Saturday, May 25, 2013

Do You Need to be Printing?

"Collapsed Into The Marsh"

Do you need to be making prints of your photographs? I believe so. Making prints from whatever you've photographed is the final step of making the photograph. It is the actual Value Object of your work. For many years I was satisfied with having my strips of negatives to hold as my Value Objects, and scanning them into digital files as needed for electronic display and distribution. Occasionally, I would make a 4X6 on my Canon Selphy CP780 to either stick in a photo album, or give to somebody upon request, but doing this had little impact on my approach to photography. Many now are not printing at all - instead storing digital photo files on a Tablet Computer, and beginning a whole new debate about which Tablet makes their photos look the best. I do the same with my Samsung Smartphone, and I find that my photos look absolutely fantastic on it's little screen- they do not look very natural, mind you, but the color saturation and contrasts look great!

But immediately this tells me something - when a picture changes it's look from one screen to another, then which is the real picture? Fact is, no image file displayed on a video screen is a real picture at all. It's merely a temporary representation of digital data which makes up a picture, and it disappears as soon as you switch the screen over to monitor some other process. Now, it is true - these files do have some value. I checked on Ebay, and found out that most people who are selling their digital files on-line are asking between $0.30 and $2.00, with free shipping of course, because the files are simply downloaded from Ebay once the buyer pays for them. The buyer is then free to do as he/she pleases with the file, but the point is, it will look different on each buyer's display screen.

Photography used to be entirely about a finished object that could be stored in an album, hung on a wall, or projected onto a screen. Very limited and cumbersome, yes, but the final product was done - it was not a representation that could be made to appear, and re-appear somewhere else, looking completely different every time. Some of these real printed photos, if original, are now fetching close to $2 million at auction. A reproduction of the same photo would go for much less - usually under $200. Care to guess what a digital file of the same piece would go for? Absolutely free! Digital files of a valuable photograph are not allowed to be sold, but if there's one out there, it can be "stolen" by simply mouse-clicking it. You can legally own a digital file of a Vivian Maier photo by simply right-clicking and downloading them from this site. However, if you try to re-sell it, even for only $0.30, then you are in violation of the copyright laws. Same with anything really - people download movies, music and books in much the same way, and can enjoy some of the benefits of all of these art forms for free. In fact, I really want to see this brand new movie about Vivian Maier, and I'm certain I could find it in the Bit-Torrents for free. However, I've never done that where music and movies are concerned; and you can be sure I'll be watching this movie by somehow paying for it, as a matter of principle - I want to be sure the movie-makers get paid so they can go on continuing making more great movies for me to watch. At the same time, if there's anything available anywhere which I want, or need, and it's legally free of charge, then I will gladly take it. Open Source Software (Linux) is the best example I can think of. I am running Linux for 90% of the time I spend on the computer. If anyone offers me a free lunch, I never say no!

So the long and the short of it is that the finished print is your Value Object as a photographer - not a digital representation of your photos on an I-Pad device.

In addition to checking Ebay for photographic art digital file prices, I found that a lot of good amateurs are selling their actual printed work for an average of $20.00 plus shipping, making the cost-value of an unknown photographer's prints to be over 20 times the value of a file - and rightly so.

But is this the only reason you should be printing your photos - to increase their potential cost-value? Absolutely not! In fact, this only provides a potential value of something that will be a really hard sell in today's world anyway, and if you can even recover your printing and packing costs, you'd be lucky. A far better reason to make prints - and I mean big prints, like 12"X18" is to make sure your photographs actually do stand up as a finished product. A print reveals things you don't see on a screen. Every aspect of exposure, colour accuracy, focus, composition, tonality and depth of field really show up on prints. The most common example is exposure - if you're shooting with a digital camera, your pictures will be underexposed in a print, although they will look fine on screen. And by this I mean that even if your camera's auto-exposure gives you confidence that all is well - it really isn't! Film fares much better in this regard, because that's what a film camera is designed for - to capture images that will be printed, with no expectation they will ever be displayed on a screen. Digital cameras are the opposite - it is assumed that a digital photo is intended for screen viewing, not for print.

Now that I've taken up printing, I'm finding that 80% of the pictures I've taken since 2008 are not good enough to print! The prints always reveal some aspect that I seldom really know what I'm doing, although I might find them to be acceptable on-screen. My criteria for judgment comes from the real-value discussion above - it is the question, "would I try to sell this print?" In the vast majority of cases, the answer is "no".

We all need to be extending our vision past the computer (or Tablet) screen. Try some printing for yourself if you haven't done so - even on a cheap ink-jet printer, and you should see what I'm talking about. Then with every shot you take, think about what it will look like hanging on a wall, and not how it will look on Flickr.

Don't forget to look at my Print Catalogue. You can reach me by email at

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