Getting your prints to look exactly how they should is a constant battle for many photographers. Minimize the amount of time and money wasted on reprinting by downloading these free templates and using a traditional technique borrowed from the darkroom.
Having prints made of your work can be one of the most rewarding things a photographer can do. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most frustrating if your prints don't match up to what you have on screen. While color management and screen calibration strategies are both vital for the accuracy of your prints, there are many other variables to consider. Your printer's particular workflow, the type of material you are printing on, and the final environment the print will be in can all dramatically affect how your print will look. It's for these reasons that I always make test strips of my work before I commit to making a print.
What Is a Test Strip?
For those that are not familiar with the concept of a test strip, in a nutshell, it is the action of dividing your image up into several sections and giving each of those individual parts an incremental amount of exposure. By printing out such a strip, you will be able to see the various stages of exposure in your image varying from too dark (underexposed) all the way up to too bright (overexposed). Somewhere within these divided parts will be a sweet spot, which will be the correct exposure for the picture. This information can then be applied to the whole image, which results in an accurate print.
The concept of test strips is not a new one and has been used in traditional darkrooms since the birth of photography. By slowly moving a black piece of card over a sheet of photosensitive paper, the photographer could restrict the amount of light certain parts of the paper would receive. The resulting banded image could then be used to judge how long the picture needed to be exposed properly.
How to Make Test Strips Digitally
Thankfully, taking advantage of test strips in the digital age is much more straightforward than the days of the darkroom with the use of Photoshop.
1) Open the Image in Photoshop
Open up the image you want to work on in Photoshop.
2) Add Guide Lines
Go to "View," then "New Guide," which will bring up a dialogue box that allows you to tell Photoshop where you want your guide line to be. We want to split out image into nine even strips, so each part will be 11.11 percent each. Repeat this step nine times, adding 11.11 percent to the position of the guide each time. (11.11 percent, 22.22 percent, 33.33 percent, etc.)
3) Create Exposure Adjustment Layers
With the rectangular marquee tool, select the first strip on the left of your image. Next, click on the new adjustment layer button at the bottom of the layers palette and navigate to "Exposure". Here you will insert a value of -2 into the exposure field box. Repeat this step for all nine strips creating a new separate exposure adjustment layers for each strip you select with the rectangular marquee tool. Use the values of -2, -1.5, -1, -0.5, 0, +0.5, +1, +1.5, and +2 as you move from left to right.
4) Add Labels
Once you have completed step three, you should have a banded image on the screen. This next step is optional, but I think it's good practice to add labels to each strip you have just made. Take the text tool and add the corresponding exposure values to each strip.
5) Print Test Strip
Congratulations, you should now have a test strip which you can use to work out how much exposure compensation should be applied to your image for printing. At this stage, I would save the file as a .PSD so the various layers remain intact. This means you can easily make further test prints of the same image if you need to or swap the image out and use for other pictures you want to print.
A similar approach can also be used to make adjustments for color-related issues you may be having with your prints. If you are getting unusual color casts or incorrect amounts of saturation, then try the steps detailed above, but instead of using exposure adjustment layers, use "Color Balance" or "Hue/Saturation."
Benefits of a Test Strip
Obviously, the improved accuracy of the prints you produce is the main reason to make test strips, but there are many other advantages to start doing them. By isolating particular elements such as exposure, color temperature, saturation, or contrast in a test strip, you can easily compare their effects to see what works best for your image. This exercise is a great way to train your eyes to actually see what is going on in your pictures. For those who never plan to print their work out, I would encourage those people to try making an on-screen test strip, as it's still a great way to illustrate if you have dialed in too much or not enough of a particular adjustment. After using test strips for a while, you will find that both the amount of time adjusting your images in Photoshop and the uncertainty of whether a picture is finished or not will be noticeably reduced. You'll also save yourself a lot of time and money from not having to reprint work constantly.
If all that wasn't enough, doing things like test prints always make for interesting content on social media. Not only does it break up the flow of the regular images we all post, but it shows potential clients you are serious about the images you make.
So there you have it, how to more consistently create accurate prints and become a better photographer in the process. Just remember that whatever adjustments or compensations made to your image are only used for that particular printer. If you are calibrating your monitor and using correct color management, your original file is still the true image. To avoid any confusion in this matter, I always work on a duplicated file and include the name of the printer and the adjustment used in the filename.
While I appreciate the amount of benefit some of you will get from making test strips will vary, my main motivation for highlighting this approach was to provide you with a technique if you have been struggling to get your prints where they should be. I know many photographers who never bother to get work printed, as they are always disappointed with the results. This is a real shame, as making prints of your work can be one of the most rewarding things you can do as a photographer.
For those who would like to get started with test strips, I have made some free Photoshop templates available to be downloaded from here.
Do you already take advantage of test strips or have made your own templates for doing so? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.