On the Virtues of Printing

A fair bit of my time of late has been occupied with printing photos. This is a time-consuming process with a steep learning curve, but in the relatively short time I’ve been doing it I’ve already become thoroughly convinced of its value. I find myself of the mindset that I have not created (or perhaps more accurately completed) a photograph until I’m holding it in my hands.

For anyone who grew up in the 35mm film era, prints were ubiquitous. You took the film to be developed and received back an envelope with the negatives and some small (3×5 or 4×6) prints of widely varying quality (before that you got contact prints from 6×6 or 6×9 negatives that were even smaller). All your photos were there – the ones you shot of the inside of your bag, the ones with the lens cap on, the ones with your finger in the corner, and the ones where you didn’t hold the camera steady. In other words, most of your prints were wasted. Meanwhile, anything that was actually decent would benefit from being blown up to something bigger than an index card. No wonder that, freed from the tyranny of film, most people are quite content to look at their photos on their phones instead of paying to have them printed.

Printing today entails money and time. Photo printers are very good, and not all that expensive for the smaller models, but good paper and ink are not cheap. Optimizing photos for printing requires a different approach to preparing them to display digitally, and some software can make printing torturous, even if it is competent for other tasks. Of course, you can pay a service to print for you, and some are quite good and not too expensive, but you compromise control over the final output. Regardless of how you accomplish it, once printed, photos have to be stored, meaning space must be found and allocated; if you like to print big, this becomes even more of an issue.

Thus there are plenty of reasons not to print. Do it anyway. Not everything, mind you, but those shots that warrant it should be committed to paper. Looking at a photograph as a physical object is quite different from seeing it on a screen. Seeing it at a fixed size, with forward lighting, and without getting lost in the meaningless detail of pixel-peeping or worrying about monitor calibration, can be nothing short of a revelation. How much do you care about presenting your photos in the best possible circumstances?

The size one prints at is part of the final presentation, and this can have a significant influence on the impact of the photo. Most people immediately think of impressively large prints as the best way to display their work, but in some cases small, even tiny prints can be a wonderful way to present certain images. A miniature print of a delicate, well-composed photo can draw viewers into it very effectively, where a bigger print would destroy the intimacy the picture. How much do you care about displaying your photos as you intend them to be viewed?

Finally, there’s simply the question of durability. Good prints will last for decades; how long will you be able to access and view your digital files? I am hardly the first person to make this point, but it’s still worth remembering. If you’re shooting film, of course, you have negatives to back up your work, but digital photos are only a power surge, software update, or lost phone away from disappearing. Those old photos of your great-grandparents, or Matthew Brady’s pictures of the Civil War, or the groundbreaking work of the photographers working in Paris in the 1930s, would all likely be lost if not for the physical objects that preserve them. How much do you care about being able to look back at your photos ten, twenty, or fifty years from now?