Make Prints to Improve Your Photography


One of the best ways I’ve found to improve my photography is to make enlargements of my favorite pictures. I got a reminder of this recently when I had a showing of my work at a local coffeehouse.

On one of my larger pieces, a print of a bride and groom kissing on a balcony, I hadn’t noticed that an electrical outlet was visible when I took the picture. But at 54″ x 36,” there it was, plain as day.

It wasn’t enough to ruin the picture — and, having been a newspaper photographer for many years, my preference is not to remove things like that in Photoshop anyway. But it was a reminder that viewing a printed picture is different from viewing an image on a computer screen.

Print to Learn

Far too many photographers spend countless hours playing with their images on their computers without ever committing them to print. Outputting your images can improve your photography in three important ways:

  1. Unless you plan to make the inkjet manufacturers wealthy, you will quickly learn good workflow and color management.
  2. Printing forces you to convert your virtual image into something “fixed” — or as permanent as the paper and ink will allow.
  3. Printing an image magnifies its flaws and imperfections, providing you food for thought for your next shoot.

A Test of Your Skills — and Consistency

When you print a picture (especially larger than 8″ x 12″), it tests your skills and poses some valuable questions, such as –

  • Did what you see in the viewfinder match what you captured not just conceptually, but also technically?
  • Does your Photoshop work look heavy-handed and unnatural in your print?
  • Does the print match the image on your monitor? If not, why not?
  • What if you make a beautiful print that many people want to buy? Can you reproduce it identically time after time?

Where most digital photographers without darkroom experience run into trouble is in not understanding the need for consistency in their workflow. Film photographers are forced to learn consistency, because even a slight change in processing temperature can adversely affect film density.

In the digital workflow, there are many more variables — color space, monitor calibration, and ICC profiles to name a few. Being haphazard in your workflow will produce unpredictable results, especially when the outputting is sent out to online photo labs.

Magnifying Flaws

Have you ever noticed, when you’re chimping, how great your images look on the little three-inch LCD monitor on your camera?

There are 230,000 pixels on that tiny monitor, on average. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not nearly enough to show you the flaws of your technique — e.g., whether your image is “soft” focus or simply out of focus.

Even on your workstation monitor, unless you open the image in Photoshop at 100 percent, you can’t be sure.

The true test is when you print — because you are fixing that image on paper.

A print-quality image requires higher resolution — often more than three times what you see on your monitor. The bigger you plan to enlarge, the more you need.

When your picture is printed and doesn’t look good, you have no one to blame but yourself. But when you get it right, your masterpiece is no longer at the mercy of how old the display monitor is or how large or small its gamut is.

That’s when you come into your own as a photographer.


9 Responses to “Make Prints to Improve Your Photography”

  1. Yes, it is hiding away there isn't it. I like what you are saying with regard to printing them out. I've only just recently bought a kodak printer which can do up to A4 and the ink is only about £12 which is heaps better than some of the other manufacturers. So now, at last I don't feel the financial pain of printing out A4 pictures (wahey!)

    I must admit though I do tend to pixel peep quite a lot - probably something I shouldn't do as it puts me of most of my photos because I find all sorts of things that I'm not happy with. I guess I am my biggest critique!

  2. Great post and sooo true. I still use far too many sheets in the printer to replicate what I thought I saw on the screen. Sending it out to an online printer is another whole magnitude of pain!

    Maybe you could offer some tips on this area from your experience (or have you?).

    Thanks for sharing

    Peter

  3. So, so, so true. It's one of murphy's laws that the flaws don't show up until you print. At least with inkjet prints, you've only done one. There's nothing like that sinking feeling of finding a typo when your print run of 10,000 is on press...

  4. In these days of digital capture, the vast majority
    of our images never see the light of day and remain in a virtual format, even if we
    consider them to be worthy or decent images.

    That's why I make a point of choosing an
    image to get printed at the largest scale possible as a c-type print. This print format reveals the full beauty of a superb image but also highlights where improvements can be made on future shoots.

    A great article and one with which I agree totally.

    So get printing and don't let your great images languish on a hard drive never to be seen in print.

  5. Marc, Peter, Janet and Andrew, thanks for your comments.

    We've gone so far away from the original idea that a photograph is a still image we can hold in our hand.

    While moving newspaper pictures like in the Harry Potter movies might be engaging, that medium is totally reliant on some form of power.

    There are far too many experts and photoshop gurus on the countless websites who teach photographers how to make their images look pretty on their individual monitors, but few stress the necessity to make the image permanent onto a print.

    I hope we all don't lose sight of that still image immortalized in a beautiful print.

  6. Print media will disappear in the long run, as will old school photographers bashing phoshoppers and claiming that prints improve your photography.

    Nothing will ever improve your photography or enhance your workflow except for yourself. There's no magic in prints and no evil in displays, it's all hard work indifferent of the tools you use!

  7. This is not "bashing phoshoppers", this is offering another tool which can assist photographers assess their own work; because it is the critical eye which will improve your work. If you don't feel the need to print your photos then obviously you don't have too.

    I thought the idea of still photography though was to ultimately produce a physical photo...

  8. @Lichtbold, I wasn't aware I was bashing photoshoppers in my post. It was a suggestion that photographers use prints to improve their skills.

    @RP, thanks for pointing out that it was a suggestion. Indeed, the post did not suggest everyone should make prints if they didn't agree.

    As a photographer, I would be very concerned if someone wanted to buy a huge print of one of my pictures and I didn't have the confidence to know that my image will hold up.

    You will never know that unless you actually try making a print.

  9. @Lichtbold, I wasn't aware I was bashing photoshoppers in my post. It was a suggestion that photographers use prints to improve their skills.

    @RP, thanks for pointing out that it was a suggestion. Indeed, the post did not suggest everyone should make prints if they didn't agree.

    As a photographer, I would be very concerned if someone wanted to buy a huge print of one of my pictures and I didn't have the confidence to know that my image will hold up.

    You will never know that unless you actually try making a print.

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