"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves" and with apologies to William Shakespeare, sometimes I see a connection between this quote and printing problems photographers encounter. When prints lack sharpness, detail, or for prints that are too dark or colours that do not match the monitor, photographers usually dive in and start making changes to colour management and driver settings. While errors can happen with colour management, sometimes the underlying printing problem is not with the driver or the printer, but with how the file was created at the moment of capture.
Since the introduction of the first Epson Stylus Pro printer 10 years ago, incredible improvements have been made in digital printing. Concurrently dramatic advancements have taken place with Pro-level digital cameras. One of those advancements is technology that reduces camera shake. But the key word is reduces, not eliminates. If you have to handhold a 35mm DSLR then absolutely use this technology, but for the sharpest possible prints, use a tripod. A tripod ensures the original file will not have sharpness problems due to camera movement. (The exception is with electronic flash, provided durations are at 1/800 or shorter.) If there is camera movement, no amount of output sharpening will fix it. And the bigger the print, the more pronounced the problem.
There have also been recent advances in high ISO noise reduction. Being able to shoot at ISOs of 3200 and above, allows photographers to work in very low light conditions. Many of these images are remarkable when viewed on a monitor or projected, but when making large prints there will be noise. Use the ISO needed to get the shot and for the highest quality prints, always go for the lowest possible ISO setting.
An unintuitive area in the digital world (if one started in the analog world) is with exposure. With film, the exposure was made for the shadows but with digital cameras, exposure is made for the highlights. While the subject of exposure is much more complex, the phrase "Expose to the right" is an excellent guideline. When using RAW capture, the histogram for each exposure should favour the right side without clipping. If the file is underexposed, the data on the histogram will shift left. Data that has shifted left, even if there is no clipping on the left side, is probably underexposed. Underexposed files produce prints with unwanted noise and loss of detail. Never judge the exposure of a scene based on how the image looks on a camera?s LCD. A properly exposed scene for RAW capture will look overexposed (light) on the camera?s LCD. There is no relationship here to politics so to avoid problems later in printing and stay to the right!
For the past few years there has been an increase in the number of people having problems with dark prints. These reports began as LCD monitors replaced CRT monitors. In many cases dark prints are the result of a monitor that is too bright. Monitor brightness is measured in candelas per square meter or simply, candelas. The best CRT monitors of the past measured 90-100 candelas. Today, most LCD monitors out of the box measure over 200 candelas! LCD monitors look great, in part because they are so bright, but unless they are calibrated with software that can drive candela levels to 120 or lower, prints will probably be dark and not match the monitor.
The benefits of shooting RAW vs. JPEG are widely understood. RAW ensures that the maximum amount of information a camera system can capture is retained and that?s ideal for printing. But pre-printing mistakes can happen and colours and details can be lost when RAW files are subjected to destructive workflows. A typical non-destructive workflow starts when a RAW file is opened in the Pro Photo RGB colour space in 16 bit. Pro Photo RGB is an almost infinite colour space and thus no clipping of colours. Files can always be converted later into smaller colour spaces like sRGB for display on the web, but when a RAW file is opened in a smaller colour space like Adobe RGB colours that could have been printed are no longer in the file. Some point out that they have been converting their sRGB files into Pro Photo RGB when it comes time make the final print for the ultimate colour gamut. Unfortunately this is similar to pouring a quart of water into a gallon container e.g. its still a quart of water.
Staying in 16 bit vs. 8 bit preserves all the tonal transitions in the RAW capture. In addition, every time adjustments are made to a file in Photoshop or Lightroom some information is lost. Staying in 16 bit keeps the file in a safe zone guarding against too much information loss that could lead to posterization and banding. Many photographers shied away from working in 16 bit due to large files sizes that were slowing down workflows along with the expense of storing larger files. With the dramatic improvements in computer processing power, coupled with the equally dramatic decreases in the cost of storage, this is no longer the hurdle it once was.
Non-destructive workflows ensure that any image editing can be undone, files stay in Pro Photo RGB 16 bit, and are saved in lossless formats such as .psd or .psb or .tif
The finest prints at the very end are always about how the file was managed from the very beginning. We sometimes forget that high quality prints happen long before setting up print sizing and selections in the driver.
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