Why you should be printing your images….

I’d been meaning to get back to printing for a while and my sinuses and I have been arguing again, so this weekend seemed like a good one to stay home and work on things. Looking at my walls, I realized all of the prints I had up were landscapes — no birds. It was time to rectify that.

Off to Michaels I went, and I grabbed 5 16×20 frames and mats to fix 11×14 prints, which are my preferred size for putting on a wall in a house. And off I went, starting with this image.

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I really like working with the acorn woodpeckers. There’s a family living in the oaks at the bald eagle nest overlook. The advantage of that is that the overlook is on a fairly steep hill that puts you at tree-canopy height, so when the birds are cooperating a bit, you can get straight on shots of them. There’s a granary literally right next to the pull-out on the side of the road.  So with some patience, some really nice shots are possible.

I think this rendering of the image is pretty good. I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of days trying to optimize it, knowing I was planning on trying to print it. If you look at it on the screen, you probably don’t see much of a problem with it.

But when you print it? That white highlight right next to the woodie’s head goes nuclear. You might as well tint it bright purple; it blows out, and on the print, it’s all you see. It grabs the eye and dominates it. It’s brute ugly. So that needed to be fixed. This turned out to be tricky. It seems like a good candidate for cloning out and using content aware fill in photoshop to nuke it, but photoshop insisted on trying to fill it either with the branch or with the woodie’s head. oops.

Instead, I popped over to Nik Viveza and used a control point to give me the ability to drop the exposure and bring the white back into balance with the other bright areas shining through the tree canopy. And since I’d fired up the plug-ins, I also did a round-trip through Color Efex, where I tweaked the contrast a bit, but more importantly, used the Neutralize White capability to remove a very slight greenish color cast, and then the add structure tool to bring out some more detail. After I use the plug-ins, my standard workflow is to run it through DFine to cut any noise, and if I’m aiming at print, I’ll sharpen it with Sharpener Pro (for online, I’ll sharpen with Lightroom’s export tools).

Online this doesn’t look massively different, but you can see some differences. Notice that white blog now isn’t so — white.

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Online, the difference is subtle. In print, it’s significant and the difference makes or breaks the image.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make here: it’s (relatively) easy to process an image so it looks good online. Online imagery is a lot more forgiving. Distributing images at 600px (as I do on the blox) or 900 or even 1500px on the long side The limited color gamut of sRGB and the limited pixel density of an online image can hide a lot of little flaws.

But when you print it out, those flaws have nowhere to hide. This is even more true the larger you print — I typically start at 8×10 because it’s faster and less expensive, and once I’m happy with a print at that size, I may bump it up to 11×14, sometimes even larger. I plan on experimenting with even larger images down the road, but for now, my printer and I are limited to about 13×19.

It is amazing how many problems that don’t show up online appear when printed. Even when I have a print I like at 8×10, going to 11×14 drags even more out of hiding. It’s especially frustrating to think you have an image finished and ready for final print at 11×14 only to push out that first one and see a new generation of dust spots show up, or a lack of noise reduction, or screwed up sharpening, or…

So there is almost always a round of fix-up to be done to make an image usable in print. And even if you’re online centric, if you compare the two images above, changes made to fix or improve the print will make your online image better as well.

This is why, if you are committed to being the best photographer you can be, that at some point you have to start printing your own images. It will make you a better photographer and your images better images. You don’t need a big, expensive printer (although I bet once you start printing your own images, you’ll want one!) — you can get started for under $250. I’d suggest not buying an “all in one” type printer; they can turn out good prints, but they’re not designed for high quality photo prints. Look for an inkjet with at least six ink tanks. I currently use and like the Epson printers and my main printer is the Stylus Photo R2880. I’d look for one of Epson’s printers with the “Rnnnn” designation, or at the minimum one in the “Stylus Photo” line. Canon also has good printers but I haven’t used one for a while so I can’t recommend one. HP consumer printers are behind the technology curve compared to Canon and Epson, and their inks are brutally expensive, so I recommend against them. Other brands? I haven’t evaluated: I stay with Epson or Canon here. If you want to explore other manufacturers, have fun, but you’re on your own.

Get yourself a couple of boxes of good glossy 8×10 paper and you’re good to go. No need to get fancy starting out, I’ve been using up my supply of HP paper (bought when I was working for them at Palm), and I just ordered in a couple of boxes of Epson’s Premium Glossy. I use this as my “beta test” paper, so to speak, and don’t print on more  expensive papers until I’m completely happy on this one.

But we’re not going to talk about premium papers today. Just grab yourself a printer, get a box of paper, and start printing and studying your prints.