What is a quality print and how is it determined?
The accuracy of the colours, the resolution (I will cover this later on) and the durability of a print determines the quality of a print. As a developing photographer, I found it mystifying when people started looking at various prints and determining the quality of it. Just like some of you jargon can be off putting. However determining the quality of a print can be straight forward. By reading this article my aim is to educate you into what makes a quality print.
Maintain your printer
A well serviced printer is essential for decent prints. Once we get passed the essential things such as no faded streaks of colour, an image that matches the exact dimensions of the image the quality of an image gets harder to tell. The above issues are usually caused by poorly maintained or defective printers. If you are experiencing problems in this area, go to your printer maintenance settings and try cleaning nozzles functions, aligning the nozzle functions, checking ink levels and or possibly take it to a certified repair shop. Some times parts do get knackered due to wear and tear. When I looked at professional printer services, they emphasised the importance of maintaining your printers and regular printing to prevent ink drying on nozzles which can cause damage.
When maintaining your printer, make sure it is switched off. Do not tamper with moving parts this will protect you and your printing device. If you use your printer monthly or sporadically it is likely that you will have some dried residue of ink. As a golden rule make sure your run the clean nuzzle function if you have not used for a while. Remove build up of dust, some printers can be closed to prevent dust going in but remember there is dust in the air waiting to settle. A damp cleaning cloth or vacuum can be used and should be sufficient in most cases. There are some areas that should not be cleaned, please ensure you refer to your user manuals. If your printer has a jam as frustrating as it is take caution when removing the paper, this will reduce the risk of the paper tearing (leaving debris or damaging the moving parts) if in doubt read your user manual rather than force fixing an issue.
Why quality is worth spending for
Let's talk money. Yes quality is worth spending for! This does not mean to blow your account on the most expensive item you see, however it does mean careful consideration is needed. Printers are targeted for different demographics, for example the gigantic laser printer maybe more suited to an officer where large quantities of letters are printed where as photographic printers specialise in photos.
The quality of a print is priceless! Imagine you have a loved one's photo printed proudly on your wall. Then after a week, a month a year a decade the image degraded and no longer is as it once was. You would be disappointed especially if you cannot find where the original image was kept (digital files really don't last). I have visited family and friends and have found myself really drawn to quality images of them especially at significant events. I literally can go back years as say, wow this is what they looked like when they were younger. Quality images are enjoyed and they can become the pride of a home. Their value is revealed in the course of time. That is why if printing your own images or using a printing service I would strong advice using the best quality within your reach.
When printing your own images, the resolution, the tones of colours available and the speed are factors. For services where high volumes of prints are required, a faster but accurate printer is needed, however for a more casual printer user slowly quality ticks the boxes.
There are several types of printers which vary on the mechanism they use to produce an image however two of the most common printers used are the almighty inkjet printer and the sublimation printer for photography. They range in price from £80 to upwards of £3,000.
Printers are (especially commercial inkjets) are sold at a loss to increase sells of units. The manufactures often try to make this up in the long term with the selling of ink. This is why official ink is really expensive. A well built and maintained printer will last longer, produce consistent results and can in the long term save you money on refills and upgrades.
What is image resolution and how does this help?
Resolution can be considered as information, the higher the resolution the more detail in the print or image. Resolution is measured in dots per square inch (dpi) when printed or pixels per inch (commonly shortened to pixels) for digital files. The resolution is what can make a photo sharp or look look blurry/unclear.
When converting a quality digital photo (with sufficient pixel resolution) to a print, keeping that detail in the image is important. This is why a printer that can print at resolutions that hold enough information is important. Photo printers range from 300 dpi to 1800 dpi, the higher the dpi the more quality is possible. The reason why I say possible, is because if the file you are printing from a file that does not contain enough information the quality can still come out badly. As a rough guide a digital resolution of 300 pixels at 4-8 megapixels size is enough for most print jobs. The human eye at arms length would struggle to notice a higher resolution than 300DPI printed image.
There is more to this subject such as the size of the dots (in the dots per inch) or the factor of a printer that is capable of fitting in more dots (in an inch squared of space). However I don't intend to confuse you with a level of technicality that will require a calculator or conversion tables.
The closer the image is going to be reviewed the higher dpi you need on the printer. A billboard print larger than a side of a house may have a lower resolution than a 4x6 (inch) image. This is because the viewer is expected to see the image from a distance, therefore the detail may not be required compared to the 10x8 which may be viewed at face distance. This is why going close to a bill board print the quality may appear to be missing, until you take a few meters back and look again.
Knowing the absolute basics first will demystify this topic and help you when printing. Additionally good printing companies will have a warning if your resolution is not good enough for the size you are printing. If you are unsure what resolution you need they often guide you on their minimal requirements. You can use software to save your images with the resolution you want Lightroom and photoshop are examples of software that will allow you, however there are an array of alternatives.
Why is paper important
Paper is the main physical feature the ink will be printed on. The qualities of the paper can bring a picture in it's best light. The photo printing industry is worth $14.4 billion US dollars per year world wide when analysed in 2016. Though we are going digital, the value of the print is still relevant (and will always be). People will always find the physical copy of an image to be special, that is why I have decided to pay more attention to this area as it will help my photography.
What are the main types of photo paper
Glossy - High contrast paper with a smooth and shinny surface, can glare when in glass. Glossy is traditionally used in magazines and may have a resin or white clay to give the paper it's smooth characteristics
Matte - Smooth paper with anti-glare features, however the finish is not as shinny as Glossy. It is great for paper where you need to read text and offers a high contrast.
Lustre - Lustre paper attempts to be the best of the above, it has a pearl like surface and quite popular with photographers. It is between the dullness and shine of the above.
As you can imagine different companies do different versions of the above. Some companies may use different resins to give their paper different characteristics. It is important to know how your paper will present your images. Companies sometimes offer discounted sample prints in order for the papers available to be inspected. This is a great idea as you know what to expect. Paper choice is personal and highly subjective, you will need to decide for yourself what your preference is.
High end printers (bespoke printing services) offer a larger array of papers due to the specific needs of their customers. It's worth visiting them as they are often happy to show their range of products and educate you. High end printers also focus more on their customers outcomes as they want you to come back. Retail printing services you can find in the high street are limited in what they can offer as they trade with the general public who may not be interested in the finer specifications
It's a good idea to keep your paper out of direct sunlight. The sun is very powerful and has the ability to prematurely age your image. Some paper may have recommendation of the temperatures they can be exposed to. As a general rule keep away from cold and hot areas try to maintain standard room temperatures 18-22 degrees. Keep away from moisture and substances as this may damage your images. Some paper can last for over 200 years if kept in the right condition. There it is important to buy quality paper when printing so that you can continue to enjoy your photos for a lifetime.
How ink quality makes a difference
The quality of your ink is important. Printer manufactories spend millions of research and development and calibrate their devices to use their specific ink. Yes ink is over priced, however buying inferior ink can produce inferior colours, damage your printer and may not print on the paper as desired.
With inkjets, the ink is jetted through the nozzles with micro precision and high speed. If the properties of the ink are different to what the machine is designed for, blockages may occur, the jet may miss fire. You will also lose your warranty for going against the manufacturers recommended brand. Stick with the brand unless you know a reputable alternative or re-filler (do so at your own risk).
Inferior ink may also have different properties, making printing a nightmare. Colours may be off, giving you an image different to the sample you are printing from. Knock offs are interested in a quick profit and are unlikely to compensate you or give you a worthwhile response if complaining. Check the recommendations and only use a variable company with objective reviews.
You can save money buy shopping with different ink producers who may even offer a refilling service. This cost cutting is a smart choice business-wise but there are some risks. You'd be happy to note the risks are not as scary when purchasing from a regulated market.
Opinions are divided here, clearly manufactures want you to use them (they need to make back their money (that's why the cartridges keep changing form factor). However if you want to use an alternative brand, make sure they are reputable and have passed the standards required to sell their products. Alternative may not always mean inferior in quality. Some companies make consistently good alternatives however the safer option will always be the original.
Regardless of the ink, the liquid will go dry, so it is important to print regularly or to go through the printing maintenance. If refilling, don't use the cartridge for over a year, to minimise defects unless you know how to clean it manually.
Why is calibration of the printer essential
I recently printed some images when getting the printer profile for my printer. To my surprise the images came out wrong, the colours did not match and the brightness also did not match. This is because each printer has different properties. These differences can be the difference between a flattering image and a rejected one. A client will always want the best, they may not know why the product is good but they will feel if something is off most of the time.
To counter this ICC profiles can be loaded to your software. This software does a good job at making sure the exact colours come through for the printer model you use. Different brands have their own interpretation of colour, the ICC profiles should ensure that the actual colours image colours are used. The ultimate goal is for the image to be a perfect match to what is on your screen (if calibrated). Ofcourse a perfect match is impossible due to the back lighting of screens compared to a print and the lighting conditions of the printed image, however it shouldn't be far off.
Alternatively some software tries to auto correct the colours, this may be acceptable for the casual user, but for professional prints a few tones off is unacceptable. Make sure if you intend to print professionally you calibrate your devices or use a professional service that doe this for their prints. This will minimise the stress of images that print differently to how they appeared on the screen.
Some paper wholesalers will support you through calibration so if you do not know how to do it, send them a message and they maybe able to help. This is what I had to do and now I am a lot more confident when it comes to doing my own prints.
As a Croydon photographer the quality of print is important to me. I want to know that my customers are getting the best and that my images are accurate. When you spend hours editing photos to look a certain way you don't want it to be undone at the final stage.
Whether you shoot professionally or just as a casual printer you want your images to be the best.
The printed image will always be important, so it's best to get it right. Remember to maintain your printer to optimise it to perform at it's best. Don't be overwhelmed with jargon such as resolution, remember it's about the amount of information the file or print has. The paper you use should be quality however the finish is your personal preference. Be careful with inks you purchase, always use a reputable trader. Finally make sure your printer profile is calibrated if unsure some paper companies will help their customers calibrate their printers.