Guide: Achieve better print quality from your digital captures.

Started Dec 26, 2008 | Discussions thread
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Dale Treadway
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Guide: Achieve better print quality from your digital captures.
Dec 26, 2008

Consider this a Christmas gift to my fellow Olympus using friends.

I was almost ready to reply to another post where someone expressed being unsatisfied with the print results from their lab. Then it occurred to me. I have put a lot of time and effort into understanding how to achieve proper color calibration and good print results over the last 10+ years, so why not share my knowledge with the rest of you! I really hope this helps many to achieve better print results from your files in 2009 and beyond!

A little background on myself: My passion for this subject takes me back 10+ years to my college days when I was studying animation, illustration, and multi-media. So I am quite comfortable in the digital space with hardware and with photoshop and the concepts behind what makes digital tick on a visual/creative level. Even though my career path took me in a much different path than my original degree, it's very much still a passion of mine today. I just recently (July 08) got semi-serious with photography, and my first ever D-SLR purchase, so I am certainly not the best photographer on here, still learning the basics of that art, but this isn't pertaining to being a better photographer anyway.

The 10 Rules: (Sorry, but there is no "simple" 20 word response to proper print matching)

  1. 1: You must first be certain that what you are viewing on screen is accurate if you want to compare it to the finished result of your lab (or photo printer). If you edit your photos in an inaccurate environment you are bound for disaster come print time regardless if you print at home or in a lab. This is #1 because if you are not absolutely certain you are viewing photos on your monitor with color accuracy then statements like: My lab/printer bites because the prints do not match what I saw on screen is immediately a moot point.

  1. 2: If you choose to print in a lab, as I prefer, you must be careful in your choice of photo labs. I love that many of you choose local labs, but if you are using target, walgreens, cvs, walmart, costco, sams, or anywhere that might hire people to run their lab based on how cheaply they will work then don't be expecting perfection or consistency. The good news is that you can find proper labs online or often times locally that charge similar prices compared to these other labs and offer superior results. They are often run by professionals with a passion for photography and a deep understanding of the equipment they operate.

  1. 3: Understand the requirements of your lab and provide files which meet these requirements. For example both mpix and adoramapix request that you provide 8-bit SRGB color space files (typically jpeg or tiff) preferably with 300dpi for the best quality of the print size you order. ASK your lab these questions, if the person can't answer with confidence it's time to find a different lab (see #2 about lowest wage workers). As a side note, getting close to 300 dpi is usually not a problem to provide from our 10MP sensors all the way up to 11x14 prints, of course depending greatly on how much you cropped the original image as well... actually you should expect wonderful results as low as 150dpi in most circumstances. To properly up-size a photo I recommend careful consideration of the method you choose. It's really not recommended if you shoot jpeg, but for RAW shooters you can upsize quite successfully with something like the photoshop plugin "genuine fractals".

  1. 4: Many labs either manually or through automated software algorithms "optimize" your submitted files to look "great" on paper. This includes many of the automated steps you can already do yourself in photoshop, lightroom, or other editing software like auto contrast/color/tone/white balance etc. This is usually a great option for someone wanting to take the jpeg files directly out of camera to the lab and have them processed.. but that's not the type of person who is going to complain that the print doesn't match what they see on screen. If you are like me, I spend lots of time making certain my photos have the look I want, and am confident through careful calibration and setup that my lcd monitor is showing accurate results. Many of these "quick" labs you have locally do not offer the option to send the file to the printer untouched by these optimizations, or do not hire staff with the knowledge to do so, you will need to ask if it's an option. If it's not then it's very much possible after all your careful work that your file will be modified for what you intended and the print results with not match what's on screen! Find a lab that knows how to send your files untouched through the printer with confidence. Again, online labs like mpix and adoramapix offer the option during the order process to request no optimization be done.

  1. 5: Proper pro-quality photo labs will have available, for your use, color profiles for their printers/paper that should help you see what your image results will look like on paper. This is done through a process called "soft proofing" and photoshop makes it fairly easy to do, and many other photo editors can soft proof as well. I am not going to get into details on the process, but you can google soft proofing to find out more. I have had mixed results with soft proofing myself. I have found that properly calibrating to the srgb environment is usually good enough.. which leads to the next rule.

See Part 2 for the additional rules..

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