Digital Print Display
How To Mount And Frame Your Ink Jet Masterpieces

Here's a typical ink jet print: in this case a print out of an Epson Stylus Photo 1270 on Epson Glossy Photo paper. You can see how wavy the print surface is. Without affixing the print to a flat surface like a matte board the print will look awful on display.
Photos © 2000, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

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.

Venerable 3M photo mounting spray makes a comeback big-time for ink jet users. Rather than subject the print to the heat of a commercial press, a careful application of photo mount adhesive will produce a flat and smooth mounted print.

Hot, Cold Or Tape?
Even though I warned them that these were dye sub prints they went ahead and heat mounted them onto a foamcore backing material. What the mounting person didn't realize was that the extreme heat of the commercial press was actually melting the surface of the prints! When I picked up the 20 prints and faced the $2600 bill I noticed that the prints looked funny--upon closer inspection the different colors of the print had slightly lifted from the backing of the print and the surface was millions of little bubbles. When viewed from any angle the prints looked like they were created with colored grains of rice. After several loud arguments we agreed that we would split the cost of the reprints and they would reframe them using a cold mount system.

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.

Expanded Options
Today I have a variety of print output options available. I can upload my images to an online photo house, print via a Lightjet printer at my local pro lab, or make really good color prints on my Epson Photo printer. For my family pictures and portfolio images I always opt for the Epson. It's so immediate and the cost is reasonable. Since I have been doing this for years, starting with the first $500 Epson Photo Stylus that came out in 1997, I've encountered virtually every no-no and foul up that you possibly could.

Now for a list of my top digital print mounting tips.

You want to create as much space between the glass (UV preferably) and the print. A double matte board application works perfectly. (And looks great, too.)

Archival Printing
The biggest downfall of the desktop darkroom revolution has been print life. Most of my prints on display in my home from that first Epson printer have faded badly. Oddly enough, some still look good. Why the difference? It's all about the paper. Images I printed on Canon Photo Glossy Film faded the worst. Epson Photo Glossy paper faded almost as bad, but images printed on Mitsubishi Artist paper hardly faded at all. Likewise, images printed on Konica IQ and framed correctly looked good four years later.

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.

Archival Framing
To really make prints look great and last longer you need to follow conventional archival framing techniques. I find that the Epson Heavyweight Matte paper can be handled just like fiber-based photos. You can tack the print to an acid-free matte board with archival mounting tape, and double or triple matte just like a good photo. For framing I have used any number of frame elements, but always come back to simple Nielsen Museum frames. I strongly recommend that you use only UV absorbing picture glass. While some feel the UV glass has a slight tint to it, you should double or triple your print life since it is the ultraviolet element in light that fades inks the fastest.

The finished print--flat, smooth, double matted, and framed.

Print Mounting
By now you probably have learned the same thing that I did--when you use a hot mount press to mount a glossy ink jet print you've got a mess on your hands. These papers were just not designed to handle heat like that, and in some extreme cases the surface of the print can actually melt. Most likely what you'll get with heat mounting is a puckering of the glossy surface and a muting of the colors. While I've heat mounted matte finish paper with good results, I've heard anecdotally of the print discoloring rather quickly. In general I would treat ink jet prints carefully and avoid heat mounting. I have mounted most of my prints using either 3M photo mounting spray adhesive or traditional cold mounting boards. The spray glue is the cheapest and easiest, but of course it can be very messy. The cold mounting tissue is quite reasonably priced, but it takes a bit of practice to get a smooth and wrinkle-free application.

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?
Like most dye-based applications the ink that flows from your printer to the paper needs time to "flash off." In other words, the solvent in the dye needs to evaporate into the air. Of course as the water and solvents evaporate they must be replaced by something--air in most cases. In some cases reported by Epson 1270 owners, the water was being replaced by the ozone in the air, creating an immediate and distasteful orange shift in the shadows.

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.

Shadow Noise
While everyone craves a really dynamic saturated print, trying to get too punchy a print can virtually ruin your image. I've noticed different noise artifacts in the dark areas of prints pulled from Epson Photo printers and HP PhotoSmart printers. The HP tends to color shift in the shadows, often giving your pure blacks a cyan or magenta cast. The Epson printers can fill the shadows with grainy orange shadow noise, regardless of the purity of your original image. How do you avoid this noise? First of all, you need to carefully calibrate your monitor, then try and implement a color-managed workflow. Color management is an exhaustive subject but the bottom line is you've got to apply just enough saturation and contrast to your images. Too much and you're battling the artifacts. If you really want incredibly rich prints think about sending your work to a service bureau that has higher end equipment like Iris printers, Fuji Pictrography printers, or Lightjet printers.

Sharpening Tips
The biggest complaint I have with most digital prints that I have seen is rampant oversharpening. First of all, you've got to remember that looking at your image at 100 percent on the screen is a terrible way to judge sharpness. Everything looks a bit softer on your monitor than it does in print. Many ink jet printers will soften the image when printed, but the latest Epson and HP ink jets actually sharpen the image when any mode other than "No Adjustment" is chosen.

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
Very little in life is as subjective as color. What looks like a neutral skin tone to me might look different to someone else. In fact, many digital camera owners have taken a major camera company to task for its consistently pinkish skin tones. While some attribute the color bias to their "Asian" perception of skin tones, my belief is it's just a color algorithm that chooses to minimize color artifacts first, then tries to neutralize color second. That's the reason why different 3.3 megapixel cameras from different manufacturers show mar-kedly different noise, sharpness, color balance, and color depth.

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.