Workflow for Making Great Inkjet Prints

By R. Michael Walker Back to

r michael walker, inkjet workflow Figure 2. 1975-Pearl and Allie, Sadieville, KY

How many of you are happy with your digital workflow? Are your results repeatable? Are your camera, lenses, monitor, scanner and printer calibrated? If so, you are on your way to making great inkjet prints. Here is what I will be covering in this article:

• JPEG vs. RAW
• Sharpening techniques for output
• What color space to use?
• How to load and use a profile
• Creating and saving paper profiles
• Driver interface setup
• Viewing tests and making corrections

JPEG vs. RAW In The Field
Getting your image as near perfect as possible in the field should be the goal of any serious photographer. In reality, this is step one in the printing process. Errors made there will definitely affect your printing.

Try to pre-visualize your finished print when shooting and make as many adjustments there as you can so that you can achieve the print you want. Over/under exposures, shortened tonal range, noise, color artifacts all make your job harder. A sharp eye for detail and the technical knowledge to control these factors in the field all add to the quality of the final print.

JPEG compression shortens color graduations, pre- serving luminance. Although JPEG is 8 bits of each, color, most cameras capture 11 bit (or more) in RAW. More information is always better when you enter post production. It’s hard to get back what you didn’t capture. With RAW editors like Lightroom and Camera RAW, you preserve the RAW files for future revisions−sort of like unlimited “undos” and opportunities to rework your prints as your processing skills improve over time.

While it is true inkjet printers cannot handle all the information we throw at them, do you really want them to make the decisions about what information can be cut? Anything applied in camera cannot easily be undone in post. The most benign of JPEG processing in camera still tosses data and most add sharpness.

Sharpening In CS5
When it comes to digital photography, my personal mantra is “Correct density first, color second, sharpen last.” You can’t accurately adjust color until you have the exposure (density) correct. Colors shift as you adjust exposure. And any other post work you want to do needs to follow both this and color corrections. But however little (or much) you do, don’t sharpen until output.

It’s important to note that sharpening for the screen is different than sharpening for the print. It all has to do with something called “dot gain”. When the droplets of ink hit the media, they spread in accordance with the media’s absorption characteristics and to the type of printer as well. This is why paper choice is so important when making fine art prints. Assuming you are using a mid to upper level printer, no matter what settings you use or your post production skills, the media you are printing on will make the largest difference. If you follow all my instructions and insert a piece of plain paper into your printer you will see what I mean. Like color, this is all subjective so you should try out a number of different papers to find what looks best to you. I mostly print on ILFORD GALERIE Prestige Gold Fibre Silk. Using it, I feel I not only get the longer tonal range I am looking for but also the look and feel of the classic silver based photo paper. All my limited edition fine art prints are made on ILFORD GALERIE Prestige Gold Fibre Silk now that I’ve gone completely digital in my workflow. The paper has a very tight “dot gain” pattern due to its great absorption properties.

I do all my basic corrections in Lightroom 4. From choosing the best images to work on and adding keywords for later searches, to color, contrast, density and cropping (as a rule I don’t crop but you might), and just about everything except sharpening and printing. While the tools are there to do that too, I find CS5 fits my needs for those steps the best. The main reasons are my extensive use of layers and my need for localized adjustments. Basically, I just get more control in CS5. And while I love the new sharpening tools in Lightroom, I always sharpen after everything else is done and I’m ready for output.

r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 1

Figure 1 is a good example of sharpening for the print. It was layered in Photoshop to make the adjustments I wanted in post. The original image on the left is rather flat, but contains the long tonal range I strive for.

Through layer manipulations for contrast, brightness and sharpness (here I used “Unsharp Mask”), I achieved the look I wanted, all from a single file. On the cutouts you can see those adjustments. The grey layer is a High Pass Filter done in Overlay mode for the final sharpening step. I did a set for each person because they needed different amounts of corrections. Figure 2 is the final image with the layers added. You can see I did a few additional manipulations to the background.

Definition Of Terms
Color Model−a system to numerically describe colors
Color Space−a specific range of colors within a color model
Gamut−the complete range of colors used by a device
ICC Profile−(International Color Consortium) a file that describes how a device reads and reproduces color

Choosing Your Rendering Intent
Rendering intent tells the printer what to do with out-of-gamut colors. I always shoot RAW at the highest bit the camera allows—then work in Pro RGB Colorspace.

Perceptual Rendering attempts to preserve the visual relationship between colors. Colors that are in-gamut may change as out-of-gamut colors are shifted to reproducible colors. Perceptual rendering is desirable when your image has many out-of-gamut colors.

Relative Rendering preserves all in-gamut colors and shifts out-of gamut colors to the closest reproducible color. The Relative option preserves more of the original color and is desirable when you have few out-of-gamut colors.

Managed by Printer. If you select this option in the Print Job panel, you hand over control of how the color is handled to the printer driver software. Be sure to choose the proper printer and the paper size and type you are using.

Custom Printer Profiles from the manufacturers. To add these, place the profile in your computer’s Colorsync (Mac) or Color (WIN) folder. On the Mac this folder is found in the Library folder. On Windows the Color folder harder to find so just do a search for the .icm extension to find it. After placing the new profiles in the folder restart CS5, and when you restart the program the profile should appear in the list. If you use a custom profile, it’s very important you go to your printer driver dialog box and turn off color management. You don’t want the custom and printer management to BOTH manage your colors.

My tip here is to convert your color space to sRGB. While this sounds counterintuitive to keeping the most quality throughout the process, it is actually a better match to your printer’s gamut than some version of Pro RGB. This color space is smaller than what your printer can handle. Pro RGB is larger. If you make this conversion right before you print you will see any noticeable changes on your monitor. Better than 9 times out of 10 there will be none. If there are and you can’t live with them then you hit “undo” and readjust your image palette. Consider this a form of “soft proofing”. For me it’s the ONLY soft proofing I do. Since I create my own printer preferences for each paper my prints are VERY consistent. I made prints for a show at Butter’s Gallery in Portland back in January and some of those images were last printed years ago. They still matched. Older images which were never printed via inkjet prior to that show only took one test to get dialed in.

r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 3
r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 4
r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 5

CS5/Epson Driver Printing Steps (Epson 3800)
Here is a step-by-step walk through using the Epson Driver from CS5.
• From inside Photoshop, click “print” in the file menu.
• Select your printer from the drop down list at the top center of the page.
• Select “Color Management” from the drop down menu at the far right (Figure 3).
• The next menu down is “Color Handling”−Select Printer.
• Under “Rendering intent” Select Relative Colorimetric.
• Then click the “Print Settings” button.
• Select “Page layout” to select Landscape or Portrait mode.
• Then return to the main menu by clicking it in the top tab of the layout menu. (If you had selected “OK” after setting your layout it would have sent you back to the “Print” screen).
• Choose “Select Settings” to load a downloaded manufacturer’s profile or you can create your own custom profile.

You’ll notice in Figure 4, that I have made several custom settings of my own. As I said earlier, I mostly print on ILFORD GALERIE Prestige Gold Fibre Silk, but you’ll notice that I have a Luster (ILFORD GALERIE Prestige Smooth Pearl) and a Glossy (ILFORD GALERIE Prestige Smooth Gloss) setting. Those are mostly for commercial prints from my fashion and beauty work. Each gives a different look (and feel) to the finished print. Most manufacturers provide ICC profiles for their paper. Select the printer and paper you use and download the profile. If you are beginning to set your own custom profiles, you’ll need to go into the “advanced mode” and set each aspect individually. Here is how I handle that:

• After entering the “advanced mode,” I select Color Mode “Epson Vivid” for my work. If you want more subtle colors choose “Epson Standard (sRGB). If you don’t convert to sRGB for printing then choose Adobe RGB” (Figure 5).
• Set “gamma” to 1.8
• If you need to make corrections this is where they are made. Test at all neutral settings and then make corrections as needed after viewing the print. When you get what you want, save the profile. You can also choose from a “Color Circle” or a “Slide bar” here for your adjustments. Choose the “Slide Bar” to enter numbers for greater precision than using the graphical interface.
• Under “Quality Options” move the slider all the way to the right (Highest Quality). Then select your “printing quality” to match your printer. Turn Micro weave to “on” and Select “Finest Detail”. “Edge Detail” is only useful if you have text in your photo. I leave it off (Figure 6).
• “High Speed Printing” is another subjective setting. Most will tell you to turn it off. My OPINION is that you should test it both ways both see if you can discern a difference. If you can’t, then leave it on.
• Then click “OK” to return to the previous menu.

r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 6
r michael walker, inkjet workflow
Figure 7

When this is done go back to the settings menu and then go to “Page Layout”. At the top of the page you will see Select Setting”. To the right you will see a “Save/delete” button. Click on it and give your settings a unique name and save them. Next time you just have to call them up instead of going through all this again. This will let you adjust your output according to your own taste. I mentioned a calibrated system earlier. Like viewing transparencies and the print made from them in an analog system, there are always discrepancies between what you see on your screen and the final print. Light passing through an image vs. being reflected off a print are different.

If you are not using the highest resolution monitor the difference can be substantial, even on a calibrated system. Adjustments made after judging a test print under controlled lighting are used to create (and save) your own printer preferences. If you are happy with your image on-screen but the resulting prints are a bit off, this will fix the problem.

• Your image should have been scaled to fit your paper in Photoshop but if it is a minor adjustment or scaling DOWN you can do it here in the “Scaled Print Size” window.
• When all this is done, click “print” and wait for your latest masterpiece to roll off your printer.
• If you are new to all this I would suggest turning on “Print with Preview” back in the main printing window (Figure 7). This adds an extra step where it displays the image and crop prior to printing. The advantage here is if you mismatched your paper size or layout it will show BEFORE you waste any materials.

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r michael walker, inkjet workflow

Figure 8

About the Author

R. Michael Walker
After graduating with a BFA in Photography from the University of Kentucky in 1971, Michael made it his mission to meet and study with his favorite fine art photographers, including Ansel Adams, Robert Heineken, Wynn Bullock and others. This, combined with his 12 years directing TV, college fine art training and 45 years making images about things and people close to him, has given him a unique perspective on the world reflected in his photography.