This is part of a series about my experiences in publishing a book. The series starts here.
A few days ago, I wrote a post about printing the images for the portfolios in the 50 boxed sets of the Staccato book. I received a comment questioning all the trouble I’d gone to to print the images myself (and I had gone to an extraodinary amount of trouble). I thought at the time the comment was somewhat curious. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that there is something worth discussing in depth — at least the amount of depth obtainable a single blog post.
The comment came from the perspective that mass-market commercial printing was good enough for most people, and Max Berlin, the person making the comment, didn’t distinguish himself from most people, and mentioned that he never has tried printing at home. Instead, Max sends sRGB images to a local print shop.
Max has been a contributor to The Last Word for quite some time. I know Max to be a perfectionist. Max used to have a blog comparing Sony and Nikon gear in exquisite detail at sonyvnikon.wordpress.com. Unfortunately, that material is no longer available. So Max is no stranger to the finer points of image quality. Not only that, but a lot of Max’s testing focused (sorry about that) on sharpness with excellent cameras and lenses, and that level of sharpness is not important in most screen-res images, although it might be when big 8K displays are common. So Max must have images printed, or he is taking unnecessary pains.
In my opinion, using a mass-market printer is phoning it in, and just doesn’t make sense for someone who is passionate about the quality of his images. If you really care about how the images look on paper, I believe you have only two choices,
You can find a service bureaus who has expert image editors, fins one you like, and pay the freight. You may not get a perfect print by your lights, but you’ll get an excellent print by the printer’s standards (and you’re trusting or you have proven over time that those standards are consonant with yours). There is a long tradition that started with color film of top-notch photographers not printing their own work, but relying of printers with whom they had formed long relationships.
Jim Megargee printed for Annie Leibovitz. If you play your cards right, he can print for you, too. Just Google MV Photo Labs (for some reason, the WP editor won’t let me link to their site.
Richard Avedon did not usually make his own prints, but took pains to instruct his printer in how to do the job. Here’s a story about the printing of one of Avedon’s books.
Other photographers, among them Ansel Adams, were very hands-on in getting the first print in one session of a negative made, but often used assistants for the subsequent ones.
Still others, such as Edward Weston and Eliot Porter, did it all themselves. Charlie Cramer is a master at printing his own photographs both using dye transfer and digital means.
Can’t you just use the proofing features in Photoshop and Lightroom? Not if you want the ultimate quality.
We’ve come a long way with color management, but soft proofing is still no substitute for a proof print if your standards are high. You cannot duplicate the visual effect of your intended Illuminati accurately, if it is different from the illuminant under which the printer calibration patches were measured. The visual effect of images understood by the observer to be self-luminous is different from those that are not. It’s hard to get the surround effect right in soft proofing. Scale affects color perception. If you’re going to accurately predict what your prints are going to look like, you’re going to need to proof.
That’s why there will always be a place for photographers who print themselves. Sure, they have to learn color management. Sure, they have to worry about calibration. And printers can be recalcitrant beasts. But in making the final tweaks to an image that you’re gonna hang with pride on your wall or charge you customers money for, there’s hardly any substitute to the edit-proof-edit-proof-edit-print-final cycle. Soft proofing can get you close, but, if you’re a perfectionist, close gets no cigar.
And why shouldn’t you be a perfectionist? Making art is one of the few things that we do that we can take all the time in the world to get it exactly the way we want it to be. It’s not done until we say it’s done, and, for me at least, that’s one of the great beauties of art.
So now we can circle back around and you can see why making the portfolio prints myself was the only possible choice for me. The book represents my artistic intent, to the degree that that’s possible within the constraints of commercial offset lithography. But the actual inkjet prints that accompany 1% of the books are the best representation of the work that I know how to do in that size. If they aren’t the best I can do, wheat’s the point? There are already perfectly nice offset-printed versions of both of the portfolio images in the book already.
I don’t claim to be a photographer on anywhere near the level of the ones that I used as examples above. I can imagine that some of you are in the same boat. Maybe you’re reading this and saying to yourself,. “My images might not warrant the same level of TLC that Adams’, Porter’s, and Weston’s do.” Could be. However, I submit that printing your own work is even more important for photographers not at the top of the food chain.
Consider this: Adams could afford to pay some of the bast young photographers in the known universe to be his assistants, and because of his towering reputation, candidates lined up ’round the block (Well, figuratively, at least; there’s aren’t blocks in the Carmel Highlands). People like Avedon and Leibovitz had even more money to attract the most-talented printers to their cause. Unless you are similarly rich and famous, that’s probably not the case for you. That means that your choices for having the work done for you are more limited. You may have a hard time getting the attention of a master printer and building the relationship necessary to make sure your vision of the work appears in the final print.
And then there’s a fact that I’ve had demonstrated to me over and over: making prints makes you a better photographer. It makes you more conscious of some things that aren’t as obvious when you’re starting at a monitor. It makes you pay more attention to scale, to surround, to paper finish, to print lighting, and to a host of important things.
Don’t know where to start? Go take a workshop. I recommend Charlie Cramer and Stephen Johnson as good places to start.
Max Berlin says
I appreciate that my comments gave pause/inspiration to you and helped concrete your sound reasons for deciding to print yourself to maintain the quality you desire for your art.
All of the things you say about me are true. I’ve worked very hard to ensure that, at the minimum, my files are worthwhile. And that is probably where my problem lies.
I can’t (with very few exceptions) be satisfied with one version of a photo. For me the transitory nature of seeing the photo on a screen and then making changes to it brings the most satisfaction. The quality of the light that a monitor has versus a print is also an issue.
I’ve stopped for the most part displaying or sharing any of my photos anywhere despite that I am often taking and making the best photos of my life at this time. I just don’t like permanence at this stage. The one exception is some photos of family that we display in the house and give to relatives that we update every several months. These 11x16s are the sRGB photos I mentioned and no one I know would realize or appreciate if I spent a massive amount of time or cost in ensuring these were up to your or my standards. In some cases, good enough is good enough.
It is, I suppose a Buddhist quality in me. Like the monks that spend days and weeks to create a Mandala only to destroy it in the end. It is the process that I enjoy and not the result. This is in no way a commentary on your choices and decisions.
I felt bad when I read your original response as it was never my intention to offend you. I admire you in many ways. Your perfectionism and willingness to teach and help others.
I wanted to follow up and ask maybe you could offer some help to people that want to embark on the ‘printing journey’ but not at the highest levels that you operate out.
I make 10 prints a year and don’t foresee a need when that will change but at the same time I am intrigued by the idea of being able to print and leave a ‘legacy’ for my loved ones. I am not sure that they will care to spend hours and hours (years) looking at the RAW files that I’ve accumulated.
It is already an overwhelming task to cull those down to a reasonable level that represent the best of my work.
Everything you wrote above is true. I will want to use this advice one day and maybe I should start the journey if in 5 years I want to have prints that I can be proud of.
Lynn Allan says
My experience is that if you don’t print quite a bit … even a LOT … then doing your own printing probably isn’t worth the time, effort, and aggravation.
Depending on your expectations, getting prints done at Costco with their DryCreek profiles can provide a lot of “bang for the buck”. My observation is that you’ve got to be a fairly experienced and knowledgeable printer to consistently match or improve on what you can get from Costco.
FWIW: my interest in printing is perhaps 180 degrees from Jim K’s … saving money. With ink refilling and super epic deals on OEM paper that come along occasionally (95% off), this retired volunteer photography can make a high quality 4×6″ give away event memento for a penny, and an 8.5×11″ letter size print for about 5¢. During a week-long basketball camp, I may give away 1000 prints.
First off, Max, you didn’t offend me. You made me think. I am grateful to you for that.
Second, thanks for the long and thoughful answer.
As to how to get started, I think for someone as advanced photographically as you are, the approach I recommend to beginners — buy a cheapish printer and a few books, and jump in with both feet — is not the right one. You won’t be happy with the results. Instead, contact Charlie Cramer and sign up for a printing workshop. Bring your files with you. I recommend going to one of the workshops at Picture Element.
That will open your eyes to the possiblities, teach you some skills, and make your eventual printer purchase a better-informed one.
And, to everybody else: I have taken printing workshops from Charlie, Mac Holbert, and Stephen Johnson. I’ve learned a lot from each, and I was a skilled printer before I took the first one.
Lynn Allan says
> And printers can be recalcitrant beasts
Ain’t that the truth … even an understatement
> making prints makes you a better photographer
On the DPR beginner forums, I’ve thought about replying as you do above to motivated newbies wondering how to improve.
BTW: I’m having trouble doing cut/paste from the blog article into this comments widget (or a text editor). Operator error? That’s with both Chrome on Win-10 and then Edge and then IE.
Note that I can ^C / ^V from this input box widget.
Lynn, the blocking of cut and paste is part of my new theme’s (overactive) content protection. You will note that you can’t right-click and download images anymore, either. I’d like to fix it, but doing that will require doing some PHP coding, and I am reluctant to go there. It’s on my things-I’d-like-changed list.
Christoph Breitkopf says
Copy&paste works fine for me. It’s just that the marked text is rather hard to see because it’s black on an almost black background. That why it works better on the much lighter comments section.
Erik Kaffehr says
I sometimes considered joining one of Charlie Cramer’s workshop, one reason is the I have seen a few interviews with hime and he seems to be a very interesting person.
In pretty exactly a year I will go into early retirement, an arrangement with my employer who needs to cut down on personnel due to factors external to our business. Don’t really know how things will work out yet.
But, you certainly have given me some extra incentive to consider Charlie’s workshop.
You’ll like Charlie, and also Rex Naden, who assists often. I met Rex one frosty dawn at Mono Lake, and he served on the board at the CPA with me. He was trained as an EE, and ran a semiconductor company.
James Cho says
I must of missed Rex Nader, I joined Atheros is 2001. The patent is dated . He must of left just before I got there. I’ve worked on many wireless patents since he left. Since Atheros got acquired by Qualcomm, the interest in patents increased by an order of magnitude.
I’ve been printing several books a year for family and friends mostly from mypublisher.com. My preferred size is 15″ X 11.5″ with layflat pages and super glossy option. The results are fine but loose so much versus modern display technology. 4K displays already match the image quality of a 16 Mpixel camera. These displays have so much more dynamic range than is possible on a print. With HDR (display technology) which is now available with 10 bit and 12 bit and Rec 2020 color gamut the difference will be even more stark. 8K displays will match the image quality of a 66 Mpixel sensor and will provide truly incredible image quality and will likely exceed the detail of all but the most enormous prints.
However, there is some tactile joy in looking at and touching physical prints. I wish that there was some binding technology to hold multiple 24″x36″ prints into a book which just might do justice to the great sensors / lens technologies available now.
Max Berlin says
Some great points were made here on all sides. A workshop is in the cards for me when I begin the printing journey. I am always in favor of flattening the learning curve.
As a print and color expert can you quantify the DR of a print vs an image shown on the best displays? And/or the expectations of displays in the future?
Especially in light of James’ comments just above .
Dmax of the best inkjet prints run to about 2.4. So that’s a DR of 10^2.4 or 250:1. An excellent display, viewed in a totally dark room with black walls and observers dressed in black, can yield DR’s of a few thousand to one.
and its going to be look even more pathetic compared to 10bit HDR displays with 1000 nits peak brightness. Print and Display will be so different that will dictate two different kind of shot discipline. If we really want to print an image, we should know it since that very moment we press the shutter button.
James Cho says
And/or have great processing skills to effectively compress dynamic range of the RAW image to the available range of the output medium.
Sam Kanter says
I’m making my first photo book. I’m using Blurb.
The beauty of Blurb is that you can print one book or 1000. I’m starting with the magazine format, which is like a softcover book. I just printed my first trial version for $20, will inform me about editing and layout decisions. I may make 5 or 6 versions before final version. I was quite impressed with the quality of the prints from Blurb! I will probably start with a short run in magazine format, then do a layout for a larger hardcover version. Doing all design myself. The whole process has been challenging and enlightening. You can peruse my gallery below, from which the book is culled, about 120 photos.
I’ve made quite a few Blurb books.
Real offset printing is quite different, especially with printers like Hemlock and binderies like Roswell.
Sam Kanter says
Jim, I’m sure the output is far superior, if you can afford it. How many books are you planning on printing? Do you really need to print thousands to make it worthwhile? Can you sell them?
Love the staccato series, BTW. I’m sure it will look great.
Perhaps a publisher will see my Blurb book and want to publish it… 🙂
I printed 1000 books: 950 for the regular edition, and 50 in boxed sets with two inkjet prints in a portfolio and both the book and the portfolio in a presentation case. The printing of the images for the portfolio was what this post was about.
There are some printers in Asia where runs as short as 100 or 200 books can be economically feasible, but I printed 1000.
Selling coffee table books in quantity, unless you’re a big-name photographer — and sometimes even then — is a very iffy proposition. Some would say it’s not iffy at all; you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose money on the deal.
As I’ve said before, if you want a copy of the Staccato book, join the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA. While supplies last, they are shipping a copy to each new member.
Vincent Wan says
Edward Weston did print his own images but many of the Weston’s we know were printed by his son either with his input or after his death.
Weston’s own prints of the same negatives differ a lot based on when he made them as paper changed. Looking at a print he made in Mexico in 1925 and a 1950s gelatin silver version is an eye opener.
True. Kim prints some negatives, too, I think.
The ravages of time have affected many of the early “EW EW’s” to the point where it’s difficult to tell what the original must have looked like. Thank goodness, that’s not true of all of them. In EW’s day, the production of archival silver prints was not the science that it grew to be in the period shortly after WW II.