I am constantly blown away by the power of what we do with light and the little black box that captures it. Each day, we arm ourselves with the latest and greatest cameras, lenses, speedlights, monolights, reflectors, tripods, and accessories. We create. When the gig is over we return to our computers with memory cards full of vision and inspiration. We download our creative triumphs. We back them up. We tweak them. We edit them. We retouch them. We post them. We share them. We email them to the client.
But when was the last time you printed one?
It’s not a Photograph Until It’s a Print.
I remember when everything got printed. Good or bad. Overexposed or underexposed. Didn’t matter. You got to the end of the roll and you got prints. You brought the prints home and some– if not most– of them went into an album. Once in a while something really awesome came along and it got printed again, this time bigger so it could be framed and put on the wall. Prints were physical, tangible proof of a memory. A moment in time. If you were a professional there were contact sheets. Then proofs. Then prints. I’ll grant you that so much of what we do today as professionals is handled electronically, but even as professional photographers, each and every one of us shoots for ourselves once in a while
Pausing here for a sec to assure you that this is not a “when I was your age” rant. Far from it. Merely an observation that I think we– myself included– often do ourselves an incredible disservice by not putting our work to the truest test of how good it really is.
Take a minute and try estimating how many gigabytes or terabytes worth of images you have stored on your phone, your tablet, your hard drives, and your cloud storage combined. Now think about how many of them you have actually ever held, printed in your hands. How many of them have you ever looked at from further away than the distance between your eyes and your monitor?
When digital photography first took hold, “nothing beats the look of film,” was a common refrain among the skeptics. At the time they were right. But when today’s digital cameras are paired with great print labs, the results can be pretty damn amazing. You may be editing on an incredible monitor, but you’re still only looking at your stuff constrained from about two feet away. If you want the most solid indicator of just how good that shot is, get it printed big and hang it on a wall. Look at it up close. Look at it from the side. Look at it from ten feet away. Make it the first thing people see when they walk into a room.
I know that a lot of you already know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I challenge you to pick one photo from your archives. Just one to start. Print it big– 11×14 at least, but preferably bigger. Hold it in your hands. Put it on the wall. Step back and tell me I’m wrong.
The absolute best way to appreciate the full detail of your image, the life that you breathed into it, and its effect on people who view it is to print it. The bigger the better.
‘If they aren’t photographs, then what are they?”
As long as they are happily dancing around inside your devices as ones and zeroes, they are nothing but image files. I realize it might be a matter of semantics and that it sounds like I’m just twisting words around, but what have you really created if it only exists on a hard drive, a timeline, or a photo stream? Two hours after you’ve posted an image on Facebook, it’s been replaced by other pressing matters. Like cat videos.
So much of photography has changed so drastically in its relatively short history. The digital age ripped the door off its hinges and changed our industry forever. We can debate the pros and cons of those changes over beers the next time you’re in town, but one very important thing remains the same. Prints are the great equalizer. There is nowhere to hide. Nothing to interpret or spin. No better judge of your work or legacy.
It’s just you and that tangible piece of a memory. The power of a photograph.
About The Author
Jeff Guyer is a photographer based in Atlanta, GA., specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings, sports, and street photography. You can see more of his work at Jeff Guyer Photography, or connect with him on Facebook at Guyer Photography, or Twitter at @guyerphoto.