What is a Good Print?

Of course, we have to begin with a good image. What’s that?  Well, while beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, from an aesthetic standpoint, in my view, the image should be attractive and appealing;  the framing and composition should be intriguing as should the subject matter itself;  the image should fascinate, draw us in, touch us, entertain us, make us think, make us curious, suggest a narrative or ignite a feeling. Great images evoke a mood or a sense of the actual moment experienced by the photographer.

All that said, content alone is certainly not everything.  The medium on which  the image is presented is just as important as the image itself. A distorted computer screen can destroy an image. A small screen has a very different visual impact than a large one. The same is true of an image in print where the size and quality of a rendering play the same vital role in its ultimate effectiveness and impact.

From a technical standpoint, the degree to which an image appears to be “correct” is dependant upon the apparently intended mood and the nature of the subject matter which can range from soft and ethereal to stark and dramatic and everything between. The effects of these are enhanced by whether the image is in colour or B&W.

Then, there is the quality of the post processing. The image should be free of distracting defects.  The level of grain or noise should be as low as possible; There should be no chromatic aberration; The tones should be well balanced without colour casts particularly for untoned B&W work which should have perfect neutral balance when printed and viewed under correct illumination for  critical analysis. In my view, B&W images are more effective when tonality is deeper and the contrast is strong for a more dramatic interplay between the lights and darks.

Exposure, saturation, contrast, clarity and sharpness must all appear to be correct insofar as they serve the image without causing distraction through their over or under application. If the image is supposed to be in focus, the focus should be spot on with detail that is sharp and clear. The function of image sharpening alone can make or break the final image. For one thing, over-sharpening increases noise. Over-sized contours (halos) from overly aggressive sharpening become obvious,  over bearing and actually reduce the apparent clarity and sharpness. Under sharpening of an image whose focus and detail rely upon spot on sharpness leaves an image weak and disappointing. Without having the benefit of a ‘before and after’ set of images for comparison, we may not know what it is that is bothering us. We just know the image is somehow not right.

When the print comes into the picture, so to speak, there are many factors which are responsible for the success of an image when packaged in print. Since the paper or other substrate forms the base on which the image is rendered, it is responsible for the presentation of the image in print. Therefore, it is vitally important that the choice of base suits the image, works with it to enhance and complete it. Each base has its own gamut, density range, surface colour, brightness, reflectivity, texture, feel, thickness, opacity, weight and permanence rating. The base forms the tactile portion of the experience of the print. The artist must consider all of this along with how the base will accept ink - whether it will sit on the surface or be absorbed into the base and spread (bleed) versus the desired effect.

The final destination of the print is also an extremely important consideration in terms of choice of base. For example, depending upon the intended destination, the permanence of the chosen base is a very important consideration. If the chosen base contains optical brightening agents (OBAs or FWAs) which make for the appearance of additional brightness, whiteness and contrast, that is fine, as long as the illumination falling on the print contains an ultraviolet component. Otherwise it will be ineffective. Also, most museums and galleries filter out UV illumination for the sake of print longevity. In that event, the effect of the OBAs is eliminated.

The print itself should be clean and defect free - no kinks or scratches, scuffs or abrasions. Of course, depending upon the image, ink density should be strong with deep saturation where colours and deepest darks are meant to be so. Printer screening should not be apparent in terms of coarseness or artefacts such as moire;  detail should be clearly defined. Throughout the tone range, tonal transitions should be smoothly rendered without banding, harsh breaks, blotching, ink picking or flaking.

If the image contains textural elements, we should virtually feel them through the optimal rendering of contrast, clarity and tonality on the suitable choice of base. It should be resolved clearly without colour halos caused by chromatic aberration or mis-registration. Matte blacks on fine art, matte papers should be as smooth and deep as black velvet and gloss blacks should be as dense as possible without blocking up deep 3/4 tone or shadow detail.

A printed image should be at a size which suits its content. A would-be spectacular image on a 4” x 5” print would have far less impact as compared to the same image on an A2 or larger print. On the other hand a boring or poorly rendered image cannot be saved by making a mural of it.

Above all and at the very least, the image in print should be as true as possible to the actual print-ready image file as displayed on a perfectly calibrated, wide gamut display. If the print doesn't look 'right,' then the image should be inspected first followed by the illumination under which the print is being analyzed followed by the rendering itself. The print should be brought to life by its chosen base. The print should sing the praises of the image and together they should successfully convey the experience and emotions which inspired the captivation of the moment. The marriage of the two should exalt the image to a higher level of aesthetic beauty in terms of rich tonality and presence.

An extraordinary image printed to technical perfection on a fine paper or other base is a very special and impressive thing. It is a worthy monument to the moment which inspired its creation. It enriches the viewer.