Some random end of year thoughts on the aesthetics of a photographic print vs. looking at an image on a monitor. It is probably obvious that my preferred medium for the presentation of an image is print. For whatever reason this is how I like to see photographs and because of that I tend to believe that it is the best medium for a still image. I also believe that a print vs a transmitted light image are two completely different mediums that have nothing to do with each other.
Heck - cameras, film, and digital - capture devices of all kinds seek to improve for the most part so that you can make a better print. Do you need all of the tonal variations that film or a 16bit per color channel image contains to represent that image on an 8bit medium? No. Do you need all of the detail and resolution? No. All of this stuff is for prints. Printed still images for the most part are all about subtlety. All things being equal a print embellishes so much more than an image displayed on a screen.
I sometimes forget this because I spend way too much time on my computer consuming still images. The experience is completely different. The exercise in producing a print - no matter how it's done is completely different. It is so different that for a lot of my images that have existed as prints and only prints for a long long time, I dread to look at them on the computer as a scanned image. Why is this - it is a completely different medium and to attempt to reproduce what I like in the print on-screen is a very very difficult exercise - usually unsuccessful.
Let me give you an example - if a bit contrived for illustration. There are a number of images that I choose to print on a "soft" paper. Soft in the sense of it's texture, lack of brilliance in the highlights, and low D-MAX blacks - soft in a lot of other subtle ways that can only exist in the world of a print. Trying to reproduce these images on a computer screen ends up to be very frustrating and without fail they end up pretty much a completely different image on-screen.
The reason that I am going on about this is I see the effect in reverse for a lot of photographers that really never got into making fantastic prints. they may have had crappy prints from the local drug store and one of the reasons that they love digital is how "good" images from their DSLR look on-screen. When they print it, not so good. So they don't print. Or… They judge print quality solely by the very superficial quality of the first impression they get that most closely resembles the snappy contrast that the see on their screen. Usually not the best way to go about judging what a good print is from your image.
I am a big advocate the ability of controlling your process from end to end - I have been since I was very young and started processing and printing my own images. To be very candid this is not the path that is the best path for every photographer out there. In fact it may be the best path for a inconsequential minority of people. The giant issue is that the whole digital "revolution" pushes this end to end learn it all, be good at it all, do it all yourself agenda. The manufacturers buy into it because there is a never ending stream of products that will "help" you do this. The vast majority of photographic web sites and evangelists buy into this and write countless how to do this and how to do that content. Especially with Photoshop.
Here is a radical thought for you to consider for 2010 - maybe you don't want to do it yourself. Maybe you just want to be a good photographer - in a very limited sense of the word, let's define that as being able to frame and compose a good image and have a good sense of timing and maybe even how to use your camera most effectively for a given situation and last but not least a good sense of light. Let somebody else deal with making the final product that you envision up to and including the print.
Yep it's radical but definitely not new. Many many of the greatest photographers of all time worked this way - living and dead. Salgado. I do not know many people that do not like at least some of his work. If you have not seen a Salgado print in person you do not know what you are missing. Here is is secret - he does nothing but capture the image and direct the final result. Of course he has an intimate relationship with the person that does the "post processing" - film development, printing, whatever.
In reality this model was more the norm than the exception less than 10 years ago. Now? Not so much. I have had a ton of contact with some fantastic photographers in the last few months since I did the Inside Analog Photo Radio interview. The vast majority of them either still shoot film or returned to it for just this reason. It not only has an aesthetic they like but it is easier. Their exposure method is absolutely fool proof. They have a close relationship with the labs they use for processing and printing. Without fail they shoot and somebody else produces the output - digital and print that fits their vision. They save time, produce better color, and they enjoy this whole photography thing again.