Fine art printing—at home

It is very interesting how people change over time. Way back in the analog film era, I was using a very cheap camera, and getting the film developed and pictures printed at random places in town. As the movement towards digital began, I started dreaming of a full digital workflow—take picture, download from camera, enjoy on your monitor. No more pesky physical stuff. And when I finally got a digital camera, I was oh-so-happy to finally get rid of films and prints.

But time passes, and a few years back though, at the end of 2013, I had the misfortune to learn on various photography forums that, within certain limits, one can do high quality printing at home—quality high enough for serious prints. I always imagined that "serious" prints can only happen on big, professional stuff, but to my surprise, what I was reading was that many professional photographers can do their prints themselves (for certain paper sizes). I tried before printing photos on my laser printer that I wrote about, but that is a hilarious exercise, nothing more. Thinking process was pretty simple:

  • another hobby? check!
  • new gear to learn? check!
  • something more palpable to do with my photos? good enough reason, check!

So I decided to get a photo printer. Because hey, one more printer was the thing I was missing the most.

Ink

The think with inkjet photo printers is that the bigger they are, the more cheaper the ink is, and the more optimised they are for large volume printing. The more optimisation for large volume, the worse the printers do if you don't print often enough, in the sense of dried ink. This means clogged heads, and each of the serious printer manufacturers (Canon, Epson, HP) deal in different ways with it; some by having extra, spare lines in the print head that replace the clogged ones, others have replaceable printer heads, others rely on wasting ink by trying to flush the ink lines, etc. Also within each manufacturer's lines, different printers behave differently. So one must take this into account—how often will you print? Of course I thought very often, but the truth is, this is just another hobby, so time is lacking, and I have weeks going by without turning the printer on.

And so, I did have some problems with dried ink, but minor I'd say; I only had once to run a "power cleaning", when due to real world I didn't have time to turn the printer on for months; I managed to choose a good printer in this regard. I never though computed how much ink I wasted with cleaning the heads ☺

Paper

Another issue with printing is the fact that the result is a physical object, outside of the digital realm. And the transition from digital to physical is tricky.

First, the printer itself and the ink are one relatively straightforward choice: decide (by whatever criteria you want) on the printer, and most printers at this level have one set of inks only. But the problem is: which paper?

And as I learned, since how the paper looks is a subjective thing, this is an endless topic…

  • first question: glossy or matte ink?
  • if glossy, which type of paper? actually glossy (uh, no), semi-gloss, pearl, satin?
  • if matte, are we talking about textured or smooth matte?
  • what weight? fine art paper that I tested can go from a very interesting 100gsm (almost like standard paper) Rice Paper, to 210, 286, 310 (quite standard), 325, 350 and finally towards 390-410 heavy canvas;
  • on the more professional side, do you care about lifetime of paper? if you choose yes, then take care of choosing paper with no OBA—optical brightening agents;
  • and if you really want to go deep, what base? cellulose, alpha-cellulose or cotton?

As you can see, this is really a bottomless pit. I made the mistake of buying lots of sample packs, thinking that settling on a specific paper will be an objective process, but no. Three years later, I have a few favourite papers, but I'm sure I could have almost randomly chosen them (read 3 reviews, choose) and not gotten objectively different results.

ICC profiles and processing

Another thing is that simply having the printer and the paper doesn't mean everything is fixed. Since printers are analog devices, there needs to be a printer and paper specific colour profile, so that you get (on paper) what you see on the screen (which also needs to be calibrated). So when choosing the printer you should be careful to choose one which is common enough that it has profiles, ideally profiles done by the paper manufacturer themselves. Or, you can go the more basic route, and calibrate the printer/paper combination yourself! I skipped that part though. However you get a profile, if you tell your photo processing application what is your display profile and your printer+paper profile, ideally you what you see is what you get, this time for real.

Except… that sometimes the gamut of colours in the picture can't be represented entirely in either the display nor the printer profile, so the display is an approximation, but a different one than your printer will do on paper. So you learn about relative and perceptual colorimetric conversions, and you read many blog posts about which one to use for what type of pictures (portraits have different needs than landscapes), and you wonder why did you chose this hobby?

Of course, you can somewhat avoid the previous two issues by going more old-school to black and white printing. This should be simple, right? Black and white, nothing more. Hah, you wish. Do you do the B&W conversion in your photo processing application, or in your printer? Some printers are renowned by their good B&W conversions, some not. If you print B&W, then the choice of papers also change, because some papers are just awesome at B&W, but only so-so for colours. So says the internet, at least.

But even if you solve all of the above, don't give up just yet, because there is still a little problem. Even if you send the right colours to the printer, the way a certain picture looks on paper is different than on screen. This circles somewhat back to paper choice (glossy type ink having deeper blacks than matte, for example) and colour-vs-b&w, but is a general issue: displays have better contrasts than paper (this doesn't mean the pictures are better looking on screen though). So you use the soft-proofing function, but it looks completely weird, and you learn that you need to learn how specific papers will differ from screen, and that sometimes you don't need any adjustment, sometimes you need a +15, which might mean another run of the same print.

You print, then what?

So you print. Nice, high quality print. All colours perfect!

And then what? First, you wait. Because ink, as opposed to laser toner, is not "done" once the paper is out of the printer. It has to dry, which is a process taking about 24 hours in its initial phase, and which you help along by doing some stuff. The ink settles during this time in the paper, and only after that you know what the final look of the print will be. Depending on what you plan to do with the print, you might want to lay a layer of protective stuff on top of it; a kind of protective film that will keep it in better shape over time, but which has the downside that a) it must definitely be applied after the ink has dried and the the paper has for sure finished outgassing and b) it's a semi-hard layer, so you can roll the paper anymore (if you were planning to do that for transport). Or you say damn it, this is anyway a poor picture…

So with the print all good and really in its final state, you go on and research what solutions are there for hanging prints at home. And look at frames, and think about behind-glass framing or no glass-framing, and and and… and you realise that if you just printed your photos at a lab, they'd come directly framed!

I still have the really minimalist hanging solution that I bought a year ago unpacked 😕 Getting there, sometime!

Costs/economic sense

If you think all this effort is done in order to save money on prints, the answer is "Ha ha ha" ☺

While professional prints at a lab are expensive, how much do you think all the above (printer, inks, paper, framing, TIME) costs? A lot. It's definitely not worth unless your day job is photography.

No, for me it was more the desire to own the photographic process from start to end: learn enough to be able to choose everything (camera which implies sensor which implies a lot of things, lens, post-processing, printer/ink, paper), and see (and have) the end result of your work in your hands.

Is it worth all the trouble?

Fast forward three years later, I still have the printer, although many times I was thinking of getting rid of it.

It takes space, it costs some money (although you don't realise this as you print, since you already sunk the money in consumables), it takes time.

Being able to print small photos for family (e.g. 10×15) is neat, but a small printer can do this as well, or you can order prints online, or print them from a memory card at many places. Being able to print A4-size (for which framing for e.g. desk-use is a pain) is also neat, but here there are still simpler solutions than your own big printer.

The difference is when you print large. You look at the picture on your big screen, you think/imagine how it will look printer, and then you fire an A2 print.

The printer starts, makes noises for about 10 minutes, and then you have the picture in your hands. The ink is still fresh (you know it takes 24 hours to settle), and has that nice ink smell that you don't get anymore in day to day life. With a good paper and a good printer, the way the picture looks is so special, that all the effort seems trivial now.

I don't know how looking at pictures on an 8K 30+ inch monitor will be; but there's an indescribable difference between back-lighted LCD and paper for the same picture. Even at the same relative size, the paper is real, while the picture is virtual. You look at the people in the picture on your display, whereas the people in the print look at you.

Maybe this is just size. A2 is bigger than my monitor… wait, no. A2 has a diagonal of ~29 inches (vs. the display at 30"). Maybe it's resolution? An A2 print out of D810 is small enough to still have good resolution (it's about 320dpi after the small cropping needed for correcting the aspect ratio, which matches the printer's native 360dpi resolution). Coupled with a good printer, it's more than high enough resolution that even with a loupe, there's enough detail in the picture to not see its "digital" history (i.e. no rasterization, no gradients, etc.) Note that 360dpi for photo inkjet printers is much different from 600-1200dpi for laser printers (which are raster-based, not ink droplet based, so it's really not comparable). In any case, the print, even at this (relatively large) size, feels like a reflection of reality. On the monitor, it still feels like a digital picture. I could take a picture of the print to show you, but that would defeat the point, wouldn't it 😜

And this is what prompted this blog post. I had a pretty intense week at work, so when the weekend came, I was thinking what to do to disconnect and relax. I had a certain picture (people, group photo) that I wanted to print for a while, and it was OK on the screen, but not special. I said, somewhat not very enthusiastic, let's print it. And as the printer was slowly churning along, and the paper was coming out, I remembered why I don't get rid of the printer. Because every time I think about doing that, I say to myself "let's do one more print", which quickly turns into "wow, not, I'm keeping it". Because, even as our life migrates into the digital/virtual realm—or maybe more so—we're still living in the real world, and our eyes like to look at real objects.

And hey, on top of that, it was and still is a pretty intense learning experience!