“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.