Printing Your Photographs for Competition

With the unstoppable rise of digital photography and social media sharing, many photographers don’t have much experience with printing their images or entering print competitions. However, printing your photos can bring an exceptionally special, tactile quality to your photos—once you’ve printed your photos for the first time, you won’t ever overlook print again!

Perhaps you’ve printed some of your photographs at home, or simply had a purely computer-based focus up to now. This guide aims to introduce you to the world of digital printing, and show you how you can get started with choosing the right print method, performing the right prep, and selecting paper and ink finishes to give you the best result for entering your photographs into the LBPC League Print Competition or other external competition that Club Members participate in.

We will introduce you to some of the basic principles of digital printing, and walk you through the key things you need to need to know about before submitting your print entry.

Let’s go!

PS. This Section of the website is a work in progress, with a number of Club Members contributing content. If you would like to help contribute get in touch with the Clubs website webmaster.

Digital printing converts the pixels that make up the image on your screen to a hard-copy print using a digital printer, ink and paper. Digital printing is the production stage of the digital photography process, taking place after digital editing and before display or distribution. This chart shows the basic stages of the digital photo process, and where printing comes into play:

Digital printing is the tech age’s answer to more traditional printing techniques, such as offset lithography (whereby the image to be printed is burned onto a plate and then transferred—offset—from the plate to a rubber blanket, before transferring to the printing surface). Many traditionalists would argue that non-digital print techniques give photos and other images a particularly special, intangible quality which is difficult to match using a digital printing process.

However, digital printing is evolving at a phenomenal pace, and now it can be tricky to spot a marked difference in quality between traditionally-produced prints and good digital prints.

For photographers, the main advantage of digital printing is the sheer amount of choice and control you have during the print process. You are spoilt for choice in how to print, where to print, when to print and what to print on. All of these put together make for a highly efficient and on-demand technology and, as a result, a competitive digital printing market, which makes digital printing a wise choice if you have a limited budget.

Printing for Competition

David Marlow has produced a set by step tutorial for beginners who would like to enter Print Competitions for the first time. Below is the Introduction to “Guide to Print Entries using Lightroom and Photoshop”

Guide to Print Entries using Lightroom and Photoshop – Introduction

I find the preparation of images for printing for Club competitions a time consuming and sometimes challenging exercise; to say nothing of the expense.

It is certainly difficult to get the right print in the right frame with a corresponding PDI of exactly the same, framed image.

However, for me, being able to prepare my favourite images for display and maybe frame for others to enjoy in my home and elsewhere is a joy. So I do it; I hope this article inspires you to do the same.

Having been a Leighton Buzzard Photographic Club member since 2012, I have always entered the Internal Print competitions in preference to Projected Digital Images (PDIs). I have always been interested in print. As a teenager, I had my own darkroom, with an enlarger. At college, I ran a club printing press, so I think printing is in my blood somewhere. I do have a web site if you are interested in seeing any of my work.

S2 Print Trophy
LBPC Beginners Section (S2) Print Trophy

I won the Section 2 (Beginners) Print Trophy in 2014-15 and looked after this spectacular ‘cup’ for twelve months. The club gets few entries in Section 2 currently and is considering dropping the Section 2 print class for competitions, which is more than a shame.

I think that beginners need the opportunity to compete away from the very experienced senior members against whom they have an unequal chance of success.

Use it or lose it’ comes to mind! I hope this guide encourages a few of you to have a go.

The club will support you all the way with free access to some of the tools you need and unending advice. All you need to do is to ask.

The Club has a number of items available to help members in their print and PDI preparation in addition to advice from the committee and other members, some of whom have a lifetime of experience in photography and its wider application and well.

This preparation stage is different to the editing and retouching stage, in that it is performed purely to optimise the print quality of the photo, not the aesthetics of the image. This quick tutorial from Harry Guinness shows you the basics of how to edit your photos non-destructively before moving onto the print preparation stage, and Chamira Young’s course covers the non-destructive raw processing process in detail.

After you’ve edited your photo and you’re happy with the end result, you’re ready to move onto the preparation stage. Preparing for print involves assessing four main technical elements of the photo:

Can you identify any colours which are oversaturated or need more saturation in your image? Heavily saturated colours like red tones can cause problems at the printing stage. At the other end of the spectrum, colours which are lacking in saturation might appear dull and washed-out in print. Calibrating your monitor or neutralizing your editing application’s workspace can also make a huge difference to how you assess the colour balance in your photos.

You may have already tweaked the contrast of your photos at the editing stage for aesthetic purposes, but you should also take the time to reassess the contrast levels with a printed end result in mind. In part due to the light omitted by screens, contrast often appears stronger when viewed on a computer. In print format, contrast can appear less stark, so it might be a good idea to increase the contrast levels to a little more than you would normally apply and then test until it looks just right.

Perception of image sharpness can also differ depending on whether the photo is viewed on screen or in print. You may need to increase the sharpness of the image to bring out the clarity of detail in the picture. The end result will be a sharp, graphic print which will look bold and beautiful when displayed and viewed from afar.

You probably already have an idea of how large you would like your image to be printed, but remember that this will have its limitations depending on the resolution of the picture. If you want to print your image as a large-scale, high-quality art print you need to make sure that the image is of extremely high resolution. This ensures that no pixelation will be visible in the image whether the viewer is looking at the image from two metres or two centimetres away. Also note that if you are printing a photo as a poster, banner or other media that doesn’t need to be as high-quality as an art print it’s acceptable to send the image as a slightly lower-resolution image, though you should still set this to a minimum of 300 DPI (‘dots per inch’), which you can do from Photoshop by going to File > New and typing 300 into the Resolution text box.

As technology continues to evolve, so do the number of methods for printing your photographs digitally. Knowing a little about these different printing methods will help you to choose the right method for you, and narrow down who to approach for the job.

On the home printer market now you can find a huge range of types of printers, some of which will perform better than others, and all of which are tailored to particular tasks. You may have come across a dot matrix printer in an office setting—these printers generally are cheap to run and suited to printing text-heavy, low-quality administrative and data documents. You may also have encountered dye-sublimation printers, which are more specialised for printing high-quality full-colour images extremely quickly. The professional digital printing industry uses two main printing methods: inkjet and laser.

A cost-effective and high-quality choice for artists and photographers looking to produce high-quality art prints of their work, inkjet printing produces a fine-art result that can be applied to a range of print media, such as paper, canvas, plastic, fabric and metal. When the media is fed into the inkjet printer, a moving print head squirts small amounts of coloured ink onto the surface as it moves backwards and forwards. Inkjet printers use four colours, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and ‘Key’ (Black) (known as CMYK), stored in separate reservoirs inside the printer, to build up a full spectrum of colours.

Some professional digital printers will use a laser printing method for producing photographic prints. Digital versions of the images are exposed onto light-sensitive photographic paper with lasers and processed using photographic developers and fixers. These laser-generated prints are, in comparison to inkjet prints, true photographs, with visibly continuous tone in the detail of the image. As a result, laser-generated prints are of exceptionally high-quality, making them suitable for archival storage and exhibition display.

All inkjet printers use ink (surprise, surprise!) to create a print. However, it’s useful to know that there are in fact two different types of ink used by inkjet manufacturers: dye and pigment.

Each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and can produce different results. Depending on the brand and model of printer your chosen printshop uses, they will be tied into using either dye or pigment—if you really want to show that you know your stuff, you can ask printers which brand they use and which ink type they’ve opted for.

Dyes are coloured substances which are either liquid or soluble in water. When applied to print media, a commercial dye stains the surface temporarily or permanently (if fixed with a mordant*). The main advantages of dye inks are that they are inexpensive and have especially vibrant colours, which results in a cost-effective, highly saturated print result. However, dyes are not particularly lightfast, meaning they tend to fade over time if exposed to sunlight. This might make dyes an unsuitable choice if you’re producing archival prints, but a great value choice for short-term print projects.

* a mordant is a chemical that fixes a dye onto a surface by mixing with the dye to form an insoluble compound 

Pigments aren’t soluble in water, but instead, are held in suspension by the liquid. Instead of being absorbed by the media, pigments sit on the surface. They are more lightfast than dyes, keeping their colour intact for several hundred years, which makes them suitable for archival prints. The main disadvantages of pigments, as opposed to dyes, are that they are more expensive and lack the vibrant colours produced by dyes.

These days technology allows you to print onto just about any material—canvas, metal, fabric, you name it. However, for Club Print Competitions you need to print onto paper, which is easy to get hold of and produces an easy-to-display format that can be trimmed, mounted and framed.

You should get to know a little about the different paper finishes available, which will help you choose the right print result for your photos. There’s no wrong or right paper to use for printing photos—although traditionally photos may have been printed on high-gloss paper to maximize the vibrancy of colour in the image, this isn’t the only choice for photographers looking for a more contemporary finish. Almost all printers will recommend printing photographs onto specialist photo paper, which prevents the ink from absorbing into the paper, instead of allowing the ink to be held on top of the surface.

Paper varies in both weight and finish. Weight is measured in GSM, or ‘Grams per Square Meter’ and will have an effect on how flimsy or stiff the paper feels. A low weight, between 120-150 GSM is common for brochures and some lower-quality poster prints, but you’ll need to look at printing your photos on at least 150-200 GSM weight paper for standard prints, and 200-300 GSM for keepsake prints. Galleries might even print photos at a heavier, +300 GSM weight to ensure the print is particularly hardy and suitable for long-term storage.