Printing 101 – On the Epson 3800
Even in this digital age photography is still primarily used as a print medium. Sure we have websites to send potential clients to to get a taste of our work and style, but if they want to hire you, they are going to ask to see your “book.”
The Epson Stylus Pro 3800 is the best printer I have ever used, it’s fast it creates beautiful prints and it’s easy to use. It’s expensive, but you can go to printing labs that have them and specify what you need.
Prepping photos for web use and print use are two totally different beasts. Your photos on the web are seen on monitors, all of which are calibrated differently for color and contrast. So in order to make the best prints possible, you need to get details in your shadows while controlling your highlights. This of course, starts with your exposure.
Expose for the print
When you’re shooting RAW you have always been taught to “expose to the right” which is getting as much information to the right side of the histogram as possible. This is very important when it comes to making prints.
You don’t want the histogram to clip on either the left or right side, this results in a loss of data or in print terms, a loss of detail.
If you lose detail in the shadows, your print will come out with pure black areas. This looks strange, but not nearly as strange as loss of highlight detail – the printer will actually not print on a highlight area of 255, it will simply leave it as whatever paper surface you used. This will look very strange.
Adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW
The first thing you will want to do with your RAW file is change your workflow options which is the blue line of text on the ACR screen. I use ProPhoto as a color space because it gives me the most color options even though printers can’t print the color range of ProPhoto yet. You want your bit-depth to be 16-bit, and you do NOT want it set to sharpen anything.
Now adjusting your highlights and shadows really depends on what kinf of paper you will use. I prefer Epson’s 5-star premium luster photo paper. So to print for that, your shadows should be no lower that 12-15 in RGB. You can adjust your blacks by adjusting the “Blacks” slider. Camera RAW’s default is 5, and if you shot at a low ISO you can safely reduce this with minimal noise. You can also adjust the “Brightness” slider which isn’t as effective but it works if your at 0 in your “Blacks” slider and still need to get detail back. Be wary of your highlights though. The “Fill Light” slider works well, but you will get crazy noise in your shadows if you go beyond 20. If your printing on Matte paper, your shadows will need to be higher, no lower than 20. Matte paper absorbs more ink, so you will lose that detail fast.
As far as highlights go, if you want to retain detail and not got that weird not-quite-blown-out look, you should keep your highlights around 240, 245. You can use the “Recovery” slider, but it won’t really bring your detail back – it simply adds magenta to the overall image, which will also gray it out the rest of your colors if you get carried away. It’s a good rule of thumb to not use the slider beyond 25. All of this adjusting is done to get as much information to the right side of the histogram as possible, without clipping anything.
All digital images need sharpening. You can do this in Adobe Camera RAW by using the “Clarity” slider, but if you plan to make any local adjustments it’s probably best to do the sharpening in Photoshop. There are a variety of sharpening methods in Photoshop such as the “unsharp mask” and my personal favorite, “smart sharpen.” These work well for different things, but they can both be masked out to sharpen certain areas a certain amount. DO NOT use the “Sharpen” button or the “Sharpen edges” button. They give you absolutely no control. Sharpening can be tricky, you need to watch the fine details such as the hair or eye-lashes when you’re working. A good rule of thumb is sharpen it to the point where it looks a little strange on the screen – the image will print slightly softer.
The rest is all trial and error. Learning by doing. Try different papers, different printers. These are just basic rules, and rules were meant to be broken. Learn these rules well before you explore outside of these boundries. Then, you can clip your blacks. Clip your highlights. Get the right look for you.