10 Steps To Optimizing Your Images
Stellar prints start with sharp, properly adjusted image files. Follow these steps to prepare your image files to make your best prints ever!
1. SAVE A COPY
Keep your original file—as captured by the camera—untouched. That way, you can always go back to the original. Make a duplicate file as your first step, and you’ll never be stuck. Since you’ll be optimizing your file for printing at a particular size, consider including the size in the copy’s file name (i.e. “image-11×14”) for easy reference.
If you need to crop your photo, do this before making other adjustments. That way, your software doesn’t evaluate the unwanted pixels when you’re making color and tonal adjustments. It also reduces file size.
3. ADJUST TONALITY
Before tweaking color, get the tonality of your image balanced, as this affects color, too.
Setting black and white levels
The extremes of the range—blacks and whites—are critical for contrast and color. The Levels adjustment tool is ideal for handling tonal adjustments of shadows and highlights.
Press Alt/Option while moving the left (black) slider in Levels, and the screen goes white (black threshold screen). As you move the slider to the right, you’ll begin to see colors and blacks show up. When they start to appear, release the Alt/Option key to see the effect you’re making on the photo. Usually, you’ll want a solid black somewhere (except for photos that don’t have much shadow, such as a foggy scene). For most photos, you’ll want the black slider to land somewhere near the left edge of the histogram.
Next, adjust the highlights, holding the Alt/Option key with the right (white) slider, using the same technique.
Curves default settings
Curves with anchors set
Curves after adjustment
To perfect the midtones and overall tonality of the image, try using Curves. Typically, a good “Curve” is a smooth “S” shape. The Curves control starts as a straight diagonal line. Start by placing the crosshair cursor at the intersection of the topmost and rightmost lines in the Curves grid and then clicking.
This places an anchor point on the diagonal line. Repeat this to create another anchor at the intersection of the leftmost and bottom lines in the Curves grid. Now, slowly drag the lower-left anchor down and the upper-right anchor up to create your “S” curve. Go easy on this adjustment. Be sure that the Preview option is checked, and keep your eye on the photo.
3a. QUICK TIP: Use Adjustment Layers In Photoshop
Add an Adjustment Layer
Adjustment Layers are one of the best features in Photoshop, especially when prepping an image for print. Since apparent sharpness, contrast and color are all affected by the size at which you’re printing, the ability to make changes to previous adjustments is invaluable.
Layers Palette showing Adjustment Layer
Adjustment Layers remain separate from your original image and always changeable, so you’re never “stuck” with earlier adjustments. Adjustment Layers are available for several of the more useful photo enhancements, including Levels, Curves and Hue/Saturation.
4. ADJUST COLOR
With your tonal range now set, you can perfect your color. First, make sure that your colors are neutral. An easy way to do this is to use Levels again (ideally as
Using Levels eyedropper for neutral color
another Adjustment Layer). Doing this as a separate step from the earlier Levels adjustment lets you undo this color correction without affecting your earlier adjustments. Using the gray (middle) eyedropper in the Levels control panel, click on an area of the photo that should be neutral—deepest shadows, specular highlights or something you know to be gray. If the colors in your photo look off, try clicking another spot until they look right.
Boost color with Hue/Saturation
Now that your photo is color-neutral, you can use Hue/Saturation adjustments to cool or warm the hues and punch up your colors, if necessary. Again, using an Adjustment Layer for this is preferable. The key to using this adjustment is to use it lightly. Be careful not to oversaturate. If you see areas of your photo that should be a smooth gradient start to block up
, pull back on the amount of Saturation and increase Lightness.
5. CLEAN UP SPOTS
If there are dust spots or other blemishes you want to remove, this is a good point in the process to do it. Use the Clone Stamp or a similar tool to touch up before proceeding.
6. RESIZE FOR OUTPUT
Hopefully, you’ve been saving your adjustments as you go. Using Photoshop’s PSD format lets you keep all of your Adjustment Layers so you can return to the photo later and undo or redo any of these changes. Save the file now, before resizing, and then save it again as a copy with a modified name. This copy image is the one
Setting image size and resolution
you should resize for printing so that you’ll always have your master file at full resolution. Then open the Image Size control panel.
How big should your file be? A safe setting that works great with most printers is 300 dpi. For larger print sizes, a lower resolution of around 240 dpi still will deliver a terrific print—because the viewing distance for a larger print is typically farther than that for a smaller one. Photographers pairing a recent-model DSLR like the Canon EOS Rebel T1i with a wide-format, 13×19-inch printer like the Canon PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II will find that the camera’s file size perfectly matches the resolution needed for the printer. Using a file from the Canon EOS Rebel T1i as an example, setting the width to 18 inches (leaving 0.5-inch margins on either side) results in height of 12 inches and resolution of 264.5 dpi.
If you want to make a print smaller than your file size, you can check the Resample Image box and choose Bicubic (best for smooth gradients) as the sampling method. Then set the resolution to 300 dpi and the file dimensions appropriate for the print you want. Remember to leave yourself some margin; 0.5 inches is safe with most printers.
Our last adjustment is to sharpen the image. Unsharp Mask is the preferred tool for many professionals because it allows a lot of control. Like saturation, sharpness is something you don’t want to overdo.
Using Unsharp Mask controls
The Unsharp Mask control panel provides three sliders, which allow you to adjust the effect. The top slider is Amount (which controls the intensity of sharpening) and ranges from 1% to 500%. The middle slider is Radius (which controls the width of the edge sharpening) and ranges from 0.1 to 250 pixels. The bottom slider is Threshold (which controls how dissimilar pixels must be from one another to be sharpened; higher settings reduce sharpening, but also noise) and ranges from 0 to 255 levels.
Each image requires a different degree of sharpening, but here are some starting points: for a portrait—Amount 100, Radius 1.0, Threshold 6; for architecture or landscapes—Amount 150, Radius 1.5, Threshold 3; for a high-ISO image—Amount 150, Radius 1.0, Threshold 10. Compact digital cameras apply a lot of sharpening to JPEG images, so they may require a Threshold setting in the 10 to 12 range. Larger image files (higher-megapixel counts) can take higher Radius settings than smaller files, but generally, less than 2 works best.
You’ll know when you’ve oversharpened if edge details start to look jagged and haloed, or if the image looks harsh overall. Also, consider that you don’t
Convert for Smart Filters
have to sharpen the whole image. You can use masks to selectively sharpen only certain areas. In a portrait, for example, it’s generally more effective to selectively
Layers Palette showing layer with Smart Filter
sharpen the eyes, and maybe the hair, mouth and nose, and let the skin stay a bit soft. In a landscape, you may want to sharpen foreground rocks and trees, but not a selectively out-of-focus background area or the sky.
7a. QUICK TIP: Smart Filters
Recent versions of Photoshop allow you to convert the image for use with Smart Filters. Like Adjustment Layers, Smart Filters allow you to apply effects like Unsharp Mask in a nondestructive way and return to those effects later and change the settings.
8. SET YOUR PRINTER DRIVER
You’re ready to print, but before you click OK, make sure you’ve set the printer driver correctly. First, check that the paper size and orientation
Remember to select the paper you’re using
are correct. Check the paper and quality settings. Most printer drivers include a variety of presets for different types of media. Be sure to select a media type that most closely describes the paper type you’re choosing. Also make sure that the printer’s quality mode is at its highest setting.
8a. ADVANCED TIP: Paper Profiles
Proper printer driver settings are essential, and installing ICC profiles for your selected paper will go a step further to ensure that the printer is set correctly for the unique characteristics of your paper, taking the guesswork out of the process. Your paper manufacturer’s website is the first resource to check for custom profiles. Canon also provides an ICC profile for using select art papers with its PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II and PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II, including papers from popular brands like Moab by Legion, Museo, Arches, Canson and Hahnemühle. Click here to learn more about installing ICC profiles on your system.
9. MAKE A TEST PRINT
This is an especially good idea if you plan to make several copies of an image or print on larger, more expensive media. Making a text print on a smaller piece of paper lets you check the results of your adjustments. Don’t resize the image to fit a smaller piece of paper—when your software prompts you that the image is larger than the paper and that some clipping will occur, that’s okay. You want to see how the image details will print at full size; it doesn’t matter that some of the image will be cropped because of the smaller paper.
10. YOUR FINAL PRINT
If you’re happy with the test print—congratulations! You’ve mastered the essential steps for professional-quality prints. If not, evaluate the elements that still need adjustments and return to the image. If you used Adjustment Layers and Smart Filters, you can make tweaks with minimal effort. Let your print rest for a while before mounting and framing to ensure the ink has had a chance to fully set.