I started college as an art major, doing prints. I’d been printing for a year or two at that time. At the same time — and for years after I left the art department — I was working in the darkroom, processing film and making “enlargements” (i.e. prints). I loved it. I loved working with the paper, seeing the results happen before my eyes.

It’s been a long time since I cut a block or printed an etching or worked in the darkroom. For decades I got my photos printed like everybody else, at the local photo shop. When I started making portraits and doing weddings, I used the printing service (Mpix Pro) supported by my web service (Zenfolio). Mpix Pro does very good work, their prices are reasonable, they have a quick turnaround, they will do manual color correction for me (that’s critical) and they have a ton of options with regard to papers, finishes, formats (board, canvas, etc.). In the last three years I can only remember two unhappy customers. In one case (my very first wedding, five years ago), the problem was my fault, not theirs. The other problem occurred this spring and it was a simple screw-up: Mpix sent my client the wrong prints. Zenfolio support worked with Mpix, got things sorted out, — and in the end, the client was quite satisfied. And she got her prints for free. I was embarrassed but the client was great about it.

Anyway, I’ve missed handling the printing part of the process myself. As much as I trust Mpix Pro, I regret the fact that, in most cases, I usually don’t see what my clients getting. I let clients place the orders online and receive the  prints directly. I do this because it’s quicker for the client and more cost-effective. If I have the prints sent to me first, for review, well, it just slows down delivery. As I said already, I haven’t had many problems with this approach. But — and here I’m being selfish, I admit — this approach means I don’t get to enjoy my own photos in print as often as I would like. I get my personal photos printed. But I don’t usually print client photos, except now and then to add to my portfolio.

And I’ve especially missed handling the printing as I’ve come to believe more and more strongly that, if you don’t have prints, you don’t have much. Even if you somehow manage to hang on to your digital photos for, say, forty years, don’t count on being able to open them and view them. Heck, I’m not sure we’ll be able to open and view today’s digital file formats in ten years.

Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer, was a master printer and regarded printing as the performance, while the film capture was simply the score. But not all great photographers were printers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of my photographic heroes, was fairly indifferent to the printing process. He said in interviews that he was interested in the process of taking the photo and not at all in the process of printing it:

Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks. [Cartier-Bresson]

That is certainly a respectable point of view and I used it for years to justify my own avoidance of the printing process. But the truth is, I never really shared Cartier-Bresson’s indifference to “what happens next”. I avoided printing because I was afraid of it, not because it didn’t matter to me. I just realized that I don’t need to be afraid, and at the same time I discovered how truly interested I am in the print as the the whole point of taking photographs.

Necessity is some kind of mother

Recently, I needed some prints in a hurry. It would have been risky to upload the files to my lab, then count on them to print them and get them back to me in three days. Almost possible, but risky. And I wasn’t thrilled with my local options. Of course, I’ve had inkjet printers for years. I just never used one of them to print photos. This last week, that changed. I decided to try printing the images myself on my consumer-grade H-P inkjet printer, using H-P premium photo paper.

I was surprised and very pleased with the results. And I found the process of printing the images (from within Adobe Lightroom’s Print module) exhilarating.

Now, in all honesty, I am not sure how these would compare to the prints I get from Mpix Pro. They’re probably not as good. But they are a lot better than the prints I get from any of the local consumer printing sources. My wife, who is a pretty severe critic, loved them. Colors are right and the pictures are sharp, quite lovely, in fact. And these were my first attempts. I have seen prints done by other photographers who handle their own printing. The results can be breath-taking.

Digital images vs prints

A digital image viewed on your iPhone or iPad or computer screen, no matter how lovely you may think it looks, and no matter how good your digital display, does not and cannot deliver the same experience as a well-made print of the same photo. Well-made prints display the details in photographs with greater subtlety. This has something to do with the fact that the specks of ink used to make a print are smaller than the pixels on the computer screen, but it also has to do with the fact that the print doesn’t illuminate itself the way a computer display does. The print is viewed in reflected light. It’s better than the light of any computer screen and it has a very different “feel” to it.

And somehow, the print seems real in a way that a digital-rendered image doesn’t. A lot of the value of a print comes from the fact that it’s a tangible thing. There are 97 trillion images on the Internet. Close your browser and they’re gone. But a print in your hand or hanging on your wall is truly there. It takes up space and has to justify its existence in a way that a zillion images on Facebook don’t.

As I said, prints make a difference to the client. Many of my clients want to have digital images so they can share them with family and friends. That’s okay, I understand that. I do it myself. But I push prints on my clients, so I have confidence they’ll have their photos years from now.

And prints make a difference to me as a photographer. When I shoot for prints, I shoot more carefully, with a different and more serious purpose in mind. When everything is a digital snapshot, no individual shot really matters. It’s like fast food or instant grits. But when I shoot with the print in mind, well, I’m not a hunter simply out for the kill, I’m a cook shopping for an important meal, a meal designed to be remembered.

I could shoot for the print, without making the print myself. I’m sure that’s what Cartier-Bresson did. After all, he wasn’t using a digital camera. But being involved in the printing process more directly means I will get a reward that I would otherwise miss, if I merely sent photos out to my service. I will understand the making of the print in a practical way that will feed back into my shooting. Or so I expect. I believe that’s how it was for me decades ago, when I was developing and printing my own pictures in the darkroom.

A new adventure

Anyway, this has been a bit of a revelation and I’m determined to keep at it. I have already tentatively decided that, next time I do portraits for the Dallas Arboretum, my clients will be getting their 4″ x 6″ prints from me and I am confident my clients will be very happy with them. Beyond that, I’m not exactly sure yet how this will fit into my interactions with clients. I can’t compete with the pro lab, at least not in the range of products. I don’t plan to start printing tee shirts or coffee mugs, for example. But I am confident that I can, with some effort and practice and a little investment, produce prints that exceed my clients’ expectations in terms of quality and durability. And that will be worth the effort.


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