I recently posted an overview of some of the different types of photographic prints that can be made, both historic and modern. And, of course, there are more types than even those that I listed. But all of that leads me to this: What is the value of prints?
When I speak of value, I’m not speaking of monetary value. Quite the contrary. The value to which I refer is the value to you, the photographer. I think that as we dive deeper into the digital era, this is becoming an ever more difficult question to answer. And it’s a question that each photographer has to answer for himself or herself. There is no one correct answer — your answer will be based solely on your needs.
You see, it used to be that one of the only ways to look at your images was to print them. Of course, you had your film negatives and slides, these were always available for reference, but the 35mm negative or slide is small and in order to view it properly, you needed a lightbox and maybe even a loupe so you could look at the negatives magnified. That, or you were stuck holding your fragile negatives up to the nearest lamp. Because of this, we photographers were often finding ourselves making proof sheets or printing entire rolls of film as smaller prints just so we had an actual, physical print to look at. That’s how we decided which images we wanted to pursue further. In the end, many of us were left with boxes upon boxes of negatives and prints, stashed in some forgotten closet or storeroom.
All of that has been replaced by the memory card, on-camera displays, and tools like Lightroom. Now, we simply plug our cameras into the computer and it’s all right there: Every single digital negative. No lightbox needed, no squinting at tiny negatives, no making dozens of prints from which you may choose one or two images to further process. You can zoom in on them to examine minute details, you can make a few quick adjustments to see if further processing is necessary. Those boxes and boxes of negatives and prints have been replaced by external hard drives small enough to fit in your pocket.
But it goes much farther than that. In the digital age, one of the primary ways to share our work, be it with friends and family or colleagues and publications, is to show them digital files. This can be on your phone, on your tablet, your computer, even on a digital picture frame. Back in those old film days, again, prints were useful, valuable. Many photographers had reservations — and rightfully so — about handing over delicate negatives for their friends to look at them. Prints had value as a way to preserve your negatives, to keep them safe.
Prints were also the only way to sell your work. If you were a wedding photographer, then you sold a package of prints, most small so that the clients could create an album, some larger for framing and hanging. If you were selling to books or magazines, you sent prints as part of your sales pitch. Nowadays, there are some working photographers who opt to send their clients processed JPEGs — let the clients do the printing if they so desire. Many publications as that you send them digital files rather than physical copies of your work.
So, in this modern era, is the print without value? I don’t think so, not at all. The point is, the print holds whatever value you place on it — and that value will differ according to your personal needs.
And what about those personal needs? It all depends on you as a photographer and the type of work that you do. A hobbyist who hangs prints in their home or gives them as gifts may not make many prints at all – only what is needed for display. Or, maybe the hobbyist makes no prints at all. With digital picture frames always improving, it is certainly possible to create art for your home without ever having to have the work printed.
Then we come to the idea of sharing photos. Yesteryear’s version of sharing photos required handing over a sleeve of 4×6 or 5×7 images. Today? There are many, many ways to share your work and almost none of us rely on those sleeves of small prints to do it. We create PDF portfolios to email to friends, family or other interested people. We load them on our phones so that our images are always right there – pull the device out of your pocket and show someone a few things they might be interested in. We share on social media to publicize ourselves, to drum up interest in the work that we do. There are even specialized photo sharing sites where we upload images to receive critique. If you are one who shares many images, the physical print, in the digital era, may not have much value to you at all.
Let’s not forget about those of us who make photography our business. Even here, the value of the physical print differs from person to person. If you’re an art photographer that sells online, chances are, you are using a print-on-demand service. That, in turn, means that the print only holds value to you as a way to proof your work. You may have each image that you’ve listed for sale printed once or twice just so that you can verify that the finished, printed product meets your standards.
But what if you’re someone who sells at art fairs? Now, the print is much more valuable to you. You’ll need to print in large quantities to ensure that you have enough stock to sell over the course of a busy weekend.
The same is true for all working photographers. Photojournalists will have different print needs from art photographers, who will have different needs from wedding or portrait photographers. It’s all relative to who you are and what you do.
And finally, there are all the different types of prints you can make. How do you know which type of print is right for you? It largely comes down to personal preference but part of your decision, if you are in the business of selling prints, will also take into account your target market. The general consumer, for instance, may not see an immediate difference between a giclee and an inkjet image, or a black and white gelatin silver versus a black and white inkjet. But, if you are marketing toward the art crowd, people who are collectors and connoisseurs, then you’ll need to think more deeply about the types of prints that will please viewers who are well versed in such things.
That’s why I say that there is no one right answer to this question. The value of the print is evolving rapidly these days and that value will be different from one person to the next. Print what you need because, in the end, only you can determine the usefulness or lack thereof of your own printed work.