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Editing for Print & Tonal Adjustments with Tim Grey

If you are printing your work, getting it to look good on the monitor is just the beginning. To make it look awesome on paper, you have to do a bit more work. Red River Paper has teamed up with photography expert and educator Tim Grey to bring you a video series called Editing for Print. Over the coming weeks we will explore a few simple but critical edits before printing that have a big impact.

This week we look at Tonal Adjustments

Click on the video below to watch.


When it comes to printing, one of the frustrations I hear about most from photographers is that their prints are coming out darker than what they see on their display. Now, there are a couple of issues at play here. First off, if you are not calibrating your monitor display, then what you're looking at is probably about twice as bright as it should be. In other words, you are essentially using an image that is one stop overexposed in order to evaluate the adjustments you'll apply for producing a print.

So the first step is to calibrate your monitor display to make sure that you're getting an accurate view of your photos. But there are still some issues that relate to the print process that can cause for relatively dark prints or prints that are lacking in contrast. In large part, using a profile for the specific printer, ink and paper combination you are using to print will help resolve most issues, but there are still some steps you can take to improve the overall tonality of your prints.

Let's take a look at a basic example using the Levels Adjustment in Photoshop. I’ll start by going to the Image menu and then choosing Adjustments followed by Levels. In this case, I'm working with an image that I've already prepared for print. It's been resized, I've flattened it, everything's ready to go. I've even sharpened the image; I just want to make sure that the overall tonality will look good. And looking at the Histogram within the Levels dialogue, you can see that I have a good overall exposure. I have darks that reach but don't exceed the black point. I have bright areas that reach but don't exceed the white point, and I have a good distribution of tonal values in between, with most of those tonal values being in the mid-tone or slightly darker range.

There are two things that I might want to do when it comes to improving the overall brightness levels in the final print: First is to compensate for an issue related to shadow detail that is common when printing a photographic image, specifically for many printer, ink and paper combinations that is difficult or impossible to get a full range of dark shadow values. And what that causes, is for dark areas to appear as black rather than having subtle shades of gray. To improve that result, we can essentially change the definition for black within our image. In the case of the Levels Adjustment, I can do that by increasing the value for output levels. As I increase this value, you'll see that the dark areas brighten up. In fact, I can make those dark values brighten up all the way to middle gray if I'd like—that would be an extreme adjustment that I would not likely want to apply to an image I was printing. But to compensate for limitations in the print process, I can increase that value up to probably around 15 or 20 for most typical output scenarios, and that will help ensure that the dark shadow areas will retain detail. With a little bit of trial and error, you can find a value that works well for your specific printer with the papers that you prefer to print to. I'll leave that option as it is.

And the other adjustment that I might want to apply in Levels to help improve overall tonality in my print is to brighten the mid-tones. I'll drag the mid-tone slider below the histogram over toward the left, and you can see that as I do so I'm brightening up that shadow detail. I don't want to brighten too much; I just want to improve the perceived detail in those shadow areas. So perhaps something like that will work out well. But in most cases, while the Levels Adjustment is very straightforward and provides some great solutions, I actually prefer to apply a little bit more sophisticated adjustment for my images when I'm printing, especially if I feel that I need to make sure that I'm improving the overall contrast for the image in the final print.

So I'll go ahead and click the cancel button to close the Levels dialogue, and then I'll go back to the Image menu and once again, choose Adjustments, but this time I'm going to use Curves as my adjustment. This is a bit more sophisticated adjustment, but we can start off by simply applying the same basic adjustment that we applied with Levels. I don't have an output slider as we saw in Levels, but you might notice over on the left side toward the bottom, I do have an output value. I can drag the end point, the black point for my curve line up along that left edge to achieve the exact same result that I would've achieved with Levels. In other words, I'm remapping the black value for my printed image. I'll bring this up to a value of about 15 or 20 once again, and now I can apply that mid-tone adjustment. And for that, I simply want to click on the curve itself and drag upward. And if I drag upward from about the center of the curve, I'm actually achieving a result that is virtually identical to what I was accomplishing just moments ago with Levels. But in this case, I don't simply want to brighten the image, I want to both brighten some of those mid-tones but also enhance contrast. And so rather than dragging upward just at the center, I'll go ahead and click and drag upward on that curve, but I will shift the position of that anchor point over toward the right a little bit so that I'm emphasizing my adjustment on some of the brighter values within the image.

At this point, we've achieved a result that is somewhat in line with what we could have accomplished in Levels by virtue of having a single adjustment between the white and the black point adjustment, but in Curves, I can apply multiple similar adjustments. So while I've brightened up the overall image with an emphasis on tonal values that are a little bit brighter than middle gray, I also want to darken down some of those dark shadow areas, essentially just enhancing contrast. Now, keep in mind that I've already brightened up the black point, and so I should be retaining good detail in the shadows for my printed image; I'm simply making sure that I'm also retaining good overall contrast for the mid-tones in my image, essentially brightening up the brighter areas without brightening up the dark shadow areas. So black has been mapped to a value that I think will work well for my specific printer and paper combination, but then I've applied a Curve that will help improve overall mid-tone contrast. It can certainly take a little bit of practice to get comfortable working with Curves in this way, and it does take a little bit of trial and error to determine which settings work best for your specific print conditions. But once you've identified those adjustments, then you could save a preset.

For example, I'll go ahead and click the pop-up to the right of the preset pop-up, and from there I could choose Save Preset, and then save my specific preset. So once I've identified settings that work well for my print conditions, I can save a preset so that I can quickly load that preset in the future to apply adjustments to compensate for the printed output, in other words, making sure that I end up with the very best overall tonality and contrast in every print.

Last updated: October 08, 2014