An Introduction to Fine Art Inkjet Printing

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If you’ve visited an art museum lately, you probably noticed that contemporary artists have been creating photographic works on an increasingly large scale. With advancements in digital printing, the ability to create massive photographs on practically any surface has become much easier than in the darkroom days. This has led to an explosion of creativity and larger-than-life photographs appearing in myriad forms. For the purpose of this article, “fine art” is used to designate photographs created on unconventional media at a large scale. While you can achieve excellent-quality prints using consumer photo printers, the discussion that follows is geared toward artists desiring the level of creative control a professional print lab would offer.

Before jumping into this topic, it is worth asking: Do the ends justify the means? Custom printing can quickly become quite costly no matter how you do it. For example, a single 44 x 72" print may cost upward of $500 to have made in a professional lab. While printers capable of 44" wide prints start around $3,000, they also require ink, paper, and maintenance—not to mention a reliable monitor and calibration tools. If you only plan to make a few prints, it probably makes more sense to go to a lab. However, if you intend to produce a large volume of prints, there comes a point where it is more cost-efficient to do it yourself.

Aside from cost, another consideration is space. The ability to create mammoth, 60" wide prints at home sounds glamorous until you (or your housemates) realize that your new printer will take up as much space as a couch—while providing minimal cushioning. The best way to print on a large scale is by having a dedicated printing room in your home or space in your studio.

Okay, enough with the warnings. You’ve built an addition onto your house dedicated solely to printing landscapes at life-size scale. What’s next? The first component of any printing workflow is your monitor. In-Plane Switching (IPS) monitors have a wide viewing angle and consistent color reproduction, making them ideal for printing. The range of colors that a device is capable of reproducing, or color gamut, is extremely important. Make sure that the gamut of the printer you choose has a high coverage for the Adobe RGB color space, which is ideal for printing. To learn more about color gamuts, check out Shawn Steiner’s article on this topic.

No matter which monitor you choose, you will need to make sure that it is properly calibrated. Even the best models veer off track due to a variety of factors over time. There are many calibration systems on the market ranging from straightforward “set-it-and-forget-it” to complex, highly customizable profiles. In order to keep your calibration on point, the software included with many calibration tools will allow you to set a schedule to remind you when you are due to recalibrate. Some monitors even incorporate calibration systems into their build, further simplifying matters.

Eizo’s ColorEdge CG319X self-calibrates so you don’t have to worry about buying extra calibration tools.
Eizo’s ColorEdge CG319X self-calibrates so you don’t have to worry about buying extra calibration tools.

Stepping up to large-format printers opens up a world of possibilities beyond size. While it is unusual to find consumer photo printers using more than six ink cartridges, large-format printers may have up to 12! This is excellent in that it allows for greater range in color reproduction and accuracy, but can be brutal on your wallet. Since you are working on a larger scale, the cartridges hold a greater volume of ink. Most consumer printer cartridges hold 50 to 80mL, while large-format cartridges may hold 220 to 350mL. Do the math. Always calculate how much it will cost to replace all of your cartridges before buying a printer. Also, it is helpful to have one to two spare maintenance cartridges on hand. Nothing is worse than starting a project only to be greeted by a full maintenance cartridge and stalled printer.

Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 44" Professional Photographic Large-Format Inkjet Printer relies on 12 ink cartridges.
Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 44" Professional Photographic Large-Format Inkjet Printer relies on 12 ink cartridges.

In addition to mid-range colors (e.g., cyan, light cyan, etc.), large-format printers incorporate various shades of gray for making black-and-white prints without risking color shift. You will also notice two blacks: photo black (PBK) and matte black (MBK). Photo black is designed specifically for printing on glossy, semi-gloss, and luster-type papers and matte black is strictly for printing on matte papers. This is among the reasons it is important to designate what kind of paper you are using when making a print. Using PBK ink on matte paper will result in a washed-out image. On the other hand, MBK ink will not adhere to glossy papers and will rub off, leaving a poor-quality image and making a mess.

Beware that some older printers only have one channel for black ink, requiring you to flush the system and swap ink cartridges if you plan on switching from printing on matte to glossy surfaces. In addition to being time consuming, this process is also ink consuming. While not much of a problem for photographers who stick primarily to one type of paper, it is definitely something to watch out for if you plan on printing on a variety of surfaces. The best solution is to plan in such a way that you consolidate the types of prints you intend to make, minimizing the number of ink changes. Luckily, most new models have dedicated matte and photo black nozzles, so you don’t have to worry about this inconvenience.

There are a couple of other important factors to consider when choosing a printer for fine art work: maximum paper size, resolution, speed, and connectivity. Most large-format printers will accommodate both rolls of paper as well as pre-cut sheets. Check what size core a printer is compatible with if you plan to use rolls. Also, if you intend to print borderless images, note the maximum size that this can be done with. Some models will also allow you to print on thicker substrates like poster boards via a straight-through feed. Check to make sure your printer comes with a dedicated stand or else figure out how to install it in such a way that your prints do not get damaged as they are being made.

Epson’s SureColor P20000 Standard Edition 64" Large-Format Inkjet Printer not only prints at a whopping 64" width, but also allows you to print on poster board via a poster board input slot.
Epson’s SureColor P20000 Standard Edition 64" Large-Format Inkjet Printer not only prints at a whopping 64" width, but also allows you to print on poster board via a poster board input slot.

Maximum resolution is another factor to consider when choosing any printer. However, this is a bit of a niche concern when you reach large-format printing, as most new models output either 2400 x 1200 dpi or 2880 x 1440 dpi. While one is indeed slightly higher than the other, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference with your eyes, even up close. A related concern is print speed. Large prints, unsurprisingly, can take a long time to create. Many printers will offer multiple print speeds depending on the desired quality of an image. Older printers could be notoriously slow, but over time performance has improved.

Finally, do not overlook connectivity. Large prints mean large files. Some models feature built-in hard drives in order to queue print jobs and eliminate the need for full-time computer connectivity. Many also incorporate Ethernet connections to print via a network connection.

HP’s DesignJet Z9+ has a 500 GB internal hard drive as well as built-in Ethernet and USB connectivity.
HP’s DesignJet Z9+ has a 500 GB internal hard drive as well as built-in Ethernet and USB connectivity.

Now that you have your printer selected, it is time to think about media. Large-format printers have incredible versatility in terms of printing media. The best way to figure out what kind of paper works best for your job is by trying out sample packs. This is a much more cost-efficient means of trial and error compared to purchasing rolls of paper only to be disappointed. For an introduction to photo papers, check out Shawn Steiner’s article on this topic. If you intend to sell your work or are creating for long-term storage, consider acid-free paper, as it has superior longevity over treated papers.

No matter which paper you choose, don’t forget to download the corresponding ICC profile from its manufacturer. This will permit you to approximate what your print will look like on your computer screen when using editing software like Adobe Photoshop. For even more precise control, you can create your own ICC profiles using the Datacolor SpyderX Studio. Building your own ICC profiles also comes in handy when working with unconventional media. Just make sure whatever you are printing on is receptive to your printer’s ink and meets your printer’s size requirements.

The Datacolor SpyderX Studio allows you to customize your own ICC profiles.
The Datacolor SpyderX Studio allows you to customize your own ICC profiles.

For the most demanding artists, a viewing station can be incorporated into your printing workflow to inspect prints under controlled lighting conditions. For tips on best practices for evaluating prints, check out Jill Waterman’s interview with printing expert Tom P. Ashe.

Do you have experience with fine art printing? Share your tips in the Comments section, below.

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