Welcome to Lesson 2 — Essential Gear Guide to Fine Art Printing
One of the main objections I hear about printing your own work is the cost involved and whether it's worth it if you’re not printing all the time. Maybe you think it’s prohibitively expensive or you’re not sure what to buy. Either way, neither is true when you think of it as an investment in your photographic journey and you buy the right equipment.
I’ve been seriously printing for over a decade, so those objections aren’t foreign to me. I’ve had my share of frustration and failure, and I've also been the beneficiary of hard earned knowledge from others whose expertise I respect.
And I can tell you with confidence that the right equipment makes the process much more enjoyable and the costs manageable. Quality always trumps short terms savings, which is why you’ll never hear me recommending third party inks or papers from lower quality brands.
Yes you may save money in the short term, but your results will be inconsistent or less than ideal, and frustration will overshadow the excitement of seeing a beautiful print emerging from your printer.
So the following is my recommended list of the basic equipment you need to get started making fine art archival prints on a limited budget, without any compromise in quality.
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 relative 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 ImagePROGRAF PRO-1000 - 17” wide (max print size 13” x 25”) - currently $999 with rebate.
A good desktop monitor is the bare minimum you need for making accurate image adjustments to ensure an optimal print. A laptop monitor does not have the same contrast levels nor color gamut (number of colors) to make accurate adjustments. If you want to use a laptop for editing, I highly recommend buying a good monitor that you can then use as an external monitor with your laptop.
If you have an iMac, or a good desktop monitor then you’re all set. However, there are always upgrades, such as s wide-gamut monitor, which has an even bigger color gamut than a standard monitor. Again, this is not necessary when getting started.
If you’re in the market for a monitor, I highly recommend BenQ PhotoVue monitors for their quality, hardware calibration, and color accuracy.
My top choices are:
SW240 - A great 24” entry level wide-gamut monitor that looks great and is very affordable. ($399 on B&H)
SW270C - A great 27” 2k wide-gamut monitor with better color and calibration options. ($799 on B&H)
SW271C - Similar to the SW270C, but has 4k resolution and other minor improvements. See my in-depth review here.
Any Apple iMac is great, but the models that have a P3 display offer a wider-gamut, which means you’ll see and experience great color rendition and accuracy.
Monitor calibration 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 in Lightroom will translate to your prints as faithfully as possible.
The SpyderX Pro is a great entry level calibrator from Datacolor, and comes with excellent software. Datacolor has been around for a while, and they are a great choice whether you're getting started or want to upgrade.
If you have or purchase a BenQ monitor, you will still need a colorimeter like the SpyderX to use with BenQ's software which enables higher quality hardware calibration.
In my experience, there is no better platform to print from than Adobe Lightroom Classic, especially if you're just starting.
Here are some of the most important features:
The Print Module 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.
LR offers convenient Printing templates (or presets) that let you save almost every aspect of a print configuration for future use.
LR prints your RAW files directly, ensuring the highest quality possible and less fussing with files and variations of the same image.
LR includes a high quality interpolation (upsizing) algorithm which considers image size and resolution and lets you enlarge your images with optimal quality.
The Print Modeule offers print sharpening that considers the type of paper selected and whether you're enlarging the image.
The Develop Module offers a soft-proofing mode that simulates what your image will look like on the particular paper you’ve chosen—potentially improving overall results.
However, if you prefer to use another application, that's totally fine. What matters is that you are comfortable AND efficiently achieve your creative goals. I strive to make the ideas I share universal, so they can be adapted to whatever tool you prefer.
Canson Infinity produces some of the finest art paper in the world, and has been doing so for hundreds of yewars. Introduced in 2009, their digital papers build on their heritage and offer a wide range from smooth and textured matte papers to fiber papers reminiscent of dark room prints
Pricing is on par with other fine art papers on the market, so while not inexpensive, quality makes a difference. In particular, the coatings 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 have provide high quality ICC profiles which makes your color management consistent and predictable.
For a limited budget, I recommend starting with PhotoLustre Premium RC, which won the 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, I recommend starting with two papers: PrintMaKing Rag, which offers a subtle but distinct texture and great contrast for a matte paper, and Platine Fibre Rag, a beautiful photographic paper reminiscent of a dark room print.
Of course, you can also start with the paper included with every Epson printer (if you purchase an Epson) which is great to practice and learn on. But don't expect the same nuance and quality you will see with a fine art paper.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the products availabe today, but it provides you with the basic gear you need to start making the highest quality prints worthy of your walls or any gallery.
You can build on this as your experience and confidence grows, and enjoy the many benefits of experiencing your work in the real world. It sets you apart from the crowd and lets you share your work in the best way possible.
See you in the next lesson.