You shot the perfect photo. Here’s how to get the perfect print

How to print digital photos
Peter Dressel/Blend Images/Getty Images

Now that we all walk around with high-resolution cameras in our pockets (i.e., our smartphones), people are taking more photos than ever before. But rarely do we turn our digital images into prints, let alone put the time and effort into printing the correct way. This is too bad. Not only does a print allow you to better appreciate your photographs, but we also have the technology today to make the best prints possible, turning your home office into a professional photo lab.

Digital Trends recently spoke with Adobe’s director of Experience Design, Matthew Richmond, about how to print digital photos at home that look great every time. From file type to color management and paper selection, the path to producing great art starts with a lot of science. If you’ve tried printing at home and been frustrated by inaccurate color or brightness, don’t throw away your photo printer — the solution to your problem is likely below. And for anyone who hasn’t yet made the plunge and bought a good printer, we’ve got a good place to start.

Why does my print look different from the screen?

The most confounding issue when it comes to making your own prints is the inevitable mismatch between what you see on your computer screen and what you see on the print. Shadows come out too dark, reds look orange, what have you. In truth, this doesn’t have to be inevitable.

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“The challenge of making a great, bright, color-accurate print is a journey that starts with two primary questions,” Richmond told us. “One, are the colors you see on the screen actually what you think they are? Two, is the printer set up to accurately reproduce the colors on the screen?”

While there are standards for calibrating computer screens, many monitors aren’t adjusted to them at the factory. The reasons for this can vary, but it probably boils down to what a photographer needs versus what a marketing department thinks consumers want. Monitors often boast about how impressively bright they can get (some say manufacturers are trying to fool you), but a display set to its maximum brightness is rarely good for photography. Judge exposure on a screen that’s too bright and you might adjust your image to make it darker, leading to a print that is much too dark.

From file type to managing colors to paper type, the path to producing great art starts with a lot of science.

While brightness is relatively easy to fix, color is a much trickier issue. Even if a monitor is properly calibrated at the factory, its color will shift over time.

“Color calibration should be an essential part of any digital imaging workflow,” Richmond said. “Otherwise, it is impossible to tell whether the colors displayed are truly accurate.”

While there are built-in tools for calibrating your screen by eye, Richmond explained the only truly accurate solution is to use a hardware colorimeter, such as those from X-Rite and Datacolor. These devices rest against your screen and measure the hue, saturation, and luminance of specific color patches and then create a monitor profile that tells your graphics card how to adjust its output to display the proper color. It may sound complex, but the software handles everything more-or-less automatically, which can make using a colorimeter far simpler (and more accurate) than calibrating manually.

That still sounds too complex (and expensive) for me…

If you’d rather not bother calibrating your monitor (you should, but we get it, not everyone is going to), there are still a couple steps you can take to make sure your prints look good.

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First, you can’t rely on your eyes. If you adjust color and brightness to your taste on an improperly calibrated monitor, you might just be wasting time. Instead, rely as much as possible on data. Looking at the histogram in Lightroom or Photoshop can quickly tell you if an image is over or underexposed, and you can make adjustments accordingly without clipping your shadows or highlights.

If there is something in the image you know is supposed to be white or neutral gray, you can use Lightroom’s auto white balance tool to accurately set the white balance, but try to set white balance by eye and you could end up way off in the print.

Next, make sure to download paper profiles from the manufacturer of the paper you use. In the case of first-party papers, like those from Epson and Canon, the profiles are likely already built in to the printer. But any good third-party paper manufacturer will make their profiles available for download (here are Moab’s, Hahnemühle’s, Canson’s, and Red River’s).

A paper profile is to your printer what a monitor profile is to your GPU: It lets the printer know how that particular paper is going to react to the ink so that the printer knows how to put it down. Papers differ in various ways, from the quality of the surface (e.g., luster or matte) to their actual color gamut (the range of colors they are able to reproduce), so using the proper profile is important.

For the best results, print from an application that has the option to manage printer colors, like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. This is where you can select third-party printer profiles.

Using the right profile for your combination of printer and paper doesn’t mean your prints will automatically look like your monitor, but it does reduce the number of variables in the equation. If you make a test print and, say, it comes out too dark, you know the error is in your display. You can make a simple brightness adjustment to the image to fix it.

Okay, cool, but I’m just going to send my images to a lab.

Great! We understand not everyone wants to invest or bother with owning and operating a photo printer, but that doesn’t change the importance of the above steps.

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Tom Grill/JGI/Getty Images

A photo lab, at least one worth its salt, should offer profiles for the printers and papers it uses. You can download these profiles and use them to soft proof your images on your home computer, so you have an idea of what to expect (assuming you have a calibrated monitor).

What file type should I use to print?

For best results, you should shoot in RAW and stick with an uncompressed image format throughout the editing pipeline, like TIFF or PSD. A JPEG will take up much less space, but Richmond cautions you should avoid using the format for print.

“JPEG files, and even PNG files, are designed to be compact and portable,” he told Digital Trends. “By definition, they do not store the same wonderful depth of information as the file formats most creatives use for ‘working.’ Exporting an image as a JPEG will most often result in a file with less color depth and detail.”

“I have seen great looking prints happen as low as 120ppi.”

So what if your camera isn’t capable of shooting RAW, or you had it set to JPEG and it’s too late? The trick is to make sure you don’t degrade file quality any further. Using a program like Lightroom can take the JPEG from the camera through the entire editing process without having to worry, since Lightroom is nondestructive.

If you want to export it to work with in another editing application, like Photoshop, you should still choose TIFF or PSD (or open the original JPEG). This won’t magically make the image more detailed, but it will guarantee that all of the information that’s in the original JPEG remains in the image, whereas saving a new JPEG will recompress an already compressed image, resulting in more quality loss.

What resolution do I need to make a good print?

In cameras, we generally talk about resolution in terms of megapixels. When it comes time to print, however, we have to think about pixels per inch, or PPI. More is generally better, but it’s not that simple. Larger prints are typically viewed from greater distances, so you may be able to get away which a much lower PPI in those cases.

“The standard go-to resolution is 300ppi,” said Richmond. “Depending on the type of artwork, printer, paper, and so on, I have seen great looking prints happen as low as 120ppi.”

how to print digital photos photokina 2014
Marc Pfitzenreuter/Getty Images

You can determine the maximum print size for a specific PPI with some simple math. Let’s say you have a 24-megapixel camera, so that’s 6,000 × 4,000 pixels, and you want to see how big you can print at 300ppi. Just divide 6,000 pixels by 300ppi and you get 20 inches. If you’re OK dropping to 200ppi, you can push that to 30 inches, while 120ppi will take you all the way 50 inches.

“Honor the information density that you have,” said Richmond. “It’s fine if the best you have is lower than 300ppi, just understand that the image will start to fall apart if the resolution gets too low.”

So, like, is matte or glossy paper better?

Ah, the answer is so much more wonderfully complex than the question. One of the best reasons to do your own printing at home is the sheer number of different papers that are available to choose from, with myriad surfaces that go far beyond matte and glossy.

There is no one “best” paper, so this is where your personal preference will come into play. Richmond believes you should approach the search for the right paper as empirically as possible.

“My advice is always to approach printing like a scientist,” he said. “Try every pack of paper samples from Epson/Canon, Moab, Hahnemühle, Red River, and so on. Find a great printer evaluation file [like the ones from Onsight] or make your own (with the color bars). Use reference prints and test prints to tweak and truly define the desired result before you hit print on that limited edition of large, beautiful prints.”