« Around the Web on a Wednesday | Main | Letter to George »

Thursday, 27 May 2010


Neither Robert Frank or Walker Evans are known for their darkroom skills. Yet they still managed to produce transcendent bodies of work that have changed the very shape and direction of photography. The art is in the eye; everything after that is just follow through. (Like a golfer completing his swing after hitting the ball.)

I've done my own printing for my whole career - Cibachrome for roughly 30 years and Epson/Photoshop more recently - because I couldn't afford paying someone better at it than I to do it for me. Also, I must admit, being my own printer allowed me to "try out" images I never would have kept in the cut to send to a printer.

Again, it all comes down to the eye: no matter who does the printing, the photographer must apply a critical eye to determine how well the print realizes the original intent. That's what I mean by "follow through." Do this consistently and honestly, and you will end up with a life's work that expresses who you are as a photographer, just as Evans and Frank did.

I've taken a couple classes with a local full-time photographer, who advocates getting your prints done by somebody else. I figure if you can make a living from taking photos, it's real photography.

I gave up on APUG because of the constant refrain that I wasn't an "analog" photographer since I didn't make my own prints. I made the argument that since I was using film, I was indeed an analog photographer. The general vibe over there is that if you're not making B&W prints, you aren't a photographer.

For many people living in urban environments, the most expensive aspect of darkroom work (after the time involved) is space. When renting a room is expensive, having a darkroom is darn near impossible. If you're in that position, why not spend your time shooting? Good post all around.

Totally agree with you here Ctein. I am a lf photographer normally and shoot B&W and have chosen to do my own printing. But shoot with several others who shoot different mediums, digital small format, color film, etc. Some print and some do not. But they are as much artists as anyone else. The people with whom I shoot are creative and we always have an exchange of ideas, we learn from each other. It is not the particular processes you follow but the ability to conceive and produce creative work that makes you an artist.

I might not know much artistic appreciation, but fortunately I know how to determine a good print of one of my own attempts at a photo.

When I've spent hours sweating blood & tears in PS to get the tonality right (on a moderately well calibrated display, of course), and the local shop produces a lump of junk with blocked-out shadows, but an online print-house gives a print so good I'm walking 3' above the ground with delight, then I know which printer has done a better job and I know not to meddle in the affairs of that half of the art myself.

Heh? You are AGAINST ABSOLUTISM, still you think you know how a good print SHOULD look like?

Without coming down either way on the issue, I'd just like to add two more ideas to the mix:

Idea #1: That sometimes, custom printers can do a better job than the photographer can. This isn't always the case, for the simple reason that the custom printer is laboring under time constraints. But back when I did custom printing for a living, I did some work for the archive of a 1940s jazz photographer. The archive owner made 8x10 RC repro prints, but he wasn't a very good or skilled printer. The exhibition prints I made were, by far, the best prints that had ever been made from some of the negs. More recently, I had some of my own digital pictures printed for me by Paul Butzi (who unfortunately no longer does custom printing). Why? Because he has a better printer, and he is a better [digital] printer. His prints are better than I could have made myself.

So that's one argument for letting a pro do it.

Idea #2: One of the classical reasons why amateurs do their own printing is that they DON'T labor under the aforementioned time constraints. If you're making a living, you need to work quickly and efficiently, and, often, "good enough" is what you're going to produce, out of necessity. The amateur, by contrast, is spending his or her free time printing, presumably because s/he enjoys it. There's no need to "make it pay." So the amateur can afford to spend all the time in the world making the perfect print. The literature is full of epic tales of photographers taking three days to make a single print, photographers going back again and again over a period of years trying to print a certain negative the way they envision it, or re-interpreting negatives again and again as their tastes evolve and their skills improve...and so on.

So that's one argument for doing it yourself.


I have long ago decided not to do my own digital printing. I never much liked inktjet printers, (and lasers aren't exactly photo-printer material), and once the postprocessing is done, I've got several great online labs where I simply upload the files to their website and have pro-quality print land on my doorstep in one or two days.

That saves me the hassle of profiling, testing, ink selection, whatever, which you have so lovingly described in your recent columns :-) (and I have the choice between inktjet or lightjet prints)

I am planning, however, to do my own darkroom printing. I'm currently remodelling a new house, and one of the rooms has been designated as `lab', to serve, among other things, as a darkroom.

I've never done darkroom work, so I'll probably start with `simple' B&W printing. In a few years though I hope to teach myself Ilfochrome printing (if it still exists by then).

I think it's great that there is the possibility for people to specialize on different parts of the process. Not everyone cares about the process of getting the photograph onto paper, others prefer it.

For me, I'd be more than happy to have someone who knows what they are doing and enjoys doing it. As it stands, a minilab at a camera store or photo department does a better, more consistent job than I could do at home, and I'm okay with that.

When you love what you do, it shows in the results.

My favorite of your columns so far. Perhaps because I happen to agree with you!

A large part of the highly appreciated artists of the last 100 years are famous and appreciated exactly because the dared to venture off of "The True Path". Often finding new and exiting ways to express themselves and find new ways of using existing techniques.
With regards to "having to print your work yourself or your not really a photographer": The financial investment necessary to be able to print to a quality approaching that of a reasonable printservice is higher than the amount of money a large part of us amateur photographers have invested in camera's and lenses. In other words if I had that amount of money to spend on gear I'd buy myself a nice pro quality lens!
Then again, maybe I'm not a "real" photographer.


Great post. I've always thought of printing as a seperate (but tangential) hobby unto itself. And its been a hobby I have not been interested in. Sort of like a flyfisherman who doesn't tie his own flies.

I do however do everything I can in photoshop and lightroom and then request Mpix print it "as is" without any adjustments, correction, etc.

I agree. A question: how much should custom printing being about working with the printer through the fine points of how you want the image to look, and how much about letting them have at it?

"Explaining why he [Henri Cartier-Bresson] never went into the darkroom to process his films – leaving it in the masterly hands of the equally legendary Pierre Gassman – he used to say: 'I'm only a hunter, not a cook.'"

-- http://www.newint.org/columns/essays/2004/10/01/cartier-bresson/

I print, but I'm not a "real" photographer.

I even outsource my printing to someone else, via the internet. It's a good process which took me a while to sort out - I invested a few week's worth of man hours into developing it.

I have the colour profile for their printer, I have to provide JPG files at exactly the right resolution for the paper size I choose, and so forth.
In some ways, it might seem cumbersome, even onerous given the work it requires me to do. But the control it gives me leaves me with better prints, and I don't have to own an infrequently-used printer, or pay for ink that then just blocks nozzles. For the 100 photographs I print every year it's a good compromise.

I'm sure some people think I'm a "lesser photographer" because I produce my prints by uploading them to someone else and then waiting for a delivery in the mail.

But I would say that the process of printing has improved my photography.

I now target print in my mind's eye when taking a photograph.

And what I've learnt is that prints forgive some things, and punish others. It's down to their very nature in how they work with light.

For example, prints reflect light - they reward more solid blacks and make noise less obvious. Screens project light, making blacks seem less black and making noise more visible.

Subtle differences like that can be important.

I prefer prints. I think they look better. That's the only reason I print - photography is a hobby for me anyway.

Digital picture frames mean my friends (we're in our thirties) might never think to print again. But I find the printing, mounting and framing of a 16x12 inch picture to be a small cost for the reward of having a much better viewing experience.

And ultimately, I'm talking about a slightly optimised printing via bulk commercial printers. I have minimal choice of paper, no choice of ink/dye, no ability to get a print right now...
So I guess I stand between the non-printers, looking like I take it too seriously, and the professional photographers and printers, looking like some idiot who barely knows what he's doing.

So long as I have prints that I like, I don't really care what either group thinks. :-)

To add to Mike's thoughts on time constraints...

I built and used 4 darkrooms over many years and, last year, created my first 'lightroom' to do my own digital prints.

I was probably never a great darkroom technician, but good enough to generate prints that I eventually liked, usually. (Photographs by more talented photographers and printers were always on my walls to keep me honest.) I often found the darkroom process long and tedious, but worth the effort.

Now, in the digital age, I spend far less time getting to the same place as in my darkroom days. The learning curve was high (and the learning goes on...and on), but again the results are worth the effort.

Having used both processes, one constant remains. I love to generate work prints...close to final prints...that I put on a wall shelf or pegboard to live with for a while and to determine what, if anything, needs improvement. Or, to determine if it's even worth generating a final print for matting and framing (which I now do myself also...but that's another issue). I love this part of the process. I suppose I could outsource the process to a print shop, and have them generate work prints and final prints, but I enjoy the process. It serves to make me a better photographer and printer going forward. The time spent is worth it to me.

Having said this, I agree that having someone else generate one's prints has little to do with assessing one's photographic talents...or results...as long as the photographer holds true to his or her vision, and not the vision of the printer. Frank and Evans are excellent examples, among many.


Cost is an issue.

If I do not develop my own E6 and black and white 8x10, I cannot afford it. Do not want to count how many has been ruin by myself. (For 1/2 120 I ask local lab as my costs are not that much a saving). Now once develop, I cannot afford others to scan and print it.

Diversity is good these days as you do have options. But costs prevent some options to happen.

I think the more important point (although some might disagree) is that it IS important to have your work printed, be it by you or by someone else.
That doesn't mean you print every picture you make, but I see a lot of merit in evaluating work from time to time using physical copies as opposed to always looking at a computer screen.

As someone with twenty years experience in digital printing of photos, my take is that DIY definitely cuts into the time I can spend on my photography. Digital printing is still too time-consuming and error-prone and just too much of a gumption trap for me to recommend it to nearly anyone, except as a learning experience. There are a few of us in the industry working to try and make it simpler, and less error-prone, but it's a slow, long slog.

That said, one of the good things about printing your own, or working closely with a good printer is that you can (once you get past the minutia) get a better feel for what makes a "printable" photograph, which generally makes for a more useful photograph for display as well.

Sadly, I know of very few photographers, either amateur or pro, who work with really good printers, even once. There just aren't that many of them around, and they generally charge what they're worth, so you have to be serious about getting a good print to even try to find one.

What I lack in skill I make up for with time. Give me enough time and I'll ruin it for ya

Was Beethoven less of an artist because he couldn't play every instrument he wrote for?

A part of me wants to do my own printing and learn to be good at it. It's digital; I'm good with digital concepts and get along well enough with computers. Basically, I'm confident that I *could* do it well enough.

But there's only so much time in a week. I'm your run-of-the-mill hobbyist with a job that has nothing to do with photography, a house & yard to take care of, a family ... I don't have enough time to properly organize my photos in LR, keep up on my annual family photo books, or even pick photos to *have* printed and put on the wall. Mastering home printing just doesn't rise up very high on the priority list.

Now I suppose this puts me far on the opposite end of the scale from the serious and/or full time photographers Ctein probably has in mind with this post. But photography is my main hobby and something I take seriously enough to debate the print-at-home question.

Now my problem is learning what a good print looks like and how to prepare images to be printed well by professional services :)

Excellent, excellent, excellent! Thank you Ctein. As for the "knowing what a good print should look like" this is not so absolutist as suggested in one comment. I would take it as recognizing a print that fully does the particular image justice. Just sayin'

From a purely practical point of view, dabblers like me will never become top-flight printers for several reasons, and it's almost stupid for me to try to be. All I choose to afford to buy are inkjet printers that max out at 8 x 10. I know, I know, size doesn't matter. So, my time is better spent finding a pro printer for the occasional big print and I'd be better off fine-tuning my relationship with them than teaching myself something that I will use once a year. Pros and monied serious amateurs will have different priorities, of course.

Still though, it would be so nice if the computer makers, the paper makers and the ink makers would get their act together and cooperate. Wasn't it nice when everyone agreed on C-41. Took one variable out of the equation, at least.

I don't feel I "know" an image until I go through the process of printing it so I print some keepers. Then the issue is the print... what to do with it, how to store it, when and where to display it and I'm out of wall space but I keep on printing.

"99.9% of you could decide that having anyone else print your work would be abhorrent and it wouldn't affect me one bit nor in any way jeopardize my income; you're not my clientele."

Kinda Cocky Statement, huh?

Dear cb,

I am also ABSOLUTELY against semantic word games and rhetorical nonsense. So sue me [g].


Dear Koert,

What became evident in the photo magazine business was that, on average, 'real' photographers had a lot less money to spend on photography than 'amateurs' did!


Dear Martin,

I think that the more you can tell the custom printer about what you'd like to see, the better. If they think it's a poor idea or they think they have a better one, they'll tell you.

It's far more common for clients to underspecify than overspecify what they want in a print.

'Course, it's all in the presentation. If you go to your custom printer and tell them you flat-out must have X, Y and Z in a print, they're likely to do exactly what you wanted, even if it's going to make for a crappy looking print.

It's best to go in with the understanding that they're probably a better printmaker than you and know more tricks than you. Their goal is to get to the print that makes the client the happiest, but the client is wise to remember that the printer may actually understand how to do this better than the client.

IOW make your requests but don't act like you're laying down the law, unless it really has to be the law. In which case, if something really does have to be exactly a certain way, do let them know.

pax / Ctein

Well, we all know HCB didn't do his own printing. Giving rise to his famous quote "I never crop" and he was correct - he didn't, his printer did!

This is an excellent piece this week, Ctein. Very much on-target towards one of those nasty little emotional niches of photography.

I have the opportunity to see a lot of photography prints that span its history, right through to today. I can say, with some surprise, that many, maybe most, of the most celebrated prints were crafted by someone else's hand.

We might expect that the easy accessibility of excellent digital printing has made printers out of more photographers. This is certainly true of hobbyists but not at all true of professionals and/or established and exhibited fine art photographers. We're in the midst of a new pictorialist-like period in which the latter group often strives to distinguish and legitimize itself by using exotic printing processes not readily available to commoners. Many of these techniques are borrowed directly from advertising displays, such as Plexiglas-mounting, printing on aluminum sheets, and even vinyl mounted on board. The bigger the better. (The Dutch seem to have a particular affinity for this stuff.) Of course it doesn't make for better photography. It just makes the photograph a 3-dimensional "thing" to be reckoned with. The current "fine art" mantra seems to be "It's not a real work of art unless it can break your toe if dropped."

Personally, I enjoy printing although I freely admit not doing it as frequently as I'd like. I also freely admit that if I knew s specialist (not an industrial service) who was very proficient and dedicated I would probably channel most of my printing in his/her direction.

I very much agree.

But I wonder whether this also applies to the editing of one's photographs -- "editing" both in the sense of determining the cropping / exposure as well as in selecting which images to present and in which order.

Editing seem much closer to the core of the "artist's work" than printing, but many photographers we'd recognize as artists farm out their editing as well as their printing. Most of Eggleston's books and exhibitions, I've read, are edited almost entirely by a publisher / curator, and not by him (he, apparently, thinks every one of his pictures is terrific and can't stand the thought of rejecting any of his babies).

Of course, few are lucky enough to have Szarkowski to do one's editing ....

I first dealt with this question as a hobbyist back in high school, when I worked my way up to 16x20-inch printing in B&W and color. In 1969, I shot a dramatic photo of Toronto's then-new city hall floodlit against a twilight sky (http://mysite.verizon.net/kblesch/PCD3002/3002_020m.jpg). I later printed and framed it for my folks. My mother's bragging point to her extended family and friends was that I'd printed it, not that I'd shot it. Of course I was proud of my printing craft, but it bothered me that she found my photographing the scene to be a minor point. I thought both deserved equal recognition. But to her, anyone could take a picture, but few could print one.

Among student and amateur photographers, very few have the option of having a GOOD printer give their work serious attention. I could pay for $120 "exhibition" prints at Digigraphics (price from memory, may not be current), but I'm not convinced either that the printer would be that much better than me, or that they would be giving their full attention, or enough time, to the work.

If you are not a good printer yourself, then there's little benefit in doing your own printing (unless you plan to work on it hard enough and long enough to become a good printer).

However, I'm still going to hold, as a strong guiding principle, that what comes out of the camera is the beginning of the process, not the end, and that if you're treating it as the end, you're not giving your photos a fair shake.

Unless of course you're doing something special where the photos actually come out of the camera just the way you want. Such situations certainly exist for scientific work; I'm more skeptical about artistic work, though now and then at random I get one that needs essentially nothing. Many people who I've heard express the position that THEIR work comes out of the camera just right have struck me as being lazy (possibly for commercial reasons; they can't afford to spend time on each photo for the particular part of the photo business they're in).

Apart from everything else, absolutist statements are a bad idea because artists are perverse SOBs, and they (er, "we") immediately start working to create counter-examples.

When speaking to individuals, this might, and still may, come out of my mouth as "You have to print your photos yourself to give them a chance." That's in the context of advice to one person or a small group, informally (I don't get asked to formally address large groups of photographers). It's not actually a valid statement taken in general. However, the closely-related "if you're presenting your photos just as they came out of the camera, they're not getting a fair chance; they really need the attention of a good printer before they're ready to exhibit" is a statement I really think is valid for artistic work.

The definition of what is printing has changed. In the darkroom I had to compensate for the batch of paper, the age of the developer possibly the temperature of the room etc - all in real time. I was a custom printer for others. Today I'm all digital including the scans of my 4x5s. I've no qualms about inkjets but I don't own one. I adjust my image on a pc, send out for proofs, adjust as needed then resend for final prints. I don't touch the paper until is is compete, someone else has - Am I A Printer !?!

It's unfortunate that so many people try to define artists according to the tools used. I'm one of those who believes the tool is irrelevant once the work has been created. Can't we simply admire the art for what it is?

That said, I do believe that digital processing has changed the percieved value of a print. In the film days, a physical print was the end result of craftsmanship. It had an inherent value in that it was very difficult to replace. Someone had invested considerable time and resouce into making that print.

Not so with digital. All of the energy and resource goes into making the file. The physical print is simply spit out of the printer. Even taking into account a rather extensive investment in printers, papers, inks, profiles, test prints, etc., once the formula is defined, you can produce as many identical prints as you want.

In the "old days" I would be very careful with a print I had labored over in the darkroom. I knew how hard it was to replace. These days, I'm careful with my computer files, but the print itself is replaceable.

Back in the days when every photographer maintained a black and white darkroom I got pretty good at printing black and white. Twenty something years of practice and picky clients sure helped. I was certain I could transfer those skills to inkjet printing. I ground and churned and cursed and prayed over a series of printers, culminating with the Epson 4000. The Epson 4000 was capable of turning out a decent print now and then but for every one good print there were dozens or hundreds ruined by ink clogs, paper faults, profile mismatches, and much more. I finally gave away the printer to someone much more masochistic than I and I've never printed another display print or client print again. I take them to a very good local lab or, if the file needs no work whatsoever I send them to Costco. I haven't had a head clog since them. Nor have I spent the equivalent of a car payment per month in ink.....

I vote for professional printers. They get paid to solve problems and to make my work look better than I can make it look on my own. Nice Thurs. Column!

I agree with Ctein here, pretty much. The related issue, where I am prepared to be absolutist, is that I think you must either print, or have someone else print. It's surprisingly common these days to be satisfied with a digital file as the "final result".

When you do this, it's very difficult, to the point of impossible, to curate your own work properly -- almost everyone, possibly everyone, who stops at the digital file, just has a Big Heap Of Pretty Good Stuff.

I hate all this real photographers do X BS that floats around the internet (and some real-world photography gatherings). Real photographers do what they need to do to make the best photographs they can, and if that means farming out post-production of RAW files and/or printing, then so be it.

My opinion is that the only thing a real photographer does not farm out is getting the scene in the viewfinder.

After all those decades that I shot Kodachrome and couldn't afford the cost of really good prints(from 4x5 internegatives), and also was unwilling to endure the insanity of making color prints "at home," I'm grateful that now I can make my own, without a darkroom, let alone a color darkroom, and with near total control.

I love printing -- and I think I've gotten very good at it -- mainly for one reason. For the life of me, I can't truly SEE a photograph until it's a print. LCD, computer monitor, they don't cut it. Once it's printed and stuck up on my display wall in my studio, then I see it, and a few days later, I know if I like it, love it, or meh.

Oh dear, sometimes I think that Ctein is deliberately provocative just to make us sit up and think. I find myself agreeing with all the individual assertions and at odds with the overall theme. Or at least with the central premise which I think was that the statement

"...photographers who hand their images to someone else for printing are abdicating part of their artistic responsibility."

is so wrong that it required an entire Thursday post to refute. But then to be precise, Ctein only says that "I can't let something that wrong pass" without specifying how wrong that is exactly. Perhaps not wrong at all is sufficient for not letting it pass.

The original quote makes no assertion about whether having a third party print is good or bad, it merely states that part of the 'responsibility' has been 'abdicated'. This seems to me to be factually correct - unarguably so, and supported by the majority of Ctein's response. Perhaps the particular words used are loaded and elicited a negative reaction, or perhaps the context in which they are used did so. If it was rephrased as "the photographer and the printer collaborate and share in the creative process" it would be less contentious?

If the response was from a printing neophyte then I'd assume it was based on the mistaken assumption (that is remarkably prevalent) that printing in the digital age is as simple as clicking the 'Print' button. But this is Ctein - practically the patron saint of printers (the people, not the machines). Hmm, curious.

Ctein's points:
1) Printing is expensive in time & money.
2) Not every one that does their own printing is good at it
3) Custom printers exist and can help you achieve good quality prints.
4) Many successful photographers don't do their own printing. Some do.
5) Ctein does his own printing.

(I hope that summary is at least accurate in spirit, I'm not trying for any weasel words here).

I argue not at all with any of these points, but none of them seem to have any bearing on the assertion that the creative/artistic process is shared between photographer and printer. The success of the outcome is heavily dependent on how well the two work together, either implicitly or explicitly.


I think we also need to pause momentarily to remember that a negative isn't quite a photograph yet. With contemporary methods, you can "see" your photographs right on the camera, without doing anything more to them at all. But that wasn't an option for photographers for most of the history of the medium. Up until color transparencies came along, and well past that for people who preferred black-and-white or color negative film, printing was inherently a necessary stage of the process, because that's how you got a positive to look at, show to others, send, evaluate, exhibit, sell, etc.

In that sense it didn't require flights of art-creative mysticism or status-bound snobbery to conceive an allegiance to the act of printing. It was just something you had to do to get to something you could look at. By far the biggest influence contributing to the radical decline of printmaking today is simply that it's no longer necessary.


Photographers who try to claim that anyone who doesn't do exactly what they do ain't "real", well, they're just lame. Every photographer has to make their own choice where and how they want to focus their energy.

But for me, heck, printing is half the fun! And the pain, yes, there is the pain. But what is photography if not a lot of pain mixed with pleasure?

Wow. I was about to submit a post about my printing history, and then noticed that Kirk Tuck had done it already. Almost word for word.

So: What he said.

"The original quote makes no assertion about whether having a third party print is good or bad, it merely states that part of the 'responsibility' has been 'abdicated'. This seems to me to be factually correct..."

James - I think that where we (and possibly Ctein) disagree. Making a print yourself is NOT something that I would call a responsibility. Calling it a responsibility is what makes the statement negative - because you're not making a simple choice, you're letting someone or something down. ("Abdicating" any "responsibility" you might have in any instance in life is a bad thing.) It IS stating that having a third party print your photos is bad.

Actually, to me it seems to be the biggest problem to find a good printer (nearby). Especially, since I'd definitively prefer to meet the person face to face and see her or his work with my own eyes.
Does anybody know whether there's some sort printer community that could help?
Photographers simply launch a website, but for a printer that's presumably only second choice.
Regards, Jan

I would really like to gain some mastery over digital printing in order to be able to properly express certain elements of a photo the way I envision it. I have read books, calibrated monitors and printers with spectrophotometers, tried various papers and inks, tweaked numerous arcane Photoshop and printer settings, etc. The main thing I have accomplished so far is to become ever more frustrated at how difficult it is to print images really well consistently. If someone could point me to good references for comprehensive learning of the skills required, I'd be grateful. For myself, a good lab is the only way to really see my favorite images produced as well as I think they can be made.

I take pictures with a camera. Some people say I am a “photographer”, some don’t for various sensible ways it is defined. Makes no difference when it comes to me pressing the shutter or not if I have that name, I find the labelling all a bit silly, guess it helps to have rules. Everything Ctein said makes perfect sense, especially the money and specialisation aspects. I know this is irrational and I have no excuse, but at the end of the day…

I make prints because I really really enjoy doing it.


Took a portfolio to a gallery once, before she looked at it she asked what medium I worked in. 'Photography!, but thats not even art!' Hmmmm, how about that for absolutism of another order, though it was fourty years ago I have to say. So 'Amen' to the first two paragraphs in particular Ctein, good stuff.

Bah, used to be that *real* photographers built their own cameras and coated their own plates and paper.

Ctein, nice Thur. post

Ken Tanaka. " The current "fine art" mantra seems to be "It's not a real work of art unless it can break your toe if dropped.""
Loved that; reminds me of wearing my "Art can't hurt you" tee shirt whilst being crushed by a piece of sculpture being moved.

A corollary.

As an artist/framer, or framer/artist, I could mention that some artists feel "The frame is the soul of the painting", Thomas Cole, yet mostly a framer executes the frame, though the artist may have had much to do with the design. Most sculpture is executed by artisans, craftsmen, artists other than the creating artist. Sooo, ... what????

I do like prints; though after much wrestling with an Epson R800, iMacs, etc. I've conceded, and am somewhat inspired to explore custom printing from this post.

If it’s considered acceptable for a photographer to claim credit for an image even if it was printed by another, then does the corollary hold true as well? What would the reaction be if a master printer, in search of material to print, turned this process on its head and paid a photographer to capture images for him? My hunch is their efforts to claim credit for any prints they made under such an arrangement would be me met with considerable derision, and rightfully so.

This is because the photographer starts the photographic process with everything at their disposal. To one extent or another, they have control over the composition, the lighting, and even the timing of the exposure. The image they capture reflects the decisions they made, for better or worse. A printer, on the other hand, starts with an image file created by a photographer, with all the good and bad decisions already baked into it, and so long as they stay within the four corners of that file when printing it, their ability to influence the print made from that image file (or negative) is considerably limited by comparison.

That said, I personally am reluctant to relinquish control over the printing of my images to anybody else. While I have in the past had prints made by labs and been happy with them overall, these days, I print everything myself. While it’s possible that others might be able to make better prints from my images then I can, this doesn’t matter, as much of the fun of photography – for me! – is being in control of the entire process from start to finish.

Or to put it another way, I would rather play poorly a game of softball at the park down the street with friends than be a spectator at a game of baseball played in a large stadium by professionals.

"Bah, used to be that *real* photographers built their own cameras and coated their own plates and paper."

Right on, man.

My friend Jim's first boss shot everything (even copy photos) on a Speed Graphic, and said that real photographers never took more than six sheets of film to a job. Probably used store-bought film, though, the wuss.

What I want to know is where all the all-manual fetishists went. You know, the guys who had to have an OM-3 instead of an OM-4 or an R6 instead of an R5 or R7. Because, you know, you would never want to be dependent on batteries. You never knew which month or year those darn batteries were going to fail and leave you high and dry without a meter or (gasp) with your shutter unable to work, if you owned the wrong camera. ...And, er, couldn't be bothered to have two extra batteries the size of shirt buttons in your camera bag....


Didn't Thomas Eakins insist on making not only his own frames, but the molding too?


Best thing you posted I've seen. Good job. I do my own printing, because I haven't tried a pro shop yet. Economically, its cheaper for me to self-print. My work sells, so there is some validation for my efforts and I take a measure of satisfaction in being able to tell those curious that I do the entire process from camera to frame myself. Someday, when the funds present themselves I will try a custom house, see what's what.
Talk of absolutism brings to mind a bumper sticker, "Death to extremists!"
Best wishes,

Can we list the labs that do a decent job? Or is that not possible on this blog? I am in Sydney, Australia, and have not had much luck so far with obtaining decent prints from digital files ....particularly black and white prints..they always look slightly off.


In photography, you choose to either represent, or interpret, the image before you. If you choose to Represent, then you or any other decent printer will make a good print. If you choose to Interpret the subject before you, only you can print it.

The implication that "anybody can do it" is what pisses off people who have invested decades in learning to print.

That and the implied assumption by people who "send their prints out" that photographers who print their own work should "send theirs out" too because they would be just as good.

"What I want to know is where all the all-manual fetishists went. You know, the guys who had to have an OM-3 instead of an OM-4 or an R6 instead of an R5 or R7."

C'mon, Mike, those fancy OM-3s and R6s had meters in them.

Prints have a lot more dots.


I love prints. When I'm taking a photo I am visualizing it as a finished print. I finally sold all my darkroom gear. Cleaning it out, and sorting through the stacks and stacks of prints I made over 15 years I have to say that I am completely satisfied with the digital process I use now. My monitor is calibrated to my lab. I process the photo until it's what I visualized. Upload it to the lab requesting no corrections or adjustments. A few days later it arrives in the mail looking exactly as I expected. I think the C prints and silver gelatin prints from digital files I'm getting look wonderful, and I almost never need test prints. It's cheap and easy, and I'm getting exactly what I want. If you happen to be in Topeka, KS there are nine of my prints hanging in the Alice C. Sabatini gallery until June 18th.

Jim Allen-
I cannot recommend a good digital printing workshop highly enough. I thought I was pretty good at inkjet printing; I started back in the prehistoric era of slide scanners and HP's very first "Photosmart" inkjet printer, back in the 1990's. Taking a 3-day digital printing workshop with Charlie Cramer greatly improved the quality of my printing. It'll jump-start you past a couple of years of painful trial & error.

What a liberating post! I've been around long enough that I don't worry about whether or not I'm a "real" photographer. I'm mostly happy with my pictures, and I get a fair number of compliments on them. That's good enough for me.

I do feel vaguely guilty for not doing more of my own printing.

Back in the old days of b&w film, I really loved the feeling of accomplishment I had when I pulled a beautifully toned, sharp print out of the rinse and put in on the dryer. Now, I get that feeling after a good session with Photoshop.

My printer intimidates me. I read so much about calibration, profiles, etc., that I feel like I'm taking a chance every time I print something. The prints come out fine, but I really don't understand why they come out fine, and that bothers me.

After reading this post, I'm not going to worry about my prints. Sometime I will have the chance to take an course in printing, and someone will spoon-feed me the why's and how's, but in the meantime, I'm just going to enjoy photography.

FWIW, I do have a thing about printing my own greeting cards and note cards. By doing it myself, I feel like I'm giving a small gift to the recipients.

I also like the idea of those little printers you can take along with you. I really think it would be cool to print your own postcards while you're on the road.


Eakins ..., I don,'t know. There is a portrait by him of a mathematician with a frame covered in math symbols thst Eakins probably designed. Others ... the Prendergast brothers, Whistler, Klimt, Hassam. More recently, a lot of the regionalists did frames, and my guy, Ivan Albright. One of the curators that I worked with at the Terra Museum is an Eakins expert; I' ll have to get in touch with her; Eakins was off my thinking untill you mentioned him, & that Mathematician popped into my head.

Good job, Mike, Ctein, et al.

I've printed for more years than I care to remember, B+W, R4, Cibachrome, and now digital. I enjoy printing and I even enjoy printing the work of other people. Ansel Adams was certainly spot on with his description of the negative as the score and the print is the performance.

I only do custom printing, that is I don't offer a general mini lab service and I get a great buzz when one of my customer's prints wins a prize. But the best bit is showing a customer what is possible with their file, neg or tranny and then after them paying their hard earned cash having them walk away with something they are truly happy with.

This is a great article, and I do agree to a certain extent. I am one of those persons who insists on doing their own printing, however there are various reasons for this decision. I must say that I do somewhat feel that giving your printing to someone else does relinquish some control over the final product, however this is far less true today with digital than it was a few years ago, where the actual printing process contained a large potion of the image's interpretation. With digital it is mostly about not screwing it up. Unfortunalely, where I live is a small place with few photographers taking the printing process seriously enough to justify the establishment of good custom printers, so the result does tend to be limited and mediocre for any fine art work. I was so disappointed that even after sitting for days with the printers i couldn't get the print quality unwanted that I just went ahead and did it myself.

So I agree with you in that for a good proportion of prints, Allowing third parties to produce prints, given they know what they are doing, is absolutely acceptable. On the other hand, it really depends on what kind of photography one does, and what weight and interpretation is given to the actual printing process. Cartier-Bresson rightly couldn't have been bothered less in creating his own prints, but imagine someone like Ansel Adams, allowing someone else to do that. It is all a matter of perspectives.

Mike said,
Didn't Thomas Eakins insist on making not only his own frames, but the molding too?"

He designed a couple of frames, but not many -- I don't think he actually made them. At least, I've never heard that. Frame-making was a big fashion with a lot of Impressionists, though, and the Pre-Raphaelites.


I"m not sure Ctein intended this, but his essay has an air of certitude that would suggest that the current situation in printing is the permanent situation. That is, difficult.

I suspect that within a relatively short time (10 years?) that printer set-up and color management will be much more standardized, and that you will be able to download management software that will allow you to print extremely competent prints with little experience at all.

When Ctein writes of the difficulties of setting up one of his printers with Snow Leopard, I'm sure that it's true. But suppose there were two buttons that could return all settings to default (one button for the computer, the other for the printer) and then simply a script that could be run to nail down "perfect neutral" settings, so that you get an excellent work print the first time you push the button. Then you go into Lightroom or Photoshop to make any personal adjustments you wish, and the second print is the one you want. The biggest problems are those of error generated by ill-fitting and over-complicated machines. It's not that you can't see that the shadows are blocked, it's that you can't get the machine to do what you wish. I think software will soon handle that; that you will be able to get a "prescription" that will handle most of those kinds of problems.

You will then, of course, need experience in seeing, to get the best prints, but that's an enjoyable kind of learning, and ever-evolving, unlike computer hacking.

Dear Charles,

No, it's not cocky; it doesn't even have anything to do with 'attitude.' I think you don't understand the business I'm in. I do VERY high-end, bespoke printing. My first print price for a dye transfer from your original would be $1,500. My first print price for a 20x24 digital print is $400 and it can climb to over $1,000 at the largest sizes. I don't advertise; I get as much business as I want by word of mouth and referrals. In fact, I've had to turn away two potential clients this year.

When I said the TOP readers weren't my clientele, I didn't mean they couldn't be if they wanted to. I meant purely factually that they weren't....

pax / Ctein

Seems to me if you don't print you're like a songwriter who doesn't perform, and there's nothing wrong with being a songwriter as long as you can find a cover artist (printer) who can do your songs justice, but the singer/ songwriter is a different animal.

I guess it's a bit about the photography you do. Ansel Adam's work as a photographer really depends a lot on his own printing. Much of his art resides in his printmaking. Different for Cartier-Bresson. His images are not about zone IV, V or VI, his are abourt geometry and the right moment to click. Or take James Nachtwey, his images are about color, composition and human rights. Still he cares about his prints in as much as he collaborates with his printer (as seen in "war photographer)

Ann in Sydney,

I can work with you to achieve the results you're after.

(Mike, please excuse the self promotion!)

Hey folks,

This is regarding the idea that's been put forth by several that it doesn't matter so much that you print for yourself as that you do get prints somehow or another. I'm tossing out a question for consideration:

Do you feel that way about who use(d) slide film? If not, why not? If so, why? Why is it not OK (or OK, if you wish) to treat digital photos as the source material for 'electronic slides;' why should prints be (or not be) the goal?

I don't think this has a simple answer, or I'd throw out my 2 cents on it. But I do think that perspective needs to be factored into discussion of any inherent importance of prints, and I'd like to hear what people have to say about it.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

"What would the reaction be if a master printer, in search of material to print, turned this process on its head and paid a photographer to capture images for him?"

It's not for me to name names but that's pretty common in the art world.


I'm not sure that prints are always needed; my daughters dance performances end up on DVD, as there is usually some video, and this not only family, but an ongoing project; classes, costume fitting, toe taping, and performance.

From Saint Ansel's "the print is the performance", I could say the DVD is the performance, especially if you add music.

Good question with a lot of answers, and I still make some prints.

Ctein, using the singer/ songwriter metaphor, I think of the projection, or the reproduction of slides in a print medium, as a recording, like the musical artists who record but don't perform live (don't produce their own prints).

I think of the music groups Boston and Steely Dan who in their heyday didn't perform live but instead just put out recordings. They were slide shooters :).

I print. Always have. From darkroom to Lightroom. Vinegary stop baths to zebra-milk Epson inks. As ever, more crap than not. Because it's another dimension of enjoyment. And cheaper than a plane ticket, or even just one night of lodging on location.

And if I win the lottery I'd buy an Epson large format that's bigger than my car, and go round the world a couple of times.

Dear Ann,

While this is probably far too rich for your blood, you are one of the very fortunate few to have a commercial dye transfer printer in your neck of the woods, my friend Andy Cross ([email protected]). He runs Visual Impact Photography in Brisbane which specializes in making exhibition quality prints.

Before any of you Aussie chaps quip that me describing Sydney and Brisbane as being in the same neck of the woods would be like describing San Diego and San Francisco as being in the same neck of the woods, let me point out that there are a grand total of five commercial dye transfer printers left on the Earth, and three of them are in the US. On a planetary scale, Ann and Andy are close to each other. In fact, the next-closest dye transfer printer to Ann is me.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

My belief is that the print is the work, not the idea, the capture, but the finished work. If one wants to outsource the work to a printer, then IMO that's fine, but full credit needs to by given to the producer.

How much are we prepared to relinquish and still claim full credit ? Is it OK to shoot the RAW file and pass it to a processing house for teir guidance on how it should be treated ? Better in B&W this one, sir.

Is it OK to pass to someone else the responsibility for pressing the shutter, placing the tripod in a landscape, deciding what time of year the capture should be made.

IMO, it's OK for a journalist, even Magnum member to pass the negs on, the Ansel Adams' are better for controlling the whole process. Indeed buyers recognise the extra value of an Adams print.

Furthermore, on another point raised above, the 'no crop' myth of HCB that has become Leica folklore arises because the HCB prints in the Magnum files were labelled "Must not be cropped". That refers to the print, not the negative. From what I've seen in Scrapbook and original proof prints and ontact sheets at exhibitions, the images were regularly cropped to fit paper sizes and content.

The comments to this entry are closed.