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Originally published October 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 28, 2006 at 12:59 AM

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Personal Technology

How to get big prints out of digital images

At the urging of a photographer friend, I entered a few of my digital photos in a juried competition, the 2006 Environmental Photography...

Special to The Seattle Times

At the urging of a photographer friend, I entered a few of my digital photos in a juried competition, the 2006 Environmental Photography Invitational (www.epinvitational.com). To my pleasure — and surprise — one picture of mine was chosen as part of this year's winners.

But that presented a problem.

How would I transform my digital image into a physical print that would stand up not only to gallery lighting but the discriminating eyes of pro photographers? Although it's easy to make snapshot-sized prints these days, whether using a kiosk at the drugstore or ordering them online, outputting high-quality, large-format photos can be trickier. If you've considered making a large print of one of your favorite photos to hang (or sell), several options are available.

Prepare the image: Before you put ink to paper, however, you need to prepare the picture for printing, which involves calibrating your computer's display so that the colors you view onscreen will match what's printed, and making sure you have enough image resolution to create a large-sized print.

I can't underestimate the importance of calibrating your monitor. Professionals use sophisticated hardware and software tools to ensure that the color displayed onscreen is an accurate representation of what the picture will look like. You can achieve basic calibration using the color-management tools built into Mac OS X (in the Displays preference pane) or using a free Microsoft Windows XP control panel applet (download it at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/prophoto/colorcontrol.mspx).

"Resolution" refers to how many total pixels are in the image: The more pixels captured by your camera, the more detail will end up in the photo. If your digital camera captures at 5 megapixels (producing images sized roughly 2592 x 1944 pixels) or higher, you should have little difficulty making prints larger than the standard 8 by 10 inch size.

If your camera captures photos at a lesser resolution, you're not out of luck: Adobe Photoshop (and its less-expensive sibling Photoshop Elements) or other software can resize the image to larger sizes, but at the risk of degrading the image quality. In this process, called upsampling, the computer must interpolate what the enlarged image will look like, and add pixels to the image to accommodate the new size. The result can give the image a slightly softer, fuzzy appearance depending on how much you've enlarged it.

Print on an inkjet printer: To get the most control over the final quality of your image, one option is to print the photo yourself using a high-quality inkjet printer. I'm not talking about the inkjet that may have come bundled with your computer or that you bought for $50 at a consumer electronics megastore. Instead, you can purchase photo printers that use more precise jets to disburse six or eight ink colors for improved color fidelity.

Laurence Chen, my photographer friend, sings the praises of the Epson Stylus Photo R1800 ($550), which can print photos up to 13 inches wide. The results are archival quality, which he defines as realistically being "good enough for 10 years" (Epson claims 100 to 200 years of fade resistance, depending on the type of paper used).

The problem with the inkjet approach is that it's expensive and time-consuming. Each ink cartridge for that model costs between $11 and $16 to replace, while a package of 50 sheets of Epson's recommended 13 by 19-inch Premium Luster Photo Paper will run you about $115; you can also buy paper in rolls for much less. Of course, prices vary widely depending on paper type and size.

If you want to print larger sizes, you're looking at even more expense. My print for the EPI competition needed to be 19 by 23 inches. Epson's lowest-priced wide-format inkjet now available is the Stylus Pro 4800 for nearly $1,800. Although a professional who sells his work can justify that cost, it was certainly out of my price range.

Chen also noted that the do-it-yourself approach requires that you be on top of the color calibration of your devices (monitor, software and printer), which often includes downloading and installing specific color profiles that match the type of paper you're using. "This adds up to more time, money, complexity, and, worst, keeping abreast of software updates that may affect your printing," he said.

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Order prints online: If you're willing to give up some control in favor of ease and cost savings, you can order prints from online photo processors such as Kodak (www.kodakgallery.com), Shutterfly (www.shutterfly.com), QOOP (www.qoop.com) and dotPhoto (www.dotphoto.com).

In addition to printing snapshots (4 x 6 inch and 5 x 7 inch prints), these services and others offer larger-format printing, sometimes indicated as "posters" on their ordering pages. Expect to pay anywhere between $12 and $25 for larger-sized prints.

You have no control over the printing process, so you need to focus more on preparing your images before sending them off. But once the photo is ready, all you do is upload it and wait for the print to arrive in the mail.

For the EPI competition, I took advantage of the photo-printing features in Apple Computer's Aperture (www.apple.com/aperture/) program, which uses Kodak's print services (you can print from iPhoto, too). To match the EPI print requirements, I sized the image in Photoshop, imported it into Aperture, and ordered a 20 by 30 inch print for about $30 with tax and shipping. I ordered the print as a test, expecting that I'd have to come up with another option, but the quality was excellent. I sent it to EPI, where it hung for six weeks at the Art Wolfe Gallery downtown.

A few companies, such as Art.com and Pictureframes.com, offer more options regarding type of paper, matting and framing. I uploaded my photo to Seattle-based ImageKind (www.imagekind.com) and ordered two test prints, one on Enhanced Matte Poster paper for $13 and one on Premium Photo Glossy stock for $18.50 (six other paper types are available, as well as two options for printing on canvas). The color quality for both were very good, with the glossy version boasting slightly richer tones than the print that appeared in the EPI gallery. ImageKind also provides a feature for you to sell your prints through its service.

Print at a photo lab: Until recently, you'd need to take your images (as film negatives) to a professional printing lab to make large-sized prints.

Such companies are still the place to go if you're shooting film or want to digitize old prints or negatives, but they've also adapted to the new digital age. Outfits such as Custom Digital (www.custom-digital.com), Rock's Studio (www.rockeditions.com) and Ivey (www.ivey.com) have the advantage of experience and a history of working with photographers.

However, you'll pay more for that expertise. A 24 x 35 inch print from Custom Digital, for example, runs $110 (with prices per unit going down if you make multiple prints of the same image), while a similarly-sized print from Rock's Studio costs $85.

The big picture: As an amateur photographer, I didn't honestly expect to be selected for the EPI contest, so I didn't put any thought at the time toward making a print of my photo. But now that I know what my options are, I'm eyeing the blank spaces on my walls and imagining what my own home gallery might look like.

Whether you want to show off a great vacation photo or a picture of your kids, it's easy to go beyond the standard 8 x 10 print.

Jeff Carlson, a Seattle free-lance writer, is a contributor to the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.

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