You can spend your life savings printing photographs and many people do.
An exhibition-quality, 11×14 print from West Coast Imaging, one of the finest labs in the country, goes for well over $100, and you won’t be disappointed by the quality. But put that print behind glass, in a frame, in a dimly lit gallery and how much of that beauty really shines through? And are potential buyers even aware of what you’ve spent?
Consider the Economics
If you’re going to mount an exhibition of 25 photographs, for example, you’re looking at an investment of at least $2,500 in prints if you go with a top-notch lab, plus whatever you decide to spend on framing.
You have to consider the economics. Are you going to make that money back from a show at the local photo league? If so, then go all out if that’s what you want. But if you’re like most fine art photographers, you spend more than you earn, so you have to figure out a way to maximize quality without maxing out your credit cards.
Face it. We’re in a financial crisis. Fine art is not flying off gallery walls. It’s time to cut costs while continuing to work, exhibit, and hopefully sell. There are a number of options that will allow you to do that at a fraction of the price of what the big, premium labs cost.
I’m currently putting together an exhibition of prints that will be shown in four galleries in Mexico. Know where I’m printing them?
Printing for Less
Here in Mexico, I pay about a dollar for an 8×10 printed on Fuji Crystal Archive paper on a Fuji Frontier machine at Sam’s. The machine is calibrated daily and prints electronically onto real, photographic paper. Prices are similar in the United States and sometimes lower.
I pay less than the equivalent of five U.S. dollars for a 12 x 18, which is as large as Sam’s Club will print, which may be an inconvenience for some photographers. The prints are beautiful judging by the comments sent to me by people who have them in their collections. I have heard similar reports about Costco but have not tried their print services myself. But I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.
I have also had good results from Adorama, and have heard great things about Mpix.
Prints on Crystal Archive paper have a life expectancy of at least 60 years, which is pretty good. And potential buyers don’t have to know where you print. All they care about is the photograph you’re selling.
Prepping Your Prints
There are a couple of keys to making high-quality prints at Sam’s Club.
The first is pre-processing. Calibrate your monitor. Keep a close eye on your histograms. Learn about sharpening, and use it, preferably two-step processing with an initial filter to enhance local contrast, and a second and final filter to bring out fine details.
Size and prep your photos exactly as you want them reproduced. Use 300 dpi, an srgb profile and 8 bits and you shouldn’t have any problems. My own Sam’s Club prints are going up in Guadalajara and Xalapa in Mexico, and in Minneapolis in the United States.
The second key is to start with a fine quality image. Whether you’re working with digital images or scanned film, a flawed photograph is never going to amount to much of a print.
When to Pay More
Now, if you’re selling a print to a museum for their permanent collection, it’s well worth investing a little money for something more archival.
One of my prints is in the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. I printed it at West Coast Imaging and spent what was necessary. The photograph, theoretically, is going to be there forever, and I wanted to spare no expense.
However, bear in mind that the quality of professional photo labs that make optical prints is diminishing. As more people go digital and discover that even Wal-Mart can do just as good a job, there is less need for trained lab techs, less volume at pro labs, and less inclination to refresh chemicals.
The age of the pro lab is quickly disappearing, with certain exceptions, such as the aforementioned West Coast Imaging, which does such fine work that they will likely always have business. Use that kind of premium lab for premium clients, or for work that is going to hang in a museum forever.
But until the dark clouds of the economic crisis roll past, consider printing cheap for exhibitions.