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The Dying Art Of Fine Printing

A print is the culmination of all the processes that preceded it, including composition, capture and processing. In other words, says Guy Tal, in order to produce a masterful print, one has to also master all other aspects of image making

I love photographic prints; I love viewing them; I love making them and I love sharing them. There are certain qualities to a great print that simply cannot be accomplished when the image is viewed on an electronic display and vice versa.

There is much more to a good print than simply rendering the image on paper. An Ansel Adams image printed in a book, calendar or poster, for example, will be most likely pleasing to the majority of viewers, but if you are fortunate enough to have seen a print made by Adams himself, you know that it is far more impressive to behold than other reproductions. The reason is that mastery of printing requires as much skill and expertise as any other photographic process. The knowledge of how to best translate tonality, color and detail found in the film or digital capture, takes years and decades to hone. The choice of substrate, printing technology, size and finish all require an understanding of the way many different parameters influence the final appearance of the print.

The print is the culmination of all the processes that preceded it, including composition, capture and processing. In other words, in order to produce a masterful print, one has to also master all other aspects of image making. That makes it the true ultimate test for a photographer.

Recently, I decided to see if I could purchase a print for my own collection. My criteria were simple: I wanted to purchase from someone who makes their own prints (i.e. someone who makes all the creative decisions regarding the print, rather than outsourcing them); I wanted the print to come from a photographer who produces unique and original landscape work; and I wanted to be able to purchase the print directly through their web site. Admittedly, the latter is more of a pet peeve. It doesn’t take much to add a ‘Buy’ button to a web site these days. I don’t want to print forms and mail them; I don’t want to request a quote and I don’t want to purchase from a gallery representing the photographer. To my surprise I only found a very small handful of photographers who meet these simple criteria.

It used to be that fine prints were the ultimate product of a ‘fine art’ photographer. It seems odd that, in an age when the technology to make superb prints in one’s own home or studio is within reach of almost any photographer, so many choose to delegate printing to others. While many labs produce excellent results, to me there is something more intimate and venerable to a print personally made by the photographer, representing their own skill and sensibilities, extending their own creative thinking regarding a given image, and qualifying that the print indeed matches their vision rather than that of a lab technician or a computerized algorithm.

Objective qualities aside, it should also be mentioned that the satisfaction of seeing your own print materialize in a development tray or rolling off a printer exactly as you intended it to look, is among the most satisfying experiences that a creative photographer may have. Here is a tangible product made by you, encapsulating your vision, emotion and skill; something to present to others with pride and with the knowledge that it is a unique objet d’art that could only have been made by you.

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 37 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

2 Comments

  1. Having been a professional printer (photographic) for many years at an in-house ad dept, we weren’t printing beautiful landscapes just product photography images, I can say I agree “…a certain qualities to a [great] print…” Of course I printed my own work as well, almost exclusively from 4×5 negs. When you had good image, composition / exposure, etc. and then began to work on your print, laying out your plan to burn / dodge / develop / and possibly tone, and finally make test prints and then your final image, it was magical.

    Today everything from image capture, post (Photoshop, etc.), and printing is truly amazing. All those years ago now, who would have ever thought we’d have the incredible tools we now have? But there is a magic and depth to printing from a negative in a “wet” darkroom.

    I guess the obvious comparison is digital music vs. analog / vinyl.

    Great article.

  2. Having been a professional printer (photographic) for many years at an in-house ad dept, we weren’t printing beautiful landscapes just product photography images, I can say I agree “…a certain qualities to a [great] print…” Of course I printed my own work as well, almost exclusively from 4×5 negs. When you had good image, composition / exposure, etc. and then began to work on your print, laying out your plan to burn / dodge / develop / and possibly tone, and finally make test prints and then your final image, it was magical.

    Today everything from image capture, post (Photoshop, etc.), and printing is truly amazing. All those years ago now, who would have ever thought we’d have the incredible tools we now have? But there is a magic and depth to printing from a negative in a “wet” darkroom.

    I guess the obvious comparison is digital music vs. analog / vinyl.

    Great article.

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