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In the film era there was no choice about it: you had to print your pictures. Prints were simply the only way that you can see the photos you'd taken. In the digital era, obviously things are very different. You can see your image on your camera as soon as you take it. You can connect your camera to a big TV and look at your images there. You can dump the images into your computer and look at them on your monitor, and from there, you can push them to websites and smart phones and tablets and so on. Images today are very malleable and dynamic. We can shove them around the world, and we can sort and filter them to combine them with other images.
We can deliver them to an audience of millions, and all without ever having to print a single image. Because of this, some people never bother printing their images at all. I am not going to bother with explaining the virtues of easy digital distribution. I think most people are probably already amazed by how quickly and easily we can all send images electronically. With that said, I am going to be sounding like an old fogey and say that I just don't get it when people tell me they don't print. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but to me an image is not finished, it's just not actually an image until it's on paper. And that's silly, you might be saying.
Lots more people can see it if you put it on the web, and that's true, but there are many other advantages to paper. Obviously, a print can be framed and hung on a wall, and it doesn't require special gear to look at it. Depending on the size of your printer, you might be able to get a much bigger print than you can ever see on a computer monitor. And as an image is printed larger, your relationship to it changes. Bigger prints become landscapes that you interact with in a very different way than you do when you view a smaller print or an image on a screen. Prints are tactile. You can manipulate them with your hands. You can frame them. You can move them around.
They have weight, just like the other items in your house. To me, the image somehow becomes more real when it's on paper than what it's simply a string of electrons. And don't get me wrong; I've nothing against electrons. It just, they don't seem as solid and sturdy as wood pulp does. If you're only viewing your images onscreen, you'll quickly run into reproduction issues. No two monitors look the same, so when you send an image to someone, you never really know what it's going to look like on the screen they view it on. A print lets you fix the image the way you want it and ensure that the viewer sees the image as you intended it.
Ultimately though, I think the most important reason the print has to do with the color and tone. We live our day-to-day lives in a world of reflected color. Light bounces off of things and into our eyes. This is the type of light we see when we go out shooting, and this is the type of light that we capture with our cameras. When you view an image on a computer screen-- be it an LCD monitor or CRT--you're looking at transmissive color. Colored light is shined directly into your eyes. This creates color with a very different quality and feel than what we see in the real world, than what you saw when you were out shooting.
The reflected color that we see in the real world, the color that our visual system evolved to see, has a particular deepness and richness to it. To me, reflected light feels like it's built on a dark base of some kind. Brighter colors are built up from darker ones, making for world where color is rooted in shadow. By comparison, the light that comes from your monitor is very bright; it lacks that deep rich quality of real world light. It feels to me like color that's brought down from bright highlight tones rather than built up from dark shadow tones. To me it looks overwrought somehow, and flat and kind of phony.
Because the real world is seen in reflected light, no picture on a monitor can ever really look like the real world, because a monitor is always transmissive light. Only when the image gets on paper, where we return to reflected light and the colors look like the colors in the real world, only then can the blacks look like the blacks that we see in the real world. It took me quite a few years before I began to recognize these differences between reflected and transmissive light, so if what I just said sounds completely silly, just let it simmer for a while. Try to take note of the quality of the color that you see in real life, versus what it looks like on a monitor.
At some point I expect your sense and preference might shift a little bit. When it does, the good news is that you'll have a very different relationship to, and appreciation of, color. The bad new is you're going to find yourself having to buy a lot of printer ink.
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