The most important recommendation I can make is to learn how to use Curves and use them well. Do not use crude tools like Levels or Contrast adjustments. Do not use the Brightness tool. These are the tools of amateurs. Anything you can do with those tools you can do with Curves with very little effort, and Curves gives you a measure of control over what you're doing that is completely lacking with these other tools. Through the appropriate use of Curves, you control tonal placement and color rendition. Used in a masked adjustment layer in Photoshop, Curves let you do precise, high-quality dodging and burning-in that can accentuate highlight detail and bring out and separate the shadows in ways that the crude Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop can't come close to.
The really big win for digital printing is in highlight rendition. In the darkroom one has little control over how highlight tones are rendered; the toes and shoulders of the characteristic curves in darkroom materials are not much amenable to modification. Printers will discuss at considerable length how to combine long- and short-toed or -shouldered films and papers so as to get a desired rendition of highlight detail. In digital printing such matters become simple modifications of Curves, and the printer has much better control over exactly how tones are rendered in that part of the scale.
This becomes even more significant in color. It's not just the near-whites that involve highlights and color. Any color that is close to a primary is going to have values very close to pure white in one or more color channels. Being able to precisely control how those highlights are rendered means being able to precisely control the rendition of color in both the highlights and the near-primaries.
In fact, the fraction of my photographs that print markedly better digitally than as dye transfers are the ones where highlight rendition is especially important. Even as flexible a process as dye transfer doesn't give one very much control over those extremes. Digital printing offers meticulous control.
The big problem I have consistently seen with digital printing, regardless of the source of the image, is that it suppresses subtle gradations and tonality—"texture," if you will. Surfaces that should show subtle patterns and variations in tone and color come out a lot flatter and more two-dimensional with digital printing. Kind of like the colors in a cartoon cel—they are accurate and the edges are just fine, but everything within the lines is painted the same color (or tone, in the case of black-and-white printing). I have not yet assembled a coherent theory of what's going on, but the observations seem unequivocal.
What one needs to do is investigate tools and techniques that enhance local tonality without changing the overall characteristic curve shape. A very simple one in Photoshop is to apply the unsharp masking filter to the finished image with a radius of 50–60 pixels and a percentage between 10 and 25% (I wrote about this in detail about three years back). It does an awfully good job of restoring that delicate gradation. In more difficult cases, look at a third party plug-in like ContrastMaster, which is incredibly complicated to use but will produce extraordinarily good results when you can make it behave. I don't use it all the time, but it's seriously wonderful when I do (below). There are others out there, like Pixel Vistas' PhotoLift, that seem to work well, but I haven't spent as much time with them, so I have less useful to say.
Avoid oversharpening. I'd rather be looking at a slightly soft print than one that has been sharpened to the point where white halos, "sparklies," and other distracting artifacts appear at edges. Knife-edge sharpness may be a laudable achievement, but if it doesn't add to the artistic effect and it introduces unwanted side-effects that take away from the overall aesthetic intent, then it is a bad thing. In truth, I have rarely seen a print where my first reaction was, "It needs to be sharpened up." I have seen far too many sharpened prints where the sharpening was annoying and bothersome.
Eventually, if you're good at this, you will have an image on the screen that looks just like what you want and is ready for printing. Or so it will seem. Prints will not look the same as screen images. WYSIWYG is a myth. Don't expect it. Monitors are really WYSIALLYG (What You See Is A Little Like What You Get).
For one thing, unless a luminous display like a monitor is very carefully set up and adjusted for the working environment, it will not produce a visual impression and placement of tones that looks much like what you see in the print. Usually the monitor is too bright. That's often a necessary working condition for doing meticulous corrections, especially in the darker tones, but, still, it won't be a good match to a print.
Another important reason is that the color gamuts of the monitor and the printer cannot be made identical. Monitors render images in red, green, and blue. Printers render images in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Their respective color gamuts overlap but there are colors that the monitor can render easily that the printer will have great problems with, and vice versa. Sky blues are especially difficult. They often look much, much better on the monitor that in the print. To some degree, making the perfect print will always be a process of experimentation. I am very experienced at this, and I assume there will be one wasted print before I get to the finished print. On occasions I have been delighted and surprised to nail it on the first try. It's not the norm. It's also equally likely I will find that I need two test prints, or sometimes even three, before I finally managed to get all the tweaks in place.
I do not believe the third-party ink sets nor RIPping software are necessary to make superb prints, not even for black-and-white work. They may improve matters, but they are certainly not a requirement. Something that is a requirement, though, is a custom color profile for each paper that you print on. The canned profiles the printer manufacturers provide are good but not great. A custom profile, calibrated for your particular printer, will produce noticeably better results. This is something you want to do sooner rather than later. A custom profile, of necessity, alters how tones and colors get rendered. If you've gone to considerable effort to tweak your digital file to make the best possible looking print on a non-profiled printer, you're just going to have to repeat that effort once you get it profiled.
Well, there's your forty years of printing experience condensed into 3,000 words. I'm sure I didn't leave anything out.
Next time, something completely different (with a tip of the Pythonesque hat).
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP every Thursday, usually but not always in the morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.