In the menu under Photoshop>Preferences>Units & Rulers… you will find an input asking for your screen resolution with 72 PPI already filled in. To find the correct number to enter, you can either use Google to search for your monitor’s PPI or use a website such as dpilove that will help you calculate it.
With the right number now in place, the Print Size zoom just became useful. When you outsource your printing, you don’t have the luxury of test printing your image at its intended size. This virtualization enables you to take a step back from your screen and look at the image from the proper viewing distance and gauge the impact of the correctly sized presentation.
4. Battle the Standard Crops By Adding A White Margin
With printing vendors, you are usually going to be locked in to the print sizes that they offer. This means that your custom crop job to get a composition perfect would have to be thrown out the window. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
For me, if a crop is close enough to a ratio standard of 4:3, 2:3, or 1:1 I tend to compromise to these sizes. However, when working with a fairly unusual crop I recommend adding white margins to the side of your photo in order to maintain the composition in the printed product. If you plan to mat your prints, the white margins will be hidden anyways. If you so choose, using a metal ruler and a sharp Xacto blade you can lop off the white when you receive them.
Adding the white space is simple. In Photoshop, enter the Image Size dialog (Image>Image Size). With the “Resample” box unticked, change the long side of the image to the intended output measurement of the long side. Hit OK, and then open up the Canvas Size dialog (Image>Canvas Size). With “Relative” unticked and the canvas extension color set to White, change the short side measurement to the print’s short side measurement. Now, the width and height should show the same width and height that the outer dimensions of the final print will have. Click OK and your image file is ready to print with your custom crop in place.
If you have your own tip you would like to share with other readers, leave a comment below!