To me, a photograph isn't really finished until it is printed. It's just an incredible feeling to hold my own print in my hands, and it feels like the image comes to life in a way. Initially, I was often disappointed when I received my printed photos. They didn't really look the way I had edited them on screen. Often to underexposed, blurry, or distracting elements taking away my focus from the intended subject or story I was trying to tell. I researched, asked experts in the field, and learned how to improve my prints. I would like to share what I've learned so far.
Get a good start: Image size and quality
I see my digital images as huge files packed with information. To get the best print quality, I opt for optimal file quality from the very beginning. I photograph in RAW format and copy images to Lightroom and edit them non-destructively. Whenever I need to edit externally in Photoshop or with another plugin, I make sure it is opened as a 16-bit/component TIFF file with a resolution of 300 dpi and ProPhoto RGB colour space. Keep in mind it is easy to make a large file smaller but pretty much impossible to do the opposite.
No more dark prints: Screen brightness adjustment
I keep in mind that my screen is backlit, but my printed photos aren't. To reduce the risk of underexposing my pictures during the editing process, I usually adjust my brightness slider and dim my display. When working on bright screens, we often compensate for this by reducing the exposure resulting in underexposed (dark) prints. I edit on a Mac and usually keep my brightness slider control at 1-3 "dots". I typically turn off the light in the room and close the blinds closest to me to reduce other light sources beam into my display. Using a neutral grey background also helps with maintaining the desired exposure and colour scheme in the image.
Draw attention to the intended subject: Clean up the image
I don't have a big screen, and often I look at my photos on my mobile phone. I've realised that I can get away with some clutter when the images are small. Unfortunately, being lazy doesn't work well when printing large format images!
I usually zoom in a lot and look around the image's edges to clear anything that draws attention to it: sticks, tonal differences, etc. Then I go over the rest of the image and remove any distracting elements that steal focus from the intended subject and to maintain a balance in the picture. Anything distracting will be removed. I keep zooming in and out to notice the difference. My favorite cleaning up tools are the content-aware fill tool or the clone stamp tool in Photoshop. I haven't yet managed to get good results with the spot removal tool in Lightroom.
Here are two of my favourite prints before and after I cleaned them up in Photoshop and saved them back to Lightroom. The left images are the end results and the right images are before I cleaned them. I don't often add things to my images, only remove. How we alter our photos depend entirely on our own editing ethics.
Don't loose quality: Saving and exporting the image
There are many different options to choose from when saving and exporting images. Saving an image for screen or print varies to a great extent. Generally, my pictures intended for printing are saved as uncompressed 16-bit/component TIFF files with a resolution of 300 dpi and Adobe RGB colour space. These files are, of course, large and take up a lot of memory. Once I'm finished with them, I store them on an external hard drive and archive them.
Here are my preferences when saving or exporting images in Lightroom. You find it in the menu bar File>Export
Finding the right print shop
To me, this is probably one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle when printing. It takes a lot of knowledge and excellent equipment to finalise a good print. There are different printing methods, varying quality of printers, various types of papers to choose from, and the print master's experience to take into account. I would only use printshops that help me navigate these different choices and give me good customer service. It reveals the shops' level of knowledge and their interest in helping me get the best possible product, thus becoming a recurring customer.
Seeing a photograph printed and holding it is truly a pleasure. I find that these quite simple tricks have majorly improved the quality of my prints. Depending on your photography level, maybe you will or won't use all of these tricks, but if you are not happy with your print results, I recommend trying out one or a few. A camera with a quality sensor and high resolution is necessary to print large format prints. But it is possible to get decent smaller format prints with less advanced cameras as well. So don't let your level of photography or camera model stop you from printing your memories!