Like it or not, most of the images we see on a day-to-day basis are on a screen of some kind. A truly special photo, however, deserves to exist in the physical world. And now, in the era of digital photography, printing is as important as ever.
We will likely never return to the days of shoeboxes full of small prints, but big, finished photographs are on the rise. They never go obsolete. Their software is never out of date. They help an image to last forever. But a ton of work goes into a single image before it becomes that art object.
We spoke to some Canon Explorers of Light—professional photographers who are experts in their field—about the painstaking and careful process involved with making a print for display.
For the Preservation of Your Photography
If an inkjet printer and photo paper aren’t part of your digital darkroom, they should be. It’s not uncommon for photography enthusiasts and even some pro photographers to keep their files strewn across a series of hard drives and cloud storage services. Keeping a collection of printed images protects a body of work while creating a catalog of your photos.
Fashion and commercial photographer Lindsay Adler points out that “many people keep family photographs and cherished memories only in digital format. Certainly there is a great benefit to having digital family photographs to share and archive, but when hard drives fail or images are accidentally deleted, you are losing a part of family history!” She goes on to say, “Physical prints are a way to cherish family memories and provide a ‘physical backup’ of the most important images.”
But there are more reasons to value a printed image above those that exist in digital form only. Adler reminds us of the differences between viewing an image online, where our senses are already overloaded, and giving it the attention it deserves when it’s printed. “In the days of the dominance of social media, most images get a fraction of a second attention from the viewer. When you print your images, this is a chance to allow people to explore the detail and appreciate the full vision of the piece. At times I put days into planning and creating a photograph but only get a second of attention on social media. A print helps change this.”
Says Canon Explorer of Light Joel Grimes, “The print is the single greatest artistic statement a photographer can make. It is the exclamation mark on the creative process.”
Taking Grimes’ comment a step further, music and sports photographer David Bergman claims that a print increases the artistic and practical value of an image. “Whether I’m shooting a concert, a sporting event, or a portrait, I want my images to be seen as a work of art,” Bergman explains. He goes on to say that images gain more significance when printed because “photographs have a higher perceived value once they are printed and framed. Even if it’s never going to be on display at an art auction, I’ve found that printing my images and giving them to clients raises the value of the work.”
Planning and Choosing an Image for Print
While you may want to start by printing already-archived images, it’s important to prepare for upcoming shoots and photo opportunities. Take a tip from the pros and consider the final use of images when you’re capturing them in camera whether it’s going to be hanging on a wall, printed in a magazine or presented to a client.
“Without question,” Grimes reports, “my pre-visualization process incorporates the image in print form hanging on the wall. After all, it was the final print that got me hooked on photograph over forty years ago.”
Adler applies specific criteria when preparing to shoot. “Because I specialize in fashion and commercial photography,” she says, “I am always considering the final display of the image. Will it be on a billboard? Will it be a double page spread in a magazine? Will it be a print for a client’s wall? “ Knowing these criteria, she adds, “helps me consider the ideal color scheme, the crop of the image, what type of details will be visible at the print size/viewing distance, and much more.”
Of course, the client’s needs and requirements are critical. As Bergman says, “When I’m creating an image, I always try to think about how the image is going to be used. After all, if the client isn’t happy with the final displayed product, it certainly doesn’t matter how hard I worked to make the image.”
Choosing an image to print
Photo By Lindsay Adler
Once a shoot is wrapped, it’s time to cull the images and select the final image for printing or display. Editing your own photos may be challenging but here are some things to keep in mind when you’re facing a computer screen filled with options. Two key points emerged from the professionals we spoke with: Does it convey the emotion or message you want it to convey, and does the photo have stop-you-in-your-tracks impact.
Bergman has been shooting professionally for about 25 years and during that time he’s “had the honor of working with some fantastic photo editors,” he says. Now that he does most of his own editing, he combines their advice, along with his own experience, to “bring my take down to the single image that portrays the event or the emotion that I want to convey.”
Because he is “an artist first and foremost,” Grimes explains that “whether it is for an ad campaign or for my personal work, it is this passion to create that drives me. So when I choose an image I ask myself, does this represent my vision and brand as an artist.“
“Impact,” says Adler, “is the most important thing for me when selecting the final image that will get printed and displayed.” To elaborate further, she explains, “It needs to stop you in your tracks and make you look twice.” Elements of a stop-you-in-your-tracks image will vary and, according to Adler, “Impact can be achieved in many ways whether through lighting, subject matter, color, emotion and more. I select the image that brings together the most elements of impact in a single frame.”
Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of preparing to print is ensuring that your monitor is calibrated. There are a number of different tools to achieve this and its importance can’t be overstated. As Bergman points out, “By keeping monitors calibrated to your printer, you won’t have any surprises when the image comes out. If you get lazy about calibration you'll waste a lot of time and paper trying to get the image just right.”
Adler also emphasizes the role of accuracy during the printing process. “If the color and calibration of your screen is inaccurate, then the color and tones in your final print will also be inaccurate. It is as simple as that!” Adler calibrates monthly and says that she’s “often blown away when I compare the differences between an uncalibrated laptop screen and my calibrated Eizo monitor—the difference is night and day, and this will certain show in my prints!”
Processing workflow varies from photographer to photographer but, in the end, the goal is to create an image that fits the artist’s vision and intended “look.” For example, Grimes starts in Adobe Bridge, begins to process the image in Adobe Camera Raw before moving into Photoshop. He works “a lot with Smart Objects, using blending modes to get the base look that you see in all my images. I also desaturate all my images to downplay the color.” This process, he says, “fits my vision and helps keep my images constant over the years.”
Bergman also starts by converting the RAW file, where he makes most of his basic tonal adjustments, then saves a 16 bit TIFF file—“for quality and for archiving” and then brings the image into “Photoshop to make any final adjustments, apply filters (when necessary), and crop/sharpen for printing.” However, he adds, even though he applies a “little bit of sharpening,” he finds that “the high quality printers we have today don’t need it as much as they used to.” And, he often doesn’t need to apply any sharpening “beyond what I do in the RAW conversion.”
Sharpening is not as critical to Grimes or Adler, who may occasionally sharpen an image but do not do so on a regular basis. In fact, Adler says that, for her, “Sharpening becomes more important based on the size of the print and the type of paper surface.”
Sharpening aside, Adler considers retouching an “essential part” of her creative process as a fashion and commercial photographer. “I want everything in the image to contribute to its overall impact,” she says, adding that, “This means I may alter colors, retouch skin, change a crop or whatever else is necessary to reinforce the central points of interest in the frame.”
Choosing a Paper
Selecting the “right” paper for your image should be based as much on archival properties as it does with aesthetics. In general, pigment inks deliver the longest archival print life and color stability over time. However, longevity also depends on the printer/ink/paper combination, with some combos lasting longer than others—depending on how they’re displayed (see The Final Detail section below). You can generally find estimated print life on printer manufacturers’ websites, along with ICC profiles that will help you get the most accurate print for each paper type.
With a huge selection of manufacturer-branded and third-party inkjet papers, one can easily get lost when trying to decide what paper to choose. Grimes suggests that you “keep your paper choices to a minimum. Don’t make it too complex.”
He goes on to point out, “Choosing the right paper is a personal preference and you need to experiment to see what look and feel is right for you and your vision as an artist.” The two main variables for Grimes are: “Does the paper best represent my vision as an artist?” and “Does it meet the archival standards in the gallery/museum fine art community?”
Grimes tries to keep his choices to the following: one or two smooth matte fine art papers, a semi-matte, a luster and, on occasion, a glossy finish. Bergman personally prefers matte paper. saying, “The less shine, the better. It has a more artistic look and feel than glossy paper.”
On the other hand, Adler prefers a luster paper for her images “to help them shine.” She explains that “I use a lot of color in my photographs so I really want them to pop!” With luster, “I am able to get rich, saturated colors and beautiful detail without suffering from the glare (and fingerprints) caused by glossy paper.”
The Final Details
Longevity estimates are not only based on ink/paper combinations but also the conditions under which they will be stored or displayed. Ultraviolet rays, natural (and unnatural) contaminants and other elements can contribute to fading, yellowing and other degradation of the prints.
Albums and archival storage boxes provide some protection for images that you don’t want to display. But if you’re going to display your prints, mount them under UV-filtered glass. Try not to place them on walls or shelves where they will receive direct sunlight; this will also help prevent fading. The glass also helps protect the photos from contaminants reaching the prints’ surface.
Printing is as much a part of the creative process as deciding when to click the shutter. Treat yourself to sample packs of paper while you’re on your quest for the perfect match and spend some time discovering what makes printing such a worthwhile endeavor.
Photo By Lindsay Adler