Shooting For Print: A Professional Photographer's Workflow
In our current digital age, billions of photos are taken every day; however, only a tiny fraction of those photos are ever printed - even by professional photographers! Digital cameras with 45+ megapixels are the norm, but most of these high-resolution images only make it to the computer screen, or even worse, a tiny phone screen. Although printing your work can be intimidating and costly, it is the ultimate realization of the photograph. In large format, the details in a photograph come to life allowing the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the image. All serious photographers should experience their work in print, and this article will provide the groundwork for creating beautiful, detailed, three-dimensional prints suitable for a gallery. The examples used are to illustrate ideas, but you can adapt these to your own unique situation or preferences.
The Photographer's Mindset
Creating a world class print starts even before the shutter is clicked. To produce the highest quality finished product, you need to consider what variables are important prior to shooting. The final print needs to be tack sharp throughout, and there cannot be any soft edges, blown highlights or crushed shadows. Post processing needs to eliminate imperfections such as dust spots or banding. Contrast and color enhancements should be done with a controlled hand and final images should be inspected at 100% resolution prior to print. Taking the time to be meticulous throughout the process will reward the photographer with the ultimate in results.
Color Management & Calibration
Prior to shooting, it is crucial to have a solid color management workflow. This will ensure that the colors in images will remain consistent throughout the process. There are many resources available online that discuss color management in depth. In short, your camera should be set to the preferred color space (such as Adobe RGB or sRGB), and matched with your editing software (Adobe Photoshop, etc). Computer monitors used for editing should be calibrated with a quality color calibration tool on a regular basis (X-Rite, Spyder, etc). Printing labs have their own ICC profiles that you can use for proofing prior to print. Without taking these steps your images will likely have widely variable colors and brightness, so this is a critical step in the process.
In the Field | Capturing the Perfect Shot
Imagine walking through your favorite nature scene. Perhaps there is a stream surrounded by wildflowers, with a mountain in the distance and a sky full of fluffy clouds. It is a bit breezy, and there is a lot of contrast. When you set up your composition, it is time to think ahead to the final print. The flowers in the scene will need to be frozen with a fast shutter speed. The depth of field is incredibly wide, so you will need to consider using a small aperture (for example f/13-f/16) or utilizing multiple focus points to stack later in post processing. The stream may look best at a slower shutter, around ¼ second. You notice that when exposing for the foreground the sky is blown out, so you also capture an exposure for the sky. Each of these separate exposures can be combined in post processing and will help ensure that the final image is stunning in both content and technical qualities. Regardless of the subject matter, remember to think ahead to the final image and what is important when shown in large format. Technical errors can be overlooked on a small phone screen, but never in large format print.
Post Processing Your Images
Post processing is the time for photographers to put their own artistic touch on images. However, there are also technical aspects that are important to manage when printing is the end goal. Perhaps most important to print detail relates to sharpening. There are two types of sharpening in the printmaking process: capture sharpening and print sharpening. Capture sharpening is performed at the front end in the RAW converter (Lightroom or similar) to correct the inherent softness in the RAW file and provide maximal sharpness going into the post processing workflow.
There are many methods for this, but for landscape photography the general process in Lightroom is to set Detail to around 10 - 20, Radius to 0.5 – 1.0 and then increase the Amount slider to reach maximum detail without any artifacting or halos. Depending on the image this may be anywhere from 40-80. Make sure to view the image at 100-300% magnification while adjusting the Amount slider. If the image has a lot of sky, darkness or other soft areas, you can also increase the Masking slider to eliminate the sharpening in those areas. You can hold the Alt key while dragging the masking slider to see where the mask is being applied. Note: In the past, many people set detail to 100 and then adjusted the sharpening amount. This is fine for smaller prints, but for enlargements it introduces a significant amount of artifacting that limits printing size. This may not be visible at 100% magnification, but when viewed at 200-300% it is readily visible.
After artistically processing the image to your specific taste, the next step is to perform print sharpening. In Photoshop, open the final image and adjust the image size to match the final print size (Image>Image Size). For optimal print quality, you want 300 DPI in the resolution field.
This may require upsizing the image, which can be done in Photoshop or a program like Topaz Labs Gigapixel. If using Photoshop, use Bicubic Smoother (Enlargement) to obtain the best results. After resizing, you can use several different print sharpening techniques. Adobe Photoshop’s Smart Sharpening is quite good in most cases, but you can also use a combination of Unsharp Mask and High Pass Filter pixel layers to achieve more fine-tuned results. Whichever you choose, make sure you view the image at both 100% zoom and a zoom level that closely represents the finished size when printed. You may need to mask out certain areas that you want to keep soft (clouds, water, etc), or perform additional sharpening in other areas.
Preparing Images for Print
Before sending your file to final print, it is important to do one or more test prints. This can be done at a smaller size (sharpened specifically for that size) or you can print a crop of the photo at the final print size. Test prints help ensure that luminosity, color, contrast and sharpening are all satisfactory before sending to final print.
Once everything looks perfect, you are ready to send to the lab for final production! There are infinite choices for printing materials and display, but if ultimate color, contrast, depth and wow factor are your goals then face mounted acrylic prints are the best choice. Two of the most popular papers today are Fujiflex by FUJIFILM and Lumachrome from Nevada Art Printers, both of which produce incredible results. To create an impressive three-dimensional look, TruLife® Acrylic can be used for the face mounting material. TruLife® Acrylic is glare resistant, offers amazing UV protection and is the choice of professionals around the world. Finally, the print can be frameless for a more modern look, or framed and matted to present a luxurious, high-end look.
Displaying Your Photographic Art
No print is complete until it is hung and properly lit. One of the most important factors in bringing the print to life is external lighting. Track lighting is the most effective and should be directed at the center of the print at a 30-degree angle from above. I recommend using LED lights, as they are long lasting and do not produce the heat associated with halogens. Make sure to purchase bulbs that are 3,000k-4,000k Kelvin color temperature (not too yellow or blue in color). With your print hung and lit, all the hard work is done, and you can sit back, relax and enjoy your new masterpiece!