You shot your rolls of film, developed them or had them developed. You looked at the prints (or jewel-like slides)– the only way to look at your photos unless they were published — and decided which ones you liked. When you were learning photography you looked at the negatives and picked one. You held those little frames to the light or looked at them through a loupe over a light table. You made contact sheets and looked at those through a magnifying glass, at tiny windows into the worlds of your own past. They were full of mystery, tiny little scenes that you had chosen, burned into silver halide, glowing frames of silvery greys and blacks, the direct opposite of what you had seen. It was up to you to think about them, think about what you wanted. Then you had to turn the lights off, turn on the red light, fit that chosen frame into a holder, fit it into a larger frame, make decisions and then commit to it. You held your breath and pushed the button and the light came on, changing the photo paper invisibly, immediately, and forever. You took that piece of paper and slipped it beneath the developer. Again you held your breath, waiting, wondering. Would it come in a rush of overexposed blacks or a tentative, underexposed outline of whites and greys? Or had you calculated correctly when you committed light to the paper as you had when you opened the camera’s shutter to expose the film.
I know why we shoot digital, why I usually shoot digital, but I do not know why we have stopped making prints. I think of the print as the end result of photography, its true raison de e’tre.
“Get your best work printed now. Then make it better. Do not wait.”
Certainly, the making of images, as we currently understand it, has utility in other realms. It is used to accompany stories and advertisements online, to illustrate our lives on social media, news to be emailed to family and friends. But when I look through my camera and decide on pushing the release I am ultimately thinking about a print, about a physical object I can hold in my hand or an image printed in a newspaper, magazine or book. The word photography is from the ancient Greek, from a combination of the words “light” and “writing”, photos and graphos, literally, “writing with light.”
I understand the human need to document our lives and the world around us. With our ubiquitous camera and voice enabled pocket computers it has been estimated that we take far more photos every year than were previously taken since then invention of the camera. Most people are content to point their camera and voice enabled pocket computers at pretty much anything of passing interest and record away. But I am speaking to those of you want to be photographers — to write with light.
Too many people pick up cameras or write poetry because they have an inchoate wish to be creative but are too lazy to produce even a terrible painting or novel. They are never ready, always waiting for inspiration or approval or new gear or patronage. Things that never appear for them because they never begin, because the time is never right, because any number of excuses, any number of reasons.
I will propose that if you do not make prints then you are not really interested in being a photographer. That, of course, is your right. You can buy your camera and a fancy bag and walk about snapping at things and waiting for the universe to recognize your particular genius. You can post your photos to social media and photo sites and argue about gear. You can call yourself a photographer all you want. But if you don’t make photos then, by definition, you aren’t a photographer. You may be a button pusher (I don’t know the Greek for that, Google Translate says, “Koumpí Óthisis.”) but you’re not making drawings captured by the alchemic writing of light and time.
But this isn’t about you, not you gentle reader. You are not some lumpen koupíóthisiser. You are trying to be a better photographer. And one of the simplest, cheapest, and most satisfying ways to become a better photographer is to make prints. It is an act and an art that focuses the mind, that allows you to truly see your compositional and aesthetic choices, that allows you to go back to an image and to consider it over and over in ways that are far different than opening a picture on a computer from an intangible folder.
“I can pull the prints out and arrange them into different sequences, pin them up and see if I like them after a week, take them to galleries.”
By forcing yourself to choose images, to choose one over another, you are refining your skills and your eye. You are making commitments to your images and to your craft. You can lay them out and see them next to each other, see not only what your individual images look like but what your photography looks like as a whole. You can see styles and sequences and themes in ways that are impossible on a monitor. You can see gaps and weaknesses in your image making and you can also see your work in all its glory and subtlety.
You can continue this project into the realms of framed prints (you haven’t lived as a photographer until you have seen your work printed and professionally framed) into exhibitions of sequences of photos and in printed books. First of all, however, simply print your pictures. Give yourself the satisfaction of seeing your work finished. Get your photos printed anywhere you want to, at least at first, wherever is most convenient. Get an Itoya Profolio of whatever size you want and fill it. Get an archival photo box and start filling that. There. Now you have more than an exhibit’s worth of photos. Now you have a portfolio. Do not wait until some mythical future when you are “good enough.” Get your best work printed now. Then make it better. Do not wait. Memento mori.
“When you were learning photography you looked at the negatives and picked one. You held those little frames to the light or looked at them through a loupe over a light table. You made contact sheets and looked at those through a magnifying glass, at tiny windows into the worlds of your own past. They were full of mystery…”
How do you do it? In whatever manner you wish. This, however, is how I do it: I typically proof my edited photos as full-frame images on glossy 8 by 10 paper so they have a sort of built in “frame” and an edge with which to handle them. This size is much more useful than a 4 by 6 for judging a photo and an 8 by 10 at pretty much any online photo lab will cost you about $2.00. I typically use Adoramapix or Nation’s Photo Lab but there are many options. Just pick one. Lately I have been making my own 8 by 10 prints with the excellent Canon MG7720. I have three major bodies of work from the last couple years in India and have three 8.5 by 10.5 inch archival boxes to put the appropriate prints in. Everything is safely contained and transportable. I can pull the prints out and arrange them into different sequences, pin them up and see if I like them after a week, take them to galleries.
After you’ve made some prints take your absolute favorite picture and get a really big print made, 20 by 30 inches or so. A print this size is still only around $25. Not only are big prints amazing and motivating they will teach you a lot about your photography, the capabilities of your cameras, your lenses, and your post-processing. Try different sizes, put them up, either in frames you can swap images in and out of or just pinned or taped to the wall. Live with them for a while. Admire your own work. Let others see it. Take it out into the world.
Hold it in your hands — this thing that you have made with your mind and your camera — this writing you have made with light. FP
4 thoughts on “HOW TO BE A BETTER PHOTOGRAPHER: PRINT YOUR PHOTOS”
I’ve resisted printing my photographs because of the need to store them. I have boxes full of snapshot prints from my 1970s-80s childhood, and while I can’t imagine parting with them, dragging them around everywhere I live has been a liability and a pain. And so now, even though I still shoot film, I seldom print. I don’t want more physical stuff to drag around with me.
But you make some good points: printing shows me things about my photograph that my monitor can’t, and printing large shows me what my camera can and can’t do. So perhaps I need to commit to printing perhaps the one or two photos each roll (if I’m so lucky to have that many) that I think are good work.
So true. There’s nothing like a print! If you shoot film or digital, the print should be the final product!
Some time ago when I was bringing my slide scans to get printed I thought, “Scanning and printing are costing me a small fortune. Maybe I should just keep the slides in binders until I need them for something.” But then I got the prints back on premium matte paper and thought, “Totally worth it.” To save money on film, good scans, and prints, I now think more carefully before pressing the shutter release button.