Custom printing used to be very time consuming and therefore expensive. With digital imaging the results can be both stunning and relatively inexpensive at the same time. The quality of the image is in the hands of the photographer as the file is determining factor. There are more good labs out there than ever before, and unlike the past, they are willing to work with both pros and non-pros alike. Printing your own files can be rewarding, but it is another skill that requires a substantial investment in time and technical know-how that many people find a bit overwhelming.
Printing photos at home is a more complex endeavor than most people realize at first. You have to move into wide format professional and fine art printers to get the best of the options and produce truly fine prints that cannot be distinguished from color prints from a darkroom or commercial printer. High quality images require an understanding of file formats, color spaces, and resolution before you even think about how to run the hardware. Top quality images can be printed on top quality printers, but printing can be an exercise in frustration unless you are willing to invest in a learning curve that is arguably more complex than basic photography. It shouldn't be, but it is. Unfortunately, desktop printers that are less than professional quality printers are an exercise in frustration and very high in the cost of consumables and are not a viable alternative for high quality photographic printing.
While printing from Photoshop is possible, Lightroom affords the photographer a much greater level of control. Lightroom is designed for management and control of the printing process and adds simplicity in the creation of custom templates. Whatever you use, do not expect click and print solutions. Printing is an art in itself and requires a fair amount of understanding of both the software and the printer to get the best results.
I am now offering Fine Art Printing Services to photographers as well as copying services for artists. Output is with an Epson 24 inch wide format printer and a variety of paper offerings. Archival prints from this printer are estimate to provide a minimum of 100 years stability with the materials I offer.
Output Resolution for Printing
Printing an image on a desktop printer, sending it to a kiosk or service bureau for printing or providing an image for professional offset printing requires looking at files in a different way. Now we may need to attach the output resolution numbers to the image to indicate how large the image will be. The more you know about the device that will used to make the print, the better you will be able to provide an image of the appropriate size in pixels.
The key is to always think in terms of the size of the image in pixels which is a good habit. If we need to provide someone with a 300 ppi (remember that means pixels per inch) image, we need to divide the number of pixels by 300 to get the numbers of inches the file will provide, or multiply the inches by the desired resolution to determine the needed pixels. A ten inch image at 300 ppi needs to be 3000 pixels in that dimension. An Epson printer is 360 ppi, so a ten inch image needs 3600 pixels. The kiosk at your local Costco sends files to the printer at 300 ppi. Some kiosk printers can use files with lower resolutions, but remember that the printer is interpolating the files in order to create the size you ask for and providing more pixels results in better quality. Printing smaller images is no big deal, but larger images may degrade if the pixel count is too low. With all of this in mind, in most cases you will not need to resize an image for printing in Photoshop. That is best handled in the Printing dialogs in Lightroom or by the person printing your file for you. If in doubt, ask the printer how they want the file sent to them in terms of size and resolution.
When in doubt simply supply the file with a common resolution such as 300 ppi as that can be modified if needed. Remember that the resolution is a means of calculating the output size, and is otherwise relatively unimportant. Just remember to leave the resample box unchecked. The way to remember what to do is to watch the image size numbers at the top of the dialog box. If they do not change you are doing the right thing. Another indicator is that the width and height options in pixels is grayed out in the dialog meaning you cannot change the file dimensions, only the size of the output relative to the resolution. Play with this dialog box changing things until you grasp the concept.
Let me emphasize (again) that resizing images is only necessary if you need to supply an output file for a specific purpose. Making larger or smaller images from your file should normally be left to whoever is making the print. Most fine art photographers currently print using Lightroom, which has very sophisticated printing capabilities. One of its primary design intents was to be used for printing. Outside printing services may or may not use Lightroom, but will provide the best print if you follow the same basic concepts in cropping your images.
In most cases you should crop to the aspect ratio you want without specifying a resolution in the crop dialog. The other option is to choose the W x H x Resolution option and click the Clear button to remove all specifications. Now you can crop as you wish with no restrictions. Either will retain the most pixels, only removing those pixels outside of your crop. For example, you may wish the image to fit 8x10 dimensions, so you would set the crop tool to match that aspect ratio (4x5) but not enter a resolution into the crop tool. This will avoid resampling of the file to a larger or smaller size. Rather, it will only remove pixels that will not conform to the desired print ratio. If you choose an "aspect ratio" in the crop tool drop down you will not get a resolution box by default for this reason.
Your inclination is to crop to a specific size and resolution, especially if you have been asked to provide an image to a designer or printer. Unfortunately, most designers do not need to understand resolution and even if you give them a file that is accurate in terms of pixel dimensions, if the specified resolution is not what they expect they may challenge you on the file. Give them what they ask for. If you give them a 1200 x 1800 pixel image it will print at 4x6 inches at 300 ppi even if the resolution in the file box says 72 ppi. Avoid the confusion and enter the desired resolution in the box with the resample box unchecked.
Resizing images for specific purposes, such as inclusion in a website, is a similar but slightly different story. There you need to work with specific pixel dimensions, but again, the resolution is not important. While 72 ppi is assumed by most designers for the web, the only dimensions specified in the code are the width and height in pixels. Again, the web designer will be looking for a 72 ppi image resolution even if the pixel dimensions are accurate.
If you learn to understand images in terms of the pixel dimensions you will be ahead of the game. If you need to talk in terms of inches, for example, simply multiply the inches by the desired resolution to determine the number of pixels needed. A 4x6 inch print at 300 ppi therefore requires 1200 x 1800 pixels. It is rather simple once you think about it. It is always and only about the pixels.