Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Preparing Images for Printing at Retail | LightScribbles

Rule one, or maybe it's one rule of blogging is to write about what you know. I think that I'm qualified to write about this topic. I've worked in photo retail for over 10 years, much of that time printing photos for customers.

I often see customers that bring in photos that are the wrong filetype, size, bit depth, colorspace, or any number of other possible issues. I'll try to address some of that and help you to get it right next time you take your photos in for printing or order prints online.

This is the image that I'll use to help illustrate this topic.

The Easy Stuff: Some things are really simple and don't take much discussion. For most people it's not even an issue.

File types: Most retail printers require either a JPG or TIF file format. Occasionally they may accept another file type or two, but most of the proprietary or obscure formats will not work. If you are printing directly from the memory card that you just took out of your camera, then this should not be an issue. Most cameras record in the JPG format, so unless you are shooting in a RAW format you'll be able to print with no problems.
A quick word about TIF files: If you have edited your image in a program that supports layers, you may have saved the file with the layers intact. Unfortunately most printing systems will not read the layered files correctly. They will either not be to display it at all, or will not show the correct image as you intended it.

Bit Depth: This really only applies to the TIF files. All JPG files are 8-bit images. For printing the TIF files need to be 8-bit as well. If you have been editing a 16-bit file, be sure to convert it to 8-bit before attempting to get it printed.

Color Space: There are many different colorspaces available to use for your digital images. Retail printing equipment is designed to accept RGB files. If your file is embedded with a different type of profile, such as CMYK, it usually cannot be read by the printing system. Of the different RGB formats available, the printers are setup for sRGB, but can do a fair job of converting other RGB formats such as the popular AdobeRGB. For best color match I would recommend using sRGB so that there is not a huge surprise with the print output.

These things are all easily corrected in whichever photo editing software you choose to use. If you have done no editing, and are printing directly from your camera's memory card, then there is likely to be no issue for you with any of these.

Now For the Big One: Have you ever wanted to print a photo in a non-standard size? Perhaps you've gotten a frame that doesn't work with the common 4x6, 5x7, or 8x10 prints.

Here is the scenario: You've just scored a major deal on an antique frame at your local flea market (or garage sale, Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc.), but the opening for the picture is a square, and it's 7 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches. A 5x7 is too small, but an 8x10 is a bit too large, what do you do?

So, you head into your photo editing software and crop your photo to that square format. You save it to your USB flash drive and head on down to your local camera store to get it printed.

[It really doesn't matter what software you use to do your cropping. There are many programs available, some are easier than others of course. I used the FREE program GIMP for this posting to show that you don't have to spend a lot of money on software.]

Your square crop, ready to print???
 You arrive at the store, sit down at the self-service print kiosk, insert your USB drive and start to place your order. You then notice that there is no print size for a 7 1/4 x 7 1/4. You decide that you will just order an 8x10 because you are sure that it will fit and work just fine.

Your square format is cropped to fit an 8x10 print.
That computer doesn't know what size you really want your print to be. You've just told it that you want an 8x10, so it's going to give you an 8x10, even though that means cropping your square format. It also attempts to fill the entire 8x10 frame rather than keeping the entire image. [Many print kiosks allow you to zoom out to get the full image area, leaving white edges, but still do not let you zoom to a specific size within the print dimensions.]

So, you decide you'll take the 8x10 home and hope that it works anyway. Besides, it can't be all that far off, can it?

Placing your 8x10 into your square frame crops a lot more than you wanted.
As you can see in the above image, your square frame crops that 8x10 quite a bit. I centered the frame opening here, but you could shift it to get all of the bird's head in, but then you lose more of the tail. Either way, it's really not an ideal situation.

What should you have done?: Your initial step of cropping the image was the right thing to do. The problem was having it in a non-standard size. Many image editing programs have an option for you to adjust the canvas, or document, size. This will allow you to add an extra border without changing the scale of your image. Simply change your canvas size to the next larger standard print size, an 8x10 in this case, and then take that file for printing. This will ensure that your print fits your frame as you intended it to.

Square crop on an 8x10 document.
This method will work for pretty much every custom size that you need. Feel free to talk with the employees where you get your prints made and find out what they can do for you. I do have a number of non-standard sizes setup on the machine I use for printing, but these sizes are not always available on the self-service kiosk.

A Few Other Tips:
Select your images before you go to the store. Really, this will save you a lot of time in the long run. I've seen countless customers sit down with a memory card full of 1000+ images to only order a dozen or so. I'm big on FREE software, so I recommend Google's Picasa for this purpose. Import your images to your computer, sort through them and select the ones you really want to print, and then export just those images and put them on a USB drive or CD. Now you don't have to sort through the 1000+ at the store, and you can just hit the select all to order 1 copy of everything if 1 copy is all you want.

Crop your images first. I just went through sizing your image for a custom size, but it can also be helpful to size your images for standard sizes. Most point and shoot cameras (which is likely the majority of cameras being used) do not take  photos that fit a standard print size. Unlike 35mm film and most DSLRs, full frame on the small cameras is not 4x6, but is actually closer to 4x5.33. Because of this difference in aspect ratio part of the image is automatically cropped to fit the print size. You can adjust the crop at the time of printing, or you can save some time and take control of the cropping at home. Again, just use something like Google's Picasa software to crop the standard sizes that you want, and then take those cropped images in for printing. There won't be that moment of surprise that comes when seeing that "uncle Joe's" head is cut off in the print, but unless you hate "uncle Joe", you don't want that surprise anyway.

Make your color and brightness adjustments first. I've seen way too many prints that come out really dark. This is usually due to customers not bothering to check if adjustments need to be made, or just not understanding how to use the kiosk to make the adjustment. We use the Kodak Picture Makers which do have an Enhancement feature, and I'm sure other systems do as well, but that doesn't mean it always gets used. While you are busy selecting and cropping in Picasa, why not go ahead and make other adjustments while you are at it. Picasa has a "Feeling Lucky" button that does a fair job, but then also has control sliders for other adjustments. Add in the creative effects such as b&w or spot color conversion and you have a lot of control available in a great little free program.

To sum it up - take control of your final output and do as much as is possible before you sit down at the kiosk. Your prints will look better and you'll be happier.

If this post has been at all helpful to you, please share it with others.

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