Above: Two screen shots from two popular pigment inkjet printer drivers showing a few of the different quality/speed options. The Canon PIXMA Pro 9500 Mark II driver is on the left, and the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 driver is on the right.
In the previous two parts of this series (Part 1, and Part 2), I covered calibrating and profiling, how to use standard test images effectively (especially when viewing images on monitors), and the importance of controlling your lighting when evaluating prints. In this article I will cover some print testing tips to help you efficiently match your monitor and printer output.
Use a Small Test Image (Reference Print)
Regardless of whether you create your own custom output profiles, use company-supplied output profiles, or allow the printer to do the color management (called “Printer Managed Color”),” it’s a good idea to print a small standard test image. The test image is 3.25×3.46 inches at 275PPI (a good size for quick testing), and the 275 PPI resolution works well for most printers, including inkjet and popular photo lab printers, such as the Fuji Frontier. The image shown above is an 8.5×11 inch sheet of paper with the test image placed in the corner. This allows the paper to be re-inserted into most printers so that the image can be moved and printed again.
Try a few different quality settings using the test image to determine what works best. You may have to click on “Custom” in the driver to access the various settings, and every manufacturer calls these settings something different. For example, Most HP printers use: Standard Quality vs. High Quality, and for years, Epson has used 720 DPI, 1440 DPI, 2880 DPI, etc. Another common option is “High Speed,” which generally means that the printer will print in bi-directional mode instead of just putting down ink when the printhead travels in one direction.
By printing out the small test image multiple times on the same paper or other substrate using different settings, you can find your printer’s “sweet spot,” or the settings that give you just the right speed and print quality for specific purposes. Sometimes a slightly lower quality print at a lower resolution is all you need, and other times you will need higher quality output.
Please note: For this system to be effective it’s important that your monitor and printer are properly calibrated and profiled (described in Part 2 of this series).
The main advantages of this testing approach are as follows:
Only a small test image is being printed, so very little ink is used;
Multiple prints can be output on the same paper by moving the image around the page layout and re-feeding the paper (Part 4 of this series will cover tips for precise image movement and placement);
A smaller print takes less time to output, allowing you to do testing faster;
If your image has a grayscale stepwedge, you can quickly judge the brightness and contrast of your paper/printer combo, as well as whether you have any color casts (for example, if all the grays are greenish when printed on a bright white paper when viewed under daylight (about 5000 Kelvin), you have a color cast);
On a similar note, once you have a good print to monitor match under controlled daylight-balanced lighting, you can use this system to quickly test your printer at any time before making a print on the same paper. This is especially useful at the beginning of a printing session when you first turn on your printer, or start printing on a specific day.
Here’s how it’s done: Print the small test image and examine it closely to see if there is banding or poor output quality. If everything’s fine, insert a new sheet of paper and print your work. That’s much better than just looking at a printer’s nozzle check pattern to see if there are any problems. If your prints are very large, making a test print at a smaller size and/or making a cropped test print of a section of the full-sized print can save you time, ink and paper.
Protecting Your Proof
And to truly know whether color and image quality is staying consistent over time, you can keep a proof print of the test image nearby that was printed on the same paper using the same profile and print settings as your new prints. It’s a good idea to keep the reference print in an archival box or plastic bag commonly used for storing art (visit clearbags.com for some examples.) That will help keep it protected over time.