With the unstoppable rise of digital photography and social media sharing, many photographers don't have much experience with printing their images professionally. However, printing your photos can bring an exceptionally special, tactile quality to your photos—once you’ve printed your photos for the first time I guarantee you won’t ever overlook print again!
Perhaps you’ve printed some of your photographs at home, or simply had a purely computer-based focus up to now. This guide aims to introduce you to the world of professional digital printing, and show you how you can get started with choosing the right print method, performing the right prep, and selecting paper and ink finishes to give you the best result.
I’ll introduce you to some of the basic principles of digital printing, and walk you through the key things you need to need to know about before sending your work off to print. Let’s go!
1. What is Digital Printing?
Digital printing converts the pixels that make up the image on your screen to a hard-copy print using a digital printer, ink and paper. Digital printing is the production stage of the digital photography process, taking place after digital editing and before display or distribution. This chart shows the basic stages of the digital photo process, and where printing comes into play:
If you’re looking to distribute physical prints of your work, to sell and/or put on display, printing is a necessary step, so it’s a good idea to know about your options.
Digital printing is the tech age’s answer to more traditional printing techniques, such as offset lithography (whereby the image to be printed is burned onto a plate and then transferred—offset—from the plate to a rubber blanket, before transferring to the printing surface). Many traditionalists would argue that non-digital print techniques give photos and other images a particularly special, intangible quality which is difficult to match using a digital printing process. However, digital printing is evolving at a phenomenal pace, and now it can be tricky to spot a marked difference in quality between traditionally-produced prints and good digital prints.
For photographers, the main advantage of digital printing is the sheer amount of choice and control you have during the print process. You are spoilt for choice in how to print, where to print, when to print and what to print on. All of these put together make for a highly efficient and on-demand technology and, as a result, a competitive digital printing market, which makes digital printing a wise choice if you have a limited budget.
2. OK, But Can I Just Print From Home?
Sure, printing your photos on a home digital printer is possible, and many modern home printers can now match industrial printers for quality, and outdo the professional process for sheer convenience. However, there are limits to what you can do using a home printer.
For one thing, home printers can only produce small prints. If you want a large-scale print of your photo for display you’ll need to have a very large printer to hand, which are costly to buy and bulky to store at home.
Home printers are also costly to run and finicky to maintain, particularly if you want to print your photos at the highest quality. Using a professional printing service can actually be more cost-effective when used in an on-demand capacity.
By printing your photos at home you’re also missing out on the expertise of a professional printer, who can advise on paper weights and finishes, and image sizing. Printers have been working in their field for many years, and will have prepared work for exhibitions and retail. As a result, they are in the best place to help you if you’re new to the printing process. Many professional fine art printers will also have contacts in the mounting and framing sector, and may be able to advise you on preparing your work for display.
All in all, it never hurts to get to know your friendly neighbourhood printer!
3. Before You Begin: Prep for Print!
One thing you can and should do from home is to prepare your photos for printing. This preparation stage is different to the editing and retouching stage, in that it is performed purely to optimise the print quality of the photo, not the aesthetics of the image. This quick tutorial from Harry Guinness shows you the basics of how to edit your photos non-destructively before moving onto the print preparation stage, and Chamira Young's course covers the non-destructive raw processing process in detail.
- Non-Destructive Photo Editing in 60 SecondsHarry Guinness07 Mar 2016
- How to Ensure Consistency in Your Photo RetouchingChamira Young21 Apr 2015
After you’ve edited your photo and you’re happy with the end result, you’re ready to move onto the preparation stage. Preparing for print involves assessing four main technical elements of the photo:
Can you identify any colors which are oversaturated or need more saturation in your image? Heavily saturated colors like red tones can cause problems at the printing stage. At the other end of the spectrum, colors which are lacking in saturation might appear dull and washed-out in print. Calibrating your monitor or neutralizing your editing application’s workspace can also make a huge difference to how you assess the color balance in your photos.
- Want Better Color? Use Neutral Gray Themes in Adobe Photoshop and LightroomDaniel Sone28 Feb 2015
- Advanced Color Theory: What Is Color Management?James Thomas18 Apr 2016
You may have already tweaked the contrast of your photos at the editing stage for aesthetic purposes, but you should also take the time to reassess the contrast levels with a printed end result in mind. In part due to the light omitted by screens, contrast often appears stronger when viewed on a computer. In print format, contrast can appear less stark, so it might be a good idea to increase the contrast levels to a little more than you would normally apply and then test until it looks just right.
- How to Retouch Portrait Photos Using Dodge and BurnMarie Gardiner22 Oct 2021
- How to Make Local Contrast Adjustments With Curves in Adobe PhotoshopMarie Gardiner18 May 2016
Perception of image sharpness can also differ depending on whether the photo is viewed on screen or in print. You may need to increase the sharpness of the image to bring out the clarity of detail in the picture. The end result will be a sharp, graphic print which will look bold and beautiful when displayed and viewed from afar.
- What Is Image Sharpening?Harry Guinness01 Jun 2016
- Quick, Best, Selective: 3 Image Sharpening Techniques for Every SituationHarry Guinness08 Jun 2016
Size and Resolution
You probably already have an idea of how large you would like your image to be printed, but remember that this will have its limitations depending on the resolution of the picture. If you want to print your image as a large-scale, high-quality art print you need to make sure that the image is of extremely high resolution. This ensures that no pixelation will be visible in the image whether the viewer is looking at the image from two metres or two centimetres away. Also note that if you are printing a photo as a poster, banner or other media that doesn’t need to be as high-quality as an art print it’s acceptable to send the image as a slightly lower-resolution image, though you should still set this to a minimum of 300 DPI (‘dots per inch’), which you can do from Photoshop by going to File > New and typing 300 into the Resolution text box.
To finish off the print prep process, you can produce a simple proof at home if you have access to a calibrated and modern printer. Print off a copy of your edited photo and assess the contrast, color balance, sharpness and resolution. This may not give you a completely accurate preview of how your final professionally printed photo will look, but it will certainly give you an idea of how the photo’s qualities change between screen and print. Tweak the photo again if you need to, print a second proof and check that you’re happy with the result.
You can get a professional proof done at a later stage too (see Point 9, below), so don’t fret—this won’t be your final chance to check the photo before committing to the full print job.
4. Get to Know Your Digital Printing Options
As technology continues to evolve, so do the number of methods for printing your photographs digitally. Knowing a little about these different printing methods will help you to choose the right method for you, and narrow down who to approach for the job.
On the home printer market now you can find a huge range of types of printers, some of which will perform better than others, and all of which are tailored to particular tasks. You may have come across a dot matrix printer in an office setting—these printers generally are cheap to run and suited to printing text-heavy, low-quality administrative and data documents. You may also have encountered dye-sublimation printers, which are more specialised for printing high-quality full-color images extremely quickly. The professional digital printing industry uses two main printing methods: inkjet and laser.
A cost-effective and high-quality choice for artists and photographers looking to produce high-quality art prints of their work, inkjet printing produces a fine-art result that can be applied to a range of print media, such as paper, canvas, plastic, fabric and metal. When the media is fed into the inkjet printer, a moving print head squirts small amounts of colored ink onto the surface as it moves backwards and forwards. Inkjet printers use four colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and ‘Key’ (Black) (known as CMYK), stored in separate reservoirs inside the printer, to build up a full spectrum of colors.
Some professional digital printers will use a laser printing method for producing photographic prints. Digital versions of the images are exposed onto light-sensitive photographic paper with lasers and processed using photographic developers and fixers. These laser-generated prints are, in comparison to inkjet prints, true photographs, with visibly continuous tone in the detail of the image. As a result, laser-generated prints are of exceptionally high-quality, making them suitable for archival storage and exhibition display.
5. Understand Ink
All inkjet printers use ink (surprise, surprise!) to create a print. However, it’s useful to know that there are in fact two different types of ink used by inkjet manufacturers: dye and pigment.
Each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and can produce different results. Depending on the brand and model of printer your chosen printshop uses, they will be tied into using either dye or pigment—if you really want to show that you know your stuff, you can ask printers which brand they use and which ink type they’ve opted for.
Dyes are colored substances which are either liquid or soluble in water. When applied to print media, a commercial dye stains the surface temporarily or permanently (if fixed with a mordant*). The main advantages of dye inks is that they are inexpensive and have especially vibrant colors, which results in a cost-effective, highly saturated print result. However, dyes are not particularly lightfast, meaning they tend to fade over time if exposed to sunlight. This might make dyes an unsuitable choice if you’re producing archival prints, but a great value choice for short-term print projects.
* a mordant is a chemical that fixes a dye onto a surface by mixing with the dye to form an insoluble compound
Pigments aren’t soluble in water, but instead are held in suspension by the liquid. Instead of being absorbed by the media, pigments sit on the surface. They are more lightfast than dyes, keeping their color intact for several hundred years, which makes them suitable for archival prints. The main disadvantages of pigments, as opposed to dyes, are that they are more expensive and lack the vibrant colors produced by dyes.
6. Choose the Right Paper
These days technology allows you to print onto just about any material—canvas, metal, fabric, you name it. However, most photographers still choose to print onto paper, which is easy to get hold of and produces an easy-to-display format that can be trimmed, mounted and framed.
You should get to know a little about the different paper finishes available, which will help you choose the right print result for your photos. There’s no wrong or right paper to use for printing photos—although traditionally photos may have been printed on high-gloss paper to maximize the vibrancy of color in the image, this isn’t the only choice for photographers looking for a more contemporary finish. Almost all printers will recommend printing photographs onto specialist photo paper, which prevents the ink from absorbing into the paper, instead allowing the ink to be held on top of the surface.
Paper varies in both weight and finish. Weight is measured in GSM, or ‘Grams per Square Meter’ and will have an effect on how flimsy or stiff the paper feels. A low weight, between 120-150 GSM is common for brochures and some lower-quality poster prints, but you’ll need to look at printing your photos on at least 150-200 GSM weight paper for standard prints, and 200-300 GSM for keepsake prints. Galleries might even print photos at a heavier, +300 GSM weight to ensure the print is particularly hardy and suitable for long-term storage.
Photo paper also comes in a wide range of finishes. A ‘finish’ refers to the coating applied to the paper during production, which comes in a gloss, semigloss or matte finish. Which finish you choose will depend mainly on personal preference and printing trends. Gloss finishes used to be more popular, but a trend in recent decades towards matte textures, which give photos a more pared-back, subtle look, has meant that many photographers are looking to print their photos on these sorts of papers instead.
7. Where to Print?
You’ve prepared your photos for printing, and picked up some handy know-how about print methods, inks and paper. The next step is to actually find a printer to do the job!
There are three ways of having your photos printed, each with their pros and cons. Let’s take a look.
Option 1: Your Local Print Shop
Most towns and cities will have one or several print shops servicing their local neighbourhood. Some of these will be geared towards more basic print jobs, helping local office businesses and colleges with printing reports, flyers, newsletters and stationery. For printing your photos, you should seek out printers who are more specialised in producing art prints. Indeed, some print shops will be large enough to accommodate for both, with a collection of equipment suited to a wide range of tasks.
Google ‘printers’ or ‘print shops’ to find the print businesses that are local to you. Check out reviews, or even better, get a recommendation from a friend or colleague who has given business to particular shops. Most printers will provide a highly professional service, but it’s always good to know how efficient, experienced and good-value they are.
The best thing about going into a local print shop is that you can discuss your project face-to-face with an experienced print specialist. Before committing to a job you can talk about your requirements and seek advice. Some printers have been in the business for decades, so they really do know their stuff.
Option 2: Online Print-On-Demand Services
Online digital printing services have diversified and boomed in the last decade, and there are now hundreds of websites offering print-on-demand (POD) services. The convenience factor is fantastic—simply upload high-resolution JPEG, TIFF or PSD versions of your images to the website of your choice, choose from a wide range of print finishes and paper weights, and receive the finished prints in the post within days.
The downside of using online print services is the lack of face-to-face contact you have with the printer before committing to printing, so you have be careful in your choice of website. A few respected POD businesses aimed at the art print sector to try are DeviantART, Zazzle, Artflakes, GalleryDirect, and Society6.
- How to Create an On-Demand Photo Book in Adobe LightroomJeffrey Opp10 May 2015
- Make a Photobook: How to Select, Edit, and Sequence Pictures for Your Photo ProjectJeffrey Opp23 Apr 2020
Option 3: Artists' Centres
Most larger cities, and even many smaller ones, have artist-run media centres or photographers' clubs with printing facilities. These groups cater to advanced amateurs and artists, and they can be a terrific resource. Facilities vary, but it's common to find the kinds of tools your unlikely to have at home: large-format inkjet printers, drying and cutting tables, mounting presses, maybe even framing equipment. They usually have a technician, too, at least to get you started.
Centres and clubs offer a relatively affordable route to professional printing if you're willing to do some of the work yourself. Expect to pay a yearly membership fee up-front, an hourly rental fee to use the equipment and per-foot charges for media.
8. Stick to Your Budget
One thing you must always keep in mind when printing photos is to make sure you stick to a realistic budget.
You might be producing prints for selling—if this is the case, you can allow a little more money to ensure that the prints are going to be of high enough quality for sale. If instead you’re producing prints for an exhibition or personal display at home, you might want to seek out less-expensive finishes and papers to help make your project the best-value it can be.
You can request a quote for any print job, whether it’s via a physical print shop or an online POD service, before you commit to printing. Only once you’re happy with the quote should you agree to proceed and send over your final image files. It’s a great idea to shop around too—you might find variations in price depending on the neighbourhood, whether you go to a chain printshop (who might have more set-in-stone pricing) or an independent printer (who may be willing to offer discounts), or between different websites.
A number of factors will contribute to the printer’s quote, including cost of materials, any extra services like trimming, and also the size of the print job. Bigger print jobs are more cost-efficient than smaller ones, so it may be worth asking for a quote for different quantities—you may well find that the difference between producing 50 and 100 prints is actually very little.
Most specialised printers will invoice for the print job after it’s been completed and delivered to you. You will then have a period of usually around 30 days to pay the invoice. Print shops and online POD services will usually ask for payment up-front before printing.
9. Ask for a Proof
You can ask the printer to provide a printed proof of one or several of your photos before you decide to go ahead with the full print job. This is a really important stage in the printing process, but it won’t always be offered without asking, so it’s in your interest to request one.
A proof acts as a color reference for adjusting the printing press before the final print run. This prepress proof allows you to view the colors and print quality of your print before you commit to printing the whole job. If you’re not happy with the result, you can ask the printer to tweak the color output and print a second proof. Repeat until you are happy with the result.
Some printers will ask you to sign the approved proof to confirm that this is indeed the color output that you have authorised. If the print job comes out looking nothing like this proof, this is a handy document to have to hand if you want to request another print run or get a refund.
10. Your Finished Digital Print!
There’s never anything quite as satisfying as opening up a delivery box full of beautiful prints of your photographs. If everything’s gone smoothly, you should be really thrilled with your prints, and can start thinking about the next steps for displaying, distributing or selling them.
If you are in any way dissatisfied with your prints—if the color looks different to the signed proof, the trim line (the edge of the paper where it has been ‘trimmed’) is wonky or the prints have been damaged in transit, don’t despair. Most print shops and POD sites will be quick to help you out and will want to make sure you get the result you paid for.
If you are really happy with the way your prints have turned out, it’s a good idea to make a note of the specs for your order. Write down the paper weight, finish, size and printer’s contact details. These will be indispensable when you want to get more prints of the same or a future project.
Make sure to save your print-prepped digital files in a folder you can easily come back to as well—it will be easy to copy the settings when you come to prepare new images in the future.
Time to Sit Back and Admire Your Photo Prints...
In this article, we’ve walked through the essential things to know about printing your photographs digitally. Let’s take a quick recap; make a note of them for next time you want to send your artwork to print:
- Don’t forget to prep your photos for print—tweak the color, contrast, sharpness, size and resolution of your images to optimize them for printing
- Know your options—most printers will use either inkjet or laser printers to produce your print
- Understand ink—know the difference between dyes and pigments, and pick the ink that will suit your project best
- Choose the right paper—select from a wide variety of weights and finishes to find your perfect paper match
- Find the best printer for you—choose from local print shops, specialized printers or online print-on-demand services
- Stick to your budget—ask for a quote for various print run quantities and don’t be afraid to shop around for the best deal
- Ask for a proof—check that the colors look just right on your print by requesting a prepress proof; only commit to the print job once you’re happy with the proof
- Take notes for the future—make a note of the print specs so you can ask for the same in the future, saving time and ensuring a consistent result each time you print
Have you experimented with printing your photographs digitally? We’d love to hear about your experiences and tips for printing your work; let us know your thoughts in the comments below!