Hints and Tips for good colour inkjet photo printing

Getting great prints from digital photographs is quite straight forward, but needs care, good technique and consideration. Here are a few hints and tips you might like to consider, we hope none of them will be too unexpected.

Monitor issues

Calibrate your monitor
Probably the single most important thing you can do to help work accurately with colour. See our web page that just deals with this issue here.

Regularly clean your monitor screen
It's sometimes surprising how quickly a film of dust can collect on a monitor screen. At least once a week give the screen a clean.

Don't let stray light fall onto the screen
Try to position your monitor so that stray light doesn't fall on the screen and spoil the contrast of the screen or give distracting reflections. A thin black card hood can greatly improve display quality for little cost.

No garish wallpaper please
Set your computer desktop, wallpaper, to something plain and neutral. You will be able to notice and monitor colour shifts as soon as they happen and won't have your colour vision offset by any bold colours. The same advice might be wise for the area around your computer workstation too.

Check gamut warning
Many editing program allow you to see if there are areas of the image that are beyond the printer's gamut.
A second related issue to be aware of is that sometimes the image will be within the printer's gamut, but out of the monitor's gamut. Check both.

Try to previsualise what the prints will look like via soft proofing
This may sound obvious to those used to regularly soft proofing their work, but many photographers still fail to take time to get to understand the characteristics of their chosen materials. Once you have established a good colour managed workflow, look carefully at your finished dry prints in different lights and go back and compare them with what you see on screen when soft proofed. Then you'll get used to just how you can best manipulate your photographs for printed output.

Printer issues

Set your printer up carefully
When first installed many printers need to have their print head alignment checked. Take care over this procedure, don't rush it and use good quality photo paper for the tests. Use a magnifying loupe to check that the correct alignment settings are used.

Allow prints to dry fully before evaluation
It's often not fully appreciated that inkjet prints can, and do, change colour as they dry out. Prints may seem fully dry to the touch when they first emerge from the printer, but the colours will subtly shift as the solvents in the inks fully dry out. This effect differs from printer to printer, inkset to inkset and paper to paper, you'll need to do tests to see how long your preferred combination will take to fully stabilise. Some combinations might only take less than an hour, some might be best left overnight.

Take care of art papers and clean before use
Many "Art" finish papers need careful use in inkjet printers. The quality control on art papers can leave something to be desired on occasions. It is sometimes the case that these thicker papers get dust and particles left on their surface when manufactured, this needs to be carefully brushed or blown off to prevent nozzle blockages or paper feed problems.

Nozzle check if results are unexpectedly poor
If you haven't used your printer for some while, maybe because you've been on holiday or away shooting, do a nozzle check on some cheap paper before a printing session. It's always better to find there's a blocked jet without wasting expensive photo paper.
It's also worth doing a quick nozzle check if your prints suddenly change. Nozzles can get blocked by tiny particles picked up off the paper surface when printing, so can strike at any time.

Cover printer when not in use to prevent dust.
Sounds obvious, but the design of most inkjet printers allows dust to settle into the paper path of the printer when not in use. A cover over the printer will prevent dust blocking nozzles or getting into the paper path and causing feed problems.

Don't use cheap ink
Using "compatible" ink cartridges is the most frequent cause of problems when inkjet printing. The quality control of these inks is almost always far poorer than the manufacturer's own ink cartridges. Not only can this result in poor quality and unpredictable colour output, it can also cause head clogs and, in rare cases, complete failure of the print head.
There are alternatives inks that are of high quality, like Lyson, Perma Jet and MIS but they generally offer additional benefits such as longevity or changed gamut, but are rarely much cheaper than the original inksets.

Check the software settings
Always double check that your printing software and driver are set correctly before starting printing.

Final assessments

Always use the same light
When comparing prints from day to day, always use the same light source. Professionals will use dedicated lighting booths with lamps of known colour temperature. For those without the space for such luxuries, always using the same light to assess prints under will assist you getting consistency with your prints.

If it doesn't look right, go back and check it.
One problem everyone seems to suffer is simply not "seeing" what is on screen. When the prints are dry and re-evaluated there often seems some minor unexpected tonal shift somewhere. It's amazing how often that if the screen image is then carefully re-examined the problem has been there all along, just not noticed. This seems especially to be the case with larger prints where adjustments are carried out on small screen images and small areas aren't given as much attention as when printed up to full size.
If you're not sure, use an eyedropper tool to measure exactly what is in the image.
As one of our testers put it;

" The print output is now rather more accurate than my editing abilities :) Always, a duff print means 'go and look at the original more closely, and I find I've got a slight cast or over saturation or something."

Print real photos
Don't get too hung up printing test charts and patterns. Whilst this can be a useful way of comparing results with other people, the real advantage of using colour management comes when printing real photographs.