Monday, September 25, 2006

The proof is in the print

Billions of images never make the transition from pixels to print. However, for the serious photographer the print is the ultimate test of an image, the goal, the tangible product at the end of the creative process.

There’s something unique and special about seeing an image in print, whether it is reproduced in a book, on a billboard, an inkjet or any of the other tangible media. I suppose the only other media which has an equal impact is transparency film but here again a large print from a transparency offers a more accessible end result than a slide on a lightbox.

I feel that any images of mine, no matter how good I think they may be, have not really come to life until I see them in print. It’s the ultimate test.

I wonder though about the thousands of photographers around the world snapping away, manipulating their images and then uploading them to the web. I see so many images that may look reasonable at 500 or 800 pixels across, which I just know will not work in print. Any mistakes show up with brutal clarity when you take an image and produce an A3 print from it.
It’s been said before, but the most common mistakes ‘internet photographers’ make is that they over sharpen and over saturate their images, and while I’m at it I can add that the most common error photographers make during capture is camera shake. There’s a thought. Maybe that’s why we see so many over sharpened images; photographers trying to resolve the problem of un-sharpness due to camera shake.

The reason why discerning stock libraries set such high standards for the images they accept is because they know that their clients’ end-use for an image is print. They’ve been stung by the sharpening problem too which is why most do not want digital captures to be sharpened by the photographer. Printers need to sharpen an image according to the way it is going to be used. Numerous factors are taken into account, size, media, ink and process etc – perhaps the subject for a future article.

So if you’re a photographer who wants to achieve the highest quality (justifying all that money spent on cameras and lenses) then go to a gallery or museum and take a look at the work of the master photographers – a glowing Ansel Adams print for example. Ask yourself every time you work on an image whether it will really be able to stand the test of print. Are you challenging yourself hard enough? Is your aim to be able to produce a print that could hang in the same room as one of the master photographers? Or would your print look out of place and stand out like a sore thumb because of its quality?

In a future article I’ll tackle the issue of the relative importance to an image of content versus quality, which is a huge topic. Whatever the content and however good the technical quality of an image there is only one question to ask yourself as you save your high resolution file: is this good enough to print?

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