A beginner’s guide to home photo printing (part one)
By Thomas Ryan | July 1, 2021
This is part one of a two-part series on home photo printing. Don’t miss Part 2, where we’ll look at soft proofing, paper selection, and a print workflow from start to finish next week.
We spend a lot of time and money investing in camera gear and editing software, but when was the last time you printed one of your images?
If you’ve done this recently, it’s probably through a consumer photo lab, and chances are your printing options are on matte or glossy paper types. Typically, the average punter is constrained by these choices as they are the cheapest and most convenient way for high-volume print services to deliver high-volume prints.
However, the downside is that you are completely in the hands of the lab when it comes to the output and reproduction quality of your photos, and fine adjustments and consistency can be variable at best.
Printing your own photos at home offers the opportunity to have fun and control your photographic workflow. And while printing at home can seem daunting at first or even a bit frustrating, once you’ve worked out your own printing workflow, the inconsistency that comes with printing at home can be overcome. .
Of course, there can be a lot to think about when printing at home, and that can make things quite overwhelming at first. My first experience with home printing dates back 20 years. I bought a photo printer, and after the initial excitement, I was soon disappointed with the results.
In hindsight, this was not the fault of the printer, but rather my lack of knowledge and understanding of the need for a workflow to achieve great prints. Although the science of printing and color management can be very technical, knowing just enough about the science of imaging can make all the difference when it comes to achieving high quality prints and consistent. So let’s get started.
Calibrate and profile your monitor
I think calibrating your monitor is one of the best investments you can make to get good quality prints. The process involves using hardware that you attach to your monitor that adjusts your screen’s color and contrast values to a standard.
The contrast ratios of many monitors are set too high, resulting in oversaturated and bright displays that aren’t ideal for printing. Printing on a calibrated monitor takes the guesswork out of getting consistently high quality prints and solves the common problem of color casts and/or printing too dark or too bright.
There are several hardware calibration tools available from companies such as Datacolor and X-Rite, and even the cheapest models are automated in their option settings to provide a decent and hassle-free experience.
The more expensive models, such as the X-Rite i1Display Pro that I use, can be automated, but also come with a range of customizable settings such as luminance and white point settings. I find the luminance settings valuable because I can change them depending on how bright or dark the room I’m working in is.
When I calibrate my monitor, I simply place the X-Rite device on my screen and follow the software prompts that guide me through the calibration process. The device then measures a series of colors on my screen and I save the profile that my screen then uses each time I start my computer. It’s important to calibrate your screen regularly (I try to do mine monthly) as colors and contrast can change over time.
Use ICC printer profiles
ICC profiles are like a recipe that lets your printer know how a particular type of paper should print. There are settings in your printer to allow it to make its calculated best choice to interpret colors, but this process is haphazard, and not using a printer profile can create all sorts of inconsistent results.
I find that using an ICC profile ensures the most efficient way to get consistent prints. Each paper has different characteristics for paper textures and finish, so a different profile is required for each paper you will be using.
There are two options for obtaining an ICC profile. The first option is to download generic profiles from the paper manufacturer. For example, if I’m using Canson Cotton Rag 310gsm paper, I go to the manufacturer’s website and download the correct profile.
It is important to check that you are downloading the correct type of paper compatible with your printer. Once I’ve selected the paper profiles, I follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to install and use the profiles, and then they’re ready to use in Lightroom and Photoshop as options.
Generic profiles are helpful in determining which papers best suit your needs, as they provide a good basis for getting consistent prints.
Once I found papers I liked to use, I also started creating my own custom ICC profiles. Generic profiles are just that – they are a basic profile for your printer.
If you want an even higher degree of fidelity, custom profiles are a great way to achieve this – this means that a bespoke profile is created for use with your specific printer. Reputable art printing companies offer this custom profiling service. It’s just a matter of following their instructions to print a profile target on your printer and paper of your choice, then mail them.
From there, they’ll scan your custom profile and email it back to you ready to install. The custom profiles give me a very accurate print representation, but I’m generally very happy with the results of the generic profiles for papers I rarely use.