Examining the arguments for printing your photographs

“Print your work!” you’ll hear many photographers admonish, making arguments about why prints are superior to digital files. They write it in their blogs and they discuss it in the forums.

It’s hard to deny that a well-executed print is marvelous. But digital files are just as valuable for different reasons. Here are the arguments I’ve heard in favor of prints. Some of them hold water, and others don’t.

A photograph is a physical object by definition

False. For almost all of photography’s history, a photograph was a physical object, most commonly paper, bearing an image. But language evolves, and the word photograph now includes digitally displayed images. Dictionaries agree!

Let’s say you’re looking at an image on your phone with a friend, and your friend calls it a photograph. It would be pedantic and annoying to correct them — “Well, it’s actually a digital image. It’s a photograph only when it’s printed.”

The only way to control what a photograph looks like is to print it

True. Your photographs are at the mercy of everyone else’s screens.

I edit my work to look good on my monitor, a 28-inch, 1080p ViewSonic, which is connected to a Windows computer with an Intel graphics processor. My other two screens are on my iPhone 12 mini and on the MacBook Pro I use at work. They have different sizes and resolutions than my ViewSonic, and are driven by different graphics processors. I don’t know why, but my images look noticeably darker on that Mac, which frustrates me. I have little idea what my photos look like on your screen. If it doesn’t match my vision, I can’t do anything about it.

When you print a photograph, you commit all of your editing choices to paper. The paper itself adds qualities to the photo! You can keep editing and reprinting until your photo looks exactly as you want it. The only remaining variable is the light in the room where people view it!

I’m reminded of the time I saw W. Eugene Smith’s famous photograph, Madness, at the Art Institute in Chicago. I wrote about it then (read it here), but to reiterate: The print is astonishing. The paper’s velvety finish turned the dark into an enveloping night that threatened to consume the woman. Her face appeared as though it lay just below the paper’s surface, as if you’d have to reach into the print to touch her.

You can’t tell any of that from the Art Institute’s scan of the print, which I copied from their site here. Not only is it marred by white specks not present in the print, but those velvety blacks have turned muddy, tepid gray. The Art Institute could have used Photoshop to remove those specks and enhance the blacks. But no amount of Photoshoppery can recreate the paper’s finish and the image’s feeling of depth. Even if it could, your screen might not be able to render it properly.

Printing your work is the best way for you and others to enjoy it

Yes and no. A few of my favorite photographs are printed, framed, and hanging on my walls at home. It’s lovely to enjoy them as I move around my house. In my previous house, these three were on the wall above my desk.

I’d love to display more of my photographs on my walls! Unfortunately, my walls are full. I already own more art than I am able to hang! If you start hanging your photographs on your walls you, too, will eventually run out of walls.

I’ve made a lot of photographs, especially since returning to film in 2006. I have more than 20,000 exposures on my hard drive! I hardly ever see the majority of them. I’ve cropped a couple dozen of my favorites to 16×9 and rotate them on my computer as wallpaper.

Another option is to keep a portfolio of prints. I’ve started doing that. I print 8x10s with each image centered on the paper in its original aspect ratio, similar to the image below. My archival box contains a manageable number of images, and I can bring it to interested guests while they hang out in the family room. That’s way better than having everyone gather around my computer’s monitor to watch me try to find my best images among the huge number on my hard drive.

But to see these prints, or even my computer wallpapers, you have to visit my house. The number of people who have done that doesn’t hold a candle to the number of people who have seen my photographs on this blog and on Flickr! All you need is a screen and an Internet connection. As I said earlier, I have no idea how my images are rendered on anyone else’s screen, while the prints I keep at home look exactly how I want them. But at least people around the world can see them.

Nobody will sort through the images on your hard drive or phone after you’re gone

True, unless you become famous. It’s incredibly unlikely that any of us is the next Ansel Adams. Our children might be interested in our photographs after we die, but that’s about it. Even then, it’s unlikely that they’ll search your hard drive to find them, and then look through them all.

This is another good reason to keep a print portfolio. Your kids are far more likely to look through a small, curated subset of your work. They might even want to keep a few photographs to frame and hang in their own homes. The prints are already made!

Hard drives crash!

Specious argument. Prints are vulnerable, too. Your house could burn down, get flattened by a tornado or hurricane, or be ruined in a flood, and your photographs will be destroyed too. You’re statistically unlikely to experience these disasters, but they do happen.

In contrast, every single hard drive will eventually crash, whether mechanical or solid state. But it is now trivially easy to back up your files, and external hard drives and online backup services aren’t that expensive, all things considered. With a backup on an external drive and a backup in the cloud, you are good against everything short of the end of the world!

My last crash was in 2017. After I got a new hard drive, I copied my photos to it from my external drive. I lost nothing.

There’s no guarantee technology will be able to open your digital files in 20 years

Utter piffle. The JPEG has existed since 1992 and the TIFF since 1993. Any digital format that survives 30 years is essentially permanent. Software will be able to display and manipulate our photographs in their current formats until after we all die. Even if JPEG and TIFF were superseded, as Apple is trying to do with its HEIC format, there will be software to convert our files to new formats.

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Comments

26 responses to “Examining the arguments for printing your photographs”

  1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    A bit of complexity re. opening jpeg or other formats. A big issue may be reading the data from the media on which it has been stored. After your death, your descendants may leave your HD or Bernouilli drive or equivalent in a desk drawer for 20 years. Then, will they have the physical machine to read that drive and an operating system to interpret it? At my former office, we had a number of odd formats that we could no longer open. Remember 9-track tapes? 4mm DAT tapes used for backups?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Old storage formats is a legit problem. I found some old 3.5-inch floppies in a drawer when I moved last, and I no longer owned a computer with a floppy drive. I found a janky USB floppy drive on Amazon that did ultimately read them, but it was not straightforward.

      On the other hand, USB looks like a standard that has legs, and my external drives have all been USB. USB-C uses a different plug than older USB versions, but there are adapters. In short, I think hardware is reaching maturity and we’ll see fewer formats and standards pass away.

    2. Khürt Williams Avatar

      Your descendants may leave your film negatives or prints in a desk drawer for 20 years.Then, will they have the physical machine to create a print or a digital representation of that photograph? Will the print have faded?

      I can find an 8-track player on eBay. Here’s a link

      https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwid0ryHz_r7AhWFElkFHXBVCzEQFnoECA0QAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ebay.com%2Fb%2F8-Track-Players%2F183078%2Fbn_320037&usg=AOvVaw13Ff7TvU1JwaLXk45nutzV

      I can find 4mm DAT on eBay.

      https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjapau7z_r7AhX-EFkFHZ9YDq4QFnoECA0QAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ebay.com%2Fb%2F4mm-Tape-Drive%2F39976%2Fbn_7023233539&usg=AOvVaw3Dp0oX9sBEml6JzOCrgnxu

  2. Joe from The Resurrected Camera Avatar

    Jim I bow to your greater knowledge of file formats being an expert in computer programming and software, but I still doubt that any digital file made today has the potential to last as long as a print–it’s what every photographer I respect as said. I don’t trust digital but then I shoot film. I think where prints are especially important is when you’re shooting with a DSLR, phone, etc. Maybe it’s that so few people make the effort to adequately back up their digital images, I dunno. I have multiple hard drives both solid state and HDD with everything on them just in case, but the film negative is the ultimate backup so I’m not overly concerned.

    Regarding those being destroyed, that would be devastating to me but I would have the digital scans stored elsewhere, hopefully. I met Bob Jackson, the guy who took the famous (and Pulitzer-winning) photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and he said that particular negative is stored in a safety deposit box at his bank, probably the best way to ensure it’ll be around forever.

    Of course I’d like to print more of my own images, and working mostly black & white the most enjoyable way to do it is in a darkroom but I’m hardly ever there…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think a multi-format approach like you follow makes sense – store both prints and digital files.

      I won’t ever print all 20,000+ images I’ve made (so far) but I can print the best of them while I store them all digitally.

    2. Khürt Williams Avatar

      Maybe it’s that so few people make the effort to adequately back up their digital images,

      iPhone and Android OS devices can be configured to automatically backup to “the cloud”. The cloud service provider makes backs of that. I think it’s covered.

      Regarding those being destroyed, that would be devastating to me but I would have the digital scans stored elsewhere,

      Somehow digital scans of film negatives are more indestructible than digital photographs.

  3. Mike Connealy Avatar

    Like you I seldom make prints, partly because I ran out of wall space a long time ago in my small house. I have archived the images I like best on Flickr. Occasionally I will cast a Flickr slide show of all 900+ to my tv.
    I have made a few prints for exhibits, at one local museum and at several library exhibits which I organized. However, I’ve never kept any of those and the expense and bother of framing makes it unlikely I’ll repeat the effort.
    I think it is important to distinguish between getting prints made and making them yourself. I used to make inkjet prints and enjoyed that, but the cost ultimately got prohibitive for me.
    Several people I know have set up darkrooms in their homes and they obviously get a lot of satisfaction from the process of producing images on paper and showing them to others. What they end up doing with the prints I’m not sure. They may end up in folders, seldom to be looked at.
    You did not mention in the post that you have made several books with your images. That has to count as making prints and it is the most practical and enduring of the possibilities in some ways.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I sometimes slideshow my Flickr images on my TV as well. There’s an app on my Roku that does it for me.

      I follow a photo blogger in northern Ireland who prints a great deal of his work in the darkroom, because he loves the process of printing. I ought to ask him someday what he does with all of the prints.

      Good point about the books I’ve published. They have the added benefit of distribution. Dozens of people own some of my work as a result.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d like to add that using Blurb or MagCloud to produce simple books of photos for archival purposes is a viable option. I’ve produced books of family photos that way, which I’ve had printed in small quantity to give to my children.

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I’ve been doing photography for over 50 years. I’ve lost more images, both film and digital, than most people ever make. The fact is it’s all transient, and neither form is a guarantee of survival – or even being seen to begin with in this age of mass-market imaging.
    If you have an image that inspires you to make a print and hang it on the wall, do it. But don’t fall into the “you must do this” trap because in the end it won’t matter. That may be a depressing thought, but it’s true. It’s not new either, as who-knows-how-many photos from the early days of photography did not survive.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re absolutely right, it’s all transient. We can try our best to make our prints or files last, and if we’re fortunate they’ll still be here to the next generation.

  5. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    What’s “specious” about hard drives crashing, is thinking backing up is not a problem. I’ve been a professional since 1975, and in the industry since 1970. Out of the thousands and thousands of people I’ve met, and the hundreds of pros I’ve known; theres only been two people, both pros, I’ve known that lost phots/negs in a fire or flood (knock on wood). Both of them had their photo files in trashy, down line, buildings, instead of their own living space, because that’s the studio space they could afford. Both buildings looked like they were on an arsonists hit list. Opposed to this, everyone I know, and I mean everyone, has had a series of unrecoverable computer crashes, that no matter how much they backup, has taken something of value with it. The true analogy is like saying that based on what’s happened with my computers, I should get used to having my house burn down to the ground every eight years if I don’t want to digitize! Cloud storage, etc., yeah, I get it all, but you know what? I hate computers, there I said it; and spending all my spare time sitting in front a screen, admin’ ing digital images instead of just putting transparencies in an archival file folder, is not why I became a photographer! It’s always amazing to me, that people who are in computer related industries, always think we all want to spend our time messing with it, and always start the definition of their world with a computer. My analog photographic world from 1970, to 2005, was wonderful, a golden era, and not so on the digital, post 2005. A vast quantity of time in the current world is taken up with solving computer based problems in my industry, and not in improving photography.
    Lets face it, every image you have you think would be of value to family or a museum or historical society, should be printed, stored correctly in an archival box, in an archival sleeve, with copious notes identifying it, it’s value to be saved, and all the whys and wherefore. This box should be easily identified on your demise, with directions for its dispensation on the exterior.
    Use a professional pigment print service for your prints. I’m a professional, and I can neither afford, or make it pay for itself (in retirement), a set up to print properly for myself. High end Epsons with pigmented inks that dry out when not in use, are just not affordable. If you think this is easy to find, there’s only two places in my state I would trust to do this, and my state was considered a print industry power house for most of the 1900s.

    4.There are an amazing amount of high quality, direct to press, printing organizations out there. What’s actually stopping you from utilizing any of them. I saw a service that you send your prints off your phone, or was it Instagram, and they send you back a nice little square printed book that will fit in a nice storage box. Even if I was just a digital photographer, and not interested in display prints, I’d be interested in that!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s impossible to deny that photography has changed in the digital era and that we’re not going back. This certainly leaves some number of photographers behind, those who aren’t interested in digital stuff. It’s legit to not be interested but it’s also an incredible disappointment to watch something so enjoyed pass away.

      I don’t enjoy prepress! At all. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed pro level work like you did back in that era. I am indeed a complete nerd, so digital stuff makes sense to me and I like it. To each his own I guess.

      As recently as ten years ago, setting up backups required a fair amount of tech knowledge. It’s not true anymore. I use Dropbox for backup, and it was dead nuts simple to set up. My mom could have done it. My external drive backup is more complicated but I didn’t have to make it that way, there are easier ways. I just wanted a lot of control over it and so I used a more geeky utility for it.

      If you have local and cloud backups that update in realtime — i.e., as files are added and changed, not on a periodic basis such as daily — you’re safe against everything short of acts of God and war.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        You are correct that’s it’s a disappointment to watch something so enjoyed pass away. But real film was part of the old process that made it enjoyable, and modern digital is NOT. I makes zero apologies for saying that if I had come of age during the early 2000s, I most likely would not have gone into photography at all, and it would hold no interest for me. I come from a whole group of people that say it would be far more valuable for us to be able to go to a wood yard, pick out some scraps, and assemble a nice wooden chair with hand tools, than to program a CNC computer to cut one out of a block of wood. While a high end wood worker can exist today, a film photographer can rarely make it….

    2. Khürt Williams Avatar

      Lets face it, every image you have you think would be of value to family or a museum or historical society, should be stored correctly in an archival digital format (DNG, TIFf, JPEG,HEIC), in an archival physical format (DVD), with copious metadata identifying it, it’s value to be saved, and all the whys and wherefore. This digital archive should be easily identified on your demise, with directions for its dispensation on the exterior.

  6. fotosharp3820ea7ebf Avatar
    fotosharp3820ea7ebf

    My enjoyment of photography has always been FAR more about being out and about in the world and trying to take “interesting” photos than all the other aspects potentially involved. And going to the “same old place” (which I do a lot these days) can be made more interesting just by take a different lens/camera/format and trying to see that place from a little different perspective.

    The only real exception is I did enjoy attempting to make B&W prints 20+ years ago. But my house isn’t compatible, and the time and expense to go elsewhere became prohibitive for a variety of reasons.

    So far at least, I haven’t succumbed to spending hours editing photos on my computer. JPGs from todays cameras are quite good. I try to pay attention to composition &, exposure when I’m shooting (I mostly shot slide or B&W film in my early years, so now it’s in my DNA). Some photos get a quick basic edit like cropping, light levels, and perhaps a small bit of sharpening on my early digital photos before out of camera JPGs got better.

    Could I get better results shooting RAW and slaving on my computer? Probably. Is it “enough” better to be worth it to me? Doubtful. Maybe I’ll succumb some day.

    Image storage/viewing has always been a bit of a challenge … and a different beast for analog and digital. There’s no answer that’s ever felt perfect. :)

    Regarding display, here’s a few things I’ve done … I’ve printed sizes up to 13×19 and had larger prints made and put them on artboard to display (very inexpensively) at home. I’ve created collages of prints of various events that I’ve framed for our family and others. I’ve made laminated “place mats” for kids on sports teams with action shots of all the kids and coaches on the team.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am with you that the best part is being in the world with a camera making images. For me, the second best part is having my finished work available online. Unfortunately, that means I have to do everything in between!

  7. Khürt Williams Avatar

    Hi Jim. Thanks for writing this. I’m so over the stupid (emphasis on stupid) arguments about prints. It’s so much a “who moved my cheese” thing.

    My comments on a few things.

    Printing your work is the best way for you and others to enjoy it

    My archival box contains a manageable number of images, and I can bring it to interested guests while they hang out in the family room. That’s way better than having everyone gather around my computer’s monitor to watch me try to find my best images among the huge number on my hard drive.

    I have over 80,000 images in Adobe Library. Some are scans of 35mm film negatives but most are digital. I have a 10” iPad that serves as an intimate “gather around “ sharing mechanic for the digital albums I have created. Or my guests can stand around my 55” 4K TV.

    The only way to control what a photograph looks like is to print it
    Your photographs are at the mercy of everyone else’s screens.

    My image workflow is designed for display on a screen; a screen I control.

    This is another good reason to keep a print portfolio. Your kids are far more likely to look through a small, curated subset of your work.

    My kids know exactly where to find the digital albums I created on my hard drive. Why assume that digital archivists are idiots? I could just as easily assume that film photographers have a box of disorganised negatives rotting in a basement?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d like to have an iPad for image sharing at home. That’s a really good idea. It would be plenty easy to just go to my Flickr “Portfolio” album, which is where my favorite photos are collected.

      After my mom’s recent death my brother did go through her hard drive looking for stuff, but it was not a fun experience. I can see myself periodically backing just my photos up to an external SSD and just telling the kids that my photos are on there and I’d be grateful if after I pass they would look through it to keep images they like.

  8. Michael McNeill Avatar

    As ‘the photo blogger in Northern Ireland’ I’ll chip in here, Jim. I have a lot of prints from my darkroom work (I stopped scanning negatives some years ago and I print regularly, at least once a week and sometimes more frequently). The ones I like best I mount and that pile is growing steadily. I’ve picture hanging systems on 3 walls in my house and from time to time I’ll change what’s up there. The others get an airing from time to time when I’ve friends or family visiting who express an interest in seeing more of my work. Everyone seems to enjoy handling physical prints.

    Occasionally I’ll show a dozen or so at my local Photographic Club. Perhaps one day I might get round to exhibiting some in a local gallery, but I haven’t chased that yet.

    Obviously I scan my prints for my blog.

    I’ve boxes upon boxes of ‘other’ prints that didn’t make the grade for mounting or displaying. From time to time I’ll work through a box and cull the ones that have no merit. I could (and maybe should) cull a lot more than I do, but something stops me.

    Every film I develop gets a unique date code; I make a note of this code on the back of every print, so I can easily find the negative again should I wish to re-print it. This happens when I leave a print lying around and it grows on me the more I look at it – sometimes I’ll think That negative would be better suited to a different paper, or perhaps a different process, such as lith.

    It’s horses for courses and people will do what they want. I try not to judge or worry about what other people think or do and just stick to making the best photographs I can, with the process I most enjoy. I get a big kick from looking at the prints on my wall and thinking, I did that, all of it, by hand and craft from start to finish. That’s about it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This would make an interesting post for your blog, Michael! It’s very interesting to know what a dedicated printer does with all of the prints.

  9. Michael McNeill Avatar

    That’s a good idea, Jim – I’ll work it up. Thanks!

  10. farzooks Avatar

    Long ago I came to the realisation that various photos of my ancestors were numbered on the fingers of one hand, and for the furthest back photographic generations, we were lucky to have one at all.
    Bearing this in mind, I’m not kidding myself that my family or descendents will be at all interested in fishing through hundreds or thousands of shots, BUT, if I select a handful of important pics that really mean something to me, or show something local that people will remember or possibly try to find pics of in the future – and then make archival quality prints of them and store them securely somewhere.
    The same dozen or so would have to be updated as time goes on, until I pop my clogs.
    At least that way, I can leave a representative sample of what I saw, the kind of things I found pic-worthy, and hopefully some record of things in the locality. And it will be cheap.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like a great plan.

  11. […] a debate in the film world over what is “better”, prints vs. scans. (There’s also the folks who throw away their negatives after they get their […]

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