The Joy of Printing: Owning a printer

I honestly and thoroughly enjoy making prints. It takes extra time, extra money, extra effort, and requires extra skill compared to just making images displayed on a computer screen, but I like it.  After watching Sean Bagshaw’s and Zack Schepf’s new Producing Better Prints video series, I realize part of this comes from the fact that, over the years, I’ve developed a workflow where I can control the printing process well enough on my home printer that outputting an image as a print is not only easy and fun, but also an integral part of my workflow.

The Producing Better Prints course details the best practices for making prints from digital photographs. It’s an in-depth look at the variables associated with printing and teaches you how to control them. NOTE: The “Producing Better Prints” course is available on the Panels an Videos page, and during the month of May is 20% off using code: BP20

This article lists several advantages of having your own photo inkjet printer to make prints.  I’m currently on my third printer, a 4-year-old Epson SureColor P800 model. I primarily use it to make 12 x 18-inch images.  Owning a printer is not essential to making good prints or benefiting from the course, but having one readily available shortens the learning curve as you get near real-time feedback from the printed images.

Cost

There are definitely two sides to this: the upfront cost and the cost per print. The upfront cost is, of course, the printer. A good photo inkjet printer from Epson or Canon, for example, runs from $800 for a 13-inch model to $1300 for a 17-inch model. So, it’s an investment similar to buying a camera and a lens. Sometimes there are rebates ($200 at B&H Photo on Epson printers until the end of May), but it’s still a lot of money, especially if you’re new to printing and are unsure about whether you want to go this route. Fortunately, these printers are durable, so this is potentially a purchase that could last for years. Personal note: I buy new cameras and lenses more frequently than I do printers.

Paper and ink are a continual cost with printers, and ink cartridges for photo printers along with boxes with 50 to 100 sheets of “premium” paper aren’t inexpensive. However, on a per print basis, the cost is extremely reasonable. I checked my purchase records for 2021. I spent $348 on ink cartridges and $450 for 250 sheets of premium 13×19 luster paper. If you do the math, that works out to $3.20 per print, which, of course, is ridiculously cheap, since that wouldn’t even cover shipping and handling for a print from a commercial lab (which maybe uses the same type of printer). If I make 1,000 prints with my $1000 printer that will add just one dollar to the price of each print, in which case they’d still be a bargain.

Based on the prices I was looking at on the internet, an inkjet print on premium paper from a photo lab would cost over ten times what it costs to make the same print on my home computer and photo printer. So, while the upfront cost of making prints at home is not insignificant, the cost per print (even with the cost of the printer factored in) is almost trivial compared to paying someone else to do it. Long-term, an inkjet photo printer can be a good deal.

Print Quality

Photo inkjet printers make excellent prints, and that’s WITHOUT using the highest quality setting for the printer. In fact, I think using the “maximum quality” setting for prints is probably a waste of ink. Cameras (including smartphone cameras), Photoshop (and associated software), and printers have gotten so good that the images taken with my old first-gen iPhone SE and then printed on my Epson printer are better than the photographs I made in the darkroom in the 1980s that started with 4×5 negatives. Detail and sharpness with photo inkjet printers are absolutely incredible and precision manipulation using Photoshop and Lightroom far exceeds what was ever possible in a darkroom. In addition, the papers and inks used with modern inkjet printers are excellent. Fading, discoloration, and paper degradation aren’t an issue with premium papers and inks. A properly processed black and white silver gelatin print might still be more archival than a color inkjet print, but I doubt I will live long enough to see any difference. I still enjoy looking at traditional photographs, of course, but also feel that inkjet prints are now better on several different levels.

Speed

Let’s talk instant gratification. Initially, it took a bit get to set everything up for home printing, but, now that it’s all in place, I can resize and sharpen an image and finish outputting it as a print in less than 15 minutes. The process is accurate and repeatable, and I know the drill well. I get to see a finished print in less time than it takes to order a print from a lab and upload the file.

Control and creativity

In my opinion, this is the primary reason for owning a photo inkjet printer because, like many photographers, I have my perfectionist tendencies. Once I start working on an image, I want to make it as good as I can. As discussed in the previous post, I can uncover issues concerning color, contrast, and brightness better when looking at a print than by looking at the same image on a computer monitor. Because of this, prints have become an important part of my workflow. Waiting time and cost are no longer barriers with a home printer, and removing these impediments generates creative energy. Each print tells me something new about how to make the image better. The ease at which prints can be generated means I can quickly move back and forth between prints and Photoshop to polish the image to whatever level of perfection I like. It usually only takes around five prints to get everything right, but it’s hard to imagine properly finishing an image now without producing a satisfactory print. The process is a lot of fun and a good example of the joy of printing.

Lots of paper choices

There are a lot of papers that can be used with home inkjet photo printers, and, at least initially, you’ll want to experiment until you find one or more with a look and finish that you like. However, to be a master printer of your images, you don’t need to be able to print on every different paper out there. I’ve been using the same paper (a premium luster paper) for over a year as it meets my needs quite well. Being able to print on a variety of papers is a definite plus, but each requires small (or sometimes not so small) changes to your overall printing routine. So, definitely check out the different options, especially the different surfaces, to see what you like. Once you settle on a few favorites, you’ll be able to quickly make images that look good and require little effort to produce.

It’s not that hard to learn

There’s certainly a learning curve to printing your own images on a home photo printer, but, as point of reference, I’d say it’s easier than learning to navigate the menus on your DSLR camera. Basically, you need to do it step by step, but just once. When you get something in place, like calibrating your monitor, you’ll be able to move on to the next step. What you did or what you learned in that previous step will provide reproducible results going forward. For example, I use nearly the same process for each print. One paper, one basic sharpening method, one print adjustment for brightness/contrast before printing, and the same printer settings (except for paper orientation). It took a little time to figure out what works best for my monitor, paper, and printer, but now that I know these things, it’s very simple to make a print. Sean and Zack’s Producing Better Prints course walks you through all these variables, so you’ll know what needs to be addressed. Printing can be quite automated once you have the various settings in place.

Photo printer or printing press?

A photo printer doesn’t just print photographs. Having a printer that prints on larger-size paper, and even rolls of paper, greatly enhances what you can print. Photos, sure, but you can also print signs and banners for your children, for yard sales . . . or for a protest march. You can make greeting cards and postcards, and, if word gets around that you know what you’re doing, you can make prints for other people . . . and perhaps create some income in the process. All types of art, not just photos, can be printed with a photo printer. Text and graphics print just as well as photographs. If you can get it into Photoshop or create it there, you can then print it in a color-managed fashion with your “photo” printer. The cost of ink and paper will still be a factor, but the overall price will likely still be much less than you’d pay if you hired someone to do the same job. Bottom line: Photoshop plus a photo printer means you have a high-quality printing press at your disposal and can print whatever you want.

Prints are real

For almost the entire history of photography, prints were the only way to view the art form. My personal history with photography dates back to “instamatic” cameras in the 1970s, and prints were still the only way to see your pictures in that era. So, while I probably do have a fondness for prints based on my initial experience with photography, I don’t think it’s nostalgia alone that makes me want to see and hold a photograph as a print. There are other reasons. As a photographer, I want to inspect the image close up in order to determine the quality of the initial capture and to appreciate (or critique) the photographer’s skills. I also want to view the image at a distance to see how it interacts with the ambient light and whether it draws me in for a closer look. I also like the tactile qualities of some papers and admire the surface finishes of several of them. More than anything, though, when it comes to photography, I want to interact with something that is real. While much of my world seems to function just fine via the virtual simulation created by my computer, I’m too close and too connected to photography to be satisfied with only computer images of photographs. A print is the photographer’s ultimate expression of their art, and it tells me things about the artist that I can’t see on a monitor. At some point, to truly appreciate photographs and the people who made them, prints are required. Our virtual lives can only take us so far. When we really want to connect, we need something real.

Summary

Owning an inkjet photo printer is a great way to improve your photography. It allows you to see your images in a new light (literally) and to find additional ways to improve them. There will be some new skills to learn in order to be consistently successful at printing, but once you understand and control the different variables, the process is easy and rewarding. Having a home printer lets you explore new paper and image options, and, once you get past the initial costs, the price for printing at home is very economical. A home printer should be seen as another creative tool. It will help find new directions for your photography, allow you to explore new techniques, and ensure that you stay excited about taking pictures.

“Producing Better Prints” video series now available

Sean Bagshaw’s and Zack Schnepf’s “Producing Better Prints” video series was released last Thursday. It’s an in-depth look at the process of making prints, whether for printing on a photo printer at home or through a commercial photo lab. Most photo courses today focus on composing images in the field or developing them in Photoshop. This new course goes one step further and walks you through the next step: the process of outputting these images as prints.

For me, printing is an integral part of the creative process. I see developing photos as a collaborative process between the photographer and the image. There’s a ongoing dialog where the image tells the photographer what needs to be fixed and the photographer responds by finding a way to address these concerns. Working together, the image and the photographer arrive at the final version of image.

However, sometimes it’s hard for the image to voice it’s concerns. For example, things look so good on a computer monitor that it’s easy to miss what the image is trying to say. The way to overcome this monitor-bias, I have found, is to make a print. Switching to a different medium, paper, allows the image to speak much more clearly than on a computer screen. Problems are now much easier to identify, and solutions are equally obvious. Making a print provides important feedback that isn’t possible when developing solely on the computer monitor. Once I see the print, the on-screen image will improve also, but only because the print told me what I had to do.

This process of improving images through printing only works if you have dialed in a consistent and accurate printing regimen. Your print needs to match your on-screen image as closely as possible in order to use the print as a decision-making tool. The “Producing Better Prints” course shows you how to do this. I was not a consultant for this course (Sean and Zack are fully qualified experts), but it is so closely aligned with my own printing practices that it helps me appreciate why printing is such an important part of my workflow and so helpful in making creative decisions.

The “Producing Better Prints” course does a great job of flattening the learning curve for making prints. There are many printing variables, all addressed in this series of videos. Once you work through them and find what works for you, the process for making a prints is quick, predictable, instructive, and fun. Here are some of the topic covered in the series:

  • Monitor calibration and workspace lighting.
  • Types of printers, and printing media.
  • Image file types and bit depth considerations.
  • Color management, color spaces, software settings, and ICC profiles.
  • Soft proofing, sizing, and print sharpening.
  • Hard proofing and fixing dark prints.
  • Ordering prints from a lab.
  • Displaying prints.
  • Bonus chapters on working with ICC profiles and using Topaz filters.
  • Workflows using both Lightroom and Photoshop.

The video below has excerpts from several of the chapters. The entire series is available on my website, and through the end of May, anyone can use the code BP20 to get 20% off. Previous customers should also check their email from May 5th for additional savings or contact me if you didn’t receive the private, previous-customer discount code.

Coming Soon: “Making Better Prints” video series

Sean Bagshaw and Zack Schnepf are putting the final touches on a new video series that takes a close look at the process of printing photographic images. This video course is based on printing workshops they’ve conducted previously. Not everyone prints their images, but most of us enjoy seeing a hard copy of an image, perhaps hanging it on the wall, and possibly giving (or selling) copies to friends and customers.

Traditionally, prints were the only way to share photographs, and there is still something very satisfying about looking at actual prints compared to just seeing images on a monitor. I’ve printed my photos on a home printer for more than two decades and learned most of what I know through trial and error (and at least one costly mistake along the way). This new series significantly flattens the learning curve for those looking to start printing their images whether at home on a computer printer or through a commercial photo lab. It also contains many great tips for those already making prints so that the process is reproducible, efficient, instructive, and fun. The course covers workflows using both Photoshop and Lightroom.

Sean and Zack are allowing me to sell this course on my website. I’ll be emailing customers as soon as it’s available with additional details and special discounts (hopefully by Thursday). There will also be more information posted on this blog. For now, the video below will provide a brief look at what the new series is about.

Exposure Blending with TK8: Two methods

Exposure blending is an editing technique to better control global contrast in high dynamic range scenes where either the shadows or highlights might be clipped. Specific parts from multiple exposures are combined to insure that there is no (or significantly less) clipping in the final image. Exposure blending recovers shadow and highlight detail. While there are a number of algorithms and apps available to create HDR blends, the consensus seems to be that the results don’t always look natural. Shadows might be excessively light, global contrast looks to be off, and there may be halos around high-contrast edges.

Manually blending exposures using luminosity masks generally overcomes these problems. Luminosity masks focus on specific tones in the image and then seamlessly blend or taper into other tones. This is an ideal characteristic for exposure blending. However, using them for this purpose is usually not as easy as simply applying a luminosity mask to one of the exposures. Additional modifications to the masks, the exposures, or the manner in which the mask is applied to the image are often needed.

I don’t do a lot of exposure blending with my images, but from what I’ve done and have seen others do, there appears to be three main goals:

  1. Recover clipped highlights and shadows. This is essentially a working definition of exposure blending. A high dynamic range scene where the sensor is unable to capture either the brightest or darkest elements needs to use at least two exposures blended together to display the full dynamic range of the scene.
  2. Eliminate or reduce noise in the shadows. Sometimes the sensor can capture a scene’s full dynamic range, but the shadows are quite noisy. Blending in a separate shadows exposure that has the shadow values shifted to the right on the histogram provides both more detail in the shadows and less noise.
  3. Create realistic contrast in the blended image. This would include local contrast in each exposure that is blended as well as global contrast in the blended image.

One thing to NOT do with exposure blending is to try and finish the image based solely on the blending process. The goal should be to make a blended exposure that is a good starting point for additional development in Photoshop. In fact, it probably makes sense to aim for a less-finished blended image as there are lot of useful development techniques that might not be available during the blending process.

Method #1: Match exposures

For many landscape images, exposure-matching is a convenient blending method. It makes creating a perfect blending mask (the luminosity mask) nearly foolproof. This is the method demonstrated by Dave Kelly in the video below. The important step in this method is making the light and dark exposures to be blended look pretty much the same in Lightroom or Camera Raw. This often involves increasing the Exposure of the dark image and decreasing the Exposure of the light image. Additional adjustments to Highlights, Shadows, Blacks, Whites, and Contrast can then be incorporated to make the dark and light images appear similar. Clipped values will not be recoverable, of course, but much of the rest of the image can be adjusted to have similar brightness and contrast. The matching is especially important in the transition zone, where the dark and light exposures “meet.” A good exposure match in the transition zone means that there will be no blending halos in areas of strong contrast (like along the horizon or the edges of buildings).

When using matched exposures for blending, it’s very easy to create a mask that works to facilitate a perfect blend since the images already look quite similar. However, it’s still important to modify the mask to make sure it brings through the best-exposed pixels from both the light and dark exposure. For example, dark values should come from the light exposure in order to decrease shadow noise in the blended image. Mask modification usually involves creating some pure black and pure white areas via a Curves or Levels adjustment of the mask or painting black or white directly on the mask. It’s just the transition zone that needs to have various shades of gray in the mask in order to blend together pixels from both exposures.

NOTE: If using smart objects of the RAW files for blending, after the blending mask has been created, consider revisiting the RAW files by double-clicking the smart object thumbnails and creating better tone, color, and/or contrast in the areas revealed by that exposure. Just remember to try and maintain the exposure match in the transition zone.

Method #2: Paint through luminosity selections

While exposure-matching tends to work well for landscape images with separate sky and foreground areas that have an obvious transition zone, more complex subjects or more complex lighting situations might require a different approach. In the video below, Emil von Maltitz uses various luminosity masks generated with the TK8 plugin to create selections that then serve as stencils for painted masks. The painted masks reveal various image elements from different exposure layers. In Emil’s example, four different exposures are used, and very little work is done on the RAW files before exporting them to Photoshop for blending. It’s the mask-painting through luminosity selections that creates the blend.

The TK8 plugin makes it easy to find the right mask, but the real key for making mask-painting work, I think, is to use a lower-opacity brush (Emil uses 20 to 40 percent opacity) and then judiciously choosing where to paint on the image to bring through the desired exposure. Multiple brush strokes with lower-opacity brushes allow the effect to be slowly built up as each brushstroke adds additional paint to the layer mask. Using more than two exposures for blending adds to the complexity of the blending process, and Emil uses groups for helping to keep the Layers panel organized. Painting through luminosity selections also requires keeping track of what parts of each exposure layer will be useful in the final blend. Emil obviously has a good sense for this, though it would likely take some practice to be proficient when using more than two exposures.

SUMMARY: Exposure-matching and mask-painting are two methods for manually exposure blending high dynamic range scenes in Photoshop. Both methods employ luminosity masks to achieve a seamless blend. Exposure-matching has the advantage of creating an excellent transition zone so that critical areas, like horizon lines, have no halos in the blended image. Mask-painting allows for using original exposure information and is ideal for bringing out details and textures in the blended image.

PERSONAL NOTE: When working with high dynamic range scenes, I almost always start by applying a linear profile to the RAW image and then clicking the “Auto” button in Lightroom or Camera Raw. This process is the best way to see what’s actually recoverable in any given exposure. The linear profile does a fantastic job of recovering highlight details. And, since it has lower contrast in the dark areas than the Adobe profiles, it often shows better detail in the shadows as well. High-contrast shadows with Adobe profiles can look nearly black. Using a linear profile plus “Auto” helps to see what’s really there.