BY (M. David Stone)

If you’ve tried your hand at printing your own photos and been disappointed in the results, you may be making some mistakes that are easy to correct. Most inkjet and thermal dye printers today can print photos at drugstore quality or better with little or no work on your part. However, it sometimes helps to follow the 80-20 rule, although in this case it’s more of a 90-10 rule: you can get 90 percent of the best possible photo for 10 percent of the effort it would take for the absolute best. Here’s an overview of the most important things you need to know to get to 90 percent. (A companion article, Easy Photo Printing Tips and Tricks, is geared to beginners learning the different ways of printing: from PictBridge camera, USB key, direct from computer, etc.)

A word on printers. For a start, it helps to know what you can expect from your printer, which will also be worth thinking about before you buy your next printer. The most important issue is the printer’s technology. There are only two printing technologies today that can print at true photo quality: inkjet and thermal dye (aka dye sublimation, although that’s a misnomer).

Laser technology is getting better at printing photos, but it is well behind inkjets on that score, and only a few color lasers today even come close to true photo quality. ZINK technology, which is relatively new and improving quickly, may soon join inkjet and thermal dye as suitable for high-quality photos, but isn’t quite there yet.

Most general-purpose inkjets, whether the manufacturer labels them photo inkjets or not, can print photos at about the same level of quality as you’d expect from a typical drugstore photo or online site. If that’s more or less the quality of the photos you’re printing, you’re probably getting the most you can out of your printer.

Two categories of inkjets usually do better than drugstore-level quality: dedicated photo printers and near-dedicated photo printers. Dedicated photo printers, a category that also includes thermal dye printers, are limited to small-format photos, which usually means a maximum 4- by 6-inch photo size, although some print panoramic sizes and some print photos as large as 5-by-7. Printers in this category generally focus on ease of use along with photo quality. Most can print better-looking photos than you’d get from a typical drugstore, but if they’re not printing at least at drugstore-quality level, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Near-dedicated photo printers are aimed at serious photographers, both amateur and professional, and are among the most expensive inkjets you can buy. They’re near-dedicated because they can typically print at sizes up to about 13 by 19 inches, which means they can print standard letter- and legal-size business documents. However, using them for such non-photo printing would be a waste of their talents (and ink).

Printers in this category almost always have a wide range of choices for photo paper—including several fine art papers meant for professionals—instead of the one or two choices typical for most inkjets. Their output quality is a match for the kind of photo lab a professional photographer would go to for custom prints. If you’re not getting exceptional quality with this class of printer, odds are you’re doing something wrong.

1. Choose between direct printing options. If your combination of printer and camera gives you a choice between printing directly from the camera and from memory—which includes cards and USB keys in this context—be sure to experiment with both. The two choices can yield significantly different output quality for the same file, with noticeably different colors and retention of detail based on shading in dark and light areas. It’s well worth investing a little time and effort to print several photos both ways to see how great the differences are and which one you like better.

2. Get familiar with your printer’s auto fix feature. Most current dedicated photo printers, and some standard inkjets, include some variation of an automatic fix feature that analyzes the image and may adjust several settings at once. These may include anything from contrast, brightness, and gamma (which changes contrast differently at different levels of brightness), to automatically deciding whether to apply red-eye reduction.

With most photos, these automatic fix features improve the final result, but in some cases they do more harm than good, or even undo an effect that you were trying for. Here again, if your printer includes an automatic fix option, it’s worth investing a little time and effort printing an assortment of photos both with and without the feature turned on to get a feel for what it does and when you might want to turn it off.

3. Preview photos for direct printing. If your printer can print directly from memory cards, it may limit you to previewing photos by printing an index sheet or by looking at the images on a built in preview screen. If it gives you both choices however, keep in mind that there are advantages to each, and that you may want to use one or the other at any given time.

Using the preview screen is faster, since you don’t have to print twice—once for the index sheet and once for the final print—and it costs less, since you don’t have to pay for ink or paper to print the index sheet.

On the other hand, if you’ve taken several similar photos with minor variations in settings, for example—a trick professional photographers use to increase the odds that one of the shots has the right settings for the picture to look its best—an index sheet is the preferred approach for deciding which version to print at full size. The printed thumbnails will give you a better sense than the image of the preview screen of how colors will print in the final photo and how well details based on relatively small differences in shading will show.

4. Get familiar with your printer’s editing features. Printers with preview screens often let you edit photos before printing. The editing choices may be limited to a few basics like cropping images or removing red-eye, or they may include options to adjust brightness and contrast, add graphics and frames that are stored in the printer, and more. The process is similar to using the kind of photo kiosk you can find in drugstores, and is almost always designed to be self-explanatory and easy to use. If your printer includes any editing features, they are certainly worth exploring.

5. Don’t fix photos before you see how they really look. Keep in mind that the colors and shading that you see on screen (whether your computer screen or the printer’s preview screen) will almost never be an exact match—and are often not even close—to the printed version. (This is true for all sorts of reasons that are way beyond the scope of this article). For photos you care enough about to want the best possible photo with minimal work, it’s generally a good idea to do any cropping that you want first, print the photo, and then make any manual adjustments you like based on what the printed version looks like. If the printer or the program you’re printing from has an automatic fix option, you might want to try printing the photo both with and without the fix feature before making any manual changes.

6. Use paper that’s appropriate for the task. Better-quality paper yields better-quality prints, but it costs more too. If you’re printing a photo to frame and hang on a wall, by all means use the highest-quality paper available for the printer. If you’re printing a photo to post on the office bulletin board or stick under a refrigerator magnet, however, consider using plain paper, inkjet paper, or a less expensive photo paper.

7. Experiment with different papers. The glossy finish that you’ll find on most drugstore prints and most photo paper is so common that most people don’t even consider other possibilities, but there are other choices. Some printer manufacturers don’t offer any other options, but you should check to see if there are any available for your printer. Many professional photographers prefer how photos look on matte paper, for example. You might want to try it as well.

Papers from other manufacturers are another possibility, but be aware that output quality—and colors in particular—will vary with the paper you use, something you can prove easily enough by printing a photo on both photo paper and plain paper on almost any inkjet. Before you invest in a lot of third-party photo paper, thinking that it will save money, experiment with a few sheets to compare the output with the same photos on the printer manufacturer’s own paper.

8. Make sure the printer is set for the paper you’re using. One printer setting deserves special attention. Make sure that the printer (for direct printing) or printer driver (for printing from a computer) is set for the type of paper you’re actually printing. More than one manufacturer has told me, based on calls to tech support, that the single most common mistake people make is not changing the paper type setting to match the paper.

Some manufacturers have tried to bypass the problem with sensors that automatically detect the paper type, but they don’t always work reliably. Unless your printer uses symbols on the back of the paper that the printer can read like bar codes to confirm paper type, don’t assume that an Automatic Paper Type setting will work. Get in the habit of setting the paper type manually.

9. Print from an editing program. For the best-quality prints, move your photos to your computer and print from a photo-editing program. Photo printers aimed at professionals generally don’t offer direct printing, because professionals—and serious amateurs—know that they get much better control over basic features like cropping, resizing, and color management, as well as far more sophisticated editing tools, with a photo-editing program. With some printers, a photo-editing program will also let you print higher-resolution photos than you can when printing directly from a camera or memory card.

You probably have one or more easy-to-use editing programs that came with your printer, camera, or scanner and are well worth exploring. In addition you can download a free copy of Picasa from Google.

Even low-end programs often include surprisingly capable, easy-to-use features for fixing common problems in photos, such as red eye, yellow eye (the equivalent problem to red eye for animal photos), backlighting (with a bright background, as with sun streaming in a window behind someone and turning his or her face into a silhouette), and more. Even better, if your printer or scanner is aimed at a relatively sophisticated audience, it may well have come with a mid-range or high-end photo editor designed for that audience.

You may not want to spend the time and effort it takes to master even a moderately sophisticated photo editing program, but if you already have one for free, it’s worth taking a look at it. Even if you use only some of its features, you may be surprised at how much you can do to improve your photos with very little effort.

10. Edit copies, not originals. Before you start editing a photo—which can mean anything from making minor tweaks, to applying special effects, to cropping the original to use only a part of it—create a copy first. That way you can return to the original if you need to. And don’t plan on editing and then saving under another name. It’s safer to create copies before you open a file to avoid accidentally overwriting it. Once you have a copy to work with, you can feel free to experiment.

11. Avoid compression woes. Most cameras default to—or are even limited to—saving pictures in a compressed JPG format. It’s always a good idea to turn off compression (if you can) when you want the best possible photo quality. Even more important, however, is that you should never edit a compressed photo on your computer and then save it back to a compressed format. JPG is a lossy compression scheme, which means it loses information every time you save the file and recompress it. If you edit a compressed file, save it in the editor’s native format or a format like TIF, without compression, to avoid degrading the image further.

12. Explore your printer driver. Virtually every printer’s driver offers settings that affect picture quality. The choices may be limited to choosing between good, better, and best quality, or you may be able to adjust brightness; contrast; red, green, and blue levels; and more. If you want the best possible output, it’s worth investing the time to explore your driver. At the very least, experiment with each of the quality settings to see the effect on the output quality and speed, so you can decide whether the improved output at high-quality modes is worth the extra time it takes to print.

There are other techniques for improving photo printing, but these are the most important. The more you experiment with them, the better your prints will become, and you’ll have learned a range of methods you can apply to any given situation.

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