Although the digital darkroom can give you both impressive results and a degree of control unmatched by a chemical darkroom, digital printing can be complicated, expensive, and frustrating. Don't give up. Here are answers to 20 common questions about putting your pictures on paper.
1. What's the difference between dye-subs and inkjets, and which is better?
A dye-sublimation printer uses heat to apply three layers of primary-color dye and a fourth layer of protective laminate to a paper substrate. An inkjet deposits tiny ink droplets-usually three to seven colors, plus black-on the paper.
Dye-sub prints look very smooth, with subtle gradations. However, prints from a good desktop inkjet can look, at least from a normal viewing distance, just as smooth, with more detail and resolution, denser blacks, greater dynamic range, and a larger palette of colors.
While dye-sub prints may not last as long as the most durable inkjet prints, their cost and speed to print are much more predictable, one reason many portrait and event photographers prefer dye-subs, such as the Mitsubishi (top) and Kodak (bottom) printers shown here. But if you shoot a variety of subjects and want a lot of creative flexibility, inkjet is the way to go.
2. Does droplet size matter?
On an inkjet, droplet sizes can be as small as 1 picoliter (one trillionth of a liter) for dye-based inks and 1.5 picoliters for pigment-based inks. The combination of printer head and ink determines how small a droplet a printer can produce. The smaller the droplet, the greater the resolution of the print. Small droplets also let you produce finer tonal gradations and highlight details with fewer inks.
But, unless you inspect printswith a loupe, you probably don't need to worry much about droplet size once you go below about 4 picoliters. Factors such as paper type and image processing are more likely to determine how smooth and detailed your prints look.
3. Is pigment-based ink better than dye-based?
For fine prints that you want to last as long as possible, yes. Generally, prints made with dye-based inks will deteriorate more quickly when exposed to light, pollutants, and humidity.
The main advantage of dye-based inks? It's easier for them to reproduce a broad and vibrant range of colors with a modest number of inks. They're also much less prone to metamerism (when a color changes hue under different light). And, unlike most pigments, they don't cause low-sheen patches on glossy papers.
Fortunately, pigment ink sets have improved greatly. The current top-of-the-line desktop inkjet printers from all three major manufacturers-Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard-use pigment ink sets that compete with dye-based inks in color rendition.
4. Do I need six or more inks to make high-quality prints?
The more inks an inkjet printer uses, the more adept it will be at rendering colors predictably and accurately, with smooth gradations. You can make excellent color prints with a printer that uses fewer than six inks, especially those with smaller droplet sizes, but some colors may not come out exactly as you expect, especially if you're using pigment-based inks. More inks may also help produce black-and-white prints with a broad tonal range.
5. For printing, should I shoot in RAW or JPEG format?
It depends on the quality and size you want. Shooting RAW lets you retain a higher color bit depth, which gives you more editing flexibility and better color fidelity. But for snapshots and images that won't require much processing, especially when precise color accuracy isn't your main concern, JPEGs are fine. Besides, they eat up less memory.
6. Which color space should I use, sRGB or Adobe RGB?
Your best bet is to set your color space (whether in your camera or RAW conversion software) to Adobe RGB. It gives you a somewhat larger, more muted and subtle color gamut that's well-suited to six- to eight-color home printing.
However, many digital labs use equipment calibrated to the sRGB space, so use this if you plan to send files to a lab for printing.
7. Why don't my prints match the images I see on my monitor?
First, you must calibrate your monitor. You'll get the best results with a calibration package that includes both software and a colorimeter that you attach to your screen. ColorVision, Pantone, and X-Rite all sell affordable kits. However, in a pinch, you can use the free Adobe Gamma tool or an inexpensive software-only package.
Set your software and printer driver to use the built-in color management capabilities in Windows or Mac OS (see the sidebar). Let your monitor warm up for about 30 minutes before you calibrate it or edit photos. Give your prints a little time, too, before a critical color evaluation. Some paper and ink combinations undergo short-term color shifts up to 24 hours after printing.
8. How does my work environment affect my print results?
Most of the light sources in a home or office are unsuitable for a digital darkroom. Typical household halogen lights can throw off the colorimeter used for calibration, incandescent bulbs produce a very yellow light, and sunlight and standard fluorescent bulbs fluctuate and spike. The best digital darkroom is a gray space illuminated only by a dim, diffuse, 5000-degree Kelvin light.
While you may not have this ideal workspace, taking a few steps toward it can help. One excellent, affordable alternative is a SoLux filtered halogen lamp. You can use it both as room lighting and for viewing prints to evaluate color. Other companies such as Verilux, Sunwave, Paralite, and OTT-LITE make compact fluorescent bulbs that should also work well but have occasional spikes that could affect monitor calibration.
Make sure that the ambient light source and level are the same when you calibrate your monitor and view your images, and that your lights aren't bouncing off of brightly colored walls or objects, including your clothes. Keep the area around your monitor dim, but evaluate your prints in bright light. Prevent light from striking the computer's screen directly by using a monitor hood, which you can buy or make from gray-painted cardboard.
If you're just not able to control ambient light, check out the Huey. It's a color calibrator made by Pantone, that adjusts your monitor calibration as the ambient light changes.
9. Should I profile my printer?
If you've calibrated your monitor, controlled your lighting, and mastered your driver's color-management settings, and you're still not satisfied, consider buying a custom profile for your favorite printer/ink/paper combination.
How? You download a standard image, print it out, send the print to the profiling service, and receive a custom ICC profile via e-mail. Chromix and the Digital Dog are two online companies that create profiles for $100 apiece. You can also buy relatively inexpensive kits for profiling a printer yourself, but in our experience they don't work very well.
10. My computer has printing controls in different places. Which should I use?
You should try to eliminate conflicts between the settings in your printer driver and those in your image-editing software. If you have Photoshop or another advanced program that allows you to manage color, use it and turn off your printer driver's color management. That means disabling ICM in Windows or selecting No Color Management on a Mac. Each time you print, make sure the correct paper type and dpi/quality level are selected in the driver interface.
11. What about printing without a computer?
Technology like PictBridge, Epson Print Image Matching (PIM), and Canon Direct Print let you send photos directly via USB from a camera to a compatible printer. Some printers also have memory card slots. Your prints will probably look okay, especially at smaller sizes, but you'll forego the controls of computer-based image editing and color management.
12. When should I use glossy paper and when matte?
Glossy papers can make colors look more vibrant and give black-and-white photos a broader apparent tonal range. The way that light reflects off a glossy surface makes blacks look blacker. Glossy papers are also good for photos that will be handled instead of displayed, since they're often more durable, though they show fingerprints.
For aesthetics, many serious printers prefer fine art papers with a matte finish; these also minimize reflections when framed. If you're using a matte paper to print b&w, you'll get the best results with a color ink set that includes a "matte black"-which you may have to swap with a "photo black" cartridge-or a custom monochrome ink set with four or more inks. The wider range of black ink densities will compensate for the loss of the reflectivity of glossy paper. (For more on b&w, see below.)
If you want to use very thick matte papers, get a printer with a straight paper path that won't damage your media.
13. Should i buy third-party inks?
Choose third-party inks for quality, not economy. Companies that produce inks for fine art purposes and b&w printing are generally reliable. It's very risky to buy an ink set just because it's cheaper than the printer manufacturer's ink. Low-buck inks, especially pigment-based ones, may clog your inkjet nozzles-and don't expect your warranty to cover that.
There's been little independent testing of the longevity of third-party inks, so it's hard to know how quickly colors will fade or shift. However, high-quality monochrome ink sets for b&w (like these seven Piezography inks, above) are made from carbon, which is quite stable, so they're likely to create long-lasting prints.
14. Which paper and ink types work well together?
Pigment-based inks are generally paired with porous papers; dye-based inks with swellable papers. The latter combination, from thermal inkjet models, takes longer to dry-handle such prints carefully when they first come out.
Look for compatibility information from the paper manufacturer. No one paper works well with all types of ink. It's best to start with the printer maker's paper and ink combinations, and then experiment with third-party materials. Make sure there's an ICC profile available for each ink/paper combination, a sign that it will work at least acceptably well. Avoid cheap cast-coated and uncoated papers, and stay away from papers with optical brighteners. As they deteriorate and the paper reverts to its natural color, your prints will yellow.
15. What do I need to make great black-and-white prints?
There are two primary printer options for b&w photographers: One is to use the Epson Stylus Photo R2400 printer, which uses three black ink cartridges at once and has one of the best b&w drivers we've seen. The other is to buy a printer with at least four ink cartridges, and use a monochrome ink set from a third party. Reputable ink vendors include MediaStreet, MIS Associates, Lyson, Luminos, and Piezography. Their products provide four to seven black inks with varying densities and color tones.
Both options produce images with broad dynamic ranges and fine tonal separation. Some HP models also make excellent b&w prints (see "$499 Printer Shootout," November 2005).
If printing high-quality black-and-white photos isn't your main priority, but you like to make monochrome prints occasionally, get a printer that has at least two black ink cartridges and lets you choose between deep black inks designed for matte or glossy paper.
16. Why doesn't my inkjet print as fast or give me as many pages per ink set as the manufacturer claims?
Printer makers use different test images and driver settings to report print speed and page yield. Some of those images use only 5-percent page coverage per ink and are printed at high-speed settings. Obviously, print time will go up and page yield down when you print photos at higher quality settings with less white space. Pop Photo speed tests at any given page size use images that cover the full page at high print-quality settings.
17. How can I cut my inkjet's per-print cost?
Buy a printer with separate cartridges for each ink color, so you can replace them individually when they're empty. An optional roll feeder can also help, since paper usually costs less in a roll than in sheets.
Before you print, softproof by using your image editing software to preview your print: Select the ICC profile and a rendering intent, the method by which colors are translated from your working color space to your printing color space. You can also create a ringaround proof, a series of thumbnails of an image on one page, showing variations in color, brightness, contrast, and saturation. Canon includes an automatic tool for this in its Easy-PhotoPrint Pro software.
When you're done printing, turn the printer off. Leaving it on all the time may dry up inks, requiring a cleaning cycle.
18. How should I set my printer's dots-per-inch (dpi) controls?
Don't get carried away by the high dpi numbers and quality settings you find in your printer driver. The visible difference, if any, between prints made at the highest and second-highest settings will likely be negligible. You'll save ink and print faster with a lower dpi or quality setting, although it's best to set the printer drive at or above 1200 dpi.
19. How long will my prints last?
Only time will tell, but independent researchers make educated guesses by performing accelerated tests of paper/ink combinations. Among the most widely known and respected are Henry Wilhelm and his colleagues at Wilhelm Imaging Research. Longevity test results for many papers and inks are available at www.wilhelm-research.com. According to Wilhelm, the best pigment-based inkjet prints can outlast not only dye-based prints but also dye-sub and color silver halide prints, retaining vibrant colors for longer than 200 years.
But only if you take care of them. Direct sunlight, UV radiation, pollutants, and moisture are the enemies of all types of prints. Dye-based inkjet prints are particularly susceptible to ozone damage. Store your prints in an album or box made of contaminant- and acid-free materials. Paper made of 100-percent cotton is the most stable.
20. What is the best way to display my prints?
Frame those you want to display, using an acid-free mat and UV-filtering glass, and keep them away from direct sunlight. Don't want a frame with glass? Consider spraying your print with a protective sealer, such as those from Premier, Luminos, Lyson, and Marshall.
Wilhelm and others have found that some dry-mounting adhesives cause bright yellow stains on inkjet papers. Fortunately, this type of stain is also reported to disappear once the print is exposed to light. Bienfang claims its ClearMount adhesive is immune to this and is formulated for use with pigment inkjet prints.