Note: This article is for photographers participating in the San Diego Fair Photo Exhibit. I’ve received many questions on how to print and mount images for the competition and this is my advice.
So you got your notification from the fair and have advanced to Tier 2 where you need to submit physical prints. Now what? You first need to decide three things before proceeding:
- What medium do I want to print on?
- Do I print myself or outsource? if outsourcing do you want to use a local or online lab?
- How will I mount my print to conform to fair standards?
Choice of Medium
There are lots of options including prints on photographic paper (RA-4), inkjet (dye or pigment), metal, acrylic face mount, canvas, etc. This is a very personal preference and all of the mediums have various pros and cons.
You choice of medium will constrain where you can print your images. For example, most small labs don’t do metal or acrylic face mounting in-house. Pigment prints are expensive to outsource and every lab has a different set of fine art papers they provide.
Metal or Acrylic Face Mount
If you want to do metal or acrylic, you should be submitting your prints ASAP. Most labs have a lengthy production time (e.g. 5-10 days or longer) which may make meeting the tier 2 deadline tough (turn in on May 14th & 15th). For metal make sure you have the corners rounded for the safety of the fair workers. Order your print without any hanging hardware on the back and then attach the mount yourself after the fair.
The image below shows how the fair will prepare your metal photo for hanging (this was in the large print category). They will sandpaper the back of print and then attach self-adhesive velcro squares. The piece is then stuck to a grey carpeted wall.
If you have access to a photo printer you can print yourself. You want to use a photo quality inkjet like the Canon Pixma Pro-10 Pro-100, Epson P600, P800, 3880, HP Z-series, etc. These can all make fantastic quality prints.
This my preference as you have choice over paper, instant feedback, and complete control over the process. Prints from modern inkjets are stunning and can surpass traditional photo prints on measures like gamut, black levels, etc.
Digital Art Supplies in Kearny Mesa has a very wide selection of papers. They also have paper samples in their storefront.
You can get a printer test evaluation image (useful for debugging color problems) from outbackphoto.com.
If you don’t have your own printer, there are many local labs where you can print your photos. These include
- Nelson Photo Supplies, Point Loma (RA-4)
- George’s Camera, Clairemont Mesa (RA-4)
- Chrome Digital, Little Italy (RA-4, pigment)
- Costco (RA-4 up to 12x18, pigment up to 20x30)
Go to each lab’s website and follow their FAQ on how to prepare and upload images for printing (if they have one). In general, I prepare my files as follows:
- Resize to 300dpi at desired print size. E.g. a 12x18” print would be 3600x5400 pixels. You may want to add an additional white border to make the print easier to handle.
- Apply output sharpening (in Lightroom’s export dialog box).
- Export as high quality jpeg (95%).
- Convert to either AdobeRGB or sRGB color space and embed the profile in the jpeg. AdobeRGB is a wider color space (and preferred) but check to make sure the lab accepts it.
These settings will work for pretty much any lab.
The advantage of using a local lab is that you can easily make test proofs, changes, and then reprint them without waiting multiple days for shipping. You can also go in and talk to the lab tech.
I recommend making making a small sets of proofs (you can do this cheaply with 4x6 prints) before printing your final version, especially if you do not have a color calibrated monitor. You should also have the lab turn off any auto-correction.
Note some labs will scale up your image slightly and you may lose details at the edges. If you use an overmat, the mat will cover anywhere from 1⁄8” to 1⁄4” of your image on the outside edge.
Finally if you are comfortable with color management, Costco provides ICC profile for their individual machines. You can download these from Dry Creek Photo. With Costco, I always convert my images to their profile.
Online there are lots of options for printing. Some of these include
- Bayphoto (fastest turnaround for metal prints, 2-3 days)
- White House Custom Color
- Artbeat (Irvine)
- Metalography (Temecula)
- Adorama Pix
Some of these labs cater to pros and may require you to download software called ROES to order prints. The labs may also have a web interface for ordering. Again follow the same image preparation instructions as above.
Many labs have a sizeable discount for first time orders (e.g. Bayphoto’s is 25%).
All photos need to be mounted on a 16x20” board (with the exception of large prints). You should read the mounting guidelines carefully – although the judges are not required to eliminate images in Tier 2, some get rejected every year for poor presentation and/or a poor quality print.
If you want to mount your images yourself, you can buy precut matts and foam core from places like Dick Blick or Michaels (although selection might be limited). You can also find them online (Frames Destination, Redimat, Matboardplus, etc.) but you may need to buy in bulk to make prices worthwhile. I recommend watching this video which was made specifically for the San Diego County Fair and covers how to properly mount your photo on foamcore with an overmat. This is the most common method people use in the exhibit.
This year I’m thinking about presenting my photo without a mat and just having a paper border. This video shows how to do that by mounting the paper on self-adhesive foamcore/gatorboard. Note the presenter adds two pieces of wood on the back to make the piece float away from the wall. DO NOT DO THIS FOR THE SAN DIEGO FAIR. They need a flat back surface to put velcro all around the outside edge in order to hang prints.
If you do not want to do the mounting yourself, you may want to look at
- Aztec Graphics (Pacific Beach) - will mount and mat your photos that you have printed elsewhere
- Citrus Frame Shop (Escondido) - will mount and mat your photos that you have printed elsewhere
- Chrome Digital (Little Italy) - will print and mount to fair specifications ($58/image)
- North Coast Photo (Carlsbad) - will print (RA-4) and mount
- Watts Digital Imaging (Scripps-Poway) - will print and mount to fair specifications (lightjet, $105/image)
Once your images are prepared, you should store them carefully until you are ready to deliver them on the drop-off date. I keep my prints in clear plastic bags with a closeable flap. You can find these online from many sources (search for “clear bags”) but you probably have to buy them in bulk. Metal prints are kept in the bags they were shipped in from the lab.
I’ve not personally used most of the businesses I’ve listed here and I have no affiliation other than as a customer. Nelson Photo has hosted a LightChasers exhibit (a Facebook group that I am affiliated with).
If you’re a local photographer and have other resources for printing & mounting, please contact me and I will add them.