I am not some sort of anti-digital yo-yo. Yes I like shooting film, mostly because I like the way it looks. Somewhat for the way a lot of film gear feels, operates, handles, and again because of the image characteristics that that gear produces. On the other hand, I really enjoy digital output. In many cases it can do a fantastic job representing the image characteristics that film produces on paper.
That's how I got into digital imaging in the first place. Mainly for the output. Of course there are some analog output processes that are very difficult or impossible to reproduce using digital output, like platinum prints. For the most part I have felt digital color has been good to great for a long time. First on Lightjet type C-Print devices and more recently on inkjets.
Even black and white can be done beautifully on inkjets given the vast range of paper types and looks available. It's definitely not cheaper - in most cases it's more expensive. It may be a little bit less labor intensive but for me I care about how the print looks. On the newest devices and papers I love the way prints look.
Note that I did not include viewing images on a computer screen as part of the reason I like digital output. In most cases I really don't like looking at photographs on computer screens. In fact I don't like presenting my images for consumption on computer screens. I use slideshows and videos when they are appropriate and in all cases producing a presentation that looks great is far easier and better using digital output. The real question is appropriate-ness. Is this the way you want to view all of your images. Is this the way you want all your images consumed? Especially your black and white images - limited by current technology to 100-ish dpi and 256 brightness levels?
I certainly don't. So where is the confession part? I love prints on paper. I love the tactile nature of handling a print on fantastic paper. That is the way I like to look at photographs and that is the way I like others to view my photographs. Further more I like small prints that people hold when they look at them. My perfect print size is about 6 inches by 9 inches on larger paper. On rare occasions I like them bigger. I guess this is one reason I like books and making books so much - another thing that digital tools and output are great at.
Let's say that I like an intimate, high quality, tactile viewing experience when looking at photographs. I don't really understand why most photographers don't print much. In fact I don't understand why casual image makers don't make prints or have prints made. Don't people find on-line image viewing a bit wanting? I certainly do. Is it because it's convienient and cheap? Or is it because of the shock value of 1000:1 contrast that people crave?
In an effort to understand this phenomenon I have done many, many non-clinical experiments regarding image consumption with regular old people and have a couple of very consistent findings. Here are some of them for you to think about.
- When you send somebody an electronic image in email, or a link to a gallery of them you rarely get a response. Maybe a polite thanks. I am not referring to random images of things people care about. I am talking about pretty darn good images of things and people they care a lot about. In most cases if you ask them about a particular image in a set of a few of them they will not even recall any particular image or specifics. There is a good chance that they forgot them and probably don't even know where they are any more. They will probably never be looked at again. They have been consumed like an extra value meal #1 at the McDonalds drive-thru in a rush from point A to point B.
- When you send someone physical paper prints of a few decent images of things they care about they will generally shovel an amazing amount of praise your way. In most cases the those prints will get carefully placed in an album along with other images of importance. In a lot of cases they will get framed and prominently displayed. There is a good chance you will see the print again if visiting their home or office. I am not talking about a giant print here. I am talking about a normal sized print or a little larger. Like a 4x6 or a 6x9 on 8x10 paper.
- If you hand a person 10 prints to look at they will generally consider each one for somewhere between 5-20x longer than the same set of images vs. an iPad. Sometimes one image causes them to pause for a few minutes. I am serious. I have never seen anyone look at an online image for more than a few seconds if they are in control of the viewing experience. Never. This is way different for prints in my amateur anthropological-socialogical studies.
So why do people seem not to make many prints? I guess there are lots of reasons but one of them is definitely shock value. Namely the shock value of 1000:1 contrast and brightness and insane color saturation when an image is viewed for 1/10 of a second in a relatively dark area. Namely the kind of viewing conditions that you need for looking at a computer monitor. Fairly dark.
Say you have a decent print and are viewing the same image on a computer screen in the same place where you usually look at your screen. Which one looks "better". Well the print looks dark and murky and doesn't shout at you in any look at me, look at me way. That same image being displayed on the brightest thing in the room is so, so…. attention grabbing. For about a second. Now take both images into the sunlight hmmmm. The situation reverses itself. If your viewing circumstances are optimized for a computer of course the computer is going to look "better" In most circumstances it's going to be the brightest thing in the room. Nuanced? Gradation? Detail? No Just loud.
So I guess the bottom line is that small prints can be extremely beautiful. They also are a completely different and in many cases more pleasurable experience than a monitor. In all cases they seem to have a longer lifetime. So make more prints. Give them as gifts. Appreciate them yourself. We humans tend to put a lot more inherent value and attention to actual physical, tangible things than we do the ephemeral disposable. As a film addict a lot of the aesthetic properties I appreciate that are inherent in film have a lot to do with qualities that are my preferred display medium of smallish paper prints.