Is it really worth printing your own photographs or should you send them to a laboratory? It’s a difficult question because it depends on so many things. Not least of these questions are ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Maybe ‘why?’ is the best place to start.
Before photography went digital, more-or-less everyone who had a camera had no choice but to have the film developed and printed. You could only do this yourself if you had room for a darkroom, and had all the apparatus required including an enlarger. Despite the cost of those things, many amateur photographers opted to develop their own films and print their own pictures. Without any doubt, while much of the skill in flim-based photography involved spotting and composing a picture, and having a sense of the moment when to press the shutter button, there was also a lot of art involved in how one dealt with the neagtive and the print in the darkroom. While many professional photographers from ‘the time of film’ (ok, I know, it ain’t over yet!) employed a darkroom technician to do the magic for them, they pretty much all oversaw the process and did so with a view to ensuring that their images came out just the way they wanted. Amateur photographers who were not fortunate enough to have a darkroom mostly just sent their films away and a while later, received the prints in the mail. Either that, or they took their films to a chemists or photgraphy shop that offered a similar service. Having both developed my own films and printed them, and also having used commercial darkrooms, I can attest to just how disappointing most of the results turned out to be if you sent the films away – B&W that was gray and a bit grayer – colours that were washed out and though ideally one composes a picture in the viewfinder, many shots benefit from a crop or from the ‘black magic’ of dodging and burning and other of the darkroom dark (?) arts. Bottom line? It was as a keen amateur who apsired to being a ‘photographer’, hard to get what you wanted from film unless you took the whole process into your own hands.
The number of photographs that are taken these days is huge. One estimate puts it at 1,500,000,000,000 a year. Of those 1.5 trillion photos, how many are ever seen by anyone other than the photographer? Indeed, how many are ever viewed again by the photographer themselves? Perhaps the photographer didn’t even ‘see’ the photo when they took it? So, where do these photos all go? Mostly, they never see the light of day again. However, many are posted on social media platforms or retained on a memory stick, SD card or in phone memory. I would argue that the ‘lifetime’, by which I mean the time between when the photo was taken and when it is last viewed by anyone, is extremely short. Indeed, the lifetime is probably mostly only slighter longer than that involved in pressing the shutter button. However, there remains an apetite for the printed image, billions of photos ARE printed every year and the apetite for the print appears to be growing. The figures I could find suggested that the Global Photo Printing Market is expected to grow from USD 13,125.4 million in 2017 to USD 26,113.0 million by 2023. I do not know how many of the customers for those prints will be satisfied by what they recieve back from the printing services they use, but I suspect it will be a bit like back in the old days but with the major advantage that digital photography offers a preview of the image – you couldn’t see what was on film until it was developed and printed.
While I suspect that the majority of the digital images that end up being printed go directly from the camera to an on-line printing service, those services and most devices that take pictures, offer the facility to ‘process’ the image. That is to say that you can enhance the image by the equivalent of what used to be darkroom processes such as correcting for under- or over-exposure, bringing up the highlights, and all manner of other digital jiggery-pokery. For a minority of photographs then the keen amateur photographer can still have a hand in the way a print will look. For the keenest of us, we can use specialised software like Photoshop, Lightroom, Affinity etc. to really get to grips with the final appearance of the image. The one step that is generally outside of the scope of most people is the printing process itself and as I can witness, the print you get back from even the best of print services, will not and for techincal reasons cannot, look like it did on a screen. Why not? Well, because light from a print is reflected from its surface while that on a screen is created by light transmitted through a surface and because the colour-rendition of a screen unless specially calibrated, will not match that of the printed photo.
Well, that has been a long-winded ramble but the ‘why’ should be clear – printing your own photos is the only way to take total control of how an image will appear. Printing a photo creates something that has a lifetime much longer than that of a digital photo to be viewed on a screen. I would argue that the history of photography will forever be something that can be hung on a wall. For the individual photographer, the family album or the day-to-day photographic records of holidays will always best be kept on paper. I wonder just how many digital images will never be viewed again because it’s too much bother to recover them from an outdated storage medium?
There are some other aspects to ‘why?’. While you can hang a screen on a wall, picture frames are cheap. While I have put many pictures on-line, I would argue that pictures are intended to be seen and there is no better place for that than on a wall. My reasoning is that the digital world is something that most people skate through at a very superficial level and that a picture on a wall has an impact that lasts both longer in terms of how long people view it, and how long they remember it. Finally, I have been most impressed by the effects of the environment in which photos are viewed. Pictures displayed on the walls of museum or gallery, or indeed in the pages of a family album, exist in a context that cannot be replicated by a screen. I think that to suggest otherwise is to argue that the Mona Lisa viewed in a book is the same as viewing it in the Louvre – it just ain’t!
So what of ‘how?’. Well that’s fairly straightforward. Buy a printer. I recently purchased a Canon 100S (A3+). It’s a dye-based printer, about the best of the bunch where A3+ printers are concerned and is probably like many other printers, for reason that you will end up buying the expensive OEM inks, sold at less than it costs to build. Why dye inks? The only reason to choose dye over pigment inks is that the colour rendition by dye inks particularly of black, is better than that of pigment ink and dye inks are cheaper. The reason to buy a pigment ink printer is because the ink is more permanent – many tens of years against 20 or 30 years. I have been stunned by the quality of the prints produced by this printer. How do the costs compare with a print-house? There is no doubt that it is cheaper but not hugely so. An A3 print works out at about £2 for the paper and about the same for the ink. By comparison, Whitewall, a reasonably professional print-house, would charge about £15 for the same image – not including postage charges which are significant. In the end however, it all comes down to the ‘why?’ – control over the process and the satisfaction of ending up with something that is truly all your own work, that you can hang on a wall and that has more than the most fleeting of an existence.