This week's column by Ctein
Once again I make promises on which I don't deliver. The follow-up to "Complexity and Convergence" that I promised is put off several weeks. Why? Because Mike raised much more interesting and fascinating topics for me to discuss with last weekend's column "Connectedness." I think I'll be dealing with them for several weeks.
I'm going to start with a comment that Patrick Dodds made. He complained that printers are "...expensive, difficult to use and unreliable," and "are in their own way as responsible for the decline of the print as the Internet."
Well, I kind of took umbrage at that. I mean, yes I am expensive (and I deserve it) and there's no question I can be difficult. But I'm entirely reliable. I couldn't have made a living as a custom printer if I weren't. Calumny, vile calumny I say.
Wait. You mean he's talking about the machines?
Oh, that's very different...never mind. (Thank you, Emily Litella.)
All right, jokes aside, I've an underlying point there. In many of my columns, I've made exactly the same complaints about inkjet printers and printing software. But I believe Patrick's conclusion from that is wrong, and that has to do with people.
In the total demographic space that contains all (human) printers, I think that Patrick and I occupy very thin slices. Yes, I could print much faster and more cheaply in the darkroom, but I'm not your average printer. Four decades of printing personally and professionally, plus being one of the best printers alive, made me incredibly efficient in the darkroom. Add to that the commercial angle, which meant I was buying supplies in bulk at dealer prices (30–50% of what the hoi polloi had to pay), and, yeah, digital printing has proven much more time-consuming and expensive for me.
Having looked at a lot of darkroom-made prints in my time, though, I know I'm the exception. Most darkroom printers were lousy printers; most of what they produced was mediocre at best. Furthermore, almost all of them were very inefficient, compared to me. They'd use several times as much paper and time to get a good print, and they were paying more for their supplies to begin with.
Consequently, my experience doesn't have much to do with the big picture. I think that for the vast majority of human would-be-printers, inkjet printers have made their lives a lot easier and their printing a lot less frustrating. So many things could and did go wrong in the darkroom. Mostly human rather than machine error, but it was costly and annoying nonetheless. I see a lot more well-made prints today than I ever did in the darkroom era.
Even for me, digital printing frequently makes my life a lot easier and printing more convenient. Factoring in the setup and tear-down times, if I just want to make one or two prints I'm saving time and money doing it on the computer compared to doing it in the darkroom.
A recent example: Mike wanted to see a proof print of the photograph above that I printed for TOP reader and dear friend David Dyer-Bennet some six years ago. It wasn't much work for me to find the file and run off a print. When I looked at the print, it seemed a little dull and dark to me. I don't know if that's a difference between printers and profiles then and now, or if it's just my taste. Whatever, I twiddled with the curves a bit in Photoshop and made the print a bit brighter and more contrasty. It took a few minutes. Then I kicked it a bit further with some Shadow/Highlight adjustment and a further curves tweak. Another few minutes. While the three prints were being printed, I worked on email (I always have email to deal with).
Actual time I spent? Maybe 45 minutes, max. For the occasional printer, which most people are, digital is such a big win.
Beyond that, I don't even know if prints are on the decline. Oh yes, as a percentage of total photographs they are, but the number of photographs made has been growing at an incredible rate. Most people, of course, don't make their own prints. They never have, and they never will. I've written about that; it's just fine.
In absolutely numbers, prints may still be on the increase. Unfortunately I don't have current numbers to confirm or refute that, but two years ago it was true that "photofinishing," which is almost entirely a hard-copy business, had been steadily increasing since the turn-of-the-century. Surprised the hell out of me, but them's the facts. Maybe it has started to decline since, but you'll have to show me the numbers.
Might I guess that printing is becoming of ever-diminishing relative importance in photography? Yeah, I would guess that. (Do I know that I'm right? Nope.) Is it diminishing in absolute sense? I definitely don't know that. Personally I doubt it, although Patrick might very well be right. I'm pretty sure, though, if it is it's not the fault of the (machine) printers.
Custom printer Ctein opines here on TOP every Wednesday...reliably! (If exceptions occur, it's virtually always Yr. Hmbl. Ed.'s fault, not the columnist's.)
©2014 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Andrew Molitor: "Yes, it strikes me that printing isn't really shrinking, photography is biggening. And broadening. In 1970 we made and used pictures in, basically, one way. We exposed some film, and had a print made. Or a slide. Then we looked at that permanent physical object, from time to time. Nowadays we still do that, but add photobooks to the hardcopy universe. We also use digital picture frames, which occupy some middle ground. The largest use cases are purely digital and essentially ephemeral. To be sure, googbooklickr saves our pictures forever, nominally, but by presenting them most recent first they render our pictures ephemeral for more practical purposes. There are probably a dozen other ways we use pictures that I haven't thought of that are basically new."
bencr: "I consider myself an occasional printer. I print on my Epson 3800, usually 12x16 or 13x19, and I really enjoy the results and could wallpaper my house with my photos (I try to keep the ones on the wall to a manageable number, and rotate them). A print is a wonderful object in itself and I love to hold and look at them. However, as we get higher density displays, capable of wider colour gamut, that we can put in our pocket, carry in a bag, or put on our wall, I think that prints will eventually be relegated to a very small niche. I know many people today still get 4x6 prints of their vacations, or prints of their families for the wall (which I presume amounts for the bulk of photofinishing done today). But I also know a lot of people who don't bother anymore—keeping the photos on their cell phones, in the cloud, or in a slideshow in a digital frame. I believe there will come a time when the quality of digital displays will become 'good enough' and 'cheap enough' that the majority of photos that are printed today won't be printed anymore."
NancyP: "Well, B&W darkroom work was comprehensible enough, even if my technique was rather primitive (multicontrast paper, dodge/burn were about it for me). Color printing, at least in the early 1970s, was a fiasco for me, what with the loose acetate filters tripled in number, the difficulty in keeping on temperature, and so on. It turned out to be very expensive for an amateur to print in color. The beauty of digital is that the amateur printer can now make excellent color prints with fine control, and the only temperature one worries about is color temperature."