A high-level look at everything that goes into making fine art photography prints
Curious as to what all goes into making a fine art photography print? Read on for a run-through of how I created one of my latest proofing prints, and how modern technology has resulted in an environment where, to a great degree, the only way to see the true representation of a photograph is by personally viewing a physical print.
This isn't intended to be a step-by-step guide for making photography prints, but rather a summary of the process and my overall experience with making my own prints. I've been asked enough questions via social media that I'll likely produce a more in-depth printmaking tutorial in the future.
Table of contents
As a point of reference, here's the original export from Lightroom Classic of the image I'll be discussing:
Screen Differences & Color Temps
Let's start with a short video of my first proofing print run. You'll notice immediately that the white balance differs in the video - the grasses appear far more yellow - because, well, it was taken with my phone, which automatically adjusts that setting on its own.
I also had my studio light set to 3200 Kelvin (k), its warmest setting. That makes the image look warmer in the video than it is on my monitor.
The reference image that I shared above is an export from Lightroom Classic on the computer; my BenQ monitors are calibrated to 6500k. Of course, depending on the device you use to view this post, it may look quite different from what I see, or intend, due to the wide variance in displays between monitors, laptops, tablets, phones, etc.
Samsung phones, for instance, tend to (in my opinion) significantly oversaturate colors on the default setting to make images "pop."
Unfortunately, we have no way of controlling other people's devices. Even my Google Pixel phone allows me to choose differing levels of screen saturation so I can't even assume that the same models of phones show the same representation of an image. The joys of digital photography!
I personally proof my prints under 3200k lighting as most private buyers will likely have similarly warm lighting in their homes
The next two photos show the rough difference between viewing the actual print under 3200k light versus 5500k. It's the exact same print, just photographed under different lighting:
Although these photos were taken with my phone, they still fairly represent the difference made by simply changing the color temperature of the lighting used to view a print.
Generally speaking, it's up to the artist or the print buyer to choose their preferred lighting. I personally proof my prints under 3200k lighting as most private buyers will likely have similarly warm lighting in their homes.
Charles Cramer, who has been creating fine art photography prints since the 1970s, and teaches workshops for the Ansel Adams Gallery, recommends an even warmer temperature of 2700k.
The world-famous fine art broker, Sotheby's, also suggests 2700k for the best viewing light, but a quick search online shows that, ultimately, recommendations vary from that warm end of the spectrum all the way up to 5500k.
For a more in-depth look at my recommendations for viewing and displaying fine art photography, visit my Print Info page.
The Importance of Choosing the Right Paper
Going from a monitor that emits light to a sheet of paper that only reflects it, and getting the result you want, takes some work. Oh! And each paper has its own color temp, basically. Some are bright white, some warmer, etc.
The paper I used here - and that I use for most of my prints - is Red River Paper Palo Duro Etching 315. It's a heavyweight, lightly textured fine art paper that falls on the warmer end of the white spectrum.
Here's a good representation of the paper (click to enlarge and get a better look at the subtle texture):
In addition to varying levels of "whiteness" between papers, you'll also find that each paper has its own variation in the levels contrast they can reproduce, which can drastically impact shadow details in prints.
while color reproduction naturally does vary from paper to paper, the biggest difference was in the contrast levels and shadow detail
After I bought my printer in the spring of 2021, I ordered a few different papers to start learning how to make photography prints and to determine which fine art papers I wanted to use. On the recommendation of several photographers, I ordered a photo rag paper from a well-known paper vendor... and was horribly disappointed with its inability to retain acceptable contrast in shadows.
It's hard to show it effectively in a photo, but below is a comparison of the contrast achieved with two different papers. Note the difference in the shadows (neither are the Palo Duro Etching that I ended up going with for most of my prints):
Although the print on the right appears to have more shadow detail, it's a bit of an illusion. I had to raise the shadows significantly in Lightroom Classic when soft proofing the image for print as, without doing so, the details in the shadows were all but lost. You'll notice that the blacks are far from black, especially compared to the print on the left.
I found that, while color reproduction naturally does vary from paper to paper, the biggest difference was in the contrast levels and shadow detail. I can work to rebalance colors; if the contrast is poor, though, there's not a whole lot to be done about it.
Soft Proofing in Lightroom Classic
Now we're getting to the good stuff!
This section could - and likely will - be an in-depth tutorial on its own but I want to share a little about the art of soft proofing here, as opposed to going into the technical steps and details.
In addition to the color temp of the lighting used to view the final print, each image is proofed specifically in Lightroom Classic for the paper on which I'm printing. This usually means bumping up the overall exposure of the image, tweaking the contrast, and adjusting the color hue, saturation, and sometimes luminance, to get the print proof as close to what I intended on-screen as possible.
In the above screenshot from Lightroom Classic, I'm comparing my proofing adjustments against the original "digital" image that I created. The Proof Preview on the right is modified by Lightroom to try to faithfully represent how the image will look when printed on the selected paper using the selected printer.
for those wondering, it's not just a matter of hitting Print on the computer and calling it a day!
In this particular example, you'll note that the blues in the sky are far less intense in the proofing preview. This is partly due to the Paper and Ink Simulation that's enabled in Lightroom Classic, and partly due to the fact that, after printing, I went back and made some tweaks to the original edit (more on that in a bit).
This proofing example is based on my initial edit of the "digital only" version, and I will need to subsequently update the proofing edit to more closely match that vision.
In addition to the color temp of the lighting used to view the final print, each image is proofed specifically in Lightroom Classic for the paper on which I'm printing
I do all my soft proofing edits in a dark room so I'm not unintentionally adding a color cast due to ambient light.
Depending on how long I'm working on the proofing of the image, I may also need to step away and let my eyes "reset" for a bit as you become attuned to the colors on-screen (think of those optical illusions where you stare at a colored dot or shape for a while, and then look away at a blank white space).
For this article's reference print that I shared at the beginning, which already has a lot of yellow in the grasses, I had to adjust the color temp of the image to make it a bit cooler than the "digital" version, and I shifted the greens a bit towards blue, to counterbalance the warmer white of the paper.
sometimes you'll notice something simply by looking at the print sideways or upside down!
Depending on the image, I may also need to use local masks to dial the highlights, shadows, contrast, or colors in specific areas of the print.
Oh, and if I ever feel the need to offer a print on more than one particular type of paper, I get to go through the whole process again as every paper - generally speaking - requires a different proofing edit.
So, for those wondering, it's not just a matter of hitting Print on the computer and calling it a day!
The Benefits of Printing
I mentioned above that I had gone back and made further adjustments to my original edit - not the soft proofing edit - after I produced my first print proof. That leads into some of the notable benefits of creating your own prints.
First, as noted in the first section of this post, you have zero control over how your images will appear across all the various screens your audience may use to view them. You do have control, however, over how a print will look in person.
By creating a physical print, you know how it will look under any light, assuming you have different lighting temps available in your studio or, like me, you have a light on which you can adjust the color temperature.
By creating a physical print, you know how it will look under any light
You can also give guidance to buyers to use a specific temperature for lighting your prints in their home or office. If I recommend a display temperature of 3200k, I know that, generally speaking*, if my client chooses a light with that temperature range, they will see the same "version" of the print as I created.
* I could go down another rabbit hole over the quality rating of lighting, but you can find a bit more about that on my Print Info page
In addition to the control you regain over how your images are viewed, printing can also help you identify issues and opportunities for improvement of your "digital" creation. For whatever reason, no matter how long I work on editing an image, I almost always find something to improve upon after I have the print in-hand.
That's not just limited to improving the print itself, but more importantly to improving the original edit I'm trying to match. It could be spot cleanup, overall exposure, color balance... any number of things may suddenly leap out of the print that you never saw on-screen.
Heck, sometimes you'll notice something simply by looking at the print sideways or upside down!
So, it's not just about having full control over your creative vision, from the moment you press the shutter to the moment a print comes off the printer (although that is a huge benefit). Printing your photos often helps you improve in the field and in your general post-processing refinement.
To wrap things up, all of those benefits are why I decided to take the plunge just about a year ago and purchase a professional large format printer (a Canon imagePROGRAF Pro 2100, which can take rolls of paper up to 24" wide).
I was never entirely comfortable relying on a third-party to print my images without any input from me
It was a pretty hefty investment, but I love the process, and love having full control over realizing my vision, from that shutter press when I'm in the field with my camera to finalizing how I want the print to look, all the way down to which paper I choose to use for a specific image.
I was never entirely comfortable relying on a third-party to print my images without any input from me. I'll still need to rely on a third-party for prints larger than what I can create on the Canon 2100, or if a client wants a metal or acrylic print, but I'm also making inroads on finding a print shop that will work with me more closely to ensure I'm getting the end result I expect (and that my buyers deserve).
Third-party partnerships aside, my decision to start making my own prints certainly wasn't because it was more economical or easier... just more fulfilling and truer to my artistic vision (not to sound too pretentious).
And now you know!