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:
- Unless you plan to make the inkjet manufacturers wealthy, you will quickly learn good workflow and color management.
- Printing forces you to convert your virtual image into something “fixed” — or as permanent as the paper and ink will allow.
- 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.
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.