What is a "Custom Print" anyway?

To fully appreciate a custom print, we should look first at its opposite - a standard or "on-line" acquired print. These prints are made in unattended, automated, serial operations. You upload your images to a server from your computer or drop them off to a photo service bureau on USB where the sales clerk adds it to the queue on the server with all of the other on-line orders. The server is connected to a series of printers each of which is loaded with one of the standard papers - usually gloss, lustre and matte. The idea is to herd everyone to those few common, inexpensive, resin coated, bright white papers to reap the benefits of volume processing and presumably to offer volume pricing. If better paper is also offered, there will often be just one or perhaps two smooth, matte finish papers offered under the general moniker “Fine Art” or “Giclee.“ Also, many of these photo service bureaus print with dye based inks which fade quickly, especially if not carefully preserved by the buyer.

Once your images are added to the queue, they are pumped through to the series of printers where they are grouped together with hundreds of other images from other customers. There they are averaged and printed, as is, on large rolls of the aforementioned resin coated and matte papers. The file settings which are required for this type of print are the least acceptable for print - flattened 8 bit Jpeg, PNG, etc. in sRGB or sometimes AdobeRGB colour space, usually at or below 25mb in size. If you request a 20” x 30” print to be made from your Jpeg image which only has enough print resolution for a 5” x 7” print, the image will simply be enlarged on the fly without concern for the resulting quality loss. That’s your problem. Their job is simply to print.

Some of the printers in such systems are loaded with dye based inks which fade easily and quickly in print - within a year, unless protected and kept in darkly lit areas. But, dye based inks are cheap. Other printers may be loaded with pigment based inks which are much better in terms of image longevity and print archivability. But, without effective care and input in terms of critical colour management and massaging of the image at the start for an optimal result, the best print will never be achieved.

All day and night, the line moves on through the queue automatically printing, cutting and spitting out prints at high speed. Attendants serve the needs of the printers by replacing spent rolls of gloss, lustre or matte paper and spent ink cartridges. They also collect the ganged prints from the printer’s output bins and trim them to separate the individual jobs. Sometimes this process is also automated. Based upon volume, cheap inks and papers, these prints are usually pretty cheap.

Unless you have a fine, custom print to compare against your basic print, you might be fooled into thinking that your basic print is perfect. But it’s the only print you have, so how would you be expected to know anything different? Or you may just want to succumb to the belief that it is “good enough.” Well, that may be fine for that type of work - snap shots, social media and basic printed records. But low level expectation would certainly never be acceptable for a fine print.

Crafting a Custom Print, on the other hand is a considerably different process which requires more time and superior materials. The prints are much better and in all likelihood will last a great deal longer - hundreds of years longer.  But, it is indeed a more expensive process and uploading the image may be more difficult as the images which are best for this process are much larger in terms of file size. Each print is crafted individually with care and precision. The process begins with a collaboration and discussion between the photographer or artist and the print maker preferably while the digital image is soft-proofed in full view on a nearby calibrated screen display. The goals are to ensure that the client’s expectations are fully understood, that an appropriate substrate is selected for the print and that their digital image is prepared properly so that it will be rendered to the best print possible.

The photographer or artist knows their work better than anyone else and can articulate their vision for the print. The print craftsperson knows fine printing extremely well and may suggest edits and a paper for the print which will help to achieve the client’s vision. Together they may adjust the image until it comes alive on the selected medium. So the relationship is symbiotic and through this collaboration a fine print is crafted.

While it might seem unnecessary to some, to those who are serious image makers, there are many important considerations to take into account before committing an image to print. But the rewards become quite apparent in the prints. For example, which of the many papers available is best for the printed reproduction of the image? On this subject alone there are many considerations to explore in terms of surface appearance and the finish of the paper from the luxurious photo-style look of fine Baryta papers to 100% cotton rag papers for fine art presentations - its texture from heavily toothed to baby back smooth, warm white to cooler, etc. Which paper best suits the colour gamut of the image if it is in colour or its tonality, balance and character if it is B&W? How long should the print last without fading or deteriorating? Will it be framed and if so what type of glass will be used, i.e. basic glass, Museum, ArtGlass, if any at all? Where will it be displayed or exhibited? What sort of illumination will it enjoy? All of these questions and more are vital to the selection of an appropriate paper, canvas etc..

The best paper for the work is the one which satisfies the many conditions of concern and most importantly, best suits the character of the image, works with it, compliments and completes it in print by helping it to convey its message. To select an appropriate paper clients review our catalogues of fine papers with over 20 options. Each sample is handled, examined and the pros and cons of each candidate are discussed in detail to determine the most suitable base for the piece.

Working backward still in evaluating an image for fine art print, it is necessary to ensure that it exists in an appropriate colour space in consideration of its gamut. I have seen many images with wonderfully brilliant colours which were shamefully truncated and locked away into a relatively tiny colour space forever, its true colour vibrancy never to be seen in print. So, it is important that upon export from RAW to a print ready file that a colour space is assigned which allows for optimal reproduction in print. With every new iteration of inkjet print technology colour gamuts increase making it possible to accurately render more and more of the highly saturated colour which a painter can paint and a photograph can capture. We encourage our clients to take full advantage of these larger gamuts by ensuring their images are free of restraint. Of course ensuring the correct resolution and bit depth for print are applied is also very important.

Once all of the above including the aesthetic choice of paper have been dealt with, we again focus entirely on the soft-proofed image itself to analyse it’s tonality from the lightest lights through to the deepest darks and all the shades and detail between to determine how it will be interpreted by the medium. Changes may again be necessary to achieve the best reproduction in print because whereas the digital image lives on a backlit display with a uniform brightness, the print exists in a world of ambient illumination which will likely be quite different from the display. Hence, specific adjustments can help to make it successful in that world.  Again a collaborative effort will yield a print which both parties can be proud of.

In a nutshell, the difference between these two approaches to printing images - the pedestrian on-line print versus the fine art print - is comparable to the difference between a general practitioner versus a medial specialist. They both serve a need. It is up to the buyer to decide which suits them best. We at CSi Print Studio are proud to offer fine art digital inkjet printing using the finest available archival pigment inks and cotton rag papers.