Printing your Milky Way photography will be one of the most self-gratifying things a photographer can do. Seeing one’s work go from pixels to a physical object that we can feel can make us shed a tear. However, printing can be confusing. Printing stands out with its own technical pitfalls, just like trying to dial in exposure. 

In this article, I will introduce you to the world of Milky Way photography printing. This article will definitely not be the end all be all, as there are several different ways one can print their work. This is the way I do it.

milky way print barnwood frame - Printing Milky Way Photos
The feeling of accomplishment seeing your work in print form is awesome. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.
The feeling of accomplishment seeing your work in print form is awesome. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.

INTRODUCTION

When I first got the photography bug, I just wanted to create landscape images. I was also introduced to the world of printing. Luckily, the importance of having some knowledge about the print process was instilled in me. I would say I have a solid grasp on the basics, and right before I wrote this article, I watched an excellent video about advanced knowledge on the subject. Perhaps it is time for me to take my print skills to the next level.

WHY PRINT YOUR MILKY WAY PHOTOGRAPHY

If you do not keep up with computer technology, you should know it is ever-changing. We have gone through so many different methods of file storage over the last two decades. Within the last several years, we have seen digital delivery methods go away from compact discs to USB to delivery through online services, such as Pixieset.

The one constant with photography, though, has been the print. The print has been around for almost 200 years at this point. Although we are in a digital world, prints allow us to step back in time. I have a personal collection of family snapshots. Some of these prints date back to the late 1800s, several pre-World War 2, to the biggest amount from the late ’40s to ’60s. 

PRINTING COSTS

I have not performed a study of the cost of printing, home vs. lab. I have just read other pieces that have been written about the topic. The consensus has been that there is no real difference cost-wise. 

At one time, I did own a Canon home printer that produced high-quality prints. The thing I did not like about it was the maintenance and upkeep. Once I found a professional lab that delivered within a couple of days, my decision was simple. I will say that having the instant gratification of seeing my photo emerge from a high-end piece of print paper was off the charts. I can live without the maintenance headaches, though.

PRINT MEDIUMS

There is a wide selection of different mediums that we can have our work printed on. Paper is the most common, while canvas and metal are very popular. Acrylic prints are also an option. I have had my work printed on the first three. I have not gotten an acrylic print just yet, but the hype and images keep me intrigued. 

Paper is not as straight forward as one may think. There are numerous options out there. They range from styles such as Gloss, Lustre, Metallic, and Matte. There are also “fine art” options out there.

Out of the four types I mentioned, I use Lustre prints. I went with them because they offer, I believe, the best quality before stepping up to “fine art” type papers. Lustre has minimal reflection but produces a good pop due to the print’s shine and “depth.” Gloss paper is a good option, but they tend to have more reflection and less “depth.” Matte is not even an option for Milky Way prints.

Metallic prints are a good option. They are a little pricier, but they do have a great pop to them. I do not use them, though, as the ones I have gotten in the past had a weird green cast. 

For the sake of this being an introduction, I will stay away from fine art type papers. I have sampled Red River Paper in the past, and they were top-notch. There are other brands out there that are pretty good also.

CANVAS PRINTS

Canvas can be an option for printing Milky Way photos. For me, the canvas is suited more for portraiture. I have seen Milky Way prints on canvas, and they looked excellent. The textured nature of the canvas, though, tends to lose a little sharpness.

Printing Milky Way Photos - Canvas Prints look great for portraits, but not as good for Milky Way photos. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.
Canvas Prints look great for portraits, but not as good for Milky Way photos. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.

METAL PRINTS

If there is a medium that suits printing Milky Way photos like a tailored suit, Metal prints are the one. A lot of work looks great on Metal, but if you want to create a great looking print, go Metal. A Metal print screams high end. I have several Metal Milky Way prints, and I am pleased that I have them. They last forever and are as tough as nails.

metal print - Printing Milky Way Photos.
 This 24" x 36" metal print from Printique hangs on my living room wall. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.
This 24″ x 36″ metal print from Printique hangs on my living room wall. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.

CHOOSING A PRINT LAB

The first thing you need to do is erase any idea of using a place like Walmart and Walgreens or any other store with such a wide range of products and services. In a lot of cases, the equipment will not be calibrated regularly. The staff may or may not know how to produce a high-quality print. Lastly, even though I do not keep up with costs, on the rare occasions I have gone to someplace like Walmart for a print, the cost difference was negligible compared to a print lab.

There are a ton of print labs out there. I use WHCC primarily due to how fast they deliver, the high-quality prints they produce, and the fact they are integrated with my online print delivery service. They have been quick to solve any issues also.

Miller’s is another lab that I have used regularly with great success. There is also ProDPI, ColorInc, McKenna, Black River Imaging, Bay Photo, and Printique (formerly known as AdoramaPix). 

Quick note, Printique was a supporter of my Chase The Milky Way trip to Arizona and Utah in 2019. I have a 24” x 36” Metal print on my wall from that trip, and it looks absolutely great. 

There are even more labs out there, and in some cases, if you have a camera store nearby, there is a good chance they have a print service.

IT COMES DOWN TO PERSONAL PREFERENCE

I cannot really recommend one over the other. Please take a look at them all and find one that fits you. In some cases, you might use several, depending on what you are printing. In my case, I have “fired” one of the labs mentioned because their customer service was horrible, but I do still go with them on rare occasions just because of a product they offer.

Most labs do offer a print sample service. Some labs offer free samples, while other labs will offer discounted samples. This service allows someone to open an account and then get several prints. This ensures what is seen on your screen at home is accurately reproduced in print form before you sell prints. You might receive prints that are not reflective of what you see. When you are choosing a lab, try out two or three. Get samples and see which lab is on point.

A print series
Some of the prints I have gotten over the years. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.

Even better, think about what products you want to offer. If one lab has some products that another lab does not, it does not hurt to have accounts at several labs.

Most, if not all of these labs have their own ordering software called Nations Photo Lab ROES. Once you open an account, you will have to download the software to order. It is not that big of a deal — more on this in a little bit.

PREPARING TO PRINT

This particular area can take up half the Internet. Since this is an intro, I will keep it as short as possible. There are some things to keep in mind as you traverse the process from file to print. 

MONITOR CALIBRATION

THIS. RIGHT HERE. DO IT. This is an absolute must not only for photography but for printing. You need to have a calibrated monitor to make sure what you see on screen is what you get in print. There are several options for monitor calibrators on the market. 

In this day and age where the bar of entry is so low for photography, this might be the most ignored must-have in the “industry.” I cannot how many times I have seen a photographer ask a group how an image looks color-wise. They get asked if their monitor is calibrated.

And they do not know what people are talking about. If your monitor is calibrated, then your image’s chances of being reproduced accurately online and in print are very high. I would say somewhere in the 99.9999999 percentile. I have only had one print come back because of this issue. The client printed a sample of what their computer “saw,” and the difference was huge.

Print calibration
The X-Rite i1 ColorChecker Filmmaker Kit.

Monitor calibrators come in a wide array of configurations and features. Several of the lower cost calibrators make excellent choices for photographers. You don’t need to break the bank to purchase a color calibrator. All the calibrators listed below will work with LED and wide gamut LCD screens.

At the lower end, the X-rite ColorMunki Display (approx. US$160) features easy and advanced calibration modes for monitor calibration. The Datacolor Spyder5PRO (approx. US$200) is a full-featured calibrator designed for serious photographers. The X-Rite i1 ColorChecker Filmmaker Kit (approx. US$380) includes the i1Display Pro Plus calibrator along with the X-rite ColorChecker Passport Video color chart. It allows you to color calibrate your camera as well as your monitor.

SIZE DOES MATTER

And while I am on the subject of monitors, if you use your phone, tablet, or anything under 15” screen size to edit, don’t. And really, if you are making money off your work, treat this industry like a professional and use decent equipment to produce your work. 

Screen size does matter, and it matters a lot. Image files get compressed when they are viewed on a digital screen. The smaller the screen, the more the image is compressed. The more the file is compressed, the likelihood of flaws in the image being hidden increases. 

I started with a 15” monitor. I had an image that I really liked. On that monitor, I found a ton of dust spots that took me about an hour to remove. About a year later, I stepped up to a 24” monitor. I opened that same image, and I sat in horror as I saw a ton of dust spots that I did not see on the 15” monitor — another hour of work. I recently stepped up to a 28” 4K monitor, and while I have not opened that image, I did find an image with dust spots that I did not spot on the previous monitor. 

MONITOR SIZE AND FOCUS

Another point to ponder in the world of image compression is focus. I do not know how many times I saw something on the 3” LCD camera screen that looked great, only to get home to find out that focus was missed. 

A larger monitor allows us to find flaws that will more than likely not be noticed. Yet, we want to produce the highest quality product possible, and a big monitor allows us to do that.

MY PRINTING WORKFLOW

First off, you need to have a workflow. I tend to keep things simple, so my workflow reflects that. My workflow for image processing is this:

  • Import into Lightroom,
  • Basic adjustments in Lightroom (there are additional steps for stacking),
  • Selective adjustments in Photoshop,
  • Back in Lightroom, export a print file for the size I want to print,
  • Image cropped for aspect ratio, exposure raised, 300 PPI, long end sized for print size,
  • Export.

In that last workflow bullet point, I mentioned raising exposure. From my personal experience, and that of other photographers that have talked about it, Milky Way images tend to print about half a stop darker than what I see on screen. I have no scientific method for determining how much I bump the exposure other than feel. This is why sample prints are so important. If it’s a high-end print for a client, a good practice is to get a sample print of that particular file, then order the high-end print.

The labs I use require files to be in sRGB color space and JPEG format for printing purposes. That is how all of my files are exported. Also, most labs will have a section on their websites that will explain how they want the files before they are delivered.

USING THE ROES SYSTEM

ROES stands for Remote Ordering Entry System. Most labs use this system. While it is very easy to use, some quirks about it can drive photographers bonkers.

The first is that it is a Java-based package. This can give a person fits if Java is not updated on their computer. I ended up having to change labs at one point because I could not get one lab’s ROES to work on my system. Yet, I was able to get another lab’s ROES to work.

The second is the preview resolution. During the ordering process, you will see a preview in the system of the print you are ordering. The resolution, though, is definitely on the low end. This can trick the user into thinking that their file is messed up. Do not worry. If you exported the file with the proper settings for the print size, you are golden.

ROES does display color correctly. If your print preview colors are nowhere near what the image should look like, double-check your print file’s color space. In the end, printing is pretty simple using ROES.

Print
The ROES system can be intimidating, but is pretty easy to use once the user learns the quirks. Copyright 2021 Stanley Harper.

PRINTING MILKY WAY PHOTOS 101 CONCLUSION

As I said, it’s simple. It’s 101 level printing. Hopefully, this article has enough information to get you started printing your work. After watching the following video by Mitch Boyer, I think it might be time to raise my skill level in my photography area. There were some techniques shown I would love to try out on some of my Milky Way images.

Make Your Images Bigger for Print by Mitch Boyer.

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