Chapter 14

Making and Selling Prints

Although many (perhaps most) digital images are never actually printed out as actual, physical photos, being instead viewed on a computer, over the internet, or via a so-called
digital picture frame or other device (e.g., cell phone, ipod, etc.), many digital artists still see the physical (non-electronic) rendering of their images as a requisite part of the natural lifecycle of their digital works.  In this chapter we’ll survey some of the options available for producing high-quality prints of digital bird photos, including both the print-at-home and frame-it-yourself options, as well as the more expensive (though often higher quality) option of professional development through a photo lab.  We’ll also take a brief look at some options for selling prints directly to the public, as well as getting your prints into art shows and galleries.

14.1 Practical Printing Issues

Making prints is obviously a simple matter if you’ve got an inkjet printer at home and you’re only making prints for your own personal enjoyment.  It can get more complicated, however, if you want to make a quality work of art that is to be put on display, whether in the home or in a local gallery.  Things get even more complicated if you want to sell your prints to other people, who may be picky not only about the quality of the complete package (i.e., the photo and its attendant frame or other mounting device), but also the expected longevity of the print itself—i.e., how well its colors stand up to the fading effects of exposure to light and/or time.  Although some additional research will undoubtedly be required on your part as you consider particular products for use in your photographic process (i.e., brands of paper/ink/lamination), in this section we’ll at least cover the broad issues that you need to be aware of, and which can guide you in seeking higher print quality.  As digital printing processes continue to advance, this section can be expected to evolve in future revisions. 

14.1.1 Printing at Home

The most laborious (but sometimes most economical) option for making prints is to buy a quality inkjet printer and make your prints at home.  The biggest problem with this approach is that you end up being limited by the capabilities of the particular model of printer that you end up buying (compared to the typically much greater capabilities of the commercial print labs).  And unless you happen to be a professional printer repairman, it’s not unlikely that at some point you’ll have to deal with the frustration of having a broken printer that needs to be sent in to the factory for repairs—possibly at the exact moment when you’re trying to print out your greatest masterpiece.
    Nevertheless, having a printer at home can be highly useful, even if you end up having your most important printing tasks fulfilled by a professional lab.  Once you’ve got some experience with printing both at home and via an external lab, you’ll begin to understand the systematic differences between what you see on your computer screen, what you see when you print the image on your personal printer, and what you see in the final result from the lab.  Once you’ve mastered this three-way relationship, you’ll be well-equipped to produce image files that will consistently result in pleasing lab results.
    As a concrete example, I’ve found that my external monitor (not the one on my laptop) displays images with significantly more color saturation than what ends up coming out of my printer.  Fortunately, what comes out of my printer matches almost precisely what comes out of the professional lab that I use for larger-sized prints and canvases.  Furthermore, by applying a fixed gamma adjustment (see section 16.2.4) to an image before sending it to my home printer, I’ve managed to reduce the differences between the image on the monitor and the image that comes out of the printer. 

Fig. 14.1.1 : Comparing print color.  Lower left: a print made on my home printer. 
Upper right: a gallery wrap (canvas) made by a pro lab. Although there are often
very slight differences in color between prints that I make at home and those that I get
from the pro lab, the match is close enough that I can be confident when ordering
expensive print products, such as gallery-wrap canvases.  Getting the prints to look
like the images I see on my computer screen is much harder, even after calibration.

    In this way, I’ve devised a system—which is specific to my particular computer, monitor, printer, and preferred photo lab—for predictably going from what I see on my screen to what I get back from the lab.  Without such a reliable system, I’d have to use the trial-and-error approach of sending prints to the lab, seeing what’s wrong with them when they come back, adjusting the files accordingly, and then sending them off to the lab again for the next of possibly many iterations—a potentially very costly and time-consuming process.  Instead, since I know that what comes out of my printer is usually ninety-five percent identical to what comes back from the print lab that I use, I can simply tweak my images (via trial and error) until they look good when printed on my home printer, knowing that they’ll then look good when printed by the professional lab.  This process still takes some time, but it’s at least tolerable.  I typically have to make about five prints on my home printer (progressively adjusting the image between prints) before getting the printed image to look good.  By using 4"×6" paper for these trial prints at home, rather than full-sized 8"×10" or 11"×16" sheets, I’m able to keep the costs quite low.

Fig. 14.1.2 : Assessing color and sharpness via small trial prints.  Before ordering a costly
print product from the pro lab, I first make a series of prints at home to ensure that I’ve got
the color right (upper left) and also that the bird will appear sharp at the target print size
(lower left).  These can both be done with 4
×6 prints.  High-quality 4×6 paper is cheap,
and doesn’t use up much ink.  By scaling my image to the target size before printing,
I can spot-check sharpness at any target print size, even those too large for my printer.

    Because my production workflow—the process I described above—is specific to my particular hardware, you’ll need to develop your own workflow specific to your particular hardware if you want to produce professional-quality prints that optimally match what you see on your computer’s monitor.  In an ideal world, this task would be rendered trivial via the process of color calibration, which can now be fully automated via a (roughly) $100 calibration tool.  Unfortunately, as we’ll see in section 14.1.2 below, color calibration doesn’t always work.
    A few additional issues related to printing at home are worth delving into.  First is the issue of cost.  The cost of an individual print is obviously impacted by the per-page cost of paper as well as the cost of the ink used by the printer and the rate at which the printer uses that ink.  In practice, this is something that you can’t really assess until you’ve already purchased the printer and made a number of prints with it, since ink usage can obviously depend on the properties of the images that you tend to print—i.e., how much saturation you tend to use, and whether you tend to print images that are very bright or very dark.  Any cost/benefit analysis should of course reflect differences in print quality between what you can get out your home printer and what your chosen lab is capable of producing.  In some cases this may be a small difference, and in others it may be quite large, depending not only on the quality of the respective hardware involved, but also on how exacting you are in your comparisons.  If your interest is in selling artwork to the public, you also need to consider how exacting your potential customers are in their assessment of print quality.
    Another important consideration is the amount of effort that you can expect to have to exert in maintaining your printer.  Certain brands of printers (such as Epson and Hewlett-Packard) have a reputation for experiencing frequent failures due to clogged nozzles.  On some printers, a clogged ink nozzle may require replacement of the entire print head, which may cost you $80 (US) or more.  My old HP printer developed a clogged print head twice, the second time coming only two weeks after I had replaced the previous head.  That printer has now joined its ancestors in printer heaven.

Fig. 14.1.3 : Array of ink cartridges in a personal printer.  This printer
(Canon Pixma Pro9000 II) takes eight cartridges.  The full set costs around
$120 US (it’s cheaper on Amazon).  Fortunately, this printer is very efficient
in its use of ink, so I only end up spending about $15 every week or so for
a new cartridge.

    Another common problem that owners of printers frequently have to deal with is incorrect feeding of the paper, resulting in paper jams.  The part of the printer which grasps the next sheet of paper in the paper tray can become dirty or excessively worn, resulting in slippage when the paper is drawn into the feed path.  Rollers inside the printer can likewise experience slippage, resulting in sheets of paper being drawn in crookedly, causing the paper to wad up and jam the printer.  When these incidents are isolated, they are tolerable.  But when they occur repeatedly, even freqently, they can be extremely frustrating.
    As with any computer peripheral, issues of hardware and software compatibility can sometimes arise.  In the case of printers this can manifest itself in subtle ways.  When printing to my Canon printer from my Apple laptop, I find that the prints appear consistently darker than the image I see on my screen, and I believe this is due to Canon’s engineers not correctly accounting for differences between the gamma settings of Mac and Windows monitors.  By performing an explicit gamma adjustment prior to printing my images, I’ve been able to largely eliminate this problem.  A number of tools allow you to adjust the gamma setting of an image, including Photoshop and most of its commercial competitors.  On my Macintosh I use a free UNIX tool called ImageMagick to adjust the gamma setting on bulk sets of photos; the built-in
Preview tool in OS X can also be used to adjust gamma, via an on-screen slider.  Gamma is discussed further in section 16.2.4.

14.1.2 Color Calibration

As alluded to above, color calibration is a necessary step in setting up a new computer system, though it’s not guaranteed to succeed in making color management a fully transparent process in image creation and publishing.  The goal of calibration is, ideally, to alter the way your monitor displays images, so as to make those images appear on your monitor exactly the way they would appear when rendered onto paper by your printer (or by your favorite commercial photo lab). 
    Proper calibration is best done with an external optical device, which generally has to be purchased (unless you can borrow one from a friend), and these typically cost over $100 (US).  One popular manufacturer of calibration devices is X-Rite, who offer a product called Eye One (other companies such as Pantone and Datacolor offer similar products).  I used this product to calibrate my external monitor twice.  Each time, what I found was that images displayed on the monitor were consistently far more saturated than the images produced by my printer (or by the pro photo lab I sent them to), even after calibration. 

Fig. 14.1.4 : An optical sensor for calibrating a monitor.  The device hangs from the top
of your monitor and reads color information from the screen.  A special software program
(not shown here) runs during the calibration that changes screen intensities and hues and
observes the effect read in by the optical sensor.  This particular device cost me about
$100 (US), but I’ve seen others as cheap as $60 and as expensive as $300.

    In practice, even when calibration is successful your monitor may end up being perfectly calibrated to one printer but not to another.  The same image file when printed both on my home printer and also printed by the pro lab never look 100% identical, so even if I could achieve perfect calibration between my monitor and my home printer, that same calibration profile wouldn’t result in a perfect match between my monitor and the printer used by the pro lab.  In practice what you’d need to do in these situations is to maintain separate profiles to use when targeting different printers, or more generally different media (see below).
    A related issue to that of color calibration is that of color spaces.  Broadly speaking, the two most common color encodings are RGB (for Red / Green / Blue) and CMYK (for Cyan / Magenta / Yellow / blacK).  Several varieties of RGB are in common use, with the most popular being sRGB.  Different color spaces use different binary encodings for component colors.  Thus, if an image encoded in sRGB were to be printed directly on a CMYK printer—without an explicit conversion of the image file to CMYK first—the printer would in most cases mis-interpret the pixels as having different colors than those you see on the screen.  The issue of color space is typically more important when sending photos to a professional lab, since you need to know beforehand which color space(s) are supported by the lab.  For home printers, it’s best to keep your photos in their original color space, which for most DSLRs will be sRGB by default.
    For web distribution of images you should ensure that your photos have an sRGB (not Adobe RGB) profile attached to them (Photoshop can do this for you using the Edit > Convert to Profile... menu option), and you should ensure that your monitor is properly calibrated for neutral viewing.  At the very least you’ll want to ensure that grays appear entirely colorless, and that both subtle shades of white and subtle shades of black are discernible, as addressed by the calibration key below.

If your system fails the above test, you need to calibrate.  Most operating systems (including Microsoft Windows and Apple’s
Mac OS X) have built-in calibration software.  These are usually very simple to use, and require no additional hardware for a basic calibration.  The standard Apple Macintosh calibration program is illustrated below.  I used this program to calibrate my system in under 4 minutes.

Having a properly calibrated monitor means that you’ll be seeing images on your screen roughly the way others see them (on average).  That’s important for web distribution, since you don’t want your images to have any systematic color or brightness biases that will look unpleasant when viewed on other users’ computer systems.  Web distribution of photos is addressed in Chapter 16.

14.1.3 Sending Photos to the Lab

If you don’t have a home printer, or do have a home printer but require higher quality prints, there are two main options for having your images printed
professionally.  The easiest is to drive to the nearest WalMart or drug store having an in-store photo kiosk for making digital prints.  For the purposes of printing fine-art bird photos, this is generally a bad idea.  The problem with most do-it-yourself photo kiosks is that they apply some form of color correction to your image before printing it.  Since the vast majority of customers use these kiosks to print out photos of people, the color correction algorithms used by these kiosks are geared toward rendering skin tones, not toward rendering bird feathers, and will often result in bird images with an unpleasant color cast, or unnatural-looking saturation.  And despite their lower quality, prints from these kiosks are often more expensive than those from mail-in labs.  As an example, 8"×10" prints from my local WalMart kiosks cost me around $5 (US), while the lab I use charges about $2, and offers free shipping for orders totaling over $12.
    A high-quality photo lab will also offer far more paper and finishing options than the local kiosks.  My favorite lab (WHCC) offers print sizes over 24"
×36", on a variety of papers (see section 14.1.4, below), and with a variety of texture and lamination options—so-called finishing options.  Prints can also be mounted to hard substrates such as matboard or masonite (see section 14.1.5, below), and some labs also offer custom framing and matting (framing and matting are discussed in section 14.2).
    Most pro labs now accept orders via the internet, which is convenient as long as you have a fast internet connection.  Keep in mind that when making high-quality prints you’ll need to use a high-resolution version of your image file, not the low-res version that you’d use when displaying your photos on a web page.  Some labs use custom software that allows you to preview your image cropped to the relative dimensions of your selected print size.  When making gallery wraps (see section 14.2), this feature is particularly useful in seeing which parts of the image will end up wrapped around the sides of the canvas frame.

Fig. 14.1.5 : Custom software used by a pro lab for ordering of prints.  In this case I’m
ordering a gallery wrap (canvas), in which part of the image will wrap around the sides
of the piece.  The software shows where the image will be cropped or wrapped, and
gives automatic price quotes for selected finishing features, such as lamination.
I don’t depend on this preview for accurate color information, though. 

    In terms of finishing options, the most important is that of lamination.  Most labs offer the option to have your prints coated with a clear protective coating.  I highly recommend using this option.  Laminate coatings can protect your print both from physical contact (e.g., fingerprints) and from the fading effects of ultraviolet (UV) light.  Some coatings also impart a glossy shine to the image.  If you’ll be mounting your print behind glass, fingerprints are typically less of an issue, as is the added shine from a glossy coating.  However, while some types of mounting glass do offer UV protection, the cheap framing packages at discount stores typically don’t, and having the UV coat applied during printing is typically very inexpensive and therefore worthwhile.

14.1.4 Paper Options

Whether you make your prints at home or send them to a lab, there are a number of options regarding paper type that you should be aware of.  The two most common options are glossy and matte paper, with the former obviously imparting an extra
shine to images than the latter.  In my experience, the difference between glossy and matte paper tends to largely disappear once the print has been mounted behind glass, since the glass acts much like a thick gloss coating.  The problem with glossy prints is that they are typically very susceptible to fingerprints, while matte prints aren’t.  Many pro labs offer a third option, called lustre, which is usually much more shiny than matte paper, but nearly as unaffected by fingerprints.  For prints made at home, prints on glossy paper can be given a similar lustre effect via a spray-on laquer coating; such sprays are available from several companies, including Krylon and Sureguard, though the application of these sprays may involve risks to the print if not applied correctly (as well as risks to your health if used in a poorly ventilated area).  The website inkjetart.com is a good resource for finishing sprays and other products.

Fig. 14.1.6 : Two canvases, one with a matte lamination (left), and one with a glossy
lamination (right).  I like both, but on different images, due to artistic considerations.
Note that glossy prints and canvases can be difficult to look at in certain lighting
configurations, due to glare.  While matte prints don’t have this problem (as much),
for some images the glossy prints just seem more vibrant with the gloss.  For standard
prints (not canvases), semi-gloss is preferable over gloss, due to fingerprint resistance.

    In addition to the glossy/lustre/matte options, some companies also offer various
premium grades of paper, though whether your bird photos will look substantially better when printed on these is hard to say.

14.1.5 Substrates and Backing

As mentioned earlier, some pro labs offer the option to have your print glued to a firm backing.  This can be very useful if you intend to sell your photos at art shows or in local shops, since unframed prints are easily bent and torn otherwise.  For prints that are to be framed, having them glued to matboard at the lab may be desirable since it may simplify the framing process, and also protects against long-term warping of the paper (framing is discussed in section 14.2).  Note, however, that when you frame your print you’ll typically be working with a backing substrate that is sized to the inside dimensions of the frame, whereas the matboard used by the lab will be sized to the print itself.  If the print is smaller than the mat (see section 14.2), then an additional backing substrate will still typically be needed to complete the framing. 

Fig. 14.1.7 : A masonite print.  A standard paper print is glued to a wood
composite substrate, resulting in a firmer and more durable piece for sale
at art shows and in shops, at a fairly affordable price (about $5 US more
than the print alone would cost).  This masonite is 1/8 inch thick, but I’ve
seen others up to 1/2 inch with hanging grooves drilled into the back.

    For prints to be sold unframed (and un-matted), two popular options are masonite and styrene.  Masonite is a wood composite, while styrene is a type of plastic.  Both are very rigid, and can’t be easily bent the way standard matboard can.  A relatively new type of matboard, called gatorboard, offers much higher rigidity than standard matboard, while being lighter than masonite.

Fig. 14.1.8 : A styrene print.  A standard paper print is glued to
a 2mm sheet of styrene plastic, producing a highly affordable
and durable medium for sale at public venues.  Some styrene
prints seem to suffer from a small amount of warping, so
the higher cost of masonite may be worth the few extra dollars.

    Note that many photographers sell their unframed prints matted (see section 14.2).  This involves sandwiching the print between a mat (in the front) and a firm backing (typically matboard) in the back.  To protect the exposed surface of the print prior to sale, it’s a good idea to enclose the entire assembly in a clear plastic bag or shrinkwrap.  ClearBags is one such product, though others can be easily found by searching on the internet.  Rolls of plastic film can also be purchased from your local art supply store (such as Michael’s) for this purpose; the film is simply cut to size and taped closed around the matted print, as a low-tech alternative to shrinkwrap.  Note that the plastic wrap that you use in the kitchen is generally unsuitable for packaging prints, since it can fuse to the exposed surface of the print and damage it.

14.1.6 Print Size

There are two issues to consider when deciding what paper size to use for your prints: the optimal print size, and the aspect ratio.  In terms of the former, there are both technical and artistic considerations.  Artistically, the print size will obviously affect the overall impact of the piece, and this can be mediated by a number of factors, including the size of the wall or room in which the piece is to be displayed, the size of the frame, and even the size of the subject (e.g., consider that a three-inch hummingbird blown up to the size of a horse may look somewhat unnatural). 
    A common problem with making large prints is that the image’s resolution may not support the desired print size.  Just as zooming in too far onscreen will eventually reveal the actual pixels making up the image (producing an unpleasant, mosaic effect), selecting too large a print size can result in prints in which details appear blurry when seen at normal viewing distances.  As a general rule, the larger the print you intend to make, the more artificial sharpening you’ll want to apply during postprocessing of the image (prior to printing) (sharpening in software is discussed in Chapter 11).  Too much sharpening can, unfortunately, create artifacts in the image that over-enlargement will simply make more apparent in the final print.  Although using images from a higher-megapixel camera may permit larger effective print sizes, higher pixel densities on CMOS/CCD sensors can also result in more image noise, which again will be most apparent when making larger prints.
    A simple way to preview the amount of detail that you’d get at a prospective print size is to print the image first onto smaller paper, but with the
resize image to paper size option disabled in your printing software.  If you first resize the physical dimensions of your image to the prospective print size, and then print to a small paper size without automatic resizing, you’ll be able to see a tiny portion of the image as it would appear at the final print size.  Most image-processing programs allow this, though not all allow you to select which part of the image appears on the smaller paper; if possible, it’s best to arrange for the bird’s face to appear on the smaller print (but cropped to the larger, virtual print size), since for most photos you’ll want the bird’s face (or at the very least, the eye) to appear sharp in the final print.

Fig. 14.1.9 : Spot-checking image sharpness at a target print size.
By first re-sizing an image to the target print size (not shown) and then
printing on small media (4
×6 paper) with the Scale to fit option disabled,
you can check for sufficient sharpness in key parts of the image before
ordering an expensive print product from the pro lab.

    A final issue related to print size is that of aspect ratio.  This is the ratio of the photo’s height to its width (or vice-versa).  Most DSLRs have a roughly 2/3 or 11/16 aspect ratio, or around 0.66 when expressed as a decimal.  In contrast, common paper and print sizes—such as 8"
×10" and 11"×14"—result in a ratio of 0.78 or 0.80, which may be ideal for portraits of human heads, but is less useful for nature photos (especially landscapes).  For bird photos, a variety of aspect ratios can be useful, depending on the particular bird and the scene in which it occurs.  Note that the chosen aspect ratio can strongly affect the options for subject framing—i.e., choosing the relative position of the subject in the image frame (subject framing was discussed in section 8.1).  Unfortunately, standard photo papers and pre-made frames and mats are more commonly available in a 0.8 aspect ratio than in 0.66, and customizing sizes of professional prints and frames typically incurs extra costs.

14.1.7 Longevity

We’ve already addressed some issues related to longevity of prints, such as the use of UV coatings to protect an image from fading.  It also needs to be noted that some types of inks can last longer than others.  Traditionally, pigment-based inks had better longevity (though sometimes duller colors) than dye-based inks, though ink manufacturers continue to make technological innovations which may affect the expected longevity of either type of ink.  Canon’s newest ink, for example, has a predicted longevity of roughly 100 years.  Obviously, since no digital prints have existed for 100 years, it’s impossible to say for certain whether these projected lifespans for prints made today will prove to be accurate.