With the popularity of sites like Facebook, Instagram and 500px these days it’s safe to say that photography is primarily viewed on a computer screen or phone these days. All are great ways to discover photography that we might not have seen otherwise. There are big drawbacks to this medium however. I will list some of these below:
– Resolution is compromised by the need for efficient website load time
– Resolution is often degraded by the photographer to mitigate the risks of copyright infringement on the internet
– Resolution is limited by screen resolution
– There is no universal standard for how monitors will display photos on the internet so most opt for a limited color profile such as sRGB
I truly believe that photographic prints are the ultimate expression of most photographers art. All that time spent in the field and in post-processing to capture nuance is largely lost over the internet. That’s a shame in my opinion. The visual experience of looking at a large fine art print or even large-format coffee table book far exceed that of looking at photos on some website. Ditto for Instagram; I can’t think of a worse way to display nuance than on a smartphone. It’s no secret why garish colors and extreme post-processing often garners the most attention on social media. That sort of imagery is the only type that translates well on a small screen where fine details are optional not a requirement.
Print-making is an art form unto itself; as much as in-camera photography techniques and post-processing is. Yet this is the least practiced discipline in today’s digital era. Presentation context is everything in photography. Photos that might not look impressive at all on a website might actually be stunning and take the viewer on a visual journey when presented large in an exhibit print. Everything from the color to the smallest of details are presented exactly the way that the artist intended. That is an experience unique to photographic prints. Even the most well-intended website is incapable of fully-realizing an artists vision. Though photographers are generally not patrons of other photographers’ prints I have purchased several by artists that inspire me including Galen Rowell, Philip Hyde and William Albert Allard.
You might be wondering how to go about printing your own photography? The first thing I would suggest is purchasing a monitor colorimeter to ensure that your monitor is displaying brightness, contrast and color to the same standard that a professional printer would. I can guarantee you that if you are not calibrating your monitor with a Spyder or some other comparable device then you will be disappointed by the prints that you’ll receive from the lab or possibly even worse from your own printer. In order to fully realize your artistic vision your monitor needs to look exactly how you intend for the final print to look. You will waste a lot of time and money trying to get it right if you’re not calibrating your monitor properly. I would actually suggest that this be one of your first purchases when getting into post-processing of any sort if you don’t already own one. Don’t skimp here! Imagine going down this path for five years and realizing one day that none of the photos that you have processed in the past five years are printable. Start off the right way and never have to worry about this in the future.
Once you’ve calibrated your monitor then I would suggest working within a color profile that has a wide color gamut such as Adobe RGB 1998 or ProRGB. If you have spent all your time working in sRGB or CMYK then I’m sorry to break it to you but you should probably start over and not waste your money on the print at this point.
Once your file is ready and you have decided on where you will print the photo, then you should check to see if that print lab (or your own printer) has a specific color profile that needs to be applied to the file. This is a critical step before hitting the print button.
Despite all industry best practices that I follow, I never ship a print to a client without having personally inspected the piece and approved it. There are a lot of factors that go into printing. Many of which can be addressed by the steps I’ve outlined above but even then it’s impossible for a machine or another person to know exactly what your vision is. Only you know what your intended vision is supposed to look like so it’s your responsibility to ensure that the final output meets all of your standards. Prints are the only medium for your work with which you can control all the aspects in which the piece is presented. Take advantage of this unique medium and do your personal vision justice!