18 common printing mistakes and how to fix them

Creating photo prints can be rewarding but small errors can ruin the results, costing time and money. Here are some common printing problems and how to solve them.
A PIXMA PRO-200 printer beneath four framed images hanging on the wall behind it.

Printer specialists Frederic Vaneesbeck, Jay Sinclair and Suhaib Hussain bring you 18 tips to ensure your photo prints look exactly as you expect.

In computing, the term "what you see is what you get" is used to denote that what you see on a computer screen is what you get on paper when you print. That's pretty much a given these days for printing text documents, but photographic images can lose more than a little in the translation.

The good news is that Canon's end-to-end solution, from capture to print, can help you produce fabulous looking photo prints that last a lifetime. Here, Canon photo printing experts Frederic Vaneesbeck, Jay Sinclair and Suhaib Hussain show you how to avoid common printing mistakes and ensure optimum quality. Read on to learn how you can save time and effort, minimise wasted ink and paper, and produce perfect photo prints.

1. Uncalibrated monitor and screen brightness

To get your prints looking exactly like you want them to, it's essential to calibrate your monitor. This ensures that colours and tones are displayed accurately and consistently, so that the prints you produce match what you see on your screen. "Some high-end monitors offer a self-calibration feature, but most need to be adjusted to the correct settings using a monitor calibration tool," says Jay.

"When you buy a screen, the brightness will usually be set very high, and it's common for people to have their screens too bright for printing purposes," he elaborates. "Reducing your screen luminosity will help to get your brightness to the right levels, but you still need to calibrate the screen to get the colours right."

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2. Images with insufficient resolution

With digital images everywhere, it's easy to think you can create prints from pretty much any image. There's a catch, though – photos from smartphones or shared on social media are commonly reduced in size and compressed, which often happens automatically when you upload them to some social platforms, and as a result they may have insufficient resolution, especially for large-format printing.

"For making high-quality photo prints, the ideal resolution is 300dpi (dots per inch)," says Frederic. "To calculate the practical maximum print size, you can therefore divide the image's pixel dimensions by 300. This means that a 45MP camera delivers sufficient resolution for prints of up to roughly 27 x 18 inches [69 x 46cm] in size, while for a 32MP camera the maximum size is about 23 x 15 inches [58 x 38cm].

"That said, if you want to create really large poster-sized prints, you'll naturally view them from a greater distance, so you can afford to drop the resolution to 150dpi. You can then print the image twice as big, but it will need to be viewed from some distance to look right. You can also use editing software such as Adobe Photoshop to interpolate pixels, but this cannot create genuine detail and the files can get much bigger – not megabytes but gigabytes in size."

 A man points to a computer monitor which is displaying a colour profile chart.

To ensure that your prints match what you see on your screen, the first step is to verify that your screen itself is displaying colours accurately, and that means calibrating it. This needn't be a lengthy or complicated process – invest in a reputable monitor calibration tool and its utility software can walk you through everything painlessly.

3. Poorly optimised image file formats

Even when you're printing a photo you've taken yourself with your Canon camera, it's a good idea to avoid lowest-quality JPEGs, particularly if you want large prints. "The lossy compression of the JPEG file format means that you lose more and more image data with increased compression settings, which results in losing pictorial detail from your prints," Frederic explains. For the best print quality, he recommends shooting RAW, processing the RAW file in Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) to give the image the finish and feel you want, and then printing directly using Canon's free Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software, which can be used as a standalone application or as a plug-in within your preferred image editing software.

When you save the image, Frederic advises using the 16-bit TIFF format, which preserves more of the colour and tonal detail than 8-bit formats such as JPEG. If storage space is an issue, then he suggests exporting to JPEG but at the 100% quality setting to reduce the risk of disappointing prints.

"It's also important to use a consistent colour space in your workflow," Frederic adds. "I prefer Adobe RGB for printing, rather than sRGB, as it enables a greater colour range or gamut, so images have greater colour fidelity."

4. Over-sharpening your images

Suhaib recommends being wary of aggressive levels of Unsharp Mask and other sharpening tools. "These tools can make your images look really crisp on screen. However, printing them enables much greater resolution and brings fine detail and texture to the fore, without the need for aggressive sharpening," he explains. "Over-sharpening your images can have an adverse effect on image quality, as well as introducing haloing around edges and unwanted levels of image noise in areas such as skies, water and smooth surfaces. I'd also say that printing your photos helps you to critique them, and that printing can make you a better photographer."

A Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printing out an image of a mountain with a body of water in front of it.

It's vital to ensure that the paper is fed straight-on into the printer, as skewing can degrade print quality and be very noticeable when creating borderless output. It's therefore important to always adjust the paper guides on the input tray, lining them up with the edge of the paper. Some of Canon's latest printers including the PIXMA PRO-200 and imagePROGRAF PRO-300 (pictured) include additional anti-skew mechanisms to enhance accuracy through the paper transport system. This is one of the factors that enables them to produce borderless prints on matte photo paper and fine art media.

5. Mismatched aspect ratio

By default, Canon cameras produce photos with a standard 3:2 aspect ratio, although other aspect ratios are available in camera menus. When you print, however, you'll typically use A4, A3 and A2 paper sizes, which have an aspect ratio of 2.1 x 2.97, or A3+, which is 3.29 x 4.83. Unless you're printing on photo paper with an aspect ratio matching that of your image, Frederic recommends taking the time to crop each image for printing, "to make sure the composition looks its best and you keep all the important elements in the scene." This is worth doing even if you opt to scale the image down so it all fits on the paper and print with borders, he adds, to ensure that the borders are the same size all the way around.

6. Having unwanted borders

In the past, you'd need to have a white border for photo prints created on matte paper and fine art media. "Borderless printing was only an option for glossy or lustre photo papers," says Suhaib. "However, some of Canon's latest printers, including the PIXMA PRO-200 and imagePROGRAF PRO-300, feature ultra-precise paper transport systems that enable borderless printing on matte photo paper and fine art media, so you only have to have white borders if you really want them."

A pair of hands holds a borderless print of an apple dipped in white paint alongside two other prints of the same image and a Canon PIXMA printer.

Often used for various sizes of photo print, the borderless option enables printing right up to the edges of the paper, so there's no white border.

A screen shot of Canon's Professional Print and Layout software showing an ICC profile being selected.

Some photographic papers appear more yellow and some more blue in colour even before any ink hits the paper, so when you print using Canon's Professional Print and Layout software it's vital to select the correct ICC profile for the printer-and-paper combination you're using. This adjusts the print settings to suit the colour characteristics of a third-party paper. For Canon papers, you can choose the Driver Matching option.

7. Selecting incorrect paper profiles

When you print using PPL, it is vital to tell the printer what paper you are using by selecting the correct paper in the paper menu in PPL and also the paper menu on the printer. For colour accuracy, depending on the printer and the paper manufacturer, you may be able to specify an ICC profile or an AM1X file.

An ICC (International Color Consortium) profile contains information that allows a printer to reproduce accurate colours on a specific type of paper. "If you don't select the correct ICC profile, the image can come out looking completely different," says Jay. "You could calibrate your screen and do everything else right but if you select the wrong profile, your image is not going to print the way you want it to."

If you're using non Canon branded papers on a Canon pro printer, Frederic also highlights the value of using AM1X custom media config files, where available. "These specify the black ink type, ICC profile and extra information about the ideal ink density, the optimal height of the print head, the drying time and any constraints regarding borderless printing, for particular media," he explains.

If you're using a Canon pro printer that supports them, AM1X files can be downloaded from the paper manufacturer's website and installed using Canon's free Media Configuration Tool. This tool may be installed when you initially install your printer driver software. Otherwise, visit Canon's printer support page, select your printer, then click Software. Find Media Configuration Tool in the list, and install following the instructions. Your printer User Guide will contain a section explaining how to use the software.

8. Choosing the inappropriate Rendering Intent

Printers are not capable of producing quite as wide a range of colours as your camera has captured. Within a colour-managed workflow, you can use the Rendering Intent setting in the Print dialogue to tell the printer how to deal with colours that fall outside its printable range or colour gamut.

The Perceptual setting aims to preserve the overall visual impression of colours in an image. It will map out-of-gamut or clipped colours to the closest-match printable colours, then adjust the other colours to preserve the relationship between them.

The Relative Colorimetric setting maps out-of-gamut colours to the printer's nearest reproducible colours, but doesn't alter in-gamut colours. "You may get slightly less saturated colours, but brightness values will be most stable with this rendering intent," says Jay. "This makes it the ideal choice for near-neutral and black and white images."

A man looks at two versions of the same image on-screen as part of the process of soft proofing.

Soft proofing shows you an on-screen simulation of your print, which you can then compare with your original and adjust as desired. It can't be foolproof because colour on-screen is produced by mixing light of different colours, which is additive (full intensity of all colours produces white), while colour on paper is produced by mixing inks of different colours, which is subtractive (full intensity of all colours produces an ever denser, deeper super black). However, with a calibrated screen and the correct print settings (including ink and paper type), a soft proof will be a useful guide and help you avoid wasting valuable ink and paper on numerous test prints.

9. Forgetting to soft proof your images

Soft proofing your images with Canon's free Professional Print & Layout (PPL) plug-in means viewing a simulation of what your image will look like when it's printed on paper. "If you don't soft proof, there's a chance your images will come out flat when you're printing on fine art and matte papers," Jay says.

"Also, the software's gamut warning will alert you if the printer is not capable of rendering a colour you've asked for. Basically, soft proofing is making sure you're profiling the paper exactly for the print, and you're seeing how it's going to come out before you print out an image."

10. Not hard proofing

As well as soft-proofing options, Suhaib recommends hard proofing with the Pattern Print option in PPL. "You can use this to create a variety of small-sized different versions of your image on the media that you're going to use for the final print, each with subtly different tonal treatment and colour rendition. You can then choose your favourite option when creating the final print. It works particularly well for getting exactly the right look and feel for both colour photos with subtle hues and for high contrast black and white prints, especially when using fine art papers."

A person examining a series of image thumbnails created with the Pattern Print option in Canon's Professional Print & Layout plug-in.

Hard proofing using the Pattern Print option in PPL is an effective strategy to avoid wasting expensive paper and ink. Using your chosen paper, it will produce a contact sheet of thumbnails of your image with different contrast and colour balance settings. You can then choose exactly the look you want, input the corresponding details back into PPL, and your full-size print will be output using those settings.

11. Issues with competing software

To get the best possible output quality on Canon's imagePROGRAF PRO Series printers, Canon recommends its Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software, which works as a standalone program or a plug-in within your preferred image editor. "This software was designed by Canon to make the printing process easier," says Jay. "It provides the tools to do all your colour management, whether it's hard proofing or soft proofing.

A rhino faces forward, its long horn stretching out to the left, a second rhino behind, in a monochrome photo taken in Kenya by wildlife photographer Pie Aerts.

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"Printing in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop can lead to problems. It's not an issue with those programs themselves, but an issue with them competing with the printer driver to manage the colours. Both try to manage the colours at the same time and add their own colour processing. Because PPL was designed by Canon for Canon printers, you'll avoid that issue, so it simplifies the whole process."

What's more, Suhaib adds, "for optimum quality and fidelity when printing from a Mac, it's important to use the Canon printer driver to select print and paper properties, rather than relying on Apple AirPrint."

12. Using non-genuine inks

Buying independently manufactured inks can seem an attractive money-saving option, but Suhaib doesn't recommend it. "Genuine Canon LUCIA PRO inks are formulated to the highest standards to ensure accuracy and consistency in terms of tone and colour rendition, as well as delivering excellent archival qualities, so you can be sure prints will last a lifetime," he says. "They also have an ensured level of purity, helping to avoid the risk of blocked nozzles in the print heads. All these aspects can be severely compromised when using non-genuine inks."

A close-up of the display on a Canon imagePROGRAF printer showing the ink levels.

It seems obvious, but it's worth checking that your printer isn't low on ink. You might think it won't need a given colour for a given image, but all print colours are created by mixing different colours of ink on the paper, and perfect colour accuracy might depend on a subtle hint of exactly the colour it has run out of.

 A selection of Canon pro photo papers, including Premium Matte, Pro Platinum and Fine Art Smooth.

Printing on different types of paper will require different quantities and even different types of inks. Your printer will use Photo Black ink, for example, when printing on glossy or satin photo paper, or on some fine-art media such as Baryta paper, but will require Matte Black inks for cotton fine-art paper and most matte-finish papers, which have completely different absorption qualities.

13. Ignoring printer warnings

Canon printers have built-in diagnostics to make sure everything's running smoothly. Frederic says it's important to keep an eye on printer status and take notice of any warnings. "If ink cartridges are running low, you'll get a notification. You should still have sufficient ink to carry on using the printer, but high-volume photo printing can drain the remaining ink quickly, so it's good to order replacement cartridges as soon as possible." Continuing to use depleted cartridges can result in faded or uneven prints. "Some printers also have a user-replaceable maintenance tank, which should be changed as soon as you get a warning that it's full," Frederic adds.

"You won't get a notification if there's an updated software driver for your printer, so it's worth checking from time to time in the Support section of the Canon website. If you get a notification that a printer firmware update is available, it's always best to download the update file to your computer first, download the printer firmware utility, and connect the printer to the computer using a USB cable to apply the update."

14. Being careless with photo paper

Natural oils on the skin can contaminate the surface of photo paper and fine art media, so it's best to avoid touching the printable surface when handling the paper before printing. Suhaib says it's also important to consider drying time after printing. "When creating photo prints on glossy or lustre paper using dye-based inks, the ink is quickly absorbed beneath a protective outer layer and the print is touch-dry pretty much as soon as it leaves the printer. Even so, it's best not to touch the surface for a while so it can fully dry.

"Pigment-based inks take much longer to dry on any type of photo paper or fine art media, so it's important not to touch the surface for quite a while to avoid any risk of smudging. If mounting photo prints in an album or behind glass, it's best to leave them overnight beforehand to dry completely."

A person handles a large-format print as it emerges from a Canon printer.

Pigment-based inks take longer to dry than dye-based inks, so it's best not to handle prints too soon after printing, to avoid smudging. However, pigment-based inks are much more resistant to fading caused by UV radiation, so are a better choice if you're going to hang your prints on the wall rather than mount them in albums.

A man holds a black and white photo print in his hand. A Canon printer and camera are on the desk beside him.

Unless you're using a monochrome printer, whether inkjet or laser, your printer will use various colour inks to replicate shades of grey in black and white photos. This is not a bad thing, because it enables the printer to add subtle tints to create a warmer or cooler image, but it does mean that greys might not be completely free of colour casts. High-end Canon printers such as the PIXMA PRO-200 and imagePROGRAF PRO-300 have multiple black and grey ink cartridges to enhance the fidelity of mono photo prints.

15. Missing the mark in mono

Computer monitors and other display screens struggle to accurately display really deep blacks, whereas printers such as the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and PRO-1000 are class leaders in this respect. "This is especially true when using fine art papers such as Canon Fine Art Smooth and Fine Art Rough media," says Suhaib. "Don't rely on soft-proofing when printing dramatic black and white images, but create some small test prints on your chosen media so you can see what the final result will really look like."

16. Printing for the wrong lighting conditions

Something people often don't think about is the environment in which the print will be displayed. "Consider whether your print will be displayed under natural daylight, which will have a relatively cool colour temperature, or artificial light, which will be warmer," Suhaib says. "If you're creating large-format prints, it's useful to create small hard proofs first, so you can check them under the relevant lighting source to ensure you're happy with the results. It can be particularly important when colour accuracy is critical, for genres including portraiture, landscape, wildlife, and fashion photography."

If you're producing prints for an exhibition, you can minimise blown-out highlights in photo prints by using the Optimize for exhibition lighting option in PPL, so that the prints' dynamic range is visually expanded under bright exhibition lighting. Simply choose the setting that best matches the conditions under which the prints will be viewed, including typical spotlight lighting (700 lux) or a high-intensity spotlight (1,400 lux).

A hand changing the print head in a Canon printer.

"Canon's FINE print heads are particularly resistant to getting blocked, as the technology can automatically detect blocked nozzles and switch to adjacent ones if necessary," explains Suhaib.

17. Misaligned print heads

Inkjet printing is a very exact science and an incredibly high-precision process. Suhaib recommends running the printer's Print Head Alignment utility from the printer driver to ensure utmost accuracy. "Do this when you first set up a new printer, and again if you transport it from one place to another. It's a good idea to repeat the process every few months, even if the printer doesn't get moved."

18. Not running a nozzle check

Even with Canon's print heads being resistant to blockage, Suhaib emphasises that it is worthwhile to run the Nozzle Check. "It's a good idea to run the Nozzle Check utility from the printer driver once in a while, especially if you're creating large-format prints that are relatively expensive to produce," he says. "If you see any faint lines in the Nozzle Check test print, run the Cleaning utility and then re-run the Nozzle Check."

Producing your own photo prints can be a richly rewarding experience and creatively very satisfying. Keep these tips in mind to help you create great prints every time.

Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Matthew Richards and Alex Summersby

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