To Print or Not to Print, That Seems to be the Question of Today?

By: Brent Wood

In today's digitally dominated world it seems that I must talk about the above question. I graduated from college in 1977 so am quite accustomed to printing my photographs in my darkroom; I really don’t understand the do I need to print question. I always print my best work whether the images are digital or darkroom negatives.

There was a day, not too long ago, when my two sons were watching me print an image. My sons asked me why I print anything; my question to them was how else would I have a quality print of my image? They brought out their phones and flipped through their images stating I could have thousands of images on my phone to show at a moments notice, really. As a professional photographer and artist I do not accept a phone or tablet/computer as an accepted method of displaying my artwork.

Yes, printing is more expensive than flipping through a phone and takes more time and a great deal more skill. Showing details in the shadows and highlights on a phone that is using transmitted light is much easier than doing the same when printing. Ansel Adams is known for his stunning black and white images that said, Adams also used color transparency films while shooting B&W 8 “x10” film. Adams never, to my knowledge, displayed his color prints or published books in color; books in color came out after his death. The reason he did not like color, he took his 8” x 10-inch color transparencies to a lab for printing and wanted the print to look exactly like the original transparency; ever noticed that what you see on your phone’s/camera’s LCD never looks like the finished print? Adams was always disappointed with his color prints, no Zone System controls, no control of the artistic exposure/development decisions etc. In short, Adams did not like how a color print looked under reflected light as compared to a transparency with transmitted light. This reality is no different than looking at a phone or tablet screen and then printing the image. If the phone image is printed then the highlights in a print will go lighter and less detailed as compared to the phone’s screen image and the shadows will be darker with less detail. A computer monitor should be profiled, a phone never is.  To truly achieve detail in the shadows and highlights requires the artist to test their equipment so they know, when they print, that all the detail is there; this is because prints use reflected light instead of the much friendlier transmitted light of a phone. I will give more information on this printing fact on another day.

Well, let me tell you another story. While at NASA I was hiring two new photographic positions so I advertised in many places. One of the requirements for the interview was to bring a photographic portfolio. Well, one applicant, when asked for their portfolio took out their phone and started flipping through their photos. Needles to say the interview ended quickly. Another applicant wrote a link to a website on a piece of paper and handed the paper to me stating this was their portfolio, again a short interview. The worst applicant showed up with prints, however the prints were in a cardboard box, not matted or mounted, the applicant then dumped the box on my desk and stated that was their portfolio; the interview ended immediately. To this day, the finished product for my NASA customers is a print. Coming to an interview and showing only a website, Instagram, Facebook etc. just is not done and is not accepted. Learn how to create world-class printed photographs, printing is a skill that must be mastered.

To be considered a professional artist requires the skill of printing and have a tactile quality matted portfolio to show and display; the portfolio needs to be in a professional hard case, not a bag. Yes, along with the printed portfolio, about 12 matted 11 x 14 prints, a website also needs to be available for the prospective employer. I am unaware of any company that would accept a digital phone or website as the only portfolio to show in an interview for a photographic job. I am also not aware of any gallery that would decide to show your work by only looking at a phone image or website.

Each artist should be proud of his or her work, part of that would be to print, to mat, to frame and to hang your art on a gallery wall. Try showing a prospective gallery your work on a phone and see how the interview goes. Not printing misses the point of photography, a beautiful image, well lit, professionally displayed for all to see is what photography is all about and what is expected in the photographic profession.

In the darkroom there are very few choices, in today's world, for surface texture, in digital the world is your oyster. Don’t choose your darkroom or digital printing paper by what is on sale; choose the paper by asking yourself this question - How Will This Paper Help Improve My Artwork? or How Will This Paper Help My Artistic Vision Show Through? Some images look great on glossy paper, others look better on matte paper and still others look their best on very rough, highly textured paper. The choice of paper is completely up to the artist and should be based on the artwork, not on the price of the paper.

My favorite inkjet papers are – Canson Platine Fiber Rag, this paper is the closest surface to an F surface air-dried darkroom paper I have ever seen, Platine has a very slight random texture just like darkroom air-dried F surface papers. A reasonable match to Canson Platine, but almost no surface texture, is Arista II Legacy Series Baryta Photo Inkjet paper. The Legacy paper is less expensive than Canson Platine that said the Legacy paper is very nice and does look almost like a darkroom print. 

For Matte paper I take advantage of Arista paper pricing, I use the Arista II Fine Art Bright White Cotton and the Arista II Fine Art Natural matte, the natural has a warm color to the paper. For a textured paper I use Arista II Legacy Series Velvet Cold Press paper. For longevity all inkjet papers should be coated with lacquer, the Velvet Cold Press paper really needs coating, as does any canvas print. The need for coating inkjet papers will be discussed in another article.

For darkroom paper I have always used an F surface glossy fiber based paper that will be air-dried. This paper is normally neutral to cold tone in color, however for my portraits and some of my scenic images I use a warm-tone paper. I use the following fiber based darkroom papers – Arista EDU Ultra fiber based variable contrast glossy paper. I use this 80% of the time.  The paper is then air dried so the glossy isn’t so glossy, more of a luster sheen than a glossy one; just like Canson Platine inkjet paper. Next, for warm tone, I use Foma Fomatone 131 variable contrast fiber based warm tone glossy paper. When I hand color an image with oil paints I use the Foma Fomatone 132 Classic matte paper. I do not use resin-coted papers, as they are not considered archival.

So, this brings me to the original question – Should I print my artwork, the answer is absolutely yes. Be discriminating and only print the work you are proud of. Or said another way, never show work to anyone you aren’t proud of. When I come back from a shoot I go through my digital images, copy the best ones and place in a folder on my computers desktop called To Be Printed. For film, I place the film in film bags, make digital contact proofs, mark up the proofs and put this film/proofs in a binder that is entitled to be printed or scanned. I have a very large backlog of images to be printed digitally and in my darkroom.

When selling your work you, the artist, lose control of what person or company will see that work. So, if you created inferior work because the person who has purchased the work can’t tell the difference between great work and poor work then watch out. A person or company will eventually see the inferior work that does know what quality work looks like. If they see poor work from you and your name is on that work then guess what, your career is basically over. There are two undeniable facts in photography - Never Show Poor Work To Anyone For Any Reason - Print your work so your work can be displayed professionally.

I have some 200 images matted ready to hang and display. When I am asked to display my work I can show on a moments notice.

So, should you print your images – Hell yes, print, print, print.

Brent Wood
Brent Wood started his photographic career in 1978 as the chief photographer and studio manager for O'Connor Photography located in Santa Barbara California. In 1982 he changed his focus from studio portraiture to industrial photography. From 1982 to 1993 he was the Photo Department manager for General Dynamics Air Systems Division located in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.