From the print session at the end of last year’s Making Light workshop - these were a bit of a revelation to the participants, most of whom had never made large prints before. And we were doing straight out of camera printing with no real postprocessing or optimization…
If all of you, dear readers, were sitting in a room, and I asked “How many of you print?” I think not every hand would be raised. “Regularly?” Even fewer. “Large?” Fewer still. And you’ve all proven yourselves to be a pretty exceptional bunch of people, if the comment threads are anything to go by. If anything, the average photographer – taking both amateurs and pros into consideration – these days prints very little, if at all. Yet a concern that seems to dominate a lot of photographers’ thoughts is over resolution; my question is why?
You’d be surprised by how many emails I get asking “But is X enough?” – usually in response to something I said about not needing more than 10-12MP for most uses. I daresay that twelve million pixels used well and printed with care will always outdo thirty-six million sloppy ones plagued by camera shake, sharpening haloes and indifferent resizing. I’ve personally made prints from cameras of that resolution in the 4ft wide range, and they were stunning – more importantly, the end clients thought so, too. Of course more would be better, but when your print is that big – how close are you going to physically be to view the entire thing? There are limits to how much our eyes can resolve when taking in the entire scene at once, and if you’re too close then dimensionality and scale tend to go out of the window. There are of course exceptions – landscapes packed with fine detail, or anything with hair, for instance – but for the most part, we’re long past sufficiency. Let’s park that thought for a minute.
Aside from proving once and for all that your camera has enough pixels, printing serves a far more important function: that of simply giving an image room to breathe and be appreciated. Today, most images are viewed in the worst ways possible: small JPEGs over email, highly compressed ones over social media, and usually on tiny screens with poor gamuts and uncalibrated color spaces. There’s absolutely no way what is being seen by anybody is even close to what the photographer saw, or the camera originally captured.
It always amazes me how people proclaim to be able to tell the difference between equipment X and equipment Y on the basis of a tiny web JPEG; for starters, you don’t even know what level of file quality/ compression you’re looking at, or color space etc. I do A-B testing, processing and viewing/ selection on a calibrated 27″ Apple Thunderbolt Display and still find it small at times – usually when viewing vertical or square images. It seems the world has gone widescreen; the simple fact is that a vertical image will still only take up about a third of the area of a horizontal one. And this makes it not much bigger than an 8×12″ or 8×10″ print – still not very big, and nowhere near big enough to appreciate all the detail.
Then we have the issue of dynamic range and color gamut – the best inkjets will be able to beat the best monitors on the former, and match or exceed them on the latter – you have to remember that an image on a monitor is effectively backlit (transmissive) and a print is reflective. It’s almost impossible to get the same level of deep shadow gradation on a monitor, which is why prints tend to look much richer – especially those of low-key black and white images. There’s also the question of texture; you can select paper texture and warmth to compliment your image. Color images of course look good on glossy, smooth paper to give them density and sparkle; fine art B&W tends to work best on fine, matte fibre papers. (I’ve yet to see a screen with adaptive surface texture.) The final argument in favor of printing is interpretative: you can easily show the same print to a number of people, even simultaneously, and they’ll all see the same thing. It’s a finished end product, in every way. Unless you want to carry your monitor around and ensure everybody has precisely the same viewing angle and brightness, you can’t do the same with a monitor.
Prints have downsides, of course – they’re heavily influenced by the color temperature of ambient light, which means having to make adjustments for things to be displayed under fluorescent or incandescent light, and ideally viewing and proofing under diffuse daylight; the image surface is delicate and easily damaged, and large prints aren’t so easily transportable or easy to handle. Above all, the person doing the printing really has to know his equipment – without the right color management (or adjustments), you’ll never be able to match what you processed for on the monitor. But if you get it right, the results are stunning; I printed frequently up to 13×19″ until 2011 or so, with a few larger than that interspersed between; I didn’t get into the very large realm until then. I’ve not looked back since, and these days rarely print smaller than 20″ on the shortest side (and usually much larger).
Perhaps it’s the novelty of it, since most visual content is consumed digitally these days anyway – but I find that I can happily stare at a large print for some time and be drawn into it; I can’t really do the same with an image on my monitor. I find it’s the same for most photographers and lay observers: they’re captivated by prints in a way that a screen fails to achieve, even if we’re talking small prints and large screens. And there’s nothing wrong with using every presentation advantage possible to show one’s work in the best possible light – isn’t that part of the process of editing, after all? Perhaps we’re too used to seeing digital images; or perhaps not as much care goes into digital output as print output (maybe something to do with big prints costing big money and therefore commanding more effort?). I’m sure many fellow photographers feel the same way: if you went to a photographic exhibition made up of flat panel LCDs, it wouldn’t have the same impact as one made up of well-executed large format prints. This is the crux of it all: large prints are simply fantastic to look at.
An interesting side effect of all this is that film – from digital scans, or direct optical enlargements – seem to print much better than one would be inclined to think after viewing actual-pixel scans or negatives through a loupe. A rather grainy, slightly fuzzy 35mm negative will still make a very engaging 13×19″ print; this surprised me. A good 6×6 negative will make an outstanding 24×24″ in every way – including detail. Yet the same negative, scanned, resolves around 24MP at best – makes me wonder how far a good D800E file can be pushed in terms of print size. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the non-discrete way film resolves high frequency structures compared to digital; edges aren’t ‘sharp’, so there are no interpolation artefacts during enlargement.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that some images and files are better suited to large prints than others; things with fine detail and lots of resolution are prime candidates. Clean subjects with sharp edges and not much detail will print well at any size, but tend to lose impact at anything above normal viewing distances and sizes – say 13×19″. The physical size of the subject also plays a part here: if it’s normally very small, a large print can help give the impression of getting inside the subject; if it’s normally very large, then smaller prints do nothing to convey a sense of scale. Interestingly, life-size reproductions can come across as somewhat surreal – 1:1 scale portraits, for instance, or still lifes. This is something I definitely want to explore in a little more detail in future.
You’ll notice that this article has no images to accompany it; it’s simply because there’s no way you can capture the feeling or impression a large print gives in a small image; at best you’ll just show how big it is relative to something else. And that’s quite a disappointment. I’ll leave you with the following thought – for those of you who’ve never printed large before, select an image, make sure it’ll stand up at the intended printing size*, choose a good print company, and order a 16×24″. You don’t have to go much larger than this; I think the results may surprise you. An advance warning, though: this gets addictive very quickly. Every time I’ve gone to my printer** to do one or two, I’ve come out with many extras. I’ll leave you now, I’ve got to find one of those old-fashioned map cupboards to store my prints in. I just don’t have enough wall space! MT
*Quick and dirty way to do this: resize your image to the intended output dimensions and a minimum of 200dpi; use bicubic smoother to interpolate up, then zoom in until your on-screen ruler shows 1cm as being close to 1cm on a real ruler – if it looks okay, then your print should turn out just fine. I think you may be very surprised at how little numerical resolution you need; a clean file from even an iPhone will do a nice 13×19″.
**I highly, highly recommend printmaster Wesley Wong at Giclee Art, Kuala Lumpur. He’s a HP print ambassador, does all of my commercial and exhibition printing, as well as that for many of the other camera companies and name pros in Malaysia; I’ve never been disappointed and very frequently blown away – as are my clients. For those of you living overseas, yes, he does ship internationally.
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