Who this is for: Novice or occasional printmakers (of any skill level as photographers) who currently don't print a lot and feel insecure about their abilities or dissatisfied with their results—and who have the luxury of making a considerable commitment to getting better.
Objectives: Improving your skills, your prints, and your comfort level, familiarity, and sense of fluency with digital printing.
Program duration: Three months (minimum) to (ideally) one year.
Time commitment required: About 10–30 minutes daily, at least five times a week, and several hours once every one, two, or three months. Plus whatever time you feel like putting into researching and learning (optional).
Equipment needed: An inkjet printer. Need not be large or fancy, but should be intended for photo printing and should have at least six inks.
Materials needed: A plentiful supply of a relatively cheap paper or two that you like, an ongoing supply of ink, and a metal-edge box.
Resources needed: Your archive of digital picture files (can be from any camera and all eras of digital, from whenever you got into it to now). Of course we're assuming you're a digital photographer, and already have a camera, a computer, etc.
The Program—Physical requirements
The idea is to make one print every day without working too hard at it or taking too long.
First, pick a paper or two—it need not be an expensive, premium paper, and in fact it's probably better if it's not. It should be reasonably priced and readily available. A paper that's designed for your particular printer and recommended by your printer's manufacturer, or that the manufacturer provides a profile for, is fine. Lay in a modest stock of it—a box or two. You can switch papers as the exercise progresses, so don't worry too much about what you pick at first.
Second, pick a standard size. Could be as small as 8x10" or A4, but shouldn't be any larger than 13x19" (Super-B). You can vary the image size on the sheet if you want to, to suit each picture. But maybe settle on a minimum border, meaning, the maximum image area you'll print when you print your biggest size image.
Third, get yourself a couple of print storage boxes, the same size as your standard paper size. Again, nothing fancy—a plain metal-edge box is fine.
Fire up your printer and make sure it's working okay and loaded with inks. Lay in one or two extra sets of inks so you won't have to go to the store or wait for mail order when you need to replace an empty cartridge. Never let yourself run out of ink or paper.
The Program—Daily action steps
To begin with, pick a decent picture you rather like that you've never printed before. It should be a "representative scene"—that is, don't pick a macro detail if you do mostly landscapes, or a single-color picture if you do mostly family portraits. It should have a reasonable range of subject brightnesses and colors in it, maybe a range of in-focus, sharp areas and out-of-d.o.f. blur. And, it should be a file that you think is of decent technical quality, from your current or best camera.
...Using, of course, your standard paper and what will be your "ordinary" print size for this exercise.
For this first day only, take some time, and a few sheets of paper if you need to, to get what you think is a "competent" print. It should be reasonably well color balanced and of the right density, reasonably well sharpened, and otherwise attractive—something you could show to your family or friends without excuses—but as if you were showing them the content of the picture, not necessarily as a showpiece for your technical prowess. It should not be perfect, just good.
You can take your time on this first day just because you might be rusty, or maybe you haven't cranked up the ol' printer for a week or three. Get the bugs out. Shake the rust off.
Save only the last print. Tear the others up. Date it, and number it starting from "1."
The next day, look at your print from the day before. Spend a few (3–10) minutes with it. Really look at it. Ask yourself some questions. How'd you do? How does it work as a photograph? ...As a print? How well does it show the things it shows? Did you get the color balance right—what color cast does it have, if any? What could be improved, whether you know how to implement that improvement or not?
Then, pick a new file from your digital archives—nothing special, just a decent picture, decent file. Prepare it for printing, and run it off.
It doesn't have to be perfect. If it's really bad, or if you made some obvious error or forgot to do something you need to do, you might take another sheet of paper and try again. But don't stress over it. Just make a print. It's just going into the box. (If your prints look like sh*t for the first week, or the first three, no worries. It doesn't matter much in the long run.)
The next day, take a final look at your print from the day before and throw it in the box, face down. Spend a few minutes looking at and appraising your effort from yesterday. How well does it communicate? Does it look like what it's a picture of? What does it need? What bugs you about it? What should you have done differently—or what will you do differently if you eventually print it again?
Then, repeat...for the duration.
The idea is just to get into the habit of cranking off one print a day from a new, never-before-printed file. Use your archives, or go out and take new pictures to print; it doesn't matter. Once a print goes into the box, leave it there.
So, to reiterate, the daily action steps are:
- Take a last look at the 48-hour-old print and throw it face down in the box, in order.
- Appraise the 24-hour-old print at some deliberate length. Date and number it.
- Knock off a new print.
The Program—Skills and techniques
As you go along with this, keep thinking about what each picture needs and what your pictures in general need to make them better. Let your interest in your technical skills and your acquisition of new techniques grow naturally out of what the pictures need, and what the prints need. I'm not saying you shouldn't think about raising your game—you should, of course. However, although acquiring skills and techniques for their own sake is all well and good, you're going to do better if you learn the techniques because you need them. Not every printer needs to learn all possible techniques, unless you plan to be a full-time custom printer able to handle any situation. What you need to know is whatever skills and techniques are required to make your prints look the way you want them to look. Learn that; screw the rest.
It's in this context, of course, that technical advice like Ctein's of yesterday is most valuable. If you were in the middle of this exercise when you read that, you'd be rarin' to take his advice and try those techniques on your daily print. And you would, that very evening. This is what will happen as you go along—you'll become a sponge for the technical advice that suits you, because you'll be able to put it into play right away.
As you go along making a new print every day (or every weekday, or whatever interval you can work into your life), you'll find that your basic skills will gradually improve as you go. That's because your judgment will improve as you use it. This will happen almost whether you want it to happen or not. As long as you're looking at and thinking about each print you make each day, your judgment will gradually improve. You'll find it easier and easier to hit the right color pack (old fashioned term, sorry), get the density right, get the saturation level right, get just the amount of vignetting you like for each picture. You'll become dissatisfied with your old techniques and try new ones. You'll start to be aware of typical problems and you'll have made efforts to address them.
If you're taking the exercise seriously, gradually you'll become curious about printing. You'll poke around on forums or in how-to books or videos. You'll want to add certain things to your arsenal.
A month in, you might start to wonder about whether your monitor is calibrated. You'll read a bit about that, find out how you can do it. Two months in, you might start to wonder about what a custom profile is. Et cetera. Don't stint on learning, but don't force yourself, either; do it only when, and if, you want to.
I'm not saying you shouldn't worry about these things; I am saying, don't sweat it all at once. Have patience. Churn out your daily print; keep thinking about the prints you make; add subtleties when you want to, as you want to. Trust yourself—if you really need it, if it's really important, you'll get around to it. Just keep those prints flowing into the box.
It's imperative that each day you print a new file, meaning one you've never printed before. And of course that you do it every day, or every weekday (if you can't do it at least that often, this exercise isn't for you). But I'd really encourage you to not worry about what kind of pictures you print. Just pick stuff that you'd like to see a print of. Set aside all notions of "good" or "personal best" or ideas about exhibits or portfolios to show to museum curators or whatever. This is just an exercise. Pianists and violinists and saxophonists and vocalists have to practice every day—think of it like that. This ain't the concert. This is practice. Don't show the prints you make to anyone if it makes you feel uncomfortable; do so only if you want to. Print some "bad" shots some days or some funky shots.
As you go along, you might find you get temporarily "obsessed" or immersed in certain aspect of the prints. Maybe for a while sharpness will be all that you care about; maybe later you'll get over that and get interested in dark prints, or the transitions to blown-out highlights, or rendering reds, or balancing the overall print density to the viewing light, or whatever. Go with that. Whatever strikes you as important in any particular week, focus on it, if you want to.
But I'd really encourage you to set aside all notions of "this is a good photograph" or "this is worthy of printing" or "this will make me look good to others." For the duration of this exercise, don't worry about all that crap. Just print whatever you think you might want to see printed.
The Program—'The Master Print'
Okay, now for the exception to the above. Every so often—definitely not as frequently as once a week; once a month should probably be the most often you'll want to do this, and once every two or three months would be better—really pull out the stops. Set aside several hours, pick a tasty picture you really like, and print the sucker as well as you possibly can. You can even let this exercise take up two or three whole days if you want to—get a good guide print, evaluate it carefully in the cold light of the next morning, and get back to work. Take as much time as you need. Take as much paper as you need. Sweat every little detail. Get everything perfect.
When you end up with the best print you can make, make two copies instead of one. Throw one in the box, and put the other one on the wall, someplace where you'll see it frequently, and leave it there for a while—a couple of months, maybe. Or maybe until you do the next one.
It's the opposite of your regular daily nuthin'-special crank-it-out one-shot print...a deliberate striving for the best you can do at that particular point in time.
These print, you should show people if you want to. Ask their opinion. See what they think.
Very important: Don't mix up the two parts of this exercise. Don't start "perfecting" your daily prints and don't take "good enough" shortcuts with your occasional Master Prints. The one is quick-and-dirty, the other, you're going to give the very best effort the print requires. Separate those two parts of the exercise, and keep them separate.
Ideally, you'd make a Master Print like this three or four times over the course of a year-long exercise.
The Program—The end game
At some point, you'll probably have had enough of this. You might be surprised at how much has changed since you started—you might have a different printer; you might own a different monitor; your monitor might now be calibrated, your papers profiled; you'll know your printer driver inside and out; you might have learned that it works best for you to prepare your file in one program and print it from another. You might have migrated from your original paper to one that fits your needs and desires better (the more prints you make, the more you'll become interested in different papers, probably. If not, again, don't sweat it).
So here's the very last thing you do—and the most fun. Remember that technically decent, representative file you printed on the very first day? Get that file out again, and do your by-now-regular "Master Print" routines on it. Get a print you're proud of, that looks right to you.
Now go open the box. You'll want to leaf carefully through your whole year, and make a visual appraisal of your progress. But first, compare those two prints—the one you just made, and the very first one you made, at the very start of this learning program.
You might not think they'll be much different.
You will be amazed.
P.S. I can't think of a name for this learn-to-print program. Got any ideas?
ADDENDUM (the next day): From certain comments, it's apparent that I didn't emphasize the following sufficiently: you DO have to prepare the files for printing! Make all the corrections you think the image needs, and I'm not suggesting you skimp on this step. I am not advising you to just hit print without doing anything to the file!! The main point is to learn the correspondence between what you do to the file and how those corrections then look in the print.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Mark Roberts: "How about 'The Money Pit'?
"That is, of course, tongue in cheek. This print program will naturally cost a bit of cash, but will end up costing less than many people spend on photo gear during a year and be much more beneficial in the long run."
Featured Comment by David Dyer-Bennet: "And, since inkjet printers thrive on use and die from inactivity, this program will help you preserve your technology investment!"