I've finally put together a tutorial showing how I use Adobe Lightroom to print multiple smaller photos on a single 4x6 canvas- with optional white borders! I used to use Picasa for this task, but I've found that Lightroom gives me finer control over border size and also allows me to make multiple prints without having to go through the process of formatting every. single. one. over and over again by allowing me to create and save printing templates.
Lightroom has revolutionized my printing workflow (much the same as it did my editing workflow when I first started using it), cutting it down to literally a fraction of the time that it used to be. The software is also not as expensive as it used to be, with the newest release, Lightroom 4, currently priced at $124 on Amazon. When I first started using Lightroom with version 3 it was more than double that price! Adobe also offers a 30 day free trial if you want to try to the software out first.
Just a warning- this tutorial is rather long, but most of the effort involved is in the initial setup of your Print module and templates. Once you've completed those steps you should never have to do them again (unless you set up a new computer or suffer a crash of some sort) and printing from Lightroom will take just a few simple button clicks. Also, these instructions will work for you whether you print at home or send your photos off to a developer (I tend to use the terms printer and developer interchangeably throughout this tutorial). I do a little of both, but my home photo printer is an old HP model that only prints at 4x6, so my process for preparing photos to print is the same either way.
Before I get started on the printing portion of this post, I want to briefly touch on a couple of pieces of information that are relevant to my printing workflow. You see, I first loved Lightroom for its organizational and editing capabilities. I'm not going to go too far into either, but if you're curious I use Totally Rad Presets for editing (though I mostly stick to basic white balance, contrast, and exposure adjustments), and I organize my photos in folders first by year and then by event. I've also got a folder for each month that holds one-offs and random photos. I don't tag or rate my photos- basically if I've edited it, I like it.
Even if you do nothing in Lightroom to organize your photos, though, it does a lot of work under the hood for you. For example, if I were to just dump all 75,000+ photos in my library into a single folder, simulated here by the "All Photographs" catalog, Lightroom would still allow me to quickly search based on date, file name, and a host of other options.
This filter works based on data that's automatically embedded by your digital camera into every photo you take (also know as EXIF data), and includes information like date, time, camera body, lens, focal length, and a whole slew of other bits of data. Most useful among these is the date, and Lightroom lets you quickly filter through all of your photos (remember, I'm looking at more than 75,000 of them at once here, and it's doing these searches in less than a second) by year, month, day, and even a date range.
The date range is especially useful if you do Project Life- you can easily narrow down the photos you're shown to a specific week and edit/print from there, with no need to download from a card and put things into specific date folders on your own.
Filtering by camera is useful if you use multiple cameras at an event, like when I was at Celebration using both my Nikon and my iPhone. Here I've narrowed the date down to one day's worth of my Celebration VI photos, then chosen "Unknown Camera." For some reason Lightroom always flags Instagram photos as Unknown, while regular iPhone photos are properly identified.
But this isn't a post about organizing, right? Because honestly I could go on and on about all the little features in Lightroom that make my life so much easier. So let's look at how Lightroom helps streamline your printing process.
Let's take my photos from the first day of Celebration VI as an example, starting in the Library module. Take note of the other module names in Lightroom (located at the top right corner of the screen) as this is where you'll come to in a bit to switch to the Print module.
I've selected two photos that I know I want to print (to select multiple photos hold down the Ctrl (on Windows) or Cmd (on Mac) button while clicking each one, or you can hold the shift key while clicking the first and last photo in a range to select the entire range) and that are already edited (as indicated by the +/- icon in the lower right corner of the thumbnail).
Part of my printing workflow in Lightroom involves a collection that I've set up called "To Print." This collection contains a series of folders, each named with the size that I want to print the photos that I place in the folder. This is just my way of keeping track of what photos I want to make what size, and you may find your own way of doing it. I find that if I have these folders available, I can make a pass through all of the potential photos that I might want to print, decide on a size for each, and then deal with actually printing them in a batch later.
I want to print the two photos that I selected in the step above at 4x3, so I drag them to the 4x3 folder and drop them into the collection.
Continue selecting photos until you have everything that you want to print for this round, then click the "Print" module link in the top right corner of the screen. Your screen will change to a print view (I'll show you the whole thing in just a minute), and if this is your first time printing from Lightroom, you'll need to go through Page Setup (the button for that is located in the bottom left of the screen, just above the photo previews) to tell Lightroom what size paper you want to "print" to. I say "print" in quotes because what we'll actually be doing is preparing files at that size and not actually sending to a printer, but we'll get to that in a bit, as well.
So click Page Setup...
...and then go through whatever steps you need to on your operating system to set up a 4x6 paper size (it's usually fairly easy to figure out). How you do this is determined by your operating system and not Lightroom, so I don't have the exact steps for you on this. On a Mac all you have to do is set up a custom paper size at 4x6 and the select it in the Paper Size drop-down menu.
Once that's set up, your Print module screen should look something like this (you may have photos displayed in the print area if you already have some selected, and that's perfectly okay). Click on Single Image/Contact Sheet (older versions of Lightroom may only say Contact Sheet) in the top right corner before continuing.
Most of the changes we'll be making to print multiple photos on the 4x6 canvas that we've set up will be found in the Layout section. If your Layout menu is collapsed, click on the little arrow to the right of the word "Layout" to open it. If you have defined margins, rows, columns, or other values here, reset everything to the lowest value possible (0 for most items and 1 for Rows and Columns) except for Cell Size, which should have both dimensions at their maximum values (in this case 4 and 6).
Rows and Columns are the first things we're going to set. You can do all kinds of crazy stuff here, like set 6 rows and 7 columns...
...giving yourself 42 little cells on the page. Imagine printing 42 little photos on a single 4x6 canvas! And, yes, Lightroom could totally do it.
But to be a bit more practical, let's just go with 1 row and 2 columns giving us two prints on the page, each measuring 4x3.
If you don't have any photos selected, this is what your screen should look like now (you can click on the image below for a much larger version- I know this one is tiny).
So, how do you get photos into those cells? It's so very, very easy. Just click on the photos in the little preview strip at the bottom of the screen, using the same Ctrl, Cmd, or Shift instructions as you did for selecting multiple photos in the Library module. As if by magic, Lightroom will place each photo that you select in its own cell (I'll get to what happens if you select more photos than there are cells in a just a minute- for now I'll just say that it's very, very cool and a huge timesaver).
You may have noticed that the photos have been automatically rotated and cropped to fit in the cell's aspect ratio. There are two different options that help control this, both located in the Image Settings box- take note of the options "Zoom to Fill" and "Rotate to Fit."
The following few screenshots are simply to show you what these two options do, so no need to follow along with these steps unless you want to do some format tweaking later. I'll tell you when to pick back up.
The "Zoom to Fill" option, when checked, is what tells Lightroom to crop your photo to fill the entire frame. Unchecked it tells Lightroom not to crop your photo, but simply resize it to fit one dimension or the other in the frame. Lightroom adds borders along the edges of the photos if there's any white space resulting from your photo and the print cell having different aspect ratios (here the photo is a 4x6 ratio and the cell is a 4x3). Here's a shot of what that looks like:
"Rotate to Fit," when checked," tells Lightroom to rotate your image so that the longest horizontal edge of the photo aligns with the longest horizontal edge of the print cell. It's the reason the photos appear sideways on the print canvas preview. Unchecking this box tells Lightroom to not rotate the photos and to simply use them in whatever orientation they're currently at. Here's an example of an unrotated photo with the "Zoom to Fill" option on:
Unchecking both Zoom to Fill and Rotate to Fit causes Lightroom to print a photo in its native orientation and without cropping while still fitting it to the print cell.
Most of the time I have both of these options on (and if you don't like the way Lightroom crops your photo, you can fix that, too- just click on the image itself in the print preview and hold your mouse button down while dragging the image to move it).
If you tuned that bit out, this is where you should start paying attention again. :)
If you just want a pair of 4x3 photos and don't care about adding white borders, you can skip down to the portion of this tutorial that deals with printing your photos to file and saving your template settings.
If you want to add borders to your photos, though, you'll need to dive back into the Layout box and adjust the Margins to add some space around the edge of your canvas. I like borders that are about a tenth of an inch wide, so I entered a 0.10 for each margin.
That added borders around the outside of the canvas, but what about between photos?
There's another setting in the Layout box called "Cell Spacing," and to add borders to the inner edges of the photos you'll need to add some extra space here, too. Remember that you're adding borders for two photos, so you'll need to double whatever value you entered in the Margins section. For me that means a value of 0.20.
Now each photo has a full 1/10" border around the entire picture.
In a perfect world we could leave those settings alone, send our photos to the printer, and have them come back with perfectly bordered edges. Unfortunately the world isn't perfect, especially when it comes to photo printing, and even the best developers (and even my little 4x6 home printer) introduce some degree of "mechanical slop" into their printing process.
Mechanical slop happens when the developer slightly enlarges your photo to a size that's just a touch bigger than the canvas they're printing on to ensure that they don't have any white borders around your print. If you've ever sent off a perfectly cropped 4x6 to be printed only to have it come back with hands, heads, or other body parts or items near the edge of the frame cut off, then you've experienced the results of mechanical slop.
To work around this issue, we need to give the printer a little extra wiggle room around the outer edges of the photos. This is as easy as adding a small amount of extra margin (beyond the borders we've already added) to the outer edges. The amount you need to use will vary from printer to printer, so I can't give you an exact value to use here (slop is, after all, sloppy), but for printing in my HP printer and at Snapfish I've found that an extra 0.12 inches works. That means that all I have to do is add 0.12 to my existing 0.10 border for a total of 0.22 for each margin. You do not need to add anything extra to the cell spacing as that only deals with the inner border where the two photos meet, which isn't affected by mechanical slop.
Note, correcting for mechanical slop is not an exact science, and I usually end up trimming my photos up to even out the borders.
With the extra margin added, your print screen should look something like this.
Now that we've got photos all formatted, bordered, and ready to print, we need to output the files in a format that your printer/developer understands. Lightroom is capable of sending data directly to your home printer, so if you want to go that route please do. My little printer is easiest to use with a USB flash drive, so I always use the "Print to File" option whether I'm printing at home or sending my photos out for developing.
Scroll down in the right hand toolbar until you come to the "Print Job" section. You'll need to make a few changes here, but the good news is that as long as you don't change them again afterward, you'll only have to do this once.
Set the file resolution to anything above 300 dpi. I use 600 dpi just because...well, I'm not sure why. I must just like really big files.
Once those two items are set up, all you have to do is click the "Print to File..." button, navigate to the directory you want to save your print(s) in, enter a file name, and click OK. Lightroom will start churning away generating all your prints on perfect little 4x6 canvases. When its done, navigate in your file explorer to the directory you saved them in. I've opened one of my files up below to show you what the final output looks like. These final files are what you upload to your photo developer (Snapfish, Shutterfly, Costco, etc.) for printing.
What about the case when you have, say, 12 photos you want to print at 4x3 instead of just 2? It's so easy! Just select all 12...
...and you'll see the little left and right arrows at the left bottom corner of the print preview area illuminate.
You'll also see an indication in the right bottom corner of what "page" you're looking at. Think of each page as a 4x6 print- Lightroom has detected that you've selected more photos to print at 4x3 than what will fit on a single page (this is photo paper after all and not the TARDIS!), so it generates multiple pages for you automatically. When you click the Print To File button and start the printing process, Lightroom will output all of these at once, taking the file name you enter and adding a number to it for each print to give them unique file names. You can print 1 4x3 photo or you can print 1,000 with the same number of button clicks. Major, major timesaver! My usual workflow is to select all the photos in a given size folder, select corresponding size template that I want to use (more on saving templates in a minute), and hit Print To File. Lightroom does the rest of the work for me.
Now that you've done all the hard work of setting up a print template, it's a good idea to save it so you don't have to ever fuss with margins and cell spacing again, at least for this particular photo size. On the left side of the screen you'll find a Template Browser area. You may want to create a new folder here to hold all the custom templates you'll be creating from now on.
And, now, this is very important, Lightroom does not automatically save the current template settings to the new template. You need to right-click on the template name and select "Update with Current Settings."
Now all that formatting you did is safely saved in your new template file and you can use it over and over again without having to reset them.
Creating templates for sizes other than 4x3 is simply a matter of adding rows and columns and playing with margins until you have the size you want. For example, if I wanted to put four photos on a single 4x6 canvas (making four 2x3 pictures), I'd set Rows to 2 and Columns to 2, creating 4 cells on my page.
Note in the screenshot above, though, how the top and bottom of each picture doesn't have a white border running through it. That's because with the addition of another row of photos, we've introduced a Vertical margin to the process. It's easily fixed, though- just set the value for the Vertical margin to the same value as your Horizontal margin- in my case 0.22.
I hope that I've explained things clearly enough, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!