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Many people think that digital photography is just about a new type of camera but there has always been another side of photography - printing. If anything, the inkjet photo-printer has actually made a bigger difference to the way photographers work. After all, you don't actually need a digital camera. You can start with a scan of the slides or negatives from a film camera.

When it comes to printing however, with a relatively cheap inkjet photo printer, you can produce photographs at home that are as good, if not better, than those produced from film in a professional photographic laboratory. Digital cameras haven't actually changed anything about the way you take photographs but digital photo printers have totally transformed the way you print them.

Basic inkjet printing

A great many people already have a photo printer that came "bundled" with their computer, but just having one doesn't actually guarantee you will always get professional quality photographs. If you have ever tried to print a photograph and were disappointed with the results, there could be several reasons. To get the best results, you need to be using the right equipment, the right materials and have the right settings on your printer. Photo printers can make great photographs, but they can just as easily make rubbish ones.


Firstly, is it a photo printer as opposed to an ordinary inkjet printer? The easiest way to tell is to count the number of different coloured inks it uses. Ordinary printers only have 4 but photo printers have at least 2 more. Some ordinary printers can actually do a very good job of printing photographs but genuine photo printers can do a perfect job, indistinguishable from photographic prints made by a lab.


Are you using photo paper? There are dozens of different types of paper and other materials that you can use in a printer, but only photo paper (which will be labelled as such) will actually produce the quality you require. This can have a glossy, lustre/satin or, new to digital photography, a matte surface. Whatever the surface, for best results the paper should be heavy. Paper weight is measured in grams per square metre (gsm) and good photo paper should be at least 200 gsm.


Using your printer manufacturers own brand of paper is a very good idea. These have been specifically designed to be compatible with your printer's inks and controls. Also, if your manufacturer has made any claims about the longevity of their prints, these only apply when using their specific paper and ink. Some other papers can produce equally good prints but, how long the image on them will last, cannot be guaranteed.


Are you using the right settings? Printers don't usually have many buttons on them, but that doesn't mean that they don't have any controls. In fact they have an entire control panel where you can adjust just about any aspect of the way your printer operates. Just like a camera, this will have default settings and it's unlikely that these will be for the highest quality photographic printing. Unless you adjust these settings, you will not be getting the best results your printer can provide.


When you select "print" from any editing program, you should be presented with a small control panel that may allow you to choose the size and position of your image on the page, amongst other things. On this panel should be a button marked "properties" or possibly, "options". Once you click this, you will see the actual controls for your printer. It depends entirely on the make and model of your printer as to what your control panel will look like or allow you to do. However, the basics should be similar for all models.


There will be a control where you select between different types of paper. It is vitally important that you set this to the type of paper you are using. This is usually straightforward when you are using the maker's branded paper. If not, you will have to experiment or take a guess. You should also make this setting first because it may affect the other settings you can make. For example, you may not be able to select photo-quality printing unless you have first selected photo-quality paper.


You should be able to select different printing qualities, e.g. "draft", "text", "photo". You need the best quality photo printing and it should be obvious which one this is. These are really all the settings you have to make in your printer to ensure the best quality. You may also have other options, including one to "enhance" your print. This can be useful if the image you are printing isn't very good quality but, if you have already enhanced your picture in editing, it is best to leave this off.


If you ever did any printing in a darkroom you will remember that it was always a two-stage process. You would adjust the brightness and colour in the enlarger but, when it came to developing the paper, what you needed most was consistency. Digital printing is no different. The printer replaces the paper development stage and the actual control of what the print looks like (enlarger stage) is done within the editing program. If you use the printer "enhancement" there is a danger that it will not print out the image the way you have edited it.


The section on basic photo editing describes how you correct the colour and tone for a good print. The only other thing you need to deal with is the size.


The size of a digital image is measured in millions of pixels, or megapixels. This is the total area of the image and is found by multiplying the lengths of the horizontal and vertical sides (in pixels) of the picture. For the purposes of working out the print size, it's the length of the sides that matter, not the overall area.


When you resize an image for printing, you find that you can set a size in pixels or inches, so how many pixels are in an inch? The answer is - you decide. In the size control will be a number that you can set marked DPI, which stands for Dots Per Inch. The "dots" in this case are pixels. So this DPI number is the number of pixels per inch there will be in your printed image. You might think that this should be called Pixels Per Inch (PPI) and you'd be right to do so. Some programs do refer to PPI numbers, which is easier to understand. Unfortunately, most still use the old DPI convention.


This means that, without actually resizing your digital image, you can print it at any size you like, simply by altering this PPI number. For example, if one side of your picture was 1000 pixels and the DPI setting was 100, this side of your print would be 10 inches long (1000/100=10). If you increased the PPI number to 200, the print would now be 5 inches long because 200 pixels would now be squeezed into each inch instead of only 100.


You may come across DPI numbers in another context, in your printer information or in the quality control setting on your printer control panel. The dots referred to here are not pixels but individual droplets of ink that your printer fires at the paper. Your printer only has a few colours to work with so, in order to reproduce all the colours required for a photograph (over 16 million), it has to mix it's colours by using a specific number of "dots" of each one. The smaller these dots are, the more accurately it will reproduce the colours in in your photograph.


The DPI numbers in printers can easily go up into the tens of thousands. Some printers use these DPI numbers to set the printing quality. In this case higher numbers mean more accurate colour, and hence, better quality pictures. The DPI number in your printer has no effect whatsoever on the size of your printed image.


Going back to the DPI numbers that control the size of your image (they are going to be called PPI numbers from now on to avoid confusion), it is very important that you take note of what this number is when you come to re-sizing your photo for print. It's not only the size of your image that this controls but, hand in hand with that, is the "resolution" of your print.


Resolution is a term that describes how much fine detail is in your print. As you increase the PPI number, the printed image gets smaller and so do all the details on it, thus the resolution is increased. For a high quality print, you want the maximum resolution you can get and it turns out that this is achieved at 300PPI. The limiting factor here is the human eye. You can certainly print to a higher resolution than this, but the only people who will notice are those looking at your picture through a magnifying glass.


300PPI works fine for prints up to about A4 in size. Pictures much larger than this can use a lower number with no noticeable drop in resolution. This is simply because people will naturally look at them from further away thus reducing the amount of resolution they could actually see. The truth is that only people with very good eyesight can tell the difference between 200PPI and 300PPI. However 300PPI is a good number to remember because it's the maximum resolution you will ever need.


When you are re-sizing an image for printing, the first thing you should do is therefore set the PPI number to 300, this will then tell you the printed size in inches. If you use centimetres and PPCm (Pixels Per Centimetre), the equivalent number is 118PPCm. If you wish to make a smaller print that that which is indicated, just change the size in inches or centimetres. Check that the PPI number hasn't changed and hit "OK".


If you want to make the image larger, you need to take one more thing into account, "interpolation". You should find several options for this on your re-sizing control. It is also sometimes called "smoothing". You need to use this because, without it, making your whole picture bigger will just make each individual pixel bigger. This will have exactly the same effect as printing at a lower PPI and you will end up with a low resolution print.


The choices you have for interpolation or smoothing usually all have very weird names and you will probably have to use your editors help system to find out which one is meant to be best. One reason you have a choice is really a throwback to when computers were much slower. The best type takes longer to calculate, but these days, you are unlikely to notice any significant delay.


What ever their name, all the smoothing options try to do the same thing, that is to fill in the gaps that are created when you make the pixels bigger. What interpolation is doing is quite technical, but it's easy to see the results for yourself.


Take any picture and resize it by 200% without interpolation. Save this image with a new name. Undo the re-size then do it again, this time with interpolation or smoothing on. Open the picture you saved with the new name and compare the two images side by side. If you view the whole image, you probably won't see any difference but, if you view at 100% or actual pixels you will instantly see why you need interpolation.


In summary. For photographic quality prints from an inkjet photo printer you need to:


Use photo quality paper.


Set your printer for this type of paper.


Select the highest quality photo printing option


Set the PPI number to 300


Use interpolation or smoothing when enlarging the image.


Follow the steps above and your prints will be as good as anything a lab can produce.


Once you have been printing for a while, you will come to realise just how expensive high quality materials like ink and photo paper really are. That is, depending on where you are buying them, some shops charge a fortune for these essentials. One Internet shop that doesn’t is Xl shop. They stock the widest range of original and compatible inks and papers, all at very competitive prices.


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