53 Pro-Quality Prints from Your Digicam

Pro-Quality Prints from Your Digicam

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Home printing solutions have their advantages, but working with a commercial printer can elevate your images and help them last for a very long time.

Two of the premises of digital photography are that things are easier and cheaper. When it comes to printing digital photos, however, neither of these premises is necessarily true. While having an inkjet printer at home affords you the ability to print when you want, the digital darkroom, as many of us have discovered, takes a lot of time and money. Between buying the printer, expensive refills, photo-quality paper, and color calibration, home printing can be a pain. This hack will explore the many alternatives to home printing.

The first place to look is your local pharmacy or photo store. You can take in your flash cards and plug them into kiosks that allow you a lot of variation and control over the final output. Many of the kiosks let you remove red eye and adjust color right before you print. The printing mechanism that is used is usually dye sublimation, which strongly resembles the look of a traditional photo print and lasts about as long. You can take your flash cards in, plug them into the kiosk, and be on your way. Some photo stores even let you upload your images and pick them up later.

1 Professional Photofinishers for Fine-Art Photography

But what if you want larger prints for fine-art photography? To take things to the next level, there are a number of options for larger output from your digital files. These options include inkjet printers (similar in technology to the ones we have at home), Iris prints (fine-art inkjet printing using a large drum to apply the ink), and Lambda/lightjet/chromira prints (using lasers to transfer the image to photographic paper).

To access these options, you should look up professional photofinishers in your area or check out http://www.westcoastimaging.com and http://www.singereditions.com. Because digital photography is the confluence of many technologies and disciplines, you might find large-format printing available at a variety of businesses; look up digital prepress, print makers, and photofinishers to find someone who provides large-format digital output.

Print resolution requirements are similar regardless of the specific output you choose. Your image usually needs to be at least 200 dpi at its 100% size [Hack #62] . I say usually because some service bureaus might require higher or lower resolution and some might use proprietary tools to get more out of your image. Also, resolution is always a subjective thing. Someone might be perfectly happy with a 16 20 print from a three-megapixel camera, while another person might be mortified by the results.

One of the major benefits of working with a service bureau, apart from getting access to super-large printers, is working with people. That's right, people! Even in this digital day and age, working with someone who works with digital images day in and day out is a significant advantage. At its best, working with a service bureau should be a collaborative process. You bring your artistic vision to the table, and the person at the service bureau brings his technical knowledge of what is possible. Often, professional photofinishers provide a proof print (which usually costs extra, but not as much as the final print). This lets you do some color correction before the final print is made—very handy indeed.

2 Different Types of Output

Now, let's take a look at the differences between inkjet, Iris, and Lambda/lightjet/chromira printers:


Large-format inkjet printers are simply larger versions of the ones we have on our desks at home. Epson is the market leader in this space, but other manufacturers also offer printers capable of making great prints. The larger inkjet printers can give a look and feel that is similar to a traditional photographic print. There are a number of options for common paper types, including glossy, matte, and watercolor. Ask the photofinisher for samples.


Iris printers have less of a traditional photographic look and feel and more of a lithographic look and feel. They are popular in graphic design prepress work because of their ability to match color closely. Iris prints can also be made on a wide variety of stock and can give your photographs a unique, painterly look. If you want to experiment with printing your photographs on thick, watercolor stock, Iris prints can't be beat.


The next category of printers is what I call Lambda/lightjet/chromira. Why so many names? Well, because the marketplace is continually shifting in this space, and the differences between the three are quite minimal. However, you will see this kind of technology offered under a variety of names. Lambda/lightjet/chromira prints are interesting because they use the same chemicals and paper as the traditional C41 process. Your digital print is literally a photograph. Instead of using the light from an enlarger to expose the image, a Lambda/lightjet/chromira printer projects your digital file onto the paper. Combine this with the popular Fuji-Crystal archive paper and you'll have a print that can be hung on any museum or gallery wall.

Speaking of archival images, one of the reasons photographers get their prints printed professionally is the potential archival limitations of home printing. Done correctly, professional inkjet, Iris, and Lambda/lightjet/chromira prints can provide archival images. See Wilhelm Imaging Research's excellent web site (http://www.wilhelm-research.com) for information on the longevity of the various digital printing methods.

Professional digital output is a great way to print your digital images, and many film photographers are now using it to print negatives and slide film. You read that right; because of the advanced optics of scanners and the fact that the image is digitally exposed directly to paper, film photographers are discovering that their images can be sharper and clearer, even though the source is film. Another advantage of digital printing for film photographers is that they have access to Photoshop, a far more capable editing tool than your typical analog enlarger. So, you too can consider using digital printing for your negatives and chromes.

3 Final Thoughts

Using either scanned film or digital camera files, a service bureau can take your images to the next level in professional presentation. Ask photographers in your town for recommendations on bureaus they use, and start building a relationship with a service bureau. Your prints will thank you.

Hadley Stern

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