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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Photo Printing

Photo Printing

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 2320
1 Introduction  (144)
2 Basic Printing Methods  (311)
       2.1 Digital Printing  (86)
       2.2 Inkjet Prints  (459)
       2.3 Photographic Prints  (490)
       2.4 The DPI Fallacy  (472)
       2.5 Your Print Vendor  (272)
3 Summary (86)

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Cityscape Pink
(New York City, New York, USA)
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Printing your photographs can be a personally fun and rewarding process. With personal inkjet photo printers today, one can produce prints that would once be considered impossible just a few years ago. Given the rate at which digital cameras sales is growing, the attraction of these fine printers is even more attractive. Yet, when selling prints is your business, there are other matters that you'll need to consider, such as time, cost and print quality. We'll look at each of these as we address the business factors involved in making prints.

This chapter does not discuss printing methods, techniques, or other technical information. That material is discussed in a plethora of other books and websites. However, there are ways to optimize existing production processes without changing the creative component, and that's what this chapter is about.

Squirrel Being Hand Fed (1)
(Carmel, California, USA)
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There are three main ways to make a photographic print: the traditional darkroom, the home-based inkjet printer, and digital imaging onto traditional photographic paper.

For those that feel that the older methods of printing with negatives using chemical baths is the only way to truly make a respectable art form, I understand. I respect that. I also admire it. If that is your craft upon which you intend to base your business, don't let me or anyone else talk you out of it. But, let me be clear: it has to be your craft and art form. Mastering this art form is a time-consuming process that often takes years before you're making something truly unique and different than just making straight prints from your negatives. There mere use of a darkroom is not, in itself, respectable. Without the specific skills of this tool, the technique is no more artistic than sending a photo directly from a digital camera to a drug store photo lab.

If you want to sell prints online, that part doesn't change—it's only the fulfillment process that changes. That is, there's nothing unique about darkroom printing, except that you can't automate the production of prints in high volume as you can with digital printing. The advantage to digital, however, is that even though the fine-art aspect of the creative process can be even more time-consuming and detailed as the darkroom (due to the fact that you can get even more refined to the pixel level), you only have to do this once. Upon completion, you can now mass-produce prints as needed. (If the idea of "mass-production" is offensive to you, then fine: don't mass-produce. Just because you can replicate your digital images doesn't mean you have to, nor does it rob anything from the artistic process or uniqueness.)

Printing from digital data sources is part of the process called digital imaging. This involves factors that include not just making a quality print, but doing so reliably, consistently, and repeatedly. When you add the business component, you also incorporate efficiency.

The two main mediums for digital printing are the inkjet, and "photo paper." Other, less traditional methods include canvas, "Giclee" and Iris prints (as well as many others), all of which use alternative papers and inks, which are chosen more for creative license.

Typical Home Printer
printer, business, epson, lark, printer, business, epson, lark, photograph
If you're considering a photo business selling prints, you're no doubt aware of inkjet printers. They are just about everywhere, and many people have made very nice-looking prints, that may even sell well. Where home-based inkjet printers really shine is with the higher-end products and alternative paper types, such as watercolor papers or other special paper materials. In fact, if you're doing arts-and-crafts style photography like this, using specialized inkjet printers is a less expensive option than the higher-end systems listed above.

However, your limitation is more on the longevity of the prints, their sizes, and expectations from the buyer. For non-art items, such as consumer-based products like note cards, postcards and greeting cards, inkjet printing has also become a real niche art form because you can produce things not commonly found in gift shops or retail outlets. In these cases, it might be most cost-effective to go to a specialty card-maker to produce these. (For a discussion on this, see Selling Posters, Postcards and Calendars.)

For those who are just making traditional prints that go from the digital media directly onto typical inkjet photo paper, the costs and quality of these prints vs. photo-paper prints present important considerations. Inks used in home-based printers are not as archival as manufacturers claim, and most independent studies show that only the most costly inks and papers hold their color tone and richness over a period of a few years if they are kept in a cool, dark place. Even then, their aesthetic cannot rival photographic paper, which not only looks better, but has already demonstrated its archival quality over the course of time.

While the dynamic range of inks has shown to be impressive, a properly color-managed image can yield ever more impressive results on photo paper. If that weren't enough, business considerations may tilt the benefits even more towards photo paper too.

Lastly, there's the expectation of the buyer. When high-end home photo printers were new, the uniqueness and novelty made it a selling factor for photographers who would advertise that their prints were made this way. However, as more consumers have purchased such devices themselves, and the cost and quality of home printers has broadened the market, the perception of prints made with home printers has tarnished, fairly or not. In any event, the perception of a true photo-paper based print has returned as the baseline product most photo buyers seek.

And then there are the costs: inkjet prints can escalate quickly. Accounting for paper and (mostly) ink, the average cost of most home-based prints runs about $.50 for a 4x6" print, whereas the price for the same print at a most photo labs goes for about $.15 a print, which brings us to...

m Picchu (17)
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, horizontal, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, machu picchu, mountains, peru, picchu, stone ruins, photograph
A general search engine query finds many labs selling 4x6's for as little as $.06/print, complete with an introductory incentive of your first 50 prints free. Granted, these are all geared towards consumers, but that doesn't mean professional photographers shouldn't use these services. Rather, you should pay attention to other important features, like turn-around time, customer service, and photo paper quality. The good news is that you can test a lab quickly and inexpensively by simply making a single print.

In order to keep costs down, most of the super-low cost print suppliers have introduced (and hidden) the fact that they are now moving away from photo-paper printers, and instead, using a newer, low-cost/quality process that's even worse than home-based inkjet printers. These are like dye-transfer printers, and you see them in drug store kiosks with signs that say, "Prints in 5 minutes!"

Fortunately, the homework is simple: just make sure your prints are produced using a photo-paper based printer. And most corner drug stores use these (some along side the cheap 5-minute print kiosks).

The digital photo printers that most corner photo labs and drug stores use include the Fuji Frontier and the AGFA d-lab series printers. For 99% of all fine-art printing needs, these printers are just fine. The paper is what matters most, and the papers these systems use is identical to those used by the exceedingly expensive high-end photo labs. The main limitations, however, are size and "color profile." On size, drug store printers usually max out and 8x12", and the color profiles are limited to sRGB. (I'll get into that later.)

Higher-end printers that are used in more professional photo labs include the Cymbolics Lightjet 5000 (or the Lightjet 430, which supports bigger paper sizes), and the Lambda. These systems can produce prints up to 60" wide; and because the paper is on rolls, there's no limit on the length. What's more, the dynamic range of the machine itself yields a broader range of colors on the paper—that is, they can use broader colors than sRGB color profiles.

Jungle Path (4)
(Iguazu, Argentina)
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When it comes to any kind of printing, one of the most misunderstood aspects of this technology is that of DPI, or "dots per inch." While home-based inkjet printers claim to print at resolutions like 700x1400 dpi, this statement is misleading. They can produce ink droplets that small, but each droplet does not represent a unique pixel from the digital image. It just means that the printers can fine-tune the ink mixture more efficiently on the paper, yielding more accurate color. Like a cooking recipe, any given color can be made from a certain amount of cyan, yellow, magenta and black. The finer the mixture, the better the accuracy of color. But, it has nothing to do with the image resolution that is printed.

Most inkjet printers only require images to be around 200dpi before any lower resolution would degrade quality. In other words, if you printed an image at 700dpi, and another at 200dpi, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

This is also true of the higher-end digital photo-paper printers. As discussed in DPI (Dots per Inch), every printing device is different in what its actual "DPI" rating is, but the true differentiator is where the machine renders not just accurate colors, but smooth enlargements. On some high-end printers, I've printed very large prints at 92dpi and found the results to be exceptional. That might not be the case for every image—some images are not as affected by lower-resolution as others. There's no rule here.

Because the effects of DPI is an imprecise science, your attitude should be to print at the highest DPI you can, but don't require any single number. That is, don't reduce your image resolution unless you have to. The real point is, you can get better results from lower-resolution images than you've been lead to believe by other photographers.

And this is where the real difference exists between these much more expensive, higher-end printers from the drug-stores. It's not the quality of the paper, or the printer—it's the ability to produce better prints from lower-resolution images. Fortunately, this is a self-selecting process anyway. Since the drug-store printers can only go up to 8x12 anyway, chances are that anything you want to print will already have plenty of resolution to make a fine-art print. It's only when you get to sizes of 13x20 and higher that your digital image's resolution begins to drop off. At this size, a typical 10 megapixel camera can produce a resolution such that a 13x20 print will be around 150-200dpi. And that's just fine for the higher-end printers; the resulting image will appear perfectly acceptable.

As a business matter, selling a 40x60 print to an office complex usually translates to $1100 or more, so knowing how to print at these sizes is worthwhile.

Basilica of The Virgin Mary (6)
(Krakow, Maeopolskie, Poland)
basilica, basilica virgin mary, christian, churches, europe, krakow, mary, poland, religious, vertical, virgin, photograph
Regardless of how or what you're printing, choosing a printing vendor is important, but for technical reasons. It's almost always a matter of price and customer service. There is no correlation between quality and price; if the staff isn't trained well (for color calibration and dust control), you can get bad prints, regardless of how much you pay. But the reality is, "bad prints" are more likely going to be your fault, not the photo labs. The digital printers are often automatically calibrated often, so if an image comes out unlike you expected, chances are that your image-editing skills are poor, or your monitor is out of calibration. It's not the printer's fault.

In my business, for small prints (8x12 and smaller), I go to my local drug store, which is about two blocks away. I print onto photo paper, pick up the prints in about an hour, and send them to my buyer. For bigger prints that I sell on my website, I choose labs that let me upload my photos to their site and print by submitting an order form. I never want to have to leave my house, or send a disk, or even talk to a customer-service person to place an order. Assuming the vendor has an automated site for handling my printing needs, the other main aspects of a good service provider are: turn-around time and customer service if something goes wrong. You often won't learn of the latter until there is a problem, so don't just take statements at face value when things go right.

The most important aspect to running a photo business that sells prints is whether you're making a product that's worth the money you're selling it for. Once you do that, your success in business is then governed by the choices you make in materials, processes, and vendors. Your job is to figure out how to make your product without reducing quality, while managing time (which translates to efficiencies), and costs.

(This chapter does not discuss framing, but the subject is covered in Selling Photography Prints.)

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