to Make Great Prints
INKJETS ARE DEAD
See quality examples here.
I first published this page in 1999. Back then, inkjets were the cheapest way for amateur photographers to make prints from digital files. Ultra high-end commercial labs with the equipment to print from digital files onto real photo paper were almost nonexistent outside of the advertising worlds of New York City or Los Angeles. In those days we scanned our film. It wasn't until the end of 1999 that Nikon introduced the world's first practical DSLR, the D1 at $5,000, and at less than 3MP was only for news.
Things change! The 1990s are already the dark ages of digital.
Inkjet printers went obsolete back in 2004. I still use a $99 Epson printer, but only for printing emails and, once a year, business cards.
This is because today we can get much better prints on real, light-sensitive, chemically-processed photo paper at almost any lab including Wal-Mart, Costco and Target. They, and probably your local camera store, have all bought the $50,000 and up machines required to print electronically onto real photo paper. Adorama Lab's printers cost $150,000 each and the ones at Calypso cost about $500,000.
I'm defining photo paper as light sensitive, chemically processed paper. Inkjets spit ink onto plain paper. I'll reserve this prejudice. I prefer the look of real photo paper for my work.
Sending prints out costs less than inkjet paper and ink. You don't have to buy or maintain a printer, either!
Prints made from my files for bottom dollar at Costco are far better than the prints I used to get from expensive professional labs from film negatives.
Thank God the new lab machines are consistent. You no longer have to depend on the kid working at a lab to get your photos to look right. I ask for "uncorrected" and my prints always match the file I send, even at the cheapest printing places.
It took photographers a few years to get to digital from film. Today everyone does it. It's the same for sending prints out, just a few years newer. Inkjet printer makers today spend tons on promotion and seminars to keep you thinking you need one. Nikon and Canon never needed to try to keep you stuck in film. Inkjets aspired to "photo quality," but never got there for me. I love the ultra glossy, vivid wet-look prints I get on Fuji Super Gloss. Inkjets don't get that glossy.
I print photos, not canvasses. Inkjets are still the way to go if you need to print on canvas, cloth, T-shirts, CDs, DVDs and cardboard.
Mainstream media is just starting to pick up on what photographers and savvy consumers already know. The New York Times, October 8th, 2005 pointed out that that the percentage of prints made at home is dropping. The NY Times quotes Consumer Reports that actual print costs at home are 50 cents each just for paper and ink, and they are as low as 13 cents each at places like Sam's Club or 10 cents if prepaid at Snapfish.com. (You may be able to read the article here.) Of course to make prints at home you'd also have to buy a photo printer. Sending prints out you get free use of someone else's time and their $50,000 Fuji Frontier or Noritsu or Agfa printer.
Which makes a better print: a $50,000 printer using real photo paper at Costco, or your $1,800 Epson. Duh, the $50,000 printer of course! Remember: all the hours of painstaking editing and optimization are reflected in your digital file. Your genius is in the file, regardless of where you take it to print.
Even the Wal-Mart in Flint, Michigan had a Fuji Frontier in June of 2002. If they had one I'm sure your local discount store or lab has one, too, in 2006.
Giclée is the French word for inkjet. People too embarrassed to admit they are selling inkjet prints spat out of a computer say giclée instead of inkjet. It's the same thing. Giclée is also used in the painting world for a technique where ink is spritzed onto the medium, which is why it's been adopted to euphemize inkjet printers. Emails printed on my $99 Epson are also giclées!
I see no more purpose for old-fashioned pro labs. In the old days you needed one to hope to get the right colors. Today the printers everywhere are automated to give you the same colors in your file. It used to take a lot of black magic to reproduce your slide and even more to get color from a negative. Wal-Mart's Fuji Frontier machines do an even better job automatically printing from your files.
No longer do good photographers need to pay top dollar to a custom professional lab to have a kid screw up your prints. The kid at the expensive custom lab who used to get between you and a great print is gone. You can get a great print almost everywhere.
I use an expensive pro lab like Calypso today because they have the ability to print on Fuji Super Gloss at any random size I want. They charge by the square foot and every order is custom. Getting special sizes or materials are the only reason to pay more for a lab catering to pros. I see no difference in image quality between Costco or anywhere else for standard size prints. They all use the same machines and chemicals.
We don't need no stinking profiles!
I amaze my friends with knockout 12 x 18" prints made at Costco for $2.99 directly from the JPGs that came out of my camera. The results are so far beyond what an inkjet can do that people are floored.
For me life is too short to screw with profiles for printing at discount labs. Their machines are well enough calibrated as-is. Shoot at the default sRGB color space and you're fine. If you're a wise guy shooting Adobe RGB you will have to screw with colorspace conversions, otherwise you'll get duller colors!
Hobbyists love to make things as complex as possible. That's why they're called hobbyists: they enjoy the process of all this for its own sake. I'm a photographer and prefer to make pictures over piddling with details.
People who enjoy fiddling with their computer more than creating images love to fiddle with profiles from places like drycreekphoto.com. Adorama also publishes color profiles. Most labs, other than the deepest discounters, publish these.
When you try to get smart and go outside the standard procedure with these profiles often an operator will hit a wrong button and you'll have to ask for a re-do!
File Formats and Color Spaces
I never worry about this. I always send sRGB JPGs to everyone and love the results.
Of course no one can print raw files. Raw files always have to be converted to a standard, like JPG or TIF, first.
When selecting my files at Adorama's web site it showed only my JPGs. I don't know if they print from other formats. JPG is the only format I'd use online, since TIFs waste too much time and space in transfer.
Matching Your Screen
My prints match my screen. They also match my camera's LCD. I get this everyplace I've tried.
If your colors don't match, your screen probably out of calibration. See my page on monitor calibration.
Great news: calibrating a screen is easy and cheap. Calibrating printers is a pain. Sending prints out you don't need to calibrate any printers. Modern lab printers calibrate themselves for us automatically.
If your computer matches your camera's LCD and you're not getting this from your lab, move on to another. Just be sure your files are sRGB!
12 x 18" is my standard size. My local Costco prints up to that big on real Fuji chemical photo paper in that size. I send out to Calypso for bigger prints.
Labs often print up to a certain size on their good printer, and revert to an inkjet for bigger ones. These good printers are expensive, like $150,000, so smaller operations may not go up to 12 x 18." They buy as big a machine as makes sense to them.
You need to ask the lab up to how big they print on the real paper. Go elsewhere if they only offer Epson, inkjet, giclée or whatever for the bigger sizes you need.
DIGITAL LAB SUGGESTIONS
Be careful that the lab uses chemically processed paper, not just an inkjet or dye-sub printer in a big box! Look on the back of the prints and they ought to say Fuji Crystal Archive, my favorite. Some may say Agfa or Kodak. Beware of any inkjet prints, which don't look as good and are going to fade or smear and have different levels of gloss depending on the darkness of each part of the image. Some labs also offer "giclée," which is just the fancy French word for inkjet.
Avoid labs and kiosks that cheap out and print on inkjet or dye sublimation ("dye sub") printers. You need to make sure that they print on genuine light sensitive, chemically processed photo paper.
Color and Exposure
I'm an artist and want things done my way. I want prints that match the way I created them on my screen.
Be sure to ask for NO AUTOCORRECTION. They used to leave it alone, but now the people who love to screw up a good thing apply "correction" to every print. Remember to ask them to PRINT AS IS, NO CORRECTIONS and you'll get what you want, presuming you have never screwed with the settings of your monitor at home.
Online, good labs will have a NO CORRECTIONS box to check.