Preparing Test Prints & Test Strips

7th July 2017 Image Editing, Printing

Every day we take artworks from screen to print using state of the art inkjet printing processes, archival pigment inks and a beautiful range of fine art papers.

For a variety of reasons it can be advisable to test print your images to make sure you will be happy with the final results before going ahead with your full order. Particularly if you’re not working from a colour-accurate, properly calibrated monitor and/or are planning large print sizes or a high number of prints.

Here are some thoughts that might improve your overall results AND save you money, time and potential heartache with your next print job.

Cost effective test print: many photos placed on a single sheet and tested for colour, brightness and contrast (before printing large).
Cost effective test print: many photos placed on a single sheet and tested for colour, brightness and contrast (before printing large).

What are 'test prints' & 'test strips'?

When people refer to ‘test prints’ they typically mean they’ve prepared a digital file and need it printed as a proof to see if that digital file will provide the result that they’re after on a given paper.

‘Test strips’ are the same as ‘test prints’ except they involve placing portions of the desired image/s for print (often small portions of large-scale images) onto pages or segments of roll, to test results cost-effectively.

For example, a classic test strip would be to take a critical area of an image that is set up to print at a large scale and just print that area. This way you can test for sharpness at the final intended print size without going to the full expense of printing the entire image at your desired scale.

Our approach to test printing

At Image Science all test prints are treated exactly the same as any standard print order. We use the same fine art papers and print on them at the same quality, with the same archival pigment inks. They also require the same handling (all our prints are individually fed into our printers and individually inspected for flaws).

This might sound strange for what is just a ‘test,’ but it’s precisely the point. It’s a 100% proof, or guarantee, of how your image/s will print on your selected paper. 

This also means that all testing here is for your purposes only - we needn’t even be informed that what you’re printing is a test (unless you’re after advice, in which case don’t hesitate to get in touch!).

All test prints follow our standard printing rates, file preparation, order & upload process. Note if you’re not confident in Photoshop we provide a basic file setup service for $5 per file.

Why test your prints?

The most common reason it might be a good idea to test your prints is that the vast majority of computer monitors out there in the world don’t provide a good indication of what your files will print like (read more about this here).

Most commonly this means that your prints will turn out darker than you are expecting (because many people dial up their monitor brightness to a point that doesn’t resemble the actual brightness values in their files). Though equally there can be huge differences in colour and contrast too. 

The best solution to these problems is to invest in a colour-accurate monitor and regularly calibrate it to a standard that most closely resembles the paper you are using for print. If you can’t afford monitor hardware then you can lower the differential from your screen to print with a screen calibrator.

You can read more about colour control on monitors on our dedicated knowledge page on that topic here, and of course get in touch if you’d like advice on this.

Note that while getting on top of colour management with the appropriate hardware can hugely improve your output and minimise the need for test printing, it may not necessarily remove the need for it altogether, particularly for decisions around paper texture and enlargements (see below).

Test printing for colour, contrast and brightness

If the level of investment required to purchase additional hardware or learn how to manage colour on your monitor is not commensurate to your needs, then the simplest way of working is just to test print your images and adjust your files based on how they look relative to your prints.

That is, if your print is too dark you can just brighten your file and try again. If it looks too washed out you can boost the saturation, or if it’s too flat you can boost the contrast to give it more punch (though note that your monitor may not remain consistent depending on your settings, lighting and the fact that the way colours display on monitors can shift over time).

Getting colours to match what you see on your screen is a major limitation with this approach as it will be much more difficult than simple adjustments in brightness, contrast and saturation.

Apart from being very approximate, another serious drawback of this approach is that it results in more printing expenses and is a slower process as you go back and forth between each adjustment. 

Testing resolution/sharpness/pixelation on large prints

There's no hard and fast rule to how much you can enlarge an image for print as it depends on subjective tolerance for sharpness/softness, as well as viewing distance (see our articles on printing bigger and resolution for sharp prints below). So a simple way to see if you'll be happy with an enlargement is to do a test strip at your desired scale and eye-ball it.

To do this open your file in Photoshop, go to the ‘image size’ dialogue and adjust the ‘width’ and ‘height’ (while making sure to keep the resample button unchecked).

Then copy out a segment of your image (best to pick a key area) that fits onto an A4 or A3 for printing (again if you’re not confident in Photoshop we can do this for you as part of our basic file setup service).

This way you can test if you're happy with the results without going to the expense of doing a full-sized print. This is a reliable way of ensuring you'll be happy with the outcome without going to the expense of printing the file at its largest.

Cost effective test strips: several critical areas from photos placed at the desired final print scale on a single sheet.
Cost effective test strips: several critical areas from photos placed at the desired final print scale on a single sheet.

Finally, don’t forget to stand back to simulate the expected viewing distance for your final print!