What do you need for Printing?

Part 2 of a three-part series on printing:

  1. Why Print?
  2. What do you need for Printing?
  3. How to Print

In this post we will cover the following topics:

  • Fume Room
  • Camera
  • Computer
  • Monitor and colorimeter
  • Software
  • Lighting
  • Printer
  • Ink
  • Paper
  • Cost of printing
  • Matting
  • What to do with the prints

 

Fume Room

The chemical darkroom is essentially out of scope for this series, though you could potentially pick up say a second hand Mamiya RB67, compatible enlarger and accessories quite cheaply.  Printing from film in a darkroom is likely to actually work out much cheaper than a digital workflow, even with film costs, but also much more difficult and much more time-consuming.

 

Camera

Printing requires you have an image.  Creating an image usually requires that you have a camera.  So how good a camera do you need?  Do you need say a Nikon D810 with a professional lens for example?  Well, let me answer this at first by example.  The following image is of Selfoss in Iceland and it won a 5 (out of 5) in a monthly competition last year.  It was taken with a good camera – Nikon D3s and a good lens (85mm f1.4) but I discovered later there had been a problem.  I had been grappling with the settings of the camera while it was inside a raincover a week or two earlier in Greenland and hadn’t realised that instead of the usual 16MP RAW files, I had it set to save 2.8MP TIFF files.  After cropping the size of the file was 2.2MP.

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_13S5354 .

Admittedly, my choice of paper helped.  I printed it on a matte paper which has a texture and less resolution.  I don’t think a glossy paper would have worked.   But what this shows if you can have sufficient inspiration and skill and get to the right place at the right time,  the camera doesn’t matter very much, at least as long as you understand the limitations of the camera and operate within them.

 

Computer

I’m not going to say much about computers because I just wrote an article about purchasing one.  You need something with enough RAM to process your files and enough disk space to store them.  It helps if it does something when you turn it on.

 

Monitor and Colorimeter

Having a good monitor makes a big difference and having it well profiled is almost essential for printing.  You can get away without that but you are likely to lose a lot of time in testing, you may find it difficult to achieve accurate colour and it may end up costing you more.  I’m not going to say much about monitors because I covered that in the Computers post.   NEC and Eizo make the best monitors; anything else is a compromise though no doubt a necessary compromise for many.  It is an advantage to have a monitor with an aRBG gamut (Adobe RGB) rather than an sRGB gamut because you will be able to more accurately see the colours of an image for printing.

Profiling the monitor is important because if we are not seeing accurate colour, we will find it difficult to print accurate colour.  Whether a monitor looks good anyway is besides the point.  Our eyes are very good at making lighting sources as different as daylight and tungsten light (old-style lightbulbs) appear normal.  Consequently, we can’t expect our eyes alone to adjust monitors.

To profile your minotaur monitor you need a colorimeter and the best one is the XRite Display Pro (at around $300).  Be wary of cheap options or old colorimeters as they may not be accurate, they may not allow important adjustments and they may not work well if you have a wide gamut monitor.  Some may wish to generate their own paper profiles with say an X-Rite ColorMunki Photo but this is optional; it probably won’t make much difference and profiling your monitor is the really important thing here.

 

Software

There are many software choices for editing images and printing them.  If you have a profiled monitor though, what makes a big difference in printing is using a program you can soft proof with.  That means you can simulate how your print wil appear, on your screen.  It’s not perfect but it can be very helpful.  Photoshop is an option but these days most people use Lightroom which is a very powerful program that is also very easy to use.

These days, you can pay $12 per month for perpetually up-to-date versions of both Lightroom and Photoshop.  This is very good value compared to what prices used to be though the catch is that if you stop paying you can no longer run the programs (though you can still access your files).    There are many instructional videos for Lightroom and Photoshop on the web, such as those of Julianne Kost.  There are also comprehensive sets of videos on Luminous Landscape for both Lightroom and printing if you are willing to pay their subscription of $US12 per year.

 

Lighting

Ideally, the room you process your images in should have dim consistent lighting and be neutral in colour.  If you are in a room with bright purple walls, it will affect your colour perceptions of your images on screen (as well as possibly your state of mind).  Preferably, you should also wear neutral clothing for the same reason.

Once you have generated a print, you need a neutral light source to assess it.  This can be sunlight, although its colour temperature changes throughout the day and may differ between direct sunlight and shadow.  Ordinary lightbulbs of whatever type are problematic, even if they are labelled “daylight”, unless you are printing for that specific light source.

The best light source for proofing is Solux bulbs, which are very accurate, and most people prefer a colour temperature around 5,000°K.  The problem is that they are MR16 bulbs – in other words they have two little round prongs like the small round lights that may be in your kitchen ceiling and they take low voltage direct current rather than 240V DC.  Fine if you can get them installed like your kitchen lights.  Alternatively, you could use a Graflite fluorescent desk light which is almost as good though the larger one, more suitable for A3+ prints, costs $300 (at Imagescience).

There is a way around this, if you’re adventurous enough.  From a local store such as Southside Lighting, you get an ordinary lamp and also a small inline transformer that converts from 240volt DC to a small direct current suitable for MR16 bulbs.  You get an electrician to insert the transformer in the lamp’s electrical line before the switch.  Now it’s no good for ordinary bulbs anymore.  Next, you order online a B22 (large bayonet) to MR16 converter or a E27 (large screw) to MR16 converter depending on your lamp fitting.  These are not available in a shop because they don’t meet Australian safety standards since someone might use them with an MR16 bulb without a transformer and effectively cause a short circuit.  When this arrives, you put the Solux bulb on it, insert it in the lamp and you now have a colour accurate light source for printing.

 

Printer

The choice for a photographic printer is likely to come down to different models of Epson inkjet printers.

It’s possible to print a photograph with a laser printer but it won’t handle the range of media that inkjet printers can, the colours and densities won’t be at all accurate unless you profile it yourself and even then it’s not likely to produce the quality of an inkjet printer.

Canon and HP still produce ranges of very large printers for the professional market, but HP has dropped out of the consumer market and Canon has a fairly low profile.  In any case, I’m not familiar with Canon printers and will confine my comments to Epson.

Here are some likely choices:

  • P800 (A2 printer): $1,900+: Excellent quality colour and monochrome images.
  • P600 (A3+ printer): $1,300+: Excellent quality colour and monochrome images.
  • P405 (A3+ printer): $900+:  Excellent quality colour but not as good for monochrome due to smaller ink set.
  • Artisan 1430 (A3+): $350+: Uses dye-based inks rather than pigment-based inks.  Probably excellent quality for colour images on glossy and semigloss paper.  May not be so good on matte and may not be very suitable for monochrome.  Will have higher ink cost due to small cartridges.

 

Ink

If you have an Epson printer, you should definitely use Epson ink.  You can get very cheap third party ink but that doesn’t mean it’s good value.  Such inks can kill your printer.  Also, you may need to get custom paper profiles which otherwise are not really necessary.

 

Paper

These days there is a bewildering variety of papers available.  At least initially, just have one or two and get to understand them.  If two, perhaps a semigloss paper and a matte.  Maybe try a few test packs to help decide.  Glossy and semigloss papers show brighter colours and deeper blacks than matte papers so they are suitable for different kinds of images.  Matte papers can give a subtler effect for lower contrast images.

If you want a first paper to start with on a new printer, perhaps Ilford Smooth Pearl is a good and relatively economical place to start.  It is suitable for both printers that use dye-based and pigment-based inks.  You need to be careful if you have a dye-based printer that you purchase suitable papers, not ones for pigment ink printers only.

 

Cost of Printing

You can of course print A4 prints but for purposes of a cost comparison, let’s say you decide to print for yourself and enter A3+ prints in CPS competitions for a year.  That’s sixteen A3+ prints in monthly competitions, two in Image of the Year, say four for Out There exhibition and five A4 prints for the Hedda Morrison portfolio competition.   That’s 22 A3+ prints and 5 A4, equivalent to around 24.5 A3+ prints.  We will not consider here what other prints you may generate.

An article by Mark Segal suggests ink costs of around $2 for an A3+ print from an Epson 3800 printer.  This should be about the same for a P800 or a P600 (the current models).  Say you’re printing Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, that will cost about $3.30 per A3+ sheet.  Assuming 25% for testing and wastage, that makes about $7.50 per A3+ print. That’s about $180 for printing costs for a competition year.

Getting Harvey Norman to make the same prints would cost $410 but they would have to be on a cheaper paper and lower quality and the paper sizes are slightly smaller.  Next step up, getting Bica to print them would cost $588 for “Premium Prints” and $1,031 for “Custom Prints” (and for A3 rather than A3+).  Next step up, getting Stephen Best to print them will cost $1,005 plus postage, or picking up from PhotoAccess on a Thursday or Friday, or trips to Braidwood.

I recently sold my Epson 3880 printer for $550 (to upgrade to a P800).  I had bought it six years ago for $1900.  My overall printing cost for that period was equivalent to getting prints made by Harvey Norman at much lesser quality and much less convenience.  I saved 60% (or $3,700) over getting custom prints made by Bica or Stephen Best.   So, buying a printer can pay off as long as you’re going to use it.

 

Matting

Prints in CPS competitions are usually matted.  It helps if you print in standard sizes because then you can reuse the matte for other prints.  Unlike prints, there is no particular reason to produce your own mattes; it’s a question of convenience and cost. There are three approaches you can take:

  • You can get some cut. Last time I did this it cost $15 each, but that’s a few years ago and it may be more now.
  • You can take the cheap option and use a Stanley knife for straight edges and a Dexter matte cutter for bevelled edges. Entirely possible but slow and painstaking.
  • If you will be cutting a fair few mattes, you may consider a “proper” matte cutter such as those from FrameCo.

Just briefly, if you are matting a print to permanently mount in a frame, you should use archival matte board and archival tape (from a specialist retailer) and hang the print from the top edge only so it can move in the frame.

 

What to do with the prints

A question some people ask is “what do you do with the prints?”.  Well, to some extent, this may not be the right place to start.  If you want to produce some outstanding prints that are truly yours because you printed them, you have to work at it.  The prints you produce after a few years may be greatly improved and you will have needed to produce the earlier ones to get there.

You can of course hang some on your walls and rotate them.  You may be able to give some away as presents.  In this case you need to be sure it really is your best work (probably no point even holding on to seconds) and also that other people really will appreciate them.  The Society competitions help to give you a good feel for that.  Similarly, you might like to send some prints to people you met while travelling.  You might want to hold an exhibition at some stage, when you feel you really understand your craft and have something to say.  You might even try selling some though that’s easier said than done and certainly extremely difficult to generate a significant income flow from fine art prints.

You can store them in the old boxes that the paper came in (or special boxes for the same purpose) or you can get special transparent envelopes to store them in.  I have also found album folios that can store 48 A3+ prints.  This is a very convenient way to show your prints to guests.

 

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