Beginner’s Gear Guide to Fine Art Printing

Printing your own work is one of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of photography. It adds a physical experience to your images and may give you insights that are difficult if not impossible to achieve any other way.

Another benefit of printing is that it helps you look more deeply into the things that inspire you photographically, and in the process help you develop your vision; your unique way of seeing the world.

I’ve seen this first hand in my printing workshops where students become inspired to pursue a particular subject or idea because a print made it more tangible than a digital display ever could. This is especially true when sharing your work with others.

While it’s true that you can have your prints made at a print lab, it eliminates the main reason I advocate for printing: the exploration and experimentation of printing. You remove yourself from the creative journey of printing and miss out on insights that can open a whole new way of approaching your photography.

You may also be afraid of the costs involved and whether you think it’s worth the expense. Maybe you think it’s prohibitively expensive or you’re not sure what to buy. So the following is my recommended list of basic equipment you need to get started making fine art archival prints on a limited budget, without any compromise in quality.

Printers

There are only two manufacturers to consider, Canon and Epson. Both produce equally good prints in terms of quality, use the latest archival inks, and have excellent support. I suggest you choose one based either on brand loyalty (if you have one), or on the best deals available when you decide to purchase.

Both Canon and Epson printers can use paper from any manufacturer, so you’re not limited to the brand’s papers. They are well supported by all paper manufacturers and inks are readily available from a huge number of sources. (Always use original OEM inks.)

Here are my top choices:

Epson SureColor P600 – 13” wide (max print size 13” x 129”) – currently $500 with rebate

Epson SureColor P800 – 17” wide (max print size 17” x 129”) – currently $850 with rebate

Both offer great print quality, mature software drivers, and lots of connectivity options. Epson also offers the largest print size for panoramas.

Canon Pixma Pro-1000 – 17” wide (max print size 17” x 25”) – currently $999 with rebate.

Monitor Calibration

A monitor calibrator is essential to ensure a consistent viewing environment and color managed workflow. Monitors vary greatly in their ability to display colors and contrast levels, and proper calibration makes sure that the adjustments you make on-screen will translate to your print as faithfully as possible.

The Spyder5Express is a great entry level calibrator from Datacolor, and comes with excellent software. Datacolor has been around for a while, and they offer advanced models like the DataColor5Pro that add additional features. But to get started, the Spyder5Express is a great way to go.

Software

Adobe Lightroom

There is no better platform to print from that Adobe Lightroom. here are some of the most important features:

  • Full-featured RIP (raster image processor) – can print a whole series of images at one time, create contact sheets, layout many images in a single sheet of paper with total control over individual size, cropping, and placement.
  • Printing templates (or presets) that let you save almost every aspect of a print layout for future use.
  • Prints your RAW files directly, ensuring the highest quality possible and less fussing with files and variations of files.
  • Built—in interpolation which considers image size and resolution and lets you enlarge your images right within the print module.
  • Print sharpening that also considers the type of paper and the interpolation amount.
  • Soft—proofing helps make sure your image will look its best on the particular paper you’ve chosen – again improving overall workflow.

While the latest version of Lightroom requires a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, you can still purchase a stand-alone copy of Lightroom 6. But considering you get free updates and a copy of Photoshop CC as well, the subscription is well worth it if you’re serious about photography and printing.

Paper

Canson Infinity makes some of the finest art paper in the world and has been doing so since 1557. Introduced in 2009, their digital papers build on their heritage and offer a wide range of smooth and textured matte papers to fiber papers reminiscent of dark roomprints

Pricing is on par with other fine art papers on the market, so while not inexpensive, quality makes a difference. In particular, the coating that Canson uses for their papers means detail and sharpness are second to none, regardless of whether you use a matte or fiber type paper.

They also provide great ICC profiles which reduce the need to make your own expensive custom profiles.

Paper Recommendations:

  • For a limited budget, I recommend starting with PhotoLustre Premium RC, which won a TIPA award for best paper in 2016. It’s a smooth satin paper that offers great contrast and detail, with a high-quality finish. It works well for a variety of subject matter which makes it a great all-around paper.
  • To experience a true fine art paper, and start to consider an image-centric approach to paper selection, I recommend Printmaking Rag, which offers a subtle but distinct texture and great contrast for a matte paper.
  • For a more economical alternative, I recommend Red River Paper which is a great option when you’re learning the basics. It’s also good for proofing and less critical applications when you don’t need a museum grade archival print.

Conclusion

Of course, there are more expensive options and upgrades depending on your goals (like a wide-gamut monitor), but this list provides you with all the basic gear you need to start making the highest quality prints.

You can build on this as your experience and confidence grows, and enjoy the many benefits of seeing your work in the real world. It sets you apart from the crowd and lets you share your work in the next way possible. Of course, simply having the gear doesn’t guarantee success. Understanding the art and craft of making expressive prints is the foundation for using the tools to your advantage.

The Printmaker Masterclass can help to make sure your investment pays creative dividends for a lifetime.

2 Comments

  1. Raden Adams on April 17, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Great read and article for anyone regardless of photography experience. I am on a limited income and budget so my question is this; what economy printer would you suggest, if any, to an avid amateur photographer?

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