Disclaimer: this is a general introduction to home printing which assumes little or no prior knowledge. Any brands mentioned below should not be taken as an endorsement of these brands.
First of all, this is not an economically viable alternative to POD services. Although fairly good inkjet printers are not particularly expensive, their ink is the costliest substance in the world by volume and good paper doesn’t come cheap. Add to this all the mistakes when learning and the occasional FUBAR print when the printer jams, ink dries up, etc. So why do it? All sorts of reasons: to exercise total control over the entire photographic process (I’m convinced all of us “enthusiast” photographers are control freaks); the pleasure of producing something oneself; the (almost) instant gratification of seeing your work printed and, if done correctly, better results than most POD services offer.
What you need
- Obviously, a camera, a computer and image editing software
- A “good” printer – by which I mean one with at least four print heads (black and cyan-magenta-yellow). Printers designed for professional prints have up to ten different print heads, each requiring its own expensive cartridge
- High quality paper
- The correct ICC file for the printer and paper (see below)
- A calibrated monitor (again, see below)
Before you begin
I strongly recommend calibrating your computer monitor. A calibration tool from Pantone Huey or Eye-one will correct the colour cast in your monitor. As this needs to be done only once a month or so, I recommend borrowing one from your local photography club or friend. Make sure the monitor has been powered up for at least half an hour before calibrating it. Follow the instructions – you’ll be surprised at the difference, possibly unpleasantly, but many printing disappointments stem from the difference between a non-calibrated monitor and the print output.
Make sure that ink levels are sufficient and that the printer heads have been cleaned and are aligned. Your printer software includes utilities for doing this. You can use ordinary paper for this. The usual punishment for forgetting to do this is banding (stripes in the print) and bleeding (colour seepage).
Download and install the correct ICC. This is a colour configuration file specific to the paper and your printer. It is available at no cost from the website of the printer / paper manufacturer. It makes all the difference but does not affect how your image is displayed on your computer.
Check your image carefully for specks, smudges, OOF areas before you print. Sounds obvious, but what you know is a bird in the image displayed on your large computer monitor ends up looking like a dust speck on the print. I find that I am far more critical of an image when printed than on screen. It’s part of the fun, but can be expensive unless you re-appraise your work critically before you print. Also, check the paper for smudges or specks.
The secret is simple: get the print settings right. I have deforested untold areas and blown a lot of money learning this. I really do like trees and I’m not particularly fond of wasting money, which is why I wrote this.
The first thing to do is make sure that the computer manages colours, . The computer sends data to the printer which are “translated” via the printer driver. The printer can be trusted to print black text (which is really what home printers are designed to do) but can’t be trusted with colours, especially on special paper. All printer drivers allow you to deactivate the printer’s colour management. Do this before printing. Let the computer and your image editing software control what goes to the printer without the printer adding settings that always – but always – mess up the result. At the same time, uncheck any printer “photo enhancement” utilities if you’re using a good image editor such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Your computer does a better job. As there are zillions of printers, all I can do is suggest you look in the print options and deselect anything that looks like “colour management”. This is a gross over-simplification, but it’s the best I can do at this level. Do not worry about the colour space.
Colour space – a digression (you can skip this part)
If you’ve posted an image on the web, the image has been “painted” using a range (called a “gamut”) of 216 colours known as sRGB. It’s best to think of a box of 216 crayons. Ideally, you set your DSLR to Adobe (1998) colour space, which is far wider, and you may be using wider colour spaces in Photoshop and Lightroom or other software. The computer automatically converts colour spaces to the appropriate values when printing. The purpose of this digression is to urge you to use Adobe 98 in your DSLR. Let the software render your colours afterwards, but if anyone is curious, I’ll be happy to explain them and their limitations in terms of colour rendering on your monitor in the comments. Incidentally, only top-of-the-range monitors (and certainly not those used in laptops) have a sufficiently wide colour space. For our purposes, Adobe 98 is as good as it’s going to get.
Optimum print settings
Using your image editor’s print settings to select the correct paper. Start by purchasing photo paper from the printer manufacturer. I find that glossy works well with black and white prints using an Epson printer (but not Canon, strangely enough). For colour prints, use semi-matte or smooth pearl. I swear by Ilford Galerie paper now (before, I used to swear at it).
It is unnecessary and wasteful of ink to print at over 240 dpi (dots per inch). In fact, you can achieve excellent photo prints with a resolution of 190 dpi on an inkjet.
Avoid borderless printing. Home printers just aren’t very good at this. It takes more time, uses more ink and can easily smudge. It’s easier cut the borders off later (which is still not a good idea if you’re going to add a surround and frame it).If you have an A3 printer and are aiming for big, it’s worth testing your output using a smaller layout (A4, for example), which uses less ink and is still large enough to highlight any problems. Images captured with an 8MP camera or higher can be printed in A3+.
Sharpen your image (Unsharp Mask, “sharpen for print” options, etc.) more for prints than you would do for monitor displays. Printers inevitably “soften” images. It usually depends on the printer, but I sharpen 110-150% more than I would do for a monitor display. Save the file under a different name (I add a “p-” prefix). I don’t do this for portraits, which usually need to be softer anyway.
The inevitable disappointments
Even if all your print settings are correct for the paper type, print outputs are inevitably different from what you see on your monitor. For a start, they are usually darker. This is because the image displayed on your monitor is backlit, whilst your print is lit by ambient light. If the print output is significantly darker, one of your print settings is wrong (incorrect ICC, one of the printer’s utilities is still being used, wrong type of paper selected, etc.). The possibilities are varied. I’d be happier to answer specific questions knowing the details.
If the colours are slightly different, it’s probably due to using a non-calibrated monitor, which has a colour cast. Calibrate the monitor and adjust the image in your image editor.
“Banding” (stripy colours) and blotchy prints are usually the result of clogged / misaligned printer heads or insufficient ink. Run the printer cleaning / alignment utilities (make sure you’re using ordinary paper) and try again.
I’m going to leave it there for the time being. I’ll be happy to expand on the above in light of specific comments / issues by anyone reading this.