Like many who make their living with photography, my income is generated in several ways. One is by teaching Lightroom and techniques in digital workflow, and another is working with photographers to develop their images and produce fine-art archival pigment-ink prints—which is a fancy way of saying I run a digital print lab. Through these two endeavors, my experience has been that learning how to print well, which is a somewhat subjective thing, isn’t easy.
Subjectivity aside, by “print well,” I mean knowing how to pay attention to detail and tone, to shadows and to highlights, to print with consistency and predictability, and with an understanding of how an image may or may not translate onto a certain medium. I’m referring to having clarity about the vision you have for your work, and having enough command over the tools and technology at hand to successfully translate that vision so that your first print is as successful as your hundredth.
Again, it’s not easy. It takes patience, technical knowledge, trial and error, and commitment. Nonetheless, I think it’s the most important phase of the photography workflow. The print is, as Ansel Adams once famously called it, the photographer’s “performance.”
So, with due reverence for the performance, this article is part one of a series of four articles on how to print with modern tools. To kick things off, we’ll first examine the usefulness of printing in today’s virtual, computer screen-driven world. Following articles will introduce you to the tools and concepts needed to print consistently and predictably, and the final article will review the types of paper and media available for digital printing.
Whether you print often and want to improve your skills, or don’t print and need to know where to begin, let me suggest you start, as of now, by thinking about what kind of performance you want to create.
The Value of Printing
A photographer’s job is to make a print, right? Isn’t that the end goal? Create a negative, digital or otherwise, and then print? Well, actually, not really, not anymore. Imagine, if you will, a 20-something shooter who’s hot with his or her camera—maybe that’s even you. He has thousands and thousands of followers on Instagram and Flickr, but never in his life has he made a print. Is he, or is he not, a photographer?
For him, the craft of photography is about the capture, the shared file. In step with the digital photography culture, he produces many, many images. His workflow is void of printmaking because there’s no requirement or motivation to do so, but a photographer he is nonetheless. For better or worse, printmaking isn’t necessarily the job or the requirement for the modern photographer, as it has been historically.
So, the question is, why print? What’s the importance of making a print in an era that doesn’t require it? Even though the answers to those questions are likely as plentiful as there are photographers, let me attempt to distill a few.
“Artisanal” language in advertising has become popular, to say the least. McDonald’s even has a sandwich called the Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. I like a cheat meal just like the next guy, but McDonald’s? Artisanal? Try Googling the keywords “artisanal parody,” and you’ll find hilarious videos on artisanal water making, artisanal firewood and artisanal pencil sharpening.
The fact of the matter is that such language has made its way into our culture to the point of parody because there’s a cultural need for it. People value craftsmanship. They value the rare thing, the diamond instead of the quartz. Yes, we live in a McDonald’s world, but there’s also The French Laundry (a famous restaurant in Napa serving finely crafted French-style dishes with American influences).
The very act of printmaking is the act of highlighting the rare thing. Making prints forces us to sift through our archive with more care and consideration, to select that image that’s truly worthy—worthy beyond the social-media post. Worthy enough to analyze its details in Photoshop or Lightroom, to pay attention to things like edge sharpness, removing chromatic aberration, noise reduction and spot removal—things that are less necessary with low-resolution viewing. Worthy enough to print, to frame, to add my signature to, to hang on my wall and to properly light, because it best represents my vision for my work.
Making prints forces us to scrutinize our work more intimately, and if you have any interest in getting better at photography, such scrutiny can only help. The daily social-media post is just inherently less rare. I think people appreciate, even yearn for, the finely crafted, rare thing.
The Tangible vs. the Virtual
Digital information isn’t merely short-lived as it comes and goes on our computer screens—it leaves our memory faster, as well. There’s real science that points to the phenomena that what we see digitally doesn’t last as long in our memory as things on paper. Admittedly, I’m making a correlation between science and the photographic arts, but there have been countless studies showing that when a person reads text on paper, he or she was able to retain and comprehend that information longer than when the same text is presented on a computer screen.
There’s something about the tangible that triggers a physical and emotional response that doesn’t happen on computer screens. And this physical and emotional response is what elicits access to the right triggers and synapses in the brain that are needed for long-term memory pathways. Comprehension isn’t absent when reading on computer screens, it’s just not as long-lasting.
For me, holding a print in my hand is a much more rewarding experience than just looking at an image on the screen. The computer display holds the image’s potential, but the print is where that potential is realized. Images resting on my hard drive are forgotten more easily than those that are framed and hung, and seen over and over; these are continuously thought about and are explained to others. Prints are, as the science suggests, an enduring experience.
In addition to the durability of the personal experience, prints also have more inherent archivability—they have the potential to live longer. A print made on the right paper with the right ink can last 100 years or more under the right condition, whereas anything digital runs the risk of becoming obsolete. Storage devices over the last 20 years have changed from floppy disks, to Zip drives, to CDs and DVDs, and from hard drives to solid-state drives. Oh, yeah, and here comes cloud storage options.
If today’s computers can’t read storage devices from 10 to 20 years ago, how do we know that in 30, 50 or 100 years from now we can still access JPEGs, the files on our hard drives, our raw file formats, and the developmental metadata we made while processing our image with today’s version of Lightroom? Have you heard of the new BPG (Better Portable Graphics) image format yet? I’ve seen a few articles saying it’s the format that may finally replace the JPEG. We have no idea what we’ll be able to do and not do that far ahead, but we do know that anything we print will last, and will look the same decades from now, if handled with care.
Why Buy a Leica, If You Already Have an iPhone
Once I had a client submit an image to me for printing that was captured with a Leica S. The image was technically precise, the exposure was good, everything was sharp, the ISO used was low, and the client asked me if I thought the file would hold up if we made a 16x24-inch print. Now, for those of you who may not be in the know, the Leica S isn’t a cheap little camera. Leicas are well known as the pinnacle of optical engineering, and the Leica S body alone is over $20,000.
Yet, there was a question of whether the file would hold up for what I consider a medium-sized print. Of course, I responded loudly with a “Hell, yeah, it will!” and made it clear that the file can go much larger than that. I don’t tell this story to disparage my client. Instead, the story is an indicator of how many photographers have come to understand camera and photo quality.
If looking at images solely on computer screens, through social media, through email and websites, where images are no wider than, say, 1000 or 2000 pixels, how can one distinguish the difference between the image quality of a top-quality camera and lens versus a point-and-shoot camera, or even an iPhone, for that matter? If our concept of camera quality is only conceptualized through the prism of price and megapixel marketing, or through what the highest achievable ISO is, then how do we get a feel for what our tools are capable of? The print! Are you getting it now?
The value of the print is, ultimately, the value of the print. It’s in the eye of the beholder, as they say. You may be a 20-something Instagram sensation, or you may be shooting black-and-white 120 film that you process yourself in your personal darkroom. Either way, the print celebrates the rare gems of our photo archives; it allows us to scrutinize our work more intimately. Prints are a tangible experience that we connect with on a deeper level, and their potential is that they will outlast the cameras, and the computers that created them, by far. For all these reasons, I believe printmaking is the most valuable phase of a modern workflow, and I encourage anyone reading this to do it more, to share your art more with people in person, and hold up the final vision of your work as high as you can.
Read part two of this series and learn how to achieve consistency in your printmaking.