6 ways printing can make you a better photographer

Keith Cooper on how printing your photography can make you a more aware, more proficient shooter.
A black and white photograph of a waterside scene, ready to be printed.

Commercial photographer and printing expert Keith Cooper had already decided before taking this shot of a waterside scene in Washington State, USA, that he wanted to turn it into a black and white image. He recommends shooting colour photographs with black and white printing in mind, because once you remove the colour, it forces you to think about light and shade. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 200mm, 1/320 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Keith Cooper

It is commercial photographer Keith Cooper's firm belief that printing your photography "will affect how you shoot, even if you're not consciously thinking about it."

The founder of Northlight Images is an expert on photographic printing, and he maintains that printing has massively improved his own photography and changed the way he shoots. What's more, he's convinced that every photographer can reap the same rewards. Here are six practical pieces of printing advice that you can follow to see the gains for yourself.

An overexposed image of a swan on a river.

To get a good print you need to start with a good shot. "You need to be wary of clipped highlights caused by overexposure," explains Keith. "The fine detail in this swan's feathers has been lost, and no amount of editing will recover it." © Keith Cooper

Keith Cooper holding a colour print beside a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer.

Keith making prints with his Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer. © Keith Cooper

1. Shoot to print

Shooting with print in mind will force you to consider whether a potential image is up to scratch. If a shot is under or overexposed, such as the image of the swan above, the intricate details that are crucial for a quality print can be lost and there is nothing that can be done in editing software to retrieve them.

"A print is fundamentally different from a screen image. It has a physical feel to it that can make you interpret the image differently. If you see the print as the end point, it can make you more aware of the composition and the message behind the shot," says Keith.

In Keith's view, looking at an image on the back of a camera or on a computer screen is just an intermediate step. It's the print that's the end product. Therefore, it's a mistake to get too hung up on perfecting the screen image and then just hitting the print button.

"Once you start to see the print as the final step in the process, it gives a whole different dimension to your photography. It changes how you think about composition – changes how you think about what you're seeing and what it's going to look like as a print."

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A black and white photographic test print.

A specialist black and white test print created by Keith, which can be downloaded from his website, contains a 51-step greyscale wedge, a test strip for checking fine detail and a bullseye pattern that reveals bumps, bands and other irregularities. © Keith Cooper

A black and white image of a winding stone staircase and ornate stonework inside Wells Cathedral.

The delicate tonality of the stonework in this image of Wells Cathedral, England, benefits from the clean mono tones of the Black & White Print Mode on the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer. "The dedicated print mode is a step up from using an ICC profile, which can produce a slight colour cast on the green or magenta side that's visible under some lighting conditions," says Keith. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 1/30 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Keith Cooper

2. Go back to black and white

To become more aware of how you photograph, Keith recommends that while you're shooting in colour, you think about printing in black and white. "When you start printing in black and white, it forces you to think about the colours, the composition, the subject – and how they relate to each other in tonality. Remove the colour, and you start thinking about light and shade, which has a profound effect on your photography."

There are many ways to convert an image to black and white, but you're likely to get the best result if your printer has a dedicated mode for black and white conversion, such as the Black & White Photo Print option on the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300. Canon's Professional Print & Layout (PPL) also has a dedicated black and white photo print mode for improving the quality of monochrome prints. PPL works either as standalone software or as a plug-in through Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) imaging software, or Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

No matter which method you use, it will have an impact, according to Keith. "The details of making a print will affect how you shoot, even if you're not consciously thinking about it," he says. "It's the same as people learning the technical side of photography, so they can mostly forget it. You only use the knowledge when you need it, but it makes a difference and sets your photo apart from somebody else's. These skills build over time and form the foundations on which your creativity rests."

3. Eliminate common errors

People who are new to printing often complain that what they see on screen doesn't match what they get on paper. For one thing, prints often look darker than screen images. "The answer is almost always that your screen is too bright," says Keith. "Ideally you should calibrate your monitor. If you nail down the monitor, you remove one source of error."

In an ideal world, you should adopt a workflow that's colour-managed end-to-end, from camera to printer. Calibration kits can help to ensure your monitor is displaying colours accurately, whereas a professional-level colour management system will enable you to create custom camera, monitor, projector and printer profiles.

The next step, according to Keith – especially if you're new to printing or you've bought a new printer – is to create test prints. "You might feel it's tedious but if you print your own photos first and they come out wrong, you won't know if it's the printer, the paper, or if it has more to do with your photography and editing process," he says.

Test prints can help you evaluate fine detail at a range of brightness and contrast levels, linearity and image quality. There are lots of free test prints available online with instructions for how to use them.

Photographer Sanjay Jogia studies a sheet of image thumbnails printed by a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300.

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4. Judge in the right light

"Paper has a relatively limited tonal range compared with a monitor. When you print a photo, the overall image contrast is compressed. But, if it's done well, you don't notice that. If it's done badly, you can lose details in shadows and highlights."

"With the help of the software, you're taking the wide tonal range of the original image from the camera, the slightly smaller range that you get from your monitor, and making it work with the further compression in the final print. That's why you need to learn to really look at prints to see whether they work or not.

Keith says it's important to assess prints under the lighting that you'll typically be viewing them under. If you look at them under daylight, they'll appear much brighter than under typical room lighting and the tonal range will be increased. "The print might look great in daylight with lots of fine detail, but take it indoors and compression kicks in, so it loses detail and doesn't have the right emphasis," says Keith.

"When you're comparing prints to screen images, never put them side by side," he adds. "I've found that the colour management system of human vision resets itself when you turn your head. Put the print at 90° so you have to turn your head when switching between the screen image and the print. It's much easier to judge the results that way."

Bright red flowers on a prickly cactus.

Both monitors and printers can struggle with the detail in intense reds. "It's tricky to edit, even on a very good monitor, and tricky to print without turning the flowers into red blobs," says Keith. "A glossy paper can help, while the additional red ink in the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 also improves image quality." Taken on a Canon EOS 100D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 250D) with a Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens at 67mm, 1/60 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Keith Cooper

5. Forget about the screen

Colour rendition is another area in which images can look different on screen and in print. High-quality printers such as the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 have a wider gamut, or colour space, than the latest wide-gamut monitors. But even the best printers will have a slightly different range of colours than what you see on a screen.

"A screen is emitting light, a print is reflecting light. There's always going to be a mismatch between the two," explains Keith. "There are some colours that don't fit well with the gamut of a screen, and others that are good on screen but don't print so well. Monitors are good at displaying really bright colours that you simply can't get from ink on paper whereas, for example, prints can work better for really dark blues. The key to successful printing is to edit with the print in mind, rather than the screen image."

6. Evaluate every step

Keith points out that good photography demands looking at the whole process – and the print is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. "That chain stretches back to a point before you even pick up the camera – to thinking about what you're going to shoot and how you're going to shoot it," says Keith. "The more you think about each link, through shooting, editing and printing, the more you realise how the whole process can help you to raise your game as a photographer."

Ultimately, he believes that printing is the logical final step in the complete photographic process. But why not just get it done in a lab? "I've never sent anything to a lab, not since the days of film," says Keith. "To me, doing my own printing gives me control over the whole process, and it also teaches me what's important, and what's unimportant. The reason I tell people that printing can improve their photography is because it has massively improved mine."

Matthew Richards

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