How to Create Better Photo Prints

I take pictures to have them printed to hang in my apartment or sell to clients. And while it is important to me that these prints are sharp and detailed, it is crucial to obtain a correct representation of colors and contrasts. To achieve this, a process called soft proofing should be used when preparing to print whenever possible, and in this article I show you how to do it.

Soft proofing is essential for getting better prints because colors and contrasts are usually different from how they look on screens when printed on paper. For some glossy papers, the difference may be subtle. But if you use matte paper or canvas, the colors may vary greatly and the image may appear flat.

Prerequisites for soft proofing

Before we explain how to do soft proofing, let’s talk about a few requirements:

  • You need a monitor that can display a wide color gamut. Many labs require you to convert the files you provide them for printing in sRGB. So you should at least invest in a monitor capable of displaying the sRGB color space. But because wide gamut displays have become more affordable these days, I suggest you buy one, if you really want to print your photos.

  • Having such a screen is not enough. You also need to calibrate it, which I show in this monitor calibration guide.

  • Soft proofing should be done in a well lit room. As I explain in the monitor calibration guide, if your room is too dark, your photos will also be too dark. This will become even more problematic for prints as they already appear a little darker than what you see on your calibrated monitor unless viewed under a very bright light source.

  • Although soft proofing is possible in various photo editing programs, we will focus on Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Either of these two programs is a prerequisite for taking this article. The basic concept is applicable in any editing software, allowing you to view your images with different color profiles applied. An example is Capture One, for which Todd Dominey has a great introduction to soft proofing available on his YouTube channel.

  • Finally, you also need to download the color profiles for the papers you want to print on from your lab of choice and install them on your system. In Windows, you can right-click on such an ICC file and select Install. Mac users must manually copy the profiles to the correct folder: ~/Library/ColorSync/Profiles.

Soft proofing in Lightroom

I love using Lightroom for soft proofing because of how this feature is integrated into the software. The interface allows creating virtual copies, comparing the proof to the original, zooming and scrolling the side-by-side view in a synchronized way.

Before you apply adjustments to a photo to prepare it for printing, you need to make a few initial adjustments:

  1. In the Develop module, switch the Soft proofing box.

  2. Select the Profile from the drop-down menu on the right. Clicking on Other… you can add additional profiles.

  3. Enable Simulate paper and ink.

  4. Set the rendering intent to Relative.

  5. Click on Create a proof copy to generate a duplicate on which you will make adjustments.

  6. Enable side-by-side comparison view.

  7. Adjust Before to display the Original picture. It will appear in the Copy side by side window view.

  8. You also need to enable the Destination range warning. It will highlight areas where colors cannot be correctly represented in print. This can happen if the saturation is too high, for example.

Now everything is ready to start with the adjustments. The goal is to get the Overview of evidence look like the Copy. After some overall adjustments for brightness and contrast, you might want to zoom in on individual areas and look at colors. Try to match them as best you can.

For most papers, it will be enough to change the white balance slightly, increase the brightness and add contrast and clarity. But you may also need to use the HSL sliders and target individual colors.

Don’t be shy to make the proof a little brighter than the Copy to compensate for the light under which the print will be viewed. If you are printing for yourself, you will know how bright the room you plan to hang your print in is. If you’re printing for a client, it’s hard to know ahead of time, but adding brightness usually doesn’t hurt.

Soft proofing in Photoshop

Now that you know how to soft proof in Lightroom, you might be wondering why do it in Photoshop? The reason is that some profiles do not work in Lightroom. I discovered this some time ago when I was trying to prepare a canvas print. The profile was not showing up in Lightroom, even though I installed it correctly. It seems that profiles created in the CMYK color space don’t work in Lightroom, which only supports RGB. In Photoshop, you can use all color profiles.

In the overview video, you’ll learn how to prepare the Photoshop workspace for a soft proofing experience similar to Lightroom. First you need to duplicate the master file, arrange the windows vertically and enable verification on the duplicate. It is also possible to zoom and scroll the tiled view synchronously: Shift + Space + Right click and move mouse moves the two images, Shift + Ctrl / Cmd + Space + Right Click zooms in and Shift + Ctrl / Cmd + Alt + Space + Right Click zooms out.

To make the two images match in terms of color and contrast, a mixture of curves, the photo filter and an HSL layer usually do the trick.

Material evidence for optimal results

Even if you have a perfectly calibrated monitor, soft proofing may not yield perfect results. The luminosity of a print is particularly difficult to obtain. Although you can fine-tune the adjustments more and more as you gain experience, you may want to check further.

That’s where hard proofs come in. If you’re printing yourself, this is ideal because you can create a test print, compare it to what you see on screen, and make other adjustments. , if necessary. But what if you order from a lab? Good labs offer the ability to create a print proof at a discounted price. If this is not the case, you can always order a test print on the paper of your choice in small format. To judge colors, brightness and contrast, you don’t have to go far and can save a lot of money.

Once you are satisfied with the results, you can order your final prints. In the video above, I talk about this process. In 2020, I did an exhibition where I spent over $600 on prints. At the time, I used soft proofing and test prints to make sure each photo looked the way I wanted.

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