Basic Tips for Making Fine Art Prints at Home

Fall colors reflected in the Swift River in New Hampshire

Fall colors reflected in the Swift River in New Hampshire

I’ve heard it said that the process of creating a photograph isn’t complete until you’ve made a print.  I don’t know that I’m in complete agreement but I will confess that I derive tremendous satisfaction in the art of printmaking.   In a blog post I wrote last year titled “Pixels vs. Prints” I wrote about how viewing a photograph on a monitor and in print are two wholly different experiences.  A master printmaker I am not.  I’ve only been making my own prints, on an Epson Stylus 2880 printer, for a little over a year.  But, I’ve learned some lessons in that time that I’ll share here with the hope that your own foray into the wonderful world of printing may be a bit less intimidating.

Printer Selection

There are three primary manufacturers of printers capable of producing fine art photographic prints: Epson, Canon and HP.  HP printers use a dye-based ink while Epson and Canon both use a pigment-based ink.  I don’t have the time to fully discuss the pro’s and con’s of each, but you’ll find a good basic explanation of each here.  Most photographers I know, including a few who are master printmakers, use pigment-based ink printers.  The primary point I want to discuss here is selecting printer size because yes, size does matter.

I can make prints up to 13″x19″ on my Epson 2880.  This was fine for a few months but once I got the hang of things I quickly discovered that I wanted to print bigger.  How much bigger?  I’d like to be able to print 24″ wide prints.  So, I’m now saving my pennies to buy a large format printer.

My advice to you is to give serious thought to how big you may want to print one year from now, when you’ve gotten past being overwhelmed with the whole process.  Generally speaking, most professional level printers on the market today come in one of four sizes: 13″, 17″, 24″ and 44″.  There are even bigger printers but seriously, who has enough space to park a car-sized printer in their home office?  If you’re inclined to go with a 13″ printer, it’s worth noting that there isn’t a huge difference in the physical size of a 13″ and 17″ printer.  There is, however, a significant price increase.  Jumping up to a 24″ printer requires a sizable chunk of real estate in your office.  These printers usually ship with their own stand and typically weigh in at over 150 pounds!

Some additional thoughts: Consider how large you are able to print based on the camera you use.  If your primary camera is on your iPhone it’s probably a waste of money to buy a 24″ printer.  That’s an extreme example but you get the point – don’t let your ambitions overreach your abilities.  As printer size increases so does the size of the ink cartridges they require.  Larger cartridges are expensive but they contain significantly more ink, which means that your per print costs decrease with larger printers.  Larger printers require larger media (paper) and you’ll need a place to store it all.

Paper Selection

This is the fun part.  There are dozens of media types to choose from and they’re all unique.  Matte, luster, glossy, metallic, canvas – the list goes on.  And, just because you’ve got two papers that are both matte doesn’t mean they’re going to print the same.  Oh no, one may be warmer or thicker or more or less matte than the other.

How do you choose a paper?  Order a few sample packs and start making prints.  Seriously, it’s such a subjective thing that you’ve got to make prints on a bunch of different papers before you can start to develop a taste for what you prefer.  I like matte papers, so I knew going into it that I didn’t need to experiment with anything else.  But, there are so many manufacturers making matte papers that I had to order a few sample packs and make a bunch of test prints before I found a favorite – Moab Entrada Rag Bright 190.

Here’s a few manufacturers to consider whose papers are well respected: Moab Paper, Red River Paper, Canson-Infinity, Hahnemuhle and Ilford.  Epson, Canon and HP also sell their own branded papers.

The Myth of the Perfect Monitor to Print Match

Many novice printmakers are quickly frustrated when they find that their prints don’t match the image on their computer monitor.  Your first few prints are usually darker and less saturated than intended.  This is common. Very common.  Don’t lose your cool, you probably aren’t doing anything wrong.

There are several things you can do to combat this problem.  First and foremost, you should be working on a properly calibrated monitor.  If you aren’t, I probably wouldn’t even bother buying a printer.  Next, you should always soft-proof prior to printing using the appropriate ICC profile.  Wait, what?  In very simple terms, soft-proofing allows your monitor to simulate as closely as possible what your image will look like on any given paper using a profile designed for that paper.  It isn’t perfect, but it’ll get you pretty close.  Here’s a great soft-proofing tutorial on the Luminous Landscape website and another more in-depth one on the Cambridge in Color website.  Finally, until you learn how each paper prints you’ll save yourself some headaches by making a small (8″ x 10″-ish) artist proof before making your final print.  Is your artist proof too dark?  Use a curves adjustment to lighten it up.  Not saturated enough?  Add saturation to compensate for the loss when printing.

Care and Feeding of Your New Printer

Just a few years ago a common problem with inkjet printers was clogged printhead nozzles.  Newer and better technology has mostly eliminated this problem although it does still happen from time to time.  One of the main reasons for this is lack of usage.  Luckily, there’s an easy fix: use your printer!  Make a couple 8″x10″ prints each month and you probably won’t have to worry about clogged nozzles.

Don’t leave your paper in the feeder tray or on the roll when not in use.  Dust may settle on the paper, which can fall off after you make a print, leaving small areas that are void of ink.  It’s best to store paper in a dust-proof environment, such as the package in which it was shipped.

While we’re on the topic of dust, keep your printer covered when not in use.  Most printers have custom fitted dust covers available at minimal cost.  Buy and use one.  Dust inside your printer can cause the same problems as dust on your paper and even bigger issues as it works it’s way into the sensitive internal mechanisms of your printer.

You’re going to burn through a lot of ink, especially in the first couple of months.  I keep three extra cartridges of each color on hand because I don’t want to get caught without it.  If you run out of just one color of ink, you’re done making prints until it is replaced.  I order all my ink through the good folks at Atlex, which is also a great place to buy your printer.  I bought my printer through B&H but my next one will most likely come from Atlex.  They seem to consistently offer the best prices and occasionally they’ll throw in extras (like a complete set of inks or a couple packages of paper) to sweeten the deal.

Sharpening for Print

Sharpening images for presentation, whether on the web or in print, may well be the cause of more gray hairs than anything else in photography.  It doesn’t need to be.  There are old pro’s who still insist on manually sharpening their images using the Unsharp Mask in Photoshop or the sharpening tools in Lightroom.  I’m not one of them.  I cheat.  I use Nik Sharpener Pro 3 for all my sharpening needs.  I couldn’t be happier with the results and it’s incredibly easy to use.  You simply open the image you wish to sharpen in the Nik Sharpener Pro 3 software and make a few selections.  The software does the rest and it does it beautifully.  I recommend that you download the free 30-day trial, try it out and when you’re ready to purchase, use coupon code “BEDGE” for a 15% discount.

When viewing your newly sharpened image on-screen it will likely appear over-sharpened.  Fear not, the printed image will look just fine.  This is true whether you use Nik Sharpener Pro 3 or some other software like PK Sharpener, or you manually sharpen the image.

Other Considerations

You may need to trim the edges of your beautiful new prints to create even borders all the way around the image.  The easiest way to accomplish this is to use a high quality rotary trimmer.  I use a Dahle trimmer and couldn’t be happier with its performance.  They aren’t cheap but they will make trimming your prints completely hassle free and the edges will be nice, crisp and professional looking.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to sell every print you make you’ll want a place to store them.  I use an underbed box with a lid to store the prints flat.  If you roll them and keep them in tubes they’ll be a pain in the neck to share or eventually frame.  The underbed box also does a nice job of keeping them dust free.

I hope you find these tips to be useful.  As I said, I’m not an expert and am still learning as I go but these tips should help you avoid some of the common headaches.  I invite anyone with additional thoughts, suggestions or tips to please leave a comment below.

Editor’s Note: If you’re in the Moab, Utah area, stop in at Bret’s gallery, The Edge Gallery.

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