The Continual Need For Printmaking In Photography
by William Lulow

Before the digital age, there were only a couple of ways of viewing a photographer’s work: prints or slides (transparencies or the printed page). I suppose one could have made a film of a number of prints (which people often did), but the main way to view the output from a photography session of any kind was by looking at prints. These days, I think it’s imperative that photographers who want people to take their work seriously, make prints. There is simply no way, and I don’t care what your screen’s resolution is, that screens can render details the way printers can. There are now “HIGH DEFINITION” or “Hi-Res” monitors which do a fabulous job of showing detail, but they are still no substitute for a well-crafted print. It used to be that even printing presses couldn’t render details the way continuous tone film and print processing could. First, a half-tone would have to be made, then perhaps a plate and finally the photo-mechanical reproduction itself. We were already a couple of steps removed from the original. How could it begin to approach the original for tone and detail? Well, I believe it’s a similar stretch from a screen to a print. No matter how good your screen, in my opinion, it just can’t match the quality of a print.

Another point, and probably a subtle one, is that when you ask someone to look at a professional photograph or a fine-art photograph, nothing takes the place of showing them a large print! If you want to show someone some snapshots you have taken, perhaps your iPhone will do. I do it myself quite regularly when I’m showing snaps of my new granddaughter! But, if I want someone to take my photography seriously, I show them prints! Websites are screen versions of a photographer’s portfolio, but they are merely introductions to the work itself. They are designed to give someone a representation of what a finished image would look like.

The art of making a photographic print has been covered for more than a century now. It has improved quite a bit over the years, but the basics of the printmaking process haven’t changed all that much. Today, we don’t have to use chemicals, trays, photo-sensitive paper and a darkroom with red safelights, but we do have to respect several rules when it comes to both Black&White as well as color prints.

  • A Black&White print should cover the entire tonal range from pure white to dead black. Also true for color prints
  • There should be no “blocked highlights” – that is there should be detail in the highlights such as white clouds
  • There should be detail in the shadows.
  • Colors should be rendered as accurately as possible (except, or course, when purposely altering them).

Now, in the days of making Black&White prints, respecting these simple rules often meant spending time “dodging” and “burning in” areas of the print to bring out specific details. Today, far too many shooters don’t even make prints. These people often say, “I want to show you some of my pictures,” then hand you their camera so that you can look at the LCD! Even an iPad, though it is quite a bit bigger than the normal 3-inch LCD is still a screen. To me, this is not photography. This is just snapshooting and recording images. One can’t even appreciate the details in a photograph without seeing it enlarged. And, unless you do something to the image (filter it, crop it, add something to it), it’s still just a snapshot. Did you just get lucky taking your “snapshot,” or did you think about it and make a conscious effort to say something in your image?  Further, with today’s digital print-making, all the work on a print has to happen in the computer, before it is even sent to the printer. Sometimes, certain modifications to an image file have to be done by an expert in Photoshop in order to retain the qualities of a professional print. Depending on the printer and the calibration of the computer’s monitors, even more adjustments sometimes have to be made. So, for my money, making a print shows that you’ve given your image some thought at the very least. You thought it was special enough to print!

Making prints today means that you have to have a good knowledge of your monitor and your printer, for the two have to work hand-in-hand. Monitors should be calibrated in order to be in sync with the printer. There is nothing more frustrating than to create a beautiful image on the screen and then get something very different from the printer. The ideal is to be able to obtain  a “What You See Is What You Get” arrangement. That way, you’re not wasting time making changes to  the digital image. Depending on the ink levels on my printer, I sometimes have to make a little less contrasty image in order to get a fully toned print.

Another variable in the print process is the type of paper used. For my art prints, I like to use a paper with a luster surface that can absorb ink well. I also like to use a thick paper (290GSM or more). And, I usually use an acid-free, archival paper so that the prints will last. For normal, glossy prints, a paper with a weight of 200 GSM usually is fine. Each box of paper you buy has these numbers clearly marked on it. There is a wonderful saying on the facade of an art museum: “All Else Passes, Art Alone, Endures.” For me, this is the best reason to make archival prints.

It’s important to make your own prints because it’s the only way to learn how to make the changes you want in your image files. I find it important to make prints because I love handing someone a physical image for them to look at. It’s something I made with my own hands and says something about the pride I take in my work.

Below is an original digital black & white image I made in Portugal. Note the detail in the shadows and the highlights. It was a scene I saw in black&white and I made an exposure in between what my meter showed for both. I didn’t have to do much in Photoshop.

Coimbra(c)

Here is a color image that was enhanced with a gradient, neutral-density filter that I  use to filter my scenic shots. It gives the colors much richer tones. Again, very little had to be done to this image.

Appomatox(c)

But, for me, one of the best reasons for making prints is truly to see how sharp and luminous they really are. Screens can only render so much detail and, as I said, HD screens offer really good renditions, but what often looks good on a screen may not stand up to the same scrutiny of looking at an enlarged print. For these reasons, making prints should be the goal of most photography sessions.