There’s something alluring about being able to make the biggest print possible, isn’t there? I’ve done it and I’m sure many others have, too. It’s a heady feeling, seeing a piece of your own artwork blown up to 20×30 sizes or even larger. All those details, crisp and sharp, writ large for us to examine in depth. Size, to a lot of us, indicates quality. We’re using gear capable of creating these big prints, and we’re using techniques that produce sharp, clear detail even when blown up to the extreme.
But is it really true that size equates to quality? Just because we can make large prints doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Sure, it’s exciting to print at the upper end of the size range. However, we really need to think about how each piece of art is meant to be perused. Really, there are two ways that people look at an image, and whether they use one method or the other—that all comes down to the image’s content.
Some photographs are meant to be examined in detail. These are the photographs that have leading lines designed to make your eye follow a certain path through the photograph. They’re also the photographs that have lots of fine detail that is important to the image in order to get the full meaning and feeling from it. As you stand in front of this type of photograph, you’ll find your head turning as your gaze moves from one part to the next.
This is the type of photograph that works well as a large print. It’s the kind of thing that you won’t absorb in a single serving. Even when it’s printed smaller, your eye will still wander over it.
The other type of photograph is meant to be taken as a whole. Sometimes it’s just a singular subject, like a still life or a person. It could be a simple landscape, or really any number of things. But as you look at it, your eyes don’t so much traverse the entire frame. Instead, you simply look and take in, absorbing the image in its entirety to get the full effect.
It’s this type of image that works well as a small print, and in fact, these images often aren’t as effective when they are printed larger. The reason for that is because of the viewing angle for the image. Imagine yourself standing arm’s length away from a 20×30 print. If you look directly at it, you won’t see the whole photograph. You’ll need to turn your head to see the edges and corners. But if you’re standing arm’s length from a 5×7 or 8×10, then it’s quite different. You can take the whole thing in without turning your head. So that’s why sometimes, certain images actually work better as smaller prints. Just because you can print them large doesn’t mean you should. If it’s the sort of image that doesn’t require the viewer to explore, then perhaps it is better off in a smaller size so that it’s easier for people to take in the image the way you’ve intended.