Why Making Prints Is Important!

by William Lulow

Before the digital age, there were only a couple of ways of viewing a photographer’s work: prints or slides (transparencies). 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.

The art of making a photographic print has been covered for at least 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 prints.

      • A print should cover the entire tonal range from pure white to dead black. This is 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.

Now, in the days of making darkroom prints, respecting these simple rules often meant spending time “dodging” and “burning in” spaces on 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! To me, this is not photography. This is just snapshooting and recording images. 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.

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 be calibrated in order to be in synch 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 in the digital image. Depending on the ink levels on my printer, I sometimes have to make a little less contrasty image in Black & White, 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). 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.

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.