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A lot of photographers are interested in making prints, but don’t know where to start. If you don’t already own an inkjet printer, it can be difficult to decide which one to buy. Then there’s the question of which paper to use. Finally there’s the technical side – the process of making a print that approximates what you see on your computer screen.
So I’ve decided to write a series of three articles explaining the process. Starting with this one, which explores some of the ways that making prints helps you become a better photographer.
Printing and creativity
As my photography evolves and my understanding of the creative process grows deeper, the more I believe that making prints is an essential part of the photographer’s workflow.
The key is to make prints of your best photos. There’s no point in printing everything. Pick the images that look good as prints, and leave the others on your hard drive.
The reason this works is that it encourages you to take more time and care with the printing process. Making fewer prints means you can work on making each one as good as possible.
Here are some prints that I made recently.
Reasons for making prints
Here are some reasons why you’ll benefit from making prints from your best photos.
1. It’s never been easier
Making a good fine art black and white print in the darkroom is hard. It’s a process that takes years to learn. Making color prints in the darkroom is easier, but the equipment is expensive.
Making an inkjet print is easy once you understand the process. The difficult bit is developing the photo and deciding which paper to use (my Lightroom Classic ebooks help you with the former and I’ll cover the latter later in this series).
2. Making prints encourages you to look at your photos more critically
Earlier I mentioned that printing works best when you print your best photos. Being selective forces you to curate your photos.
For example, let’s say you’d like to make a set of three prints to frame and hang in your home.
If you have a lot of photos, then you need to select which ones you’re going to print. Rather than pick three random photos, it makes sense to print three photos that work together.
They might be of the same or similar subjects, like three photos of flowers or another botanical subject.
Or the result of a project that you’re done.
Perhaps they follow a theme, like color.
Or they could be three strong, graphic black and white photos.
Making prints forces you to look at your photos in a new way. It gives you a goal, like making framed prints for your home. It gets you thinking about how certain photos go together, and viewing individual images as part of a group.
It’s a skill you can apply when you’re selecting photos for other purposes, like making a portfolio website, sending a submission to a photography magazine or designing a photo book.
3. Making prints gives you a goal
In the pre-digital era many hobbyist photographers did black and white photography in a home darkroom because they enjoyed making black and white prints. The print, rather than the photo, was the goal.
One of the biggest changes made by the move to digital processes is that, for most photographers, the photo is the goal. The aim is to make a something that looks good on a computer or phone screen, where holding somebody’s attention for more than five seconds is an achievement.
Making your own prints changes the goal from making photos to making prints.
A good inkjet print on fine art paper is a beautiful thing. It’s something you can be proud to hold in your hand or hang on the wall. A print can make wonderful gift for family or friends.
A good print invites people to look at it, to appreciate the color and tonality, and to ask questions about the photo. It has a sense of permanence that photos seen on a screen don’t.
You might also have a goal of selling prints on your website or Etsy.
4. Making prints is creative
I associate the verb creativity with making things. Unlike most crafts, digital photography results in a digital end product (the photo).
Making prints brings back the element of making things by hand that’s missing. It gives you something tangible that you can hold in your hand and show to people. It’s satisfying and gives you another way of exploring your creativity.
A print made on good quality fine art paper is a beautiful thing. A print made on matte fine art paper has a completely different quality to one made on luster photo paper, for example. Hahnemuhle even makes paper from substances like Bamboo, Hemp and Agave. There’s a lot of experimenting you can do.
5. You can make small prints
You don’t have to make big prints of every photo. It’s just as interesting to make small prints (like 6×4”) of your best photos. The idea of this exercise is that you can mix the photos up to see how they work together. You often see visual connections that you weren’t aware of.
It also helps you when you’re working on the layout of a photo book. Print the photos and move them around to see which order they work in best (this is called sequencing).
It’s also easier to store small prints than big ones.
6. Making prints helps you evaluate your photos
Even experienced photographers find it difficult to be objective about their photos. Making prints gives you a new way of looking at your images. As the weeks go by you’ll see which photos are stronger, which ones have staying power and which ones aren’t as good as you first thought.
Making small prints works just as well as big prints for this process.
7. Making prints is cheaper than you might think
It’s true that inks are expensive, but after you’ve bought the printer the cost per print (i.e. the combined price of the paper and ink) is much lower than paying somebody else to make them.
You can spend a lot of money on an inkjet printer. But you can also buy inkjet printers for less than $300 that make great quality prints (I’ll look at this more closely in the next article).
Compare that to the cost of setting up a darkroom. Thirty years ago I built a darkroom in my parent’s attic. The enlarger alone cost me more than $400. By the time all the costs added up I spent well over $1000. That’s before I made a single print! In terms of ease and cost, inkjet printers win over chemical darkrooms every time.
Buying inkjet printers
I wrote this article to explain why making prints has become an important part of my creative process, and how it can help you become a better photographer too.
In the next article in this series I’ll explain how to choose which inkjet printer to buy. There’s a lot of things to consider in order to make the best decision, and I’ll go through them one by one.
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