My project to replace all of the prints on my wall has progressed nicely, and the feature wall in my office, which is what you see behind me when I have my webcam turned on, is done.

I’m really happy with the results, although I had to redo a few images because, on close review, I noticed some streaking from a clogged print head, then redid them again when I realized I was using an incorrect ICC profile for the paper ending up with some banding and washed out highlights. Despite that, I really like how it turned out. Here are a couple of closer shots of the wall:

I’ve finished another wall with two other prints, and I’m currently working on the final prints for the last wall, and for some 8×10 frames to arrive to fill some spaces. Technically, this isn’t just “replace the prints” any more but “fill up available space with prints”, with four added prints once I’m done with the rest of it.

While I was at it I made room for a piece of cross-stitch. This was something I made for mom literally years ago, and I finally feel ready to get it up on a wall to be seen again. It’s reminding me that I keep intending to get started on cross-stitch again (but then, looks at the list of pending projects and sighs).

I also made room for a favorite print from my first nations collection. This is Haida Raven by Nis’gaa artist Wayne Young, signed and with an artist doodle on it, and while it’s hard to find with most of the first nations dealers, I really enjoy the style of Nis’gaa art and especially their carvings, not that I can afford them.

Viewing prints for critical evaluation

While working on the prints I realized I was struggling to find good light in the office to evaluate the prints critically. In a serious print lab they’ll use a viewing station, which has sides to shield light out of it and light of a known intensity and temperature. These stations can be bulky and start at a few hundred dollars, which was more than I wanted to spend. What I did instead was buy a $30 desk lamp, stick a $10 5000k LED bulb in it, and I put the prints on my work desk under the light to look at. The light from this lamp is bright enough to override the ambient lighting so I don’t get color shifts using it and while this isn’t as flexible as a viewing station would be, especially one where you can dial in the color of the light to whatever you need, for my purposes it works great. I’ve been using it the last few days and quite happy with my $40 hack…

Why do you need a viewing station? Depending on your situation, you may not, but what it does is allow you to put a print into light of a given temperature so you can take a close look at it and evaluate it for problems. 5000K is the equivalent of mid-day sunlight, so it’s about as neutral as you can get and you can avoid your light sources biases how you see the print this way and avoid your color going off if the viewing light too warm or cool.

Paper stocks

For a while I had a real paper problem where I was buying a lot of different papers to print on because they looked interesting. The problem is I tended to use one or two sheets and then add it to the pile of paper kept around “because I’ll want it later”, which gets expensive, and in reality, few of those papers really added value to the images. I ended up clearing out most of that and standardizing on a few key papers.

My go-to paper these days is Epson’s Premium Glossy photo paper. It’s a nice, very white classic glossy paper which holds ink well and isn’t terribly expensive. I stock it in 3 sizes: 8.5×11, 11×14 and 13×19. I use the 8.5×11 for test printing and if I ever need smaller prints like 4x6s, I’ll use this. When I’m happy with a print at this size, then I’ll print either on the 11×14 (for 8x10s) or 13×19 (for 11×14). By using these paper sizes I have some leeway and in fact I’ll usually print the image a bit larger so I have some fudge room for placement when I attach it to the mat, and I can put them in standard mats without having any blank paper showing — effectively a full bleed into the mat. To me, that’s the cleanest and nicest look.

When I want to print on matte paper or when I’m printing things I want to have a nice feel and look, I switch to Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Soft Gloss. I really love this stuff but it’s not cheap (over $3 a sheet for 13×19) but I really love what it does for a print. Again, I stock this in 8×10, 11×14 and 13×19 sizes.

I also stock a two other types of paper, Epson Exhibition Fiber Luster and the Epson Premium Photo luster. Luster paper lives in the middle between full glossy and full matte paper. To be honest, I don’t use it a lot, and I really need to sit down and make some prints with it to understand how best to take advantage of it, but right now, I’m not planning on restocking it once I use it up.

I’ve looked at moving to rolls of paper but in reality, when I did the math, it wasn’t clear I save much (if any) money doing so. The only real advantage of the roll would be printing panoramics at full size, and to date, I just haven’t needed that enough to justify it.

If I want prints larger than 11×14 or in some special format like canvas or metallic, I leave it to the pros. I could potentially do canvas on my printer (the Epson SureColor P400) but these things can be really fussy to get right, and I do it rarely enough it makes sense to ship it to a lab.

Lessons learned

A few quick thoughts on things I’ve noticed or learned during this printing project.

One is how nice and reliable the P400 is in feeding paper and laying out the ink. I’ve had a couple of clogged heads, but surprisingly little trouble given it went a few months without use (printers are something where they work best if they’re used on a fairly regular basis to help keep the ink flowing well). The same can not be true of the software interfaces and I hope Apple some day digs into this with their UI magic to clean things up. Getting all of the bits and pieces set right can be a chore, but once you do, set presets so you don’t have to constantly fuss with them. I’m building presets for each type of paper and paper size I use just so I don’t have to remember that I need to, oh, set the paper size both in the page setup dialog and on tab 3 of the print settings dialog, or the printer will laugh at me and do the wrong thing. Not that I forgot this setting, ever. nope. And then the paper profile settings (the “icc” file) are in yet another part of the print interface, of course.

But once you get these presets set, it feels almost painless, which when I took my printing class a few years ago definitely wasn’t true. There has been some nice progress, but it’s still far from “Apple simple”. But it’s really about managing the details now where a few years ago, there was still a bunch of chicken-sacrificing to get prints out reliably.

Another thing I’ve learned from this process is that I can increase the sharpening of my newer cameras a fair bit without things going sideways. I always sharpen more heavily on a print than on the digital copy (thank you, virtual copies), but I’m finding I can boost the sharpening on most of the images online from what I originally did.

And if there’s a mistake I’m making on my online-only images, it’s that I’m not pushing contrast and color intensity enough. I’m finding I’m tweaking most images after seeing them in print, but I’m happy that most of the images are getting tweaks and not complete redos. That said, it’s very obvious to me that the quality of the prints I’ve done in the last ten days are noticably better than the ones I’m taking down off the walls and retiring.

So yeah, if you work at it, you get better. And I’m finding that between the improvements in the tools (Lightroom CC blows away Lightroom from 2 years ago, and Lightroom 5 blew away everything before it…) and how I use it to process my images, I’m turning out much better final images and prints than I did even a year ago. I can see the difference and it makes me happy.

I’ve also realized that I now have a strong idea of how I want a image to look before I start processing. That wasn’t always true in the past, and when I was going through my “I really suck as a photographer” phase last year, everything looked like crap. Now I’m feeling good about the results and I have some confidence in my ability to bring an image to the thing I wanted it to be when I took it. And perhaps that’s the root of “your personal style” or perhaps it’s simply hitting a point where I’ve stopped doubting myself, but I now seem to be turning out the best images I’ve ever done, both in the creation of new images in camera and in the processing and final realization in the digital darkroom.

And that feeling, to be honest, is awesome. I’m hoping it sticks around..