Digital Print Display
How To Mount And Frame Your Ink Jet Masterpieces
Oh, what a world we live in. Cell phones the size of a pack of chewing gum, 200 channels of cable TV, the Internet and digital cameras that anyone can afford. As technology marches forward everyone seems to get all wrapped up in the hardware and software and the real utility of these devices becomes secondary. Case in point, digital photography.
Since every reader of this magazine either has a digital camera or is thinking about getting one, we know what we want. We want to make photo-quality prints in our homes. We want to shoot all day, review the images on our computer and output brilliant color photo prints on our desktop. The dream of the electronic, totally dry darkroom is a reality, and now cheaper than ever. That said, eventually we all run into the same problem. How do I display my prints?
In my own case I've been printing from digital images for about five years now. My first device was a Tektronix dye sublimation printer. While the output was totally amazing for 1995, I learned my lesson when I had to mount 20 11x14 prints for a client. I spent two whole days setting up the images in Photoshop, outputting to the Tektronix and remaking prints till we were satisfied. Then I trudged down to the local framing superstore.
Hot, Cold Or Tape?
As luck would have it the cold mount system worked fine but after six months in my client's sunlit lobby the glue of the mounting material had seeped through the back of the print, ruining the images. After six months I was out of luck, so everything got reprinted once again, but this time we taped the prints in place using archival acid-free tape. Four and a half years later the prints are a little wavy in their frames, but still look good.
Now for a list of my top digital print mounting tips.
Now that I'm using the Epson 1270 and Epson 2000P I have some expectation that the prints will last longer, but no real guarantee. To ensure a decent chance at longevity I am printing mostly on Epson Heavyweight Matte paper, which is supposed to have the best stability of all the papers. For HP and Lexmark users, you already have pigment-based printers, so you should have a decent shot at longer print life. In general, matte papers seem to resist aging effects better than glossy papers.
Once you have your print mounted think carefully about matting. It is critical that your print does not touch the glass of the frame. Unlike a photo print, the surface of the ink jet print will eventually glue itself to the glass and the dye of the ink will bleed to the glass. Eventually it will dry and be stuck forever.
What About Flash Times?
Even when your print is totally dry to the touch it has a lot of flashing to do. I have a couple of old 16x20 Agfa Brovira paper boxes that I use as drying boxes. I put the fresh ink jet prints in the boxes and let them dry thoroughly in the dark for a few days. Once thoroughly flashed the prints can be mounted and framed.
Heavy-handed use of Unsharp Masking will produce haloing around objects, boost image noise, and create an image that looks decidedly "digital." If you are printing from film scans try high doses of very small radius sharpening. For 40+MB scans from my Leafscan 45 I routinely apply the following USM setting: 250 percent/.3 Radius/2 Levels. This gives me crisp details, very little haloing, and an almost imperceptible change in background noise. For digital cameras try these settings and adjust to taste: 110 percent/.6 Radius/3 Levels.
Color And Perception
It's the same with printing. An image that looked good to me on the monitor may look terrible when printed. Color management issues aside, sometimes I print a brilliant image on my Tektronix dye sub printer at the studio, then find that it looks flat and lifeless on the client's desk. Even my personal pictures have the same reaction--skin tones that looked OK when printed look too pale or too ruddy when viewed the next day. It's not the print fading fast, it's my brain adjusting to the surroundings, then creating a fresh subjective color sense.
The only way to get consistent color is to create a consistent workflow. Certainly color management is important, but the most important thing is a good set of objective reference prints. I just grabbed a half dozen prints out of my family snapshots--ones where the blue sky looks blue, the wall at Fenway looks green, and my kids' faces look realistic. I mounted all of the photos to a black matte board. I keep the board on a separate desk away from my printers. When a test print comes off the printer I take it over to the table where I view everything under the same halogen desk lamp. If the skin tones look too cool I warm them up: if the skies look green I fix them. The bottom line is with a constant reference source I can try and be as objective as possible. When displayed in my home these "eye-balanced" prints should look as "normal" as C prints from the lab.
There is no great secret to making great desktop prints for display. Just as we have all learned from framing our lab-printed photographs over the years, attention to detail and some common sense go a long way. Just remember that ink jet prints are in many ways much more delicate than silver-based prints, and display them accordingly. While I have high hopes that prints from my Epson 2000P will still look good in 20 years, I've archived all of my images on disk just in case I need to reprint and reframe them in the future. All I know is for now the framed and matted prints look nothing short of spectacular.