I spend a lot of my time talking to photographers and to representatives of the photo industry about trends, technology and workflow. When it comes to the subject of printing, one thing that surprises me is the disconnect between many photographers I speak with and the companies I work with that create gear.
For the photographers who cut their teeth in an era where Flickr and Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr are king, many feel that printing is passé. As a photographer friend of mine put it, people are content to “send postage stamp-sized images to each other and double tap on them.” For the industry reps, especially those who grew up in a darkroom era, printing is becoming a forgotten art, but an incredibly valuable one.
Myth: No One Needs To Print A Photo In The Modern Internet Era
A few weeks ago, I was at the New York Public Library where the exhibition “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography” was running. The marvelous exhibit included thousands of photographs and the various media by which they were shared. Glass plates, traditional photographic prints and digital prints lined the walls and filled display cases. I stood in front of a number of original Diane Arbus prints, marveling at them. I’ve seen her work before, of course. So, too, have I seen Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother,” as it’s probably one of the world’s top-10 most famous photographs.
But I haven’t stood before Dorothea Lange’s actual work before and taken it in. I’ve seen it reproduced in magazines and on websites and on TV, but to see her work in real life, on photographic paper that was slightly yellowed and curled—that carried an extra bit of meaning.
A photograph doesn’t need to be a historical touchstone of Depression-era documentation to benefit from being printed, and it doesn’t have to live inside a glass case at a library or museum, either. There’s a tremendous benefit to printing one’s photographs that’s not conferred by looking at them on the screen.
I was recently at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which was hosted by Canon this year. They arranged for some writers to photograph the event and, afterward, we printed some of our photos on one of their new printers.
One of the shots I chose was taken in the early-morning darkness hours before sunrise. It features a vendor at the Fiesta’s midway trying to drum up business in front of his tent of toys and souvenirs. I was fond of the image, but largely picked it to evaluate the printer’s ability to render detail in shadows and to reproduce the vibrant colors of the inflatable toys at his booth.
When the print rolled out, though, I suddenly saw things in it that I couldn’t see on my laptop’s screen. Shadows of the tent and the vendor overlapping to make various patterns and textures on the asphalt. Light shining through the bubbles he was blowing with a little toy bubble gun. Minute details like the lettering on signs in the background.
I even saw things I’d like to do better if I could reshoot the scene.
And that’s probably the most important thing about printing. It is, by far, the best tool to really help photographers look at their images. Combine the detail and fidelity of today’s printers and papers with the amount of time it takes to produce a print—and the fact that each print has an associated cost—and you get an intentional, meditative process that reveals the strengths and the weaknesses in a photo in a way that posting it to Facebook does not.
You can show someone a photograph on Instagram, and even if it’s flawed, it will still get Likes. (I get more Likes for my snapshots of food than I do my carefully composed photos.) Hand someone a print, though, and you can watch their face and their eyes and see exactly what they like and don’t like about a photograph. Any-one who has ever been through a portfolio review will be familiar with this.
Knowing how to print, and print well, is also one of the must-have skills of a photographer. I liken it to knowing how to drive a stick shift in a world of cars that have automatic transmissions. Drivers who learned on a stick shift had to pay much more attention to the process of driving than drivers do today. There was a finesse to turning a corner and shifting gears that’s just lost now.
You don’t need to drive stick shift to be a good driver, but you can’t be good with a stick shift if you only drive your car in automatic.
There are great photographers who probably will never print an image. And the problem is that they will never know if they could have gotten better without this vital imaging tool for self-reflection and critique.
In the next issue, we’re going to devote a good amount of coverage to the art of printing, but before then, do yourself, and your photography, a favor, and print some of your images.